It’s been quite a week. On top of Hurricane Harvey, the world was introduced to Irma and Katia, to say nothing of an earthquake in Mexico. For good measure, a number of tornados landed and wreaked their havoc, causing thousands to flee their homes, cities and states. In much of the sun-kissed south, floods, dangerous high winds and even alligators appeared in terrified people’s homes and pools. For a while, the world seemed to be combining the ancient flood and many of the makkos that afflicted Paroh and his nation 3,000 years ago.
A popular diagram of the path of Hurricane Irma looked suspiciously like a shofar, suddenly wrenching all of us back to the month of Elul and our mandate to change our ways. Many people, Jews and gentiles, thought that there was a message in all these natural disasters coming together in so short a period of time. Atheists and agnostics spoke of the wrath of Mother Nature, an anthropomorphism coined to hide from the Creator. Religious people, however, realized that these phenomena could only be attributed to an omnipotent G-d Who was indeed telling us something.
But what were these deadly dispatches from heaven saying to us in their wet and windy primordial language? Surely, the places hit were not the Sedom and Amoras of our contemporary world. To be sure, everyone would agree that there are more evil places on earth than Texas and Florida.
Let us read a bit between the lines of the broken lives and homes, the displaced families and animals, and see if we can make a bit of sense of it all.
To seek wisdom, it pays to go to the best. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men, taught that “G-d has acted so that [man] should stand in awe of him” (Koheles 3:14). In simpler terms, even if it is a bad translation, this posuk means that Hashem periodically does things to scare us.
Rashi gives a number of examples, including the days immediately preceding the Mabul, the Great Flood. For seven days, the sun rose in the west and set in the east, so that mankind would realize that they had done something horribly wrong and needed to change to avoid wholesale destruction. Let us imagine people waking up in the morning, yawning and looking for the usual morning sun outside their east window. When they could not find it, they probably thought at first that it was a cloudy day. However, when they realized that it was, in fact, a beautiful morning, they began to get extremely nervous. “What is happening here?” they undoubtedly thought. Then it suddenly hit them that everything had changed. The sun was indeed rising, but it was coming up from the wrong direction. Did they blame it on global warming or some colossal misunderstanding? Apparently, since the Flood came anyway, they did not change sufficiently, and so the world was destroyed and forever changed.
Is anything different today? On the one hand, there does seem to have been some theological reaction to these cosmic events. The New York Times (Sunday, September 10, 2017, page 1) reported that “hobbled and humbled, Texans assemble to pray and rebuild.” Those who came to pray asserted that “nothing that had happened…had shaken their faith. In fact, to a person, they said the flood and its aftermath had strengthened it.” Many spoke of “G-d’s plan,” even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. They spoke of bad things happening to good people and grappled with ancient questions. But at least they seemed to access the storms to connect a bit closer to the Creator.
On the other hand, some reacted to religious talk of any kind with anger and derision. Kirk Cameron, an evangelical Christian, spoke on Facebook of “G-d’s immense power, and when He puts this power on display, it’s never without reason.” He concluded with thoughts of “awe and repentance,” not blaming or denigrating anyone and was vilified for the thought. He was called an idiot, twisted and a supporter of terrorism. Some even wanted to “punch [him] in the mouth” (Newsday, September 11, 2017, page A18). Clearly, it is not always popular to actually attribute natural events to the One Who causes them.
Let us return to our own sources and teachings. The Gemara (Shabbos 31b), citing the posuk in Koheles above, teaches that “the entire purpose of creation is that mankind should fear the L-rd.” Koheles only states that Hashem occasionally causes people to express their awe of His power. But the Gemara clearly states that this is a constant purpose in the universe.
In fact, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi (Birchas Mordechai, Yisro, page 382) notes that throughout Mattan Torah, we find that Hashem was frightening us with seemingly tangential sounds and sights. What was the need for all this when we were receiving the Torah? He quotes pesukim (Shemos 20:17 and Devorim 4:10) that prove that the terrifying nature of Mattan Torah changed us as a nation forevermore. He analogizes this to the Gemara (Brachos 9a), which teaches that Hashem only created thunder to straighten out the crookedness in our hearts.” Clearly, the moment for which all of which creation waited, the giving of the Torah, had to be coupled with yiras Hashem, because this was for our best and is appropriate for mankind.
But we still wonder: Why must we periodically go through such trauma? Why, indeed, is it in our best interests?
The Satmar Rov zt”l (Divrei Yoel, Bereishis, page 17) gives an extraordinary answer that is always important but especially during Elul and when we are experiencing all the terrifying phenomena we have been describing. He quotes a verse in Tehillim (76:9): “From heaven You made judgment heard; the earth feared and subsided (shukuta).” The rov, like a number of Chassidic giants before him, explains that it is for our benefit that we are frightened, since when we repent and grow from the experience. The result is sheket, tranquility and serenity. The true purpose, therefore, of all these phenomena is to avoid extended tragedy by inspiring us to think deeply about our lives and the direction we have been going.
As the Netziv (see Devar Ha’emek, page 99) explains, “We cannot comprehend the purpose of each miracle G-d performs.” He refers to the phrase “chukos shomayim va’aretz – the statutes of heaven and earth” as the storms and other powerful “natural” events that kill and displace many people. Yet, while we do not understand the reasons for any individual’s suffering, for that is a chok, we do know that in totality, it is to draw us closer to a proper relationship with Hashem. The Satmar Rov cites many places where our fears saved us from infinitely worse, since we accepted His chastisement and rebuke in the proper humble frame of mind.
Let us therefore utilize these events for what they have been designated. If we do teshuvah as we should, approach the Yomim Noraim properly chastened and humbled, we can achieve that for which we are all hoping: a safe, happy, healthy and successful new year, through the profound realization that we are always in His hands and He always wants what is best for us.