Why Are There Tsunamis in G-D’s Creation?

Author: Eli Ehrman, Shevat 5765/Feb 2005

I would like to address a question that is not new. It is as old as man's belief in one G-D, the source of all morality and good. However, every now and then the question tragically imposes itself upon us as if new. How could the Creator of the world, the One who brought each human being into existence, the one about whom it says "G-D is good to all and His Mercy is upon all His creations", have allowed, or worse instigated, that over a hundred thousand human beings should lose their lives? Did they do something bad? Are the fifty thousand or so estimated children who died guilty of something? Are the countless orphans who were created in the tragedy somehow responsible? I want to ask the question of natural evil tonight, to ask about the kind of evil that cannot be blamed on man. I am not asking about why there can exist a Holocaust or a Rwanda or a Sudan, but why there are Tsunamis and cancer.

I want to apologize to you all. I know that everybody here has by now heard countless "responses" to the tragedy from people who have been given positions that actually entitle them to address the issue. However, I have heard many beautiful answers but none satisfactory.

It was my original intention to speak on a totally different subject. I wanted to discuss the Perek Tehillim we know as Ashrei. I wanted to speak about David Hamelech's view of Creation full of Hadar – majestic beauty – because the artifice created has to reflect the nature of its Creator. However, I came across a response from Rav Aharon Lichtenstien that expressed a problem I was having. It is neither possible nor correct to continue along your daily life as if nothing had happened. You simply may not let your life move forward unchanged. This issue is entirely separate from the requirement to actually help the victims. The act of identification, even if it of no material help to those who suffer is a basic human duty. I feel compelled to turn aside and address this issue instead.

I quoted the response of Rav Lichtenstien and I would like to add that it was the most impressive I have seen. However, I would like to take issue with another point made there that is common to many of the responses. This response says: We cannot answer the question posed by the tragedy because we do not begin to fathom G-D's reasons for His actions. We are not G-D's scorekeepers. There is a moral problem of arrogance or extreme lack of humility on the part of the ridiculously limited man in questioning the Divine.

There is not only a moral problem with lack of humility in this regard. There is an epistemic; an intellectual problem. It is not morally wrong to be unaware of the limitations of human reason, of knowledge or of the sheer lack of evidence; of hard facts. It is simply the path of the fool. Nevertheless, I have a problem with the "what can we know response". Why? That response is appropriate but it is correct only as the response of man when already standing in the presence of the Divine. It is the response demanded by G-D when He has already appeared to Iyyov from within the storm. However, G-D does not appear in a storm to people every day. It is not the appropriate response when searching for evidence of G-D in Creation.

Why should a person believe that the Universe that he is a part of was created in its entirety by an omnipotent G-D as an act of Hesed (Mercy)? The answer must be because the balance of evidence available to a person suggests that this is true. Such a proposition is rational because there is no other reasonable explanation for the Universe in which we live. A judge has no immediate access to knowledge regarding a case before him, but nevertheless decides that the truth lies one way or the other on the basis of the evidence. He will not know for certain – his goal is to believe his conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. Similarly a scientist believes one theory rather than an other because the one explains the facts well and the other does not.

There is a very wide range of reasons to believe that there is a Divine Designer behind the universe we know. However, one very important subset of evidence is the beauty and good in human life. The problem with the response "what can we know" is that it fails to try and make sense of the Universe. It leaves the field to the Atheist who is free to say: "see, this is an evil universe, either random and miserable or else guided by a malicious force. Your belief is irrational, the evidence is against your concept of G-D".

I am not talking about an exercise in public relations. I also reject the idea that these questions need answers only for the needs of those who are "weak of faith". To be blind, unthinking and refuse to question is no merit, it places you closer to the animals than to the Divine. All beliefs are subject to the danger of being rubbish. You must search to base your opinions on good, sound judgment.

