I received the following sentiment relating hurricane Katrina to the Gaza evacuees, claiming some hand of God was present in both: “There are SO many similarities between the two events (Gaza and Katrina), and for them to occur within days of one another, should not be dismissed as a coincidence. Frankly, I think it’s shortsighted to relegate this to a mystery that we aren’t supposed to try to fathom.”
I will share my arguments against this view. “Lo machshavosay machshavosaychem”, “Your thoughts are not My thoughts”. (Isaiah, 55:8) God tells us via His prophet Isaiah that we can, in no way, know His thoughts. Therefore it is futile and arrogant to suggest what is God’s direct will. Additionally, I do not understand how someone can suggest that human free will – the true precipitant of the homeless and jobless Gaza evacuees – is God’s Divine intervention. God does not tamper with man’s free will, not even in the case of Pharaoh, as stated by the Rabbis. God unconditionally grants man free will to select evil or good. However, God will – in extreme cases – remove a single aspect of free will: the ability to ‘repent’. This was the case regarding Pharaoh. The Torah says this openly, (Deut. 30:15, 19) “See, I place before you today, life and good, death an evil...and choose life.” Moses tells the people that they may choose between good and evil. This is the area where man is always in control, Jew and gentile alike, Pharaoh included. But in the area of repentance, if man already freely selected evil, and corrupts himself so grievously, God may prevent his repentance, “so he may die and expire in the sin that he did.” (Maimonides) God gives man free will to do good and evil, and never removes this freedom. It is one of Maimonides 13 Fundamentals of Judaism that reward and punishment exists, and are meted out solely due to our decisions with no coercion. In one decision alone, God does compromise man’s decision: the area of repentance. However, restricting Pharaoh from repenting does not equate to God causing him sin. Pharaoh sinned of his own free will as Maimonides stresses eight times in his Mishneh Torah. (Laws of Repentance, chap. 6)
When Esav sought to kill Jacob, Jacob did not say this was God’s will. When Samuel was commanded by God to anoint a new king to replace Saul, he said to God, “Saul will hear and kill me!” Would anyone today feel – if sent on a mission by God – that he would require any protection, as Samuel felt? Surely, we would all feel that God’s mission stands as an impregnable barricade from any onslaught! Why did Samuel feel vulnerable? It is because his outlook was the proper one; where all is in man’s hands and in accordance with nature, unless proven otherwise. And even when commissioned by God, Samuel did not feel this shielded him from normal considerations, like the usurped, vengeful King Saul seeking his life for betraying him. However, Samuel acted properly. Now, if Samuel, “on a mission from God”, did not feel Divinely incubated from harm, how much more must we not view events as Divine?
The Egyptian plagues were intended as Divine lessons. But how did God insure that Egypt would view these natural events distinct from others, so as to fear Him? It was precisely Moses’ perfectly-timed forecast that distinguished them. When the devastation came at the predicted moment, the events were validated as God’s warnings. Without such predictions or miraculous phenomena, man should rightfully chalk up all events to natural law, and not God’s direct will, targeting selected victims. Thus, God only admonishes Egypt – and mankind – with overt suspensions of natural law, not with normative law. God desires that miracles alone – not nature – be viewed as Divine lessons, by definition. This means that God does not wish man to view “natural events” as His warnings. Nature should be viewed as examples of His wisdom, and not His punishments. God desired that Egypt and other recipients of His wrath respond to miracles with repentance towards Him. God has always worked this way, and always will, “I am God, I do not change”. (Malachi 3:6)
Not only are the Egyptian Plagues God’s punishments, but we also subsume under the heading of “Divine intervention” all Torah instances that follow this design of either, A) miraculous or B) predicted events. Thus, Noah’s Flood, the destruction of Babel, the parting of the Red Sea, Sinai, the Earth swallowing Korach, the sun and moon standing still, the Channukah lights, and all such cases identified by the Torah, are clearly Divine. Additionally, as a Rabbi once mentioned, anything that affects the Jewish nation as a whole, is from God. Therefore, the destruction of the two Temples, and our salvation from Haman’s annihilation are also viewed as Divine. Conversely, we view all natural phenomena, with no predicted arrival, or recorded by Torah, as simply nature at work with no “intended” victims.
If God wishes us to view natural disasters as His warnings, He would not have used miracles, nor would He have ever sent a single prophet. We learn that it is precisely in response to miracles – and not nature – that God desires man to react with introspection. If we trace any hurricane or tsunami back in time, we will find normal causes that happen around the clock, no different than the causes at work when rain falls. Therefore, we do not view as Divine punishment, a rain shower that causes deadly mudslides. For that rain shower might have been over the Pacific Ocean, in which case it is of no consequence. That very same phenomenon causes mudslides in some cases.
