Reader: Dear Mesora, Although you are certainly correct that Gods ways are inscrutable: “Your thoughts are not my thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8); nevertheless, we are in no uncertain terms told, “The deeds of the Mighty One are perfect for all His ways are just. He is a faithful God never unfair; righteous and moral is He. Destruction is His children’s fault, not His own, you warped and twisted generation.” (Deuteronomy 32:4-5) Nothing in nature is by “chance” when it pertains to human beings. That would violate the concept of Divine Providence – another of Maimonides’ 13 Principles. This does not contradict the granting to man of “free will.”
Mesora: You write, “Nothing in nature is by ‘chance’ when it pertains to human beings.” Maimonides taught otherwise, quoting King David, that when one is not perfected, he is “like unto the beasts” who have no Providence regarding individual members in a species. Meaning, a boor will in fact be subject to chance, even though he is human, against your position. This makes sense when we realize that God relates to those, who relate to Him. “Close is God to all who call upon Him.” (Ashray prayer) This also means that God is far from those who are distant from Him, and they will in fact be subject to chance and natural law without God’s Providence. This means that when nature strikes such an individual, it will not be God: it can then, only be one other cause, and that is nature.
“For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle. Divine Providence is connected with Divine intellectual influence, and the same beings, which are benefited by the latter so as to become intellectual, and to comprehend things comprehensible to rational beings, are also under the control of Divine Providence, which examines all their deeds in order to reward or punish them. It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within; but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.” (Guide, Book III, chap. XVII)
At this point, the reader would assume Maimonides to mean that any time calamity befalls any person, it is God’s will, since Maimonides says, “but it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God.” However, Maimonides continues:
“…the greater the share is which a person has obtained of this Divine influence, on account of both his physical predisposition and his training, the greater must also be the effect of Divine Providence upon him, for the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are “like unto the beasts” (Ps. xlix. 21). (Guide, Book III, chap. XVIII)
Maimonides concludes that irrational men are akin to beasts, and they are “ignorant and disobedient persons deficient in that Divine influence.”
In the first quote, Maimonides means to distinguish inanimate objects (ships and roofs) from man: the latter possess intellect, so only he may receive Divine Providence. (Divine Providence relates only to intellectual beings, not to inanimate matter like ships.) The second quote clarifies “which” members of mankind receive Divine Providence. This should be understood clearly, and Maimonides complete chapters deserve your reading.
Reader: Furthermore in his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides teaches us in Chapter 3, “A person whose sins are greater than his merits immediately dies in his wickedness…and so too countries whose sins are greater (than merits) is immediately destroyed.” Maimonides, in the same chapter, immediately qualifies this statement saying, “This calculation is not based on the number of merits and sins but rather on their (relative) size. There is a merit whose quality exceeds many sins and sins whose (weight) is against many merits. And the only measurement is in the understanding of the All-Knowing – who uniquely knows how to valuate merits against sins.”
While we cannot ever hope to fathom Gods mind, nor his calculation of each individual, nor of a particular city or society – that does not, and should not prevent us from examining our ways – seeking to find instruction and positive meaning in everything that occurs to us in life.
Is this not the lesson taught us by Abraham Avinu’s dialogue with God pending Sodom’s destruction? “Shall not the Judge of all the land, not do Justice?!” Abraham is then taught that indeed God’s actions are just. The individual, with a modicum of merit, Lot and his daughters, are spared destruction. God does not “ destroy the righteous with the wicked.
Mesora: That is true: God does not destroy the righteous with the wicked. But what about cases where destruction is not an element? What about cases where there are no righteous, but only average beings?
This case of Avraham you cite, is a case Divine Intervention, and any abiding principles therein, may not be transposed onto natural phenomena, like Katrina. Furthermore, the lesson you wish to derive, “seeking instruction and meaning in everything that occurs,” Maimonides has sufficiently refuted: according to Maimonides, it would appear that many, if not most people, exist completely without Divine Providence. Maimonides proves from the Torah’s verses that God’s intervention relates to each man based on his respective perfection: meaning intellectual and moral perfection. And societies that are idolatrous or deify man are far from God’s providence. Thus, Maimonides demonstrates that greater individuals receive greater providence than lesser individuals. And as he stated, boors, or those ignorant of God receive no providence at all.
Reader: The bottom line here is that it behooves us – as the Sages of the Talmud teach, that when bad things happen to us – “that we examine our ways”, “Yefashfesh be’ma-asav.” Conversely when good things happen to us we are taught the same lesson – to examine our ways!
Mesora: You jump from cases of Avraham and clearly proven Divine intervention, to a case regarding individuals. Your equation is unwarranted, as the cases are dissimilar, so your conclusion is inapplicable.
But I agree: when negative things happen to us, and we can learn from them, then we should learn. But this does not equate to God’s intervention. For example, when I dent my new car, why shall I say that God did it? There is no proof for such a claim, nor do I believe the Rabbis meant to view such events as Divine. A more plausible explanation of the Rabbis’ words, is that I should reflect on why I dented my car: perhaps my over involvement in this new car fantasy distracted my view of the road, and that is why I crashed. We need not bring God into the picture. Yet, I can learn something about my values from this accident: I should not invest more energy into how beautiful my car looks – or how I look sitting in it – as I cruise the avenue. I should pay attention to pedestrians and other vehicles.
Reader: In the absence of Prophecy in our time, we have no choice but to examine our ways understanding that it is vital to seek out Gods presence and lesson in all that we do – knowing well that a full understanding is ultimately impossible. Nevertheless this is the human condition – it is our calling: “I sought Him whom my soul loves. I sought him but I found Him not.” (Song of Songs 3:1)
We do not have the luxury of a definitive understanding of Gods will in the absence of a bona fide prophet. I agree with you that it is arrogant to feel we know God’s mind by making claims of Divine, natural messages. We cannot and dare not assert with certainty that hurricane Katrina was Divine punishment for the United State’s support for disengagement from Gaza, nor can we say that God punished New Orleans for its lax moral code. We can and must however examine and improve our ways and know that it is wrong to expel Jews from their homes, that moral lassitude is not to be tolerated in our society, and that individuals and societies ultimately are punished or rewarded for their actions – or inaction. At the end of the day we must “walk humbly with our God.”
Joseph, Rananna Israel