This week we watch once again as a community has been visited by the destructive force of nature. The tornado which touched down on Moore, OK caused upwards of $2 billion in damages, destroyed about 1,200 homes, injured almost 400 and killed 24, several of them children. As Hurricane Sandy did for the eastern seaboard last year, this tornado reminded us of the powerlessness we have in the face of nature.
Here then, as in Sandy, and in many others, we wrestle with a search for meaning. A traditional theological response is to attribute it to God. But the particular arbitrariness of tornados, whose direct impact is much more focused and can shift in a moment’s notice, seems all the more difficult to attribute to God-why one house and not another? A major storm or earthquake in which everyone gets hit seems that much theologically easier.
But those of us whose theology does not include a divine power which will bring about destructive forces of nature either at best arbitrarily or at worst as punishment for sin need to look elsewhere for God. And usually in these cases we look for God in the response. The ability of people to open up their homes, to be generous with what they have, to give supplies and food and blood, to comfort those who are afflicted is a manifestation of the divine spark within all of us.
And in this funny news video following the event, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asks a woman who ran out of her house seconds before the tornado leveled it if she “thanked the Lord.” Momentarily flustered, she responded that she is an atheist, and she and Blitzer laugh it off. What is interesting to me is that in Blitzer’s question I don’t hear him asking a woman if she thanked a divine power who implanted the idea to run at the right moment thus saving her life. What I hear him asking if she feels the immense feeling of gratitude one must feel when saved from a terrible fate. Whether we say “Thank the Lord” or not, the expression of gratitude and renewed appreciation for life that comes after tragedy is a manifestation of humility and a sense of the sacred.
So as we continue to clear the debris, we see God in our power to survive, rebuild, mourn, be humble, give and express gratitude.
The tornado in Moore comes not long before Memorial Day, which we will mark this Monday. While it has become the unofficial start of summer, a time for BBQs, picnics, festivals and sales, we would do well to pause on Monday to remember the real meaning of the day. Our country has time and time again been in a position of war in which men and women serve our country only to pay with their lives. Those who served and died did so with fidelity to the values and principles of America. Their memory deserves to be honored.
And as we remember the lives lost, we remember the destructive nature of war. And we remember that people fight and die because of other people’s decisions. War, unlike tornados or earthquakes or hurricanes, is avoidable. War, unlike natural phenomenon, are human creations.
One description of God I wrestle with in Torah is that of the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15. Having left Egyptian slavery the Israelites are brought to the Reed Sea, where they are led to safety through the miraculous splitting of the sea. Safely on the other side, the Israelites watch the waters wash away the Egyptian army that was in pursuit. Overjoyed at their deliverance, they sing a song, which includes the line: “God is a man of war, Adonai is God’s name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army God has thrown into the sea…”
The image of a belligerent God is hard to take, even though the Torah is rife with images of divine destruction. But if we read it carefully, we see what is truly being said. God is calledish milchama, a “man of war.” Ish is a term which refers to humans–in other words, in the act against the Egyptians God is compared to the true wagers of war: humans. While we strive to act like God, though emulating acts of divine compassion and lovingkindness, in waging war God is acting like us.
For we have the power to hate and destroy as we do the power to love and build up.[ There is God in Moore, and there is God in war. In the face of natural destruction, we find God in the reaction, drawing close after that which was unavoidable. In the face of war, we find God in the action, moving away from something that is avoidable.