When contemplating the terrible destruction of New Orleans and the tremendous tragedy of Gush Katif, we must be most careful not to turn God into a Being in whose name we can speak. Predicting that He will not allow the disengagement to happen or claiming that “Katrina” is a divine punishment are often all too easy ways to explain His actions. It is like explaining a three-dimensional reality with the help of a flat surface.
As is well known Jewish Tradition forbids the pronunciation of the four letter name of God. This name, rooted in the Hebrew word for “being”, consists of the Hebrew letters: Yud, He, Vav and He. According to the Sages of Israel the Name reflects the different dimensions of “being” related to time: The past, the Present and the Future. As such God figures as the One who lives in these three dimensions. The reason why one is not allowed to pronounce this Name is because the Name expresses the idea that God lives in these different dimensions simultaneously. Consequently these dimensions are in reality one and the same. God is beyond time or if you want in “all” time. For man who is bound by the limits of time this is however impossible to grasp. He lives in broken eternity. As such it is forbidden for man to pronounce the four letter Name since he would make the impression that when calling God by the four letter name, he actually grasps that God lives in the past, present and future simultaneously. This would involve an untruth and Jewish law forbids lying. God is incomprehensible and beyond all description. His being cannot be expressed. He can only be addressed. It is for this reason that it is not permitted to pronounce this Name. (1)
The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero in his famous work: Elima Rabati (2) elaborates on this:
“When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run to and fro – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect.”
On a deeper level this is the most important message of the biblical book of Iyov (Job) which discusses human suffering as no other. While Iyov’s friends argue that his terrible afflictions are due to his sins, Iyov argues that his afflictions in no way fit the crime. There must be more to his afflictions than sin. The rabbis, in full agreement with this point, therefore accused Iyov’s friends of “wronging with words.” Arguing that man is able to scrutinize God’s ways is a kind of Avodah Zarah, trying to fit Him into a box in which He does not fit.
Still, it is not for man to argue that since Gods ways are unknown it does not carry any message for man. While God no doubt has His own ultimate unknown reasons for allowing or even causing tragedies to take place, they may still carry important messages for man. Although the real reasons may be totally beyond his grasp, man is still obliged to contemplate what these messages may teach him from his own limited perspective. Just as God is in the past as well as in the present and future concurrently, and therefore incomprehensible, so it may well be that His reasons for evil are also rooted in a similar condition. However from man’s subjective perspective they may at the same time teach man an important lesson. The real reason will never be known to man, the subjective and “imaginary” messages should however not be lost on him.
Since it is impossible to know the factual reasons of God, one cannot point one’s finger in the direction of the other and hold him or her responsible for any natural disaster. There is no way of knowing whether the other is at fault. But what one could do is to suggest that there may be such a “subjective” correlation and ask the other to contemplate this accordingly. This however can only be done in great humility and with the clear emphasis that this is nothing more than a suggestion with the clear intention to help mankind. In matters of God one must be open to all possibilities, one cannot take the change of missing out on a possible opportunity to hear His voice.
This is even more true when one deals with oneself. One must act as if one’s own moral failures may have somehow played a role in causing the disaster.
Any opportunity to learn and advance one’s spiritual growth must be grasped with both hands.
For the same reason one cannot argue that prayers must work. One of the great teachings of Judaism is that God cannot be manipulated by man. Prayer may not save us but prayer makes us worth being saved if the divine plan calls for it. Arguing that prayer must work and that God must listen is making God into an idol who is in the service of man. To “force” God to respond positively to our prayers and expect Him to respond in the way we would like Him to, may be good enough reason for Him not to listen.
(1) See Chulin 90b, Yoma 69b and Rabbi E.E. Dessler, Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Vol 3, pp. 314-316.
(2) Elima Rabati, 1.10, p. 4b