Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Pesach 5761: The Four Sons Confront Tragedy

The Haggadah tells us that the Torah addresses the question of telling the Passover story to our children by referring to four different kinds of children. One is wise, one is evil, one is uncomplicated, and the last doesn’t know to ask questions. Each son asks a question, even if the last does so in his silence. We can see from the question what they are looking to take from the seder experience.

I believe these four approaches follow through in how we react to tragedy as well. Given the dismal state of current events, perhaps this is worth some exploration.

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 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.

This is the wise son’s reaction. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The wise son is one who turns everything into a learning experience. His response to the seder is “What are the testimonial acts, the dictates, the laws, which Hashem our G-d commanded you?” How does G-d teach us to react to the events of Egypt and freedom? How am I supposed to react to tragedy?

When G-d presents tragedy to the wise son, they are called nisyonos — challenges or tests. Like the Akeidah, a learning experience for Abraham, to get him to fully realize his potential.

The second son, the wicked son, needs a wake up call. What the gemarah refers to as “yisurim”. In the weekday prayer “Tachanun” we ask G-d to forgive our sins “but not through yisurim or bad illness”.

The evil son of the Hagadah doesn’t respond to this wakeup call. He asks, — no, he says rhetorically, “What [good] is this job to you?” Our response is to blunt his teeth and point out that had he been there, he wouldn’t have been amongst those to merit the Exodus. We tell him that it’s not the tragedy that is leading him to rejecting G-d — it’s his rejection of G-d that lead him to the tragedy. I like to imagine he accepts this answer in the silence after the paragraph.

There is a second kind of yissurim, yissurim shel ahavah — tribulations of love. This is not where the person is being evil, but he’s not living up to his full potential. He too is in a rut, and G-d calls to him to break out of it and improve. G-d calls him to ahavah, to greater love and closeness to G-d.

This is the uncomplicated son, the one who believes with simple and pure faith. He asks “What is this?” and we answer with the Pesach story, with all that G-d did for us. Unlike the wise son, who wants to know all the laws of the day, all the nuances of how to react, the uncomplicated son is given motivation to cling to the A-lmighty.

Then there are times where the thing we want is a greater nisayon, a greater challenge, than the ones we don’t. And if we are not up to the challenge, if it’s a test that we couldn’t pass, G-d doesn’t make us face it.

There is a story told (Taanis 24b) of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, a man so holy that the Talmud tells numerous stories of miracles that occured to him. And yet one so poor that a heavenly Voice commented that the whole world was supported by R’ Chanina’s merit, but he himself lived off a small measure of carob from one Friday to the next.

Eventually his wife just couldn’t handle the abject poverty any longer. He agreed to her request that he pray for wealth. A heavenly hand came down and handed them a huge golden table leg. Certainly worth a fortune.

That night, R’ Chanina’s wife had a dream. They were in heaven, and all the other couples were sitting at three legged tables. Except for them. Their table only had two legs, it couldn’t stand.

Realizing that the third leg of their table was the gift they had received, she asked her husband to pray for it to be taken back. And it was.

R’ Chaim Vilozhiner associates the three legs of the table in this story with the mishnah (Avos 1:2) about the three pillars of the world: Torah, Divine service, and acts of charity. The Voice said, after all, that R’ Chanina supported the world.

The golden leg they received was the one of kindness. Until now, they had reason not to give more charity — they had nothing more to give. The story as R’ Chaim understands it (I wouldn’t say this about R’ Chanina ben Dosa on my own), suggests that R’ Chanina would have been unable to practice charity as he was worthy to had he had the opportunity.

So, R’ Chanina ben Dosa was poor.

Similarly, the person who is medically needy because that keeps him close to G-d. The person who, had he been healthy, would have been more distracted by the physical opportunities afforded him.

This is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Unlike the wise son, who asks “How shall I respond?” or the son of uncomplicated, pure and simple faith, who asks “G-d, G-d, why have you forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1) this son isn’t asking anything. He isn’t capable of grappling with this issue — be it a tragedy, or be it the Exodus.

“You shall start for him.” Our response must be to help them grow.

Of course, these four sons are archetypes. Real people are wise on some issues, determined to be wrong about others. We have a simple straight to the point perspectives on yet other things, and there are those issues we aren’t prepared or ready to face. But it is only through growth that we can reach our goals as individuals and as a people.

