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The Fine Line: Faith and the Tragedy in Haiti

Thoughts on Parshat Bo
By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Recruiting and Special Projects, Orot College of Education

A bout a week after a major tragedy - often a natural disaster, a

rather predictable cycle ensues:
1. The tragedy occurs
Commenting on this first verse Ramban explains:

‫הודיע הקב"ה למשה שהוא הכביד את לבם עתה אחרי שפחדו‬

2. Some theological spokesman makes a questionable ‫ למען‬,‫ ואמר לו הטעם כי עשיתי כן‬.‫ממנו בברד והתודו על עונם‬
pronouncement about Divine wrath and the reason for the ‫שאשית בקרבם אלה האותות אשר אני חפץ לעשות בהם שידעו‬
tragedy. ‫ לא שאעניש אותם יותר מפני הכובד הזה‬,‫מצרים את גבורתי‬
3. One or many secular columnists latch on to the God informed Moshe that he hardened their hearts now,
pronouncement, pouncing on it with religious fervor, negating after they already feared Him from the hail and confessed
any possibility of the connection of the Divine to said events. their sins. [God] said to [Moshe] that the reason that I did
this was so that I will place in their midst these signs that I
This week, we've watched this very cycle unfold as expected: wish to do to them, so that they will know My might, and
Step 1: Earthquake in Haiti. Terrible suffering. not so that I punish them any more due to their own
Step 2: Pat Robertson became the "first responder," saying that stubbornness.
after the Haitians made a pact to worship the Devil two hundred
years ago, they've suffered terribly ever since. Not such a smart According to Ramban God inflicted the last few plagues - the most
thing to say on national TV. (Or maybe it is. I don't have my own difficult, devastating plagues - in order to demonstrate His might
TV network. Pat knows his viewers.) not only to the Jewish people, but to the world.
Step 3: Self-described atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch writes (see Orach
most recently, "God is Not Great", wrote a scathing, sarcastic, Chayim 227),
biting piece in Slate magazine essentially describing Pat Robertson
as a fool, including anyone else who might believe that God has )‫ והוא כמין כוכב (א) היורה כחץ באורך השמים (ב‬,‫על הזיקים‬
anything to do with earthquakes. Hitchens wrote, ]‫ממקום למקום ונמשך אורו כשבט; ועל רעדת הארץ; ועל (ג) [א‬
‫ (ה) על‬,‫הברקים; ועל הרעמים; ועל רוחות (ד) שנשבו א בזעף‬
‫ בא"י אמ"ה עושה מעשה בראשית; (ו) ואם‬:‫ אומר‬,‫כל א' מאלו‬
The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of
.‫ (ז) בא"י אמ"ה <א< שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם‬:‫ירצה יאמר‬
years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be
[If one sees a] constellation - which is a kind of star
wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These
shooting like an arrow across the breadth of the sky from
geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause.
place to place, and its light stretches like a staff; and on
The believers should relax; no educated person is going to
the shaking of the earth; and on lightening; and on
ask their numerous gods "why" such disasters occur. A
thunder; and on winds that blow with great power - on
fault is not the same as a sin.
any one of these one should recite [the blessing] "Blessed
However, the believers can resist anything except
are you God, our God the King of the world, who performs
temptation. Where would they be if such important and
acts of creation." And if he wishes he should say, "Blessed
frightening things had natural and rational explanations?
are you God, our God the King of the world, whose power
They want the gods to be blamed.
and might fill the world".
He writes well - and convincingly.
I can just imagine Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate Magazine
But then I wonder: what's a believing person to think? Sure,
back in Egypt - except back then they would have called it
Hitchens can bask in his atheism and proclaim: these things just
"Papyrus.com". Plagues happen. Hail happens. Firstborn die. God
happen. There's no reason. That's life. It stinks.
didn't do this. Moses didn't do this.
But I don't agree with in any of those statements. I believe in an
But imagine that God wanted to make the world aware of His
infinite, Almighty, all-compassionate God, who maintains a
presence through natural means. What could He do? A Hurricane?
constant and unending watch over the entire world. I also read
Did that. Tsunami? Same. Earthquake? Ditto. And each and every
the Torah, and believe that its timeless lessons apply no less today
time, the world looks on and says: "There is no God. These things
than they did when conveyed thousands of years ago.
just happen. What did the little children do? Why would God want
I find it somewhat striking that this terrible devastation occurred
to punish them?" Yet, this attitude always presupposes the notion
precisely as reading about the terrible plagues that God brought
that we understand how and why God operates and can therefore
upon the people of Egypt. When reading the Torah, the makkot
negate the possibility that He would perpetrate such an act.
get pretty harsh. They not only bother, annoy and disturb. They
I don't make any such claims. Nor do I know the reason why the
kill, maim and destroy, ultimately resulting in the deaths of
earthquake took place in Haiti specifically, nor why Haitians bore
thousands of Egyptian first-born, be they elderly adults or
the brunt of this tragedy.
newborn infants. In an instant every single one of them was dead.
Sounds familiar.
But I emphatically believe that God did perpetrate this earthquake
At some point it starts to feel excessive. It stopped being about
- as He does so many major and minor events that transpires in
letting the Jews go. After all, if Par'oh wants to free the slaves,
the world, from the ones we struggle with, like the earthquakes
why then would God "harden his heart" only to slam Par'oh and
and illnesses and tragedies; but also the ones that we accept and
his people once again. The Torah clearly spells out the reason for
take for granted: the births and accomplishments; the triumphs
these continued plagues:
and successes. God's "fingerprints" mark every event, whether we
look for them or not; whether we can see them or not.
,‫לִּבֹו‬-‫ְתי ֶאת‬
ִּ ‫ְבד‬
ַ ‫אֲנִּי ִּהכ‬-‫ כִּי‬:‫ ַפרְעֹה‬-‫ בֹא ֶאל‬,‫מֹשה‬ ֶ -‫ַיֹאמר ה' ֶאל‬ֶ ‫ו‬
Because claiming that earthquakes just happen and that their
‫ ְב ִּקרְבֹו‬,‫אֹתֹתי ֵאלֶה‬
ַ ‫ש ִּתי‬
ִּ ‫ְמעַן‬
ַ ‫ ל‬,‫ֲבדָיו‬
ָ ‫לֵב ע‬-‫ְאת‬
victims suffer meaninglessly seems to me to be the cruelest
And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in unto Pharaoh; for I
attitude of all.
have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants,
that I might show these My signs in the midst of them;
(Shemot 10:1)