Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Judgement upon Japan, and knowing the reasons for natural disasters

The gemara in Yevamos 79a categorizes the nation of Israel as rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chassadim. Thus:
This nation5  is distinguished by three characteristics: They are merciful, bashful and benevolent. 'Merciful', for is is written, And shew thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee.6  'Bashful', for it is written, That His fear may be before you.7  'Benevolent', for it is written, That he may command his children and his household etc.8 
Now, let us suppose that there is a natural disaster in some country that has not really done much harmful to Israel. There is a tsunami, and earthquake, and a nuclear meltdown. There is a death toll of about 25,000. What would you expect the reaction of a merciful people, rachmanim, to be?

  1. Feelings of sorrow and empathy to those who suffered
  2. Gleeful cackling that these are evil people who are getting the Divine justice the deserve
  3. Not (1) or (2), but still searching the deeds of the nation under the assumption that they must be sinners who are getting what they deserve
I would have expected (1). I have mostly seen what can be categorized as (2) or (3). People assume that my opposition to viewing these natural disasters as punishment for sin is a lack of faith on my part. In truth, though I think my position is theologically justified (as I've described elsewhere, and below), a good part of what compels me to oppose (3) is a distaste for the practical impact of these assumptions. While you are assuming they are getting their just desserts, you are blocked from feeling empathy.

This sort of assumption (in 3) leads to all sorts of dubious readings into why they deserve it. It was for joining with the Nazis way back in World War II. It was for hunting whales. It was for imprisoning yeshiva bachurim who only thought they were smuggling antiques into Japan, but who were really smuggling drugs. Never mind that these bachurim were not singled out for being Jews, and that this is typical of the rather strict justice system in Japan.

When we encounter troubles, we should seek out our deeds. Thus, the gemara in Brachos 5a:
Raba (some say, R. Hisda) says: If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him, let him examine his conduct. For it is said: Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord.21  If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable], let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. For it is said: Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest out of Thy law.22  If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause], let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. For it is said: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth.23
This is an instruction to the person who is himself suffering. Let him examine his own conduct. It is not an invitation to examine the conduct of others who are suffering, and to blame them for their suffering.

Consider the case of Iyov's friends. They saw him suffering, and falsely assumed that his suffering was the result of his sins. And as we read in the end of Iyov, the last perek:
ז  וַיְהִי, אַחַר דִּבֶּר ה אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה--אֶל אִיּוֹב; וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל אֱלִיפַז הַתֵּימָנִי, חָרָה אַפִּי בְךָ וּבִשְׁנֵי רֵעֶיךָ--כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכוֹנָה, כְּעַבְדִּי אִיּוֹב.7 And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: 'My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends; for ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right, as My servant Job hath. {S}

There are many reasons, even given by Chazal, for natural disasters in the world. Not all of them are punishment of the wicked. (I am pleased that I managed to convince someone of this recently; like this, one needs not blame the victim.)

This is besides the fact that it is entirely unjustified to take something which is part of derech hateva and blame the people for it. If there is a land which is filled with active volcanoes, surrounded with water, and lies on major fault lines, then based on the way that the world is constructed, one would expect tsunamis and earthquakes.

Thus, there are many storms at sea. This is derech hateva. The Rambam and the Ramban both say that if someone decides to go out to sea, they can be killed when a storm occurs and their ship sinks, and it is not a matter of sechar veOnesh. Because this danger on the sea is derech hateva, and who says that this individual's merit is sufficient that miracles must be performed to save him?

Someone pointed me a while back to a Rambam in hilchos taaniyot, perek 1, which can be kvetched to insist that every natural disaster, even ones which are clearly derech hateva, are not. Thus:
א מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה מִן הַתּוֹרָה, לִזְעֹק וּלְהָרִיעַ בַּחֲצוֹצְרוֹת עַל כָּל צָרָה שֶׁתָּבוֹא עַל הַצִּבּוּר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "עַל-הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם--וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם, בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת" (במדבר י,ט)--כְּלוֹמַר כָּל דָּבָר שֶׁיֵּצַר לָכֶם כְּגוֹן בַּצֹּרֶת וְדֶבֶר וְאַרְבֶּה וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן, זַעֲקוּ עֲלֵיהֶן וְהָרִיעוּ.
Consider the examples here. Famine, plague, locusts, and things like this. Chaos theory makes many of these things impossible to predict, precisely. And so, there can be years without famine and years without locusts in a place. And if it comes on the tzibbur, they should cry out.

This is not the same as living in the middle of a desert and discovering that you don't have water, and that nothing is growing. Or living in the middle of malaria-infested swampland, year after year, and people keep dying from mosquito bites. There is the possibility of not having the batzores, dever, arbeh, etcetera, but the tzara comes. (Indeed, contrast that with the people who lived in the plains of Sharon, where the earth was weak, it seems (based on some meforshim) due to many earthquakes, such that they needed to rebuild their homes twice every seven years, where the kohen gadol regularly prayed on Yom Kippur that their homes should not be their graves. See also where the Rambam discourages living in an urban environment, because of the natural impact to health.)

