This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Numbers 25
|כה וַיָּ֣קָם מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ אֶל־דָּתָ֣ן וַאֲבִירָ֑ם וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ אַחֲרָ֖יו זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
כו וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר אֶל־הָעֵדָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר ס֣וּרוּ נָ֡א מֵעַל֩ אָהֳלֵ֨י הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָֽרְשָׁעִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאַֽל־תִּגְּע֖וּ בְּכָל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם פֶּן־תִּסָּפ֖וּ בְּכָל־חַטֹּאתָֽם׃
כז וַיֵּעָל֗וּ מֵעַ֧ל מִשְׁכַּן־קֹ֛רֶח דָּתָ֥ן וַאֲבִירָ֖ם מִסָּבִ֑יב וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם יָצְא֣וּ נִצָּבִ֗ים פֶּ֚תַח אָֽהֳלֵיהֶ֔ם וּנְשֵׁיהֶ֥ם וּבְנֵיהֶ֖ם וְטַפָּֽם׃
כח וַיֹּאמֶר֮ מֹשֶׁה֒ בְּזֹאת֙ תֵּֽדְע֔וּן כִּֽי־יְהוָ֣ה שְׁלָחַ֔נִי לַעֲשׂ֕וֹת אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַֽמַּעֲשִׂ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה כִּי־לֹ֖א מִלִּבִּֽי׃
כט אִם־כְּמ֤וֹת כָּל־הָֽאָדָם֙ יְמֻת֣וּן אֵ֔לֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת֙ כָּל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם יִפָּקֵ֖ד עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם לֹ֥א יְהוָ֖ה שְׁלָחָֽנִי׃
ל וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א יְהוָ֗ה וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃
לא וַיְהִי֙ כְּכַלֹּת֔וֹ לְדַבֵּ֕ר אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה וַתִּבָּקַ֥ע הָאֲדָמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּחְתֵּיהֶֽם׃
לב וַתִּפְתַּ֤ח הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלַ֥ע אֹתָ֖ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הָאָדָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לְקֹ֔רַח וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הָרֲכֽוּשׁ׃
לג וַיֵּ֨רְד֜וּ הֵ֣ם וְכָל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָהֶ֛ם חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וַתְּכַ֤ס עֲלֵיהֶם֙ הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיֹּאבְד֖וּ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הַקָּהָֽל׃
|25 Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, the elders of Israel following him.
26 He addressed the community, saying, “Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins.”
27 So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Now Dathan and Abiram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their little ones.
28 And Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was the LORD who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising:
29 if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the LORD who sent me.
30 But if the LORD brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the LORD.”
31 Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder,
32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.
33 They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.
- How does Moses frame the opening of the earth and the swallowing of Korah’s people? What fallacies might this perspective lead to?
2. Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers, ch. 5, Mishna 6
|עֲשָׂרָה דְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וּקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף צְבָת בִּצְבָת עֲשׂוּיָה:||Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Shabbat at twilight. And these are they: The mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach in Numbers 16:32]; and the mouth of the well [that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 21:17]; and the mouth of the donkey [that spoke to Bilaam in Numbers 22:28–30]; and the rainbow [that served as a covenant after the flood in Genesis 9:13]; and the manna [that God provided the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus 16:4–21]; and the staff [of Moshe]; and the shamir (the worm that helped build the Temple without metal tools); and the letters; and the writing; and the tablets [all of the latter three, of the Ten Commandments]. And some say, also the destructive spirits, and the burial place of Moshe, our teacher, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say, also the [first human-made] tongs, made with [Divine] tongs.|
- What is the Mishna’s purpose of grouping these ten things together? Are there any that seem that they don’t belong? Why are they included?
- Does this Mishna support the position that natural disasters are punishments from God or that natural disasters just happen? What would be a middle position between these two extremes?
