Every day, the radio and newspapers dish out more despair. The mounting death toll in Nepal is shattering; the crushing reality of people trapped under collapsed buildings and towns shaken to their foundations cannot be ignored and can have serious theological repercussions. Where is God in all this rubble?
Natural disasters were not uncommon in the ancient world. Sacred texts often captured the wonder and fear that storms, hurricanes and earthquakes created. Isaiah's earth was violently shaken. Isaiah observed that, "the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of His fierce anger" (13:13). Job understandably regarded earthquakes as God's anger: "He who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in anger, who shakes the earth out of its place and its pillars tremble" (9:5-6). This same view is shared in psalms: "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the mountains trembled and quaked because He was angry"(18:7).
We find ourselves slightly off-balance when reading these verses, as if we are ourselves reeling and rocking slightly. The world's pain is our pain. In the ancient world, weather was never just weather. Rain felt like God's tears. The earth quaking felt like God's wrath.
What are we to make of all of this destruction at God's hand?
This question is further enhanced elsewhere in the book of Psalms: "You have made the land to quake; You have torn it open: repair its breaches, for it totters. You have shown your people desperate times..." (60:2-3). God, if you destroy, You must also repair. If You force people into desperation, then you must create solace and comfort for them through the reconstruction effort.
But this assumes that it is indeed God's anger at us that creates disasters. You will often hear clergy spouting such views, sadly assuming that they know the exact reason a terrible natural disaster occurred. If God is angry at anything, I would argue, it is at human apathy, at creating a manmade world that is not thoughtful of nature. It is as if God said to us, "You are my partners in creation, and your job was to steward your planet. You have disappointed me. You must keep us your side of this covenant."
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his forthcoming Nine Essential Things I've Learned about Life asks how we can find the willpower to face great challenges and answers:
I find God not in the test that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them. God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away...Rather, God sends us the strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.
Thinking of determination and strength, I happened to be with Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, when the tremors in Nepal were still taking lives. At the special event we attended, she was clearly preoccupied and quickly took a sheet out of her bag with information on Nepal: "There's going to be a huge Jewish response, Erica. You'll see." She said it confidently. There was no question that we as a people would come to the rescue in some way. She expressed her absolute faith in our people to go outside of ourselves and give until it hurts because someone else is hurting.
As we go into Shabbat - our day of rest - let us feel that we at least reached out to our human family across the globe and eased the pain and amplified the hope. To donate online, click onto ajws.org to their earthquake relief fund. Start helping so others may start healing.