Haiti one year on... my theodicy

Today is the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, which killed 230,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless. It was one of the biggest and most devastating earthquakes, if not natural disasters, of modern times.
The question of the role of God and, in particular, natural evil, is one that has troubled me all my thinking life, and has left humanity grappling for millenia. It is an issue I have worked through in several versions of a sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur as a Rabbinic student, and in my first Yom Kippur sermon at West London Synagogue, so I thought I would share that text with you as a reflection of my struggles with these issues on this sad anniversary. It is imperfect, and I would probably say it differently every time I look at it, but it is the core of my theodicy - my attempt to understand God in a world where evil exists.

Theodicy at the new year, Yom Kippur Yizkor, 5770 WLS
Tears are natural at Yizkor. Two years ago, while conducting High Holiday services at Menorah, one of Manchester’s Reform Communities, I cried on the bimah. Luckily I wasn’t leading the service at that moment, but experiencing the first Yizkor since my father’s death, my gentle sniffles were hard to control once the sympathetic warden placed an arm around me; her kindness had served only to make the crying worse (so please, wardens, whatever you do, don’t be nice to me!) This kind woman, a stalwart of the Manchester community, was tragically killed in a car crash shortly before Rosh Hashanah last year.
For those recently bereaved, or indeed not so recently, it is not uncommon to on the one hand seek out the support of the Jewish community and mourning rituals, which are brilliantly designed, but at the same time to rail against a God that could allow such injustices. This past year has not, for some, been a year to make one feel hopeful about the state of the world. From the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and the suffering of so many in Israel and Palestine, to natural disasters such as terrifying and fatal wild fires in Australia, Greece and LA, Swine flu outbreaks, and just last week an earthquake in Bhutan that left at least a dozen dead and hundreds homeless. There are, of course, the financial difficulties many are now facing, with some having to choose between heating or eating. Then there are each of those personal tragedies which many of us will be thinking of today.
As we repent of our sins, do we really feel we are getting our moneys worth from the Almighty?
The idea of God in a world where the Holocaust exists has been a struggle for me personally for a long time, and while I have found answers to my own demanding mind and soul, they do not come easily, and I know I will always have to work on them. However in recent years I have increasingly found myself becoming theologically undone not by God and mans evil, but by God and natural disasters. In the case of suffering caused by humans, there is an important role for personal responsibility; or free will. While it has by no means been the only explanation offered for the problem of God and evil[1], free will has been a common defence employed by Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. For some time I struggled with this argument, as it seemed a cruel trade off for God to make; was it really worth it all? Was it worth the six million of the Shoah? Was it worth the random knife and gun crimes? Jerusalem bus bombs? Darfur?... I could go on.
I have come to believe, however, that the importance of free will lies in the responsibility it entails, and the human dignity that it allows. Interpretations of the story of creation from Rabbinic literature seem to support this. As a child or teenager living at home, we have the ‘paradise’ or ‘Eden’ of reliance. Everything is provided for us, as it was for Adam and Eve, and in the early years no decisions need be taken by us. Ultimately, however, we want to leave this nest, and our parents must allow us the freedom to do so, and, if necessary, to make our own mistakes, if we are to have any degree of human dignity.
When Adam and Eve left the protection of Eden God allowed them to become fully human, not over protected children, and while free will allows us the potential of pain and suffering, it also allows our huge potential for goodness and care to express itself. Yet while these explanations of how Judaism can help to offer us intellectual and spiritual solace, their usefulness to us when we are in the thick of the moment of our own pain and suffering is debateable, and will be different for all of us. We all do and will grapple and engage with these issues in different ways, and our responses will vary at different times in our lives. Perhaps it is this struggle that defines us as ‘Israel’ – the name given to Jacob after his very physical struggle with God and which is given to reflect that tussle with the divine. Perhaps it is not finding God that gives our lives meaning, particularly as the people of Israel, but the struggle in and of itself.
As today emphasises, we all have within us the ability to hurt, destroy, hate and damage, hopefully not more than we have the ability to heal, create, love and repair. Judaism speaks of two inclinations; Yetzer haRa (the ‘evil’ inclination) and Yetzer hatov (the ‘good’ inclination)[2]. While the Yetzer haRa contains the possibility of evil, it also contains many positive acts, and might better be described as a material inclination, helping us to build houses, and create the next generation of Jews, and so in measure it is a good thing. Likewise too much Yetzer hatov, which might be described as a spiritual inclination, could lead to an ascetic life, withdrawn from the world, and ignoring the Biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply’[3]. It is, I would suggest, an important part of human responsibility, free will, and growth, to learn to keep our inclinations held in this careful balance. Few of us will always succeed, and so we have this important opportunity to correct the balance each year on Yom Kippur.
Much of the focus over the High Holidays can seem to be on what we did wrong in the past year and how we can do better in the coming one – and this is an important opportunity for reflection and change, rarely offered in the hectic modern world. But we can also use it to consider what we did RIGHT, and what things we want to ensure we continue to do, or do even better next year, our small acts of tzedakah – righteousness and charity - can become bigger, and our gemilut chasadim -  acts of loving kindness could be more frequent. As we attempt to wipe the slate clean of the things we got wrong this year, let us try to write upon next years pages more of the good things we are all not only capable of but actually rather good at! The world can seem a dark place, but we each have the opportunity to bring light and joy through our actions, and through who and what we decide to be in the world.
When we come to suffering caused by the natural world, I am much more at a loss. Here the free will argument doesn’t work, and we can’t obviously blame ourselves. While I can understand the claims by many that one needs to experience some pain and loss to understand happiness and joy, watching loved ones die through painful and debilitating illnesses seems like an excessive way of helping us to experience these positives.

