After the Earthquake | Congregation Beth Am

After the Earthquake

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
January 2, 2004

On November 1, 1755, it was All Saints’ Day in Lisbon, Portugal -- then one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and one of the largest, as well. That day, as the churches were packed with devout worshipers, a devastating earthquake struck the city. A modern writer describes it like this: “Just before ten in the morning, the city was hit by a sudden sideways lurch now estimated in magnitude 9.0 and shaken ferociously for seven full minutes. The convulsive force was so great that the water rushed out of the city’s harbor and returned in a wave fifty feet high, adding to the destruction. When at last the motion ceased, survivors enjoyed just three minutes of calm before a second shock came, only slightly less severe than the first. A third and final shock followed two hours later. At the end of it all, sixty thousand people were dead and virtually every building for miles reduced to rubble. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, for comparison, measured an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale and lasted less than thirty seconds” [Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything].

The Lisbon earthquake, followed by five days of horrific fires, was the most catastrophic natural disaster of the 18th century. Its reverberations were felt throughout much of North Africa and Europe. But it wasn’t just physical structures that were toppled in the quake. Scenes of mass carnage set off seismic shifts in the mind and heart, as well. Ideals were shattered along with the great cathedrals. When churches collapse and bury pious people at prayer, how can one cling to an idea of Divine Providence – a just and personal God who loves and cares for every person?

Heinrich von Kleist’s short story called “The Earthquake in Chile,” written some 60 years later, was largely based on the Lisbon quake, as well as another quake that had leveled Santiago in 1647. Even today it is a horrifying piece of work, painting a universe where fortune is blind and merciless, where sudden, random quirks of fate destroy innocent lives in the blink of an eye.

The questions raised by Kleist’s story are as urgent as last week’s news and as ancient as the beginnings of Jewish faith. The Bible – especially the earlier books of the Bible – seems to promise us a different kind of universe. Take the story of Noah, for instance. A devastating flood wipes out the earth – but one man, one virtuous man and his family are plucked out of the disaster and kept alive, floating serenely on the surface of the waters.

Noah’s story offers us a universe in which every individual receives his just deserts. It is as personal and intensely focused a Divine Providence as you could ever want; it is a God who takes note of each of us, in our particularity, and assigns to us the reward or punishment we have rightfully earned. If we saw the world as the writer of Noah’s story saw it, we’d be convinced that there was a good reason why two particular women were targeted by falling buildings in Paso Robles while those around them survived.

By the time of Deuteronomy, a book composed later, this theory is falling apart. Deuteronomy offers us instead a universe in which reward and punishment are collective. The Israelites are promised that if they establish a just and righteous community they will flourish, but if their society is corrupt they will be destroyed. This is a less comforting idea, in some ways, but it makes a certain kind of sense. It means that even if I am a virtuous individual, if I live in a society pervaded by violence and polluted by immorality – a society, for instance, in which guns easily find their way into the hands of children and terrorists operate unchecked; a society in which the air and water are toxic; a society in which profound inequities exist, and many live without food, shelter, medical care or a decent education – my own virtue will not protect me from the consequences of living in such a culture.

Deuteronomy’s view of the world makes sense, since it tells us that innocent individuals will suffer because of the misdeeds of those around them. It seems clear that tens of thousands died tragically in Iran because of human failings, since construction in that ancient city was manifestly inadequate to withstand an earthquake in a part of the world where one could reasonably be expected. So too, millions have died in famines, floods and fires because their societies failed to protect them with adequate safeguards. Millions have died from diseases because of poor sanitation, unhealthy habits or simply because scientists have yet to find a cure. In a Deuteronomic view of the world, my welfare is intimately tied to that of those around me; we are dependent upon one another to create a community in which all life can flourish.

But Deuteronomy can’t explain all of the personal tragedies we witness, when innocent people die for reasons we can’t explain. Babies are born with heartbreaking disabilities due to the random shuffling of the genetic pack. Cars collide on the highway, leaving some passengers dead and others alive. A five-year-old girl in San Jose named Rachel came home last Tuesday from kindergarten with fever and symptoms of the flu. By early the next morning she couldn’t walk and a rash was spreading over her body. That afternoon, as Christmas Eve approached, she seemed alert; she asked her parents to tell Santa that she was in the hospital so that he’d know where to deliver her presents. But shortly afterward her kidneys failed and the doctors recommended that she be sedated. Before she went under, her mother said to Rachel: “I heard from Santa and he said he would bring you that doll you wanted. Mommy and Daddy love you very much and we’ll be here when you wake up.” Those were the last words she spoke to her only child. By Christmas morning Rachel was dead, a victim of bacterial meningitis – an illness that kills some but not all of its victims.

Such tragedies shatter us in profound ways; everything about them seems incomprehensible and utterly wrong.

In such tragedies, we relive the biblical story of Job -- a good man struck down for reasons he cannot comprehend – a man who, despite the proverb about the patience of Job, is in fact “desperate and ferociously impatient” as he cries out in rage and pain over his losses [Introduction to The Book of Job, translated and introduced by Stephen Mitchell]. In such tragedies we relive the Talmudic story of Elisha ben Abuyah, who saw a young son fall from a tree and die while performing a mitzvah – a religious obligation – in obedience to his father, and thereupon lost his faith in God, announcing in despair: “There is no justice and there is no Judge.”

