By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
On January 17th, 1994 a devastating earthquake struck my hometown of Northridge, California. I remember visiting my parents’ home a few weeks later and seeing the empty shelves where dishes once rested and the cracked walls. They were among the lucky ones. We drove by the Northridge Mall that no longer existed, homes that literally were open where a wall once stood, cars that were crushed by concrete.
The Northridge earthquake, measured at 6.7 on the Richter scale, sent shock waves that reached Las Vegas, Nevada, over 270 miles away! 57 people died, and almost 9,000 were injured. The earthquake caused an estimated $20 billion in damage, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in North American history.
Some people and companies brand damage caused by a natural disaster “an act of God”, leading one to conclude that God somehow sanctioned the disaster. Skeptics ask why a good, gracious God would allow so much death, injury, and damage. Fundamentalist Literalists might conclude, “Those who suffered must have done something wrong.” Atheists conclude that the God of the Bible is no different than the capricious pagan pantheon. The Jewish Tradition, along with other religious perspectives, responds to these caricatures of God offers a very different understanding: God does not push buttons to make things happen at a specific time in a specific location.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood that occurrences of natural disasters are not acts of God: they exist in the natural order of the world, and the laws of nature sometimes disrupt our lives in unwelcome ways. We cannot ask God to be a Divine Magician who can willy-nilly change the course of the earth: Olam k’minhago holaykh – the world of nature follows its set pattern.
Everyone knows the story of Noah, the Flood God sends to engulf the evil of the world. To me, the most important part of the story is the rainbow that brightened the sky as the world began anew. With the rainbow, Noah understands that God will never again destroy the world: it is now humanity’s responsibility to make sure evil – both natural and moral – does not destroy the world.
We are God’s Partner in transforming the world from the way it is to the way it ought to be. Noah’s rainbow reminds us to respond to devastation and destruction, be it caused by the hands of humanity or the nastiness of nature. It is our responsibility to anticipate nature’s response to what we do on God’s earth, facing the impending perils of climate change and disrupting natural ecosystems, building homes, and structures that can withstand the fury of Florida hurricanes and California earthquakes.
Where is God when disaster and suffering strike? God is in our response to each other, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry, sheltering those who are suddenly homeless, healing the injured, strengthening the ties of community. God is not in the cause of disaster, but in our response to it. God is in the strength to resurrect hope and resuscitate the human spirit.
That, my friends, is “an act of God!”
Rabbi Rick Sherwin, a graduate of UCLA, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Rabbi Rick’s passion is filling spiritual services and interfaith educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue, and humor.