"If You Walk with Me in Happenstance"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT BECHUKOTAI

 

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

"If You Walk with Me in Happenstance"

Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

If you walk with Me in happenstance ("keri"), and will not listen to Me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you, according to your sins. (26:21)

 

Rashi (ad loc.) explains the meaning of "walking in keri":

 

Our Sages taught: [This means] temporariness, happenstance, only occasionally; [the verse means, "If you] follow the commandments [only] occasionally."

 

In his view, the parasha is describing a situation in which Am Yisrael is not committed to observing the commandments and studying Torah, but rather engages in them in an intermittent and irregular fashion.

 

Rabbeinu Bechaye proposes a different interpretation:

 

This is the way of the Torah: When a person's affairs are flourishing, and turn out successfully, then he looks at himself and comprehends that it is [the result of] God's kindness, not because of his own merit and his good deeds, as it is written, "Not by your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart." And when troubles and accidents happen to him, he should confess his sins to God and keep in mind that it is only because of his iniquities. He should not attribute it to chance, for if he consigns it to coincidence, the Holy One will add more of the same sort of coincidence. This is what the Torah means by the words, "And if by these things you are not admonished by Me, and you walk in happenstance with Me, then I, too, shall walk with you in happenstance."

 

According to this view, the Torah is talking about a situation in which Am Yisrael attributes all the troubles that befall them to coincidence, not to their own evil deeds. The Torah calls upon a person to view every problem that befalls him as punishment for his sins, and thereby to engage in teshuva.

 

Rambam presents a similar idea:

 

It is a positive biblical commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets for any trouble that befalls the public… This is the manner of teshuva – that at a time of trouble, when people cry out and sound the trumpets, everyone should be aware that it is because of their evil deeds that the trouble has come about… and this is what causes them to remove the trouble from upon them. But if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets, but rather declare, "This thing that has happened to us is simply the way of the world, and this trouble just happened to come about" – this is the way of cruelty, and causes them to remain with their evil deeds, such that further troubles will be added. As it is written in the Torah: "If… you walk with Me in happenstance, then I shall walk with you in the fury of happenstance." In other words, when I bring trouble upon you so that you will repent, then if you claim that it is coincidence – I shall add to your trouble the fury appropriate to such happenstance. (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:1-3)

 

In the above excerpt, Rambam mentions three possible ways of judging reality. One way is to believe that reality is controlled by the laws of nature: there is nothing that is unregulated or unexpected, and reality is in no way related to human behavior. The second approach is what we have referred to as "happenstance": it means viewing reality as a collection of random accidents which, on occasion, may deviate from nature as we know it. According to this perspective, too, there is no connection between reality and human behavior, and thus it is inappropriate to seek the reason for any phenomenon or event that happens in reality.

 

Rambam warns against both of the above views. He calls for reality to be perceived in a different way – a way that judges reality in light of human actions, and attributes things that happen to the way in which people behave. According to this perception, man cannot evade responsibility when troubles befall him.

 

In attempting to implement the words of Rambam, we encounter the following difficulty: are we indeed capable of interpreting all of reality in this way? Are we able to find spiritual explanations for every event that befalls us? Actually, pretensions to being able to judge reality in this way are an expression of presumptuousness – as though we had access to the Divine perspective on reward and punishment; as though we could immediately point to the direct connection between reality and human behavior. Only prophets are endowed with this ability - not mere mortals such as we. Chazal heap scorn on Bil'am for thinking that he had the ability to understand the guiding force of history:

 

"And knowing the Supreme mind" – he could not understand the mind of his donkey, but he could understand the mind of God?! (Berakhot 7a)

 

Moreover, the very thought that the entire world revolves around us and is dependent upon us represents a certain measure of arrogance: does every tiny thing that happens really result from our behavior?

 

How, then, can we fulfill what Rambam is telling us, and not treat reality as happenstance, while still taking care to avoid excessive pride and terrible mistakes in our judgment of reality? It would seem that there are three ways of addressing this problem.

 

The first option is to adopt a universally stringent approach. We do not presume to declare with certainty why some or other trouble has befallen us – whether it was our evil behavior or because of factors independent of us – but in any case of doubt we should be strict with ourselves and scrutinize our actions, lest they be the cause. If we are required to be stringent regarding a piece of meat whose source is unknown, how can we be lenient and avoid any serious addressing of matters pertaining to our spiritual and moral life?

 

Another option is to redouble our endeavors in Divine service. When a person finds himself facing a difficult reality that is incomprehensible to him, he should be conscientious in his observance of the commandments, and keep progressing in his observance, with the expectation of changing the situation. Once again, we do not presume to know God's mind, but we are always able to improve ourselves in Divine service and observance of commandments, and to hope that this will lead God to redeem us from the trouble that has befallen us.

 

The third option represents the level of the "chassid" –an altogether pious individual, who has the ability to evaluate reality and reveal what lies behind it. This level obviously requires much effort and labor; it is not available to every person at every time.

 

From the Ramban's words on the matter (26:11), we receive the impression that he is not in complete agreement with the Rambam and Rabbeinu Bechaye. Ramban writes that the ideal is for a person who is sick not to visit a doctor, but rather to pray to God to heal him. In this context, Ramban adds:

 

"It is not the manner of human beings to heal, but [seeking medical treatment] has become customary" (Berakhot 60a). If they were not accustomed to this, a person would be ill to the extent that the punishment for his sins weighed upon him, and he would be healed by God's will. But people have become accustomed to relying on human medicine, and so God leaves them to natural phenomena.

 

According to this view, in the ideal situation – where people do not visit doctors – illnesses come about solely as a result of spiritual defects and problems; the healing likewise comes about by God's will. But since people have become accustomed to visiting doctors, rather than relying on God to heal them, the Holy One has responded in kind: He has left us in the hands of happenstance, such that both the illnesses and their healing come about in natural ways, rather than as expressions of spiritual reality.

 

Ramban, then, defines our reality as one in which illnesses befall a person quite coincidentally. This contrasts with the view of Rambam, who maintains that all of a person's troubles come about as a result of his spiritual shortcomings.

 

However, it should be pointed out that even Ramban is not describing a general abandonment by God, leaving us to the whims of chance. Rather, he speaks of a specific response by God to unworthy behavior in one specific area on our part. A situation in which God is distant from us and leaves us to "natural phenomena" is a severe punishment, and we must try to avoid incurring it. How much more so, if the situation already exists, should we take care not to use it as an excuse for attributing all the bad things that happen to us to the hand of chance.

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Bechukotai 5763 [2003].)