Q. How can religious faith understand natural disasters like the great wave that just struck East Asia?
A. It would be quite presumptuous to think that we could resolve the paradox of suffering in the world overseen by a benevolent God in a few hundred words. But the magnitude of the human tragedy certainly compels us to present some basic principles to relate to this ancient problem.
The most important thing to know about the Jewish attitude to this question is that it takes the issue very seriously. Jewish tradition doesn't accept many of the easy ways of explaining away human suffering.
One easy way out is to say that suffering in this world is of no consequence; this world is a vale of tears and the highest object of religious life is to escape this life or to ascend to a higher existence in heaven. But the Torah greatly esteems the life of this world, and repeatedly promises us worldly blessings. "And you shall serve the Lord your God; and He will bless your food and your water, and I will remove illness from among you. There will be no miscarriage or barrenness in your land; I will fill the number of your days" (Exodus 23:25-26).
Another easy solution is to say that all disaster is a deserved retribution for sin. The Torah certainly acknowledges the propriety of retribution for the wicked; already in the first few chapters of Genesis we learn of the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, of the wandering decreed on Cain, and of the flood brought on by the wickedness of the generation that experience it. But these catastrophes were accompanied by explicit prophecies explaining the specific nature of the judgment involved. The Jewish Sages who lived after the era of prophecy warn us against thinking that we can automatically infer anything about the moral level of a specific individual from the misfortunes that befall him. (1)
Misfortune does, however, indicate some special concern or message. Maimonides write that thinking that disaster is merely happenstance is "cruelty". (2) Misfortune is meant to galvanize us, to stir us to mend and improve our ways. If we fail to recognize this, we are cruel to ourselves by failing to improve, and also adopt a cruel outlook on the world, as if God brings suffering in a way unnecessary for the ultimate benefit of His creatures.
Our tradition teaches that suffering is real, that we must strive to reduce suffering among mankind, and that the benevolent God supervises the world. It also teaches us that if mankind carefully adheres to the directives of God, as revealed in the Scripture and in His ongoing revelation through prophecy and careful study of His law, we will succeed in transforming this world into one where suffering is absent, and where all humans enjoy the blessings of this world with an active consciousness of their source in transcendent Divine benevolence.
This reward will be shared by all the righteous of mankind. This is one message of the Resurrection. One of the fundamental principles of Jewish faith is that at the time of the ultimate redemption, the souls of the righteous will be restored to a physical, bodily existence though a refined physicality suited to the ideal state of mankind. (3) Rav Kook explains that if the reward for the righteous were only in the disembodied World to Come (immediately following death and before the resurrection), we might think that perfecting this world is impossible or unimportant. The resurrection teaches us that all the good that humans can experience will ultimately find expression in material reality. (4)
This approach rejects complacency, the idea that we don't need to be concerned about suffering. On the contrary, our whole mission is to use Divine directive to create a world where suffering is absent. But it also teaches us patience: repairing the world is evolutionary, not revolutionary; it is an educational process that requires many generations, and much suffering is endured on the way. Natural disasters are evidently one way in which humanity learns empathy and concern, sentiments that are necessary for perfecting human institutions.
In this way we can inject some meaning into misfortune by viewing it as a painful but necessary step towards a future perfect world, a world that all of us would be willing to sacrifice for and which ultimately all will share in. If we complacently wait for the Redemption to arrive, it will never come. Only if we occupy ourselves in helping others here and now will we cultivate our ethical perfection.
When we acknowledge the reality of suffering, we are moved to do what is in our power to alleviate it. These very sentiments and actions are the ones which mobilize us to renew our efforts to move forwards towards a world where suffering is absent and where all mankind, of all generations, will benefit from the final realization of our unbelievable Divinely-given potential for benevolence.
SOURCES: (1) See Mishnah Avot 4:14. (2) Maimonides, Laws of Fasts 1:3. (3) Maimonides, commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 10. (4) See Orot HaKodesh II:488, Ein Ayah on Berakhot 18.
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