Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Vayera and Providence

The Ralbag (late-13th C - mid-14th C) was a great talmudist and halachist. He is perhaps remembered best, however, for his commentary on the Torah. To the modern and traditionalist views, the Ralbag's commentary is quirky; he believed in astrology, and yet had non-conventional views on Heavenly omniscience, because of philosophical considerations. His commentary to the Chumash is a very interesting read, for its diversity of thought and divergence from other Jewish thinkers.

It is the Ralbag's habit, after explaining the story verse by verse and conceptually, to list a number of "benefits" that are to be reaped from the passage. Some are character-building, and some are philosophical lessons. In the story of Lot and Sodom, Ralbag finds a philosophical lesson regarding the nature of Divine Providence. This lesson explains the method through which God affects providential salvation1 of humans.

The Ralbag states (עמ' קלח בהוצאת מוסד הרב קוק): "It is unbecoming of Man to neglect his own safety, [and rely] exclusively on the protection of God. Rather, he should be very diligent, for God causes his deliverance through man utilizing the best method available to protect himself. This is one of the tools with which God's providnece is completed: when a person is notified of the evil that will befall him...God provides salvation when [the man] tries to distance that evil in any possible way. And for this reason, Lot was commanded to quickly run, not look back or rest, until reaching the place where his salvation would be completed. If he did this, he would escape; if not, the evil would befall him."

Essentially, Man's own efforts to insightfully and wisely defend himself against danger through the natural means at his disposal is a part of the providence through which God protects those deserving of protection. This idea is crystallized by the Ran in his eighth essay (דרשות הר"ן, עמ' שיט בהוצאת מוסד הרב קוק). In discussing one method through which God protects people from dangers that crop up in life, he writes: "God places in the hearts of those who do His will the idea to do actions which by their nature protect them from damage from the system of the universe [luck, chance, uncertainty, call it what you will]." (This is also the view of the Ibn Ezra, as mentioned in a footnote to this page.)

In other words, the very insights we often have in a time of danger -- which path to take, what to say -- these ways that we extricate ourselves from perilous situations, are part of God's providential protection. What we see as our proactive stance and willingness to do our utmost to help ourselves are, in reality, a critical element of Divine assistance. (Perhaps this is what Rambam meant when he wrote (in his Letter on Astrology, translated here) that the destruction of the Jewish State around 70 CE was a result of the Israelites spending time learning astrology, instead of focusing their efforts the study on war- and states-craft. In the light of the above discussion, perhaps this missallocation of intellectual resources was God's providence removing its protective shield from Judea, leaving them open to attack and destruction.)

It is interesting to see how our sages of centuries past viewed the philosophical issues with which we still grapple. I am not sure that Ralbag would see God's Providence in only the terms set out by the above-quoted passage, and am certainly not sure that I see it only in these terms. Part of religious life is to experience God and His providence personally. This leads away from the "how" of Divine providence, which is an abstract philosophical challange, to the concrete affirmation of our lives as a part of the Divine plan, no matter the exact mechanism we can envisage that God used to alter the course of events. To experience the latter is life changing, to say the least.

And so this short post is not at all meant to limit the "acceptable" answers to this and other philosophical questions, but to widen the scope. Considering these issues will, I hope, motivate us to think deeply about modern Man and God -- to reference our intellectual history (which often had different philosophical assumptions than we do today), and blaze trails where novel ideas can be of assistance. I pray that this ultimately allow us to see God's interest and intimate involvement in our lives more clearly each day.

1 For other discussions of Divine providence that we have had here, search the blog for the term 'Providence'.