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Reacting to the Tsunami

Reacting to the Tsunami

A spiritual response to disaster.


Born in 1948, I have never experienced a catastrophe as massive and sudden as the earthquake/tsunamis that, at last count, have killed more than 60,000 people. Living in Israel during the terror war of the last few years, I have unfortunately become accustomed to crying at the funerals of children. But to read of hundreds of children together being buried in mass graves staggers my mind and batters my heart. How should/can/does one respond to a tragedy this enormous?

A young Israeli traveling in Thailand when the tsunami hit reported to his family that there was no panic among the local people. They are Buddhists, he explained, and believe in the Law of Karma. They accept their fate.

The Law of Karma holds that nothing that occurs to human beings is random. Rather, a meticulous law of cause and effect, action and reaction, determines that, as Americans would say, “Whatever goes around, comes around.” Human actions create effects that, sooner or later, like the tsunami itself building up over time and distance, strike with shattering force.

Certain elements of this idea are consistent with Judaism. Certainly, there is no randomness in the universe, and human conduct sets in motion spiritual forces which eventually manifest in physical effects, revolving back on human beings themselves.

Judaism, however, differs from the Law of Karma in significant ways. First of all, the Law of Karma is strictly personal; an individual who steals will be stolen from, in this incarnation or the next or the next. The individual’s dishonesty will revolve back only on him/herself. It cannot cause others to suffer. Although there is a concept of group karma, here too the boomerang flies back to the hands that threw it; only the perpetrators become the victims.

Judaism, on the other hand, credits human action with a much broader effect. A person stealing $100 in Tel Aviv lowers the moral fiber in Mexico City and could encourage massive embezzlement in Melbourne. Conversely, a person doing a mitzvah in Haifa may avert an auto accident in London or prevent complications during open-heart surgery in Los Angeles. The spiritual channels of effect run far below the surface, untraceable but powerful.

Spiritual forces, like ocean waves, do not lose their power over distance.


A second major difference is that karma is inexorable; a misdeed once committed is, as they say in India, like the tusks of an elephant. It can never be retracted. Judaism, on the contrary, teaches the concept of teshuva. Teshuva means that a person can regret and change his/her mode of conduct, and when s/he does, the past actions are spiritually erased. In fact, if one does teshuva from pure love of God, the subterranean channel, the river of fire, turns into a positive force, a river of sweet water.

If a person even hears about a disaster such as an earthquake, one must relate to the tragedy by examining one’s own deeds.

This is precisely what Judaism endorses as a response to disaster. The Talmud says that when one suffers, one should scrutinize one’s deeds, implying that teshuva for wrong conduct can change one’s fortune. And what if one is not directly affected, but only hears about a disaster that occurred in a distant place? The Talmud asserts that if a person even hears about a disaster such as an earthquake, one must relate to the tragedy by examining one’s own deeds.

It is appropriate to respond to the present Hiroshima-scale disaster by contributing money to aid the relief effort, but physical action should not preclude a spiritual response as well. When you ask yourself, “What can I do?” here are some spiritual responses:

  1. Allow yourself to mourn for the tragic loss of life. Do not emotionally distance yourself by burying your heart in the internet news. Feel the pain.


  2. Recognize the fragility -- and therefore the preciousness -- of life. The people on the beaches of southeast Asia that day had no warning that this would be their final hour. Neither will we. Appreciate the preciousness of every hour.


  3. Recognize the spiritual effect of every action you do -- not just on yourself but on the world. Petty lying, stealing, cheating, gossip, promiscuity, and exploitation set in motion waves of negativity. When many people engage in such actions, those waves can build up into tidal waves.


  4. Change one action. Undertake to do a new mitzvah or eschew one kind of negative behavior. This is a better defensive measure than any early warning system.


Maimonides asserts that one who fails to respond to suffering by doing teshuva is cruel. The implication is that we have it within our power to stop human suffering. How can we look at the pictures of bodies on the beaches -- each of whom is someone’s beloved relative -- and not be willing to undertake whatever we can to ward off the next calamity?

