Why do bad hurricanes and earthquakes happen to good people? And if we believe that G-d rewards good people, why does he punish them with such disasters?
Rabbi Yekutiel Halbershtam, of blessed memory (1905-1994), who lost his wife and all eleven of their children in the Holocaust, was asked a similar question. His response was moving:
“I too have many, many questions for G-d,” he once revealed to his students. “And I know that G-d would be glad to invite me to the heavens and give me the answers to all of the questions I have. But I prefer to stay here on earth with my questions, then to die, and go up to the heavens, to receive the answers.”
Indeed, tragedies are, almost always, inexplicable, in the realms of human understanding. Sometimes, G-d is super-rational. And, sometimes, our finite minds will never be able to comprehend the ferocious disasters conducted by the infinite Creator of the heaven and the earth.
Therefore, it would behoove us to replace the unanswerable question of “why” with the challenging questions of “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this.”
These questions are diametrically opposed. Asking “why” to a question that cannot be grasped, leads to passivity and despair (even if some fools claim to know the answers to these impossible questions). Yet, asking, “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this” propels us to take positive action, and provide direction to a world that seems to have lost it.
And so, first and foremost, we should respond to the first question, with prayers, and yes, even protests, to our heavenly Father. In the words of King David in the book of Psalms (chapter 44): “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not abandon us forever!” G-d may have His way, but if He considers us as “partners in bettering this world,” as the Talmud states, then He ought to take our stance into consideration too.
Second, here's a humble attempt to answer the question of “what can we learn from this,” with two vital lessons:
1. Where there is destruction, we must respond with construction
It is nothing short of inspiring to witness the outpouring of kindness each time such tragedies strike. The examples are endless: good samaritans providing shelter to strangers whose homes were wiped out; outside communities - including my own, Congregation Beth Tefillah, in Scottsdale, Arizona - sending packages with dry goods and medical supplies to communities within the disaster areas; and individuals going from home to home to lend a helping hand, an uplifting smile, and a comforting hug.
Indeed, when there is destruction we too must respond with construction. Where there is darkness, we must create light. When hurricanes of disasters attack us, we must respond with hurricanes of love. And we must not retreat until our world is repaired with our deeds of goodness.
2. Living a Life That Matters
Sadly, many lives have been lost in the recent hurricanes and in yesterday's earthquake. And when faced with death, we can easily fall into depression and despair. But we can also engage in a meaningful conversation with ourselves about life and living.
For when death rears its ugly head, and we are struck with the realization that life - with all of its material pursuits and possessions – is so vulnerable, we are then forced to ask ourselves:
“Am I living a life that matters, or am I wasting it on temporary activities and pleasures? Am I making the important - important, and the trivial - trivial? Am I devoting adequate time and effort to that which will live on forever: my soul, my family, and my values? And have I made a difference yet today in this world, and in someone's life, with acts of unconditional love and kindness to my loved ones and strangers alike?”
These are questions that no one can shy away from. And during these trying times, we must ask them, follow them, and answer them, with conviction and determination, until our world is rebuilt, healed, and redeemed.