The following is probably fiction, but is certainly possible.

Picture a salt truck in February 2008, running down a Manhattan street, its mechanism scattering salt behind it. One particular piece of salt is sprayed out of the back of the truck, balances on a pebble embedded in the asphalt for a moment…

… and falls to the left. There it enters a weak spot in the street, a crack where water accumulates. The salt and its effect on freezing water accelerates the growth of that crack.On May 1st 2010, a Nissan Pathfinder bounced over the crack. Something fell out of place in the crudely made incendiary device in the back of the truck. The effects were scary, but no one was harmed.

… and the salt falls to the right. The SUV doesn’t get jarred, and the device remains functional. In this world — Explosion, fireball. Possibly hundreds of lives ended or people maimed. The number of people whose fate would have permanently altered for the worse would have been large.

We are very lucky.

— New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, May 1, 2010 CE (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal)

While chatting with someone after a va’ad, I mentioned that I find it helpful to think of the dilemma of how Providence and Free Will fit together by thinking about the difference between chess and backgammon.

In chess, the players have full control of all the events on the board. The player who plays a stronger game and avoids mistakes will inevitably win.

In backgammon, there is an element of chance — the moves are not entirely under the payers’ control. And yet still, the better player is far more likely to win. And if it’s a full tournament, so that no one die roll is all that important, the better player will certainly win.

Similarly, G-d can work out the outcome He wants even without asserting full control over the events.

It could have been my mythical grain of salt. But if not, it was something else. Every event is the product of a large number of causes, pieces that fit together and combine to make it happen. Free will determines some of them, G-d’s unwillingness to let us see Him tweak nature fixes others, but many of them seem to just come down to what Mayor Bloomberg thinks is “chance”.

This is a distinct issue to how we respond to these glimpses of the Divine. Here’s another relatively recent event, as told in BeChadrei Chareidim and translated by the author of the Dreaming of Moshiach blog:

The Great Miracle of the Volcano Shutdown

A universal crisis, millions of people stranded, billions of dollars lost, and one volcanic eruption in Iceland causes chaos across the European continent. Within all these tumult, one Jew merits a smile of loveliness from the Creator of the World, as if whispering to him – my son, the whole world was not created except for you כל העולם לא נברא אלא בשבילי.

The story begins with a young Yeshiva student, an 18 year old Yerushalmi, that came down with a fulminate hepatic failure and was mortally ill.

With little hope of receiving a liver transplant in Israel, Rav Firer sought to send the boy emergency to Brussels, the world center of liver transplants. The only problem however, is that Brussels under no circumstances transplants non-EU patients in order to save the scanty supply of livers for Europeans. Nevertheless, it was decided to send him to Brussels despite the full knowledge of negligible chance of receiving a liver.

The young Yeshiva student had no choice but to include his name to the long waiting list for a liver transplant. In the meantime, he tried to maintain his learning despite the illness, consciously aware that it will takes weeks, months, and even years till he will be able to be given a new liver. Many patients were on the waiting list, and his name was somewhere on the bottom… And when his turn does finally arrive, it must completely match his blood type and other medical criteria. If it’s not a perfect match, he will need to continue waiting … for a miracle.

However, רבות מחשבות בלב איש ועצת ה’ היא תקום Many thoughts in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of HaShem shall stand. HaShem had a different plan for this young Yeshiva student and HaShem’s loyal servants produced avalanches of hot ash, rock and gas on Europe, causing Europe to completely shut down its skies into a no-fly zone. No one can leave and no one can enter; a self-imposed siege in the euro zone skies. It is during this time that a young religious Yerushalmi man in the capital of Belgium is sitting in the yeshiva learning Torah.

During the course of the shut down airspace above Europe, a person dies in the hospital in the capital of Belgium, a person whom agreed to donate his liver to anyone that might need it. Astonishingly, a liver that is perfectly parametric for our young Yeshiva student.

Health authority of Belgium began searching the liver transplant waiting list but ‘unfortunately’, not even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

As they advanced further on the waiting list, they reached the young Yeshiva student. However it was not offered to the boy due to his lack of citizenship. As the clock closed in on the deadline for time in which the the liver’s lifespan for transplanting, the precious healthy liver cannot be wasted and must be swiftly replaced with a diseased liver, no one else was able to arrive in Belgium for the transplant except this young Yerushalmi.

With the clear Divine Intervention, this budding talmid chacham received the liver and is now recovering from surgery.

