I tried to avoid this issue as it was propping up in conversations and in private chain emails, in the hope that sober minds would prevail and this opinion would die down, but I was wrong, and this philosophy has now hit the media. What I am talking about is the attempt of some opinion leaders to explain the Japanese triple disaster by linking it to a particular wrong the Japanese are accused of: the conviction of three young Jewish men for unknowingly smuggling a large amount of drugs into Japan.
Rabbi David Twersky, the leader of the Rachmastrivka Hasidic dynasty, says the recent tsunami in Japan, which has left thousands of people dead, was the result of the arrest of two yeshiva students by Japanese authorities after being convicted of smuggling drugs, YNET reports. In truth, I am loath to respond, because the Rachmastrivka Rebbe is a great, G”d-fearing, holy man, infinitely more learned than I am. It is thus with quite some trepidation I write these words, but, I believe that we must write them. The notion that about 27000 people lost their lives because three Jewish men were too harshly punished, is so disproportional, that no response would be needed. However, I feel that when the internet is obscured by such incomprehensible statements, it behooves us to seek what the Torah really has to say about these matters.
But first, a disclaimer: I was not present when the Rachmastrivka Rebbe made his statement, and furthermore, I have no idea whether he intended this to be his definite, true assessment of the reasons for the Japanese’s plight, or whether they were said in a context that should lead us to understand his words in an entirely different plight. We should note that not everything that masquerades as an exercise on theodicy is really that, as I explored in an earlier post.
So were the Rachmastrivka Rebbe’s words meant as encouragement for those who were too depressed by their failure to secure an acquittal of the boys? Were these words meant to be interpreted in the vein of כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם – everyone should always say to himself: “the world was created for me” (sanhedrin 37a), which is really a statement urging people to take responsibility for the world, and says nothing about the status of the other person. Was the rebbe thus saying that his adherents should take their own actions very seriously, because through a religious butterfly effect, their personal misdeeds may result in tragedy elsewhere? Also, as it was said at a Purim celebration, one has to wonder whether the rebbe was commenting on the reasons for the Japanese disaster, or whether he was really commenting on the story of Esther, and tried to make that more relevant by illustrating it through current events. I do not know, though I have not met anyone who has interpreted the rebbe’s words in these veins. Still, I do not see myself as agreeing or disagreeing with the rebbe; I am just using this opportunity to present my thoughts on the matter.
So what does the Torah have to say about Divine justice? The most crystal clear words that are applicable in this situation are probably the closing verses of the Book of Jonah (4:9-11), a text recited every year on Yom Kippur:
And God said to Jonah: ‘Art thou greatly angry for the gourd?’ And he said: ‘I am greatly angry, even unto death.’ And the LORD said: ‘Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?’
The text could not be clearer than that. Whether Jew or non-Jew, whether human or non-human, G”d cares about all His creatures and is pained by their demise. Should we not learn this lesson before expressing any opinion about the Japanese disaster?
But Perhaps Such Are the Ways of Justice?
An analysis of Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the Sodom pentapolis (Genesis 18:17-32) will magnify the above point. Briefly, while we know that the people of Sodom were thoroughly evil, devoid of any redeeming quality, totally deserving their destruction at the hand of G”d, Abraham did not know that. When G”d tells him that the sound of suffering caused by Sodom has become exceedingly great, Abraham still tries to save them.
Particularly noteworthy is how the Torah introduces this episode:
And the LORD said: ‘Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing; … For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him.’ And the LORD said: ‘Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous.
Thus, the Torah creates a very clear link between Abraham’s election and his prayer for Sodom. So who was Abraham trying to save? As R’ Ovadya Sforno points out, Abraham was not just trying to save the righteous. For that, he could have simply asked for free passage out of the city, for a miracle like the one that befell Lot and his daughters. No, Abraham, says Sforno, was arguing on behalf of the wicked Sodomites. Perhaps a small number of righteous people in their midst suffice to save them.
Abraham’s chosenness, his redeeming qualities, are thus highlighted when he prays on behalf of sinners, of the most grievous sinners, and in that context, he says:
That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’
G”d does not reject Abraham’s argument, and thus implicitly validates it, since Sodom was only destroyed after it was found devoid of even ten righteous people (not even a minyan!).
So let’s get this straight. Three young men, one of them a minor, were paid to bring a package to Japan. That package, unbeknown to them, contained some 90’000 ecstasy tablets. Now I agree that Japanese sentencing guidelines are very strict, perhaps even cruel, and are in their own way, somewhat unjust. Possibly. However, these young men had violated Japanese law, and apparently knew they were smuggling something (the suitcase or suitcases were said to contain antiques or religious articles – why could they not be sent by Fedex?), so they were guilty of some crime, alas much less severe than intentional drug smuggling. They were then convicted to jail sentences ranging up to six years (here and here). Let’s even grant that they deserved to be freed without jail time, would anyone consider taking the lives of 27000 people to be a just retribution for convicting three people to a total of 17 years of jail time, some of which was already commuted (the youngest fellow is already free) and some of which i sure to be commuted in the future?
When Abraham was arguing for G”d to deal justly with the Sodomites, was he thinking of such absurdly in just proportions? Remember, Sforno suggests, through his keen reading of the text, that Abraham was not just trying to save the righteous, but also, particularly, the evil, wicked, rotten Sodomites, about whom G”d Himself had personally told Abraham the suffering they caused had become exceedingly great.
So how would Abraham react to the Japanese Tsunami? The Breslover Rebbe, mentioned in my previous post, was probably right on target.