The Earth Trembles

To any early 20th century Polish Jew, Japan could as well have been Neptune.

The distance between the shtetl and the Far East was measurable not merely in physical miles but in cultural and religious distance no less. Yet when, on September 1, 1923, a powerful earthquake hit Japan’s Kanto plain, laying waste to Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding cities, killing well over 100,000 people, news of the disaster reached even the Polish town of Radin. That was the home of the “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the sainted Jewish scholar renowned around the world even then for his scholarship, honesty and modest life.

Informed of the mass deaths in Japan, the 85-year-old rabbinic leader was visibly shaken, immediately undertook to fast and insisted that the news should spur all Jews to repentance.

Yes, Jews to repentance. Jewish religious sources maintain that catastrophes, even when they do not directly affect Jews, are nevertheless messages for them, wake-up calls to change for the better. Insurers call such occurrences “Acts of G-d.” For Jews, the phrase is apt, and every such lamentable event demands a personal response.

It is, to be sure, a very particularist idea, placing Jews at the center of humankind. But, while Judaism considers all of humanity to possess seeds of holiness, Judaism does in fact cast Jews as a people chosen – to embrace special laws, to be aware of and serve G-d constantly and, amid much else, to perceive Divine messages in humankind’s trials.

Like the Haitian earthquake now feared to have brought about the deaths of twice the number of human beings who perished in the 1923 Japanese quake.

Our government and, prominently, Israel’s, have responded with an outpouring of aid, as have countless individual citizens, including Jewish ones.

From a truly Jewish perspective, though, there is more that we must do in the wake of a disaster as terrible as the recent one in Haiti. We must introspect, and make changes in our behavior.

The 2004 tsunami in Asia occurred during the same period of the Jewish year’s Torah-reading cycle as the recent Haitian disaster, a period known as “Shovavim Tat,” an acrostic of the initials of the weeks’ Torah portions. It is a time considered particularly ripe for repentance. After that cataclysm, a revered contemporary Jewish sage in Israel, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, pointed out that the revered Gaon of Vilna identified a particularly powerful merit at this time of year in “guarding one’s speech” – avoiding the expression of ill will, slander and the like. That, Rabbi Steinman added, is a merit especially urgent “in these days, when the evil inclination puts all its energies into entrapping people in this sin… [when] it is almost impossible to find someone who hasn’t fallen into the ‘mud’.”

No prophet or wise man, only eyes and ears, are necessary to recognize that the Jewish world today is rife with “evil speech” – speaking and writing ill of others (whether the words are true, false or – so often the case – some toxic mixture of the two), and with the hatred that breeds such sins. Jewish media are filled with accusations and “scoops”; they compete gleefully to find the vilest examples of crimes to report, to do the most attention-grabbing job of reporting them, and to be the first to do so.

The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. And another Jewish newspaper ran an editorial placing the alleged ugly sins of an individual at the feet of Jewish rabbinic leaders, simply because the presumed sinner, before he was exposed, had arranged for several respected rabbis to deliver lectures and had encouraged people to make donations to their institutions. Having thus “established” guilt by that association, the editorialist demanded that every Orthodox organization and rabbinic leader publicly condemn the alleged sinner or be smeared themselves with sin. Then he mocked rabbinic authorities as a group for, instead of issuing condemnations of sinners, rendering decisions on social and halachic matters, as if that were not precisely what rabbis are for.

Those are examples of anti- Orthodox invective. But ill will and its expression, tragically, know no communal bounds – in fact, the offensive comic strip seized upon intemperate statements made by Orthodox Jews about others.

Jews can take positions. Indeed we are charged with standing up for Jewish principles. But personalizing disagreements or slandering individuals is – or should be – beyond the pale.

Had we only eyes like the Chofetz Chaim’s, we would discern that hatred and the misuse of the holy power of speech are not small evils. We would understand that they shake the very earth under our feet.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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24 Responses

  1. shaya goldmeier says:

    “Those are examples of anti- Orthodox invective.”

    so we shouldn’t jusge the “why”, but the only examples of evil are the anti-orthodox ones? maney laundering, organ selling, prostitution, reversible geirus, etc, none of these orthodox transgressions could possibly be the reason that “shakes the very earth”. Only the non-religious’ behavior disturbs you. Very telling.

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    I was told that Eretz Yisroel is on a fault line and that an earthquake could occur at any time. This is a cause for great concern and for prayer.

  3. Snag says:

    Indeed, introspection and repentance is the classical and appropriate Jewish response to tragedy, and has been for centuries.

    The Midrash says that Yonah told his shipmates that he was the reason for the storm that they were facing, even though he could have pointed to the fact that the other passengers were all Ovdei Avodo Zoro.

    However, the author of this piece is merely telling other people to practise introspection and repentance, and this is the opposite of the classical position, and much easier to do.

