Skip to main content

After the Tsunami

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l in light of the Tsunami, Dec 26, 2004.

Adapted by Shaul Barth with Reuven Ziegler. 
Translated by Kaeren Fish with Naftali Balanson

During the past week, we have heard constantly changing estimates as to the nature and scope of the disaster that has befallen several countries in Asia. Our natural response has been to recite chapters of Tehillim after mincha in yeshiva, and this response is certainly appropriate. If we pray for a single individual who is caught in a stormy sea, even on Shabbat, then how much more appropriate this is for such a great number of people. Our prayers are not only for the Jews harmed by this disaster, but for the victims of all nations.

In the sicha I gave on the day following the disaster, I emphasized that we are the descendants of Avraham, who saw fit to pray for a society that even he himself knew to be corrupt to the core – "exceedingly evil and sinful towards God." The Chafetz Chaim explains that Avraham's reference to finding a number of "righteous people" in Sodom did not mean people of elevated spiritual stature; he simply meant people who were not wicked and deserving of death at the hands of Heaven. He entertained no hope of finding more than fifty such people who were not deserving of death. This is the city on behalf of which he argued and negotiated with God, until he pled on behalf of only ten – and even that number did not exist. If for the sake of this city Avraham offered not supplication but insistent argumentation, shall we not pray on behalf of such a large and peaceful community? We are reminded of Yona's prayer concerning the "great city of Ninveh;" how can we not pray for entire countries? In this situation, we must remember the midrash concerning the splitting of the Red Sea, where God chastised the angels: "My creations are drowning in the sea, and you sing praise?" Not only, obviously, must we not sing praise; we must not go about our daily business either.

There is something about drowning in the sea that is different from other forms of death. Drowning is absolute loss, total annihilation, as though the person had never existed. There is a violation of the order of Creation, a departure from the natural course of the world, leading us to offer prayer and supplication. Could we possibly not have compassion for such a great number of people and offer our prayers on their behalf? This awareness, which is part of our Torah heritage, should also accompany us now.

So far our obligation is clear: how could we possibly not react with compassion? But beyond prayer and supplication, we must ask ourselves whether there is something that can and should be said about this situation. Here the discussion assumes a different nature. Some people concern themselves with the question of why it happened, voicing opinions on why the tragedy occurred specifically in that place and that time. These same people, in different circumstances, also explain why infants and young children die. Apparently, they consider themselves experts in the ways of Divine Providence.

We must distance ourselves completely from such shallow and false answers. Those are questions for Chazal – who spoke in terms of some kind of general correlation, rather than with reference to a directly retributive causal nexus - to deal with, not people like us. The message that arises in the wake of the events of the twentieth century is that we have no business poking our noses into the "why;" in the context of such questions, what is required of us is absolute humility. We have no business explaining, or pretending to explain, things that cannot be explained. We must remember Chazal's teaching concerning Bilam, who thought that he understood God's supreme wisdom. The Gemara derides him: "This person, who claimed to know God's mind – could he not understand his donkey's mind?" This pretentiousness – moral, philosophical and religious pretentiousness – we totally reject.

If we want to try and sort the wheat from the chaff, the chaff is relatively easy to discern. We are reminded of Yehuda's words to Yosef: "What shall we say to my lord; what shall we speak, how shall we justify ourselves?" There is nothing to say.

Yet this raises a question. Despite his protestations, Yehuda does speak: "Yehuda came near to him, and said…." The initial response is that there is nothing to say, but ultimately there is a need for a meaningful statement. What is the nature of such a statement?

I once had the unfortunate task of telling a woman that her daughter had died of cancer. Her reaction was, "What can you say to a woman who has lost her daughter?" Faced with a terrible tragedy, the appropriate reaction is shock - the shock of humility and of helplessness, the stunned silence that is itself a statement.

Questions regarding the evil and suffering in the world - questions that lie beneath the surface of our existence, on the level of primal consciousness, from time immemorial - exist all the time; they arise at especially terrible times, such as now, following this disaster. We find ourselves torn between two tendencies. On the one hand, we certainly aspire to see God's hand in every event and in every phenomenon; the Chazon Ish expressed this by defining the trait of "trust" (bitachon) as the recognition that everything that happens is the direct intervention of Divine Providence. On the other hand, when such horrific, terrifying events take place, we find a tendency to dissociate God from the terrible suffering. These tendencies are mutually contradictory, and we find ourselves revisiting the question of the scope of Divine Providence and the dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to God's guidance of the nations of the world in general. When these questions arise, we find no easy, comfortable solutions. In this sense, shock is the basic reaction that we are meant to adopt.

I know that in extremely difficult times we are meant to acknowledge Divine justice (tzidduk ha-din), the first stage of which consists of declaring, "God gave and God has taken away; may God's Name be blessed." Recall, however, that while Iyov offered this acknowledgment of Divine justice after his own personal world collapsed, it is not a simple matter for people to perform tzidduk ha-din on someone else's tragedy, as we learn from Iyov's friends. To the extent that the personal distance between the speaker and the person who is suffering increases, so does the moral difficulty of justifying his fate and acknowledging Divine justice. The bottom line, then, is that such acknowledgment has its place, but it clearly is not a simple matter – neither philosophically nor emotionally. We are left, then, with shock and silence. We accept God's judgment, despite our incomprehension. One question, then – beyond the matter of presenting our words so as to make them as acceptable as possible – is whether to say anything at all.

