Parashat Ki Tetze - Laws of Nature, Laws of Justice
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כ אלול התשעט | 20.09.2019
Parashat Ki Tetze
פרשת כי תצא
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
הרב שבתי סבתו
חוקי הטבע וחוקי הצדק
Laws of Nature, Laws of Justice
The Obligation to be Careful
Being careful is not just a good idea. It is a Torah-mandated requirement upon each and every one of us to take all necessary precautions for our safety. This commandment is derived from the obligation to build a maakeh, a fence on one's roof:
כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ
If you build a new house, you must put a fence around your roof,
so that there shall not be blood in your house
caused by [someone] falling off. (Dvarim 22,8)
The purpose of this mitzvah, of course, is simply to prevent accidents that could lead to catastrophic results. Our Sages learned, via the Oral Torah tradition, that the warning is not restricted only to roofs, but includes all possible obstacles and dangers that demand our attention and caution. Though the law of maakeh relates specifically to dangers that others may face on our account, the Sages derived that we must also take precautionary measures regarding our own lives and the dangers we may face.
Essentially, what the Torah is telling us is that we must "respect" the laws of nature, such as the law of gravity. They are the laws that G-d imbedded into His world, and we must not "provoke" them or treat them lightly.
The Talmud recounts how one of the Sages, R. Yannai, fulfilled this law – without relying on Divine Providence that he might have felt he deserved as a righteous man:
- Yannai would first examine the safety of a bridge before crossing it. This was in keeping with his opinion that one should never put himself in a dangerous position and say that a miracle will be performed for him, lest it be not performed; and if a miracle is performed, it will be deducted from his merited rewards [in the World to Come]. (Tr. Shabbat, p. 32a)
A common error prevalent among those who believe strongly in Hashem leads them to think there is nothing wrong with taking undue risks. They feel that if G-d has decreed that they should live, then He will help them overcome the danger, and if they have been decreed to die, then they will die whether or not they endanger themselves. R. Yannai teaches us that this is a wrong approach – and we will soon see why.
In keeping with this prohibition, the Sages also warned against entering the ruins of a building, or standing next to a shaky wall, or drinking uncovered water from which a snake may have partaken, and the like.
The Sages also pegged these teachings on another verse:
וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם
You shall be very protective of your souls. (Dvarim 4,15)
True, this verse deals with the sin of idol worship; but just as one must protect his soul and his spiritual life, so must he protect his body and his physical life.
Those who feel that everything is pre-determined, and that taking precautions makes no difference, cite support from a somewhat surprising teaching of the Mishnaic sage R. Yishmael. On the above-cited Talmudic page, we learn:
It was taught in the study hall of R. Yishmael: Regarding the maakeh, the Torah says when the faller should fall from [the roof]. This means that the person was destined to fall ever since the Six Days of Creation, for the Torah calls him "the faller" even before he has fallen.
[If so, why should the owner of the roof be held responsible? It is because] merits come about via those who are worthy, and debits [punishment for previous sins] come about via those who are guilty [for not building a fence upon one's roof, for instance].
- Yishmael understands that he who falls was destined to have fallen, or be otherwise stricken, even before he went up to the roof – but this punishment, which could have come in various ways, is carried out via one who violated the Torah by not building a maakeh. On the other hand, one who was not decreed to fall off a roof, will not fall off even if there is no fence.
However, let us look again at R. Yishmael's words, which appear to be self-contradictory. If it was pre-ordained that he should fall off a roof, then it is not a punishment – for there was no sin! Why, then, does R. Yishmael call his falling a debit, as if the person was liable to a punishment? Why did he not say, "Decrees come about via those who are guilty"?
Rather, we must first of all know that not everyone who falls off a roof was destined to do so ever since Creation. He might fall off a roof for having sinned – and in both cases, the roof-owner is held responsible!
