Was God in the Earthquake?
by Harold M. Schulweis
Following the 6.7 on the Richter scale earthquake in our community, the
children of the Day School and Hebrew School were brought together to talk
about their fears. The re-iterated question they asked was, "Why is God so
angry at us?" Much the same question was asked by their parents.
Where did that question come from? Are we teaching our children and adults a
theology that leads them to believe that where there is smoke, there is God's
fire? Are we teaching them that catastrophe, indiscriminate disasters are, as
the lawyers say "acts of God"? Are we in our theological teaching
preparing the ground for guilt, accusation, self-recrimination? Is that the
healthy minded, realistic tradition of the Jewish faith?
The quake shook the foundations of a belief system. How do we – who believe
in one and only one God – explain the "dybbuk"
that entered our houses, flung open drawers, shattered furniture and glass,
collapsed chimneys and foundations?
I shared with the questioners my belief, which is grounded in the Jewish
tradition. Two familiar names of divinity stand side by side in our prayers and
in our Bible. One name is “Elohim,” the other is “Adonai.” Different, yet one. “Hear O Israel the Lord (Adonai)
our God (Elohim), the Lord is One.”
The names that describe one divinity are different. The name Elohim in the
first chapter of Genesis is used exclusively. Elohim is the God of nature, the
life of the universe, the author of all creation. Elohim is the God who creates
lion and lamb, light and darkness, the eagle and its prey. Elohim is the Jewish
reality principle "Nature pursues its own course,” our sages taught, and
Elohim is the ground of nature. Nature includes earthquake, hurricane, tornado,
sun, moon and mountains. Through the eyes of Elohim the whole of existence is
"very good.” One can command nature
only by obeying it, understanding its ways.
The world of Elohim is not a court of justice. In this sense the world is
not fair. But that is not the whole world, nor is Elohim the whole of divinity.
Were Elohim the only description of God's way we would be pantheists, equating
God with nature. We would submit to nature and live according to nature. But
Judaism knows another dimension of Divinity, Adonai. It is the name that is
introduced in the Bible with the creation of humanity (Genesis 2:5; 4:26). If Elohim refers to that which is,
Adonai refers to that which ought to be. If Elohim is the source of all that is
given, Adonai is the power that transforms givenness, repairs the broken
shards, mends the torn fabric, holds back the chaos.
Why the earthquake, and where is God? There are powers, energies, colliding
forces that scientists identify. Theologians have no better or alternative
explanation. The laws of tectonics that the seismologists describe theologians
may trace to Elohim. In that sense and only in that sense, Elohim is in the
earthquake. Elohim is amoral, revealing the transcendent power out of the
whirlwind as we read in the concluding chapter of the book of Job.
But where is Adonai in the earthquake? In the energies and talents of His
divinity as imaged in creation, in people in their individual and collective
behavior to protect, sustain and comfort those who suffer. Adonai is present
when we are present and it is through our godly behavior that belief in His
existence and goodness is demonstrated. The rabbis ask in a Midrash (based on
Deuteronomy 13:5) how it is possible for human beings to follow the devouring
fire of God. The answer is that we are
to imitate the attributes of Adonai. As Adonai clothes the naked, feeds the
hungry, shelters the homeless, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries
the dead, so faith in Adonai within and between us mandates us to emulate His
The earthquake is not a moral judgment of God. It is the consequence of the
amoral world of nature. A natural cause is not a divine moral intention, a
natural consequence is not a divine curse.
The Jewish answer to the question, "Where is God in the
earthquake?" is typically another question: “Where are we in the
earthquake?” What have we done to
alleviate the suffering of its victims, to calm the frightened, shelter and
feed those made homeless? What have we done and what will we do to anticipate
and mitigate the effects of the turbulence? With Adonai, there is always
something to be done.
If we are paralyzed by the shock and aftershocks of the earthquake, it is
because we have split apart Elohim and Adonai as if they were separate Gods.
Left with Elohim alone, we incline toward passivity. Left with Adonai alone, we
tend to ignore the principle of reality. In the Sh'ma we proclaim the unity of
both, the nexus of the real and the ideal, of nature and morality. That unity
is to be achieved by binding Elohim and Adonai together. That unification calls
for deepening our belief and behavior. "On that day Adonai will be One and
His name One" (Zechariah 14:9). Toward
this end I pray: "Blessed art Thou
O Lord our God King of the universe whose strength and might fill the world."
Elohim creates day and night, light and darkness. Lion and lamb, Bacteria and
penicillin. Gives power to the fowl
above the earth, to the great sea monsters below, to every living creature that
creeps on the earth.
And Elohim said, “It is very good.” All existence is good in the eyes of
Elohim, the God of the first chapter of Genesis, Elohim who spoke to Job out of
Who laid the cornerstones of earth? Who shut up the sea with doors When it
broke forth and issued out of the womb? Who caused it to rain on a land where
no man is? On the wilderness, wherein there is no man?
Elohim, the God of Omnipotence, before whom we recognize our own impotence,
"Canst Thou bind the chain of the Pleides or loose the bands or
Orion?" Elohim the God of Omniscience, before we whom we recognize our
ignorance, "Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you number the
clouds by wisdom?" Elohim, before whom we bow our heads and bend our knees,
the sovereign God whose power and reality we accept.
But Elohim is not the whole of divinity. Alongside Elohim is Adonai.
This is our affirmation of oneness. “Hear Israel,
Adonai our Elohim is One.”
Adonai, the Lord of all that ought to be. Adonai revealed in the
yearning and behavior of His human creation for justice, for fairness, for
peace, for harmony. Adonai in the vision of a compassionate society. Adonai in
the transformation of chaos and violence and the void of the universe, into
order, sanity, and love.
Adonai in the mending of the universe, the repair of the world, the
binding of bruises, the gathering of fragmented sparks buried in the husks of
the world. Adonai revealed in the discovery of the self created in the image of
Adonai-Elohim, the Lord God, who breathed into our nostrils and made us a
Elohim/Adonai, Acceptance and
transformation, the reality of what is, the reality of what ought to be the
reality of what is yet to be.
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