With devastating earthquakes taking place around the world, and warnings of the possibility of serious earthquakes taking place even in Israel, how are we to understand this phenomenon? Does G-d control natural events such as earthquakes, and why would He cause them?
As Jews, we look for meaning in everything that happens in our lives, and it is in that light that I would like to suggest the following.
The Mishna in Berachot (54a) says that when one sees an earthquake one should recite the blessing "Blessed be He whose strength and power fill the world." This clearly expresses the belief that G-d controls earthquakes, and causes them so that we can experience His might and power. Why do some need to experience it now and why do some have to experience it more than others? I do not think that anyone can know for sure why other people experience earthquakes. But we can try to find meaning and purpose for ourselves as individuals.
The Talmud in the beginning of Berachot (5b) says that if someone is suffering they should examine their actions. There must be some way that this suffering can give meaning to, or help one improve, a part of himself or his life. The Mishna in Berachot also mentions that if someone suffers a personal loss they should say: "Blessed be He, the true Judge." This expresses admission that G-d knows best, and it is incumbent upon one to utilize and channel the loss for growth.
There is a wonderful Chassidic story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov. He once announced that after the Mincha service on Shabbat he would lecture on the subject of "What I would do if I were G-d." There was much excitement about the topic, and the synagogue was overflowing when the rabbi arrived. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak dramatically made his way to the lectern, and said in an emotional voice: "If I, Levi Yitzchak, were G-d, I would...do...exactly what G-d does. The problem is that I am not G-d, am not all-seeing and all-knowing, and that's why I don't understand so much of what He is doing." Essentially, that is what we mean when we make the blessing "Blessed be He, the true Judge."
As Jews we are ever hopeful that every event, particularly dramatic ones, will bring us closer to a time when G-d's presence is openly revealed. This was voiced by Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch who lived in Tzefat at the time of the devastating earthquake there in 1839. He said:
"This catastrophe is a sign of the redemption. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (98a) alludes to the time when the Mashiach will redeem us. He will come when 'This gate shall collapse, be rebuilt, collapse, be rebuilt again and again, until there will not be enough time to rebuild it before the Mashiach comes.' The word "gate" in Hebrew is "sha'ar" whose letters (shin, ayin, reish) when reshuffled spell the word "ra'ash" (meaning earthquake)... May this be the last 'collapsing of the gate' mentioned in the Talmud, and may we soon see the final redemption in our time - Amen." (Safed the MysticalCity, Dovid Rossoff, pages 163-164).
So too, may we know no further catastrophes, but rather let us hope that the ground has been broken for the coming of Redemption.