The Marksman

I wanted to share the following thought sent in today’s email from Rabbi Zvi Miller of The Salant Foundation. The Salant Foundation emails a mussar thought and a suggestion for implementing it daily (when permissable, of course).

I do not fully understand how the Ben Ish Chai’s thesis works, but it provides a good think-piece. I’ll therefore hold my opinion for a later post, to let the reader reach his own conclusions.


L’zecher nishmas Rav Yochanon Motel ben Rav Ephraim ands Moras Esther Leah bas Rav Yehudah Yoseph B”H


Mussar – The Wisdom of Personal Growth


Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai received the Torah from Hillel and Shammai; He said: If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because you were created for that purpose. (Avos 2:9)

A man was walking alone through the forest. Suddenly, he heard a loud roar, and came face to face with an angry lion. His heart filled with fear and he was sure his time had come. He had no weapon in his hand except for a simple walking stick. After a few seconds, he pulled himself together and tried to think of a plan. He picked up his stick as if it were a bow and arrow and raised it towards the lion – hoping this pose would effectively scare away the lion.

Unbeknownst to him, a marksman was perched on a high tree behind him, and his skillful hands grasped a bow and arrow. When the man on the ground pretended to shoot an arrow, the marksman shot a real arrow that pierced the heart of the lion. When the lion fell lifeless to the ground, the man was overjoyed, thinking that his walking stick had magical powers. He began kissing his walking stick and praising it aloud.

At that point the marksman called out to him from high up in the tree, “Don’t be foolish! Your stick has neither arrows nor powers. I took mercy on you, and shot the arrow that killed the lion from up here in this tree.”

Likewise, when a person performs a Mitzvah, he has no power to affect a spiritual rectification. Rather, he only presumes that he is elevating himself, but in truth, all the sanctity and spirituality of the Mitzvah is bestowed to him by HaShem, Who oversees everything from Heaven.

The same idea is true concerning Torah study. Even though Torah study is manifest through the faculty of speech, which is more spiritually oriented than a totally physical act, nevertheless, the rectification of Torah study is a gift that comes from HaKodesh Baruch Hu. Is it possible for any person to elevate himself above his own bodily powers?

Therefore, Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai says, “If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself”, meaning do not take credit for the wisdom and holiness that came upon you as a result of your Torah study. Rather, realize that the spiritually, wisdom, and sanctity that you found as a result of your Torah study is a gift that HaShem has bestowed upon you.”

Implement: As you study Torah, envision that HaShem is blessing you with holiness and wisdom.

[Based on Moshol V’nimshol of the Ben Eish Chai, 3]

The Thermodynamics of History (revised)

(This is the second in what I hope will be a series of posts be”H about whether reward and punishment are caused by the actions they address, or meted out by Hashem more directly. The first can be found here. This post has been significantly revised and expanded since its original form.)When you drop a drop of ink into a cup of water, the ink spirals around in some chaotic pattern and eventually diffuses until the entire liquid is a uniform light blue. Even though each time you repeat the experiment the dance and spiral is different, something about it in the general is predictable. If you had different snapshots of the sequence that were significantly far enough apart in time, you could place them in historical order. Entropy always increases until it reaches the maximum. The system runs a certain way, reaching equilibrium.History also has a known final state — the Messianic Era. The colorless, pure potential of this world will be eventually assigned a meaning represented by the sky-blue of techeiles, of the vision of sapphire paving stones under the heavenly throne during the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). Even though people have free will, and therefore how the process unfolds is not fixed, the general parameters are known. And, like the ink in the water, it’s hard to understand the purpose of any particular dance or spiral in the process of history. But, we are tending toward an equilibrium.

And that means anything not in the equilibrium state will eventually cease to exist. At the end, there is no clear water. And, at the end, there is no evil. Evil must inherently destroy itself, or else there could be no guarantee of that Messianic equilibrium.

This guarantee is inherent in the definition of good and evil. In “Hashem and Morality“, I commented on the fact that the word “tov” (like the English word “good”) has two meanings: functional and moral. When we say “This is a good pen”, we are speaking functionally — the pen is very effective at doing what pens are supposed to do. Similarly, a “bad pen” is one that leaks, is dried out, or is otherwise not a good writing tool. In that essay, I suggested that one meaning derives from the other. Hashem defined moral good in terms of our function. “A good person” is not only a moral judgment, but also a functional one; someone who is doing “the good and the right” is performing his function in this world.