© 2001,2002 The AishDas Society


Here is a domain in which the split between philosophy and relationship that we’ve been exploring for the past few posts comes to the fore.I developed a philosophy about theodicy, tzadiq vera lo, why tragedy visits people who live far more righteously than others who seem to be free of it. I explored four different reactions to tragedy, comparing them to the different kinds of tragedy named by chazal, and suggested their role in our lives. See my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy” written uncoincidentally the Pesach after 9/11.

However, when news of the tsunami reached me, I was still devastated. Because I was in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 it became my emotional yardstick for tragedy. I still carry around a huge burden of anger toward the people who perpetrated the attack. Now we’re facing a tragedy that current estimates place at forty times the cost of life, with the real possibility of that number doubling due to the secondary effects of disease and hunger.

How can I not be angry? Or at least overwhelmed, shocked, and confused by my Father’s actions? The words that came to mind were those of Avraham avinu, when he learned of the fate of Sedom and Amora. “Chalilah lekha mei’asos davar kazeh, lehamis tzadiq im rashah — It should be far from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked; Chalilah lekhah, hashofeit kol ha’aratz lo ya’aseh mishpat — that the Judge of the entire world would not do justice.” I wrote something to this effect to an email list. As pointed out to me, and my brain knew this without their help, Avraham didn’t voice his anger after the fact, but was pleading with G-d to avoid the tragedy.

And if our goal in life is to “walk yourself before Me and be whole” then we should be looking to see how everything we witness was intended to be witnessed by us.

But to be satisfied with the explanations means that one is willing to settle for ideas about His existance than actually connected with Him. My response, although certainly inappropriate, was at least a real one. I think that much of the reaction that my comment garnered was from our habit to think about G-d, rather than to truly relate to Him as Beloved, Father and Master (c.f. Yedid Nefesh).

Another problem is that kiruv has focused on our ability to market traditional Judaism rather than our ability to teach it. Not everything can be tied up in a nice bow with a simple and satisfying-sounding answer. First, with respect to effective kiruv, admitting to a student that we simply don’t know is both more honest and more trust-gaining than pretending we have the answers to all the questions. As I wrote in “Four Sons”, tragedy exists to be confronted, not explained away. For much of Judaism, the beauty is in its ability to let us frame the questions meaningfully and productively, not answer them.

Divine Timelessness

Bereishis Rabbah( 5:5):

G-d made the creation of water conditional on its splitting before the Jews when they left Egypt….It was not just with the sea that He made a stipulation but with everything that He created during the six days of creation…. G-d commanded the sea to divide, the heavens and earth to be silent before Moshe…the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua, the ravens to feed Eliyahu, the fire not to burn Chananya, Mishael and Azariyah, the lions not to harm Daniel, the Heavens to open before Yechezkeil and the fish to spit out Yonah.

(See also Rambam Shemoneh Peraqim, ch 8, his commentary on Avos 5:6, and Rabbeinu Bachye on Avos 5:8. Sources posted to Avodah by R’ Daniel Eidensohn.)

The problem with miracles is that they seem to imply that G-d changed His Mind between establishing the natural order and choosing to perform that miracle. However, G-d is timeless.

G-d’s timelessness seems to also pose problems with free will. How can I be free to choose when G-d already knows what my choice will be? Rabbi Aqiva seems to simply take it as a divine mystery, “hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah — all is foreseen, but freedom is granted.” The Rambam, in Hilkhos Teshuvah, also describes it as a Divine Mystery. If we can’t understand what it means that He knows something, where He and His Knowledge are one, and where learning (which is a process of change, and therefore of time) is not involved, how can we discuss mysteries about how that knowledge interacts our free will?

The Or Samei’ach explains it slightly differently. Just as His Knowledge of the past does not change the nature of the present, so too His Knowledge of the future. Because to Him, past and future are the same.

Rav Dessler writes that our perception of the flow of time is a product of eating of the tree of knowledge. With eating the fruit, man’s free will became centered on a progression from desire to effort to fulfillment or frustration. This gives our concept of time a flow, a direction. Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. Adam saw “from one end of the world to the next”, an expression also used of a baby’s soul before birth. They see the map without the paper in front; all of time from one end to the other.