3. Israel Lischitz, Tif’eret Yisrael, “Yachin”, s.v. “the mouth”
|להכי קאמר פי הארץ דר”ל ניתן כח בהארץ באותו מקום לפער פיה לבלוע עדת קרח, ולסתמו אח”כ, כחיה הפותחת פיה, וחוטפת וטורפת בכעס ובולעת שללה וחוזרת וסוגרת פיה. וכמ”ש ותכס עליהם הארץ והי’ זה רק לקדש שמו ית’ ולברר אמיתית תורת משה, מדכפרו בנבואות משרע”ה, וכמ”ש וידעתם כי נאצו וגו’ את ה’:||This is the reason it says “the mouth of the earth,” because power was given to the earth in that place to open it’s mouth wide to swallow the company of Korach and to close it afterwards, like an animal who opens its mouth, and snatches and tears in anger and swallows its prey and the returns and closes its mouth. As it says, “the earth closed over them”. And this was only to sanctify God’s name (May it be blessed). And to clarify the truth of the Torah of Moses, since they denied the prophesy of Moses our Teacher…|
- How would you characterize the Tif’eret Yisrael’s description of the earth opening its mouth? Natural? Miraculous? How does this suggest that the Tif’eret Yisrael would come down on the debate about punishment vs. natural occurrence above?
4. Isaiah 45
|ז יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי יְקוָק עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה׃
ח הַרְעִיפוּ שָׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וּשְׁחָקִים יִזְּלוּ־צֶדֶק תִּפְתַּח־אֶרֶץ וְיִפְרוּ־יֶשַׁע וּצְדָקָה תַצְמִיחַ יַחַד אֲנִי יְהוָה בְּרָאתִיו׃
ט הוֹי רָב אֶת־יֹצְרוֹ חֶרֶשׂ אֶת־חַרְשֵׂי אֲדָמָה הֲיֹאמַר חֹמֶר לְיֹצְרוֹ מַה־תַּעֲשֶׂה וּפָעָלְךָ אֵין־יָדַיִם לוֹ׃
י הוֹי אֹמֵר לְאָב מַה־תּוֹלִיד וּלְאִשָּׁה מַה־תְּחִילִין׃
יא כֹּה־אָמַר יְהוָה קְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיֹצְרוֹ הָאֹתִיּוֹת שְׁאָלוּנִי עַל־בָּנַי וְעַל־פֹּעַל יָדַי תְּצַוֻּנִי׃
יב אָנֹכִי עָשִׂיתִי אֶרֶץ וְאָדָם עָלֶיהָ בָרָאתִי אֲנִי יָדַי נָטוּ שָׁמַיִם וְכָל־צְבָאָם צִוֵּיתִי׃
|7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe— I the LORD do all these things.
8 Pour down, O skies, from above! Let the heavens rain down justice! Let the earth open up and triumph sprout, Yes, let vindication spring up: I the LORD have created it.
9 Shame on him who argues with his Maker, Though naught but a potsherd of earth! Shall the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing? Your work has no handles”?
10 Shame on him who asks his father, “What are you begetting?” Or a woman, “What are you bearing?”
11 Thus said the LORD, Israel’s Holy One and Maker: Will you question Me on the destiny of My children, Will you instruct Me about the work of My hands?
12 It was I who made the earth And created man upon it; My own hands stretched out the heavens, And I marshaled all their host.
- What kind of theology emerges from these verses? Does God control every act of nature or does nature exist independent of God? Are these the only possible readings?
- How do you phrase for yourself God’s relationship to natural disasters?
5. G.W. Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, Translated by E.M. Huggard, Open Court Publishing Company, Peru, IL, 1988
|8. Now this supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best. For as a lesser evil is a kind of good, even so a lesser good is a kind of evil if it stands in the way of a greater good; and there would be something to correct in the actions of God if it were possible to do better…so it may be said likewise in respect of perfect wisdom, which is no less orderly than mathematics, that if there were not the best (optimum) among all possible worlds, God would not have produced any. I call ‘World’ the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, as one Universe. And even though one should fill all times and all places, it still remains true that one might have filled them in innumerable ways, and that there is an infinitude of possible worlds among which God must needs have chosen the best, since he does nothing without acting in accordance with supreme reason.
- What is Leibniz’s explanation for natural disasters? What is the value judgement he associates with that explanation? Is this value judgement necessary? What does it add? How might it detract from Leibniz’s argument?
- What is left to do when a natural disaster strikes according to this argument? What action is demanded by this belief system?
