Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Shoftim 5777

The Meaning of Hurricane Irene

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

I had a peculiar and possibly disturbing thought last Shabbat during shul. There were not too many of us here Shabbat morning. Some chose to evacuate and some chose to stay home. Looking at the relatively empty shul I thought to myself- If people really believed that there was a time that they were supposed to die, that everyone had their time, they would not have left. Because if they were supposed to die and this was their time then God would get them no matter where they were.

The tree could come down in Long Branch or lightning could strike in Harrisburg.

That leaves two options:

  • That assumption is true- everyone has their time, we just don’t have enough faith and thus we flee.
  • Our assumption is wrong. There is no time that we are fated or slated to die and therefore we must do everything that we can in order to avoid that fate and stay alive.

I usually don’t have those kinds of thoughts but I guess that hurricane Irene and the uncertainty as to how bad the storm would be got me thinking in that direction, about God’s role in the world and our lives.

In anticipation of the hurricane, last week someone who was doing some work in the shul remarked to Marc and I that God was sending Irene to shake us up, to shake up the world. Even the murder of Leiby kletzky he said was God shaking us up.

Similar sentiments were expressed after Hurricane Katrina by a revered and respected ages in Israel. He argued that

Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.

“It was God’s retribution – God does not short-change anyone,” “[Bush] perpetrated the expulsion [of Jews from Gaza],” “Now everyone is mad at him. This is his punishment for what he did to Gush Katif, and everyone else who did as he told them, their time will come, too.”

I must admit that I really can’t stand these types of arguments. Firstly, I believe that it is wildly arrogant to declare that you know what God did and why and that you know how God runs this world. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of all time could not fully comprehend God, but you  can? That is a difficult pill to swallow.

I am also not sure that one has to believe that God runs the world that way. Sure God could control everything and does know everything, but God’s gift of free will seems to indicate that we do have some choice and ability in how our life turns out. I am not sure that we can really say where human initiative and divine will meet or how they interact.

I found a discussion of this last question of whether God controls the minutiae of our lives and the first, is there a time for us to die seems in the oddest of places in our parsha.

The Torah in Parshat Shoftim introduces the concept of Eidim Zommimim. The basic scenario is as follows. Two witnesses come to court and testify that John or Jacob killed someone or took out a loan on a specific day at a specific time. A second set of two witnesses then come to court and say, the two witnesses cannot be telling the truth because they were with us at that time on that date. The halacha is that the second set is believed and the punishment for the first set is:

ועשיתם לו כאשר זמם לעשות לאחיו – you do to them what they tried to do to Jacob. If they testified that Jacob murdered Esav and thus should be put to death, they themselves are put to death.

The Gemara then adds a very curious wrinkle based on the verse. The Torah says they are punished with what they tried to do to Jacob, tried but did not succeed in doing. If however they (the first set of witnesses) succeeded in getting Jacob sentenced and killed, nothing happens to them.

If they try and fail, they die, but if they succeed in getting him killed, they get off scot free. That demands an explanation.

Ramban, in a fascinating piece argues that the reason for this is as follows:

It is the merit of Reuven, the defendant who is innocent, that brings the second set of witnesses. If Reuven was indeed deserving of death, for whatever reason, God would not have saved him from the hands of Beit din. But if Reuven is put to death, then let’s consider the first testimony good and assume that he died for his sins because if he was righteous God would not abandon him and let him die.

IOW- God is in control of everything and if the person was innocent God would swoop in and save him by sending a second set of witnesses to undo the first.

Rabbeinu Bachya offers a similar answer (also in Ramban).

He notes the same halacha and writes that the reason for this is as follows: the text relies on the merit of the Sanhedrin, the high court, where the spirit of God hovers, and God will protect them from spilling innocent blood. If Beit Din kills him and the witnesses were lying we assume that he must deserve to die nonetheless. (wild second answer…)

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the Meshech Chochma, offers what he calls a Taam Muskal, a logical answer to our question. We are concerned that two witnesses will come and have someone killed. The Deceased’s family will want their revenge and might go ahead and hire a pair of witnesses to come and zommimize the first set in order to have them killed as well. It would make sense, argues the meshech chochma, that before the defendant is actually killed, if the family was going to hire witnesses they would hire them to flat out contradict the first set to get the defendant off, rather than risk placing themselves at a place and time with the first set which would open them up to the same claim by another set of witnesses. Thus if before the defendant is killed, they come with a zommimim claim we believe them.

But if he is already dead, hiring a pair of witnesses to rebut the first pair does nothing. It does not save the guy who is already dead and does not punish the witnesses.  Then the only recourse of the relatives is to hire witnesses to say you were with us and in that way get the witnesses killed. Thus we don’t necessarily believe the second set once the defendant is dead.

Each explanation is far from simple and begs numerous follow up questions but they are not my concern at the moment. I am more interested in what the approaches tell us about God’s role in this case and the world.

The Ramban sees God’s hand and control everywhere and in everything.

Rabbeinu Bachya sees God’s providence in the Sanhedrin but not necessarily everywhere else.

Rabbi Meir Simcha sees this play out in purely human terms and does not bring God into this picture at all.

Those same 3 approaches could be applied to Irene as well.

It might be a direct message from God who sent it for a particular reason.

It might be a direct message for some.

It might simply be nature running its course.

And I don’t think there is any way to know exactly.

Rather than try and pinpoint God’s roll in this hurricane, let us suffice with begin thankful that we are generally okay and that it was not worse and let us stand humbled in awe of God and God’s world.