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G-d's Back

G-d's Back

A rabbinical-student-turned-relief-worker reflects on his time in Thailand following the Tsunami of 2004.

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The question, "Where was G‑d when this happened?" has intrigued philosophers through out the ages. Even Moses was troubled by this thought. When faced with great tragedy, it haunts us. One day, it hit me too.

It all began when I received a phone call from Rabbi Yosef Kantor, director of Chabad activities in Southeast Asia. He was looking for two rabbinic students to intern in Thailand and head Chabad's relief effort in Thailand's ravaged southwestern coast. Being 23 years old and having just completed my rabbinic ordination, I jumped at the offer. I teamed up with Yossi Zaklos, an old school pal. Two days later we landed in Bangkok.

We set up headquarters on Phuket Island. The once heavily populated Patong Beach, nicknamed 'The Highway' for its five rows of beach chairs, lay empty and naked. With scores of vacant rooms in hotels, the streets were empty. Phuket was a ghost town. Thai and Burmese workers were bustling around, trying to re-establish normalcy to what was once a tourist hot spot.

We got to work right away burying the dead and helping the wounded. As time progressed, the relief effort shifted from dealing with a disaster zone to visiting tsunami camps, giving humanitarian aid to the survivors, talking with the locals, keeping a close contact with the village heads, and teaming up with other relief groups. We helped in any way could. We must have been a sight to behold—two bearded rabbis with kippot (skull caps) and tzitzit (fringes) running around Thai and Muslim villages distributing sacks of rice, bags of chilies, cartons of instant noodles, mattresses and pillows, rice cookers and water kettles, toothbrushes and toothpaste, sanitary napkins and toilet paper. Our motto was, "Anything that can help them get their lives back on track, we'll bring it."

After about a month in Thailand we took the two-hour boat ride to Phi Phi Island, once voted one of the prettiest tourist spots in Asia.

Stepping onto the island felt like walking into a war movie—minus the action.

We walked down a road filled with rubble, past shops that looked like they'd been bombed away. Smoke was rising from the burning debris. A few lingering volunteers pushed wheelbarrows with somber expressions as they sweated in the heat of the day. In the distance we noticed a Thai family looking through a heap of rubble at a place they once called home.

What was once an island filed with life and dreams had in a few short moments turned into a nightmare of death.

After weeks in Thailand trying to be a source of cheer and comfort to the victims, trying to show a strong face and hide my emotions, the visions and experiences of the past four weeks caught up with me. I sat down on a fallen tree and wept.

I cried for those who died, and for those who lived. I cried for the children who were killed, for the parents, the orphans, the survivors. I cried for the emptiness in Ban Nam Kem, where an entire town was washed away. In the morgue in Khao Lak, bodies lay waiting to be identified, and sadly, some never would.

How, I pondered, had so many lives been lost, and scores more shattered, in such a few moments? G‑d, I cried, where were you on that ominous Sunday morning? Why have you forsaken us? How can we understand such an event—is there any reason for this? Could there be an explanation?

That night I lay in bed, the day’s events still vivid in my mind. I remembered a homily I once heard. In the book of Exodus, the Torah tells us of the following incident. Moses once realized that G‑d was in a very merciful mode. He mustered up the courage to take advantage of the moment, and asked the Al-mighty: "Show me Your glory." G‑d responded, "You cannot see My face." However, G‑d continued in the next verse, "you will see My back."

All the commentaries try to make sense of this passage. They ask what Moses sought when he requested to see G‑d's "glory" and what G‑d meant when he replied that Moses can see his back but not his face.

One of the commentaries explains it this way: Moses looked in to the future and envisioned the tragedies his people would experience. He asked G‑d, "Why do you hide yourself in our most difficult moments? Show me your glory! Reveal the meaning of all this, the great purpose that makes sense of it all." And G‑d responded: You cannot see my face. You cannot see me revealed in the horror. However, "You will see my back"--you will see me there in hindsight. When you look back and reflect on the past events, you will find me.

Two weeks later, sitting on the runway in the Bangkok airport, I found myself reflecting on my trip to Thailand. In a few moments our plane would lift off and fly back to New York. I thought about the wonderful people I had met, the relief workers that came from all over the world, mothers and fathers who left their jobs and children behind to do something that would make a difference. I thought about all the people around the world who contributed so generously to the global relief effort. Everybody was so moved by the plight of those who lay in the wake of the tsunami. All thinking the same thing, "How can I sit where I am and go on with my life while so many people are suffering?" I thought about the Thai people who suffered so much and lost everything they owned yet when we came to visit their camps, how kind and selfless they were, sharing with us their meager possessions and the little food they had.

There is no explanation for why it happened and for why so many people suffered. But in hindsight, sitting on the plane and looking back, I saw G‑d's back. I was able to say: "G‑d, You pushed us to our limit—but we responded. I found you—in us."

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Anonymous December 29, 2014

Thank you, and may HaShem bless you, comfort you, and strengthen you.