Elisha saw the injustice of the world and retreated into nihilism; his fellow sages, reflecting on the same incident he witnessed, said that he might have kept his faith had he only understood that “there is no reward in this world for doing mitzvot.” For the rabbis of the Talmud, justice would be done in the next world; they believed that only after death would the good be rewarded and the wicked be punished. In this world, they said, "having children, long life and material sustenance are dependent not on [one’s] merits but rather on luck (mazal)" [B.Talmud Yevamot 28]. Some Jews find comfort today in the belief that those who suffer in this life will find peace in the next.

The Book of Job, an earlier work, takes a position that is more radical and continues to challenge us today. It refuses to speculate on the existence of an afterlife, focusing instead on the reality of life in this world – a world, it freely admits, in which terrible, inexplicable things occur. Job can survive his tragedies because, for a moment, he is able to transcend his grief and achieve a broader perspective on the world. He sees that the universe is far more complex than he had ever dreamed and that it does not operate according to human categories of right and wrong. He is forced to let go of his assumptions about God and to accept the limitations of his knowledge. In a sense he surrenders his ego, for it is the ego, after all, which demands that our moral standards define the way the world works.

How does one live in the world portrayed in the book of Job? It is a world in which the ego is ceaselessly battered by the realization that we are not at the center of the cosmos – a world that is the very opposite, of the world described in the story of Noah, where each individual receives personal care and scrutiny from a benevolent God. In practical terms, this translates into a world we experience as arbitrary and unfair, and full of heartbreak.

It may be that the worst is true – that we live in a cold and uncaring universe, indifferent to our concerns, and that terrible things happen here because that is the way things are. Every day we meet people who have reached the same conclusion that Elisha ben Abuyah did two thousand years ago. Some will respond as he did, with disillusionment and cynicism. Some will take a more extreme path, by withdrawing from the human community. If the world is an amoral jungle, the smartest thing you can do is to act like a beast and grab whatever you can get.

Some, having reached the same conclusion as Elisha, will respond in a different way. About 20 years ago a phrase began appearing on bumper stickers and scrawled on the walls of buildings: “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” It seems to have been coined in 1982 by Bay Area writer and activist Anne Herbert as a response to the random violence and senseless tragedy that mark our lives. A movement grew up and spread around the world, based on the notion of “spontaneous gestures of goodwill towards our fellow human beings.” Things like paying the toll for the car behind you on a bridge, dropping a coin into a stranger’s parking meter when it’s almost expired, sending flowers to someone who’s been feeling lonely.

The key element is that such actions come from the heart and that they be done with no expectation of reward or even acknowledgement. The goal, of course, is to counter the unpredictable nature of evil with unpredictable acts of goodness, which bring positive energy into the world and leave you with a warm glow of good feeling.

I have no wish to speak against anything as well-meaning and constructive as the Random Acts of Kindness movement. But long before the 1980’s Jewish tradition devised another response to a world that can be arbitrary and cruel. Judaism teaches that the strongest and best response to random acts of evil is to institute kindness in a way that is anything but random. Our religion aims to cultivate a particular kind of character and a particular sort of community –- one that is morally disciplined, schooled in sensitivity, trained to act with justice, compassion and peace.

In other words, because the world is unfair, human beings must learn to be fair. Because the universe may seem cold and uncaring, people need to need to fill it with decency, warmth and concern. Such an imperative is far too important to leave to the spontaneous gestures of a motivated heart. It needs to be an effort that is focused and systematic, begun in early childhood and reinforced throughout the lifetime.

One website announces that “random acts of kindness are those things we do for no reason, except that, momentarily, the best of our humanity has sprung into full bloom -- you are doing not what life requires of you, but what the best of your human soul invites you to do.” Jews believe, instead, that kindness is an obligation; justice is an obligation; generosity and compassion are obligations.

Maybe obligation has a heavy, dreary sound. Impulsive, unpredictable ripples of good feeling have much more charm and appeal. But ours is a system designed to create human beings who are habitually good, not sporadically good – people who have goodness built into the deep structures of their personality, who know almost from the day they are born that they are put on this earth to make it better.

Jews convey that lesson through education; we do it through prayer, through ritual and symbol and holiday celebration. We institutionalize the practice of goodness in mitzvot – specific, disciplined acts of obligation: care for the frail and the elderly; protection of animals and the natural environment; aid for those who lack basic necessities of life; intervention on behalf of those at risk…a list that goes on and on.

Where is God in a world of random acts of violence and senseless acts of evil? Some of us would say that through mitzvot we bring the presence of God into places where goodness has not yet penetrated. Some of us would say that God is the word we use to describe our own passionate conviction that this unjust world must and should be put right.

God does not send us tragedy to teach us a lesson, but God is the force within human beings that calls us to transform suffering, and lift it up, and redeem it. Two and a half years ago, a 13 year old Israeli boy named Koby Mandel skipped school to go hiking, and was bludgeoned to death by terrorists. His mourning parents have organized Camp Koby, for survivors of terrorist attacks, bringing light into the lives of over a thousand children and adults.

Some of us would dare to say that the worst may not be true – there may indeed be a power for wholeness and good that pervades the universe, whose exquisite beauty we can glimpse on occasion. Judaism gives us permission to speculate and to wonder – but in the meantime, there is work to be done.

In a world where the earth quakes under our feet and solid structures tumble into ashes, human beings, at least, must be steady and constant in our care for one another.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).