On Sunday, I saw a shocking segment on CNN about the earthquake in Haiti. First, the program recounted the story of a three-year-old girl who was critically injured in the earthquake and needed immediate surgery to survive. Later, the program reported about a minister in Haiti who preached to survivors that God sent the earthquake as punishment for their sins. The minister said the disaster was “God stomping his foot and shaking the ground.”
Larry King, who was obviously disturbed by this statement, said sarcastically, “I guess that three-year-old had a lot of sins! Unbelievable!”
In this week’s Torah portion, God rains down devastating plagues on the Egyptians who were enslaving the Israelites. The plagues were natural disasters, culminating in the deaths of the Egyptians’ first-born sons. Reading this parasha in the aftermath of the earthquake raises the question: Does Judaism believe that God sends natural disasters in punishment for sin?
This question was examined by the rabbis. The Talmud posits “if a man stole a bag of seeds and planted them in his garden, it would be right if the seeds didn’t grow.” However the rabbis concluded that “nature follows its own rules” and the seeds grow. The text likewise explains that “if a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, it would be right if she did not get pregnant.” But “nature follows its own rules and she conceives.” Through these and other scenarios, the rabbis articulated that God does not intervene in nature based on moral calculus.
The devastation of the earthquake is horrible enough without giving the victims the added burden of feeling guilt that somehow they are responsible. This atrocious discourse only adds insult to injury.
If God doesn’t intervene in nature, then where is God in disaster?
A story is told of a man who goes up to heaven at the end of his life and stands before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice of the world. He cried out, “God, look at all the suffering in your world. Why don’t you do something to fix it?”
God replied gently, “I did do something. I sent you.”
In the aftermath of disaster, God is with the injured and the bereaved, giving them strength to endure and heal. God is with the rescuers, giving them courage and perseverance. God is with all of us, encouraging us to give generously to the victims.
God surely did not send the earthquake in Haiti last week. But God has sent each one of us to help.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.