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.


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.

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.

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.