Free Will and Divine Providence

The notion that hashgachah peratis (personalized Divine Providence; HP) includes influence over every event dates back to the 18th century or so. The Lubavitcher Rebbe calls it a chidush (novellum) of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidus) here. According to R Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Pirqei Emunah veHashgachah vol I, ma’amar 4) the innovation was the Vilna Gaon’s, although based on hints from Rav Yonasan Eybeshitz and the Radal. (Notice that both the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Friedlander are ascribing the idea to the founder of their own camp.)

I don’t understand either claim, since we find the idea slightly earlier, in the Ramchal (Derekh Hashem 2:1:2. tr. R’ Yaakov Feldman, emphasis mine):

ואולם כבר הקדמנו בחלק א’ פרק ה’, שתחילת הנבראים כולם הם הכוחות הנבדלים, ומהם משתלשלים הגשמים. והדברים בגשמים בכל פרטיהם, הנה הם כפי מה שנעתק אליהם מן הכוחות ההם בפרטי בחינותם, ואין דבר קטון או גדול בגשמיים שלא יהיה לו סיבה ושורש בכוחות הנבדלים כפי בחינותיהם. והאדון, ברוך הוא, הנה הוא משגיח על כל אלה העניינים כפי מה שבראם, דהיינו על הכוחות הנבדלים בראשונה, ועל כל השתלשלותם כפי מה שהוא באמת. וכן הוא משגיח גם כן על הפקידים שהפקיד על הנמצאות, כמו שביארתי שם, לקיים אותם ואת פקודתם ולהתמיד להם הכוח שיפעלו פעולתם:

Now, as we’d already said the creation of the material world began with the Transcendent Forces, out of which emitted all physical things and their specific qualities. For there is nothing in the material world — either major of minor — that isn’t somehow rooted in some element of those Forces.

That being in place, G-d Himself then oversees each thing along the lines He created them, in that He first oversees the Transcendent Forces and everything that results from them, then He oversees the angels and sees to it that they carry out their duties.

Until then, the debate was whether every event in every person’s life is subject to HP, or whether it is something earned by some and not others, or that the influence can be more or less prevalent in someone’s life. And if so, what does it take to be among the deserving?

I actually think this drift in how we see individualized Providence shares a lot with the drift in Western Philosophy since Kant to Existentialism and beyond. There is now little focus on trying to figure out the world as it is, and we instead talk about the world as it is experienced. So, when the rishonim talk about hashgachah they’re having a metaphysical discussion about how G-d relates to the universe. A statement of emunah. Moderns have given up, since such a relationship is inherently unknowable. Instead, it becomes a statement of bitachon (trust [in the Almighty]); everything that happens in my life it the result of my partnership with the Eibershter. It’s not even that we’ve shifted position, we’ve changed topic. (This paragraph was taken from a different post about hashgachah peratis and why I am not sure the classical opinion can be easily made compatible with Chaos Theory nor with Quantum Mechanics. See “HP, Chaos, and QM“.) But back to our question of how hashgachah relates to free will, we will really need two answers — with the rishonim‘s version of HP, and with the more recent understanding of the idea.

When the brothers were planning to kill Yosef, but Reuven wanted to divert their plot, suggesting they instead throw him into a pit. “And Reuven heard and he saved him from their hands (vayatzileihu miyadam); and he said, let us not strike a soul.” (Bereishis 37:21)

The Or haChaim haQadosh (ad loc) writes:

For a person possesses free will and desire and can kill someone who doesn’t deserve death. Unlike evil beasts, which don’t touch a person if he isn’t deserving of death according to Heaven. That is what it says “vayatzileihu miyadam”, meaning, from the yad of their bechirah (free will). They said something in contradiction to this, “and we will see what will be with his dreams etc.…” for the bechirah will nullify the thing, and there would be no proof from his death that the thing was false.

Had the brothers killed Yosef directly, they might have caused a wrongful death. By placing him in a pit and making the effects of their bechirah uncertain, they put his fate in G-d’s “hands” so that Yosef would only die if he deserved it.

The Or haChaim simply answers your question by saying that G-d will step aside and not necessarily overrule human free will to tailor the outcome in the victim’s life.

This notion is consistent with a verse we say every weekday in Tachanun. “David said to Gad, ‘It pains me greatly. Let us please fall to the ‘hands’ of G-d, for His mercy is great, and let me not fall into man’s hands.” (Divrei Hayamim I 21:13 )

David was forced to choose the means of national punishment. Man can act in ways that defy Hashem’s mercy so the punishment’s outcome could be more severe than that of hashgachah.

There are a number of issues that can potentially conflict with hashgachah. Rav Yehudah Halevi lists four types of causes: Divine, natural, happenstance, and our topic – human. (Kuzari 5:20) Everything has a Divine cause, for if you look at the cause of an event, and its cause, and so on, you eventually reach Hashem. The Kuzari asserts that every event is caused by G-d. But due to these intermediate causes, not every event occurs in order to further Hashem’s plan for the affected people’s lives. Even though Hashem causes the event, we would not say its occurring or not occurring is something He kept in His “hands”. The Kuzari’s position is consistent with the Or Hachaim’s.

The Rambam limits HP to a subset of humans, or perhaps works more in grays, that people are subject to more or less IDP in relation to their knowledge of G-d. (Guide 3:18) Still, he wrote that Chazal taught that all people are subject to hashgachah (ibid ch. 17, presented as the 5th theory), just that he then says (ch. 18) that not all humans are equally people. He therefore limits Chazal’s statement in a way he admits they did not, that people get more or less HP depending on their knowledge of G-d, which is a measure of their people-hood. And I believe this was typical, the belief was that the mainstream position is that all people are subject to HP, even by those who held otherwise. Although this position too is still shy of modern universal hashgachah, that includes every event — even those beyond the human sphere. An idea the Rambam attributes (earlier in 3:17) to a minority of ge’onim.

