Rabbi David Fine, religious leader of Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, recalls a book he was required to read in high school.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” by Thornton Wilder, tells the story of several people who die in the collapse of a suspension bridge in Peru. A friar who witnessed the event tries to make sense of it, searching for some kind of cosmic reason for the tragedy.
“People always try to find explanations,” said Fine, who spoke to The Jewish Standard by cell phone Tuesday, since the synagogue’s telephone lines were still down because of the storm. But, he added, even after reading the book, he walked away unconvinced of a cosmic cause, concluding that the bridge collapse was simply an accident.
“Tragedy is random,” he said. “That’s what makes it so terrible. We’re at the mercy of the world. We try to control it as best we can, but events like this remind us of our humility.”
Like Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Fine said he doesn’t believe that “God controls the weather map.”
“I don’t believe that God determines where a tree falls and where a tsunami hits,” he said. “He controls how we deal with it and live in the world. He gives us the strength to get through these things.”
Fine said he understands why people look for explanations of “why something occurs here and not there. It gives people a sense of consolation that there is an order in the world. [But] to do so is an attempt to impose an order on something blatantly unordered.”
“The world is messy,” said Fine, adding that God can’t control everything that happens. “God gets frustrated; we get frustrated,” he said.
The rabbi said, however, that we’re “lucky to live in a community where people open their homes and help one another. In times of crisis, we learn the nature of our community. It’s something to be proud of.”
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, pointed out that “we don’t have a handle on how long our tenure is in this world. It’s part of the mystery of life.”
“It’s in man’s best interests that he doesn’t know,” said the rabbi. “If he knew, he couldn’t function.”
The rabbi said he understood why people were troubled by the idea that the two men killed by a tree in Teaneck were returning from synagogue.
“Given our perspective, some people might say, ‘Oh my goodness, here was someone doing something good, but something bad happened to him.'”
Still, Yudin said, “God has His ultimate plan” and there is another way to view the matter.
“You might also say the person left this world in a holy state because he had done a mitzvah and right after that gave his pure soul back to God.”
“Ultimately, we know that we don’t know,” said Yudin, “but it’s wrong to draw a negative conclusion. Man has no understanding of God’s ways other than being taught that God is good. We don’t always appreciate God’s ways. It humbles us.”
Rabbi Ronald Roth of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center noted that the first reaction to such a tragedy should not be theological but rather “to offer love and support to the family.”
“Theology pales in our response,” he said. “First we have to have compassion and sympathy.”
Roth said “theology is a limited exercise sometimes,” and he would never attempt or expect to find an answer there for so horrible a tragedy.
“There is no theological answer,” he said.
The rabbi mentioned two biblical stories where people attempting to do the right thing were punished. In the first, a young boy gathering eggs from a nest tries to shoo the mother bird away, as commanded by the Torah. While the Torah promises long life for performing this mitzvah, the boy falls off his ladder and dies. In the second story, God kills Uzza, who is trying to keep the ark of the covenant from falling off a cart.
Roth agreed that “horrible things are totally contrary to our understanding of God as just, loving, righteous, and all-powerful.”
Still, he said, questioning God “is not something new. Tragedies “deeply disturb and should disturb anyone of deep religious feelings. There’s no problem questioning God and being angry. We have a history of that.”
Roth said, however, that while undeserved tragedy is a terrible problem for us, “I’ve never seen anyone as disturbed by undeserved good. We think we have it coming.”
The rabbi said he can “live with the idea that certain theological issues have no satisfactory answers. Our first response to tragedy should be helping, reaching out.”