- Yishmael essentially accords extra responsibility to the owner, in that if someone falls from his fence-less roof, it is of no accord whether he was being punished or not; the fact remains that it is the owner's responsibility! Even if it was decreed during Creation that this particular man must fall, for hidden reasons known only to the Creator, the roof-owner will not be able to take cover behind this claim – because we will tell him, "What business is it of yours if he was being punished or not? The punishment/debit need not have occurred at your hands!"
In sum, according to this approach, not everyone who "falls" was pre-determined to do so from the days of Creation.
A Man's Lifetime
Before a person is born, his allotment of days is determined in Heaven, as is written among G-d's blessings:
אֶת מִסְפַּר יָמֶיךָ אֲמַלֵּא
I will fill the number of your days. (Shmot 23,26)
However, this is no iron-clad guarantee that he will in fact live this long! On the contrary, Rabbi Akiva learned from this very verse that "if he merits it, the number of his days will be filled, but if not, he will receive less" (Tr. Yevamot, p. 50a). That is to say, the allotment is the maximum amount he can reach. He can live this long if he does not violate a grave Torah commandment whose punishment is karet, leading to death, and if he does not endanger himself.
What happens if a person places himself in a situation of danger from which only a miracle can extricate him? The above Gmara (Tr. Shabbat 32a) answers:
- Yitzchak the son of R. Yehuda says: One must always pray for Heavenly mercy that he should not take ill, because if he becomes ill, he will be told: Present a merit [of yours] and you will be cured.
This is a manifestation of the principle in Jewish Law that states hamotzi mechavero, alav hara'yah, "one who would take from another, must bring proof." This means: If I am wearing a shirt, or driving a car, or holding an object, I don't have to prove that it is mine; if someone claims it is his, he must prove it! In order to change the status quo, clear proof must be brought.
This principle also applies to one's relation with Hashem. Everyone has a certain status, and to change it, for better or for worse, requires a reason to do so – accompanied by evidence for such. As long as the status quo continues, all is well;
G-d's "normal" supervision over him suffices. But when one puts himself in danger, maintaining his safety requires a super-natural level of Divine intervention. He will therefore have to produce clear proof that he is worthy of such – not an enviable position to be in.
But in truth, there is a deeper and more fundamental reason why one must not endanger himself: By doing so, one creates a conflict and clash between two different strong Divine desires. On the one hand, G-d wants His laws of nature to work normally – even if this means that a given person will fall from a shaky bridge or drown in stormy waters.
But on the other hand, He also wants the world to run according to His laws of Divine justice, according to which the man standing on the shaky bridge should continue to live and fulfill the purpose for which he was born. Such a man does not deserve the punishment of karet, and therefore, in order to uphold the Divine laws of justice, G-d must temporarily change the laws of nature and save the man from falling or drowning.
The very creation of this conflict between two parallel desires of Hashem is a grave sin. We must not endanger ourselves, in order not to create this clash. It is this that the Torah warns about when it says that we must build a maakeh on our roofs, and it is also this that the Sages understand from the verse we cited above, You shall be very protective of your souls.
Because of this crime, there is no guarantee that a miracle will occur for him – and even if it does, it will cost the beneficiary dearly.
The entire Torah, based on truth and justice, aims to guide us how to live in accordance with G-d's will, within the framework of the natural laws that He created.
It is also important to add that the same natural law of gravity that at present endangers a given person, threatening to pull him off the bridge into the raging waters below – is a tremendous force of life that allows us to run our lives. Because of gravity, by which small bodies are pulled towards larger ones, we do not float in the air, nor does the Earth pull too far away from the sun and thus freeze. The law of gravity applies throughout the universe, governing even the masses of stars that pull on each other proportionately and thus maintain the wondrous balance of the universe.
In sum: We may not play with the laws of nature and try to "trick" them, because they maintain the very delicate balance in the world. Any violation of this balance is liable to lead to universal calamity.
