"He's intelligent but not experienced. His pattern indicates two dimensional thinking." (Spock, Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan)
To his credit, Rav Yonasan Rosenblum rarely goes for the easy answers in his writing. Even when I disagree with him, I always have to appreciate that his position is taken from a position of reason. But unfortunately his latest essay disappoints in that regard in that, like many other writers from around the world, he tried to explain the mind of God, something we as humans can never completely understand.
The basic points in his piece are sound:
But for all the wondrous powers with which Hashem has imbued Man, those powers are also limited – something that we forget at our peril. On Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we received an important reminder. The eruption in Iceland of a relatively small volcano, with an unpronounceable name, brought European air travel to a halt for nearly a week. Over one hundred thousand flights were grounded, with millions of travelers unable to return home or reach their destinations.
A earlier, the same volcano erupted without incident. But a concatenation of events created a perfect storm this time. The hot magma reached the surface under a glacier, and when the molten lava hit the ice, the result was the creation of glassified silicates that burst three to five miles into the sky under pressure from the steam released. The winds at those altitudes carried the clouds of particles capable of destroying jet engines and cracking plane windshields over most of Europe.
And suddenly Man was no longer master of the skies. As Professor Michio Kato, writing in the Wall Street Journal put it, "We humans often think we are so great, with all our high technology [only to find ourselves] pushed around like pawns as the earth slowly but inexorably changes and shifts."
Believing Jews are taught to look for a message in all such cataclysmic events.
Not much objectionable there. However, he immediately took a promising start right off the rails with his very next statement:
Some found such message in the fact that Eyjafjallajokull erupted, bringing all tourism to England to a halt, on the very day that the Independent revealed that the United Kingdom Advertising Standard Agency had banned an advertisement for travel to Israel that featured a photo of the Kotel. According to the Agency, the ad misleadingly implied that the Kotel is part of Israel.
How terribly simplistic, and despite the title of the article, not the way to think Jewishly at all.
One of the basic understandings of our faith is that God, having predated all of existence as we understand it exists outside of both space and time. All that was, all that is and all that will be is present before Him. He does not wonder what the future will bring or forget what occured in the past. As a result, He has the ability to control and provide sustence for all of Creation at the same time. Like an infinite interlocking puzzle, He knows where all the pieces go and how to move everything so that Creation stays in sync at all times.
Humans are not quite as capable of understanding all of this. We are trapped within time and therefore tend to see things in a temporal fashion along the lines of cause and effect. We are also selfish, tending either consciously or not to see things through the lens of "how does this effect me?". As a result, there is always a temptation to try and find deeper meanings in events around us. Due to our limitations, such attempts are always failures.
Consider a simple example: a mafioso lives down the street. One day his house burns down with him inside. The entire city is happy and sees the fire as Heavenly revenge for his criminal ways. Then his wife, who was out at the time of the fire, invested the insurance money from the mishap and uses it to create an even bigger crime empire. Was the fire really revenge against the wicked?
The same thinking has been applied to the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland. The British had just attacked Israel's legitimate claim to Yerushalayim so God punished them, as the notion went, by temporarily grounding their tourist industry.
But any serious examination of the subject immediately tears that apart. If the British sinned, what did the French, Germans, Belgians and, most importantly, Icelanders do wrong? Some might scoff and point out that they aren't exactly bastions of pro-Israel activity but that's not the point. The British have been quietly undermining Israel for years too but the volcano is supposed to be revenge for a specific action, that of the tourism board. The other countries did nothing in particular against Israel that week. Why be punished alongside the British?
Then there's the idea that Britian was isolated because of the ash cloud. Except that it wasn't because it was still quite accesible by sea and rail (through the Chunnel). Yes there was a huge inconvenience to tens of thousands of travellers but no more than that. No lives were lost and the economic damage is reparable.
And mentioning inconvenience, let's also point out that thousands of Israeli and Jewish tourists were affected by the ash cloud. Is God an indiscriminate brute capable of only punishing in broad strokes without regard for the good and bad? Of course not. As Avraham noted when God told him he was going to destroy S'dom, that's exactly what God isn't!
It is always tempting to engage in simplistic thinking. We've all heard the stories about the people who came late to work on 9/11 only to miss being in the World Trade Centre when it collapsed. What a miracle, we're told. Hashgachas pratis, we're told. And what about those Jews who got to work on time and died? Hmmmm?
As the end of the books of Iyov and Koheles tell us, ours is not to try and know the mind of God. As the Navi says, "My thoughts are not as your thoughts". Ours is to keep His Torah and live our lives as decently as we an, trusting that He will do a perfect job running the universe.