Seeking Answers With Humility

by | in Jewish Thought

By Dov Karoll
Adapted from an address by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

One’s response to the specific event of this particular storm, or to natural disasters in general, is a function of one’s general view both of the melding interaction between God and the world, i.e., of natural events within a supernatural context, and of one’s right and, perhaps, one’s duty, to reflect upon the events themselves, to try to gauge and delineate the dimensions and roots of events of this kind. Within the purviews and parameters of religious faith, that could take a number of forms.

One response would be to view the phenomenon as a manifestation of the Divine breaking through the crust of the natural world, a fiery expression of Divine anger, a manifestation of God’s middat hadin.

Beyond that, some people presume to know the ways of the Almighty, audaciously ascribing a cause-and-effect relationship to a tragedy which befalls mankind, and which also expresses a message being addressed to us by God.

Others will speak instead of an element of Divine beneficence, that God is taking us under His wing and relating to us; they assume that the worst possible thing that can happen to an individual or to humanity as a whole is that God should simply leave us to our own devices, and that being a victim is better than being ignored completely. Rav Nachman says in the gemara in Sanhedrin (105a), “Kol ki hai ritcha lirtach Rachamana alan ve’lifrokinan, May God take such drastic steps as He sees fit,” but keep us in mind “and redeem us.”

That there have been people who were entitled to speak in that vein, I think, goes without question, within the parameters of our emunah. We believe that there are certain individuals, prophets as a category, who have been blessed, or sometimes tormented, with some kind of contact with God through prophecy. In Tanach, God reveals Himself in different manifestations; Chazal speak of God being manifest at Keriat Yam Suf as a warrior, and at Ma’amad Har Sinai as an elderly teacher.

If we assume that this phenomenon is an expression of God revealing Himself to punish, it stands to reason that this is God’s response to sin. Namely, that the message of mipnei chata’einu, this has befallen us because of our sins, is being transmitted in a national, and even super-national, vein.

This is a very difficult response to digest, but some people glory in it; it gives them an opportunity to reflect upon their own virtue, as opposed to the infamy which they see in those around them. However, in this context, another question arises: does one have either a right, or a duty, to speak that language?

I come from a school of thought which reacts very strongly against statements, assertions and defamations made by people who speak as if they have a direct hotline to God, such that they are able to interpret events in accordance with their philosophic orientation, their spiritual stance. The gemara in Sanhedrin (105b) comments with regard to Bilam’s self-description, “yodei’a da’at Elyon, he who grasps the understanding of the Most High” (Numbers 24:16): “He grasps not the understanding of his own animal; does he grasp the understanding of the Most High?” In part, the problem here is one of folly for a person to imagine that he understands the ways of God. Apart from the folly, there is a certain arrogance and a repugnant self-confidence involved in this type of statement.

The arrogance of the assertion that one understands God’s ways is frightful.

Another possible approach would ascribe certain disasters to an absence of hashgachah pratit, Divine providence, over the individual or community involved. The Ramban and the Rambam speak of hashgachah pratit as being limited to a small cadre of people. According to the Ramban, it is moral-religious virtues which qualify a person for that hashgachah, while according to the Rambam it is intellectual virtues. Regardless of that difference, they jointly take the position that hashgachah pratit applies in varying degrees to different people, and it does not protect the ordinary individual. As such, the individual, or even a whole community, and possibly even the universal community of one’s time, can sometimes be left to the devices of natural forces.

I should note that Rav Yitzchak Hutner pointed out that the Ramban and the Rambam here do not mean to say that hashgachah has no way of dealing with one who deserves to be punished. Rather, it means that he is left to his own devices and to natural forces, and this itself is a manifestation of hashgachah; namely, God deals with those who defy Him by taking them and throwing them into the lion’s den, with the lions doing what they naturally do.

Regardless of the theological construct, the advocates of this approach presume a right, out of a sense of their own virtue, as well as a duty, to help humanity mend its ways and restore contact and communication with God.

For this, people like myself have no stomach. First of all, the arrogance of the assertion that one understands God’s ways is frightful. But there is a second problem here, which is the assumption that one’s priorities are not to mend one’s own ways, but rather to put the whole world in good shape. This is a total misconception of what teshuvah demands of a person. In this regard, we are not to draw on the model of the prophets, who were given a charge to deliver a message to the people regardless of any personal shortcomings they may have had.

We live after the Shoah, and that is something that we cannot, and should not, disregard. There are people who speak of the Shoah itself in the vein of mipnei chata’einu, despite its being a phenomenon of much greater scale and significance. That kind of reaction to the Shoah has elicited terrible responses.

I’m a talmid of Rav Hutner’s, as are some of my colleagues, yet some of my colleagues and I find it impossible to digest the kind of position which the rosh yeshivah took, explaining, based on the parshiyot in Vayelech and Nitzavim respectively, and with some analysis of modern European history, that it was all mipnei chata’einu. With all my respect and admiration of the rosh yeshivah, that kind of statement is something I absolutely could not begin to fathom.

In sum, while one cannot assert that the mipnei chata’einu theory is not correct objectively, one has no way of knowing that it is correct either. As such, it is worth admitting that, in an era without prophecy, you will never know. Our priority needs to be teshuvah, which includes in it an element of hakarat hacheit, recognizing and realizing one’s sin, but that’s not the only element. It is much better to admit you don’t know rather than to give answers that are spiritually unsatisfactory.

A religious response needs to be spiritual, submissive and not supercilious in any way. It is not for us to limit God in terms of what He can or cannot do. We live by a faith that God Himself is guided by moral principles—by principles of justice—as Avraham Avinu questioned: “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat, Will the Judge of the entire world not perform justice?” (Genesis 18:25). We assume there is justice. Assuming that, there are questions, admittedly: could the Jews of Eastern Europe have done anything so terrible as to deserve the fate which befell them? We cannot begin to imagine that, and we should not want to imagine that. So we need to be submissive and, to some extent, hope for the better, while weeping for the worst.

There is another point that comes up in this connection. Some people use such an event as a base for solidifying their religious faith, by emphasizing human frailty in contrast to Divine power. They will note how such an event shows us God’s might, how He can upset the whole equilibrium of nature. It is unclear why someone who is aware of the contemporary understanding of the vastness of the universe, at the most superficial level, would make such an assertion. Einstein calculated that the diameter of the universe is billions of light years. It is a basic axiom of faith that God is sovereign over the entire universe. Given that God perpetually controls this vast universe, why would we need the waters of the Long Island Sound to run ten or fifteen feet high in order to believe that God is running the world? It makes no sense logically or psychologically, but some people use this to attack the secularists.

It should be noted that Chazal instruct us, when faced with yissurin (suffering) large or small, to introspect and take everything into consideration, leading to a spiritual response of mending your ways by reducing, massively, the possible grounds for what happened to you. That is clearly a desirable and feasible response, but it doesn’t mean that you can say with certainty that you are important enough to have such a message addressed to you.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilchot Ta’aniyot addresses himself to the question of being left to our own devices. Particularly with regard to what happens to Knesset Yisrael, we are commanded not to ascribe it to accidents, but it doesn’t mean that you can say with certainty what the answer is; rather, you take care of the eventualities, and raise possibilities. It behooves us to be modest, to be chozer beteshuvah, and hope for the best.

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Adapted from an address by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, by Rabbi Dov Karoll. Special thanks to Rabbi Reuven Ziegler for helping in the preparation of this article. For the complete transcript from which this article was adapted, please see http://pagesoffaith.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/on-appropriate-religious-responses-to-hurricane-sandy/.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2013.

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