The recent tsunami has already claimed the lives of over 116,000 people from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Maldives, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Somalia, Kenya, and Seychelles. When disasters of such magnitude strike, many wonder if this was an act of God, or was it nature. And if it was nature, how could God allow so many to perish. Many wonder how so many innocent lives could be forfeited, and question the justice of the Creator. As is the case in all matters, if we wish to arrive at an accurate understanding of the reality of the world in which we live, and how the Creator relates to mankind, we must consult God’s own words, His Torah, and the words of the Rabbis. We must not rely on knee-jerk emotions, and ignorance.
God’s revelation at Sinai was the only time in history at which God revealed Himself to masses, making this event the exclusive validation of the only words spoken by God, and transmitted in writing to the mankind. The Rabbis of the Talmud possessed the oral transmissions received by Moses, passed on throughout the generations. What do the Torah and the Rabbis say about such events?
God is Not the Creator of Evil
“The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalms, cxlv. 9).
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. X
“It cannot be said of God, that He directly creates evil, or He has the direct intention to produce evil: this is impossible. His works are all perfectly good. He only produces existence, and all existence is good: whilst evils are of a negative character, and cannot be acted upon. Evil can only he attributed to Him in the way we have mentioned. He creates evil only in so far as He produces the corporeal element such as it actually is: it is always connected with negatives, and is on that account the source of all destruction and all evil. Those beings that do not possess this corporeal element are not subject to destruction or evil: consequently the true work of God is all good, since it is existence. The book, which enlightened the darkness of the world, says therefore, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Even the existence of this corporeal element, low as it in reality is, because it is the source of death and all evils, is likewise good for the permanence of the Universe and the continuation of the order of things, so that one thing departs and the other succeeds. Rabbi Meir therefore explains the words, “and behold it was very good” (tob me’od): that even death was good in accordance with what we have observed in this chapter. Remember what I said in this chapter, consider it, and you will understand all that the prophets and our Sages remarked about the perfect goodness of all the direct works of God. In Bereshit Rabba (Chap.1) the same idea is expressed thus: “No evil comes down from above.”
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. XII
“The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently. Thus the true kindness, and beneficence, and goodness of God is clear. He who thinks that he can have flesh and bones without being subject to any external influence, or any of the accidents of matter, unconsciously wishes to reconcile two opposites, viz., to be at the same time subject and not subject to change. If man were never subject to change there could be no generation: there would be one single being, but no individuals forming a species. Galen, in the third section of his book, The Use of the Limbs, says correctly that it would be in vain to expect to see living beings formed of the blood of menstruous women and the semen virile, who will not die, will never feel pain, or will move perpetually, or will shine like the sun. This dictum of Galen is part of the following more general proposition: Whatever is formed of any matter receives the most perfect form possible in that species of matter: in each individual case the defects are in accordance with the defects of that individual matter. The best and most perfect being that can be formed of the blood and the semen is the species of man, for as far as man’s nature is known, he is living, reasonable, and mortal. It is therefore impossible that man should be free from this species of evil. You will, nevertheless, find that the evils of the above kind which befall man are very few and rare: for you find countries that have not been flooded or burned for thousands of years: there are thousands of men in perfect health, deformed individuals are a strange and exceptional occurrence, or say few in number if you object to the term exceptional -- they are not one-hundredth, not even one-thousandth part of those that are perfectly normal.”
Maimonides describes the inherent frailties of physical creation. Even calamities are at times the work of creation, and are necessary for the sustenance of the world as a whole. This is God’s plan. He knew calamity would strike at times, but nonetheless, created the world and mankind. However, these calamities are few and far in number. Examining generations, and not single events, we find that the world operates in a manner which sustains life, not destroying it. Due to the need for rain, and Earth’s topography so that this very rain may travel to distant reaches, at times, mudslides may engulf homes. People will die in large numbers. But these are few cases when we look at the history of mankind. However, God also works with Divine Providence: He can spare those such as Noah and his family if God sees them as deserving, or if mankind’s only hope rests with them. Additionally, God’s considerations are far beyond man’s grasp. We can never know all that contributes to His decisions, and we can never know when an event was His providential decision.
Punishment of Mankind
I will list but a few Talmudic statements that may increase our knowledge – if we study them in depth – of God’s methods and reasons for punishing mankind. These may be singular reasons, or God may punish based on the presence of many of these.