In the Bible, nature is clearly used as a tool for God’s emotions, for example in 2 Samuel King David reports that “Then the earth shook and trembled. The foundations of heaven quaked and were shaken, because he was angry”[4]. Nature here is a tool of God’s chastening hand, an idea I find very troubling indeed when we consider the proliferation of natural disasters today. However, returning to the free will argument, with human dignity needing to be protected, to my mind at least, God cannot be involved in the world in this way without compromising human dignity.

Perhaps the harder question for me is, at a time like the Tsunami of Christmas 2004, how can God choose to not intervene? Here I turn to a kabbalistic idea - tzim tzum – the contraction of God into Godself to make space for creation. One can understand this to mean that God set creation in motion, and then chose to not interfere – and in fact in limiting Godself, God simply cannot intervene, even if wanting to- the results of which are human dignity, and human suffering, at our own hands, and at the ‘hands’ of nature. Incidentally if we take this divine contraction as a model for human behaviour, we can learn a huge amount about our need to create space for the other, and to not impose ourselves and our experience on those around us –a trap I hope I have not fallen into too much this afternoon! It is also possible that it is in these direct human encounters that we have the best chance of experiencing the love and support that can help to give our lives meaning after we have been broken by life.
One could argue, as does the typically rational Moses Maimonides, that things in the world of nature are as they are because this is how life is sustained. If the world did not have shifting tectonic plates, the climate would also be impacted, and it would not take much to make life on planet Earth unviable. The world is how it needs to be.
 Still we are faced with the daily reality of so many people trying to come to terms with the personal tragedies that life has thrown in their path. I must admit I am at a loss. Few words of comfort or academic attempts at theodicy can make what has happen+ed less painful. Perhaps the answer lies in the dignity and sensitivity with which one can choose to approach such sufferers, one of whom we all will be at some time in our lives. In manifesting goodness in this way, perhaps we begin to see ourselves as God’s partners in creation. After the Tsunami, one article that really spoke to me about Gods role in such events came from the Times, in which a Rabbi wrote that
The only adequate religious response is to say: ‘God, I do not know why this terrifying disaster has happened, but I do know what You want of us: to help the afflicted, comfort the bereaved, send healing to the injured, and aid those who have lost their livelihoods and homes’. We cannot understand God, but we can strive to imitate His love and care (Sacks 2005; The Times).
The world was not created perfect, and there is definitely work to do, hence West London Synagogue has as one of it’s central tenets Tikkun Olam – repair of the world. What an amazing opportunity is being offered to us: To work with God to improve things, to work with each other to make a difference. If our repentance and change, indeed if our Judaism can be the catalyst for anything, surely it is this: that we can do better, and together, with all our skills and talents, we can create the future we want to see, and a Judaism that is fully engaged in this work cannot help but be vital, vibrant, and making a real difference.
I do not think there are any easy answers here, and ultimately I am forced to admit I do not understand God, and I don’t think this is just because of my youth. Perhaps this is the message of this morning’s portion when God tells Moses ‘You cannot see my face, for no one may see Me and live”. We are all limited, and human, and while the struggle to understand definitely adds meaning to life, and we hope God is there to support us through the struggles, ultimately my energies, our energies, might be better spent getting on with those things we do understand, and can make a difference in, whether it is in our homes, within our community, around the world, or perhaps, even, just for ourselves.           
For me the key is to use the goodness we have been granted to do what we can, in spite of what life, nature and evil may throw at us. Life will be what it will be. We must make a positive choice to do our best with it. At this time when we are considering what we might have done differently, let us not just regret what we did, but what we did not do, and commit to make that change in the coming year. And let us also consider those things we did well, and demand of ourselves more of the same in the year to come. In this way we will have moved ourselves, our community, and maybe even the world on together by the time we stand here again next year.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah, may we all be in inscribed for good. Venomar Amen

[1] For example in the Bible we find the suggestion that man is punished for his sins (Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 24:16) and similar statements are found in the Talmud (T.B. Shabbat 55a, T.B. Berachot 5a). Other responses include people receiving their true rewards in the world to come (Berachot 7a) (Birnbaum 1989; p.17-18).
[2] Genesis Rabbah
[3] Gen 1:27
[4] See also Job 26:11


  1. Rabbenu. Thank you for this, which has moved me and from which I have learned. I wonder if there's work to be done, comparing and contrasting the kabbalistic idea of zimzum and the (of all things?) Russian Orthodox Christian idea of God's self-limiting/emptying/humiliation in creation. You don't, perhaps, need either doctrine, to insist that it's a good thing that God made the world with its own laws/realm, which could not vary. That's precisely why I think the overlap is interesting.

  2. Thank you Patrick,that means a huge amount to me. Would love to know more about the orthodox approach. Tzim Tzum has been used as a brilliant model in all sorts of contexts - one of my favourite being an educational model of a teacher who creates space for their students.
    Very formative for me was Hans Jonas (link below to google books). His retelling of the creation myth I find very meaningful and moving (In all honesty I am a bear of little brain and it took me a few reads to get it but love it!)
    p.131 :


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