Where is God when tragedy strikes?

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This week’s Torah portion is Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25.

It’s 3 a.m. and a 38-year-old man is having a heart attack in the emergency room. I am the on-call chaplain and have been asked to come and sit with the family. The man is a young father and the outcome does not look good. The family is anxious and we pray together.


The family hangs on to every ounce of hope they have, but the doctors tell them he may die. A few minutes later I am paged to come to the unit desk and told that the patient has, in fact, died. The doctor walks back with me to the family room and delivers the news.

The family can’t believe it. A brother of the patient puts his fist through a wall. After about an hour of tears and shouting and medical questions, they begin to calm down. But still they are left with questions. They want to know why God would do this. And I am left speechless. I don’t know why God would take away a father from his young children, a husband from his wife.

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In this week’s parshah, we continue to hear from Moshe as gives his last words to the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moshe tells the people, “And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal demand of you? Only to fear the Eternal, your God, to walk in His ways, and to love Him, and to worship the Eternal, your God with all your heart and soul.”

Rashi makes an inference from the words “only to fear.” They tell us that we only need to have fear of God, Yirat Shamayim. Everything else is in the hands of heaven. In other words, God controls everything, except our fear of Him. It means God has complete control over our tragedies and joys, over the bigger parts of lives like the weather and even the smaller actions of individual people. However it does give us great control over a key aspect of our relationship, whether or not we have Yirat Shamayim.


What exactly is Yirat Shamayim? We often translate it as fear of heaven, but our concept of fear and trembling is more connected to another word, pachad. A more similar root to yirah is ro’eh, to see. In fact, a different understanding of yirah is an awareness or reverence of God. Therefore, Rashi is telling us that although God controls almost every aspect of our lives, we still control our awareness, or perhaps even our belief, in God.

When tragedy strikes, we are often struck with how God could be in control and still allow it or even cause it. Almost any reaction is justified when we are caught in this dilemma: frustration, disappointment, anger. The verse tells us that God only wants to us have yirat shamayim.

Perhaps this is a suggestion to another reaction to tragedy, or joy for that matter. Perhaps this is a chance to feel God’s presence and power. Despite the possibility of causing or allowing the situation, there is also God there to shelter us, and console and care for us.

Rabbi Daniel Braune-Friedman the director of pastoral care at Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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