“The Role of Jews in the World” by Lauren Shaps


Hello to the Chevra,

The news these past few days is full of updates on two devastating natural disasters: first the eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile just south of Santiago, followed by the earthquake in Nepal. The images are heartbreaking and horrific. Most mornings I glance at the newspaper over my morning coffee. My all-too-human response is to read about terrible things happening in our world and then turn the page and begin my day. Most of us react that way because we feel powerless to make a difference. We prefer to focus on the things that appear to be within our control. 

Probably because of this ramble, I could not just turn the page without some perspective. How do we address pain and suffering on such a massive scale? How do we sleep at night knowing that the lives of good people, kind and caring people will never be the same?

The Jewish response takes place in three dimensions. Rather than closing the newspaper and running to our first appointment of the day, we should focus on intensifying our connection to our Creator, to the many others with whom we share this world, and to a deeper understanding of self. By building ourselves, we can ultimately change the world. 

The Sages speak of two different types of connection to our Creator, ahava (love) andyir'ah (fear or awe). Most of us struggle to relate to G-d thru yir'ah. While we may refer to G-d as the Almighty, we rarely stop to think about what ALL MIGHTY really means. Natural disasters are a reminder that G-d is greater than anything we could ever imagine.

Much of the time life is lived as if “I” am the center of the universe and all revolves around me. Volcanoes and earthquakes, with thousands of lives lost and many more left homeless, remind us that we are a minuscule part of a great sea of humanity. G-d is the Omnipotent, Almighty, All-Powerful. An earthquake forces us to come face to face with the awesome power of G-d, who runs the world, the dynamic force hidden within the power of nature and the march of history.

The immediate outgrowth of that understanding is a clear reminder that we are not in control. Often when we hear bad news, our ingrained response is to look for reasons to explain the tragedy. We do that to protect ourselves, ever hopeful we will find “reasons” that exclude us and, therefore, relieve us of our vulnerability. 

I read an earthquake results from what scientists call "complex systems." There are many dynamic forces pushing against each other in the exact combination to keep everything in place. A tiny change at just the right spot and just the right moment can throw off these forces just enough to destabilize the system. The ground beneath our feet suddenly buckles and heaves in the violent spasm we call an earthquake.

Human systems are also incredibly complex, the events unpredictable. There were many who did not foresee the dramatic changes in Europe or the Middle East, the optimism of the Arab Spring degenerating to destabilization and civil war? One day the world is one way and the next day, the ground has shifted under our feet.

We think with technology we can predict the future, but earthquakes, economic meltdowns and national upheaval catch us by surprise. Over and over we realize we cannot predict the unpredictable. The Almighty keeps us guessing. He reminds us of our humanness, our limits, our lack of control.

Still we strive to understand how G-d runs this world. We return again and again to the question of why bad things happen to good people, sometimes thousands at a time. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993, New York) cautioned us not to get carried away with too much talk. In a beautiful essay written after the Holocaust, he explained that the proper response is not to ask “Why?,” but rather, “What can I do?” 

That leads us to our relationships with others. Here is where Israel personifies the expression of our Jewish values. Israel quickly sent more than 100 doctors, nurses and paramedics and close to 100 tons of humanitarian and medical supplies for their field hospital to treat the casualties of the disaster in Nepal.

Close the newspaper. Turn off the news report. We can’t just be passive consumers of information. Give generously to relief funds. Hug your spouse, your kids, your friends. Rise above the small stuff. Every day is a gift and every life is precious. 

As Jews we know that the world is an incredibly challenging place. We also know we have a very special role to play. We are to uncover the hand of G-d in the glove of nature and of history. And we are to be that light unto nations, responding without hesitation when needed, answering the call with caring and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


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