Chief Rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu was the focus of consternation on Friday when he wrote in the Hebrew-language Olam Katan that the devastating earthquakes that killed over 28,000 in Syria and Turkey were “divine justice”. While Rabbi Eliyahu is a highly respected Torah authority, many rabbis understood that Jewish law required Israel to step in and help, even when the recipient of kindness was a sworn enemy.
Rabbi Eliyahu began by comparing the recent catastrophe to the Biblical splitting of the sea that resulted in the deaths of the entire Egyptian army.
“There is no doubt that whoever would have seen the Egyptians drowning in the sea and would not have remembered the whole event from beginning to end, would have been filled with great pity for them and tried to save them from drowning,” Rabbi Eliyahu wrote. “But the Israelites sang because they knew the Egyptians and understood that those who drowned wanted to kill some of them and continue to enslave the rest.”
“They sang a song because they understood that it was divine justice intended to repay the Egyptians who drowned the children of the people of Israel in the Nile, that all the wicked in the world will see and be afraid.”
Rabbi Eliyahu compared Egypt to Syria which attacked Israel several times with the intention of wiping it out.
“This is about Syria — which abused its Jewish residents for hundreds of years in the blood libels of Damascus and others; which invaded Israel three times in order to kill and destroy,” he said.
He then cited a prophecy of Ezekiel that said that after the biblical promise of the ingathering of the exiles, when all Jews return to the land of Israel, “revenge will come to all the nations around us who have harmed us.”
Rabbi Eliyahu then referred to a Midrash relating that the angels began to sing when they saw the Egyptians die but God silenced them, saying, “My handiwork is sinking in the Sea, and you wish to sing?!”
The rabbi also related that the Talmud taught that an earthquake is an expression of God’s tears over the people of Israel who are still in exile and, therefore, a blessing is recited and the Song of the Sea is recited in synagogues, praising God for killing the Egyptians
“It is not that we are impervious to the sorrow of humanity,” Rabbi Eliyahu said. “Definitely not. But if God forbid, we don’t say thank you to God for watching over us, it is ingratitude. If we think the disaster is a happenstance, that is heartless. If we believe that we are more merciful than God, it is wickedness and stupidity.”
Rabbi Avraham Stav from the Tzohar organization responded to Rabbi Eliyahu by saying he was “troubled” by the rabbi’s interpretation of events.
“The thought that the entire world is in tears amid the terrible sights and stories in Turkey, and we, the people who brought to the world the tidings that every person is created in [God’s] image, should according to Rabbi Eliyahu rejoice over these horrors,” Rabbi Stav wrote.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad wrote that he had read Eliyahu’s comments “again and again and can’t believe it. Thousands of people made in God’s image are buried beneath the ruins of their homes, elderly and infants expiring in terrible agony and we should view this as being to our benefit?”
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger co-founded Roots/Shorashim/Judur, a joint Palestinian-Israeli grassroots peacemaking initiative dedicated to understanding nonviolence. Rabbi Schlesinger believed that there was room to interpret Jewish law differently than Rabbi Eliyahu.
“From my perspective, fundamental moral concerns are not extraneous to Jewish law,” Rabbi Schlesinger said. “They are the foundation of Halacha (Jewish law). Even if there is no relevant reference to the situation in the Jewish legal texts, if there is an explicit moral concern, it should be considered as Halacha.”
Rabbi Schlesinger suggested that people emulate God’s attributes as described in Psalms:
Hashem is beneficent in all His ways and faithful in all His works. Psalms 145:17
“This is a meta-halachic principle,” Rabbi Schlesinger explained. “The Rambam gives guidelines for giving charity by teaching that you are required to prioritize the poor people of your city but that does not exclude the poor who come from far away or to non-Jews.”
“This is, of course, based on the belief that all men were created in the image of God,” he pointed out.
Rabbi Schlesinger’s organization reaches out to Palestinians, a demographic some Israelis might consider to be an enemy. He applied this to the earthquake victims.
“I don’t know if you can classify Turkey or even Syria as ‘the enemy’,” the rabbi said. “Right now, they are victims of a terrible tragedy. I wouldn’t define a person trapped under a collapsed building as an enemy.”
Israel sent over 400 relief workers to help in the rescue efforts in Turkey and offered humanitarian aid to Syria. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said in an unsourced report that Russia had relayed the request for Israel to assist Syria. In addition, many of the people arriving at the Israeli aid stations in Turkey were, in fact, refugees from Syria.
This would not be the first time that Israeli assistance saved lives in Syria. Israeli hospitals treated thousands of sick and wounded Syrians. From 2013-2017, about 2,800 injured Syrians entered Israel to receive medical care. As part of Operation Good Neighbor, Israel also trucked supplies across the border. This reflects the IDF Code of Ethics requires soldiers and medical personnel to treat enemy troops and civilians.
In comparison, the UN Security Council delayed sending aid to northwestern Syria due to the rebel strongholds in that region. At least 2,100 people were killed in the earthquake in that region.
An unnamed Israeli military official told Elaph news site on Thursday that “there is information indicating that Iran will take advantage of the tragic situation in Syria” to deliver weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and other Iran-backed terrorist groups in Syria. The unnamed official said that Israel would not accept this and such actions would result in a “firm military response from us without hesitation.”
Several Iranian cargo planes have landed in Syria since the earthquake hit last Monday, ostensibly carrying humanitarian aid.