Where is God in the Natural Disaster?

Sermon delivered March 4, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of Judaism’s great mystics, taught that, before creation, God’s presence filled all potential space. Perhaps Rabbi Luria gleaned this idea from the end of the book of Exodus, the part of the Torah we are reading at this season. In next week’s portion, we are told that God’s presence so totally fills the Sanctuary that Moses is unable to enter. According to Rabbi Luria, in order for God to create, God first had to contract, an act called tzimtzum. Similarly, in order for Moses to enter the Tabernacle, the cloud representing God’s presence withdrew.

Rabbi Luria struggled with a theological problem that continues to haunt us today: We do not experience life in a way that easily convinces us that God is both omnipotent and good. If God is in charge, then why do bad things happen? Moreover, if God is all-powerful, what power do we have in this world?

Luria resolves the problem by suggesting that creation cannot coexist with an omnipotent God. God must contract, in order to create. In fact, Luria posits a God who chooses creation over God’s own omnipotence, for surely an all-powerful God could have chosen never to create the universe.

Evil does exist in this world. Tragedies do happen. When forced to explain why, we often focus on human behavior. Hitler and his accomplices caused the Holocaust, aided and abetted by worldwide indifference, and the Holocaust is but one unique example of evil that can be similarly explained: Consider the atrocities of the Crusades; or more recently, genocide in Rwanda; or, continuing today, genocide in Sudan.

Bad things of various kinds happen to individuals every day. Some sadness is accompanied by rational explanation, as when the smoker contracts lung cancer or the sedentary individual has a heart attack. And yet, even then, we are loathe to blame the victim entirely, and we know that these explanations are not sufficient, given that not every smoker gets cancer and not every couch potato suffers from heart disease.

We grapple most mightily, though, with tragedies that do not at all derive from human wickedness. To be sure, fewer people would have died in the tsunami of December 26, if warning systems in the Indian Ocean matched those in the Pacific. Perhaps inequity does explain the death toll, given the relative wealth of countries rimming the Pacific, when complained with those with Indian Ocean coastlines. And yet, no human action or inaction gave rise to the tsunami itself, the underlying earthquake, or the massive death and suffering that happened so near the epicenter as not to be the fault of any poor warning system. The same may be said of the victims of hurricanes and tornadoes, floods and volcanic eruptions, around the globe.

Many religious people believe that everything that happens is the will of God. Not all are as easily dismissed as the infamous assertion of the Satmar Rebbe, that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the advent of Reform Judaism in Germany, or the vile claim the Reverends Falwell and Robertson, that the 9/11 attacks were punishments for homosexuality and abortion in America. Others, more humble about their ability to divine the specifics of God’s will, nevertheless affirm their faith in an omnipotent God, whatever might happen.

If everything that happens is indeed God’s will, though, and God is good, then everything that happens must ultimately be good. For example, the death and destruction caused by the December 26 tsunami is most unfortunate, but all must be part of a much larger plan, which we cannot understand. This theology is more or less the concluding message of the Book of Job. God basically asks Job: “Who are you, to question why things happen?” Not exactly in these words, God asserts: “I have my reasons, but since you are human, and limited, and not the Creator, you will never understand why I do what I do; you must simply have faith.”

Since the Holocaust, most Jews are unable to accept such a theology. We are unwilling to affirm that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis was the will of God. Even if we admit that, absent the Holocaust, the State of Israel would not have come into being when it did, who would be satisfied by such an explanation of millions of deaths and untold suffering? We surely cannot be convinced that the Holocaust was a good thing in the sight of God. Imagining that the Holocaust fits well into God’s larger plan requires more humility than we can muster, for the inestimable value we place on the individual lives that were destroyed prevents us from admitting that God might have had a larger, positive motive.

Perhaps we can regard the tsunami with greater equanimity. After all, we would not have glorious beaches without occasional tsunamis. We would not have mountains without earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Earth would not offer the beauty and variety in which we rejoice, without violent activities that can cause death and destruction, in the act of creativity. The problem, though, is that we Jews are taught to put a greater value on each human life than on any piece of land. We are far removed from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, but the human suffering in those places must not fail to touch us. We must still reject the idea that death and devastating disease are part of “God’s larger plan,” for how can any plan outweigh the lives of the stricken individuals? Does not the Talmud teach that one who kills another human being is as responsible as one who has destroyed all creation? Does such a standard not apply to God? As Abraham asked: “Shall not the Judge of all the world rule justly?”

Instead, we turn back to the theology of Rabbi Luria: God limited God’s own omnipotence, in order to create the world. God has chosen not to be solely in charge, not only of human action, but also of the progression of natural forces, from the instant of the Big Bang, and into the distant future.

Milton Steinberg, a Conservative Rabbi of the mid-20th Century, who was not at all a mystic, nevertheless affirmed that God’s power is limited. He explained evil as “the still unremoved scaffolding of the edifice of God’s creativity.”

Consider with me, if you will, creation as explained by Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli Orthodox Jew who is a physicist and cosmologist. Avineri focuses on the first day of creation. God said, “Let there be light.” In Avineri’s book, those words constitute a massive infusion of God’s energy where nothing previously existed. According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, energy equals the mass of a thing, multiplied by a constant, the speed of light, squared. If there was no mass, no matter, before creation, then there was no energy, for zero multiplied by any number is still zero. With this sudden injection of divine energy, symbolized by the words, “Let there be light,” matter, like the energy on the other side of the equation, increased from zero to something greater. Thus does Avineri explain the “Big Bang.”

So God created matter, with an infusion of energy. Unable to be all-powerful if atoms and molecules are to follow their laws and patterns, God contracts, as Luria teaches. God’s creation, as Rabbi Steinberg suggests, is fraught with imperfection, the metaphorical scaffolding, for God’s partial absence is a necessary condition for the universe to exist.

Under this theological system, God is generally responsible for everything that happens, good and evil. Nothing would exist without God. We therefore praise God for the miracles we see every day: the rising of the sun, the birth of a baby, just getting up in the morning. We similarly may be angry with God, as we contemplate the injustices of our world. As Rabbi Steinberg wrote: “God is exempted, not from the struggle, but from the responsibility for the elements of chance in [God’s] universe.”

God did not cause the Holocaust, but nor are we forbidden to question why a loving God would create the world in such away as to allow such evil to exist.

God did not cause the devastation of last December 26, but God did create the universe, which is still unfolding, with violent acts, ranging from sun storms to tsunamis.

At a difficult turning point in his own life, our patriarch Jacob wakes up from a magnificent dream encounter with God. He exclaims: “God is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” Let us affirm an omnipresent God, a God who is found in all creation, even as we acknowledge that God is not omnipotent. God is in this world, enhancing our celebration and offering comfort at hours of loss. God has granted power to every atom in creation, and especially to the human being, in whom God has implanted an immortal soul. None, though, is omnipotent. Not even God has retained the power to stop a tsunami.

Let us find God in every place, in sadness and in joy. Then, may we know that we are never alone, that spiritual comfort is prepared for us, even in the aftermath of disaster.