There is another reason to pursue some explanation. Like all good questions, if you find some answer to your question, you have not returned to square one, you have not arrived back where you were before you asked your question. You have advanced. Your understanding is greater. You have furthered the goal of Venihyeh Kulanu Yode'ei Shemechah (And let us all be ones who know Your Name). It is a commandment from G-D that we make sense of His Creation.

What can we do in a situation where there is clearly no access to a full understanding? The atheist, if he is reasonable, knows that he cannot prove that it is impossible that there is some reason for the Universe as it is. On the other hand we cannot show that the Universe has to be the way it is, that no alternative is possible or better. What then is open to us? What is possible, is to lay out a reasonable, believable set of assumptions that, if true, would explain why the Universe would have to be the way it is. We cannot and need not provide details that show exactly how there could be no better alternative. We simply need to show how it is likely and understandable that such a set of circumstances lead to the world being the way it is. We are even allowed to speculate - if the final result helps put some more of the pieces of the puzzle of our existence into order.

I present arguments about whose truth I cannot be certain. I am not G-D's scorekeeper and I do not have access to His knowledge or deliberations. However, I must enter the field. Saying nothing is not an option. I say what seems reasonable. I presume that these outlines, if logical, come closer to the Divine truth than sullen silence.

I propose the following: There are at least four elements that must be given to human beings: freedom, joy rather than suffering, meaning and access to truth. To deny humanity any of these four elements is to create a life unbearable. Better that we were not born than to be missing any one of these elements. We are told that G-D created the Universe as an act of חסד to the Created. If these four elements are as critical as I claim, then His goal must have included to provide these four elements to humanity. Failing the possibility of achieving these four, the decision would have been not to create at all. These four elements are:

Freedom. Significant Freedom. We often express this as Bechirah Chofshit - Free Will. However, on the one hand free choice does not mean the freedom to do anything we please. We cannot fly. Our freedom is limited by the freedom of others. On the other hand the freedom to choose whether to scratch the left ear or the right ear is not meaningful. We cannot be talking about the freedom of a rat in his cage. Between these two we are left with the requirement that the freedom be significant. The choices we make must significantly make a difference to the lives we end up leading. While boundless freedom is neither necessary nor meaningful, there must be the freedom to ultimately decide what kind of future there will be – what kind of world we will live in. This does not mean that such decisions are the at the whim of any individual but that the power is available to shift the momentum to a chosen direction.

The second requirement for human life to be worth creating is that their lives contain joy and lack of suffering. On the one hand a life worth living is one that experiences pleasure in that life, that is filled with love and beauty. On the other hand it cannot have suffering, pain, destitution, shame and enslavement.

The third requirement is that life be meaningful and understood to be such. Imagine a world with freedom and joy as described but lacking in meaning for those involved. This too is a sham and not worth the bother. I do appreciate that this category is seriously linked to the previous two – meaning depends on freedom and it is a component of the joy – I do not deny that the categorizations can be chosen differently. The content is the point here.

The fourth requirement is that man have access to the truth. It must be possible to have a significant ability to get closer and closer to an understanding of reality as it truly is. Again, if it was somehow possible to populate a world with people having freedom, joy and meaning but entirely fooled and misled regarding their situation, that too would be a revolting state of affairs. (Perhaps this requirement reflects my own bias but I, personally would rather have nothing than a world of lies.)

There may be other requirements. Indeed, from what G-D reveals to us in his Torah, there are others. There is a requirement, for example, that man not focus all his attention on his plow and his personal honor but rather acknowledge and worship the Creator. He should speak the words of The Living G-D. However, the reason I will not include these is because I leave the discussion at present on the plane of the facts available without revelation.

So why didn't G-D just go right ahead and create a world with all the requirements I have described? The answer is that such a world cannot be created by fiat, right from the start. It is only a world that can be achieved, eventually and then only if the partners to that creation seriously want it too.

