Balancing Human Effort and Divine Intervention

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Six

R. Arama says the sha’ar will discuss how far we have to go in our personal efforts to secure what we find productive and fend off what is damaging. Lack in such effort (aside from reducing the odds life will go as we want) also leads to less Providence for a person.

We will see more of what he means in the course of the sha’ar, but I want to be sure we notice it already: R. Arama thinks part of the calculus for how much Providence a person merits is how much effort the person him/herself invests. Heaven helps those who help themselves, for real.

He opens with Bereshit Rabbah 76, where R. Pinhas quotes R. Aybo, Ya’akov and Moshe were each afraid at certain junctures (Ya’akov at the beginning of Parshat Va-Yishlah, when he hears Esav is headed his way with four hundred men, Moshe’s is inferred from Hashem’s telling him not to fear Og). Their fear begs explanation, given verses where they were told they were chosen by Hashem, were promised divine protection. Their fear tells R. Aybo the righteous have no ironclad promises in this world (whatever the promises mean, and they clearly mean something, they do not guarantee safety in this world).

The Four Causes

Freewill is part of the reason. As groundwork for his presentation of freewill, R. Arama lists four causes of human events: Providence, human action, the stars, and chance [scientific determinists of various sorts used to deny the role of chance, although I think the random elements in quantum physics have restored its place]. The least obvious of those is human action, considering Providence could run the world without any help.

Three arguments show him humans must have some freewill. First, unless the human intellect has freedom to exercise its powers, it would be futile to have given it to humans (and it is unthinkable Hashem would act futilely). Second, reward and punishment assumes freewill. Finally, the Torah also requires us to take steps to avoid accidents, such as by building a ma’akoh, a fence around elevated spaces, and Hashem told the Jews to stay inside the night of makkat bekhorot, of the plague of the first born.

As political philosophy has shown (he says), effort only makes sense if it has some ability to succeed. Even where many people fail (Niddah 70b speaks of many trying, to no avail, in a particular situation), or their efforts are self-destructive (as with Yosef’s brothers, he says), effort does often help, proving life is not ruled completely by Providence, the stars (what we today would call natural cause and effect), and chance.

Our Actions Shape Our Providence

In addition to a role for freewill, R. Arama cites verses to show Heaven reacts according to how we act. Someone who always makes good choices will certainly receive Providential aid, to the point s/he will barely need to try. As Tehillim 37;23 says, Hashem guides the steps of those whose path Hashem likes.

On the flip side, no matter how good one’s birth circumstances (he says a good astrological sign, we would say good genetics and environment), if s/he chooses poorly, Hashem will break the person’s pride, regardless of his/her efforts. As Yeshayahu 44;25 says, Hashem can overthrow people’s wisdom, foil their various plans.

During Avshalom’s rebellion in II Shemu’el 17, Hashem prevented Ahitophel’s advice from being accepted, to preserve David’s monarchy, despite Ahitophel’s great wisdom, his ideas always being the best ones.

Those are at the extremes, however, people who are fully good or evil. For people in the middle range, Providence does not tip the scales, the role of chance and the stars becomes significant, leaving room for personal effort to have a real impact. It’s why Mishle 10;4 could say effort helps people become rich, and Mishle 19;3, a person’s evil ruins his path.

Efforts Also Help Interpret Life

Lack of effort where effort is appropriate constitutes a sin, phrases such as be-khol mishlah yadekha and asher ta’aseh (in Devarim 15;10 and 18), everything you put your hand to and all you do (implying we are supposed to “put our hand” to things, supposed to do).

Because most of us are in that category, the Torah gives advice on how to make the proper efforts, for example in building a ma’akeh. Those of enough merits do not need protection, and those on the other extreme will not be able to avoid Hashem’s punishment. Practical advice in the Torah is aimed at the large middle.

Nor can we be sure where we fall, says R. Arama, making it wise to assume we are in the middle, and do the best we can. The assumption will lead us to act as assiduously as we can, both in the ways more likely to incur Hashem’s favor as well as in terms of making wise choices in the world of nature.

For cases where efforts do not work, a person who has R. Arama’s recommended perspective will assume s/he is being punished for his/her previous lacks or tested (a view impossible for those excessively certain of their righteousness, I think he means). Where the person has not made any efforts, however, occurrences might be random (they might not, too; R. Arama is fascinatingly insisting Providence does not cover everything. Where a person has tried, Providence will help as well, and then it’s more likely the results, good or bad, are a matter of Providence. Where not, it can be the way the world works, and the world has an element of chance, in his view).