Therefore it’s not only that the system is designed to lead to a particular end-state which lacks evil, and therefore we know that the forces of history must prune it away. Rather, evil is — by definition — that which isn’t part of Hashem’s ideal state for man. We are warned not to do it, we are told it has the label “ra” (evil), because choosing it will be part of is that which is destined to be pruned away. The labeling of an act as “ra” or “cheit” (sin), is akin to hanging up a sign warning of a cliff; Hashem is warning us to avoid that which causes suffering. Because they run counter to both our design and our future end-state, one is joining that which will be destroyed — and therefore are ra, shattering, breaking, activities.

This is, perhaps, what Hashem means in Devarim (30:19), when He says, “… I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, so that you shall choose life…” The commandments and prohibitions are simply a list of what happens to cause blessing, because it fits the plan, as well as the reverse.

From this perspective (one which we will be”H discuss further in those future entries on this subject), not only isn’t punishment seen as meted out, it’s logically prior, not the consequence, of evil.

Of Empty Cups

In the past couple of weeks, I posted a number of essays about the causal nature of reward and punishment. In short, that sin causes a change in the self, which in turn causes punishment as the world proceeds along the path to Hashem’s desired final state for history.

In Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Haazinu, I relate this thought to Yishma’el being judged “as he is there”. Not for what he did or will do, but the state of his soul at the moment. Thus, teshuvah, by healing the soul, can make the person one who no longer deserves the punishment in question.

Now I would like to look more closely at exactly how sin effects the soul, such that the soul no longer receives maximal Divine Good.

If one puts a cup in the sink, and the cup doesn’t fill as it ought, it could be fore at least one of two basic reasons.

The first is that the cup’s mouth isn’t properly in the stream; this is the assumption that the utensil is fine, but not properly connected to the Source. Taking this approach to the human condition is suggested by the notion of the Ran (Derashos haRan ch. 10) and his student R’ Yosef Albo (Seifer haIkarim 4:13), who hold that the effects of sin are to dirty the soul and that the punishment of sin is that barrier blocking the soul’s access to Divine Good.

The implication is that the sinful soul itself is fine, but it made for itself a layer blocking it from the Light. And in fact, the Ramchal (in the opening paragraphs of Mesilas Yesharim), among many others, articulates this as the goal we seek to accomplish with mitzvos, that they are acts that bring us closer to G d. In contemporary terminology, we would call this a deveiqus (/dbq/ = attach) approach.

The other approach would be to assume the cup is flawed, perhaps its mouth could be widened, or there is a hole to repair. In this opinion, the purpose of life is to give us opportunities to perfect the self. Apparently this is the position of Rabbeinu Yona (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:1), who compares the soul of a sinner to someone who is sick. Just as a sick person suffers from his disease, so does a sinner feel the effects his deeds had on his soul. Teshuvah is a repairing or healing process. This leads to an approach to mitzvos, equally well represented (by R’ Yehudah haLevi in the beginning of the Kuzari as just one example) as the previous, the idea of man’s quest as temimus, or “sheleimus ha’adam”, the completion of man. Man’s goal in life is to strive for self-perfection.

Note that the rishonim cited, the Ran, R’ Yosef Albo and Rabbeinu Yona, all define punishment as a consequence of the imperfection or barrier created by sin. Both sides of this machlokes are within the context of a “following doctor’s orders” or “preparing on erev Shabbos so that one may enjoy Shabbos” understanding of the mitzvos described in the above mentioned Mesukim article.

The mitzvah of beris milah, the first mitzvah given to us as a people, is introduced with the words, “Ani E-l Shad-ai, his-halekh lifanai v’heyei tamim — I am E-l Shad-ai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.” (Bereishis 17:1) How are we supposed to read this quote? Is the walking before G-d, deveiqus, that is primary, and being whole a side effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G d is a means to reach that temimus?

Similarly, we say in the Amidah for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “vetaheir libeinu le’avdecha be’emes – purify our souls to serve You in truth.” One can see this in two ways: We request from Hashem that He purify us, so that we may reach that deveiqus to serve Him truthfully and reliably. Alternatively, we could be requesting temimus, that purity which we are describing by its enabling us to serve Him.

On another level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be walking in Hashem’s path. The converse is equally true. If one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d who has a single goal, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, thereby causing temimus, a wholeness and harmony of self.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. (We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.) Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins. To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tephillah.

Contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought embraces a number of variants of these two basic approaches.

