Oy! What is happening in the world? A cyclone in Myanmar, an earthquake in China, fires in Florida. Tornadoes in the central United States. These disasters have all occurred within the last few weeks.
Such natural phenomena are powerful, scary and overwhelming. We cannot control them. We cannot prevent them from happening, and often cannot even predict them. They remind us that we are not the most powerful force in the universe — that we are, instead, quite vulnerable.
Our ancestors saw a reflection of God in these forces of nature. In Psalm 29, chanted as part of Friday-night and Saturday-morning services, the poet describes the voice of the Lord in many different ways: " … the God of glory thunders. … The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. … The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness. … The voice of the Lord makes the hinds to calve, and strips the forests bare."
God's power is compared to these various forces in the world. Are we to fear God just as we do when these natural phenomena occur? Yes, we should be in awe of God, as we are in awe of such natural events.
Yet in the end, the Psalm declares: "The Lord gives strength to His people, the Lord blesses His people with peace." We, the people, will have the strength to weather the storm. There may be casualties and suffering but, as a community and as a nation, we can move forward to find peace after a catastrophe.
In this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, the people are instructed to follow God's ways and act positively. In this way, blessings will come. However, if we do not follow the rules and laws given to us, many acts of destruction will result. Graphic examples are given in this section of rebukes, including that our cities will be laid to ruin and our sanctuaries made desolate.
The Torah describes this as God's punishment. We, however, as humans cannot know that any particular storm or natural disaster is directed by God at certain people. Many people do not accept this view of God as zapping people here and there. Perhaps, like the Psalms, the Torah is describing the power of God in very strong and graphic poetic terms in order to teach us to shape up and live lives of justice and righteousness.
The prolific author Rabbi Harold Kushner often speaks about how upset he is when we use the term "acts of God" when referring to natural disasters. He does not see God in the disaster, but rather, sees God in the actions of the many human beings who rush to help those affected.
A story is told of a religious man who prayed to God on a regular basis. When a flood struck his town, the fire department tried to evacuate the people. He refused, saying that God would save him. As the waters rose to cover the first floor of his house, a police boat came by, but he turned them down and insisted that God would save him.
When the waters covered his second floor, he went to the roof. An army helicopter came by with a rope ladder, but he refused it, saying that God would save him.
Finally, the waters rose above the roof's level, and he drowned.
Upon reaching Heaven, he complained to God, saying that all his life he was religious and prayed, and now wondered why God hadn't saved him. To this God answered, "I sent you the fire department. I sent you the police. I sent you the army. What more did you want?"
Of course, these natural disasters are disasters. So is illness and personal suffering. We are not able to explain why certain things happen to certain people individually or as a group. However, we have the power to act in the wake of this suffering. We must find ways to help to alleviate suffering and aid those who are in need.
Rabbi Robert Rubin is a rabbi at Temple Adath Israel of Merion Station.