Responding to Tragedy

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“Reward and Punishment” is one of the fundamentals of Judaism; it’s how God relates to mankind. Torah mandates our response for when we are far from God…when we sin, and deserve punishment: 

“Let's search our ways and examine, and return to Hashem our God” (Lam. 3:40). 

Although without a prophet we cannot determine conclusively what earned us this current tragedy, we must follow this precedent above and reflect on our ways, repent, and improve. The rabbis reflected upon the destruction to both Jewish Temples and attributed those tragedies to the sins of idolatry and baseless hatred. Responding to this current tragedy, we must once again introspect to discover our shortcomings. And while Tehillim helps us focus on the proper values, we must not stop at mere recital, but follow Lamentations above and use Tehillim as a magnifier on our lives and change where we don’t act as Tehillim’s author outlines. 

In exploring ourselves individually, as communities and as a nation, we must identify what areas we fail at in religious practice, education, child rearing, morality, social interaction, sexually, politically, militarily, in family matters, nationally, financially, in business, through aggression, ego, greed, callousness, lies, charity, and in all activities and personal traits. Without abandoning our sins and flaws, God won’t remove the punishments for these imperfections.

Torah shares many instances of Reward and Punishment, and God’s response of salvation:

“This practice [sounding trumpets] is one of the paths of repentance, for when a difficulty arises, and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that [the difficulty] occurred because of their evil conduct, as [Jer. 5:25] states: "Your sins have turned away the rains." This [realization] will cause the removal of this difficulty” (Maimonides, Laws of Fasts 1:2).

“In addition, it is a rabbinic ordinance to fast whenever there is a difficulty that affects the community, until there is a manifestation of Divine mercy” (Ibid. 1:4).

“If only My people would listen to Me, if Israel would follow My paths, then would I subdue their enemies at once, strike their foes again and again” (Psalms 81:14,15).

Thus, following God, we can rid ourselves of trouble. God freed the Jews from 210 years of Egyptian bondage for 2 reasons: the Jews rejected idolatry (slaughtering the Egyptian lamb god) and they controlled their sexuality (circumcision). These two commands address our 2 halves: our intelligence and our instincts respectively. The Shima says the same: “Love God with all your heart”—with both your intellect and your emotions. The lesson: God’s will is that both our faculties—intellect and emotions—are guided by truth, by Torah ideals: we must not cater to sexual deviance or excess, or to idolatry or superstition.

Maimonides quotes God warning us not to dismiss tragedy as natural, or mere chance, unrelated to Torah violation:

Conversely, should the people fail to cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, and instead say, "What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence," this is a cruel conception of things, which causes them to remain attached to their wicked deeds. Thus, this time of distress will lead to further distresses. This is implied by the Torah's statement [Levi. 26:27-28]: "If you remain indifferent to Me, I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance." The implication of the verse is: When I [God] bring difficulties upon you so that you shall repent and you say it is a chance occurrence, I will add to your [punishment] an expression of vengeance for that indifference [to Divine Providence]. (Ibid. 1:3)

Thus, we must introspect and identify our flaws and sins, and reverse our path. This must follow our recital of Tehillim.

Repentance saves: for societies and individuals:

“God saw what they [the city of Ninveh] did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment that had been planned for them, and did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10).

“[Job said] I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I did not know. Therefore, I recant and relent.”

“Thus God blessed the latter years of Job’s life more than the former. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand she-asses. He also had seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:3,6,12,13).

“Though the misfortunes of the righteous be many, God will save him from them all” (Psalms 34:20)

God removes punishment from those who repent and those without sin.

Why did God give Israel to us? Abraham’s perfection of teaching monotheism earned him God’s providence. God then promised Israel to his descendants as a haven to study and practice Torah:

“God said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1)

“I will assign this land to your offspring” (Ibid. 12:7).

And as Shima’s lessons are that when we abandon Torah, we risk losing Israel, we must view the current events as God signaling our failures. Let us all “search our ways and examine, and return to Hashem our God.”  Israel exists as a homeland to follow God’s Torah. Leaders must ensure this is so.