Most forms of Chassidus consider the route to deveiqus to be the experience of each act, with the focus on having one’s feelings in line with those we can perceive in the Creator. The Ba’al HaTanya, on the other hand, focused on Chaba”d (insight, comprehension and knowledge), to make one’s thoughts G-dly. In this he follows the Rambam, (Moreh Nevuchim III ch. 51) who writes that one’s connection to Hashem is strictly determined by the extent of one’s knowledge of Him.

Similarly, there has been variation in the understanding of temimus. The Vilna Gaon writes, “the whole purpose of the Torah is to shatter the [evil] middos.” (Even Sheleimah, title, ch. 1) The Ba’alei Mussar took the idea further, and committed themselves to character improvement through means beyond halakhah as well. In Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Neo-Orthodoxy, temimus translates to a well-rounded individual, using derekh eretz in service of Torah. To Rav Yosef-Ber Solovetichik zt”l, the goal of man is to maximize his creativity, to be in the image of the Creator (this is a major part of the thesis of Halachic Man; c.f. pg. 109)

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there many approaches to accomplishing the same end, Hashem didn’t specify one to the exclusion of the other. “Derakheha darchei no’am, its ways are ways of pleasantness” (Mishlei 3:17) – ways, in the plural. Each community or person can pick out a derech that best suits him — as long as the goal is “his-halech lifanai v’heyei tamim”.

What we see is that our basic lifestyles can be understood in terms of a causal nature of reward and punishment. We may have different approaches, but we share a common theme. Hashem tells us which acts keep “dirt” from blocking His Light from reaching us and cause disease to the soul. Someone who violates the “Doctor’s orders” is simply incapable of receiving Hashem’s Good.

The Gift of Justice

In the past couple of weeks, I posted a number of essays showing that reward and punishment are the effects of the person’s action. First, that in order for history to progress toward the messianic age, good must reinforce and perpetuate itself, and evil must self-destroy. Then, we looked at sources that say that reward and punishment are consequences of who we are. Third, we saw that there are two groups of theories about how action impacts the self, and how that impact would impede our ability to receive Divine Good.And yet…Avraham pleads with Hashem to show pity on Sedom and Amora. Moshe repeatedly begs (and in one case demands!) pity for the Jewish people. We ask Hashem to reward the righteous and punish the wicked in separate berakhos of Shemoneh Esrei three times every weekday. Doesn’t all this presume that Hashem is personally meting out reward and punishment, that we can ask Him to temper it with Divine Mercy?The two perspectives co-exist in the Torah’s description of the generation of the flood.

And Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great in the world, and that every dream of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all day. Hashem “regretted” that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His “Heart”. Hashem said, “I will erase this man that I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.” …
The earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence. G-d saw the earth, and, behold, it was destroyed; for all flesh had destroyed their way upon the earth. And G-d said to Noach, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; Here, I will destroy them with the earth.”

– Bereishis 6:5-7,11-13

The “end of all flesh” is described as occurring on its own, something which Hashem observes — punishment as a consequence. And yet, the actual destruction is something Hashem declares He will do Himself, due to His “regret” — meting out punishment.

The chapter asks us to hold both perceptions simultaneously, neither to the exception of the other.

The Sifri on parashas Re’ei notes that Hashem “placing before us a blessing and a curse; a blessing that you listen and a curse if you do not listen” implies that the blessing is inherent in the listening. Similarly, Hashem’s words to Qayin (Bereishis 4:6), “Why are you angry? And why are you crestfallen? For if you do good, you would be lifted up, and if you do not do good, your sin will pursue…” Here too, Qayin’s fate is described as being caused by his action, to the point that Hashem questions why Qayin turns to Him.

The Sifri presents two opinions. (And a personal point of satisfaction, the debate is between two sons of R’ Yosi haGelili. Brothers arguing, how familiar!)

Rav Eliezer b”R Yosi haGelili supports the “causal” position. In one version, he brings another supporting pasuq from Mishlei (18:21) “‘Death and life are in the control of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit (consume its dividends).’ One who loves [good] speech eats its fruits; one who loves evil eats its fruits.” In the second version brought by the Sifri, his proof is another verse (11:31), “The righteous in the world yeshulam are paid (in the passive, with no one named as repayer), even more so the evil and sinner!”

Rav Yosi ben Rav Yosi haGelili disagrees. “The Torah says (Mishlei 16:4), ‘All of Hashem’s actions are for His sake, and even the wicked for the day of evil.'” Punishing the wicked is Hashem’s action, not the wicked person himself’s.

