Rabbi Micah Citrin
May 1, 2015
On Shabbat we stand in awe of the natural world. The seventh day invites us to see creation through eyes of wonder as we marvel at what the Power that Makes For All Life has formed. No words capture this perspective better than the Psalms that the mystics of Tzfat wove into the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat. Let these verses wash over you:
“Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult; let the sea and all within it thunder (Ps. 96).”
“Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and all its inhabitants; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of Adonai (Ps. 98).”
These verses sing of a symphonic world; a world in which nature’s grandeur is a witness to the Source of all Life. We join the Psalmist in marveling at our earth’s beauty, yet the biblical poet also recognizes the crushing, terrible power inherent in creation. How chilling and true are the words of the 99th Psalm in our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, “Adonai enthroned is sovereign, peoples tremble, the earth quakes (Ps. 99).”
We cannot hear these words on this Shabbat without think of the devastation in Nepal. This truly earth shattering event of last Saturday renders the words of the 99th Psalm more than metaphor, but rather a clear, sober, awe-filled description of the power latent in nature. When this power is unleashed beauty and serenity becomes terror. Our world no longer feels hospitable to us, and we remember how fragile we are in the grand scheme of life.
We have seen the photographs in the earthquake’s aftermath. Fear, loss, and grief on the faces of the victims reach out to us through these images. Pictures of collapsed buildings astound me. Piles of rubble, debris, stone, wood, and brick where structures once stood look like nothing more than children’s playthings, Lincoln Log toys, destroyed in a matter of moments by a small, fickle hand.
Our hearts ache for those experiencing the loss of family, friends, and homes. As the death toll rises above 6,000, and estimates suggest the earthquake has directly affected a quarter of Nepal, we try to come to terms with the magnitude of this disaster. It would be the equivalent 80,000,000 Americans coping with such tragedy.
What a nightmare. How lives have been forever altered. Through the eyes of the survivors the world has changed overnight. Episodes like these leave us asking the ultimate questions. Where is God in such tragedies? How can God’s power exist in the might of a shifting earth, and be seemingly powerless in the random deaths of children, women, and men? Our Bible wrestles with these questions in the Book of Job. Job, a good man, who suffers devastating loss of his livelihood and loved ones, rails in anger against God. Job cannot fathom that he deserves such punishment. He demands an explanation. God finally responds out of the storms of life, “Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?…Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions, or who measure it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone when the, morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7).”
The authors of Job conclude that there are simply aspects of life that are beyond our control. God does not punish us. God does not seek to make us suffer. The earthquake that shakes us to our core is not even registered on a cosmic scale. Tectonic movement does intend to harm human life. It is frightening to accept our vulnerability; that earthquakes rumble, that lightening strikes, that tornadoes darken our skies leaving swaths of destruction. We live with the forces built into the fabric of our natural world.
And yet, two days ago a 15-year-old boy was pulled from the rubble, affirming the tireless efforts of rescuers. Babies who were born minutes before the quake miraculously survived even in the midst of so much death. Dozens of countries have sent tons of aid and rescue teams, including Israel, whose delegations number 260. Millions around the world have donated to aid organization in an outpouring of sympathy, solidarity, and the basic urge to help fellow human beings. We can control our response to that which beyond our control. God’s power and might are also present in human love and care.
Our domain of influence, however, extends far beyond responding to crisis and tragedy. We can control the state of our societies in which acts of nature occur. In Nepal, wealthy neighborhoods that could afford better construction came through the earthquake with far less damage and loss of life. Nepal lacks building policies and zoning codes that ensure more durable construction. Human beings make choices about how we share our resources and the policies that bring health and safety to all citizens. We can control the nature of our societies. We can’t control nature.
Or can we? As I have watched the news of the earthquake’s aftermath, I can’t help but think about seismic activity here in Oklahoma. Two years ago when we were preparing to leave California, I thought that one of the great benefits of a move to the middle of the country was leaving earthquakes behind. I have come to learn that Oklahoma led the nation in seismic activity in 2014 with 585 earthquakes of 3.0 or greater in magnitude, more than in the past 35 years combined.
Perhaps you have been following the investigative reporting in the Tulsa World this past February about the relationship between hydraulic fracturing wastewater injection sites and earthquakes. The wastewater, a by-product of extracting oil and natural gas, is injected back into the earth deep beneath the surface. Scientists at OSU have come to learn that injecting this water adds pressure and lubrication in fault lines increasing the likelihood of earthquakes. In 2009 there were 50 earthquakes total in Oklahoma. Five years later, in 2014, over 5,000 earthquakes of varying magnitude were recorded. Since the fracking oil boom of the past five years, we have pumped 1.1 billion barrels of wastewater into the earth. On April 22nd, the Tulsa World reported that Governor Fallin and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have recognized what scientists already know, that the injection wells are the cause of increased seismic activity.
Much of the damage caused by earthquakes in recent years here in our state relates to human decisions, based on choices we make. If we expand our view to consider Hurricane Sandy, droughts in the west, and other increasingly extreme weather events, we find a world showing symptoms of detrimental human influence. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us about these climate catastrophes increasing if we do not alter the way we go about our daily lives. As human beings, we ought to consider the cost of human economic processes on our natural world. Human beings, particularly the poorest on this earth, need economic development and growth, but what good is it if we make our environment uninhabitable?
And the cause and effect of our choices on the world are not the stuff of some distant future. There are lessons from our past. 100 years ago the breadbasket of our country, including Oklahoma, was turned to a dust bowl through unsustainable farming methods and the human desire for more. The way we live and the means by which we live reside very much in our control. God created the earth to meet our needs. We must understand the difference between meeting our needs and succumbing to one of our basest human flaws, greed.
On this Shabbat, in Tulsa, Oklahoma as we gather in community in the midst of this beautiful garden and under a vast blue sky our hearts are with fellow human beings on the other side of this planet who are hurting. If we have not yet done so, I hope part of our tzedakah this week will go to the people of Nepal. We offer prayers to the injured and the mourners, as well. These are the things that are truly in our control. If there is any meaning that we can salvage from the earthquake, I pray that the ripples expanding from its epicenter shake us from our complacency. Maybe we will look more deeply at what we can control in our communities and our nation. Maybe we will come to understand that we can make choices that enable us to sustain life on this planet for all its inhabitants.