Talmud Sabbath 139a
“All the punishments that come to the world do not come except because of the (evil) judges of the Jews.” (Based on Micha, 3:1)
Talmud Yevamaos 63a
“Punishment does not come to the world except because of Israel.” Rashi comments, “To fear the Jews, in order to return them to repentance.”
Talmud Succah 29a
“There is no nation that is punished, without their gods being smitten with them.” This teaches that the crime of other nations, who are smitten, is their religious fallacies.
Talmud Baba Kama 60a
“Punishment does not comes to the world except in a time when their are wicked people in the world.”
Talmud Baba Basra 8a
“Punishment comes to the world because of the unlearned Jews.”
Talmud Sanhedrin 102a
“Not a single punishment comes to the world which does not contain some small measure of the sin of the Golden Calf.” This indicates that punishment arrives due to idolatry. The Jews’ sin of the Golden Calf was an expression of their need to relate to God in some physical, idolatrous manner. This was generated from their weak psychological needs, which apparently is rooted in all mankind.
Death of the Righteous
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. XVII
“We, however, believe that all these human affairs are managed with justice; far be it from God to do wrong, to punish any one unless the punishment is necessary and merited. It is distinctly stated in the Law, that all is done in accordance with justice; and the words of our Sages generally express the same idea. They clearly say: “There is no death without sin, no sufferings without transgression.” (B. T. Shabbath, 55a.) Again, “The deserts of man are meted out to him in the same measure which he himself employs.” (Mish. Sotah, i. 7.)”
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. XII
“The numerous evils to which individual persons are exposed are due to the defects existing in the persons themselves. We complain and seek relief from our own faults: we suffer from the evils which we, by our own free will, inflict on ourselves and ascribe them to God, who is far from being connected with them! Compare, “Is destruction His [work]? No. Ye [who call yourselves] wrongly His sons, you who are a perverse and crooked generation.” (Deut. xxxii. 5) This is explained by Solomon, who says, “The foolishness of man perverteth his way, and his heart fretteth against the Lord.” (Prov. xix. 3)
Talmud Baba Kama, 60a
“Once God gives permission to the destroyer, it does not distinguish between righteous (people) and the wicked. And furthermore, destruction commences with the righteous, as it says, “And I will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked” [Ezekiel, 21:9]. [The righteous are mentioned first]. Abaye said, this is a good to them, as it states, [Isaiah 57:1] “The righteous expires, and there is no man. Place [this] on [your] heart. And men of kindness are gathered [to death] and none understand: for due to evil is the righteous gathered.” God states He will kill the righteous, just prior to when God’s justice demands that He deliver punishment to the world. The righteous are killed to spare them the anguish of witnessing humankind’s disaster, not because they sinned. (Rashi, Radak) Rashi states that it is futile to think that the righteous should precede the wicked and be punished first.
Talmud Avodah Zara, 4a
“And I will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked.” [Ezekiel, 21:9]. This means that since these righteous ones had the ability to rebuke the sinners, but did not, they are not considered to be ‘wholly’ righteous.” Tosfos adds that this is applicable only when the sinners would have listened. But if the righteous people know that the sinners will not receive their rebuke, then the righteous are not at fault for remaining silent.
God’s Providence is Proportionate to Man’s Perfection
Maimonides writes that God’s providence extends to every member of mankind in proportion to his perfection. God created His world for man’s sole purpose of studying His works and following His ways: His works are creation, and His ways are openly described in His Bible, His Torah. Those who approach God earn God’s protection, while those distant from Him do not.
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. LI
“Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses.”
Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. XVIII
“For the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are “like unto the beasts” (Psalms, xlix. 21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind. This belief that God provides for every individual human being in accordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded.
Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, to their occupations, and even to their passions, and how God promised to direct His attention to them. Thus God said to Abraham, “I am thy shield” (Gen. xv. 1): to Isaac, “I will be with thee, and I will bless thee” (ibid. xxvi. 3); to Jacob, “I am with thee, and will keep thee” (ibid. xxviii. 15): to [Moses] the chief of the Prophets, “Certainly I will be with thee, and this shall be a token unto thee”(Exod. iii. 12): to Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I shall be with thee.” (Josh. i. 5) It is clear that in all these cases the action of Providence has been proportional to man’s perfection. The following verse describes how Providence protects good and pious men, and abandons fools; “He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness: for by strength shall no man prevail.” (I Sam. ii. 9)
When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in their physical constitution, “for by strength shall no man prevail”, but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and “He will keep the feet of his saints”; but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble. The protection of the pious by Providence is also expressed in the following passages: “He keepeth all his bones,” etc. (PS. xxxiv. 2 1): “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (ibid. ver. 16): “He shall call upon me and I shall answer him.” (ibid. xci. 15). There are in Scripture many more passages expressing the principle that men enjoy Divine protection in proportion to their perfection and piety. The philosophers have likewise discussed this subject. Abu-nasr, in the Introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nikomachean Ethics, says as follows: Those who possess the faculty of raising their souls from virtue to virtue obtain, according to Plato, Divine protection to a higher degree.
