No Answers

Why do bad things happen?

אמר אביי לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שחללו בה את השבת…
אמר ר’ אבהו לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביטלו ק”ש שחרית וערבית…
אמר רב המנונא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביטלו בה תינוקות של בית רבן…
אמר עולא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא מפני שלא היה להם בושת פנים זה מזה…
אמר ר’ יצחק לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שהושוו קטן וגדול…
אמר רב עמרם בריה דר”ש בר אבא א”ר שמעון בר אבא א”ר חנינא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שלא הוכיחו זה את זה…
א”ר יהודה לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביזו בה ת”ח…
ואמר רבא לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שפסקו ממנה אנשי אמנה…

Abayei said: Jerusalem would not have been destroyed but for they desecrated Shabbos in it…
Rav Avohu said: Jerusalem would not have been destroyed but for their neglecting reciting Shema morning and evening…
Rav Hamnuna said: … in it they neglected [the teaching of] children in their rabbis’ schools…
Ula sai: … they had no embarrassment, one of the other…
Rav Yitzchaq said: … they equated the small [ie the unaccomplished] and the great…
Rav Amram the son of Rabbi Shim’on bar Abba said that [his father] Rabbi Shim’on bar Abba said that Rabbi Chanina said: … they didn’t give tokhachah one to the other
Rav Yehudah said: … in it, they embarassed sages…
Rava said: … there ceased to be honest people in it…

Eight different answers (although there is strong similarity between not treating those who are great with the proper respect and embarrassing sages), each made with the claim that it’s the sole reason for the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Jack Love, a rebbe-chaveir, would point to this very variety of answers, or of identification of the specific sin committed by Nadav and Avihu to warrant their death, or what Moshe did wrong when he struck the rock. The gemara is making a statement. This kind of question has no final answer. The gemara grapples with the problem, but doesn’t claim to have a final answer.

So then why ask the question, if we know it’s unanswerable?

אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא: אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו… פשפש ולא מצא, יתלה בבטול תורה….  ואם תלה ולא מצא, בידוע שיסורין של אהבה הם….

Rava said, and some posit [it was] Rav Chisda:

If a person sees that suffering is coming to him, he should inspect his deeds…. If he inspected and didn’t find [a flaw in his deeds], he shall attribute [the suffering] to wasting Torah [ie by wasting time from immersion in it]…. And if he [tried] to attribute it [thus] and didn’t find [any time wasted that could have been spent on Torah], it is known that they are tribulations of love….

- Berakhos 5a

(More on this gemara, here. And the next piece is from here.)

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Qol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halachah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

The gemara in Berakhos calls upon us to inspect our deeds, to take a lesson from the event. Hashem shakes us out of our routines, gives us motivation to leave the status quo, and we are obligated to channel it into abandoning a sin or doing some mitzvah we’re neglecting. This is very different different than finding the cause of a tragic event.

With this idea in mind, we must take the various amoraim‘s statements in Shabbos as exhortations, not actual statements about the past.  Each tries to find some element of the pre-destruction generation that was being echoed in their and their followers’ lives. Knowing there is no conclusive answer to finding the cause, and they would never even succeed to find a cause, they still needed to struggle with the question of causes in order to find motivations to change. And by framing the problem in terms of that sin, they inspire their students to repair it.

Thus, the loss of one of our greatest poseqim must be utilized as inspiration for our own change. One can’t simple say that it is normal for 102 year olds to pass away. That would be a cause, but we aren’t seeking causes, we’re seeking lessons. (Besides, even knowing the physical cause would only explain how Hashem did something, not why.) The emotions the event generates can motivate, and it’s only the callous who would waste such opportunity.

When Jews die in a bus bombing in Bulgaria, it is irrelevent which mitzvos they did or didn’t keep. Nor what some other observant community, nor the Israeli government is doing wrong. The gemara says yefashpeish bema’asav, each person takes that moment to inspect their own deeds. And each of us might find very different answers to that question, as did the eight amoraim in our gemara.

Interpretations of Probability

At “Casting Lots” I tried to use the relationship between the field of statistics and Divine Providence as a means of looking at the verse “Hipil pur hu hagoral — he cast a pur, that is a goral” (Esther 3:7). I asked:

Which raises the more general question as to whether the Believer’s lexicon even has meaning for the word “random”. Is anything truly random? How far does Providence extend — Only to those who know Him (Rambam)? Only to those who merit it? Only to humans? Or, as became mainstream thought in the Orthodox community since the idea was first introduced by the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov, that every event in history is providential? And if we do take the last stance, what does “random” mean? What does a statistician study?

The question doesn’t exist according to the first positions on hashgachah peratis (individualized Divine Providence, hereafter: HP) that I mentioned. However, if every event, or at least every event that impacts any person’s life is the product of HP, then what random events do statisticians ever experience? What is it probability measures, if in truth Hashem causes everything witnessed according to His Plan?

(Tangent: For what it’s worth, my personal believe is that contemporary science supports the universal views of HP taught by the Gra and the Besh”t. Chaos Theory is usually popularized through the example of the butterfly in Africa that does or does not flap its wings, and could be the reason why there are or aren’t tornadoes ch”v in Kansas. Systems are complex, with feedback loops that allow small, often immeasurable, changes in initial condition to have large impact on the outcome. Even if only a small subset of people earn HP on a subset of the events in their lives, every event contributes to the set of causes for what happens to them. I don’t think partial HP is consistent with such a model of the world.)