As we saw in the essay “The Mechanism of Teshuvah“, caused punishments are more effective. Parents try to change an undesired personality trait in a child by teaching the child that the action has negative consequences. These consequences are broken down into two classes: they can be imposed, a punishment meted out by the parent; or they can be natural, the normal consequences by cause and effect. For example, a child could learn not to touch a stove by either getting slapped on the hand each time she reaches for it, or by touching it once and getting hurt. The first is safer, the other is more effective.

The causal approach also mitigates the problem of theodicy, “Why bad things happen to good people, a central religious issue and one that notoriously lacks a definitive solution. It is obviously desirable to remove G-d from being the direct cause of human pain.

On the other hand, a G-d who does not directly and personally punish evil and rewards good, appears far too distant and irrelevant. It is difficult to worship or pray to such a Deity. In fact, in order to become the kind of person who deserves better, we daven, engaging in a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. The causal perspective demands the personal one.

This could well be the key to why we have both perspectives.

And in truth, there are hints that the contradiction is an illusion created by the human perspective.

It’s kind of like the question of omnipotence and miracles: Since Hashem knows everything and can do everything, there is no reason for nature to be imperfect. Why then would He need to “tweak” things with nissim? Many answers are offered. The Ramban offers two answers in parashas Bo, the Maharal and R’ Hutner argue (in two very different ways) that nissim are not tweaks but actually part of the mechanism, etc… One of the Ramban’s answers is that nissim were written into the rules when they were created. (As I understand him, that the law is that fluids seek the lowest point except for the 22nd of Elul, when the Jews reached the Red Sea, and again 40 years later when they reached the Jordan.)

To apply the parallel idea here:

Hashem is the both the One Who created the system of supernatural law that would cause any automatic sechar va’onesh, as well as the One Who would be imposing it personally. When he set up the law, Hashem did it cognizant of every outcome of it. The law would include knowledge of each instance, no less than if Hashem intervened at each instance. The difference is merely when the decision was made. And since Hashem has no time, no “when”, do they really differ?

The same resolution that would explain how miracles can exist while the rules don’t need second-guessing would explain who personal reward and punishment can exist even while being automatic. Each option is a simplification of the Divine Truth whittled down to fit into the human mind. It seems possible to get a glimpse of how they could be describing the same reality.

The duality is one central to our perception of Hashem: The imminence of the personal Giver verses the transcendence of the One Who set up perfect rules of justice.

This, in turn, is the product of a basic paradox in the human condition.

“It is the nature of good to have someone to whom to be good.”

(Derekh Hashem 1:2:1.
The same idea is found in
Rav Saadia Gaon’s Emunos veDei’os.)

With these words the Ramchal explains Hashem’s purpose for creating man. In the Torah, Hashem introduces the idea of creating people with the words “let Us make man in Our Image, like Our Semblance”. The ultimate good the Creator has to share with us is His own “nature”. The gift of being free-willed, having the capacity to make meaningful decisions, and to create. On the one hand, man exists to receive good. On the other, he exists to be G-d-like, and therefore create it himself, to positively influence others. Man the creature, receiver of G-d’s Good vs. man the creator who lives in His Image.

Man the recipient sees reward and punishment, miracles, all the ways in which G-d interacts with us as things we get from Him. A gift perspective.

Man the creative being sees these things as the tools with which he works. Reward and punishment et al are systematic because only in that way can we use them as tools with which to create.

HP, Chaos, and QM

Nowadays, it’s the norm to believe that all events in the universe, even which way a leaf falls in the middle of the forest, is subject to specific Divine Providence (hashgachah peratis — HP in Avodah parlance). However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe says this notion was a chiddush of the Baal Shem Tov’s, and R’ Chaim Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim credits the Vilna Gaon. Given this, it’s unsurprising that we can’t find a rishon who clearly backs the notion. Most teach that the events in all people’s lives are subject to HP. Some, such as the Rambam, say HP is something earned, and that there are people for whom parts of their lives are left to nature or chance. (In fact, in Moreh Nevuchim 3:17 the Rambam says that the position of Chazal is that all people are subject to individualized providence, and in ch. 18 he modifies this by nothing that a given homosapien can be more or less a “person” in this sense — based on how well he understands G-d and His Truth. (More on the various beliefs about HP in another post, someday.)

