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Commentary: God's Role in Tsunami Tragedy

By Peter Winkelstein

Buffalo, NY – A short while ago, I was part of a study group that was discussing the plagues of Egypt. We read that the plagues were sent by God partly to punish the Egyptians, who at the time were enslaving the Israelites. The plagues eventually led to the escape of the Israelites, the Exodus. During the discussion, one woman suggested that the tsunami was a plague sent by God to punish the Muslims, presumably for their attacks on Americans and Jews. That was the first time I had heard such a statement and it left me shocked.

With a few moments of thought, one realizes that there are so many ways in which the plagues and the tsunami differ that the analogy is foolish. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that clear warning was given of the plagues. Pharaoh was told over and over that the plagues were punishment for his failure to release the Israelites. He ignored the warnings, and Pharaoh and his people suffered. During the tsunami, no one had warning, no one was given the opportunity to avoid the destruction by changing their behavior. The tsunami destroyed everyone. The idea that the tsunami somehow resembles the plagues of Egypt is appalling.

The primitive notion that disasters are a sign of God's displeasure is powerful, but it is not possible to convincingly ascribe natural disasters to God's wrath. How would one explain the eruption of Mt. St. Helens? The mudslides in California? The sinkholes in Florida? Are the people affected by those events guilty of something? Natural disasters occur everywhere, to everyone, at all times. No one people are singled out for protection or punishment. And for that matter, it is easy to think of evil people who have not suffered any sort of disaster. It is clear that God does not operate in so obvious a way; if there is divine punishment for misdeeds, it does not occur in a way that is easy for us to spot.

I can see that what fueled the woman's idea of the tsunami as plague was her sense of Muslims as enemy. In her mind, their suffering perhaps echoes that of the Egyptians in the Exodus. But even if one were to believe the tsunami was some sort of punishment, and even if one were to unthinkingly lump all Muslims together, to say that the Muslims of South East Asia are the same as Al Qaeda, to say that every Muslim is an enemy, even so, we would be forbidden to rejoice over their misery.

We know this because of the Exodus. Each spring, during the Passover Seder, the ceremonial meal that commemorates the escape of the Jews from Egypt, the names of the plagues are recited: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first-born. As each plague is named, each participant spills a drop of wine from their glass. This is to remind us that our joy in the escape of the Israelites is diminished by the suffering of the Egyptians, even though those Egyptians were our oppressors.

We are reminded of this again by a midrash, a sacred story, about the parting of the Red Sea. The Exodus text tells us that the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. [Ex. 14:22] The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea the waters turned back and covered Pharaoh's entire army not one of them remained. [Ex. 14:23,28] The midrash tells us that the angels in heaven began to celebrate the destruction of the Egyptians, but God rebuked them, asking them why they were rejoicing when so many of His creatures were drowning.

The message is very clear: the misfortunes of others should never be a cause of happiness for us. We must remember our common humanity, even with our enemies.

The tsunami was a horrible and tragic event. We will never know God's role in it, but we certainly cannot explain it as some sort of punishment. Rabbi Michael Feshbach, in a recent NPR feature, said that we are meaning-makers . Instead of looking for some inherent meaning in the tsunami, we must create meaning through our response to it. We must act, and in acting wisely, give this tragedy its true meaning.

Listener-Commentator Peter Winkelstein is a pediatrician who lives on Grand Island.