Why can such a world not be created by decree? Because the requirements contradict each other. It is not possible for the different requirements to exist at the same time – at least not by decree. I am not capable of showing in detail that such a world cannot be created – no person has the knowledge of the details available. However I can illustrate the contradictions involved if I reduce the complexity a little:

Instead of six billion imagine just two people. Lets try and implement just two of the requirements that I just laid out: free will and joy or at least lack of suffering. Lets imagine G-D puts these two individuals on a small island. Now clearly if He prevents one of them from causing pain to the other, then He has not given that person any significant free will – at least not regarding morality. That means that He must allow one of the two to cause suffering to the other. He must even allow the one to remove the freedom of the other through enslavement. If he does not make this possible he has not given freedom, He has given up on one of the requirements from the start.. G-D can appear to both people and make known His demand from them not to hurt the other – such a revelation does not remove their free will. However, He will not force them to respect each other's freedom for that would be self-defeating.

To use engineering terminology, I am trying to maximize the function of freedom and lack of suffering for these two individuals. It turns out that there is only one way of achieving a maximal value for these goals. That would happen only of they both, freely choose not to hurt each other. That can be hoped for, it cannot be guaranteed. There is no guarantee of a maximum to the function, the is only the hope of one.

Thus if we visit this island and find that unfortunately one of them is suffering or has had his freedom removed, it is not because G-D did not wish good for them. We saw that there is no other way to make it worth putting them on the island in the first place. It could have been better – it might yet be better but this can only depend on the people themselves.

My point in this illustration in that the different requirements create contradictions. These contradictions are resolvable but they cannot be necessarily or immediately resolvable. The different requirements can create inherent contradictions. However, they are requirements. If we decide up front that we must do without any one of them permanently – it would be better not to have Creation at all.

These contradictions are not only created by juxtaposing different requirements. Take the requirement of joy in human life. Assume that for joy to be appreciated, to be noticed and therefore to cause the pleasure intended it must be dynamic; it must change; ebb and flow; new beings come into our lives to love while others leave us. Because of the intensity of the joy and pleasure of these facets of life, we find it unbearable that the flip-side of the dynamism of this joy, the loss and bereavement, should exist. Thus there cannot even be joy without pain.

Now I would like to explain the central concept in my presentation tonight. Why natural disasters on such scales are possible: We made the requirement that life must involve significant freedom. Significant freedom requires control. We must have the power to shape and form our environment. In order to create, in order to plan, our environment must be predictable. There must be laws of nature. The good that G-D bestows on us must be expressible as permanent rules. For example, He does not just take away our sicknesses, there is an unbelievably intricate immune system capable of adapting and creating new solutions to the problems it faces. Food does not appear, there is instead the biology of life. Immense forces of nature obey rules that are discoverable by man. Once these rules are understood, these immense forces create possibilities for immense projects that can shape our destiny. Weak forces would limit us to building huts at most.

Thus the נאמנות, the loyalty of G-D to a world powered through the laws of nature, is how He bestows on us a freedom that is significant. The freedom granted is the freedom to create the destiny of mankind and perhaps the universe. The freedom derives from the fact that Creation is a set of predictable rules. A rule-based world is a world we can make meaningful choices in, a world we can modify and shape. Rule-based forces are forces that can be harnessed.

We are a life-form whose stunning design is embodied in a system that adapts by changing its own software – its own programming – often in random ways - through mutation. A rigid system would fail or require arbitrary intervention continuously. There are no good mutations without bad mutations. Thus there babies born with defects. The laws of the system require that there are beneficial as well as harmful multiplications of cellular systems. Thus there is cancer. The system that makes our freedom significant is the system that took away my sister.

Though we do not realize it often, it is a wonder, in the literal sense that there are planets at all. All the constants of physics have to be tuned to exactly one set of values in order that the universe should not be composed of useless hydrogen atoms randomly distributed. A planet holds together immense matter under unimaginable forces. Take two boulders and squeeze them in a tight vice and they will continuously shift. Such shifts in the matter of our planets is what we know as earthquakes. Even 15 on the Richter scale is possible logically. The world has just experienced and earthquake of magnitude 9. If what we just experienced had been 11 on the Richter scale, 1000 times the energy would have been released! Those would be waves that cover the mountains and flood the significant parts of world.

