I participate in a rabbinic email chat that is composed largely of right-of-center Orthodox rabbanim. Last week, one of the rabbanim asked the chat if anyone had an idea for a spiritual message as a takeaway from the deadly fires in Maui, Hawaii.
Being a glutton for punishment, I responded that I have a thought, but it must remain a thought because it is very politically incorrect and could be unnecessarily provocative.
Part of the discussion was whether we should be more attentive to the scientists who have been warning for years that global warming can lead to all kinds of natural disasters. I responded that scientists today have lost a lot of credibility. Much of the Woke culture has crept its way into science, including the gender insanity. They will not even allow for questioning of the Theory of Evolution, despite the fact that there are plenty of unanswered questions on the theory. The COVID response was completely infiltrated by political biases at either end of the debate.
Nonetheless, I suggested that there is little doubt we are undergoing climate change. The radical temperatures and unprecedented natural disasters make the effects of climate change abundantly clear.
But as religious Jews, and especially as rabbinic leaders, we are duty-bound to draw a connection to events around us. The Rambam famously states (Hilchos Taanis 1:3), “If people witness calamity and think it is haphazard and do not think of repenting, that is a way of cruelty and only serves to perpetuate their evil ways.”
We have witnessed unparalleled forest and brush fires, heat waves, droughts, floods, mudslides, hurricanes, and earthquakes in recent months. Is it not reasonable to connect the dots between these disasters and the total U-turn the world has taken regarding the sanctity of life and what was for millennia thought of as abnormal deviance? And what about financial corruption and schemes? What about tolerating robbery?
Beginning with the Flood during Noach’s time, the Torah (B’reishis 6:11) warns, “Now, the earth had become corrupted, and the earth had become filled with robbery.” G-d, therefore, decided to destroy his precious earth due to the debauchery of man. Interestingly, the rabbis taught us that the final fate of the Flood generation was sealed for financial misdeeds (see Rashi there, 6:13). See also Rashi in D’varim (25:17) about calamity to follow corrupt business practices.
We need not enumerate the countless times the Torah warns us of pending doom due to moral degeneracy. We know from the story of Yonah HaHavi that this applies to the gentile world, as well. Noach also makes that clear.
Is it not within our rights to call out to the world that we will continue to suffer unheard of disasters if we don’t find a way to come back to normal? If someone preaches this in advance, he is scoffed at, as Noah was in his time. Yet when these events do transpire, the ones making the point are written off as benighted screwballs.
Now, I know we are not prophets and not in a position to point to any particular sin that may be the cause of our troubles, but conceptually it should be considered. It is only right to emphasize to the world that what is happening is not “haphazard.” We need some introspection, plus honesty – intellectually and otherwise.
A rabbi friend of mine who was once the rabbi of one of the country’s largest and most prominent shuls, but with whom I occasionally differ, side-chatted me when I opened this discussion. “Yoel, what do you need this for? Why are you bothering?”
Truthfully, he is right; I don’t need it. I’m retired; I should just leave well enough alone. But I am quite surprised that my remarks sparked a discussion on that chat that continues even now.
One of the rabbanim very interestingly pointed to the sefer Nefesh HaRav, authored by Rav Hershel Schachter shlita, which outlines the thinking of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l on many current matters. On page 278, as part of a lengthy discussion of the different types of sinners and the call for their repentance, the Rav said that there is hope for those who sin out of a compulsive need to do so. The ones who turn their sin into an “ideology,” however, have very little hope and remain a threat to society, as alluded to by the Rambam above.
No doubt the world has turned many of the basic sins of man into an ideology. Is it so wrong for rabbis to point this out? Are we benighted for linking that to the calamities of the day? Thank goodness I’m retired.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.