Monday, January 18, 2010

The Fine Line: Faith and the Tragedy in Haiti

About a week after a major tragedy - often a natural disaster, a rather predictable cycle ensues.
  1. The tragedy occurs
  2. Some theological spokesman makes a questionable pronouncement about Divine wrath and the reason for the tragedy
  3. One or many secular columnists latch on to the pronouncement, pouncing on it with religious fervor, negating any possibility of the connection of the Divine to said events.
This week, we've watched the cycle unfold:

Step 1: Earthquake in Haiti. Terrible Suffering
Step 2: Pat Robertson became the "first responder," saying that after the Haitians made a pact to worship the Devil two hundred years ago, they've suffered terribly ever since. Not such a smart thing to say on national TV. (Or maybe it is. I don't have my own TV network. Pat knows his viewers.)
Step 3: Self-described atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of most recently, "God is Not Great", wrote a scathing, sarcastic, biting piece in Slate magazine essentially describing Pat Robertson as a moron, as well as anyone else who might believe that God has anything to do with earthquakes.
The Earth's thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods "why" such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.
However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations? They want the gods to be blamed.
He writes well - and convincingly.
But then I wonder: what's a believing person to think? Sure, Hitchens can bask in his atheism and proclaim: these things just happen. There's no reason. That's life. It stinks.
But I don't agree with in any of those statements. I believe in an infinite, Almighty, all-compassionate God, who maintains a constant and unending watch over the entire world. I also read the Torah, and believe that its timeless lessons apply no less today than they did when conveyed thousands of years ago.

I find it somewhat striking that this terrible devastation occurred precisely as reading about the terrible plagues that God brought upon the people of Egypt. When reading the Torah, the makkot get pretty harsh. They not only bother, annoy and disturb. They kill, maim and destroy, ultimately resulting in the deaths of thousands of Egyptian first-born, be they elderly adults or newborn infants. In an instant every single one of them was dead.
Sounds familiar.
At some point it starts to feel excessive. It stopped being about letting the Jews go. After all, if the Pharaoh wants to free the slaves, why then would God "harden his heart" only to slam him and his people once again. The Torah clearly spells out the reason for these continued plagues:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ
And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Go in unto Pharaoh; for I 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)
Commenting on this first verse Ramban explains:
הודיע הקב"ה למשה שהוא הכביד את לבם עתה אחרי שפחדו ממנו בברד והתודו על עונם. ואמר לו הטעם כי עשיתי כן, למען שאשית בקרבם אלה האותות אשר אני חפץ לעשות בהם שידעו מצרים את גבורתי, לא שאעניש אותם יותר מפני הכובד הזה
God informed Moshe that he hardened their hearts now, after they already feared Him from the hail and confessed 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 wish to do to them, so that they will know My might, and not so that I punish them any more due to their own stubbornness.
According to Ramban God inflicted the last few plagues - the most difficult, devastating plagues - in order to demonstrate His might not only to the Jewish people, but to the world.

Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch writes (see Orach Chayim 227),
על הזיקים, והוא כמין כוכב (א) היורה כחץ באורך השמים (ב) ממקום למקום ונמשך אורו כשבט; ועל רעדת הארץ; ועל (ג) [א] הברקים; ועל הרעמים; ועל רוחות (ד) שנשבו א בזעף, (ה) על כל א' מאלו, אומר: בא"י אמ"ה עושה מעשה בראשית; (ו) ואם ירצה יאמר: (ז) בא"י אמ"ה <א> שכחו וגבורתו מלא עולם.
[If one sees a] constellation - which is a kind of star shooting like an arrow across the breadth of the sky from place to place, and its light stretches like a staff; and on the shaking of the earth; and on lightening; and on thunder; and on winds that blow with great power - on any one of these one should recite [the blessing] "Blessed are you God, our God the King of the world, who performs acts of creation." And if he wishes he should say, "Blessed are you God, our God the King of the world, whose power and might fill the world."
I can just imagine Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate Magazine back in Egypt - except back then they would have called it "Papyrus.com". Plagues happen. Hail happens. Firstborn die. God didn't do this. Moses didn't do this.
But imagine that God wanted to make the world aware of His presence through natural means. What could He do? A Hurricane? Did that. Tsunami? Same. Earthquake? Ditto. And each and every time, the world looks on and says: "There is no God. These things just happen. What did the little children do? Why would God want to punish them?" Yet, this attitude always presupposes the notion that we understand how and why God operates and can therefore negate the possibility that He would perpetrate such an act.
I don't make any such claims. Nor do I know the reason why the earthquake took place in Haiti specifically, nor why Haitians bore the brunt of this tragedy.
But I emphatically believe that God did perpetrate this earthquake - as He does so many major and minor events that transpires in the world, from the ones we struggle with, like the earthquakes and illnesses and tragedies; but also the ones that we accept and take for granted: the births and accomplishments; the triumphs and successes. God's "fingerprints" mark every event, whether we look for them or not; whether we can see them or not.
Because claiming that earthquakes just happen and that their victims suffer meaninglessly seems to me to be the cruelest attitude of all.