Rav Dessler’s metaphor is akin to Paul Davies’ description of Einsteinian spacetime. In relativistic physics, the universe is a four dimensional sculpture. We think of it as a 3d movie, with time having a flow that the three spatial dimensions do not. But that’s an illusion of our perception.

From this perspective, the Or Samei’ach’s answer is compelling. G-d is like an observer, looking at a sculpture. Yes, the observer could look at one point in the height of the sculpture while touching or moving a lower one. Just as G-d could Know the entirety of history while interacting with any one point in it.

G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

There is a quote from the Christian Testament that it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it is a rich man to get into heaven.It makes an interesting contrast to a Talmudic quote, a promise G-d makes the repentant: If you make for yourself an opening like the eye of a needle, I will make it into a doorway like the entrance to the Temple Portico.

This is a useful metaphor, as first the doorway was huge, roughly 30×60 ft (20×40 amos), and second because it suggests that G-d gives us the means, but awaits for us to actually step through the portico (ulam) to the holies and holy of holies within.

See also Eiruvin 53b, which speaks of the hearts of the earlies sages being like the doorway of the portico, but the later ones being as broad as the doorway of the heichal (“only” 10×20 amos). It’s a true “dwarves atop giants” type metaphor — the later sages are further within, but their hearts are smaller.

Mahadura Basra ad loc links this to an enigmatic gemara on Eiruvin 21a about the size of the Torah. For more info, see the Kollel Iyun haDaf Insights page for Eiruvin 21.

The line about the sinner having no hope is in the Qur’an 7:40: “The impious shall find the gates of heaven shut, nor shall he enter till a camel pass through the eye of a needle.” The difference is in line with Islam’s stress on Divine Justice to the exclusion of Divine Mercy.

Yeishu’s comment, OTOH, reflects their belief that man can’t redeem himself but must rely on external salvation. Playing down divine justice and only speaking of their god’s mercy. (I don’t capitalize for the trinitarian god, unlike Islam’s true monotheism.)

We, on the other hand, believe in a definition of Good that is tif’eres, a harmony, between the two. We recognize a human condition that is a set of dialectics; we must balance law and love, justice and mercy, truth and peace (think about tact). We therefore see G-d’s actions through two conflicting lenses. As Rashi quotes Chazal in his commentary on the beginning of Bereishis: the Torah uses the tetragrammaton when His actions look to us as those of mercy, and the name E-lokim (c.f. A-llah) when they appear harsh and the imposition of law.

The following is from Hamaayan by Reb Shlomo Katz, served off torah.org:

In the Friday night zemirot composed by the Arizal we read: “To the right and to the left, and in between them, the bride.” The “bride” presumably is Shabbat, but what is “to the right and to the left”?

Rav Pinchus David Horowitz z”l (the “Bostoner Rebbe”) explains:

In kabbalah, the “right” and the “left” represent the attributes of “chessed” (loving-kindness) and “gevurah” (strength) respectively. In our history, Avraham epitomized chessed (the right) and Yitzchak, gevurah (the left).

Avraham fathered Yishmael, who, according to the midrash, refused to accept the Torah because it outlawed adultery. Adultery is the result of chessed (love) gone awry (see Vayikra 20:17). Yitzchak fathered Esav, who refused to accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of accept the Torah because it prohibited murder, which is the excessive use of “gevurah.”

The nations on the right and the left observe their sabbaths to the right and the left of Shabbat, i.e., on Friday and Sunday, respectively. It is to this that the Arizal’s song refers.