The Tsunami is a consequence of a world functioning according to laws of nature. If there is gravity on a planetary scale there must be earthquakes on a planetary scale. The size of the forces and the system of laws are the gift of life and the gift of freedom. The existence of these forces give us life. The fact that they take the shape of predictable laws gives us the power to create a world as we choose.

These laws entail huge suffering. However, they also entail the solution to the suffering. We have the intelligence and the capability of harnessing these forces themselves. We can create a world where there is no cancer. We can create a world where not one person dies from earthquakes. We have been given a world that we have the power to make into Gan Eden. We need to care enough to want it. We need to strive hard enough to make it happen. We also need the help of G-D to make it happen – more on that last in a moment.

So one day we might make a perfect world. Why, then, did not G-D choose to make the world perfect in the first place? Why not start with the world perfect and leave mankind the choice whether to preserve it? This is not an option because such a scenario does not entail significant freedom. Freedom means that we choose what kind of good world there will be. What kind of meaning or freedom would there be in our lives if the perfect world has already been created and we are bound only to preserve it. Man would say to G-D: "Preserve it yourself".

I suggest that the world had to be created as a tabula rasa; a blank sheet of paper with immense raw forces upon which we must choose to create our destiny. The world starts off highly imperfect, full of hunger, danger, suffering and overpowering limitations. It is populated by beings who are free to choose, and that freedom entails the possibility that they will choose to increase the suffering even more. Paradoxically, this horrid state of affairs is the only Universe worth creating. It is a testament to the faith G-D has in humanity that he did create it. He, at least, believes that we are capable of creating a Gan Eden out of the world He gave to us or He wouldn't have created it in the first place.

The vision I present of the interaction of G-D with humanity is not only consistent with the facts of the world around us. It is also continuously presented as such in the Torah. G-D gives humanity the choice as to how the world should be. Even the choice not to begin our existence from a state of Gan Eden was made by mankind. G-D lets Avraham present the case for how G-D Himself should interact with people and even how He should punish them. In every case from Moshe to Yirmiyahu, the prophets are given missions and yet they must struggle endlessly with the people. Not even tasks demanded by G-D and for the sake of G-D are guaranteed to succeed. Quite the opposite.

There is one important point that has to be made before I close. I have spoken about what seems to be limitations on the options that G-D has. He cannot give significant freedom without the possibility of suffering, for example, because that would be logically inconsistent. However, the understanding I present of the Divine is not one of powerless empathy with the suffering of mankind.

One step removed from the atheists of today, there are those who make a god out of the principle of goodness and caring in the universe. Their god cannot help the fact that there is suffering, he can only empathize and will man onwards to create a better world. This god is nothing but a powerless, whining kvetch.

First of all, G-D is capable of creating any world. The limitations presented here are of His own choosing. It is only because of His Hesed (Mercy) that He created a universe in which all four requirements listed jostle for expression. The limitations that are exhibited in Creation are there only so that our lives be worth living. It is He who created the world, it does not exist separately while He does his best to make it better. He brings it into being every second and is the Melech (King).

Besides being the Ground of Existence, the power of our G-D is expressed in the world too. He splits the sea at His whim. He reveals Himself when He chooses. If evil crosses certain boundaries, He punishes furiously. It is even consistent with our understanding of Free Will that He limit Pharaoh's choices.

We have defined freedom not as boundless, infinite choice. That is absurd. We have defined it as the ability to make significant choices. When G-D reveals Himself to us, we know more about what is demanded of us but it is still for us to choose how to act. Even the generation that saw the splitting of Yam Suf (the Red Sea) was capable of building the Egel (Golden Calf) right after the Revelation at Har Sinai. There is no need or requirement for G-D to remove Himself from active participation in the world in order to maintain the requirements described here. On the other hand there is a need for a self-imposition of balance in order to maintain the goals He desires for us. His power is revealed only at specific moments in time and place.

