The Talmud relates that Rabbi Katina once passed by the house of a certain necromancer ( ba’al ov), when the earth suddenly shook. The rabbi called out, ‘Does the necromancer know what is the meaning of this rumbling?’ The medium responded:
“Katina, Katina, why should I not know? When the Holy One remembers His children, who are in a state of suffering amongst the nations of the world, He lets two tears fall. When they hit the ocean, the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other. That is the rumble of an earthquake.”
Rabbi Katina immediately called out, “The necromancer is a liar and his words are false. Were that the case, we should have heard two rumblings.” The Talmud explains that in fact there were two rumblings of the earth, but Rabbi Katina did not want people to be lead astray and follow the necromancer (Berachot 59a).
This story raises many questions. What is the meaning of these two tears falling from heaven? What do the misfortunes of the Jewish people have to do with catastrophes in other parts of the world? And why does the Talmud relate that the source for this metaphysical explanation of earthquakes — an explanation that the Sages accepted! — was a necromancer, a practitioner of witchcraft explicitly forbidden by the Torah, one who divines secrets by communicating with the dead?
Just as many written symbols join together to comprise a book, so too, every event that occurs, even the most insignificant, plays its part in bringing the world towards its ultimate goal. Even in those events that appear to obstruct progress, we should recognize that “All that God does will be forever... God made it so that people should fear Him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
In other words, if we wish to understand the purpose of destructive phenomena in the world, we must be able to evaluate their contribution towards developing humanity’s ultimate morality and spiritual perfection.
The horror of an earthquake — which may uproot nations, wreak vast destruction, and bury thousands of people — raises difficult questions. Events like these challenge us to fathom God’s wisdom and providence. What is the purpose of such terrible destruction?
We may begin to answer these questions only after we recognize that the path to properly establishing mankind’s ethical nature is a complex one. Human society is often plagued with serious defects — faults so deeply ingrained that they cannot be corrected as long as society remains undisturbed. Only Divine wisdom can determine at what point society requires such a major shake-up, disrupting the world’s material and spiritual well-being, in order to allow for the necessary correction.
How can we gauge the moral state of humanity? One indication is the status of the Jewish people. This nation, by virtue of its unique spiritual gifts to the world — the light of the Torah and the knowledge of one God — should be highly respected and honored among the nations. That this is not the case attests to serious defects in mankind, which the Jewish people certainly contributes its portion. No one can rightfully claim that the Jewish people, with its special history and function in the world, deserves to be the subject of such baseless hatred and disgrace. The sorry state of Israel reveals a deep moral deficiency in the world. It is an indication of many other defects that have been absorbed in man’s turbid nature — until Divine providence demands their redress, even by great upheaval.
Earthquakes are a vivid example of great upheaval. This terrible event is accompanied by a general descent in society; the material collapse leads to an ethical decline. The establishment of an organized and lawful society secures many moral benefits. When the overall goal decrees the uprooting of a large portion of humanity, this brings about a physical and spiritual deterioration.
This dual decline contradicts God’s aspiration, Who desires the best for His creation. Thus, the metaphor of two tears, expressing Divine pain and sorrow. Just as we cannot truly grasp the purpose for this destruction, so the tears drop into the ocean, for their positive contribution is beyond our perception. The impact of this event, however, resounds throughout the world — “It is heard from one end of the world to the other” — through those hidden ties that connect all nations together.
It is true that upheaval may serve positive and corrective purposes. But this knowledge may only be used by the righteous and the pure-hearted. In the hands of the wicked, it becomes a tool of destruction, justifying the breakdown of all physical and spiritual good. The evil necromancer, who was not guided by the ideals of justice and truth, praised the value of upheaval. Yet, ‘he is a liar and his words are false.’ We have no way to fully assess the results of destructive actions. In addition, the destruction must prepare the way for a new framework, and that is beyond our capabilities.
Rabbi Katina was correct in rejecting the use of upheaval as a practical tool to better humanity. Its value is only theoretical, as a way to understand Divine providence over thousands of generations. Rabbi Katina rejected the necromancer’s words so that the people would not follow his mistaken ways and come to justify destructive acts. Such an approach is a spiritual disease, and brings much evil into the world. The necromancer, who seeks to communicate with the dead, is like the anarchist who detests life and organized society. In fact, it is only through orderly life that humanity can realize its true potential for goodness and morality.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 311-312)