Each of these three nations –Yishmael, Esav, and ourselves — claims to have the true Torah of Avraham. When we observe Shabbat, says the Bostoner Rebbe, we add to it a few minutes from Friday and a few minutes from Sunday in order to solidify our claim. (quoted in Shoshelet Boston p.273)

Attributes of G-d

When we describe an attribute of G-d, we can’t mean “attribute” in the normal sense. If we said that G-d has properties that are not His essence, we would be saying He is divisible. Therefore, the Rambam takes these “attributes” to be one of two things: 1- descriptions of how G-d relates to man, or 2- descriptions of what He isn’t.Rav Saadia Gaon divides the Rambam’s first category further. Hashem’s actions are those we associate with given attributes, so we are really describing his actions. However, Rav Saadia allows for attributes of the relationship itself. Rachamim (mercy) can therefore describe either our perception of His actions, that they are actions we associate with merciful people. Or, it is an attribute of the G-d-man relationship. But this distinction is rather subtle, and not picked up by the Rambam.In the Rambam’s first category, we find such terms as Rachum (merciful), Chanun (kind, generous), Go’el (redeemer), etc… In the latter, there is Unity, Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and the like. The Rambam explains (Moreh I 58):

It has thus been shown that every attribute predicated of G-d either denotes the quality of an action, or… the negation of the opposite. Even these negative attributes must not be formed and applied to G-d, except in the way which, as you know, sometimes an attribute is negative in reference to some thing, although that attribute can naturally never be applied to it in the same sense, as, eg, we say, “This wall does not see.”… Thus we say the heavens are not light, not heavy, not passive and therefor not subject to impressions, and that they do not possess the sensations of of taste and smell; or we use similar negative attributes. All this we do because we do not know the substance.

There are two ways to understand “infinite.” Either we mean transfinite, large without end. Like the number of integers or the number of real numbers. The other is that the concept related to that limit is meaningless for the subject we are discussing. In the case of the unknowable, the Rambam insists that the second usage is intended.

The Rambam addresses Aristotle’s opinion that the universe is infinitely old by denying the meaning of an infinite regress.

In Aristotle’s and the Rambam’s thought, the idea of a “completed infinity” had too many paradoxes. Instead they dealt with the “potentially infinite”. Rather than saying X is infinitely large they would say that X is larger than any finite quantity you may happen to choose. For any finite sized rock, HQBH’s strength is greater. That’s a weaker claim than saying He has strength of limitless size. The latter also has the bigger problem of making Hashem divisible — Him, and His Strength.

When we say that He is Omnipotent we don’t mean that He has infinite power, rather that “potency” is not a meaningful concept with respect to G-d. Unfortunately, I can not even explain the previous sentence, which is why things are stated in their traditional forms.

Similarly, if we were to ask “where is ‘1+1=2’?” there are two valid answers, “everywhere” since “1+1=2″ is true throughout the universe, and “nowhere” since the concept of location does not apply to mathematical truths. The Rambam clearly indicates that G-d’s infinity is to be taken in this second sense. Thus it is true that G-d is everywhere, yet that he is also remote, in heaven – location is meaningless.

Hashem and Logic

Can G-d make a square-circle, or a thing which is both red and not-red, or a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it? In other words, must G-d obey the laws of logic?This question is more serious than it seems. In Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell derives all of mathematics from the roots of symbolic logic. This means that if Hashem can not defy logic, he also can not make pi=3.5. Even worse, if physicists ever get a theory of everything, or if such a theory exists and is never found, than the laws of nature are forced by the laws of math which in turn are all derivable from the laws of logic. If we answer that paradoxes about Hashem aren’t true, we would need to explain, then, how miracles are possible.The nice thing about logic, however, is that a wide variety of things can be proven as long as you pick the right set of postulates. While all of math including geometry are derivable from boolean logic, there is no indication that reality has to map to Euclid’s postulates. (In fact, it doesn’t.) Math gives us many models, reality only conforms to one/some of them. Proofs are simply systems for taking a set of postulates and finding their conclusions. The postulates themselves, come before the application of logic.

Both extreme positions are supported. The Ramchal (Pischei Chachmah 30) insists that G-d’s omnipotence is absolute, even with regard to things we would regard as impossible. The Rambam, on the other hand, (Moreh 3:15) states:

That which is impossible has a permanent and constant property, which is not the result of some agent, and can not in any way change, and consequently we do not ascribe to G-d the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim; none ignore it, but such as have no idea of Logic…. Likewise it is impossible that G-d should produce a being like Himself… to produce a square whose diagonal is equal to one of its sides….
We have shown that according to each of these theories there are things that are impossible, whose existence cannot be admitted, and whose creation is excluded from the power of G-d, and the assumption that G-d does not change their nature does not imply weakness in G-d, or a limit to his power.