May Hashem give us a certainty to our depths that everything that happens is His perfect merciful, justice.

And if it is, then wouldn't true love and humanitarian aid be to intertwine the physical needs with reminders of the 7 Noachide laws and their practical application to non-Jews so that they may avoid further disaster. And to greatly increase the efforts of Yiddishkeit for Jews?

Isn't to restore them to health that they may return to involuntary transgression due to their ignorance, only to fatten the cow for the slaughter? As in "He who spares the rod, hates his son; but he who loves his son, diligently disciplines him." And the Chabad way of teaching gives instruction so beautifully that one falls in love with the right way to where it doesn't feel like correction.

May Hashem immediately give us clear guidance in how to make the world a fitting place for Him. Reply

Anonymous December 26, 2014

How absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. I have learnt a lot of chassidus, but never heard of that medrash before - achorai, indeed. What a tremendous lesson. Reply

Rachel F. October 12, 2010

I just wanted to send a note of praise and thanks to Zalman Schneur for his article "G-d's Back." I read it a long while ago and was deeply moved; I then sought it out again recently, in reference to some writing and thinking I am doing. Rabbi Schneur's thoughts and penetrating insight into the terrible events he wrote about are so moving to me.

And, I am so grateful that Chabad is dedicating efforts to helping out communities around the world who find themselves in desperate straits.

Please, if possible, pass along my thanks, admiration and appreciation to Rabbi Schneur. Reply

mind you Macao June 4, 2005

back and forth I mostly can appreciate your thoroughness and thoughtfulness on the BACK OF G-D, the positive angle, but at the opposite, i could not help but to sight - at whose cost it is, of seeing this BACK? Reply

Anonymous June 3, 2005

G-d's back While just reading the title, I read it not as "the back of G-d" but rather as "G-d IS back" - which is another way of looking at the tsunami and people's reactions to it! Reply

David Clearwataer, FL June 3, 2005

Looking at Tsunami evil in a Chassidic pespective? I have gone through some situations in my life which required me to stretch myself. Later, when it was all over, when I could reflect on what had happened, I felt very grateful to G-d for having given me challenges which enabled me to stretch to the point that I became aware of my inner strengths. Still, at the same time that I expressed my gratitude to G-d, I expressed also my sorrow that others had to suffer so that I could be challenged to stretch myself.

Since then, in Chassidic literature, I see again & again the view that we need challenges to bring out our godliness. This view is balanced by Chassidic statements which seem to say that all evil is an illusion. Is it? Reply

NUttie Shpieglman via chabadmtolympus.com June 1, 2005

Beautiful, I am very touched. Reply

Kevin Smith Bordentown, NJ May 31, 2005

Dear Rabbi Zalman: As I struggle with building the framework of my faith as I approach my conversion, I think your article has helped one thing coalesce in my mind. I know that I haven't fully digested it, but I am on the way:

Frequently, we "blame" G-d for awful things and events - the Shoa, the Tsunami, the American Republican party, but at the core, at the essence, it isn't encessarily the event or the thing that becomes the exclusive focus. It is our response to it AS JEWS - as real human beings created in His image - that brings forth the G-dliness from those who have accepted His way as "The Way." How can this "explain" the Shoa? Nothing can, in our realm of perception. But our committment to never letting a world forget its madness at that time is one of the objectives, and one of the positive outcomes of the influence of "G-dliness." Maybe I am onto something. Maybe I am not. I have to think more about this.

Blessings on you and your work.

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Shalom M. Chicago, IL via lubavitchchabad.org May 30, 2005

I am touched As I read your article I couldn't help but to let the tears flow. It touched me more than anything I have read until this day and I will keep it close to me for a very long time. Your story is truly an inspiration to us all.

More than the commentary I can't help but to comment on the tremendous work that you people do for Jew and non-Jew alike in every single hole on the Globe.

I don't know if it's fair to say, but I can't imagine that even Moses himself could envision a group that would literally take his people in their most trying times and single-handedly guide their every step.

I haven't met the Lubavitcher Rebbe myself (something that I sincerely regret every day) however, his emissaries throughout the world are there to attest the continuity of his vision.

Thank You!
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Helga Hudspeth May 30, 2005

I'm trying to figure out where to begin; please bear with me.

The first Jews I've ever met where those in the book "The Diary of Anne Frank." And as I read about Anne, the unspeakable horror of what was going on all around her became less than something else. It became less than the beauty and greatness of Anne.

And as I grew up and read more about Jewish history, I read about so very very many people who, under impossible circumstances, had the same beauty and greatness of that young girl.

Latey, I needed to know why I singled out the Jewish people as special. My heart knew, my mind was asking. And then I read your article. I know you were talking about the tsunami when you said: "G-d, You pushed us to our limit--but we responded. I found you--in us."

But haven't you, the Jews, been pushed to your limits, over and over, in most countries, in most time periods -- responding, over and over?

Thank you for this article. It reached me in all sorts of ways. Reply