October 22, 2019

Listen for God’s voice amid an earthquake’s shaking

In the event of an earthquake, look upward and take the earth’s shaking as a sign of an awe-inspiring God, Rabbi Laura Geller recommends.

In the event of an earthquake, look outward and care for your neighbor, says Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. 

And Rabbi Harold Schulweis, in his essay “Was God in the Earthquake?” which directly addressed the 1994 Northridge earthquake, drew on the teachings of Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and expanded on ideas espoused by Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”), explaining that God can be found in the cause of the earthquake, as well as in the way people react afterward. 

Like Geller, Schulweis sees an earthquake as a testament to nature’s powerful capabilities, terrifying as that may be. Schulweis called the force that causes earthquakes “Elohim,” one of the biblical names for God. 

“Elohim is amoral, revealing the transcendent power out of the whirlwind,” Schulweis wrote.

Meanwhile, like Bookstein, Schulweis emphasized the importance of how people treat one another in the aftermath of events like the 1994 quake. He called the force that brings people together in the wake of a tragedy “Adonai,” yet another name for God.

“Where is Adonai in the earthquake? In people in their individual and collective behavior to protect, sustain and comfort those who suffer,” Schulweis wrote.

Shortly after the 1994 earthquake — which killed 57 people and displaced thousands from their homes, damaging or destroying more than 30,000 residences, according to the Los Angeles Times — Geller, who was then serving as campus rabbi at University of Southern California’s Hillel, had an experience with a student that helped shape her view that earthquakes ought to make us humble before God, not narcissistic.

She was visited by a college student, who confided that he believed his own past behavior had caused the 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake.

“He was very troubled, and in the course of this counseling, he sort of shared with me his fear that the earthquake happened as a punishment for him, for something that he had done. And I mean, obviously, the guy had issues,” said Geller, who now is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

“When something happens, the instinct is, ‘It’s about me.’ It might be about me that I lost my grandmother’s china, that the wall in the back of our house fell down, that damage was caused to the chimney,” she said.

But it does not have to be this way, she said. People’s perspective in the case of an earthquake could be much more philosophical.

“Ultimately, I live in a world where God’s power — however you define that — does fill the universe, and this is a moment where I notice that,” Geller said. “This is a moment where something terrible has happened, but at same time, something natural has happened.”

Bookstein, meanwhile, expressed hope that the communities of neighbors and others helping one another following a natural disaster could become a year-round norm. 

“Unfortunately, it sometimes takes these kinds of disasters for people to realize their interconnectedness,” said Bookstein, who leads Pico Shul, an Orthodox community in Pico-Robertson.

We even have two blessings, which Geller believes are appropriate to say in the case of a tremor. 

One is “Oseh ma’ahseh b’reishit,” which gives thanks to the God “…who renews the work of creation). The other is “oseh she-hakoh maleh olam” (“…whose power fills the world”). 

Traditionally, these blessings are said upon witnessing a lightning storm or a falling star, or when coming upon mountains or deserts.

Geller stressed the practical uses of such blessings. Because knowledge is power, the person familiar with the blessings’ awe of nature will be more likely than the person who is unfamiliar to have, say, an earthquake kit on hand, she said.

“That kind of spiritual practice does in fact help you prepare, because you know this is going to happen,” she said.

Geller no longer remembers how she responded to the student who confessed to her that the earthquake had been his fault, but she hopes she explained that larger-than-life incidents, like earthquakes, reinforce that there’s something greater than ourselves.

“The important thing is not that God made this happen as a punishment or anything like that, but that this is what happens in the universe,” she said, “and to notice.”