Passover Pages of Sinai Temple
Earthquakes and Tsunamis at this year’s Seder?

Rabbi Mark Shapiro
April 2011

Do Japan’s earthquake and tsunami make this year’s Seder different? Actually, I believe every Seder every year needs to be “different” insofar as our world is always in flux. “Different” events in our lives or around the world ought to be reflected in the Seder at its best.

Which brings me back to the catastrophes that have befallen Japan. They challenge me when I think about reciting the Ten Plagues in this year’s Seder. I admire the way we Jews recall the natural disasters that occurred in Egypt. We identify plagues such as frogs, hail, darkness, and blight. We recognize that, without some kind of pain, the Egyptians would never have released our people. But we never rejoice in our enemy’s pain. Instead, we remove a drop of wine from our wine cups as we mention each plague. As the Haggadah teaches, “Our joy is reduced by the suffering of others.”

Now for the problem of 2011: How can we mention the ten plagues of old without mentioning the obvious “plagues” of earthquake and tsunami that have touched Japan so brutally and totally this very year? Aren’t they virtually 11th and 12th plagues? In which case, what can we honestly say about God’s role in Japan’s devastation? If God brought the original ten plagues on Egypt, has God brought these additional plagues on Japan?

You could ignore the issue at your seder. You could numbers the classic plagues, bless the matzah and move on to dinner. Or perhaps you’re like me. Perhaps the question about plagues, fairness, and God speaks to you. Perhaps it troubles you. If we take the Seder seriously, I’m inclined to think we can’t rhyme off the plagues this year unless we confront the big question of the year. Where is God when natural disaster strikes?

And here’s my answer. Or, better still, let me offer you a “response” to the question because there is no simple “solution” for the dilemma I’ve raised. There is no way to explain away the catastrophe in Japan. At best, I can offer some preliminary thoughts and a humble way to begin to place Japan’s pain into a Jewish context.

For a moment, follow me to a curious episode in Chapter Nine from the Book of Leviticus. We’re told there about two sons of the High Priest Aaron who approach the altar in the portable sanctuary in the Sinai Wilderness. The young men do something wrong. The Torah is not exact. Suddenly, a fire of some sort lashes out and the men are killed. According to the Torah, all this happens “lifnei Adonai…before God.”

As you might imagine, many commentators on the Torah grab onto this episode with question after question. In the main, they want to know what caused the death of the young men. The commentators especially want to know how something so unexpected and apparently unjust could happen “lifnei Adonai..before God.”

Some commentaries maintain that Aaron’s sons should have known better. These commentaries read the text carefully and imaginatively so that they are able to say, “Yes, the deaths occurred before God. The deaths were harsh but they are also understandable punishments for the young men’s misbehavior.”

Not all the commentaries agree, however. Some offer an amazingly brave interpretation. They suggest that, when the Torah tells us these unfair deaths took place “before God,” we’re being told they happened in God’s sight, as it were, but not necessarily with God’s approval. Aaron watched what happened to his boys and wept. According to the text I’m citing, God also “watched” what happened and then wept!

Carry the reading over to Japan and here is how I propose understanding the plagues of earthquake and tsunami. I think these disasters are, in some way, bigger than God. They are part of the natural world that has its necessary, sometimes brutal way of working. My extra perspective suggests that the pain of the earthquake and tsunami that makes so many people around the globe weep also touches God. I mean it. In some sense, God is hurt by the loss of life. God weeps. God joins us in mourning the Japanese disaster.

Does that make any difference?

For me it does. I’m thinking of the times I’ve felt overwhelmed. I’m thinking of occasions when I’ve seen many of you burdened beyond your capacity. At those times, we mostly can’t fix life for each other. But we can be there for each other. We can sit with each other, talk, and listen. You might say, we can weep with each other. And somehow that does help. It matters to know we are not alone.

So it goes with my vision of a God who is crying for Japan and so much other pain in our world this spring. In fact, I’ve got one final interpretation for Seder 2011. I’d like to suggest that the salt water on our Seder tables has a meaning we’ve never understood. I know the salt water is supposed to symbolize the tears of our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. They wept for themselves as well they should have.

But if God weeps at the pain throughout our world, perhaps the salt water at the Seder also represents God’s tears. God is hurt by the pain in our world. God mourns when there is misery. And perhaps our task is to stand by God. Admit that the world is not always fair. Mourn that unfairness. Join God in weeping. And then make it better. Reach out to human beings who need us. Wipe away someone’s real tears. Make the Seder into a launch pad for our own real response to a devastated world.

Should we mention the earthquake and tsunami at this year’s Seder? Absolutely yes. Join God in sadness. Join God in a bit of outrage. It’s our world too. God may be waiting for us to do our part – starting today or at least at the Seder itself.