R. Aryeh Kaplan, in “Jewish Life – Summer ’74” discusses the question of paradox. He raises a number of classical paradoxes:
How can G-d know what I will decide tomorrow, and yet I have free will in that decision?
G-d is unchanging. However, He is now “the One Who created the universe” whereas He wasn’t before creation. How?
Can G-d create a stone so heavy even He couldn’t lift it?
(I addressed the first two in terms of the inappropriateness of using time-based language when discussing G-d in an earlier entry.)

R’ Kaplan explains:

A very good analogy would be trick glasses in which the right lens is red and the left is green. Therefore, if a person wearing such glasses looks at a white paper, he sees it as red with his right eye, and as green with his left. If he looks at it through both eyes he sees some psychedelic mixture of red and green, but under no conditions can he perceive the color white.

With respect to the stone:

The attributes of action would say that He can create such a stone, “G-d is omnipotent and can do all things.” The negative attributes would indicate that such a stone could not exist.

So, the authorities are split: no (Ramchal), yes (Rambam), and all of the above (Rabbi Kaplan). That should give me some room in which to speculate.

When we looked at Divine Attributes, we defined G-d’s omnipotence as a negative statement. A declaration about what He isn’t. G-d gets results without invoking the notion of “power”. Thus, it is meaningless to invoke the notion of “a rock too heavy for Him to lift” as it is to talk about “a song too red.” G-d cannot just lift a stone of infinite weight, omnipotence means that weight is a non-issue to what He can lift, just as color is.

The other question is can G-d defy paradox in general. I’d have to agree with the Rambam at least to the extent that some system of logic must apply. Didn’t Hashem intend us to use logic to come to understand what we can of Him. If He is above logic, what use is it? How can one say “Since Hashem created logic, therefore …” as the Ramchal does to start his very argument to conclude that theological answers needn’t be logical? How can we the proceed with the rest of this discussion if we didn’t already assume that logic works?

Contemporary logic seems to bear out a position very close to the Ramchal’s. Human reason seems to be closer modeled by Bayesian probability or Fuzzy Logic than the old Aristotelian-Boolean kind. In English: we are equipped to deal with things other than a black-and-white true vs. false. We can reason about things we can only know are probably true. And while happiness and sadness are opposites, ambivalence, where a person feels both because of different perspective on the same thing, is common. As are dialectics: People can believe “The world was created for me” and “I am dust and ashes” at the same time. Quantum level events conform to a Quantum Logic, which is also non-Boolean and non-Aristotelian. An electron can be in a superposition state, where it’s both in one state and another, even though the two contradict; at least until observed. (Don’t try to understand that — I didn’t claim it makes sense, just that it’s how subatomic particles work.)

Aristotle’s Law of Contradiction applies to neither our minds nor the constituents of our atoms. Why need it apply to G-d?

Related to this is my essays on logic and eilu va’eilu (plurality in halakhah) in Mesukim MiDevash for Naso,
and earlier in this blog.

Or, to put it another way — even if logic is a part of Truth, and therefore of Hashem’s essence, which of the many possible systems of logic does that mean? Presumably one of Infinite richness, not the Aristotelian that both the Rambam or the Ramchal were discussing.

Divine Timelessness II, Hebrew Tenses

I – Perfect and Imperfect
Hebrew verb conjugation is usually taught by making the student memorize tables organized by tense and person. The tenses on those tables are past, present, future and imperative (avar, hoveh, asid and tzivui, respectively).

However, it’s unclear if these are the primary tenses in biblical Hebrew. Rather, many translators — from traditional Teimanim to Genesius — understand Tanakh’s Hebrew to be based around two tenses: perfect and imperfect. The perfect tense is used to describe events that are completed. “He went.” Imperfect, actions in progress, “He was going.” Both of my examples refer to something in the past, but one is from the point of completion, and the other not; perfect tense isn’t the same as past tense.

How does this translate into biblical Hebrew? To continue with the example “go”, the perfect tense would be “halakh“, and the imperfect, “yeilekh“. To say “He was going”, we would use the imperfect tense. But we need to connect it to the point in time in the narrative that we’re up to, to say that it was still in progress at this point of the story, not at the time of hearing or reading it. Vav is the letter used to connect (and in fact a vav is a connecting hook, see Shemos 38:10), so we get “vayeilekh“. The vav hahipuch (tense reversing vav) is therefore not a distinct grammar rule, but follows logically. The switch from yeilekh (future) to vayeilekh (past) is possible because the placement in time is not a primary feature of the conjugation.

