Rambam MN3:17 writes:
“For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment. It is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle. … It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within. But it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”
Let us analyze the case of the falling leaf. Wind is a natural occurrence. That a leaf drops when wind blows is another natural event. Both of these events have nothing to do with chance. They are predictable results of the natural system of cause and effect put into place at creation .The winds result from variable temperatures and thus air pressure on different expanses of the earth. These are natural events that exist within nature and allow for the existence of life on earth. Theoretically, this event could be predictable. A powerful enough computer, a well-developed mathematical model of probability with adequate data input of all the variables should be able to foresee this event. Looking at the world this way it is pretty much deterministic. However, the fact that a “certain” leaf, this specific leaf falls is the result of pure chance. The natural event is not chance; the particular entity impacted by the event that is present at that particular moment in that particular place is chance. No cause and effect is involved in the choice of that entity. Looking at chance in this case, it can be said that it is spontaneous, there being no outside sentient influence on that particular leaf. The wind blew and that leaf just happened to be there.
In the case of the man who spits and kills a gnat with his spittle, a variant is introduced. This particular gnat is where it is because in its quest for food or protection from the environment it arrived at that particular place at that exact moment. The initial act or movement it undertook was natural, a result of the survival instinct all creature are endowed with. The gnat however could have gone slightly to the right or the left, the fact that it was exactly here where the spittle fell at that exact moment is purely chance. The man too spat to clear his throat, a natural act of self-indulgence and comfort. It is no different from the gnat’s instinct for survival. The man too could have chosen to spit a little to the right or the left and the fact that he spat at the exact moment the gnat was here at the exact spot is too pure chance.
Now let us look at the sinking ship. The wind that caused the storm is a natural event and as we said earlier, has nothing to do with chance and is theoretically predictable. The fact that this ship is present at that place at that time however, has to do with the decision of the sailor to place it there and we will talk some more about that a little further. In this case, the sailor’s sentience plays a part in the event’s outcome, the sinking of the ship. However, as far as the ship itself is concerned, this particular ship being where it is can be ascribed to chance which in this case is non-spontaneous; it comes from the outside - the sailor. What about the sailor himself? The passengers? Here things get a little more complicated.
Sentience in man is no different from the survival instinct in any other creature. Sentience is just a tool that developed in man to make up for other deficiencies he has compared to other creatures and is necessary for his survival. The normal decision process is no different from the gnat’s choice of place and time, though maybe a little more sophisticated. A man has the ability to assimilate data about his environment and depending on his sophistication, predict that a storm is brewing and avoid entering the area. His decision to go or not to go is based on self-preservation and is just an added tool that a man has, to use for that purpose. It all is part of the natural system that governs our universe and is ascribed to God who created the system.
“As regards phenomena produced regularly by natural causes, such as the melting of the snow when the atmosphere becomes warm, the roaring of the sea when a storm rages.... Events caused by man's freewill, such as war, the dominion of one nation over another, the attempt of one person to hurt another, or to insult him are ascribed to God….” (MN2:48)
The day-to-day decisions that people make using their mind and freewill that are necessary for their personal wellbeing and survival are seen as being natural just as wind and rain are. They are also ascribed to God who established these natural laws at creation. But that is only if the decision is based on personal survival and narcissistic self-preservation. If only the personal interest is taken into consideration, even if it encompasses others such as family and children, it is no more than a natural process some of which are subject to chance. However when a man develops the potential that comes with sentience, the ability to think beyond the immediate, beyond the self, when he can look at the whole of creation and act according to the insights he gains from this contemplation, he takes nature into his own hands and controls it. A man who tries to “read the mind of God”, who searches for Him and tries to understand His ways no longer acts with only self-preservation in mind. He acts in a way that fulfills the role he sees for himself as part of God’s universe. Chance does not play a role when he acts in this way. Chance has a place in the normal acts of self-preservation but not in the actions of a man that works towards the loftier goal of emulating God. Hashgacha – Divine Providence (as opposed to Providence) is a word that is used to describe the state a person is in when he acts towards these higher goals. In Hebrew, the word Hashgacha is the opposite of Mikreh – attention or watchfulness versus chance or randomness.
“If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him, for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents…. It is now clearly established that the cause of our being exposed to chance, and abandoned to destruction like cattle, is to be found in our separation from God.” (MN3:51)
The sailor and the passengers in the example of the sinking ship made a decision to board it at this time, to this destination and to brave the storm. The question is on what basis was the decision to travel made? If it was done for personal interests, without trying to “read God’s mind” and act accordingly, they are subject to chance. Their death is tragic and senseless. On the other hand, if the decision was based on “knowledge of God in the right way”, no evil can befall them. Their death, tragic as it is, was not in vain. It was at the service of the greater good.
Looking at my friend’s visit to Mumbai and his timely departure, his decision to leave was induced by a combination of rational thought, emotion and instinct totally unrelated to the unfolding events. He could have gone on this trip a week later and be caught up in the events. He was lucky. He can ascribe his departure to God who gave him the ability to think and act freely, but I do not think that we can refer to this as Hashgacha.
On the other hand the Holtzbergs A”H, unquestionably led a life of “knowledge of God in the right way”. The fact that they are tragically dead, “it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.” The good they did in their lifetime, short as it was, affected many over the years. Lives have been changed thanks to them and generations will be affected by that. The result of their hard work will remain for a long time among the people who knew them.
הַרְנִינוּ גוֹיִם עַמּוֹ, כִּי
דַם-עֲבָדָיו יִקּוֹם; וְנָקָם יָשִׁיב לְצָרָיו, וְכִפֶּר