Reading and watching the news about the devastating forest fire in Israel, I found myself profoundly confused: There were so many reversals, so much was wrong with the picture.
We are used to thinking of Israel as being so adept, so professional at looking after its citizens — but the country looked so powerless in the past week. We take pride in the fact that all over the world, when a natural disaster strikes it is Israel to the rescue. Here, however, we saw an Israel struggling to cope and reliant on the outside world.
Moreover, there was the irony, the bitter irony of Chanukah — the days that are supposed to be so joyous and happy, especially in Israel, of seeing the sky lit up at the beginning of “Chag ha’urim,” the festival of lights, not by menorahs but by an awful conflagration.
Other than reciting prayers and performing acts of generosity, the traditional Jewish response, there was not much we could say or do.
But in following the media over the past few days, I found myself angry about one type of reaction that is deeply wrong — our need to judge, to blame, to explain tragedy, especially in a way that confirms our own prejudices and worldviews.
Last week I was giving a class about praying for rain when a participant responded that if the Israeli government cared more about Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, then God would make it rain more.
In looking at some online comments about the fire, I saw the same thing: From some anti-Israel critics — Israel burns Palestinian villages, now their own kibbutzim are being burned; and from Chasidic Jews — the Israeli government destroys the graves of tzaddikim, now their employees are burned to ashes.
Jewish tradition indeed teaches that we are supposed to respond to tragedy and ask ourselves why things happen. Moses Maimonides, the medieval rabbinic giant known as the Rambam, wrote that when disaster strikes it is forbidden to treat the calamity as an act of nature, a coincidence, just one of those things. Indeed, all comes from God, and it is a cause for teshuvah, or repentance.
That is exactly why I found the above responses so objectionable. Yes, they invoked God, but they were the opposite of piety — and of teshuvah.
These people are using the tragedy to say “I am right, and God agrees with me and is on my side.” At the heart of seeing the universe this way is a profound arrogance — the belief that it is never my view or my deeds that are being rebuked but always others’.
In fact, from the perspective of the Rambam, tragedy is a time that demands humility. The proper response is to say, “Perhaps this is my fault. What have I/we been doing wrong?” — not to talk about what others have been doing wrong.
Chanukah is, in the words of the great rabbis, a season in which we are obligated “l’hodot ulihallel,” to thank and praise. But lhodot means more than to thank — it means to acknowledge, and “vidui,” to confess — to recognize not the shortcomings of others but our own.
To be clear, I do not say for a moment that this terrible fire, or other catastrophes, are punishments. But when disaster happens, the proper Jewish response is introspection — not asking what should others do but what should I do. We have to respond with a clear, honest, fearless introspection of what we can do to be better people and better Jews.
Rabbi Shaul Robinson is the spiritual leader at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.