6. Mishnah, Tractate Avodah Zara 4:7
|שאלו את הזקנים ברומי, אם אין רצונו בעבודה זרה, מפני מה אינו מבטלה. אמרו להן, אילו לדבר שאין לעולם צורך בו היו עובדין, היה מבטלו. הרי הם עובדין לחמה, וללבנה, ולכוכבים; יאבד עולמו, מפני השוטים. אמרו להן, אם כן, יאבד דבר שאין לעולם צורך בו, ויקיים דבר שצורך לעולם בו. אמרו להן, אף אנו מחזיקין ידי עובדיהן של אלו; ויאמרו, תדעון שהן אלוהות, שהרי אלו לא בטלו.||They asked the elders of Rome: If [Hashem] does not desire idolatry, why does He not destroy it[s objects]. They said to them: If only they were worshiping things which the world does not need, He would destroy them; but they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations–should the whole world be destroyed on account of the fools? They said to them: If so, let Him destroy those [idols] that the world does not need, and leave the ones that the world does need? They said to them: Then we would even be strengthening the faith of their worshipers, for they would say, “This is the proof they are gods for they were not destroyed.”|
7. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara 54
|הרי שגזל סאה של חטים [והלך] וזרעה בקרקע דין הוא שלא תצמח אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג והולך ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין
הרי שבא על אשת חבירו דין הוא שלא תתעבר אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג והולך ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין
|One who stole a seah of wheat and went and planted it in the earth. In justice, it should not sprout. However, the world continues according to custom and fools who sin will account for it in the future.
A man who sleeps with his comrade’s wife. In justice, she should not conceive. However, the world continues according to its custom and fools who sin will account for it in the future.
- What do these texts suggest about God’s intercession in nature? Is this true only in individual cases (a thief who plants their ill-gotten wheat) or even en masse?
- What problems does this theology solve? What problems does it create?
- How is this formulation different from Leibniz’s “best possible world” above? Do you identify with this more or less than with Leibniz’s argument?
8. David K. Chester, Natural Disasters and Christian Theology, 2009
|In the case of research on disasters, the dominant approach became the subject of trenchant criticism. Briefly, the dominant approach accepted that factors such as differences in systems of beliefs, material wealth, previous experience of hazardous events and psychological factors may be of importance in affecting human responses, it nevertheless emphasized the role of environmental extremes as the principal determinants of disasters. In contrast, by the final decades of the twentieth century greater weight was being placed on human vulnerability. It was argued cogently and with increasing force that most of the mortality and morbidity in disasters, especially in economically less developed countries, could be explained by factors such as poverty, deprivation, marginalization, lack of disaster preparedness and, in the case of earthquakes, by collapsing buildings constructed to inadequate or non-existent codes. For instance, in the twentieth century c.99% of volcano related deaths occurred in economically less developed countries, while examination of the impacts of earthquakes of similar magnitude showed a similar disparate pattern, with major 14 death tolls increasingly becoming the preserve of the world’s poor, whereas financial losses were the most striking feature of ‘rich’ countries. When financial impacts are expressed as percentages of national wealth – Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) – however, then the relative economic toll in ‘poor’ countries is far higher…
A second strand in post-Leibnitzian theodicy emphasises the immanence of God within human affairs. Terrence Tilley (1991), for instance, argues that the Leibnitzian approach is a means of reducing human responsibility for both natural and human-induced suffering because it focuses responsibility on God rather than people: on creator rather than creature. This line of argument may also be seen in the work of two highly influential writers. The Jesuit Raymund Schwager (1987), who shows how there is both a biblical and historical tendency within Christianity to make God the scapegoat for all manner of human failings; and Ted Steinberg (2000), a secular historian of the environment, who in reviewing disasters in the USA argues that the perception of such events as being caused by either a malign nature or by God are convenient devices for both commercial interests and institutions of government who can thereby evade responsibility for the poor, the racially disadvantaged and other marginalized groups within American society…
- What is the relationship between Dr. Chester’s argument here and Leibniz’s theory of “the best possible world”? Does Chester reject Leibniz entirely?
- What is left to do when a natural disaster strikes according to Dr. Chester’s argument? What action is demanded by this belief system? Does this make it preferable to other belief systems which demand less?