The Rambam continues that this is of the darkei hateshuva that people should regard this as punishment for their evil deeds:
ב וְדָבָר זֶה, דֶּרֶךְ מִדַּרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה הוּא: שֶׁבִּזְמָן שֶׁתָּבוֹא צָרָה וְיִזְעֲקוּ לָהּ וְיָרִיעוּ, יֵדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁבִּגְלַל מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם הָרָעִים הֵרַע לָהֶן--כַּכָּתוּב "עֲו‍ֹנוֹתֵיכֶם, הִטּוּ-אֵלֶּה" (ירמיהו ה,כה) לָכֶם, וְזֶה הוּא שֶׁיִּגְרֹם לָהֶם לְהָסִיר הַצָּרָה מֵעֲלֵיהֶם.
And the opposing position is to consider it just minhag haolam.
ג אֲבָל אִם לֹא יִזְעֲקוּ, וְלֹא יָרִיעוּ, אֵלָא יֹאמְרוּ דָּבָר זֶה מִמִּנְהַג הָעוֹלָם אֵרַע לָנוּ, וְצָרָה זוֹ נִקְרֹא נִקְרֵית--הֲרֵי זוֹ דֶּרֶךְ אַכְזָרִיּוּת, וְגוֹרֶמֶת לָהֶם לְהִדָּבֵק בְּמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם הָרָעִים, וְתוֹסִיף הַצָּרָה וְצָרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת: הוּא שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה, "וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי, בְּקֶרִי. וְהָלַכְתִּי עִמָּכֶם, בַּחֲמַת-קֶרִי" (ויקרא כו,כז-כח), כְּלוֹמַר כְּשֶׁאָבִיא עֲלֵיכֶם צָרָה, כְּדֵי שֶׁתָּשׁוּבוּ--אִם תֹּאמְרוּ שְׁהוּא קֶרִי, אוֹסִיף עֲלֵיכֶם חֲמַת אוֹתוֹ קֶרִי.
Yes, when something occurs, and people say that these things randomly happen, and it is just the way of the world, מִמִּנְהַג הָעוֹלָם, which אֵרַע לָנוּ, just happened to us -- contrast ארעי to קבע -- then this would be, according to the Rambam, דֶּרֶךְ אַכְזָרִיּוּת.

But, he is talking about the type of events in siman 1, where there is no guarantee that such a thing will happen. As such, it is a rational response to think of it as Divine Punishment, and it is a rational response, albeit possibly a rationalization, to think that it is a random chance occurrence. And the Rambam is telling us which one is appropriate to select.

This does NOT mean that if one understands plate tectonics, meaning the mechanisms of the actual derech hateva, which ensure regular earthquakes and tsunamis hundreds of times a year in a specific country; and indeed historically, even before World War II or before drug-smuggling yeshiva bachurim were arrested, such events have functioned with regularity; and it would be a great miracle, against the natural order, for such earthquakes to stop -- that the Rambam would declare these earthquakes to be outside the realm of derech hateva. And I would consider it a great kvetch to make the Rambam say otherwise. He is not here to defend himself, and clarify his remarks, of course.


yaak said...

I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly ask Mehilla for things I said to you throughout the year and years that may have hurt you in any way
בין בשוגג בין במזיד
בין בהקיץ בין בחלום
בין בגלגול זה ובין בגלגולים אחרים
I hope you realize that any mahloket I have with you is lesheim shamayim to defend what I consider the mesora and mean nothing against you personally. I sincerely apologize for some of the things I said that may have been misconstrued otherwise.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. and yes, of course. i know that those are indeed your motivations, lesheim shamayim.

a ketiva vachatima tovah,

Devorah said...

What you say is true, but it's also true that Hashem responds midda kneged midda... and if we can see that on a personal level (well i can, I can't speak for you).. then why can't we also see it on a global level?

joshwaxman said...

yes, that is also something that certainly goes into the overall equation.

this is an answer off the cuff, but:

a) where a navi tells us that this punishment is coming, and for x reason, then it is clear that it is Divine punishment, and Divine response.

b) ain mazal leyisrael, such that Israel is outside the realm of natural (for Chazal, astrological = natural) influence, such that this might be different for Israel vs. other nations.

c) there may well be a difference between things which are clearly part of the regular natural order (such as that it is dry in the desert, stormy at sea, earthquakey in Japan) and things which occur at odd times to nations.

d) finally, maybe we can see it on a personal level and on a national level, so long as it is introspection. our person; our nation. but when it is directed outwards, it is more problematic.

a while back, like a year or so ago, i had a running dispute with a commenter who insisted that autistics and down syndrome kids were that way not because they were such tzadikim, and gilgulim, and pure souls, but because their parents were great reshaim who had intercourse in talmudically frowned-upon ways. he had a gemara, and a tur, to back him up. he was wrong, factually, and i argued with him. but one could (and did) put forth this line of reasoning based on authentic, true, talmudic statements.

yet you, and yaak, and i, would never think to advance such a position. why not? i think for reasons similar to the ones at the top.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

Here's some interesting food for thought.


joshwaxman said...

i think i only agree with the first part of the statement from that article:

'Bull crap though it may be, a sample of bovine excrement provides incontrovertible proof.'

Devorah said...

Such a great line. I loved that article.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

יישר כח


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