Letters March 2021

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim 

Success: Is it Ours?

Reader:  Maimonides holds that only perfected people earn God’s providence. And this is reasonable, as God will assist only he or she who selects a righteous path. God then assists them to perfect themselves even further. How then can it be said, “All that happens to man is God’s will?”  This should really read “all that happens to a ‘perfected’ man”: not that “all” men are under God’s providence.

Rabbi: All that exists is due to God’s will. Although an imperfect person is not righteous enough to deserve God’s providence, a lowly person’s success cannot be attributed to himself. Primarily, he did not create himself, so right off the bat, “his” success is due to God creating him, so as to experience success! Furthermore, he did not create the laws of nature and human interaction, all of which contribute to his success: he succeeds at real estate for example, because others need buildings, because he was fortunate to be hired by the firm from which the buyer sought buildings, because he was not sick the day this purchase occurred, and a string of other factors contributing to his success. Even his cunning that results in success, is designed by God. 

Thus, one person who is righteous earns God’s direct providence, while the average person not under divine providence is still operating within the universe’s natural laws: the system God created. In this manner, every man’s success is the result of God’s will.

Torah addresses all matters:

Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end—and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case (Deut. 8:14-18).

Torah teaches that man cannot attribute success to himself. 

However, Maimonides also says that most troubles are self-inflicted, which seems to contradict what we just said: harm is attributed solely to man. 

The answer is based on the distinction between God’s laws and man’s free will. Man’s success depends upon God’s laws, so man cannot attribute success solely to himself. But man can choose to abandon the harmonious operation of God’s laws that can lead to success, and instead, harm himself by following a path contrary to God and nature. When man does so, he conflicts with the success the universe is designed to deliver.

In summary, righteous people always earn God’s providence, while imperfect people might succeed without providence, but God’s laws cause that success too. And man can also ignore the world’s operation which will cause him harm. But the most definite fate is when we follow God’s will, which benefits us in all ways and at all times. Even this knowledge of God’s promises benefits man by providing him peace of mind. 

Is Eliyahu Alive?

Reader: In regards to Eliyahu Hanavi, how do we explain his existence…according the philosophy of Rambam? We hold a seat for him at a bris, an additional cup for him on Passover etc. Is he now an angel? A wandering spirit? The whole idea of how Judaism approaches his being around doesn’t add up.

Rabbi:  Rambam holds that angels exists only in man’s visions, meaning, not on earth. And “wandering spirits” are not a reality. I don’t know how Rambam would answer this. But everyone dies. Such sayings intend to convey some praise of Eliyahu. About Jacob, Chazal said he didn’t die. But Torah says he was embalmed. Evidently Chazal’s meaning is not literal. The rabbis say, “never dying” means there was minimal difference between one's life and death. Highly perfected people experience minimal change between life and death, it is as slight as a kiss, which is the term Chazal use about Moses’ and Aaron’s deaths: they both died “with a kiss.” Miriam did as well, bit it isn’t appropriate to talk about God kissing a woman (Rashi). It is notable that the 3 most perfected people were siblings. Talmud also says their father Amram was 1 of 4 people who never sinned.  

A “Holy” Language?

Reader: Is there anything intrinsically holy about Hebrew as a spoken and written language? I recall reading once that certain rishonim—possibly Rambam included—did not think so.

Rabbi:  The Rabbis call Hebrew “Lashon HaKodesh” as Hebrew has no exclusive words relating to intercourse and reproductive organs. Through refraining speech about sexuality, we sanctify ourselves, we make ourselves holy, kodesh. For speech is the vehicle through which man sublimates his lusts (Rabbi Israel Chait). By refraining from discussing sexual matters, we train our emotions to not satisfy our fantasies, and thereby, we perfect ourselves. We become holy.  Just as vessels of the Temple are considered holy, as they have a designation for drawing close to God, we could say Hebrew shares that designation.