Naturally speaking

Naturally speaking

The world,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “is full of miracles, but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing.”

How true this is. God created nature and nature abounds in miracles – especially at this time of year, as we emerge from the dark and dreary days of winter. Doves return to backyard decks; crocuses begin to show on front lawns; buds appear on once barren branches. It is beautiful to behold, even awe-inspiring, and we do behold it and we are awed.

Keeping the Faith – One religious perspective on issues of the day We just forget that God has anything to do with it. We take it for granted that nature will act naturally and the flowers will bloom in spring.

Not so when nature shows its brutally ugly side, as it did last weekend, when we received a first-hand lesson in its destructive potential. At least six people died in the storm, two of whom lived in Teaneck.

Even now as you read this a week later, the devastation remains evident all around us and is mind-boggling to contemplate.

When the lilies flower, there are too few people who say, “Look at what God has done for us.” When nature wreaks havoc, there are too many people who say, “Look at what God has done to us.” It is a refrain that has been heard over and again throughout the centuries. Terrible things occur and people question why God “caused” them to occur.

Jewish theologians are as divided as non-Jewish ones on the question of whether God is to be blamed for natural disasters. For those who say yes, it all harks back to a verse in Exodus 21:13, which they regard as proof that nothing happens that God has not willed to happen. Referring to an unintentional homicide, the verse uses the phrase, “God delivers him into His hand.” That verse, scholars have argued for at least two millennia, says that everything comes from God. Nothing is random. Nothing happens that God did not deliberately make happen.

To be sure, not every Jewish authority accepts this.

Says the Talmud: “The world follows its natural course [olam k’minhago nohaig] and, as for those fools who do wrong, eventually they must answer for their behavior…[For example,] say that a man stole a se’ah of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground. The just thing would be for it not to germinate, but [it will, because] olam k’minhago nohaig.” (See BT Avodah Zarah 54b.)

Despite such teachings, the majority opinion, it seems, favors the “everything comes from God” school of thought. This prompted the following comment from one modern theologian, Rabbi Harold Schulweis:

“Traditionally we are taught by the rabbis that the acts of God belong either to middat ha-din, the way of justice, or to middat ha-rachamim, the way of compassion. This implies that everything that happens in the world is either a judgment of justice or a judgment of mercy. In this view, there appears to be no room for events of moral neutrality, no place for what I call middat ha-teva, the way of nature.”

God created nature and the laws that govern it. Those laws include how storms are formed, how they gain and lose power, what paths they take, and so forth. In that sense, torrential downpours, violent hurricanes, tsunamis, cyclones, and the like do come from God. They are, however, middat ha-teva, the way of nature, rather than weapons in His arsenal of middat ha-din, the way of justice.

In Washington, D.C., the buds on the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin have turned green. Before Pesach is over, they will be in full bloom. This, too, is middat ha-teva, the way of nature. We are all too willing to accept that. We are all too ready not to thank God for it because it is olam k’minhago nohaig, the world acting naturally.

That is correct, but this is also correct: If we routinely ignore God’s role in creating the beauty that nature provides, how can we be so quick to assign Him a role in the horrors that nature delivers?

There is a natural explanation for what happened last weekend. A record snowfall in February – around 37 inches in total – turned the ground soft. Then, before the ground had any chance to recover, five inches of rain fell in less than a day and was accompanied by almost non-stop gale-force winds that at times reached Category One hurricane strength.

There are also “unnatural” man-made causes that must be added to the mix, such as overdevelopment of land and poor planning for drainage. Some will say that global warming must also be considered. Then there are construction issues to take into account. Why blame God for what we have wrought upon ourselves?

Then again, why not credit God for all the trees that did not fall, all the homes that were not damaged? Why not credit Him, as well, for the inventions that kept hospitals running, the roll-bars that kept cars from being crushed, the cell phones that allowed people to call for help – and for every other modern invention that depends on some element or other that God put into creation in the first place?

For the record, Judaism does not ignore God’s role (although this is more honored in the breach these days). When seeing the first trees bloom each spring, there is a blessing to recite: “Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the universe, who has withheld nothing from His world and who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for people to enjoy.”

There is a blessing for when one sees lightning or experiences an earthquake: “Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the universe, who makes the work of Creation.”

And there is a blessing for when we hear thunder or experience a terrible storm: “Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.”

There are blessings for smelling fragrant flowers, seeing natural wonders, encountering remarkably beautiful people and remarkably scholarly ones, tasting unusual fruits, and so forth.

Judaism does not ignore God’s role; we do.