The comment chain on “Casting Lots” opened up a discussion of whether various understandings of the relationship between nature and Divine Providence wouldn’t actually rest on the various interpretations of probability. So, I hit Wikipedia as a quick-and-easy source of a list of the more discussed interpretations. Quotes will be from there.

1- Classical Interpretation

The theory of chance consists in reducing all the events of the same kind to a certain number of cases equally possible, that is to say, to such as we may be equally undecided about in regard to their existence, and in determining the number of cases favorable to the event whose probability is sought. The ratio of this number to that of all the cases possible is the measure of this probability, which is thus simply a fraction whose numerator is the number of favorable cases and whose denominator is the number of all the cases possible.

Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

So, the probability of flipping a “heads” is 50% because there is nothing causing a heads more than a tails. Since there are two options, the probability of each is 1/2.

But if everything is ultimately caused by Hashem and reflects His Plan, then there are no events describable by the classical interpretation of probability.

(And for these reasons we can also dismiss probabilistic logic and propensity theory, both of which extend the classical theory’s use of the notion of cause.)

2- Frequentism

Wiki:

Frequency probability is the interpretation of probability that defines an event’s probability as the limit of its relative frequency in a large number of trials.

In other words, the probability of flipping a “heads” is 50% because given enough coin tosses, we will eventually find that half of them are heads.

I think this interpretation is the implication of R’ Dessler saying that teva (nature) is merely a pattern that Hashem hides His action behind. (Although later he says that teva is a pattern those of us who don’t merit miracles impose on the world of our perceptions. And those who experience miracles due so because their view of reality imposes a loftier pattern, one where justice and mercy have more reality than gravity or electromagnetism.)

Teva as opposed to seeing hashgachah, therefore inheres in the Law of Large Numbers, the idea that if you flip a coin more and more times, you will get closer and closer to 50% heads, and if you roll a die enough times, 1/6 of the rolls will be a 6, etc…

Therefore, I think REED is saying that Hashem chooses which coin-toss will be heads — and that is HP. But in order to hide His “Hand” from our sight, Hashem does so in accordance with the Law of Large Numbers.

3- Bayesian Probability

The Bayesian theory of statistics relates probability to knowledge and ignorance. To give Jaynes’ formal definition of Bayesian Probability, “A probability p is an abstract concept, a quantity that we assign theoretically, for the purpose of representing a state of knowledge, or that we calculate from previously assigned probabilities.”

For example, if someone puts 5 white balls and 5 black balls in a jar, and each person takes a ball, but no one looks until the 10th person takes their ball, each person has a 50:50 of opening their hand and finding a white ball. What if each person peeks, but doesn’t share that information? If I’m the 2nd person taking a ball, then the person who took the first ball and knows it was white, also knows my odds are only 4 in 9.

That first ball-taker is assessing the probability of my picking a white ball, GIVEN that one white one was already taken. No one else has that given, they are assessing the simple probability of my taking a white ball out of the original even mixture. They are coming up with a different number, but really they are answering a different question. By changing the knowns, the givens, we alter what it is we are assessing the probability of, and therefore will get a different probability.

Similarly, the odds of my taking out a white ball after I looked in my hand and saw the ball was white is 100%. But that’s not “the odds of my picking up a white ball”, full-stop. It’s, “the odds of my picking up a white ball GIVEN that I picked up a white ball”.

Hashem has all the givens, so the only probability “questions” He faces only events with known answers of 100% or 0%.

Using Bayesian Probability, saying that there is a 50% chance of flipping a heads (reminder: assuming HP applies) boils down to saying that we really can’t fathom the mind of G-d well enough to make any prediction about which way He would want the coin to fall.

A Physics Metaphor for Coming to Terms with Theodicy

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Aristotle believed that motion was caused by an intellect imparting impetus to an object, which then moved until the impetus ran out. Newton replaced this model of physics with his three laws, including:

Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

Inertia and linear momentum. Newton replaced impetus, which has a finite lifespan, with the notion of momentum, and the conservation of momentum. If no external force acts on a closed system of objects, the momentum of the closed system remains constant.

But in practice, we living here on earth never see momentum conserved. A rolling ball doesn’t roll forever, to stay at a constant speed, you need to occasionally put your foot on the gas pedal. Thanks to air drag and other forms of friction, there is always a “force impressed” to reduce the momentum. In daily experience, Aristotle’s impetus matches what we see — but it is really Newton who was correct.

Similarly, we have metaphysical laws of Divine Justice and Mercy. But like the conservation of momentum, there are always other factors that occlude our seeing these laws in action. So at times Hashem poses yisurim, challenges in our lives, that don’t seem fair or merciful. And so “שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא — reward for mitzvos is lacking in this world.” (Qiddushin 39b)

But it doesn’t make the rule less true, it just means that we must be aware that at least in the governance of this world, there are other factors that occlude our view.

He Should Inspect His Deeds

אמר רבא ואיתימא רב חסדא:
אם רואה אדם שיסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו. שנא’ (איכה ג): נַחְפְּשָׂה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה, וְנָשׁוּבָה עַד ה’.
פשפש ולא מצא, יתלה בבטול תורה. שנאמר (תהילים צד): אשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר תְּיַסְּרֶנּוּ יָּ-הּ, וּמִתּוֹרָתְךָ תְלַמְּדֶנּוּ.
ואם תלה ולא מצא, בידוע שיסורין של אהבה הם. שנאמר (משלי ג): כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה’ יוֹכִיחַ[, וּכְאָב אֶת בֵּן יִרְצֶה].

