In a chilling reminder of the awesomeness and randomness of the forces of nature, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale flattened Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Simulating the effects of a nuclear explosion (but without the concommitant radiation), buildings collapsed, trapping their occupants in the rubble. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, are estimated to have been killed. More will be pulled out with lifelong serious injuries. It will take the Haitian economy, already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, years to recover. Relief is reaching victims slowly since the airport is relatively serviceable but roads are impassable.
The last time the world was visited with a natural catastrophe of such magnitude was 2004, when a tsunami struck Southeast Asia and the eastern coast of Africa, killing an estimated quarter million people. At the time, we heard idiotic statements from a few Orthodox rabbis to the effect that the tragedy was a warning to Jews to correct their behavior, in ways congruent with the particular rabbi's pet peeve. What mind-boggling hutzpa
, what low value placed on the lives of Gentiles - a quarter million snuffed out to send a veiled message to us! Thankfully, we have not heard such stupidity from our naked emperors
(yet), though such murmurings are surfacing in fundamentalist Christian circles
. When faced with unimaginable horror, a common reaction is to ask mystical questions: Why would God do such a thing? What is the meaning of it all? As a scientist I say that these are not wise questions to ask (see Eccles. 7:10). There is no deep spiritual significance here, at least none discernible to us mortals. Tectonic plates bump into one another, blind to us humans. If they collide on land, buildings collapse. If at sea, gigantic waves are set in motion that sweep all before them when they strike land. All of this has been happening since the formation of our planet - long, long before our species made its belated entrance on the world stage. We are brought face to face with our utter insignificance: Who are we that God should even care about us (Ps. 8:5)? And yet He does. He made us in His image and entrusted the planet into our care. Why did He make a world where earthquakes and tsunamis happen without regard to us, where children get leukemia, where all sorts of bad things happen to good people? We don't know. הנסתרת לה' אלקינו והנגלת לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת.
The hidden things belong to our Eternal God; the revealed are ours and our children's forever, to do all that this Torah commands us (Deut. 29:28). Why God does what He does is hidden; God is infinite and our grasp of creation is finite. Our obligations are revealed and clear to us. We are bidden to master the world (Gen. 1:28). The "why" may be hidden but the "how" is not. Discover how nature works, and how we can bend it to our will. How can we predict tsunamis and warn people in their path? How can we build buildings to withstand an earthquake? How can we prevent and cure disease? Torah frees us from pagan superstition; instead of the arbitrary whims of competing gods and goddesses we have a world of natural law that we can hope to comprehend.
We are also bidden להדבק במידותיו,
to imitate God as it were and reflect His love and care onto all of humanity (Isaiah 58: 6-7). And I must say that Jews of all ideologies and shades of observance have risen beautifully to the occasion. The Israelis of necessity have become the world's experts at digging people out of the rubble of collapsed buildings; their disasters are, for the most part, not natural but man-made. Israeli military units are on the scene, as is a contingent of Zaka
volunteers. We are hearing a few heartwarming accounts of people being pulled alive from the rubble, but for thousands more it is too late. It seems that every Jewish organization provides us a chance to donate money online, so much so that the government is warning us to be wary of the scam artists that come out of the woodwork in times like these. In general, do not respond to email requests for money, even if they look genuine and appear to be from organizations you belong to. Scam artists are expert website counterfeiters. Open a new browser, navigate to the address of an outfit that you know to be trustworthy, and proceed from there. The Orthodox Union is collecting money and funneling it to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has a presence on the ground in Haiti. This will, unfortunately, be an ongoing project owing to the magnitude of the disaster and Haiti's inability to care for itself even in relatively good times.
Don't be tempted to say that all this is far away from us and not our concern; it is in our backyard and stability there is very much in our interest. And karma is a hard taskmaster. We are not immune to the blind forces of nature. Israel is subject to earthquake and drought. Closer to home, Westchester and Rockland counties in New York sit astride an earthquake fault as, of course, does all of California. Long Island is long overdue for a major hurricane. Fear of God, if nothing else, should prompt us to do whatever we can to alleviate this horrific human suffering. And if we think we can live with a nuclear Iran and/or terrorists with suitcase nukes, imagine a good many Port-au-Princes at the same time.
The way we would have God care for us is the way we must care for the least of His children.