Oil and Vinegar
The following story from the Gmara (Tr. Taanit, p, 25a) illustrates the distorted view we sometimes derive from the "routine" way in which look at things. It also tells us what exactly is "truth" in nature:
Late one Friday afternoon, R. Chanina ben Dosa saw that his daughter was sad. He asked her why, and she told him that she had mistakenly put vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lights, and that there would now be no Sabbath lights. He said to her: "My daughter, what do you care? He Who said that oil should burn, can easily tell the vinegar to burn!" And in fact, the vinegar burnt the whole Sabbath, and there was even enough for the Havdalah candle afterwards.
Our natural reaction to this story is wonderment at the amazing miracle of vinegar burning – and even more so at the lofty spiritual heights of R. Chanina, for whom this miracle seemed to be very routine. We immediately assume that the message is that we must not be particularly amazed when natural laws change, since everything is in the Creator's hands in any event, and He can give whichever orders He wants.
But when we delve deeper, we see that the lesson is actually the opposite: We must learn from this story that even the laws of nature may not be taken for granted! Why should we assume that oil will burn? It is far from self-evident! In order for oil to burn, the Creator had to plan out an entire array of details, and had to be involved in the tiny atoms and electrons, creating an indescribably complex network, the end product of which is that oil is combustible! Our routine lives cause us to overlook the wondrousness of it all, and to fail to see the amazing marvels of G-d that appear "naturally."
It was this realization that R. Chanina wished to teach us. He wanted us to see vinegar burn once, so that we would realize the every-day wonders of seeing oil burn.
This can also be applied to the story of the Manna in the desert. For us, the idea of food falling from the sky is an unbelievable wonder. But for the Israelites born into this situation, it was quite natural – until they arrived in the Land of Israel, and saw how wheat grows from the ground out of a little kernel. They must have been shocked – just as we should be when we consider the wondrousness of how wheat grows.
Hallel Every Day?
Once we note G-d's wonders, we must ask: Is it praiseworthy to praise G-d every day with the Hallel prayer? There appear to be two different approaches to this question in the Gmara (Tr. Shabbat, p. 118b): R. Yosi says: "I wish I could be amongst those who complete the Hallel every day." But another opinion states the opposite: "One who recites Hallel every day is like a blasphemer."
The Gmara reconciles the two by explaining that R. Yosi is not referring to the special Hallel prayer that is said on holidays, which, he admits, should not be said regularly. He is rather speaking of the chapters of P'sukei D'Zimra that we recite every day in our morning prayers – and most specifically, Psalm 148: "Praise G-d from the Heavens" and Psalm 150: "Praise G-d in His holiness."
What is the difference between these two forms of Hallel? Why is it praiseworthy to recite the first one every day in our prayers, while to say the second one daily is not acceptable, and is even akin to cursing G-d, Heaven forbid?
A simple explanation is that one who repeats "thank you" for a specific favor over and over again is actually turning his thanks into a joke. It can be compared, on the economic plane, to a surplus of gold that leads immediately to a drop in its price.
But once again, we would like to offer a deeper explanation.
The chapters of Hallel that we recite on the holidays are praise of G-d's miracles and His intervention in nature - such as the Splitting of the Red Sea - that He wrought for us when He took us of out of Egypt. The P'sukei D'Zimra, on the other hand, note
G-d's wondrous laws of nature, those that we see every day, such as fire, hail, rain, wind, mountains, fruit trees, animals, and above all, the creation of man.
In P'sukei D'Zimrah, we offer praise to Hashem for the astounding precision in Creation, from the minuscule goings-on on the atomic level, to the tremendous galaxies that embrace the entire infinite universe. For thousands of years, the laws of nature have functioned perfectly, with no mistakes. This is living testimony to the Divine wisdom and the fulfillment of G-d's will as He desires it. Thus we read:
יְהַלְלוּ אֶת שֵׁם י-הוה כִּי הוּא צִוָּה וְנִבְרָאוּ וַיַּעֲמִידֵם לָעַד לְעוֹלָם חָק נָתַן וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר
Praise the Name of G-d, for He commanded – and they were created, and He
established them forever; He set a law, and it will not be violated. (Psalm 148,5-6)
It should now be clear that one who says Hallel every day, praising G-d every day for changing the laws of nature by performing miracles, is as if declaring that Hashem is fighting against the very laws that He Himself established! This is why the Gmara says that he is like a blasphemer, for he is degrading the routine laws of nature as if they do not reflect G-d's will.