Attaining Serenity

Baba Kamma 60b gives an example of how we should always make efforts. In a city with a plague, the Gemara tells people to stay indoors (the assumption being the plague is transmitted outside, and in interaction with other people). When that advice does not work, R. Arama adds, the person should move to a place where the plague has not yet arrived [perhaps bringing it with him/her, although R. Arama does not mention the possibility], and if it follows him/her there, the person then needs to continue to try to live, taking all the proper medications.

Should all these attempts fail, the person has fulfilled his/her obligation, and should understand Hashem has decided this is the way life should go. [It’s a remarkable point, if we accept it: in his view, although chance is a part of life, if a person makes all possible efforts and life goes a different way anyway, then the person can be sure it’s Providence. It’s a comforting view as well, because once we’ve done our part, we can rest assured whatever happens is what Hashem wants].

It’s the path to remove sadness and worry, R. Arama says, because after we have done our part, we’ll be able to be sure whatever happens next was how Hashem decided the world should go. [I wonder, though, how he thinks we would know we did all we could. To use his plague example, maybe had we left the city earlier or taken other medication, we would have been better off. I think he means if we have honestly done our level best —not our self-delusional best, where we tell ourselves we did our best– Hashem will take care of the rest, the result then being clearly what Hashem decided.]

He reads a passage in Ramban on Humash to mean Jews do not need doctors and should not use them [I always thought Ramban meant only that worthy people should not use doctors], and disputes his claim. There would be no reason for the Torah to allow doctors to ply their trade unless people had the full right to patronize them, he says; in fact, it’s almost worse, misleading people into thinking it’s ok.

Some thought II Divre Ha-Yamim 16;12 supported Ramban’s view, but R. Arama disagrees. True, the text blames Asa, the king of Judea, for consulting doctors, but because he consulted solely with them, did not also pray to Hashem (earlier, he seemed to think our doing our part automatically earned Providence; here, he’s saying prayer is appropriate as well, I think to make clear we know Hashem plays a role in outcomes).

So far, we have a world of mixed causes, nature, chance, Providence, and human effort, the latter the best way to earn/bring more of Hashem’s Providence, one significant boon of which is the confidence it gives that what happens to us is what Hashem has decided should happen to us.

Avot and Prophets Acted R. Arama’s Way, with David a Prime Example

For all we might assume the Avot and prophets had the right to the confidence they deserved high levels of Divine Providence, we see them take the kinds of steps of self-protection R. Arama is recommending. He says they knew it would be sinful to sit back and rest on the promise, might even cause a reduced Providence in their lives. He sees it as a natural progression: just as a healthy body supports the work of the intellect [an idea going back to Roman times], the healthy soul, operating at its best, draws the most positive forms of Divine Providence, and lacks in any rungs of this ladder shake the whole structure (the physical supporting the intellectual, which leads to the best use of one’s soul, attracting the best Divine Providence).

David offers one good example, a man who had been anointed king, had been assured of his future by the prophet Shemu’el, yet continually did his best to escape Sha’ul or enemies, not relying on Hashem to save him. The way to have Hashem save him, he knew, was to have done all he could.

It’s why he acted as a madman before Akhish, the king of Pelishtim (II Shemu’el 21), frothing at the mouth. Degrading as it was, it was a way he had to save himself, and therefore necessary before Hashem would step in.  In chapter 29, he faced an even more daunting challenge, as Pelishtim gathered for war on Sha’ul. For all we can be certain he never intended to join the Pelishtim in fighting his own people, and was therefore on the brink of being discovered and killed, David goes along as if he plans to join them, because it was all he could do. He remained confident Hashem would not let matters go too far, and they indeed did not.

[R. Arama’s about to turn his attention to Ya’akov, as we will see next time; before he does, I want to quibble. I love this idea and framework, and yet wonder how David would know his job was to go along? Maybe his job was to stand up to Akhish, say he could never battle the anointed king of Israel, as he did on other occasions.

R. Arama seems to me to be saying the way to earn Hashem’s getting involved is to act as if Hashem would never get involved. Jewish history tells us of times we applaud those who acted otherwise, such as the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story whose holiday we have just started celebrating. I think it’s a matter of degree, but the devil is in the details.]

Quibble aside, I believe R. Arama has given us a valuable and useful framework for weighing our actions and their role in the balance of nature, chance, and Providence.

About Gidon Rothstein

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