03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Finding God in Haiti: Compassion and Justice

From the depths of despair I called out to God,
God answered me with immense expansiveness. (Psalm 118:5)

In teaching my 6th grade class this morning at Weizmann Day School, I decided to talk about Haiti and theology. In searching for answers about why such a terrible thing happens to innocent people, there is a tendency to blame God, challenge God and question what good is religion or prayer if such horrible things can come to bring such destruction to some of the poorest people on the planet. Is this a punishment? Many of our ancestors would have thought so. Reward and punishment, classic theology in many traditions, is how we understood God and the world around us for generations. My class was not comfortable with that theology, although some of them said, from the innocence of their beings, that perhaps God brought the earthquake so that the world would now pay attention and help the people of Haiti. Perhaps God brought the earthquake so that those horribly suffering from abject poverty would be put out of their misery. Whenever I teach, I let kids share from their hearts, even if I disagree with them, for that is how we learn, how we grow; the fact that they could think about this at all was impressive to me. Yet, as adults, we often ask the same questions, raise the same quandaries and wrestle with belief in a God who watches over a planet with so much pain without doing anything. Or so it seems.
In the 1980s, Rabbi Harold Kushner, reeling from the death of his young son to a horrible degenerative disease, wrote the book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," and changed the conversation of theology forever. Rabbi Kushner helped us express what many had believed in their hearts, but didn't have the words, or courage, to express. Bad things happen in our world but it is not always our fault. There is randomness built into the fabric of our lives, a randomness that God has to allow to exist in order for us to have free-will and live as humans. God doesn't give children leukemia; God doesn't send earthquakes to destroy; God doesn't permit drunk drivers to kill innocent people; God doesn't operate that way in our world. That is not the kind of God I believe in. Many clergy are offering these thoughts today and I am grateful to them and add my voice.
During my rabbinical school interview, the very last question, which came at the end of a 90-minute grilling with six prominent rabbis, I was given this question: "A 6-month old infant just died of SIDS. The mother is on the phone and wants to talk to you rabbi." As I started to say what I might say, the rabbi said, "No, here is the phone. Talk to the mother." Without any time to process this, and after only 3 months of introductory classes, I took the phone and said the only thing that I felt I could. "I have nothing that I can say to you in this time. I can only offer to hug you, cry with you, hold you. There are no words, no teachings, no Torah that is relevant in this moment. Asking why this happened to you is a futile question. Lets just cry." Nodding, the rabbi said, "Ok, good." Thinking I was done, I took a breath. Wrong. The interviewing rabbi then said, "Ok, Rabbi Grater, you are now at the funeral, speaking to the community. What do you say?" Man, are you kidding me? He just sat there and waited for my words. Again, without any real textual knowledge to rely on, I just said what I believed. I told the crowd that this is a horrible tragedy, an unexplainable pain that nobody deserves. Where is God? God is in the response of the community, showering the family with love and support; God is in tears that are shed, in the silences shared, in the hugs given, in the pain felt. And, when the time is right, God is in the healing that comes and in hope that can be found in moving forward with life. God is the eternal love that we feel in these moments of great pain. I was in a different zone as I said this, feeling my spirit rising with each phrase. God was new to me then and yet, I knew with such certainty that this was the right answer, the only answer. Now, after 6 years of rabbinical school and 11 years in the rabbinate, with all the text I have learned, I still feel this way. I would give the same answer today. There is a time for text, a time for words, and there is a time for silence, a time for tears and the flowing of human empathy. That is God. The interviewing rabbi smiled, nodded and said, much to my great surprise, "That is the best answer I have ever heard in an interview. Stay with your heart and you will do fine in this work. You are accepted to rabbinical school." I left that interview with my head spinning, drained and exhausted. Yet, I was uplifted at the same time, energized with the knowledge that my life was going to be about trying to help others to feel God's presence, especially in times of great pain and doubt.
The people of Haiti are suffering so greatly now and our hearts are with them in their struggle to overcome the enormity of the destruction. God is crying with them, suffering with them. And, what did we see after the destruction from many of the Haitian people? We saw people singing to God, thanking God for the miracle of surviving. We heard people praying and praising God. We heard the beating of their hearts crying out in gratitude for what they had, not what they lost. God was their strength, their rock. What an inspiration! God is with the thousands of people who rushed to help, stepping into the destruction to try and lift others out; God is with the millions of people who are generously pouring out their wallets, in this horrible economy, to help those in need; God is with the young boy who survived a week in the rubble, to be saved and brought back into life; God is comforting all those whose relatives were not as lucky, and who are among the 200,000 or more dead, and 2 million homeless. The end of psalm 118, with which I began, reads, "Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and praise God." God doesn't desire destruction, God doesn't relish in the pain of others. Yet, in order for us to live as free human beings, making choices and living our lives, God can't intervene and stop tragedy. If God did that every time, we would be robots; if God only did it some of the time, that would be a capriciousness that we couldn't survive. There is randomness in the world and God is there to help us survive that reality. Altruism, compassion, love and hope are God's gifts to the world. And justice. What can we learn from this tragedy? The people of Haiti are so poor, their infrastructure so weak, their suffering so great; now is the chance to rebuild this country and help them move into the 21st century. If we are there for a few weeks and then leave, moving onto the next great disaster, we will not have learned the lesson. Yet again, like the tsunami in Indonesia, like Katrina in New Orleans, we have a chance to do "what is right and good in the eyes of God." God is a God of second chances. Whether we answer that call is our human choice.
A preacher who told stories from town to town, once spoke of a little girl who was sent by her mother on an errand.  The girl was gone longer than her mother thought proper.  When she finally returned, the mother asked for an explanation.  "Oh," she replied, "I met Ruthie on the way and her doll was broken, so I stopped to help her."  "You mean you helped her to fix the doll?"  "No, Mother, I don't know how to fix dolls.  I stopped to help her cry." (Thanks to my colleague Rabbi Morley Feinstein for this story.) In this time of suffering, let us all stop to help the people of Haiti cry and mourn for the great loss of life in their midst. Let our compassion roll down like the might streams. And, when the time is right, when our mourning period ends, let us continue to do God's work and bring the work of our hands, the justice of the righteous to Haiti. Together, compassion and justice, shows me that God is alive in our world.