Sunday, February 06, 2011

Providence and Chance - Calamity and Calamity.

Learning MN1:23, we get an interesting insight into Rambam’s understanding of Providence. For a thorough treatment of Divine Providence, see my article in Hakirah here 

The chapter deals with the word Yetziah – going out as it is used in Tanach with reference to God. As God is not a body, is immaterial, how can there be movement from one place to another? Rambam explains that

The term is applied figuratively to the manifestation of things that are in no way a body… meaning the propagation of the matter… Every mention of going out occurring in Scriptures with reference to Him conforms to this figurative use.

Rambam uses a verse in Yeshayahu 26:21 as the central example of this usage. To understand Rambam we have to read this verse in context. Starting at chapter 24, we have a collection of prophecies about the destruction of the land and the subsequent glorious reconstruction and return of its righteous inhabitants. The prophet foretells the calamities that are coming and offers a mixture of hope and advice on how to survive the coming storm. Our verse, the second in a two-verse prophecy, reads:

כ  לֵךְ עַמִּי בֹּא בַחֲדָרֶיךָ, וּסְגֹר דלתיך (דְּלָתְךָ) בַּעֲדֶךָ; חֲבִי כִמְעַט-רֶגַע, עַד-יעבור- (יַעֲבָר-) זָעַם.
20 Come, my people, enter into your chambers, and shut your doors about you; hide yourself for a little moment, until the indignation passes.
כא  כִּי-הִנֵּה יְהוָה יֹצֵא מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, לִפְקֹד עֲוֹן יֹשֵׁב-הָאָרֶץ עָלָיו; וְגִלְּתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת-דָּמֶיהָ, וְלֹא-תְכַסֶּה עוֹד עַל-הֲרוּגֶיהָ.  {פ}
21 For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place to visit upon the inhabitants of the earth their iniquity; the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain. {P}

 Rambam comments:

Thus: For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place, that is His decree, which at present is hidden from us, will become manifest.”

God does not go out. There is a missing subtext in the verse, the word “decree”. God’s decree is going to take effect thus “go out”.

I refer to the coming into being of something after its not having existed, for everything that comes into being from God is attributed to His decree.”

Lest you think that God decrees in real time, in other words reacts to circumstances and acts when He deems it necessary, Rambam explains that the decree refers to God’s will at creation[1]. In other words, there is a natural system of cause and effect that conforms to God’s original will.

Thus: By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth (Tehilim 33:6).In this verse God’s acts are likened to those that proceed from kings, whose instrument in giving effect to their will is speech. However, God does not require an instrument by the means of which He could act for His acts are accomplished by means of His will alone; neither is there any speech at all as shall be made clear.”

God does not speak nor does He decree or do any such things; God wills, where will is one with His essence and things come into being. That is how the heavens came into being and all they contain. Similarly, Rambam reads the verses in Yeshayahu as telling us that as a consequence of the misdeeds of the people a calamity is about to befall them. That calamity is foreseeable and is indeed foreseen by Yeshayahu’s prophecy which he acquired by contemplating the iniquities of his contemporaries and their naturally resulting consequences. Those who understand this on their own or accept his warning can therefore protect themselves by hiding out and lying low “until the indignation passes”. It is important to realize that this perspective of seeing events in a cause and effect system is only a perception on our part. One has to look at events and interpret them by seeing the larger picture of how they came into being to arrive at that conclusion. It is not necessarily self-evident[2].

Inasmuch as the term going out as we have made clear, was figuratively applied to the manifestation of an act of God – for scriptures says: For, behold, the LORD goes out of His place – the term returning (Shiva) is figuratively applied to the cessation of such an act likewise brought about in virtue of God’s will.”

Rambam now addresses a related term often used in connection with God – returning. When someone leaves a place at times he returns – so too the metaphor when we talk about God. If going out is the manifestation of an act of God, returning is the cessation of such an act. The verse that exemplifies this is from Hoshea 5:15 –

טו  אֵלֵךְ אָשׁוּבָה אֶל-מְקוֹמִי, עַד אֲשֶׁר-יֶאְשְׁמוּ וּבִקְשׁוּ פָנָי:  בַּצַּר לָהֶם, יְשַׁחֲרֻנְנִי.
15 I will go and return to My place, till they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face; in their trouble they will seek Me earnestly:
The prophet castigates Israel (the Ten Tribes) and foretells their destruction. In the case of the Ten Tribes, however, there are no survivors or any who protect themselves from the onrushing disaster. The prophet’s warning is not heeded.

…the signification of which is that the indwelling that had been among us has been removed. This removal is followed by a privation of providence as far as we are concerned.”

It is remarkable that both the former verse and this verse talk about calamities but the one in Yeshayahu is seen as providence – Hashgacha – while the one in Hoshea is seen as the removal of providence.

For a privation of providence leaves one abandoned and a target to all that may happen and come about, so that his ill and weal come about according to chance. How terrible is this threat!”

When the prophet is ignored, the people are caught off-guard and chance rules there is no possibility of taking control and trying to save a remnant. The destruction becomes total. It is only when they acknowledge their guilt, and seek My face that providence returns and redemption may ensue.  The punishment of abandonment, of being left to chance even with its possibility of good, is worse than knowing about the coming bad times. Knowledge gives one a chance to protect oneself. The calamity that befalls us unbeknownst drowns out the good times completely.

Reading this brings to mind pre-Holocaust Orthodox European Jewry where the majority ignored the signs of doom on the horizon. Instead of pushing for immigration to Palestine and America, mainstream Orthodox Jewish leadership insisted on staying put. It was only the few, the minority that heeded Rav Kook and his follower’s call in the Twenties and Thirties to come to Eretz Israel. It was only the few prescient and those pushed by the pogroms and anti-Semitism that had the foresight to come to America. The European Jewish leadership sadly did not put any effort into building up Torah in America or Israel[3] and prepare a place of refuge. However, clearly, it was not a total privation of providence. The few were enough to have a remnant rebuild and grow again. History repeats itself. 

It is interesting to note that Narboni, one of the classical commentators of the Moreh, though cryptic, apparently reads this piece the way I explained it here. Abravanel  strongly disagrees but his reading is extremely forced.     

[1] The basis for this reading is the choice of the verse to explain speech. There are endless verses that attribute speech in this context to God but Rambam chose the one about creation – the coming into existence of the heavens.
[2] See MN1:8 for the meaning of “place” as it refers to God. God leaving His place is thus an interpretation of perceived occurrences and our perception of God as changing “place”. We see Him as an active rather than a passive Deity while in truth He is neither.
[3] With the exception of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky who sent Rav Karelitz, the Chazon Ish  to Israel. Better late than never.  

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