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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 qualities.

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 the whirlwind.

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 living soul.

 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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