In the wake of the catastrophe, treated its readers to speculation by a noted seismologist that a volcano erupting in the Canary Islands could cause landslides that would send a tsunami hurtling across the Atlantic Ocean with enough force to destroy New York City. Judaism would add that such a scenario is not a matter of fate, nor of geological upheavals, nor of random forces. It is in our power, by the moral choices we make, to prevent the next disaster.

Share your thoughts and feelings in the comment section below.


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December 28, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 66

(66) Anonymous, September 13, 2011 12:53 PM

Hello Sara, Thank you for this article, it's very informative and with the beautiful intention of being helpful in face of unimaginable loss. Can you site your source in regard to the Buddhist view of Karma being strictly personal? That was not my understanding, I always thought the law of interdependent origination explained that our actions have an effect way beyond the personal. In fact from the viewpoint of the ultimate truth, there really is no personal. On a certain level, nothing really exists independently. Of course from the relative viewpoint there is a personal. Both the relative and ultimate exist simultaneously though on the surface they appear to contradict one another. I know that the Hindu view of karma often get mixed and confused with the Buddhist one, and they do differ quite a bit. The Hindu seems to be more fatalistic and perhaps personal. I would be interested to know where you got the personal only information. Many thanks.

(65) Jeff Wild, January 18, 2005 12:00 AM

A beautiful description of "Jewish Karma"

Dear Sara,

This is the first article I have read on this site, though it won't be my last.

Thank you for so clearly describing how Judaism perceives its own view of karma, which seems to me clearly described in the Bavli's Shabbot 32a.

At times I am drawn to the Buddhist view of karma, but your words assure me that this Jewish view is even more subtle and beautiful. I appreciate how you say that "The spiritual channels of effect run far below the surface, untraceable but powerful."

Thank you again for your insights.

Jeff Wild

(64) Anonymous, January 15, 2005 12:00 AM

After hearing about the tsunami and it's devestation I realized immediately that food and water would be hard to get for the suvivors. Here in America food is so plentiful and often wasted. I took upon myself, without taking a vow, to fast twice a week to appreciate more the bracha that we have and realize the overwhelming compassion that Hashem has for us that we have life.

(63) Trudi Kahn White, January 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Regarding Karma and Teshuva

Dear Sara,
Thanks for your thoughtful and thought provoking Tsunami column. I received it as an attachment from a kind friend at Eitz Or, (a Seattle Jewish Renewal community).
Thanks, too, for sharing your background. Vedanta has held many gifts for our family. In fact, it was a way back to Judiasm for us.

Sh'rudha (the suspension of disbelief, pending investigation) about Karma is not a leap I have made.
As a Jew I have never liked the close proximity to "blame" implied by karma or certain descriptions of "responsiblity". However this perception may be biased or poorly informed.

Recently a Tibetan Bhuddist teacher described Karma very well. She painted a picture of seeds planted in our hearts by previous actions. For example, seeds of angry or violent actions, speech or thoughts ripen (sometimes to bursting). A kind of teshuva is necessary when we do not react, but find compassion for those who insult AND those who are insulted, and thus cease to continue the cycles of suffering. By being mindful and choosing to end the cycle we can avoid planting more seeds of violence, hate, etc. The teacher indicated that in this way the "pollen" of violence is neutralized, the karma cleaned.

That said... May our thoughts, actions and speech be of service, even as our hearts break.

Kind regards,

(62) Yoni Gershon, January 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Tsunami Tshuva

Sara - great column as usual!
In doing my own cheshbon hanefesh I am trying to understand the message of a Tsunami davka. Hmmm... Certainly we see a violation of normal boundaries. We see the powers of water overflowing their norml place. Where have I broken my boundaries? Where have I allowed one world to overflow into and violate another? What is my relationship to water (Torah/Love/the infinite) and to land (permanence/productivity/stability)? At the very least I can say "haroka aretz al hamayim" with more kavana...
... and appreciate each moment with my children much more...
Thank you,

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