9. Mishnah, Masechet Ta’anit 3:4
|וְכֵן עִיר שֶׁיֶּשׁ בָּהּ דֶּבֶר אוֹ מַפֹּלֶת, אוֹתָהּ הָעִיר מִתְעַנָּה וּמַתְרַעַת, וְכָל סְבִיבוֹתֶיהָ מִתְעַנּוֹת וְלֹא מַתְרִיעוֹת. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר, מַתְרִיעוֹת וְלֹא מִתְעַנּוֹת.||And thus, when pestilence reigns in a city, or when the walls fall down, [the inhabitants of] such a city must fast, and sound an alarm: and those of the circumjacent places shall fast, but not sound. Rabbi Akivah says, “they are to sound, but not to fast.|
10. Rashi ad loc
|או מפולת – שחומותיה והבתים נופלין ברוח:||Or when the walls fall down – When their walls and houses fall in the wind.|
- What kind of theology is reflected in the Mishna here? What might be the difference between Rabbi Akiva’s position and the initial position? What is not taken into consideration in terms of the meaning of the walls falling down?
11. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 20b
|תנו רבנן מפולת שאמרו בריאות ולא רעועות שאינן ראויות ליפול ולא הראויות ליפול
הי ניהו בריאות הי ניהו שאינן ראויות ליפול הי ניהו רעועות הי ניהו ראויות ליפול לא צריכא דנפלו מחמת גובהייהו אי נמי דקיימן אגודא דנהרא
|The Sages taught: These collapsing buildings to which the Sages referred are those of sturdy and not dilapidated walls; they have walls that are not ready to fall, and not those that are ready to fall…
It is necessary to specify that in the case of walls that fell due to their height, (i.e., they are sound but also ready to fall), due to their excessive height. Alternatively, the baraita is referring to a case where the walls were positioned on a riverbank, (as they are likely to fall despite the fact that they are not dilapidated, as the riverbank itself is unstable).
- How do the Rabbis of the Talmud subtly alter the meaning of the Mishnah? What theology is reflected now?
- How does this new meaning reflect Dr. Chester’s position above and how does it differ? Which resonates more for you?
12. Voltaire, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1756, translated by Joseph McCabe
|POEM ON THE LISBON DISASTER;
Or an Examination of the Axiom, “All is Well”
- How does Voltaire feel about the various theologies of natural disasters that we’ve offered so far? Does this dissatisfaction resonate for you?
- What alternative theology is Voltaire offering in this poem? Is this a more satisfying theology than the theologies discussed above? Is it more honest? Why or why not?
13. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 59a
|רב קטינא הוה קאזיל באורחא כי מטא אפתחא דבי אובא טמיא גנח גוהא אמר מי ידע אובא טמיא האי גוהא מהו רמא ליה קלא קטינא קטינא אמאי לא ידענא בשעה שהקב”ה זוכר את בניו ששרויים בצער בין אומות העולם מוריד שתי דמעות לים הגדול וקולו נשמע מסוף העולם ועד סופו והיינו גוהא…
ורב קטינא דידיה אמר סופק כפיו שנאמר (יחזקאל כא, כב) וגם אני אכה כפי אל כפי והניחותי חמתי רבי נתן אומר אנחה מתאנח שנאמר (יחזקאל ה, יג) והניחותי חמתי בם והנחמתי ורבנן אמרי בועט ברקיע שנאמר (ירמיהו כה, ל) הידד כדורכים יענה אל כל יושבי הארץ רב אחא בר יעקב אמר דוחק את רגליו תחת כסא הכבוד שנאמר (ישעיהו סו, א) כה אמר ה’ השמים כסאי והארץ הדום רגלי:
|Rav Ketina was once walking along the road when he came to the entrance of the house of a necromancer and an earthquake rumbled. He said: Does this necromancer know what is this earthquake? The necromancer raised his voice and said: Ketina, Ketina, why would I not know? Certainly this earthquake occurred because when the Holy One, Blessed be He, remembers His children who are suffering among the nations of the world, He sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake…
Rav Ketina also stated his own explanation for the earthquake: Because God claps His hands together in anger, as it is stated: “I will also smite My hands together and I will satisfy My fury; I, the Lord, have spoken it” (Ezekiel 21:22). Rabbi Natan says: The earthquake is caused because God sighs, as it is stated: “Thus shall My anger spend itself, and I will satisfy My fury upon them, and I will be eased” (Ezekiel 5:13). And the Rabbis say:An earthquake is caused when God kicks the firmament,as it is stated: “The Lord roars from on high, from His holy dwelling He makes His voice heard. He roars mightily over His dwelling place, He cries out like those who tread grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth”(Jeremiah 25:30). Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: An earthquake is caused when God forces His feet beneath the throne of glory and the world quakes, as it is stated: “The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool” (Isaiah 66:1).