Rava said, and some posit [it was] Rav Chisda:

If a person sees that suffering is coming to him, he should inspect his deeds. As it says (Eikhah 3:40), “We will search out our ways and assess [them], and we will return to Hashem.”

If he inspected and didn’t find [a flaw in his deeds], he shall attribute [the suffering] to wasting Torah [ie by wasting time from immersion in it]. As it says (Tehillim 94:12), “Enriched is the man who G-d troubles, and from Your Torah You will teach him.”

And if he [tried] to attribute it [thus] and didn’t find [any time wasted that could have been spent on Torah], it is known that they are tribulations of love. As it says (Mishlei 3:12), “For those who Hashem loves, He rebukes[, like a father to his desired son].”

- Berakhos 5a

I have been encountering a number of emails and blog posts expressing dissatisfaction with how we as a community are responding to the murder of Leibby Keltzy, finding these responses to be crass, trite or self-serving. (E.g. see this blog entry, and the second half of this one.) Charities reducing the victim to a picture they can use to promote their worthy but unrelated cause; or private individuals, politicians or (again) charities producing things that draw more attention to themselves than to the tragedy of Leibby’s death.

Thinking about it, I think we can cast this issue in terms of the above-quoted gemara. Assuming what is true of the individual’s tragedy is true of the community’s, or even of the small personal tragedy we each experienced second-hand as people moved by the news.

Before I get to the point, a quibble on my translation above. For the sake of readability, I translated “yefashpeish” as “inspect”. “Inspect” comes from the word “spect” to look over (c.f. “spectacle”, “spectator”, “aSPAQlaria“, …), whereas “pishpush” means to enter and permiate.

To get to the connotations of “yefashpeish“, let me bring in another (famous) gemara and Rashi’s comments on it:

ת”ר: שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב”ש וב”ה. הללו אומרים: נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא. והללו אומרים” נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו:

Our Rabbis repeated:

For two and a half years, Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel were divided. These were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created more than if he were created.” And these were saying, “It is more comfortable for a person that he is created more than if he were not created.” They counted votes and concluded, “It is more comfortable for a person if he were not created, more than if he were created.” Now that he was created, yefashpeish bemaasav. And others says it: yemashmeish bema’asav.

יפשפש מעשיו – שעשה כבר ויבדוק עבירות שבידו ויתודה וישוב:
ימשמש במעשיו – כגון אם בא מצוה לידו יחשב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ולא יניח לעשותה בשביל ההפסד שהרי שכרה עתיד לבוא ואם באת לידו עבירה יחשב שכרו שמשתכר בה עכשיו כנגד הפסדה העתיד ליפרע ממנו:

Yefashpeish bema’asav: that which he already did, check the sins that are in his control, confess, and do teshuvah.
Yemashmeish bema’asav: such as if a mitzvah reached his control, he should consider the loss the mitzvah would incur against its reward, and not rest from doing it because of that loss for the reward in the future to come. And if an aveirah comes under his control, he should think of the reward he gains from it now against the future loss, to separate from it.

- Eiruvin 13b, Rashi ad loc

Yemashmeish bema’asav is about convincing oneself, going forward, to do the right thing. The idiom yefashpeish bema’asav requires going through one’s past, and finding what things in one’s life requires teshuvah  — and following up on those things in particular.

Returning to the expression’s usage in our original gemara

I think we leap past this first expression, trivializing Rava’s or R’ Chisda’s words into something like: first check for overt aveiros, than for bitul Torah, and then once you rule out sins and time we could have spent on Torah but wasted, then we can assume Hashem is in His Love motivating us to come close.

When something bad happens, we are told specifically to engage in pishpush — to spend time thinking about our actions. Looking for flaws that we can rectify. In Or Yisrael, Rav Yisrael Salanter describes the process of fixing a middah as having three steps:

  • hargashah: feeling that something is wrong, incorporating both an awareness of what one is doing, and an awareness of what one ought to be doing,  and truly feeling the gap between them
  • kibush hayeitzer: conquring the inclination, ie doing the right thing despite still feeling the yeitzer hara pushing us in a different direction
  • tiqun hayeitzer: the previous two steps (working on both cognitive and behavioral planes) will naturally lead to repairing the inclination, and no longer feeling that tug toward doing the wrong thing

Rather than tragedy being a call for the cause de jeur (no matter how significant), I would suggest that yefashpeish bema’asav is a call to developing that initial hargashah of what is off-kilter. Tragedy breaks us from whatever ruts we may be in. Hashem is explicitly pushing us to explore new areas to see if they require our attention.

[Paragraph added after comment exchange with RBM, below.] This is not saying that such a push is the reason or even a reason for the tragedy. (See the chakham section in The Four Sons Confront Tragedy for more on the difference between searching for reasons and taking lessons.) Rather, that one is obligated to take our natural response to the tragic and learn from it, hislameid from it, and change ourselves accordingly. If the news makes me think about the preciousness of my own children, then I should be leveraging that to motivate improving how I relate to them. Being diagnosed with cancer (b”H and ba”h I’ve been in remission for 8 years) evinced a very different reaction; Hashem pushed me toward a different spiritual climb.

Tragedy isn’t there to provide linear acceleration but to leave us with angular momentum.

The gemara is telling us that our response to news like Leibby Klatzky’s murder cannot be boilerplate. It must begin with real soul searching. Rava says that the first response to tragedy is to check what’s wrong with our routines. If we routinize our behavior, so that there is a standard reflex — “we need more care in not saying lashon hara“, “it’s all due to the negative influence of cell phones and internet”, (and anyone in the Orthodox community can continue this list of standard responses) — we are defying Rava’s words!

