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    Genocide, the targeted
    killing of a people, is
    not a modern invention.
    Many have tried to kill
    the Jews, the biblical
    Haman being perhaps
    the most famous ancient
    example. Other nations
    have also faced genocide,
    some even suffering from extinction. We live
    in a time of great hypocrisy, when people
    who explicitly intend to destroy all the
    Jews falsely claim that they are victims of
    genocide. Putting that aside, we can ask: Why
    does genocide happen?
    I. Genocide and Sin
    Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:54) explains
    many tragedies as resulting from divine
    punishment of sin:
    “G-d’s actions towards mankind also include
    great calamities, which overtake certain
    individuals and destroy them, or some
    universal event annihilating whole tribes and
    even entire regions, destroying generation
    after generation, and sparing nothing
    whatsoever. Hence there occur inundations,
    earthquakes, destructive storms, military
    expeditions of one nation against another
    for the sake of destroying it with the sword
    and blotting out its memory, and many other
    evils of the same kind…. G-d performs acts
    similar to those which, when performed
    by us, originate in certain dispositions, in

    jealousy, desire for retaliation, revenge, or
    anger: [when G-d performs them,] they are in
    accordance with the guilt of those who are to
    be punished…”
    Rambam says that Hashem uses natural
    disasters, such as earthquakes and terrible
    storms, as instruments of punishment for
    sins. The suffering and death that these
    events cause are punishment for individual or
    communal sin. This does not mean that every
    specific individual deserves his suffering or
    death. Rather, that the community deserves
    it in total and each individual is punished
    as a member of this community. Even
    righteous people die as part of an unrighteous
    community. Rambam includes genocide
    in his list of divine punishments, “military
    expeditions of one nation against another for
    the sake of destroying it with the sword and
    blotting out its memory.”
    Understandably, this is difficult to read. We
    will shortly soften and revise this explanation.
    But first we should note that blaming the
    victim does not exonerate the perpetrator.
    Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah
    6:3) asks why the Egyptians were punished
    for enslaving the Jews when Hashem had
    decreed the slavery (Gen. 15:13). People
    are punished for their bad choices, whether
    individually or as a group. They are not
    punished for actions they are forced to
    undertake when those actions are decreed by
    Hashem. Rambam explains that the decree

    did not specify who would enslave the Jews.
    Each Egyptian made his own to choice to do
    bad. In other words, the justification of the
    evil (in this case, enslavement decreed by
    Hashem) does not exonerate the perpetrators.
    Even Ramban (Gen. 15:4) who disagrees
    regarding the Egyptians because there was a
    prophecy about the enslavement would not
    disagree in general. Even when the victim
    bears some blame, the perpetrator is not
    justified in his actions and suffers punishment
    for his own guilt.
    From what we have seen so far, Rambam
    seems to say that every victim of a genocide
    or a natural disaster is suffering punishment
    for his sins. Everyone sins. We see in the
    Torah that the punishment for sin includes
    terrible suffering (e.g. Lev. 26, Deut. 28).
    Sometimes Hashem punishes us in this world
    and sometimes in the next. War and disaster
    are tools of Hashem’s punishment in this
    world, freeing their victims from punishment
    in the next. That is what Rambam seems to be
    saying from a quick read of the passage above.
    However, elsewhere he says something else
    which forces us to read more closely.
    II. Genocide and Nature
    Later in Moreh Nevuchim (1:72), Rambam
    “The same force that originates all things, and
    causes them to exist for a certain time, namely,
    the combination of the elements which are
    moved and penetrated by the forces of the
    heavenly spheres, that same cause becomes
    throughout the world a source of calamities,
    such as torrents, harmful rains, snowstorms,
    hail, tempestuous winds, thunder, lightning,
    and the putrefaction of the air, or other
    terrible catastrophes by which a place or
    many places or an entire country may be
    laid waste, such as landslips, earthquakes,
    hurricanes and floods issuing forth from the
    seas and from the depths.”
    Here Rambam says that natural disasters
    are, quite literally, natural. They are not
    tools of divine punishment but merely
    the ways of the world. People who suffer
    and die due to natural disasters are not
    necessarily guilty of any sin. They are just
    human beings living in a dangerous world.
    Are natural disasters punishments or merely
    nature at work? While Rambam does not
    include genocide in this list because it is
    not natural, the answer to the contradiction
    about natural disasters may apply to
    genocide, as well.
    Perhaps we can explain based on a later
    discussion of earthquakes. The Talmud
    Yerushalmi (Berachos 9:2) attributes
    earthquakes to a variety of spiritual causes.
    R. Nehorai says they happen because people
    fail to separate terumos and ma’asros, the
    portions of produce that must be given to
    Kohanim and Levi’im. R. Acha says that
    they are due to homosexual activity. Other
    rabbis say that they are due to machlokes,
    disunity. Another view is that earthquakes
    come when Hashem sees theaters and
    circuses operating peacefully while the

    Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins. Rav
    Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (16th cen., Turkey;
    Yefeh Mareh, Berachos 9:14) asks how
    we can understand this in light of scientific
    explanations of earthquakes. We know that
    earthquakes are natural events. How can they
    also be instruments of divine punishment?
    Additionally, according to R. Nehorai, why
    are there earthquakes in times when there is
    no biblical obligation to separate terumos and
    III. Hashem and Nature
    Rav Ashkenazi distinguishes between nature
    and divine intervention. Hashem created the
    world and designed the course of nature.
    Within this creation, earthquakes will happen
    for natural reasons. However, Hashem also
    intervenes in nature to reward and punish
    people. Some earthquakes are natural while
    others are the result of divine intervention.
    This can also explain the apparent
    contradiction within Moreh Nevuchim.
    Rambam never says that natural disasters and
    genocide are only tools of divine punishment.
    Perhaps generally they are part of nature, due
    to the ways of the world and choices made by
    other people. And sometimes, Hashem causes
    unnatural disasters in order to punish people
    in this world.
    If so, how do we interpret the events we see
    in the world and sometimes we experience
    ourselves? If a tragedy can be a punishment
    or a natural occurrence, what do we gain from
    this explanation? The assumption underlying
    these questions is that knowledge must be
    useful in order to be valuable. Maybe the
    value in this explanation is a somewhat
    greater understanding of the workings of the
    world. At the very least, we should see tragedy
    as a prompt for introspection and evaluation.
    What are people doing wrong that might
    have caused the tragedy? Without assigning
    blame, we look for meaning in the suffering,
    for improvements we can implement in the
    wake of tragedy, for an opening to reach out
    to Hashem. At the same time, we also note
    what we did wrong on the natural level and
    how we can prepare better to avoid disasters
    that occur naturally.
    If genocidal attacks may be a divine
    punishment or a natural event caused by evil
    choices, we must prepare for both. We must
    improve our religious stations to free us from
    divine punishment. We must also enhance our
    military defenses and take actions that will
    prevent such attacks in the future. Rambam’s
    double message teaches us that we must
    operate on two levels — the natural and the
    supernatural. In that way, we improve our
    places in both this world and the next.