Friday, April 27, 2018

Responding to Tragedy

Extraordinary rainfall in Israel is usually a cause for celebration. When the torrential downpours began this week, there was much laughter. On the Facebook page of the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we posted a photo of a creature that unexpectedly turned up in a flooded street.

Well, nobody's laughing now. And I'm not sure that people will ever react to torrential rains in the same way again.

The tragedy yesterday is horrific on numerous levels. Ten young adults - one boy and nine girls - cut down in the prime of life. Ten families wrecked. Fifteen other young adults forever traumatized. A nation that is deeply shaken - everyone sends their kids on tiyulim, and you trust that the organizers know what they are doing.

How do we respond? There are a few things that are required of us. Empathy and solidarity is one. As Rambam states, people who do not express pain at such things, and merely say, "Eh, these things happen," are displaying cruelty.

But Rambam also says that such behavior also causes further such tragedies. And, certainly in this case, it's easy to see what he means.

Why did this terrible disaster happen? Unfortunately it's all too clear. I don't even think that "Rabbi" Yosef Mizrachi will be blaming it on zee eeemodest weemin. It was appallingly irresponsible for the school to take the students on a desert hike in such weather. Everyone knows that when there is rainfall, there is a risk of flash floods in the desert. The police had issued a warning against excursions. Most heartbreaking of all, there are WhatsApp messages from one of the victims from the day before, asking her friend why they are going on an excursion that will surely lead to their deaths - and the friend replying that the school surely knows what it's doing and will not take them anywhere dangerous.

What happened? It's similar to the Versailles wedding hall disaster. I remember back then that there were actually some people talking about the aveiros that caused it. But as one rabbinic friend of mine pointed out, the explanation was obvious. It was the inevitable result of a certain mindset that cuts corners and says, "Eh, the rules don't apply to me."

But they do. Because the "rules" are not just man-made, legal rules. They are God's rules, the rules of nature, the laws of physics. And they apply to everyone, with no exception.

Now, the average person is thinking, "How terrible! I would never do such a crazy, dangerous thing." Well, we might not take a group of students hiking in a desert canyon during dangerous weather conditions. But can we really say that we would never do something dangerous, thinking that the laws of nature don't apply to us?

Do we smoke? Today, mostly not. But do we use our phones when driving? That's something which science clearly reveals to be dangerous. But do we care, or do we say, "Eh, the rules don't apply to me?" Until they do. Having experience sudden family tragedy first-hand (not due to cellphone use), I can tell you that one of the shocking aspects is that we have a deep-rooted belief that these things only happen to other people. But the laws of nature and science and statistics apply to everyone.

Let us at least make the tragic deaths of these ten young people have some meaning. Let us resolve to more careful, more responsible, and to realize that nobody is above the law.

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  1. This post is a perfect example of what went wrong with modern society.

    The loss of life is, of course, a tragedy. So how does this post respond, it and the nanny-state mindset it has evolved into? By looking to see who we can blame. Who can we throw into prison? And, inevitably, who can we sue?

    Those who died were all adults, eligible to vote. If facts emerge showing that they were forced to go on this hike, I will retract this in full. Until we see that, then they went on the hike voluntarily, knowing full well how risky it was.

    We in America have seen how this country has gone into paralysis as a direct result of moving away from traditional notions of assumption of the risk. There are today warnings on everything and anything, to a ridiculous extreme, bc of such fears. We even get unnecessary evacuation orders, bc no one wants to be persecuted and second-guessed afterwards. That is why each and every reader of this blog, every single day, routinely ignores countless warnings and disclaimers. Because they've become rote. And everyone ignores rote.

    Do you really think any of the tour leaders were cavalier about the lives of their students, that they should be prosecuted for criminal negligence?? God Forbid. You should be embarrassed even for suggesting that. You'd better hope and pray that no one ever gets hurt by an unexpected bite from one of your furry friends, and you suddenly find yourself looking at a prison sentence.

    1. I fully disagree with every word you wrote here. When students in an academic institution are taken on a hike by their program, they are not in a position to judge whether or not the hike is safe. They implicitly trust that those organizing the hike have consulted with the proper authorities and taken the necessary steps to ensure that it will be safe. If the school did not consult with those authorities or take those steps, they certainly should be held criminally liable. The school where I teach had a tiyul planned months in advance for last week. When they saw what the weather would be, they pushed it off until later in the year, despite the difficulties resulting from the delay. That is the obligation of the academic institution.
      Would you say that an airline that does not follow FAA regulations should not be responsible if they have a crash, because it is the passengers' job to decide if it is safe to fly with them?

    2. This response is absurd and ridiculous. If you build a bridge, you are responsible to use sound engineering principles. If you don't or aren't qualified, you can be held criminally responsible. If you organize a tour, then you are responsible to organize it in a safe way and avoid obvious forseeable dangers. If you don't, then you should be held responsible.

