Overcoming Nature or Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 8 Part 3

With Moshe there for the rebuke of Aharon and Miriam, people might think Moshe’s feelings had led to Miriam’s leprosy.  Hashem has the Torah speak of Moshe’s humility to make clear that’s not what happened, but the possibility leads Ran to a discussion of what’s inherent to us, such as the possibility of Moshe causing his sister’s leprosy, even without intention.

Does Our Fault Lie In Our Stars?

Prior essays in this series

Ran points to Shabbat 156a, which says that a person born in מאדים, under Mars, will shed blood. He is bothered by the implication that we are fated to sin (in this example, to shed blood); fate precludes reward and punishment.

His first answer is that predetermination might be probabilistic, not determinative. As we would say for genetics today, our makeup might lean us in a certain direction, but we can overcome it. Astrology or  genetics affect the body, but our soul can overcome that and push us in a different direction.  A potential murderer can, by the discipline of following what the soul says, stop him or herself from drawing blood.

Secondly, the soul can channel the bodily tendencies in more productive directions. As R. Ashi said on that folio in Shabbat, a murderer can become a ritual slaughterer, or one who circumcises babies. Genetics (and astrology) isn’t the whole story, even when we are following the path our stars or genes laid out.

Predispositions and What We Do with Them

It is in that light that Ran reads Niddah 16b, which describes an angel consulting with Hashem before conception, asking whether the child will be wise or stupid, rich or poor.

Ran notes that the angel does not ask about righteousness. You can’t coach height, they say in basketball, and Ran is saying the same about our lives. Our stars, as it were, might make us poor or rich, but whether we are righteous or not is up to us, completely and totally.

Ran applies that to the debate, also on Shabbat 156a, as to whether the Jews are subject to astrology.  He says that even R. Yochanan, who says we are not, means only that we have the power to change our fates, by prayer, charity, and other good deeds (to translate into modern terms: genetics works, nature works, science works; but Jews have the ability to change all that).  Everyone agreed, Ran says, that astrology never had a role in whether we observe mitzvot.

Avoiding Fate, Even If You Believe In It

Ran is bothered by the other view, that of R. Chanina, who says astrology does affect the Jewish people. How could the Torah promise physical rewards for observing mitzvot, such as long life, health, and wealth, if it is all guided by the stars?

He digresses to point out that one can avoid looming danger by being somewhere else (running away to Samaria, for those who get the reference) or parrying that danger (wearing a bullet-proof vest). Ran thinks even R. Chanina accepts that; the stars tell us what will happen, but we can avert those outcomes.  Torah and mitzvot give us ways that, by our actions, we will either be elsewhere when tragedy strikes, or will have made ourselves immune to those outcomes when they arrive (like avoiding certain disease-causing foods because the Torah prohibits them).

Changing Fate

The debate with R. Yochanan was whether mitzvot could attack fate at its source, rendering it ineffective, such as Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah being immune to the fire into which Nevuchadnezzar threw them. R. Yochanan’s view was that proper observance of the Torah could lead fire to be ineffective against them (R. Chanina would say this took an active miracle, a violation of the natural order, where R. Yochanan was saying Hashem made the world such that a person’s spiritual profile can lead nature to treat him or her differently).

Ran finds support for that view in the conversation between Hashem and Avraham on that folio in Shabbat. R. Yehudah says in the name of Rav that when Avraham told Hashem he knew he could not have children(Bereshit 15:5), Hashem responded that He could change that, moving the problematic star from east (where Avraham could not have children) to west.

Ran notes that the Gemara does not say Hashem told Avraham he could ignore the star; He told him He would change its position and effect. For R. Yochanan, Ran says, mitzvot function the same way, nullifying the power of the stars.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Given the two ways we can avoid fate, Ran notes that some tragedies might strike people who are good but not good enough to have Hashem guide them to avoid the coming disaster.  That, for Ran, is what R. Yosef means by saying (Baba Kamma 60a) that once destructive forces are unleashed into this world, they do not distinguish between righteous and wicked.

Once the determination has been made to launch a disaster, Ran says, the world works in generalities.  The plague that was going to hit the first-born, for example, focused on some physical aspect of all first born (Ran pauses to claim that all first-born share a physical similarity, based on being the first out of their mother’s womb; I make no claim that scientists today would agree). Naturally, Jewish first-born would have been affected as well, not because they deserved it, but because it was hitting all first-born, and they did not have the merits to avoid or nullify it.

When Hashem saved them by telling them to stay in their houses, with the blood of the sacrifice on their door-posts, that was a special intervention, obligating them to become Hashem’s special servants, later switched out for the Levi’im.

A Brief Translation to Modern Terms

Ran’s Medieval terminology translates easily.  In brief, he was saying that there are natural or genetic predispositions in the world. These determine some aspects of our lives, but not our choices of how to respond, nor our religious decisions.

In acting religiously, we build our relationship with Hashem, but also find ourselves guarded against some tragedies.  Either by being elsewhere (such as going to Yerushalayim for a major holiday, avoiding an epidemic where we live), by protecting ourselves from a problem (by not eating animals prone to carrying disease), or by being so righteous that nature itself is ineffective (so that our body itself will resist the disease), our spiritual lives affect our physical fates.

Any of that takes a certain level of greatness, and even seemingly righteous people might not be at that level.  When tragedy strikes such people, it is a tragedy. But, Ran says, it’s a function of the world working in generalities. To avoid those generalities, we need to work harder to be the kinds of people for whom Torah and mitzvot offer all the necessary protection.

The eighth Drasha started from Moshe and his siblings, took us on a tour of leadership and the value of its centralization, on how wisdom and prophecy are passed through the generations, and how predispositions affect us and do or do not determine our fate. Some of these, we can bet, will figure in the discussions we will see in the Drashot to come.

About Gidon Rothstein

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