 


 

N.B.: I should point out the relevence to my recent blog entry on R’ Wolbe’s negative conception of “frumkeit“. We could say that the responses I saw complaints about typify “frumkeit” bearing all the markings of coming from instinct. They have become reduced to a fixed set of near-reflexive reactions, and all too often bring more attention to the responder than to the cause or the action being recommended.

Explaining Tragedy

It seems to me, the overall question of theodicy and explaining why tragedy enters the lives of anyone but the most evil, can be addressed on two levels. Philosophically, the question is unanswerable. As I wrote a number of years ago (in “The Four Sons Encounter Tragedy“, under the wise son’s response:

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halakhah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

On the philosophical level, the question is unanswerable. This is the ultimate conclusion of the book of Iyov:

לח:א וַיַּֽעַן־יְהוָ֣ה אֶת־אִ֭יּוֹב מנהסערה (מִ֥ן ׀ הַסְּעָרָ֗ה)    וַיֹּאמַֽר׃
ב מִ֤י זֶ֨ה ׀ מַחְשִׁ֖יךְ עֵצָ֥ה בְמִלִּ֗ין    בְּֽלִי־דָֽעַת׃
ג אֱזָר־נָ֣א כְגֶ֣בֶר חֲלָצֶ֑יךָ    וְ֝אֶשְׁאָֽלְךָ֗ וְהֽוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
ד אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ    הַ֝גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃

38:1 Then Hashem responded to Job from out of the whirlwind, and said:
2 Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge?
3 Gird up please you loins like a man; for I will make demands of you, and you will acknowledge Me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell, if you have the understanding.

And yet on the Mussar level, tragedy provides opportunity for growth, shaking us from our rut, giving us new tools in our avodas Hashem, teaching lessons.

The fact that the two levels differ means a few things:

First, this kind of lesson-taking should not be confused with finding the cause of our suffering. It’s one thing to say that the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash involved much baseless and purposeless hatred (sin’as chinam), and therefore we should learn from it to love our fellow Jew. It is quite another, in fact, to say that we know the Mind of G-d, that we know for certainty that the fall of the Second Temple was a punishment for this one sin in particular.

In fact, every time we find the gemara discuss a tragedy and associate since with it consistently we find a huge variety of opinions. Whether it’s all the various sins associated with the fall of each of the First and Second Temples, the list of sins and middos flaws that are given in the discussion of tzara’as, or the numerous opinions about what the sin was that leads to Dasan  and Aviram’s death.

Another case is the gemara‘s discussion of why a city suffer a tragic fire (Shabbos 118b-120a). The list centers on the burning of Yerushalayim, but discussed in the context of fires in general. It includes: Shabbos desecration (Rav Yehudah berei deRav Shemu’el), neglecting Shema (Rav Avahu), stopping child education (Rav Hamnuna), a loss of shame (Ula), not treating important people with the respect they earned (Rav Yitzchaq), not rebuking each other (Rav Amram), and a loss of honesty (Rava). Two variants on the above: disgracing talmidei chakhamim (R’ Yehudah) and the city not having children learning from their rebbe (Reish Laqish and Ravina).

The gemara appears to be grappling with a problem that they know they won’t fully resolve. Perhaps each amora was finding the lesson that was most useful lesson for their community and its shortcomings.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef spoke to his followers about the fire in the Carmel, and as is usual when he says something controversial, Rav Ovadiah’s words were repeated and spun by the secular media. ROY cites the first opinion in the gemara – a city is afflicted with fire because of a lack of Shabbos observance. I presume Rav Ovadiah’s intent was that the people in the audience work on their own observance. However, in the hands of the media, it was made to sound like the chareidi rabbi (not 100% accurate for a Sepharadic leader) was blaming the tragedy on the seculars.

R’ Moshe Shternbuch, the head of the beis din of the Edah haChareidis, gave a talk on the lessons of the fire. It was summarized by R’ Daniel Yaakov Travis for an anglo chareidi paper — probably Hamodia, but I’m not sure. Then it was put on line by R’ Daniel Eidensohn (whose name might be a little familiar from the book advertisement at the top of his blog).

Interestingly, and in contrast to Rav Ovadiah Yosef, R’ Shternbuch finds an issue that the fire could help us fix, even without any conscious religious or theological analysis — hubris.

There is an Israeli Chanukah song “Mi Yimalel“, which twists a verse that says “Who can tell of the mighty acts of G-d” to “Who can tell of the mighty acts of Israel / Yes, in every generation the hero will arise, the redeemer of the people.” The timing of the fire was on a holiday many Israelis interpret as celebrating a military victory and Jewish might.

The fire taught us that Israel — or any of us — are not capable of responding to every problem. Rather, “ein lanu al mi lehisha’ein, ela al avinu shabashamayim.” (We have no one upon whom to rely, except on our Father in heaven.)

And in practice, Israel was made aware of its unpreparedness. The message of modesty is there even for the most anti-religious to imbibe.

So, he too ties the fire to a sin. The questions I would ask:

  1. Do you (like me) find this less annoying that R’ Ovadiah Yosef’s declaration?
  2. If so, is it because it’s a humanist value rather than a ritual that is being pointed to?
  3. And/or is it because the connection is logical, that he’s effectively spelling out why G-d would choose this tragedy to impress a lesson. Without the need for metaphysics?
  4. And/or was it because he is focusing on tragedy as teaching, rather than punishment. (Not that I think there is a difference between these ideas when speaking of G-d.)