  4. Mike S. says:

    Chazal tell us to remember our mortality and examine our actions in response to such a tragedy. They do not tell us to point out the sins of our neighbors to them. As far as I know neither the Chofeitz Chaim nor Rav Shteinman felt the need to single out particular editors or writers as examples. Rabbi Shafran’s plea would have been more powerful had he shown similar restraint.

  5. dr. bill says:

    The Rav ztl suggested “what” but not “why” as the response to tragedy. The CC ztl personally fasted. Introspection/tshuvah ought be directed inward not outward. Criticizing others, is a form of “why” regardless how couched or even how deserving.

  6. Joe Hill says:

    L. Oberstein — I was told otherwise.

  7. Shira says:

    Potential earthquakes, Muslim extremists, Torah commandments, olam hazeh, olam habah – there are many reasons to get out of one’s armchair and get to work.

  8. Sarah Elias says:

    Joe Hill, what were you told otherwise? It’s not news that Israel lies on a fault line; after all there were terrible, devastating earthquakes in 1847 and 1927 – and based on the 80-year time gap between those two quakes, seismic experts say Israel is ch”v overdue for another one. Hashem yerachem veyishmor. Certainly cause for concern and prayer.

  9. David T. says:

    Maybe the quake happened because of people causing evil with their power of speech by NOT using it where necessary – such as with rabbinic leaders not speaking out against evil in the community? Do bad things ever happen as a result of Agudah loyalists, or is it only non-Agudah followers who have to do a cheshbon hanefesh?

  10. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Re: Sinas Chinam – points well taken. However, I would like to see Agudath Israel on the offensive from time to time, as well, vis-a-vis Reform. Those slanderous cartoons must be answered strongly and convincingly (at least to ourselves). As has been noted, the reply we make to the Ben Ha’Rasha in the Hagada is not directed towards him directly. “Va’Amartem Zevach Pesach Hu … “, even if it falls on deaf ears, must be said clearly and forcefully nontheless !! The question must be asked of our Reform Brethren – in which Orthodox publication will they find like-minded smears? Where will they find, either in print or in speech, the wholesale condemnation of their comportment as human beings ??? Where is to be found the “Chareidi” (I hate this expression, but can find no other to distinguish those of us who still follow “Daas Torah”) Rabbi who devotes his weekly sermon to the disparagement of the Reform Jew ?? I realize that the “centrist” Orthodox may disagree (he perhaps thinking himself protected from the Reform onslaught because of his modernity). But he knows, in his heart of hearts, that this is not the case. I have davened in “Chareidi” shuls all my life, and the only references I have ever heard, were not condemnation, but rather the expression of yearning that all Jews may one day return to Sh’miras Hatorah as it was transmitted to us from Moishe Rabbeinu through the Anshe K’nesses Ha’Gedola. One may say – but isn’t this in itself condescension? Shall we pretend then that we respect and peacefully accept the outright distortion and diminution of Toras Moshe ?? We don’t scream at the non-frum – we cry for them !! I defy any right-minded Jew who calls himself Orthodox to prove that this is not the case !

  11. Phil says:

    I’m afraid that a certain disgruntled blogger has taken Rabbi Shafran’s phrase, “The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip” and claimed that he “Blames Haiti Earthquake on Comics.”

  12. Shira says:

    And in Bet Shemesh a year or two ago there were a few (small) tremors that friends said they felt (I didn’t). But I think Joe Hill’s point might have been – who cares about an earthquake fault in order to take teshuva seriously?

  13. Yosef Blau says:

    The Chafetz Chaim’s response of Jewish self criticism to a world tragedy has been converted into a critique of enemies of Orthodoxy. Lumping together an anti Orthodox cartoon and an editorial complaining about the lack of rabbinical reaction to a major scandal is a clever way of not dealing with the substance of the editorial.

  14. J says:

    Over the last several years, I found it odd that amidst an atmosphere of increasing observance bein adam lemakom and decreasing observance bein adam lechavero, that lashon hara should be the one bein adam lechavero singled out. This article certainly helps explain why. But I think, in the age of the internet, it will do little good. Possibly the time has come to avoid disgrace not by trying to kill as many messengers as possible, but by NOT ENGAGING IN DISGRACEFUL ACTIVITY IN THE FIRST PLACE.

