(February 21, 2023 / JNS) In the aftermath of the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed over 36,000 people in Turkey and Syria, Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu stated in a column published in the Olam Qatan weekly newsletter that “God is judging all the nations around us who wanted to invade our land several times and throw us into the sea,” comparing the earthquake to the drowning of the Egyptian forces in the Red Sea in the biblical story of Exodus. The rabbi called the disaster “divine justice.”
These words go against the teachings of our Sages quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b) on this very topic. After the ancient Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea and the angels rejoiced and sang, God rebuked the angels, telling them that the Egyptians were God’s creatures and it was not appropriate to rejoice over their destruction.
The Midrash also emphasizes the importance of maintaining humility and moral responsibility, even during a military victory. During the Passover meal, Jews around the world uphold this value by refraining from excessive enthusiasm when listing the plagues inflicted on Egypt.
These texts and rituals are grounded in the core value that every person is created in tzelem elohim (the likeness of God) and deserves respect. The Mishna teaches us “that man was first created as one person [ha’aḏam] to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who sustains a life, the verse ascribes him as if he saved an entire world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).
What’s more, this principle is so apparent that in the Quran, it is attributed to the Jewish people: “We prescribed for the sons of Israel that whoever kills a person … is as if he has killed the whole of humankind, and whoever saves the life of a person is as if he has saved the life of the whole of humankind” (Quran 5:32).
As this text from the Quran shows, the Jewish people have a reputation for valuing human life, and any comments or actions that undermine our love of life—the life of everyone and anyone—brings shame upon us.
The Jewish people must strive to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6), but Rabbi Eliyahu’s comments undermine this collective effort. His remarks reflect neither Jewish teachings nor actions taken by the State of Israel. Israel has sent rescue workers to aid in the aftermath of the earthquake, practicing what is mandated in Judaism and the Quran—to save lives and bring peace to nations.
We should be wary of individuals who assert that they understand the motivations behind God’s actions. Such claims betray a sense of arrogance, as stated in Isaiah 55:8, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord.”
This holds especially true in regard to natural events. As Maimonides wrote in The Guide for the Perplexed 3:12, “Evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips.”
That is, some people might experience bad fortune because they are evil; others as a result of natural disasters. Mere mortals should not presume to comprehend divine reasoning.
As the Mishna teaches, “The world rests on three things: Torah, service to God and deeds of loving-kindness” (Pirkei Avot 1:2). Therefore, we should respond to this disaster with generosity and kindness, providing aid and support to those in need and spreading a message of hope and solidarity during these difficult times.
A responsible leader would focus on practical measures to prevent similar tragedies in the future and on providing aid to those affected by the current disaster. I stand with the words of World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, who urges us all “to commit ourselves to helping and supporting one another, not [to] stoking of hatred and divisiveness.”
Rabbi Isaac Choua is the global interfaith leader for the World Jewish Congress’ Jewish Diplomatic Corps and liaison for Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa.
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