The view as presented by the Torah is neither a limited G-D nor a powerful but self-removed force. The concept is rather one of a partnership between G-D and humanity. The partnership maintains the freedom and meaningfulness of the human side of the partnership while allowing the involvement of G-D without which there is no hope that the project will ever achieve success. Even when it is G-D who brings about some change, but He does so at our request, as an answer to our Tephillot, this is an expression of our freedom rather than a limitation of it.

I suggest that the balance that we are taught exists is actually logically necessary. It is the only way good can be achieved. Even if we not told that this was the state of affairs, consistent rational analysis would require that this be the way it should be.

I am also not saying that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is indeed a far worse world than it could be. It is the starting conditions, the Creation of the world, that is the best of all possible. Very, very sadly, our human choices have made the world we actually live in, far worse than it might have been.

In summary, the suffering and evil we see in this world is not a means to an end, it is one consequence of the nature of the universe. Other consequences of the initial conditions would also have been possible. The nature of the universe is the way we observe it to be because it is what makes our lives worth living.

The world must be created initially as a kind of tabula rasa. It must have predictable laws of nature rather than arbitrary behavior, Only that kind of a world is a world that humanity can make significant choice regarding what to make of it; what kind of good world it is to be. Such is the world that was actually created. Indeed man was placed in such as world. In addition, G-D reveals Himself to man in order to inform him of His demand to create a good existence for himself as well as for all. This is the only arrangement that creates the possibility of bringing all four necessary requirements: freedom, joy, meaning and understanding. Such is a world without death from cancer or Tsunamis and without Holocausts. That is the life worth living for all – the Gan Eden. However these condition cannot pertain ab initio and these cannot only pertain if we really care and seriously desire them too.

The Tsunami is part of no plan for a better a world. It is an inescapable evil without which humanity would have no significant freedom. It did not happen so that the consequence of the event would be a better world. It was not designed to have good consequences. It happened because we haven't yet made it not happen. Making it not happen requires caring that it will not happen and in objective terms succeeding in making it not happen.

To end, I would like to tell you about some informal, unscientific and anecdotal research I have been conducting. I ask kids in the advanced grades of the Dati Leumi (National Religious) educational system the following simple question: Did it happen in your class that one child raised his or her hand and asked "How it could be possible that the Almighty and Good G-D could have allowed a quarter of a million people to die in the Tsunami?" I teach in two different high schools and had access to most of the classes there and my children represent a few more schools. I also got feedback from a number of other schools besides this. So far, I have not heard of one class where such an event happened.

I know that many Rabbanim and teachers addressed this issue on their own initiative. I am also certain that there were some classes in our educational system where one child asked such a question, but there weren't enough so that it got reported in my informal survey. I also know that often this kind of consciousness develops after high school or at least at the very end of it. Nevertheless, I think my findings are remarkable and horrendous. I know that there are good reasons. I know that we all live in a generation in the shadow of the Holocaust and that no new question is raised by the recent disaster. I know that many kids feel sure that they will get no answer and so feel no reason to ask a question that will only stump their teacher. I know that in some cases there might be a stigma in being the one to ask the question. I know that our media dealt with the event as if the only people hurt by the disaster were a handful of Israelis. Nevertheless, I expect that there is always some child who bucks all the trends and needs to ask the question. I would like to have believed that there is at least one such character in every class, almost.

I knew one such child once. That child was my sister Etta. There isn't even a tiny chance that she wouldn't have been asking the question in every class if this had happened while she was in high school. Every teacher of hers could attest to the trouble they had from that child even on lesser matters.

I have a challenge, therefore, for us and for our educational system. There has to be many more such kids. The classes simply have to full of children who in response to such a world event, especially if it involves no Jews or Israelis, cannot rest until they have some reasonable answer that makes sense. When that day comes, it will only be a very short time till people stop dying in such disasters. That is a critical component of the Geulah that should come in Bimherah Beyamenu.



This talk was written in order to deliver at the Etta Kossowsky Yahrtzeit Lecture 5765 by Eli Ehrman.