Feel free to answer in the comments section, although my primary point is to get you to think out and realize how you relate to these issues.

Backgammon

The following is probably fiction, but is certainly possible.

Picture a salt truck in February 2008, running down a Manhattan street, its mechanism scattering salt behind it. One particular piece of salt is sprayed out of the back of the truck, balances on a pebble embedded in the asphalt for a moment…

… and falls to the left. There it enters a weak spot in the street, a crack where water accumulates. The salt and its effect on freezing water accelerates the growth of that crack.On May 1st 2010, a Nissan Pathfinder bounced over the crack. Something fell out of place in the crudely made incendiary device in the back of the truck. The effects were scary, but no one was harmed.

… and the salt falls to the right. The SUV doesn’t get jarred, and the device remains functional. In this world — Explosion, fireball. Possibly hundreds of lives ended or people maimed. The number of people whose fate would have permanently altered for the worse would have been large.

We are very lucky.

– New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, May 1, 2010 CE (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal)

While chatting with someone after a va’ad, I mentioned that I find it helpful to think of the dilemma of how Providence and Free Will fit together by thinking about the difference between chess and backgammon.

In chess, the players have full control of all the events on the board. The player who plays a stronger game and avoids mistakes will inevitably win.

In backgammon, there is an element of chance — the moves are not entirely under the payers’ control. And yet still, the better player is far more likely to win. And if it’s a full tournament, so that no one die roll is all that important, the better player will certainly win.

Similarly, G-d can work out the outcome He wants even without asserting full control over the events.

It could have been my mythical grain of salt. But if not, it was something else. Every event is the product of a large number of causes, pieces that fit together and combine to make it happen. Free will determines some of them, G-d’s unwillingness to let us see Him tweak nature fixes others, but many of them seem to just come down to what Mayor Bloomberg thinks is “chance”.


This is a distinct issue to how we respond to these glimpses of the Divine. Here’s another relatively recent event, as told in BeChadrei Chareidim and translated by the author of the Dreaming of Moshiach blog:

The Great Miracle of the Volcano Shutdown

A universal crisis, millions of people stranded, billions of dollars lost, and one volcanic eruption in Iceland causes chaos across the European continent. Within all these tumult, one Jew merits a smile of loveliness from the Creator of the World, as if whispering to him – my son, the whole world was not created except for you כל העולם לא נברא אלא בשבילי.

The story begins with a young Yeshiva student, an 18 year old Yerushalmi, that came down with a fulminate hepatic failure and was mortally ill.

With little hope of receiving a liver transplant in Israel, Rav Firer sought to send the boy emergency to Brussels, the world center of liver transplants. The only problem however, is that Brussels under no circumstances transplants non-EU patients in order to save the scanty supply of livers for Europeans. Nevertheless, it was decided to send him to Brussels despite the full knowledge of negligible chance of receiving a liver.

The young Yeshiva student had no choice but to include his name to the long waiting list for a liver transplant. In the meantime, he tried to maintain his learning despite the illness, consciously aware that it will takes weeks, months, and even years till he will be able to be given a new liver. Many patients were on the waiting list, and his name was somewhere on the bottom… And when his turn does finally arrive, it must completely match his blood type and other medical criteria. If it’s not a perfect match, he will need to continue waiting … for a miracle.

However, רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה’ היא תקום Many thoughts in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of HaShem shall stand. HaShem had a different plan for this young Yeshiva student and HaShem’s loyal servants produced avalanches of hot ash, rock and gas on Europe, causing Europe to completely shut down its skies into a no-fly zone. No one can leave and no one can enter; a self-imposed siege in the euro zone skies. It is during this time that a young religious Yerushalmi man in the capital of Belgium is sitting in the yeshiva learning Torah.

During the course of the shut down airspace above Europe, a person dies in the hospital in the capital of Belgium, a person whom agreed to donate his liver to anyone that might need it. Astonishingly, a liver that is perfectly parametric for our young Yeshiva student.

Health authority of Belgium began searching the liver transplant waiting list but ‘unfortunately’, not even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

As they advanced further on the waiting list, they reached the young Yeshiva student. However it was not offered to the boy due to his lack of citizenship. As the clock closed in on the deadline for time in which the the liver’s lifespan for transplanting, the precious healthy liver cannot be wasted and must be swiftly replaced with a diseased liver, no one else was able to arrive in Belgium for the transplant except this young Yerushalmi.

With the clear Divine Intervention, this budding talmid chacham received the liver and is now recovering from surgery.

The enormity of this miracle was even greater after the successful liver transplant. The doctors said that the young yeshiva student’s liver was very deteriorated and diseased and it was a matter of days his liver would stop functioning completely. The doctors unanimously believe that if this young man had to continue waiting for the liver transplant, he would have been long dead.

The problem here is one of perspective. It is exciting to be the one who won the lottery. But as an outsider, I know that someone is bound to win, and can’t be amazed that one particular person I hadn’t heard of before won rather than another.

“[N]ot even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.” How tragic! But that story is ignored. As are the thousands of other tragedies, some as great, some lesser: Someone who needed to get from point A to point B for an unrelated medical issue, to obtain money for medicine or a shidduch, or the businessman who didn’t get back from vacation in time to make a big deal, or…

There are numerous such stories. It’s hard for me to dwell in the glory of how Providence played out for this recipient without assuming an equal burden and question why those who suffered did. And if I’m willing to live with the question and say that Yad Hashem is an unknowable mystery when it comes to those who suffered, then how can I suddenly claim to know and understand these cases when I appreciate and am thankful for the outcome?

