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Rain of Fire!    Parshat VaYera

10/20/2021 10:49:54 AM


Everything that comes from G-d is ki tov --  only good.  But in the last few Torah portions, we have some pretty awful things arriving from heaven.

In Parshat Noach, a great flood descends and wipes out humanity.   In our Torah portion this week, G-d causes fire and brimstone to rain down upon the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, wiping out those evil places and transforming the verdant valley into a wasteland of salt and sulpher to this day. 

So where's the good in that?  I guess an easy answer is that judgment on evil is good.  Like what they're -- calling a cyberknife -- highly directed deadly radiation zeroing in on a malignant tumor -- is a lifesaving procedure, a source of good.  But at the same time, radiation is a force of destruction -- so where is ki tov?   Does everything come from G-d?  And if not, then from where?  And if yes, where is the tov, the good, in so much that is bad in our world?

Of all the rabbis who tried to tackle this problem -- how can so much bad descend on our world if G-d is all good and only good?  Rabbi Chaim Tirer of Tzernovitch (now in Ukraine) in the 18th century presented an evolved understanding.  Rabbi Chaim was no stranger to the bad stuff.  The Napoleanic Wars turned life upside down.  Earthquakes, famines, plagues -- all were much more present in his time than in ours.  So how did he understand the rains of destruction from an all good G-d?

Drawing on the Rambam, the Tzernevitcher compares the world to a field.  If the field has been ploughed, sowed and carefully tended, then rainfall brings incredible blessing: an ample, life-sustaining harvest.  But if the field has been neglected, if the earth is hard and cracked, then the rain will rip away the soil and bring floods and destruction.  

In the same way, says the Tzernevitcher, Noah's flood was meant to remake the world into a more durable, resilient place: a world where nature ran itself without regard to whether or not humanity was following G-d's moral law.  The rainbow reminds us that the world is given to us to care for; G-d will not intervene with our guardianship.  

In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, the flames were meant to achieve the same purpose: to purify the land from the violence and cruelty of the cities of the plain -- in effect, to reset reality.

And the people?  Well, the righteous Noah was saved as was the more-or-less semi-righteous Lot.  Because the generation of the flood and the Sodomites refused to heed the warning and change their path, they were caught up in the catastrophe.  But it didn't have to be that way.  As an antibiotic will target the illness-causing bacteria and leave the organism intact, the forces of judgment only purge that which is corrupted and destructive.  

And for us as modern people?  How do we understand all this?  The Rambam says that we are made of flesh and blood: matter.  Matter is affected by the random happenstance that governs the world of matter.  When a tree falls and rots, it is not because G-d is sending evil.  It is because the tree is matter and all matter is constantly changing form and substance.  

But what about those events that seem to arise and engulf us all?  Does G-d have no role in bringing them about?  Or at least in not preventing them?  These are the difficult and troubling questions that lead us to challenge G-d.  But at the same time, these events and questions also drive us to search out the sparks of blessing, the life-giving essence, even in the floods of water and fire.  

Such is our challenge in the macro and the micro of our lives: to ask, to challenge, but also to seek the light that nurtures our upward journey.   It is the belief that we are truly on an upward journey and that G-d, the life-affirming force, is there for us, challenging us, inspiring us, weeping with us, rejoicing with us, that is the healing role of faith.  Shabbat Shalom.


Thu, June 20 2024 14 Sivan 5784