I actually think this drift in how we see individualized Providence shares a lot with the drift in Western Philosophy since Kant to Existentialism and beyond. There is now little focus on trying to figure out the world as it is, and we instead talk about the world as it is experienced. So, when the rishonim talk about hashgachah they’re having a metaphysical discussion about how G-d relates to the universe. A statement of emunah. Moderns have given up, since such a relationship is inherently unknowable. Instead, it becomes a statement of bitachon (trust [in the Almighty]); everything that happens in my life it the result of my partnership with the Eibershter. It’s not even that we’ve shifted position, we’ve changed topic.

Personally, I feel that the Rambam’s position is hard to defend mathematically, and even the majority opinion that HP includes all events in all people’s lives doesn’t exclude that many other events. This is because of the math that emerged from Chaos Theory.

To explain: The law of large numbers is the idea that if the probability of flipping a coin and getting heads is .5, then if you flip enough fair coins, you are likely to get numbers closer to 1/2 of them coming up heads. That only works for the small minority of aggregates where there are no feedback loops, so that each coin toss is independent. In systems that have such loops, Chaotic results — in which a small, even unmeasurable, change in starting conditions could make large differences in outcome. Thus, the proverbial “Butterfly Effect” — the tiny input of whether or not a butterfly flapped its wings in Africa could change whether or not there is a tornado in Missouri impacting thousands of lives.

All events interact and interplay. The vast majority of systems in the messy real world are chaotic, and nearly everything (if not actually everything) involving humans is. If there were anything whose final outcome wasn’t influenced by HQBH, how could there be anything impacting a person who merited hashgachah peratis whose final outcome was?

(Which is also how I can believe that people have free will in terms of what they do, but can have bitachon that everything that occurs to them is hashgachah. A person has the choice to interject one vector into the mix; weaving them into a total package is Hashem’s orchestration.)


So far my thoughts with respect to classical physics, in which the laws of physics produce deterministic results, even if we can’t get enough information to draw conclusions about the future. But from a Quantum Mechanical (QM) point of view, some things are only statistical. Do the molecules in a gas even have a specific location before a person takes measurements and observes them? Oddly enough, the answer is “no”. This is a different angle then the above. Chaos Theory is about unpredictability because you can’t fully know how things began. Quantum theory deals with true randomness. But it’s another interesting wrinkle anyway.

To explain (somewhat):

Double Slit ExperimentIf you shine light through a narrow slit onto a wall or some film, it makes a broader line than the slit — the wave expands after leaving the slit. And if you shine it through two such slits that are close enough together, the waves interact leaving a pattern of light and dark stripes on the wall.

But — and here is where QM gets really weird — the same thing is true when you shine less light through the slits. Even down to a single particle. Photons shot at the slit one particle of light at a time will hit the wall in a pattern that over time will create those very same stripes. The light acts like a particle in how it moves, but the probability of where it moves acts like a wave. And while you might be able to dismiss this as a feature of energy, the same experiment can be done with electrons or other things we think of as matter!

And, just to make sure you’re totally bewildered, whether the photon or electron does this weirdness can be turned on or off by choosing whether or not you put a measuring device at one of the slits. If you know which slit the particle went through, the whole wave pattern thing disappears. Until a measurement is done, the particle somehow goes through both paths in a “superposition of states”, in all the places it could have been at once and interacting with the other versions of itself.

Schroedinger's Cat: Both Alive and Dead?Erwin Schroedinger emphasized its weirdness with a famous thought experiment generally called Schroedinger’s Cat. Picture some mad scientist takes a tiny bit of radioactive substance and places it in front of a detector, which in turn has a hammer aimed at a vial of poison gas. This set-up is designed so that there is a 50% chance that enough radiation would be emitted in one hour to set off the detector and release the gas. This being a mad scientist, he takes the whole assembly and a cat and puts them into a sealed box.

It is now an hour later. Whether the cat is alive or dead depends on a quantum event, the amount of radiation. So, like the light passing through two slits, the radiation both and didn’t reach that trigger level until measured. And thus, the vial is both smashed and intact and the cat both alive and dead.

Or is it? There are numerous attempts to explain when a system shifts from the statistical realm of QM and the more deterministic world we live in and how. Here’s a thought that crossed my mind:

Perhaps the line is between nature and HP. Nature is quantum and statistical,but human events are mediated by HP which is deterministic. Which is why observation causes collapse of the wave function — and thus the range of probabilities, it introduces a human being and thus (according to Chazal and most rishonim) individual, non-statistical, Providence. Schroeder’s poor cat wouldn’t merit HP, and therefore his state needn’t be determined until a person opens the box and Providence selects a single outcome.