A number of years back a man was shopping at the hardware store at the end of Machaneh Yehudah, when he dropped a screw. He bent over to pick up the screw — and the window blew in above him. A bombing. Part of the Intifadeh. His rav told him to bench gomel, to thank the A-lmighty for his salvation, but the man, a Holocaust survivor, simply couldn’t bring himself to do so. Not after seeing the carnage when he stood up. That too is a failure of perspective (although an understandable reaction), but of the reverse sort; after all he was the “lottery winner”.

R’ Yosef-Gavriel Bechhoffer forwarded (with his agreement to its sentiment) an anonymous comment that adds that this ideological flaw (or the one he specifies in his variant on the above observation, to be more correct) is not just abstract, it has day-to-day consequences. He writes:

I happen to think we in our generation, and especially from an educational standpoint our young people, are more in need of examples of tziduk hadin and moving forward in life despite disappointment, loss and suffering, than we are in need of further gushes of chicken soup for our already entitlement-ridden souls. Because this genre has become so ubiquitous, and we are encouraging people to identify (as if they could!) “hashgacha pratis” in their lives, I fear we are weakening rather than strengthening the kind of emuna needed to make it through the real lives most of us lead, the ones in which people die, illness hurts, and hopes are dashed, at least sometimes. I find these kinds of stories dangerous, not only because they promote magical thinking and reinforce theological beliefs of dubious basis in authoritative Jewish sources, but because they reinforce some sort of fantasy that we can ignore the gemara about kesheim shemevarchin al hatov etc. When young people raised on this intellectual diet of gruel actually encounter challenges in life, will they have the keilim, and the examples, to integrate them into their mindset and avodas Hashem? Will they conclude, consciously or unconsciously, that they are unworthy because miracles didn’t happen for them? Will they feel cheated out of the hashgacha protis they have
been guaranteed and end up angry at their religion r”l?

I don’t know, I just feel sometimes we in the frum community live in a haze of wishful thinking we have allowed and sometimes even encouraged. I don’t mean to be a downer but to say, let’s recognize and fix our problems rather than distracting ourselves from them. For every heartwarming story circulated I’d like to see at least one story that calls us to action, and I mean action to take responsibility for our dysfunctionalities. If only the energy put into the campaign to save Shalom Rubashkin from being overly punished for his crimes could be equally put into a campaign to rid ourselves of corruption and fraud and teach the importance of transparency, integrity, and accountability. I am seriously considering contacting the guy who started the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and encouraging him to start a new prong of
the movement aimed towards Emes and Yashrus.

(I would have replaced that last line with something about getting broader backing for the AishDas Society, but otherwise I agree.)


The point I’m trying to make is a subtle but important one — the difference between seeing the Hand of G-d in an event, and believing one can second-guess His Motivation for it. This is easier to remember when the results are tragic, since we have no motivating desire to assume Hashem is cruel. But if we can not understand the tragic, we can’t claim to understand happier outcomes either.

And so, when we crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians drowned, the angels wanted to sing praise to the A-lmighty. Hashem stops them, saying “the works of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs?” However, the Jews themselves did sing Hashem’s praises, we repeat the song daily as “Az Yashir“.

A difference in perspective. The angels’ song would be claiming to understand why G-d saved the Jews, and ignoring their ignorance of why He did not extend Compassion and Patience to the Egyptians.  For us the recipients of His largess, however, gratitude is appropriate. Gratitude doesn’t require knowing why, or claiming to understand His Plan.

Wisdom from Eeyore

The month that starts today, אִייָר‎ or אִיָּר, borrows its name (as do all the months) from those of Babylonia, in commemoration of our exile there — and our redemption from it. In Akkadian, the month name is “Ayyaru”, meaning “blossom” — logical enough for this time of year. But that brings to mind a piece of wisdom from an eponymous character:

Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.

 – Eeyore; A.A. Milne

 

 

It’s a human decision that differentiates weeds from wildflowers.

(For more on the subject of how we choose to perceive the world we encounter, see this entry on the relationship between free will and environment.)

Mi sheBeirakh

When someone is found guilty of a crime, he may be sent to jail. But that person isn’t the only person who gets punished. His wife loses his companionship. His children lose access to their father. They and his parents are shamed. His employer loses out on an employee, and his customers on his services. The person he used to say “Hello!” to on the way to work every morning gets that much less joy in the morning. For that matter, the people they meet get impacted because the employer faces these people when he is more stressed. The impact of one person’s imprisonment ripples outward.

We are only human beings. We can’t take all that into account when deciding when and how to punish someone.

However, Hashem can. Every person impacted by some tragedy are impacted in some customized way appropriate for their life story.

Rav JB Soloveitchik uses this idea to explain how a “Mi sheBeirakh” works. It is hard enough to understand how someone’s own prayer can cause their fate to be modified. But how would we explain how a sick person’s health would be improved in response to the prayers of people he might not have ever met or ever learn of their prayer or perhaps never even know of their existence?

Rav Soloveitchik answers that the tefillah turns the personal tragedy into a communal one. Across the community, someone does not deserve to hear of the tragedy. Someone’s impact would be unfair. And the community itself, as a corporate entity, has merit that perhaps is greater than that of the sum of its members. The community’s standing is continuous since Avraham, touched by every person along the chain of tradition; its members’ standing dates back to their births.