There is a significant philosophical implication. Time is only introduced to the sentence in relation to something else (which can equally be the time of telling or the time the story is up to). It makes biblical Hebrew better suited for communication between a Timeless Being and ourselves.

II Present Tense

What does it mean when we close the berakhah in Shemoneh Esrei with the words “bonei Yerushalayim“? Are we saying that Hashem is the “Builder of Jerusalem”? Or are we acknowledging that He is “building Jerusalem”, even today, although perhaps in a manner we won’t see until later?

In Hebrew there is what seems to be a basic ambiguity between the present tense and nouns. The word “boneh” is both “builder” and “is building”. Similarly a “shomeir” is a guard, but the same word is used to say “he is guarding”.

I said “seems to be a basic ambiguity because in order for a word to mean two things we have to be convinced that the two meanings are really different. Perhaps that is the whole point. In Western thought, we are taught to make a distinction between what a person does and who he is. However, in Hebrew, it is difficult to articulate that distinction.

Hu omeir” — he said and during that while, was a speaker. One doesn’t say “He is speaking” but identifying him as a speaker. Again, it eliminates the role of time in Hebrew conjugation. Hashem isn’t currently building Jerusalem, because He has no time, no “currently”. However, we can call Hashem “the Builder”, and say that we relate to Him in our now in those terms.

III Adjectives

Another apparent ambiguity arises earlier in Shemoneh Esrei. In the first berakhah we quote Moshe Rabbeinu who praises G-d as “HaKel haGadol haGibor vehaNorah“. Translations vary. Some render the phrase “The Great, Mighty, and Awe-inspiring G-d”. Others, including the Vilna Gaon, treat it as “The G-d, the Great One, the Mighty One, the Awe-Inspiring One”. One understands it as a noun and three adjectives, the other, as four nouns.

Again, in order for this not to be ambiguous, we have to identify adjective with noun, describing a feature of the thing with the thing itself. Aristotle makes a distinction between essence, what the thing is, and accident, properties it happened to pick up along the way. If Hebrew blurs the distinction, then the speaker of biblical Hebrew was discouraged from making this distinction.

So, in Biblical Hebrew, the same conjugation is used for nouns, present tense verbs, and adjectives.

There is a major mussar statement. You can’t fool yourself into saying that “really” you’re a good person, deep down. You are what you do. While you are building, you are a builder. You can’t fool yourself by saying that you just act one way, but deep down youare otherwise. (Of course, when speaking of ourselves, “otherwise” means “better”, and when speaking of others, we mean “worse”.) What you make of yourself isn’t simply adjectives, attributes atop your essence, it’s who you are.

We might see these possible sources of confusion as flaws, but in reality, we’re eliminating artificial distinctions that get in the way of understanding G-d and ourselves.


Shir haMa’alos: Mima’amaqim qarasikha Hashem
A song of ascents: From the depths, I call You, Hashem

- Tehillim 120:1
I’ve written a number of essays about tragedy from the perspective of philosophy and theory. But there are times when it simply isn’t the right approach.What do you say to someone who is in the middle of facing profound tragedy? A friend of mine recently lost his teenage daughter. You pay a shiv’ah call. What’s the right thing to say? Is there a right thing to say?Rav Nachum ish Gamzu would face every challenge and disappointment with “Gam zu letovah — this too is for the good.” Similarly Rabbi Aqiva, who studied under Rav Nachman ish Gamzu, said, “Everything the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything has a role in Hashem’s grand scheme. If it occurred, it has a good and positive outcome.

Very nice in theory. But how can a holocaust survivor, someone who lost his entire family, who saw children sent to the crematoria, possibly be asked to embrace this idea? How can parents bereft of their beloved daughter be told “everything has a plan, it’s really for the best” and not feel that the explanation is both emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest (as Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it)? Particularly since rare is the glimpse that we finite humans get into the infinite and Absolute Divine Wisdom.