      Flash floods in Israel are not some one-off unforeseeable tragedy. They are common and there is a well-known danger to be avoided at specific times. It is similar to taking your kids out to play ball in a lightning storm (actually probably worse).

    3. Yehoshua, I respect your different opinion (though not David Ohsie's, who still hasn't learned to debate courteously.) There are numerous different strands of thought at issue here, and much of it turns upon philosophical points of view. How much does one look to the government to take care of him, and how much does one take care of himself. The concept of Caveat Emptor in a multicultural society. Etc. Reasonable minds can differ.

    4. You may have a point in the abstract. But the fact is that educational institutions in Israel are responsible for consulting with the appropriate authorities before embarking a tiyul, and therefore the students are not expected to clarify how safe the trips are going to be.

    5. DF: as a tourguide it is my responsibility to insure that the hike is safe and that tourists are following safety protocols. That's why Israel has such strict licensing guidelines (I had to complete 2 years of study, pass rigorous exams and complete a day of professional development every year to remain current).

      This tragic case involves criminal negligence on many levels, and those responsible should absolutely be prevented from repeating the same mistake, just as we would expect a doctor to be held responsible if engaging in harmful medical practice. Or do you believe the "nanny-state" should do away with medical licensing as well?

  2. Totally agree with your general idea in this post. But I question your use of the Rambam for a few reasons. The Rambam's words are at the beginning of the Laws of Fasts. According to your reading -- there is no real need for a fast. And certainly no reason that fasting will lead to the suffering to be removed (as Rambam says). According to you what is needed is rational safety training etc. -- Not fasting. And it is rational safety training that will lead this from happening again -- Not fasting.
    Furthermore, you write that this is all God's natural law. Makes sense. But the Rambam specifically writes that one can NOT say it is the natural way of the world. The Rambam's response hardly seems "rational." One could argue that his general worldview is as you describe (and bring good examples from elsewhere in his writings) -- but I find it a difficult reading of the Rambam that you bring. Indeed, the entire section is a challenge to strict rationalism. (I could imagine a forced reading, the fast are just a way to awaken to the severity etc. But I think it's a stretch.)

    AGAIN, your general point is reasonable and important. But it just doesn't seem to fit the Rambam.

    1. As you point out, when you learn about Rambam's general worldview, you realize that this paragraph can't possibly mean what it is commonly taught as meaning. So what he must mean is that fasting is important to show solidarity and to impress it upon us that we have to figure out how to improve our ways. That could mean different things in different circumstances.
      When he says that "one can NOT say it is the natural way of the world", he can't mean that one should not say that it was not due to natural causes. What he must mean is that one should not say that it's just happenstance or something that one shouldn't bother to try to figure out how to prevent.

    2. The Rambam does not argue with the fact that aveiros cause punishment. The Rambam is not in the habit of arguing withe gemoros and pesukim. He does say that part of a person's duties are to use his sechel not to fight natural law. A fast is a method of self negation, so the various taavos stop ruling over a person so he can make a correct decision as to how to fix hos ways, both in the realm of his adherence to natural law and G-dly law. A person who does not try to.improve his tefilla on a taanis, and a person who does not try to endure his health on a taanis, is missing the point. They are not mutually exclusive

  3. I usually like what you post and this post is particularly appropriate. We certainly should emphasize with, and express sympathy for, people who lost close ones in such an unexpended and untimely manner.

    However, you use of “I don't even think that …” is an ad hominem attack that has nothing to do with the post and is loshen hora at best (if he said it) and motzee shem rah if you just made it up.

    You can do better.

    You should do tsuvah to correct the spiritual harm and update the post, hopefully before the Wayback machine immortalizes your totally inappropriate comment.

    1. Considering that he blamed the Sassoon tragedy on lack of tzniyus, I think that it was an appropriate comment; in fact, perhaps it was even dan l'kaf zechus.

    2. Why do you mock his Israeli-accented English? He is Israeli born and his English is quite up to standard, nothing to make fun of. I would like to hear your Hebrew!

    3. I agree with Avraham (and Leiby). Totally inappropriate for this post. Will have more respect for you if you can be big enough to remove it from this post. Comments like that are beneath you

  4. You are spot on about our lack of rationality. I'm involved in Youth baseball and no matter how many times we remind people to stop and go inside when they hear thunder, they will continue to play unless you go over and force them to stop.

  5. Municipalities all over Israel warned people not to make bonfires tonight and tomorrow, due to the weather. The bonfire custom is not ancient, neither is it Ashkenazi (or Sefardi). Through the years the excuse has been 'kosher entertainment'. Well now, it is not so kosher as it could be dangerous. Perhaps it is an apt warning to people to stop the nonsense. Especially in Israel, where people who wouldn't be seen dead doing kapparos, even though there is a halachic source for it, yet still keep up this custom of dubious origin.


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