Today, the day-long search for Rabbi Zev Segal ended when his body was found in his car submerged in the Hackensack River. He was on the way home from his son Nachum Segal’s radio show. Tragedy struck someone whose life is discussed on the airwaves. And due to the time it took to found him, for 24 hours talk and tefillos were at a peak.

I shared an apartment with Nachum in High School, where I knew his brother Yigal, and had Rabbi Zev Segal’s oldest son, Rabbi Nate Segal, as an NCSY Regional Directory.

But there aren’t too many other people or timing for whom the news would spread that rapidly or on that personal a level.

I can’t see a much more clear call for the Mi sheBeirakh effect — for the public to share in the Segals’ pain, evoking the sanctity of the eternal Jewish community.  If we are en masse sharing an individual’s suffering, we must each see what our share of the pain, how the event ripples out to us, impacts our lives. What lessons Hashem is imparting to us. It is neither appropriate nor within our ability to try to understand His message to those more closely impacted by the tragedy. However, looking at we can change, ourselves, given knowledge we have of our own actions and mindset, we can analyze our second hand pain and take lesson from it.

More so when, while trying to make sense of their loss, my daughter calls to reassure me, “I’m okay, but there was just an attack at Mercaz, down the hill…” Your heart leaps to your throat; it’s impossible to swallow. And I wonder, with all the sadness hovering around my life the past few days, what exactly am I doing that made this slew of news appropriate for me? In which ways can it motivate me to respond?

Hashem and Morality

In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because HQBH chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?

The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. This fits Rav Hirsch’s etymology for “ra“, being related to /רעע/, to shatter. It also explains why the word “tov” means both good in the moral sense (not evil) as well as in the functional sense (not ineffective, as in “a good toothpaste prevents cavities”). To prepare the menorah’s lamps is called “hatavas haneiros — causing the functional usability of the lamps.” Moral tov derives from the functional tov. Hashem chose “Do not steal” over “Take whatever makes you happy” because that’s what makes us better receptacles. We might have remained with two definitions of tov (and of “good”) — functional and moral. According to this line of reasoning, “good at its job” is the underlying meaning of tov in the moral sense of the word as well.

So yes, HQBH did choose good vs evil without being subject to external constraint, and yet still the choice was not arbitrary. Socrates gave Euthyphro a false dichotomy — there was a third choice. Hashem has a reason, but that reason wasn’t conforming to a preexisting morality.G-d created us because He could only bestow good if there is someone to receive that good. That is our individual purpose, to make ourselves into utensils, receptacles for emanations of Divine Good. (I once suggested to Avodah that “Qabbalah” isn’t to be translated as “that which was received”, but rather “the art of reception”.) Given that personal purpose, the definition of “tov” feeds directly into a “spiritual health” model of reward and punishment. Oneshim are the product of not being proper keilim for shefa, and therefore one is incapable of receiving the sechar. It’s not that the sechar is being withheld — the problem is with the reception.This makes following the tzavah (command) of the Melech a derivative — learning to be a good subject is part of what it takes to be a good keli. Perhaps this is why they are called mitzvos (that which were commanded) rather than tzavos (commands).

This means that of the Rambam’s ikkarei emunah, perhaps the last three are the most critical. Without an eschatology, without a final state, we have no way of defining which acts advance us to that goal, and which are ra, shattering that which was already built.

One last issue: Why should I follow the purpose for which I was created? What changes G-d’s motivation into my moral imperative?
We can prove the two are identical logically. In order for my moral choice to have any meaning, I must assume my actions have value. Otherwise, what difference does it make which actions I choose to perform? If I believe my actions have value, I am assuming my existence has value, since it makes those actions possible. And thus, presumed in the very quest for morality is the notion that the purpose for which I was created imparts value.

See also Bemachashavah Techilah for Ki Seitzei for an essay on Euthyphro’s dilemma and the concept of “to’eivah”.


R. Yitzchak Blau has an article in the Torah U-Madda Journal titled “Ivan Karamazov Revisited: The Moral Argument for Religious Belief”.Much of his argument is phrased pragmatically, IOW, R’ Blau is more likely to speak of the problems the Moral Argument (MA) leads to more than whether it’s inherently valid. The moral argument is most often used in educating youth and kiruv projects, and RYB assesses them in that light.Rabbi Blau initially argues that MA is likely to lead to one of two opposite errors:1- It makes religion a handmaiden to ethics, as religion then become about being the Divinely given morality. Or
2- By identifying religion with ethics, one makes the ethical merely an expression of religion, which which respect to Judaism means saying there is no ethic beyond the G-d-given din. Do we want to teach a Judaism that has no barrier to geneivas aku”m and the like?After proving that ge’onim and rishonim assert the existence of a natural ethic (citing R’ Nissim Gaon, Ramban, Chizquni and Rav Saadia) he ends up revamping MA to be about supplementing natural ethics with
the more refined Divine ethic. For example, one can argue the need for a Divine ethic not on the grounds of “Thou shalt not murder” but on the impossibility of natural ethic dealing with abortion, euthanasia, and the other borderline cases in any deterministic way. (This ties back to an entry written earlier this week.)I think the paper is fundamentally flawed by a lack of a basic distinction.

There are two distinct issues:
– The source of morality. Can all human beings agree that there is a concept of morality (even if we disagree about much of what morality includes) if G-d didn’t create humans with the concept of morality?
– The source of information about what morality consists of.

