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SODOM AND SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, UP IN SMOKE

By the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank

Rabbi Rafi RankThe way life and Torah study interplay one with the other can be pretty eerie.  Take, for example, the week of October 21, 2007, when we study the two most famous destroyed cities of the Bible: Sodom and Gomorrah.  It was the same week we were inundated with the news of devastating fires in southern California.  The fires had displaced thousands of people and had burnt 490,000 acres or 765 square miles, an area that well exceeds the size of New York City with all its five boroughs.  Some 1800 homes had been destroyed, 80 percent in San Diego, where the rough estimates on total damage had already exceeded the $1 billion dollar mark.

And so it was with chilling irony that we read in that week’s Torah portion: “…looking down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain [Abraham] saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln” (Genesis 19:28).  The Torah explains precisely why Sodom and Gomorrah went up in smoke.  It was the act of a God so disappointed with the sins that had transpired in those two cities that the Holy One saw no alternative but to annihilate its citizens and destroy their cities.  And so He did.

Throughout history, humankind has struggled with the issue of why terrible things befall the innocent.  And among religious people, the answer is often laid at the doorstep of God’s kingdom.  In a just world, and one in which God is fully in charge, the only way to explain the horror is to vindicate it.  It would be regarded as a just act initiated by a loving God who seeks to discipline us for our sins.  And that is the explanation for Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction.

That is not, however, the explanation for the disaster in Southern California.  There the search is on for an arson or group of arsonists that may have started it all.  In Southern California, God is not the culprit, but the folly or cruelty of humankind may be.  Were we to go back through history and investigate the most devastating disasters or the most vicious crimes committed, we may just be able to vindicate God, as we discover the terrible role played by the irrational, cruel or vicious nature of human beings in our own downfall.  Sodom and Gomorrah, as the Bible testifies, had to have been two cities full of sin.  I only question whether it was God who was most responsible for their destruction, or if the citizens simply brought destruction upon themselves.

Nevertheless, God is not divorced from the tragedy in Southern California or in the other disasters or challenges that we face.  God may always be present, but it is not in the destruction, it is in the loving response to those in need.  Wherever there is misfortune, we are commanded by God to help the wounded, the sick, the embattled, the impoverished, and certainly those whose time on earth is calculated not in years but in days or even hours, by sharing with them our resources and our love.

In the past, and for those who live in the past, God may be seen as the perpetrator of the tragedy.  But in the present, or for people who wish to pursue a contemporary religious worldview—Jew and non-Jew alike—God is not the perpetrator of the tragedy.  God is the perpetrator of the relief.


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