Now consider how by this method of reasoning we have arrived at the truth taught by the Prophets, that every person has his individual share of Divine Providence in proportion to his perfection. For philosophical research leads to this conclusion, if we assume, as has been mentioned above, that Divine Providence is in each case proportional to the person’s intellectual development. It is wrong to say that Divine Providence extends only to the species, and not to individual beings, as some of the philosophers teach. For only individual beings have real existence, and individual beings are endowed with Divine Intellect; Divine Providence acts, therefore, upon these individual beings.
Study this chapter as it ought to be studied; you will find in it all the fundamental principles of the Law; you will see that these are in conformity with philosophical speculation, and all difficulties will be removed; you will have a clear idea of Divine Providence.”
God is not the creator of evil, as God’s creations are positive entities, while all evil is the detraction of some positive. Additionally, the Torah teaches that all God’s ways are just. We derive proof of this from so many cases in the Torah; from God’s salvation of Noah and his family, from Daniel’s three friends, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, who God miraculously saved from the furnace, from God’s redemption of the Jews from Egypt through miracles, and from God’s kindness in granting man a Torah system to perfectly guide us to truth and happiness. All is within God’s control. As He stepped in and saved many righteous people in the past as our Torah teaches, He always functions in this manner. “I am God, I do not change”. (Malachi, 3:6) He can and will protect those who come close to him. But coming close to God, by definition, requires that an individual studies God’s words, and apply them in life.
God works with many methods, such as Divine providence: He kills the righteous to spare them pain; He saves the righteous when calamity befalls others; He afflicts the righteous and the world to help us achieve greater perfection; and He is far from those who do not know Him. God also works with the laws of nature: insuring the continued existence of the Earth and mankind. Natural laws at times will claim lives, and in the devastation of this tsunami, tens of thousands. We cannot say whether this event was God’s providence, or if natural laws set in place during creation resulted today in this event. We cannot say who in specific is worthy of God’s providence, and who is not, without facts. Only God knows this. What we can do is study as far as possible, what God has taught mankind through His Torah and His prophets. In place of going with our own feelings based on nothing other than our subjective, false ‘sense’ of justice, we must mature our thinking, studying the works and words of the Creator. We must feel fortunate to have them in our possession.
We will never obtain all the answers - only God knows all. However, through diligent study of His words, we can arrive at an ever-increasing knowledge of what God desires of mankind, and how God operates in His world. With this knowledge and perfection in our lives, we do not only benefit from the greatest life, one filled with an appreciation for God’s wisdom, but we will also enjoy God’s providence.
As we see from so many quotes, there is a great amount to learn before we may arrive at any conclusions. God’s knowledge is responsible for the universe, the knowledge of which scientists realize they are yet merely scratching at the surface. How much more so are sciences like this, like God’s justice, which is intangible, and greatly abstract?
As the Rabbis of the Talmud teach, we must examine our ways and repent from our wrongdoings, cleaving to God’s knowledge, and assisting others through acts of kindness, with teaching as the greatest kindness one can perform. But to teach, one must learn.
Job suffered due to his lack of knowledge. It was only after he realized his errors, that God removed all his pain and tragedies, and improved his situation. What are our errors? Are we those who do not give charity, or not the prescribed amount of 20%? Do we commiserate with the poor? Are we unethical in business? Are we involved in illicit, sexual relations? Do we speak poorly of others? Are we unlearned, and refrain from engaging in Torah study? Do we abstain from helping others because of inconvenience? Do we not pray every day? Are we leaders who do not instruct our people accurately and constantly?
This tragedy should point us towards God’s Torah, His only system for all of mankind, and the Rabbis’ words. Only through study, will we arrive at what is truth: what God commands, “for our own good” as Moses taught. For these reasons, God created mankind. And once we know these reasons, we must teach others. We must not let our subjective desires override the actions and thoughts God wishes for us.
The Torah is for both Jew and gentile. There is a set of commands obligatory upon each of us. The time to follow them is long overdue.