A First Response To The Tsunami Disaster

Responding to catastrophe

The unfolding cataclysm in Asia brought to mind a very brief Biblical quote – the words of sheer despair uttered by Judah to his disguised brother, Joseph. ‘What can we say?’

What indeed can we say about a tragedy of such unprecedented span? What words of philosophy or theology could even scratch the surface of the issues raised by such large-scale devastation and human suffering? Is this not disappointing? Would we not expect there to be an immediate and succinct Jewish explanation of the recent phenomenon?

Not at all. Actually, our inability or unwillingness to offer a response is, perhaps, the most Jewish response of all. Any justification would be trite, foolish and an affront to the victims. While the suffering goes on, we cannot and will not offer an explanation. As we would expect, the Jewish sages tackled this reality millennia ago. The great Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar warned us not to comfort the bereaved when ‘his dead lies yet before him,’ meaning that while the calamity is still in progress, consolation and explanations are inappropriate. That’s not to say that Judaism does not have profound answers to the greatest existential questions; it’s just that they are reserved for the dispassionate arena of philosophy, one far-removed from real tragedy.

Psalm 124 adopts the metaphor of ‘raging waters’ to describe an enemy attack. ‘If it were not for God when Man rose against us,’ sings King David, then ‘the water would have swamped us.’ The bitter irony of the tsunami disaster is that if it were not for Man when God rose against us, many thousands more would have died. The relief effort, while too late for uncountable numbers, is saving thousands who would otherwise have certainly perished. In this lies the beginning of a Jewish response to current events, in which ‘explanation’ is set aside in favour of the two classic alternatives of action and introspection.

Upheaval on any scale, from personal difficulty to global catastrophe, is greeted by the Jew as an opportunity for self-examination. It is important to realise that this does not make a judgement about the cause of the tragedy – it simply insists that a correct response will include introspection. We may never know the ‘reason’ such events occur within God’s plan for humanity, but can always identify much wrong with ourselves and our planet and then attempt to rectify it. At one end of the scale, it may be failures in our interpersonal relationships, at the other, the appalling imbalance between the haves and the have-nots of our world. Judaism expects us, at the very least, to be jolted from our complacency by events around the globe, to take notice and to recognise that all is not well with our lives and our society.

There is another aspect to this introspection, however. Very often we forget how incredibly fortunate many of us are. Whether in terms of health, security, wealth or opportunity, most in the West are living lives of comfort and affluence undreamt of just a few years ago. That much is obvious. But how many of us realise that the tsunami could just have easily struck the United States? Scientists are carefully watching the volcanic activity on La Palma in the Canary Islands. They believe that at some time in the next few thousand years (it could happen next week, although this is extremely unlikely), a section of the island, weighing 450 thousand million tons, will fall into the Atlantic ocean. This would trigger a mega-tsunami that would engulf the whole Eastern coast of the USA within a few hours. But it didn’t happen in the West – we were mercifully spared. The words of the important thinker Rabbi Yitzhak Arama are apposite. ‘The nature of water is to cover the land, and it remains in place only by God’s instruction.’ It may be a cliché, but events in Asia should be challenging us to value each moment of our comfortable lives. Together with our sympathy for the victims and our disbelief at their plight, we should experience a profound sense of gratitude for our own circumstances.

The natural consequence of these feelings and the flip side of Rabbi Shimon’s exhortation is that action and action alone is the correct response. For most of us, there is little we can do directly, yet we can contribute generously to the relief agencies trying desperately to help the survivors and the families of the victims. We should applaud their efforts and encourage others to help to the best of their abilities. This is a proper Jewish response. The signs in this direction are encouraging – many nations have pledged vast aid packages. And cooperation is in evidence, transcending political divisions and religious prejudices. Even the BBC reported Israel’s offer of a field hospital to Sri Lanka with guarded favour!

And we need to think and act before the pop-stars return from their holidays and the sportsmen resume their vulgar antics – for when they do, they will inevitably supplant the tsunami tragedy from the front pages of the newspapers and from the minds of their readers. If we do, perhaps a small ray of light will emerge from a horrendous calamity.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 1st January 2005, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review