There is another facet of this tragedy that also causes us to ask what we can say – and that is the human facet. Here, without any doubt, the scope of the tragedy carries weight. Some people have criticized the media's obsession with the exact number of victims, as if an exact calculation makes the tragedy finite and therefore easier to assimilate. Our world view teaches us that a person who saves a single Jewish soul is considered as though he saved a whole world; what does it matter, then, whether we are speaking of a single person or tens of thousands? The "whole world" that was destroyed exists even in a single individual. While there is, indeed, a certain truth in such valuation of the individual, we know that Chazal do also address the quantitative aspect. In decreeing fast days and the suchlike, there is a distinction between makkat yachid and makkat tzibbur, personal distress and communal distress; Halakha recognizes numbers and quantities even when speaking of human death. Halakha even includes the concept of makkat medina, a "country-wide plague" or pandemic – and this certainly applies to a disaster affecting many countries.

On the human level, it is difficult to grasp such a vast quantity of suffering. It is frightening to translate this communal suffering into the suffering of such a great number of individuals. Nevertheless, we feel an obligation to do so. Even when the mourning is mass-mourning, we must aspire to the same depth and meaning that we would accord to the mourning over an individual – although in such a sea of souls that have been washed away into oblivion this is very difficult.

What is appropriate, then, is a dual sense of shock. In terms of faith, there is the shock of humility, the message that prevents us from speaking nonsense. On the human level, we stand in shock faced with this collective suffering, as we struggle to address it and bring it down the individual level with which we can identify.

I am not certain that the problems I raised have an easy solution – or any solution at all – but we must try to point out certain general directions. The question is not only what we should say, but what we should do. On this level, our responses subdivide into actions with practical effects and actions with emotional effects.

The practical response refers to the simplest, most elementary level of chesed, performing acts of kindness and charity. Yet in addition to direct aid, there is another type of action that is necessary for its attitudinal significance. At the beginning of the Intifada, I was in the U.S. and people asked me what they could do to help Israelis in their difficult situation – could they give tzeddaka or help otherwise. I told them that the first step is simple. The Gemara (Ta'anit 11b) teaches,

"At a time when the Jews are in trouble, and one of them separates himself from the community, two angels arrive and place their hands on his head and declare, 'So-and-so, who separated himself from the community, shall not participate in the community's consolation.'"

Chazal regard such a situation, where a person does not participate in communal distress, as a most severe manifestation of egotism. The Gemara presents Moshe Rabbeinu as a foil to those who dissociate themselves from the community's distress. When the Israelites fought Amalek in the desert, Moshe sat on a rock, instead of on a chair or cushion:

"Moshe said, 'Since Israel is suffering, I too am with them in suffering.' And whoever makes himself suffer with the community, will merit to experience the community's consolation."

Whether Moshe sits on a rock or on a sofa makes no difference at all to those who are waging the war against Amalek; nevertheless, Moshe would never think of not identifying with the nation in its time of trouble, in the midst of war.

We may add that, on a certain level, this identification may actually help. It helps the person who identifies, in terms of his moral level, and it also helps the person with whose suffering one identifies. When a person is suffering, he wants to know that someone cares. Perhaps on the material level, the sympathy and identification of others does nothing to improve the situation; however, psychologically, such identification means a great deal.

Chazal teach us that sometimes it is important to perform even small acts in order to ensure that certain things will remain in our consciousness. Concerning our memorializing the destruction of the Temple, they teach (Bava Batra 60b) that anyone who prepares a meal for guests should leave out a little, in memory of the destruction – just a little. In a different context, the Shulchan Arukh (OC 575:7) rules that during a time of severe drought, one should lessen his engagement in business, building for pleasure, and sexual relations (if he has already fulfilled the mitzva of procreation). We must ask ourselves to what extent things that happen in the world affect our lives and our emotions. If the situation were reversed, would we not wonder why the world was indifferent?

I spoke of two levels of action: practical action, in the form of charity and acts of kindness, and actions that concretize and externalize our feelings. Will all this help mitigate the tragedy? We cannot know. In any event, we must concern ourselves not only with practical success and tangible results, but also with inner emotions, with the development of human sensitivity.

In that sense, we are now faced with personal and communal challenges. The philosophical and religious difficulties are present, and there is no point in denying them, but we are believers and descendants of believers. With great humility, even when our comprehension is lacking, we must regard ourselves, even at difficult times, as being able to cope psychologically, and also practically (to some extent). We must aspire at least to attain a level where we will have human sensitivity, on a universal level, to the death of such a great number of people. To an extent, our sensitivity and sympathy are necessary to aid those who have suffered loss and injury, while they are also demanded of us as part of our service of God. These feelings are important not only for the sake of our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God, but also for the sake of our relationship with ourselves, namely, for developing our moral character and refining our religious personalities.


[This sicha was delivered on 21 Tevet 5765 (Jan. 2, 2005). This adaptation was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein zt"l.]

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!