  15. Snowman says:


    If Chareidim don’t speak much of Reform from the pulpit it is because they scarcely recognize them as Jews. They long ago consigned them to oblivion because that was the easier path to take rather than to convince their Hamon Am of the rightness of traditional Judaism. It seems that they had little to offer in that regard. Their neglect of Reform is an indictment of Chareidim, not a stance to be admired.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Rabbi Shafran: Your article would have been better had you given examples of things that you or your community needs to work on instead of finding fault in others. Obviously there are people within your own community (as in every community) guilty of loshon hara or other sins and bad deeds. If we are supposed to introspect after tragedy and calamity that means looking into our own actions not those of others even if they are wrong and deserve to be critizised. These events should lead us to instrospection and at least in this forum you chose to ignore your own advise. I would be curious as to your response to this comment as i write respectfully and not to argue.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    No doubt there will be malicious opportunists attacking our religious leaders for whatever they do or don’t do. However, Rabbi Shafran and his organization need to re-establish confidence that the genuine orthodox- societal problem areas are being addressed in a way that will correct problems and not merely put them out of mind. Every executive faces situations where his knowledge about some key issue is not total, but he has to decide and act vigorously and openly. Our leaders, who have the benefit of deep Torah knowledge, should be especially well-equipped to face up to and solve knotty communal problems.

  18. Menachem Lipkin says:

    I’m afraid that a certain disgruntled blogger has taken Rabbi Shafran’s phrase, “The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip” and claimed that he “Blames Haiti Earthquake on Comics.”

    One must wonder what Rabbi Shafran’s response would have been had a paper like the Jewish Week run an article that contained a statement such as, “The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, Chareidim in Israel rioted and called passers by and police Nazis.” and then proceeded to itemize other such offenses all in the context of “introspecting” about the tragedy.

  19. Illana B. says:

    Hey Rabbi Shafran,
    How are you? I was a big fan of yours back in the day at PHDS/NEAT, but for now I wish to remain anonymous. Your readers here have no idea how many kids you helped and how much I personally adored you. In any event, I think, in light of recent news surrounding the essay above (it has reached other news channels), you may find it beneficial to respond to some of the commenters. I, for one, would like to see you reply to comment #1 and #16. Both shed very viable concerns and good points. As we have seen in recent years, our rabinical/observant leaders have fallen to below-acceptable madreigas. This may be an indication of the closeness of Moshiach, but regardless, things needs to still be addressed. Can you please respond or write a follow-up essay? Many thanks.

  20. Shira says:

    Anonymous @12:49 pm

    I don’t think your average assimilated Jew sees nearly the degree of character flaw in the Orthodox community that we see within ourselves. And while some claim near perfection for political reasons, an attempt at introspection is in my opinion far more common throughout the spectrum.

    But rather than starting with such a complicated introduction, I think Rabbi Shafran took a different approach to bring the concept to the general public, something like “amidst world catastrophe we all owe it to ourselves to behave more peacefully – let’s give it a try.”

  21. HESHY BULMAN says:

    With all due respect, the matter so scornfully portrayed in the cartoons was precisely the Chareidi attempts at Kiruv. No, my friend, what the Reform (and Conservative, for that matter) desire most of all is that which we cannot give them – recognition of equal status for their brand within authentic Judaism. Anything short of that fills their Leadership with resentful bitterness, and, tragically, their lay-people, with acute feelings of rejection. You are correct in your portrayal of much of the Chareidi world as having been apathetic. For a good many years, however, it took a great deal of our collective energy just to secure our own little space in America. In recent times, there has been much more encouragement on the part of Chareidi Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva of all stripes to engage the non-Frum – to understand our great responsibility towards those many Tinokos She’nishbu among our Brethren.

  22. Ori says:

    Shira: I don’t think your average assimilated Jew sees nearly the degree of character flaw in the Orthodox community that we see within ourselves.

    Ori: Definitely. Most assimilated Jews don’t so much consciously reject Orthodoxy as consider it irrelevant.

  23. L. Oberstein says:

    We have to be wise in our efforts and be careful to understand what we are fighting against.Kiruv professionals yearn for the good old days when they could deal with people who belonged to a Reform temple and were Jewishly engaged. Nowadays, they have to search for Jews in all sorts of venues because they are mostly uninvolved, disinterested and Jewishness is not very relevant to their lives. Reform Judaism wishes that it were strong enough to be our sparing partner. We ignore them because they have no influence on their own members’ children, much less on our children. Have you met a kid who went off the derech by joining a Reform temple? We have to find a way to respond to scurilous attacks that will not be counter-productive. In this age of personal autonomy, it is only the orthodox who still maintain that there are absolute standards and who insist that their way is the right way. It is almost un-American in its absolutism. How then, will you influence a Jewish person by delegitimising Reform Judaism. Much better is to explain your position positively.

  24. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Re: L.Oberstein – I agree with all points made regarding Kiruv, but one. Of course, righteous bashing of the irreligeous will not influence many to return to Sh’miras HaTorah, if any at all. However, anything we say, in any way we say it, to be M’karev R’chokim must begin with certain absolutes or it is doomed to failure. It must be said softly – it must be said with the understanding that we love and accept all Jews as being Jews without regard to their level of observance, but it must be said – it cannot be obfuscated – the basic premise is that we believe in the legitimacy of only one stream of Judaism. If this is not conveyed at the outset – lasting and real Kiruv will not and cannot be effected. Period.

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