I feel it is the myopia, arrogance and insecurity of those seeking Divinity in everything, which produces the overestimation and “Divine Message” syndrome concerning current cataclysms. Had we the range of millennia before our mind’s eye, and the true understanding of Torah, we would not view all disasters as God’s will, but simply, “nature”. Those who claim Katrina and Gaza as God’s will, are inconsistent, and would not suggest all tsunamis and social upheavals throughout time were Divinely timed and programmed. I say myopia, for our society sees only as far as their own, personal life spans: “our generation is more real than previous generations” people think. I say arrogance, as man feels he knows God’s mind by making such claims of Divine, natural messages. And I say insecurity, since man cannot live without feeling God is making every move on Earth. Man possesses an emotion to revert to the dependent state of infancy. This is part of us all, but clearly seen in the servant who refuses to leave his master, the “Eved Ivri”. This servant must have his ear bored to remind him what he heard God say at Sinai, “You are My servants, and not servants to man”. God disapproves of his infantile dependency.
We must ask: would God engage phenomena, which may be misinterpreted, when His intent is that man learns an unambiguous lesson? Of course not. If God wishes us to know something, He enables our minds to fully grasp the idea with no confusion in His message. God says, unequivocally, that any prophet claiming to have God’s word is validated only when “every one” of his predictions transpires, with 100% exactitude. If even one, minute detail fails to come about, that “prophet” must be killed. God clearly provides His prophets with absolute proof that they possess His word. God makes it clear when He has sent a message: He either has the prophet refer to violated, Torah commands, clearly proven by Sinai’s truth. Or, God sends miracles or predicted phenomena. The true prophet bears God’s message via unnatural phenomena, or by perfectly forecasted events, which is also impossible for any man to predict. Thus, in either case, if we use our minds, we detect God’s hand at work. But with the absence of miracles or forecasts, what we witness is nature, and not God targeting victims.
We now have the formula: natural events are not God’s messages, but are merely God’s normative laws at work. Hurricanes and tsunamis are as natural as drops of rain.
One last idea struck me that appears to parallel this idea, that God’s makes Himself known either through overt miracles, or predicted events.
When Moses approached Pharaoh throughout the Plagues, he followed God’s directive. There were three sets of three plagues each:
[Set I] A. Blood, B. Frogs, C. Lice;
[Set II] A. Wild Beasts, B. Animal Deaths, C. Boils;
[Set III] A. Hail, B. Locusts, C. Darkness.
(“Firstborns” was a separate plague).
In each set, “A” required Moses’ warning of Pharaoh at the Nile at “morning time”, “B” required Moses to warn him to “come” before Pharaoh in his palace, and “C” came without warning. What is God’s plan in this design?
God desired the plagues to arrive, either with warnings, i.e., “predictions” (the first two in each set) or, He delivered the third plague of each set, unannounced. Perhaps, these two methods were used, precisely for the reason we have stated: God wished to provide undeniable proof of His existence and control over the universe. To do so, He manifested His control with either miraculous feats, or at predicted moments. Such miracles and predictions cannot be explained away by nature. God used, and continues to use these two modes of evidence of His will. And when these two modes are absent, man has no right to suggest an event is God’s will, targeting some people or region. As Rabbi Reuven Mann mentioned, it is cruel for one to accuse the victims of Katrina of deserving God’s punishment. What about the six million in Europe? Why not accuse your own first? Furthermore, when God destroyed Sodom, He said, “let us go down and investigate if they deserve destruction.” Meaning, God needs no investigation, He knows all. But He meant to teach that investigation is warranted before punishing man. Where has anyone made any semblance of investigation before suggesting Katrina’s victims were deserving of death?
Additionally, we might ask why God required Moses’ prediction in two out of the three plagues in each set. Why not simply compose two miracles in each set, one with a prediction, and one without? I suggest, that prediction carries with it the chance that Pharaoh might feel chance was at play, and Moses was just lucky. But to predict accurately twice, makes Pharaoh think twice. Therefore, God requested that Moses offer two examples of predicted events. (Moses too used time as an indication that the frogs came and left only due to God’s intervention. Moses asked Pharaoh, “When shall the frogs leave?” Exod. 8:5) However, the third plague in each set required no prediction, as those embodied the other manner that God proves His powers: they were inexplicable as natural. As proof, we read the following in connection with the third plague of each set: “it (lice) is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:15); “And the astrologers could not stand before Moses due to the boils…” (Exod. 9:11); “And God gave grace to the Jews in Egypt’s eyes, also the man Moses was exceedingly great in the land of Egypt; in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the Egyptian people.” (Exod. 11:3) This last verse was after the plague of Darkness, when the Egyptians favored the Jews and Moses.
In all three cases, the Egyptians are described as recognizing God or Moses, even without a predicted arrival of that plague. Therefore, we learn that God either predicts a plague via Moses’ warning, or constructs a plague where it is perceived as clear proof or validation of God’s “finger”, His servant or His favoring the Jew, respectively.