The enormity of this miracle was even greater after the successful liver transplant. The doctors said that the young yeshiva student’s liver was very deteriorated and diseased and it was a matter of days his liver would stop functioning completely. The doctors unanimously believe that if this young man had to continue waiting for the liver transplant, he would have been long dead.

The problem here is one of perspective. It is exciting to be the one who won the lottery. But as an outsider, I know that someone is bound to win, and can’t be amazed that one particular person I hadn’t heard of before won rather than another.

“[N]ot even one patient was able to fly into Belgium for the very needed healthy liver transplant due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.” How tragic! But that story is ignored. As are the thousands of other tragedies, some as great, some lesser: Someone who needed to get from point A to point B for an unrelated medical issue, to obtain money for medicine or a shidduch, or the businessman who didn’t get back from vacation in time to make a big deal, or…

There are numerous such stories. It’s hard for me to dwell in the glory of how Providence played out for this recipient without assuming an equal burden and question why those who suffered did. And if I’m willing to live with the question and say that Yad Hashem is an unknowable mystery when it comes to those who suffered, then how can I suddenly claim to know and understand these cases when I appreciate and am thankful for the outcome?

A number of years back a man was shopping at the hardware store at the end of Machaneh Yehudah, when he dropped a screw. He bent over to pick up the screw — and the window blew in above him. A bombing. Part of the Intifadeh. His rav told him to bench gomel, to thank the A-lmighty for his salvation, but the man, a Holocaust survivor, simply couldn’t bring himself to do so. Not after seeing the carnage when he stood up. That too is a failure of perspective (although an understandable reaction), but of the reverse sort; after all he was the “lottery winner”.

R’ Yosef-Gavriel Bechhoffer forwarded (with his agreement to its sentiment) an anonymous comment that adds that this ideological flaw (or the one he specifies in his variant on the above observation, to be more correct) is not just abstract, it has day-to-day consequences. He writes:

I happen to think we in our generation, and especially from an educational standpoint our young people, are more in need of examples of tziduk hadin and moving forward in life despite disappointment, loss and suffering, than we are in need of further gushes of chicken soup for our already entitlement-ridden souls. Because this genre has become so ubiquitous, and we are encouraging people to identify (as if they could!) “hashgacha pratis” in their lives, I fear we are weakening rather than strengthening the kind of emuna needed to make it through the real lives most of us lead, the ones in which people die, illness hurts, and hopes are dashed, at least sometimes. I find these kinds of stories dangerous, not only because they promote magical thinking and reinforce theological beliefs of dubious basis in authoritative Jewish sources, but because they reinforce some sort of fantasy that we can ignore the gemara about kesheim shemevarchin al hatov etc. When young people raised on this intellectual diet of gruel actually encounter challenges in life, will they have the keilim, and the examples, to integrate them into their mindset and avodas Hashem? Will they conclude, consciously or unconsciously, that they are unworthy because miracles didn’t happen for them? Will they feel cheated out of the hashgacha protis they have
been guaranteed and end up angry at their religion r”l?

I don’t know, I just feel sometimes we in the frum community live in a haze of wishful thinking we have allowed and sometimes even encouraged. I don’t mean to be a downer but to say, let’s recognize and fix our problems rather than distracting ourselves from them. For every heartwarming story circulated I’d like to see at least one story that calls us to action, and I mean action to take responsibility for our dysfunctionalities. If only the energy put into the campaign to save Shalom Rubashkin from being overly punished for his crimes could be equally put into a campaign to rid ourselves of corruption and fraud and teach the importance of transparency, integrity, and accountability. I am seriously considering contacting the guy who started the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and encouraging him to start a new prong of
the movement aimed towards Emes and Yashrus.

(I would have replaced that last line with something about getting broader backing for the AishDas Society, but otherwise I agree.)

The point I’m trying to make is a subtle but important one — the difference between seeing the Hand of G-d in an event, and believing one can second-guess His Motivation for it. This is easier to remember when the results are tragic, since we have no motivating desire to assume Hashem is cruel. But if we can not understand the tragic, we can’t claim to understand happier outcomes either.

And so, when we crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians drowned, the angels wanted to sing praise to the A-lmighty. Hashem stops them, saying “the works of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you are singing songs?” However, the Jews themselves did sing Hashem’s praises, we repeat the song daily as “Az Yashir“.

A difference in perspective. The angels’ song would be claiming to understand why G-d saved the Jews, and ignoring their ignorance of why He did not extend Compassion and Patience to the Egyptians.  For us the recipients of His largess, however, gratitude is appropriate. Gratitude doesn’t require knowing why, or claiming to understand His Plan.

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