I have recently written that one should not try to attribute the Haitian earthquake to a particular sin. I find it reprehensible when that is done. Some have tried to do that with the holocaust. We don’t know why God does what he does. In my view it is an exercise in self aggrandizement to speculate with specificty about God’s reasons. People who do this think that their agenda is God’s agenda. That’s why one may for example hear that the reason a particular disaster happens is because of Tznius issues.
But that does not mean that we should not reflect on our shortcomings.
Cross-Currents has an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in which he relates the famous story about how a true Gadol, the Chafetz Chaim, reacted when he heard about a natural disaster like the Haitian earthquake. In his day it was Japan. At 85 years of age he fasted. And he urged introspection and repentance by all Jews.
Rabbi Shafran points out the following:
Jewish religious sources maintain that catastrophes, even when they do not directly affect Jews, are nevertheless messages for them, wake-up calls to change for the better. Insurers call such occurrences “Acts of G-d.” For Jews, the phrase is apt, and every such lamentable event demands a personal response.
Rabbi Shafran then goes on to try and explain that we should see ourselves as the people to whom God directs His messages. I am not here to argue his point. Let us assume he is correct.
Introspection is never a bad idea. I can certainly understand why natural disasters might bring out such thoughts in all of humankind. The idea of ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’ comes to mind. People will reflect about why they deserve God’s mercy and think that perhaps the next time they might not be so lucky. If they don’t repent their personal shortcomings may be seen by God as not meriting protection.
I see no problem with reflecting on one’s own shortcomings at times like these. I believe that much of the generosity shown by people in in times like these reflects - only in part - this kind of thinking.
It is when specific reasons are mentioned by some rabbinic leaders implying the exclusion of other reasons - that I have a problem. Not that those reasons are necessarily wrong. They may in fact be right. But the operative word is ‘may’. We have no way of really knowing what specifically God was telling us. Perhaps He is telling us that our personal behavior needs to somehow change.
Rabbi Shafran also reported the following about the 2004 Tzunami in Asia:
It is a time considered particularly ripe for repentance. After that cataclysm, a revered contemporary Jewish sage in Israel, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, pointed out that the revered Gaon of Vilna identified a particularly powerful merit at this time of year in “guarding one’s speech” – avoiding the expression of ill will, slander and the like.
OK. I can accept that as a general failing in all of us. How many of us can truly say we never violated the Halachos of Lashon Hara? Certainly not me. We should all be looking in that mirror. We all need to improve in that area.
But I would think that there are other issues - perhaps a bit higher up on the list of problems affecting Klal Yisroel that God might just be sending messages about. I have yet to hear any rabbinic leader of any stature say that this is what we have to look at.
The Chafetz Chaim should be their model. He did not tell Klal Yisroel to fast. He told them to do Teshuva. But he went the extra mile and fasted.
This tells me not only of the great piety of the man, but it tells me that he felt the message was directed as much to him as anyone else - perhaps even more so. His responsibility as a Gadol was greater than that of the masses. This from a man who is considered saintly by all! His level of caring for every Jew; his level of personal ethics; his sense of responsibility for Klal Yisroel… he had few peers even in his day. That’s saying a lot if you consider who some of his contemporaries were.
I wonder how many of today’s rabbinic leaders fasted. I have not heard of any although there may have been. On the other hand everyone heard about the Chafetz Chaim's fast. That is no secret. If there are rabbinic leaders today who have done so we should know about it as that would be inspirational for the rest of us. It would send a message about how serious they really are about the issue.
But more than that, I would ask if any rabbinic leaders did a little self reflection on the great issues of our day. Just to list a few: Their ‘learning or bust’ attitude which is in large part responsible the poverty of Avreichim and their large families here and especially Israel - or their slow and tepid response to the victims of sex abuse - or their part in the phenomenon of ‘kids at risk’ which is directly related to how the religious educational system has evolved over the years - or their lack of addressing the core reasons of why so many Jews feel it is OK to cheat on your taxes etc.
If I were a rabbinic leader trying to figure out God’s message, these are some of the things I would reflect upon. This is where my thoughts would be. The Chafetz Chaim fasted. But I would suggest another route for today’s leaders. It should start with a self examination on how they have handled these and other serious matters in the past and how they are going to handle them in the future. That would be a good start.