Thoughts on the Tragedy in Japan by Rabbi Ed Gelb

Last Shabbat, while singing the beautiful melody for Psalm 93, the prayer that ends Kabbalat Shabbat, it struck me that this ancient prayer speaks powerfully to the current world situation. 

The first part of the psalm proclaims that God is all-powerful and has created the physical world that “stands firm.”  It seems that from earliest times humanity has experienced horrific natural disasters – like floods and earthquakes – and felt the necessity to reassure itself that the world will not be completely destroyed. 

Then, the psalmist acknowledges that nature is powerful in its own right and can be highly destructive.   We witnessed this once again to chilling effect last week in Japan, with the devastating impact of a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami. 

Finally, the psalmist proclaims that even despite “the crash of the sea,” God is above nature and that holiness remains in our world.

The psalmist, in my opinion, is walking a theological tightrope.  First, the psalmist asserts that God is all-powerful, for God has created the world.  Then, at the end, the psalmist asserts that God is good by stating that holiness is eternally a part of God’s “house.”  However, in the middle, the psalmist notes the power of destructive forces in the world that seem to “rage” and “roar” somewhat independent of God.   This notion is not consistent with an all-powerful and good God.  For if God is all-powerful and good, how can there be natural disasters where innocents are killed?

The psalmist does not really propose an answer, but instead provides comfort by reasserting that God has created a world that will not be utterly destroyed, and that God stands for holiness.  We do not understand why these terribly evil things happen, but we nevertheless believe that there is a moral code established by God.  We are awed by the power of nature and can only rely on hope and faith to believe that there is a larger answer that we, as mere humans, cannot fully comprehend.

These profound life mysteries have perplexed humanity for ages.  Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that our tradition has pondered this for ages, through everything we are still here, and that the words of this psalm still speak to us.

Below is a translation (from Siddur Sim Shalom) of Psalm 93:

The Lord is King, crowned with splendor;

The Lord reigns, robed in strength.

He set the earth on a sure foundation.

He created a world that stands firm.

His kingdom stands from earliest time.

He is eternal.

The rivers may rise and rage,

The waters may pound and roar,

The floods may spread and storm;

Above the crash of the sea and its breakers,

Awesome is the Lord our God.

Your decrees, O Lord, never fail.

Holiness befits your house for eternity.

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