But this isn’t consistent with the definition most of us assume when we hear the word hashgachah. Nowadays, it’s the norm to believe that all events in the universe, even which way a leaf falls in the middle of the forest, is subject to specific Divine Providence.

Rashi, on the other hand, believes that even in cases where one person is a victim of another (or himself — eg suicide), the victim is feeling the effects of hashgachah. Describing the law of ma’akeh, the duty to put a railing on your roof, the Torah says, “When you build a new home, make a ma’keh on your roof; don’t place blood in your home when the faller falls from it.” (Devarim 22:8)

Rashi is bothered by the redundancy in calling the victim a nofeil, a faller. He explains that this is because “he deserved to fall.”

This is more along the lines of what I called the 2nd part of my question — Free Will vs. the modern notion of universal Providence.

Also, Rashi makes a point of divorcing this philosophical question from that of morality. The idea that every victim is supposed to be a victim by Divine plan does not pardon the one who acts against the victim. He continues, “However, despite this, you should not be the one to cause his death; for good things are brought about by the agency of the innocent, and bad things are brought about by the guilty.” (Ibid. See also Rashi on Shemos 12:13, discussing the guilt of someone who kills through negligence.)

I think of HP in a manner consistent with Rashi’s, in terms of “a perfect storm”. It isn’t that any event is simply A causes B which causes C … and so XYZ happened to a person. Causality isn’t a line, it’s a net. And a person choosing to be one factor in that “perfect storm” or not doesn’t change the general convergence of causes that lead to someone else’s tragedy — or boon. Hashem makes the general flow of causality such that if it doesn’t happen this way, because the person chose otherwise, it would happen in some other.

According to Rashi, even if the brothers had tried to kill Yosef directly, their success would depend on whether Yosef deserved death. Rashi would see no difference in the outcome between the brothers’ original plan to kill Yosef directly and Reuven’s plan that it be indirect. Therefore Rashi could not take the Or Hachaim’s understanding that this alone was how he intended to save Yosef, and that Reuven returned later to help the saved Yosef. Rather, Rashi had to conclude that Reuven here was referring to an unstated plan to return later to save him.

The Chinuch (#421) explains the prohibition against taking revenge in these terms. What one experiences from another’s actions only serve Hashem’s plans. The mitzvah stems from the bitachon (trust in G-d) that in a deeper sense the other person did you no real disservice. Even the Kuzari (5:20, conclusion), who does not assume that everything we experience is necessarily directly part of Hashem’s plan for us, writes that since we cannot know what has a Divine cause, bitachon is the appropriate and most productive assumption to make in responding to any event.

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  1. Dovid says:

    How about:
    ציפור מבלעדי שמיא לא מיתצדא” (ירושלמי שביעית פ”ט ×””א).

    • micha says:

      (Also, Bereishis Rabba 79:6.)

      The Tzemach Tzedeq cites that as proof.

      If it didn’t refer to hunting, and therefore to the hashgachah peratis the hunter received, it would be a clearer-cut source. Rashbi could be saying that if Hashem’s hashgachah for the hunter can go so far as to pick which bird he will catch, all the moreso when the person is the hunted.

      See also the Riqanti’s (#491) defense of the Rambam’s position:

      ..ובבראשית רבה ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי ×”×™×” טמון במערה ×™”×’ שנה… חמא חד צייד קאים צייד צפורים דכד הוה שמע ברת קלא אמרה דימוס הות פשגא שפיקולא הוי מתצדא, אמר צפור מבלעדי שמייא לא אצלח כמן (לצוד), וכמן דבר נש… וזה הדרש הוא במקומות אחרים לרז”ל. מכל אלו הדרשות נראה ×›×™ השגחת השי”ת היא אפילו בפרטי הבהמות והחיות. ואין ×–×” דעת הרב הגדול ×–”ל בספר מורה הנבוכים… אמנם אם נרצה לישב אלו הדרשות לדעת הרב ×–”ל יש לי ליישבם ממאמרם ×–”ל שאמרו אין לך כל עשב למטה שאין לו מזל מלמעלה מכה אותו ואומר לו גדל, שנאמר הידעת חוקות שמים. והענין ×›×™ ×›×— התחתונים הוא בעליונים, וכל מלאך שומר את תפקידו אשר הופקד עליו. ולזה אמר במאמר הנזכר ההוא דממנא על עופי אתער לגבי קב”×”, הוא נראה כאילו מסרם תחת השומרים, אך אין השגחת השם פרטית עליהם. וגם ×–×” הדרש האחרון אמר הוה שמע ברת קלא וכו’, תיאר הענין לבת קול. גם אין להביא ראיה ממעשה נסים. ומה שאמר רבי שמעון לא אמר אלא להפלגת המשל ולהגדיל השגחת השי”ת על האם בגמול ובעונש…

      But really, I’m in the same boat as you. I am a modern, raised with today’s notion of how HP works. I am trying to understand the rishonim because their opinion cannot be ignored. And besides, understanding the sugya better will help hone my understanding of my own beliefs. (As R’ Rakeffet often says, “You cannot be a Religious Zionist without studying VaYoel Moshe and Al haGe’ulah ve’al haTemurah. If you don’t know the sugya, you don’t really know your own shitah either.)

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