Earthquakes --- 'natural' and otherwise

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Oct. 7, 1999 / 27 Tishrei, 5760

Earthquakes --- 'natural'
and otherwise

By Rabbi Berel Wein -- THE SPATE OF NATURAL DISASTERS that has made headlines over the past month or so has been frightful. Thousands of people have been killed and wounded in the series of earthquakes that have rocked Turkey, Greece and Taiwan. Additional tens of people were killed in the hurricane that battered the eastern seaboard of the United States and in the typhoons that visited parts of Asia. Seemingly nature is on a rampage.

The scientists attempt to soothe our fears by explaining to us the natural forces at work which cause these disasters. Shifting underground plates deep below the earth's crust are the cause of earthquakes; warm ocean temperatures cause hurricanes and typhoons; and underwater quakes cause dreaded tidal waves that sweep away all before them.

But knowing the technical reasons that cause these horrendous weather and geological episodes is of little comfort to those who must personally face them. It is as though nature periodically arises in all of its strength to impress us with man's puniness.


But man is a "hard sell." I remember that many years ago I happened to be in Southern California and I experienced a "seismic event" - the again-soothing euphemism for a small earthquake. I shall never forget the feeling of complete helplessness that I felt as the solid ground under me rolled and shook.

Even though it lasted only a few seconds and there was no major damage or casualties, the event made a deep and lasting impression upon me. If one can't count on being on solid ground, then life is truly dangerous and unpredictable. And if there is anything that humans despise, it is the feeling of helplessness and not being in control. Yet, the population of southern California continues to grow. Everyone there talks about "the big one" --- the gigantic and catastrophic earthquake that all seismologists assure us is just around the corner for southern California. But all of these laid-back southern Californians are convinced that it won't happen in their lifetimes, and if it does, somehow they will not be personally affected.

There are not only seismological earthquakes. Societies also experience earthquakes --- dramatic shifts in the underlying social mores and "plates" that support human behavior and attitudes. The sad hallmark of our post-modern society is its rootlessness, its alienation from past ideals and beliefs and its feeling of emptiness at not having replaced those now discarded sets of values and beliefs.

There is little solid ground under much of Western society. The man-made earthquakes of Kosovo, East Timor, Kashmir, Chechnya, Africa and other places in the world testify to the uncertainty of life and events and to the inability of much of mankind to rise to a more solid plateau of activity and morals. The man-made earthquakes are as deadly as any natural earthquakes. And they are oftentimes more sadistic and cruel.

The violence and abusive behavior that characterizes a good deal of our post-modern world is an exhibition of frustration at being unable to control our lives and realize our goals.

Modern man is impatient, tense, unaccepting of the imperfections of others. Listen to the horns honking on our streets when some poor devil dallies even for a second before pulling away at the time the light turns green. There is no sense of ultimate purpose, of grand strategy in our national and personal lives.

Only the immediate tactical victory counts - the fast buck/shekel; the ability to pass the car in front of us even at the risk of our lives; the glib promises of political leaders that often mask doubt and fear.

We are caught in an earthquake of our own making and we are unable to control our present lives, let alone our ultimate future. The very ground, the new beliefs that were supposed to guarantee our existence and progress, rolls beneath us.

And yet we continue to live on the fault line. The stubbornness of modern man in the face of proven society planning and governing failures is truly remarkable. The same platitudes about appointing commissions to study domestic abuse, school and societal violence, substance abuse, and our other pressing domestic problems, all long ago found to be wanting, still abound. As long as we are convinced, for example, that condom distribution is the answer to AIDS and that "relationships" are an admirable substitute for marriage and family structure, we are going to continually be rocked by earthquakes of our own making.

The building contractors that built buildings in the earthquake-ravaged countries in a shoddy and short-sighted fashion are being hauled into the courts of those countries, there to be held liable for not building structures that were more earthquake-proof. But society generally, and ours particularly, are also charged with the responsibility for providing solid ground for its citizens and future generations to stand upon.

The failure of our school system, the feeling of helplessness of the average citizen when facing the entrenched bureaucracies of government, labor and other power blocs, all lead to the general malaise of rootlessness and loss of goals and ideals.

We may not be able to avoid earthquakes. But we should certainly attempt to build structures and societies that will be able to survive them.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by by clicking here or calling 800-499-WEIN (9346).


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©1999, Rabbi Berel Wein