I would assert that MA is about the first, not the latter. Therefore, we could rely on the Torah to know what morality consists of, while still using the existence of morality as a concept to imply the existence of a religious world.

I find it interesting that RYB has a discussion of why we should obey G-d in the context of “If all ethic is from G-d, isn’t ethic arbitrary?” and using John Stuart Mill, Hobbes, Geach (the latter two saying “follow G-d or he’ll beat you up!” — far from moral imperative!), but not Plato’s Euthyphro which is this very dilemma!

The Invisibility of Providence — How?

The fact is that Hashem hides His Presence from us. The question of why is an interesting one. Here I would like to look at part of the question of “How?” (I have no current plans for a part II, but I would be surprised if it never happens.)

For example, Rav Dessler asserts the well-known formula like the amount of hishtadlus (personal effort on the physical plane) one must invest is inversely proportional to the amount of bitachon (trust in Hashem’s Providence) one has. If someone has more bitachon, then their needs take care of themselves without much or even any hishtadlus. In the extreme case, R’ Chanina ben Dosa who saw Hashem’s hand in the fact that oil burns had vinager burn for him.

How is this possible? Don’t we have the basic problem of theodicy — tzadiq vera lo, good people often fare worse than evil ones? How can we assert such a formula in the face of so many counterexamples?

Similarly Divine Justice. We assert that Hashem is Just, yet we all enounter stories of two siblings, one becomes an upstanding, observant Jew, and the other not — and it is the ba’alas teshuvah who has the harder life. How?

I was asked this question about bitachon recently by email. Novarodok’s position is that bitachon is experimentally provable — if you have sufficient bitachon, everything will fall into place. As a lesson in this idea, they would put a student on a train without return fair, and the student would see how despite this, if they have bitachon, they would make it back. Things work out. The Alter of Novarodok signed his names with a trailing “ב”ב” for “Ba’al Bitachon” (Master of Trusting in G-d’s Providence). He explained that this is not bravado, but objectively established.

The Chazon Ish rebuts this position. He defines bitachon in a manner with which I am more comfortable. Not that it is trust that Hashem will provide what I want and what I think my needs are. Rather, trust that everything happens according to His Plan, and that plan is in my best interests. Of course, I am very ignorant of what it is that is best for me in the long run, what His plan holds for me, and what pitfalls my life could have hit that He steered me away from. So, I can only trust, not know experimentally.

Second, there is the issue of only looking at one goal at a time. We talk about bitachon, but what if what is in my best interest harms the masses? Or if it would be inherently unjust?
I would like to suggest this metaphor.

Since Newton, science has taught that there is a law: Anything in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Cars don’t suddenly stop when we take our foot off the gas pedal.

Why didn’t anyone notice this law before Newton?

Well, why don’t our cars continue moving forever? There is always an outside force. Wind drag. Friction between the axles and their bearings. Gravity, particularly when we reach a hill. Etc… There are always other factors.

Except for experiments performed in space, where the friction is negligible (and even there it isn’t quite zero), no one has actually seen a pure example of the first half of that rule.

And yet, the basic principle is true — even though we only catch very imperfect glimpses of it.

Hashem’s decisions involving human lives take into account far more factors what goes into determining the speed and momentum of my car. We shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes these other things occlude our ability to see the various components such as our ability to connect to His Providence through bitachon, Divine Justice, helping us reach our goals in life even without our deserving His help, etc… That’s not to say that they aren’t all in play. The fact that none of us (any astronauts reading this essay aside) have ever seen a real example of Newton’s First Law of Motion doesn’t shake our trust in its being true. We can see how it plays a role in the fuller picture. So too, the providence provided through bitachon.


Larry Lennhoff replied to the first part of this post:

So how does the second solution support hishtadlus? Is Hashem’s master plan influenced by the amount of effort I exert? If so, is it influenced positively or negatively.

As a practical matter, I prefer the solution of ‘pray to Hashem but row away from the rocks’. But I think a simple ‘everything that happens, happens for the best’ philosophy is incomplete unless it includes an element where people’s own efforts have an impact.

I started writing the following in the comments field, but as it grew, I decided to reply here.

Your question about hishtadlus and Hashem’s plan is that of free will vs providence. It’s unresolvable; at least in any complete way. My point was that we can get glimpses of solution, and there are vectors we can understand within the whole. Being able to only see partial manifestations doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Just as the fact that my car eventually rolls to a halt doesn’t deny Newtonian physics. It means that each pattern I see can only be understood as one factor that goes into the (so to speak) Decision.

Other observations:

Hashem gave us free will. That means that His plan must include a path from every possible set of decisions we make to the messianic era and the World to Come. Not a single path from Adam until the end of time; then there would be no room for human decisions.

It also means that many people don’t live up to the role they could have ideally had. History has an equilibrium state but an individual’s final outcome is up to them.

I suggested in earlier posts that the role of halakhah defining aveiros is to forewarn us away from self-inflicted pain. Punishments are not defined by the aveiros, but the aveiros are those acts which will cause pain. Just as parents prohibit a toddler from touching a stove. The punishment is the cause of the prohibition.

Hishtadlus can thus negatively impact the plan. Not prevent the goal ch”v, but complicate and delay it. However, there is a guaranteed end-state, and thus being an impediment is standing in the flow of traffic.

In my “Four Sons” essay, I attributed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s sentiment to the wise son:

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (”the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halakhah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

Anything I write in this Theodicy category of this blog should be taken in that light. One person’s grappling with the question, engaging my Creator in a relationship. Not a complete solution.