We find the same phenomenon in the book of Iyov. The book opens telling the reader the reason for Iyov’s future woes. The Satan, the challenging angel, believes that Iyov has mastered the art of serving G-d from plenty, and needs to learn how to serve Him even in the face of poverty and adversity. Yet Iyov goes through one disaster after another, seeks their meaning, and never finds one. The book closes with Hashem telling him that the search is futile, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Tell, if you know the understanding!” (Iyov 38:3) Knowing the reason exists is a far cry from either being able to understand it or embrace it.

The word “aveilus” is translated “mourning”. Etymologically, though, it’s a form of the word “aval — but”. Aveilus is a time when none of the answers make sense; the aveil says, “I know that Hashem has his reasons, but …” When my wife and I lost our infant daughter, a recurring question in my mind was, “Yes, but why me?” Aveilus is a state where the gap between our knowledge and our hearts is acute and the chasm of pain impassable.

So what does someone do when they find themselves “walking in the valley of Deathshadow”? If it’s not the right time for explanations, what does one say?

The standard formula is “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The message is that first, G-d is everywhere — He is with you in your pain. And second, you are not a single person suffering alone.

Shir hama’alos — What is the song of ascents, the means of lifting up from the pit of despair?

“From the depths I call you, Hashem.” “Qarov Hashem lekhol qor’av, lekhol asher yiqra’uhu be’emes — Hashem is close to all who call Him, to anyone who truthfully calls Him.” (Ashrei; Tehillim 145:18) Calling out to Hashem from the depths of one soul and the depths of despair brings Him close.

At the very moment that one is grappling with “Why me, G-d?” one is calling out to Hashem with unadulterated honesty and the core of one’s being. The sufferer is seeking a personal relationship with the A-lmighty. A tragic period in our lives is a unique opportunity not to explain Hashem, but to come close to Him. Not seek explanations, but to be warmed by his embrace.

Hashgachah Peratis as a level of abstraction

Say you were a chip designer, and you wanted to know why this particular trace (wire) on some particular microprocessor chip went from 0 volts to 3 volts….The answer could be given at various levels of abstraction.

1- In quantum mechanical terms: We could speak of the doped gallium arsenide that the chip is made out of, valence levels, electrons, and quantum tunneling, and get to the point where we explain how voltage going to one part of a transistor allowed the voltage to jump from another part to a third one that the trace is connected to.

2- In transistor terms: The power at the side of the transistor in the begining of the trace changed voltage, the transistor changed state, and now let power through to our trace.

3- In digital logic terms: Because the trace is the output of an “AND” gate, and both input to the gate were 1. 3v means 1, so the output was 1 as well.

4- In computer design terms: The trace we’re looking at holds the bit in the output of an adder that indicates whether the result is negative or not. The inputs to the adder were -3 and -5. Since the result is negative, the adder output has this
bit set to “true”.

4- Programming terms: The processor is implementing the code “sum = a[i][j][k] + y[x][y][z];”

5- Application terms: The user has a spreadhseet open. She entered -3 into cell A1, -5 into A2, and =A1+A2 into cell A3. It’s now computing the value to display for A3.

6- Human terms: A woman is using a spreadsheet to balance her checkbook, this wire plays a role in her knowing that at this point, the balance is negative.

All of the above descriptions could be true simultaneously, and as we get to higher levels of abstraction, intent becomes increasingly involved in the explanation.

Similarly, there is no contradiction between nature and hashgachah. A person who lives life staring at nature will see natural explanations for his experiences. One who lives for higher ideals will see events fitting Divine Intent. (This is just a variant of the Maharal’s and Rav Dessler’s explanations of nature vs miracle.)

Also, the more central one’s role is in the course of history, the simpler it will be to find the Intentional explanation. Just as it’s easier to explain the voltage level in a wire that denotes the sign of an addition result than it is to explain that used in routing data from one component on a chip to another. The former is closer to the purpose of the person balancing her checkbook.

And so, it may not be that the righteous experience more hashgachah peratis. We could say that everyone experiences a world that is both fully natural and fully hashgachah. However, the righteous merit more experiences whose hashgachah explanation is comprehensible and more obvious to us. They don’t experience more events of hashgachah, but more hashgachah in what could be the same events.

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.

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!

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?

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.)


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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.

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.