This does not mean that there are not times when G-d wishes to change these laws. On rare occasions, G-d does intervene and does bring about miracles – in order to guide people and show them the Divine Truth, and detach them from thoughts of idol worship, false gods, and human arrogance.
Only on holidays are we permitted to praise G-d for His amazing and miraculous intervention in the laws of nature. But day-to-day, we praise Him specifically for the wondrous manner in which He runs the world with constant and perfect wisdom, and in beautiful harmony.
Waves and Particles
Scientists know that electrons – those tiny particles of which all matter in the universe is comprised – behave simultaneously in two conflicting ways. These two types of action, "wave behavior" and "particle behavior," not only differ from each other, but actually clash.
Waves spread out in space very differently than do particles. In the world of waves, the energy of one wave pushes the next one, which pushes the next one, and so on – but each wave remains in its place. Only the energy moves, traveling from one wave to the next. Sound, for instance, travels in this manner. In the world of particles, however, the particles themselves move towards their target, and they do so at tremendous speed.
Our physical, natural world behaves along the same model as waves. One thing causes another, which causes another, ad infinitum. Every action in nature is a "cause" for the "effect" that follows it, and so on and so forth, with no particular end-goal in sight.
But the world of ethics and justice is very different. Here, the Creator's goal is to reach a specific objective: Justice and morality. G-d therefore activates various means and actions towards these goals, just as He wants our actions to be aimed towards them. This is similar to the world of particles, which fly directly towards their goal.
In the world of physical nature, which we compared to wave behavior, the past is the cause for the present. That is to say, today's situation is the way it is because of a specific event in the past. But in the world of justice and morality, as in particle behavior, the future is the cause for the present – meaning that the Divine objective determines the current reality that will lead to it.
G-d functions in our world in these two ways at one and the same time, even though they appear to contradict each other. The truth is that in the end, they supplement each other. It is fascinating to see an allusion to these two approaches in G-d's Havayah Name, spelled with the letters yud, and heh, and vuv, and heh. (We are careful not to write the letters consecutively, in order not to write or spell out Hashem's ineffable Name.) The first two letters, read both ways, signify both "will be" (yihyeh) and "was" (hayah) – future and past, which are the two causes for the present in accordance with what we explained above. (The last two letters of G-d's Name, vuv and heh, signify the present.)
These two letters yud and heh are unique in that they also spell out another of G-d's Names on their own.
We, the Nation of Israel, are the recipients of the Torah, which guides us in harmoniously combining the world of justice and morality with the world of nature, so that we may coordinate G-d's desires and ensure that there is no clash or collision between them.
Let us conclude with a dictum of our Sages (Tr. Shabbat, page 53a) that depicts the dual approach we have seen towards the alteration of natural law:
There was once a man whose wife died and left behind a nursing baby. He had no money to pay a woman to nurse him, and G-d wrought a miracle, enabling him to nurse his baby himself.
Rav Yosef said: "What a great man, who deserved to have such a miracle!"
Abaye said: "On the contrary! What a bad man he was – because the natural order of things had to be changed because of him."
We can understand Rav Yosef; this man must have been quite a tzaddik. But what does Abaye mean? His opinion is that this great man should have worked over the course of the years to have close friends, or other support system, to help in times of trouble, without having to cause G-d to change the natural order of the world.
In other words, true greatness is when we perform G-d's will wisely and with fore-planning, so that we will not need to ask G-d to change His will and His wondrous laws of nature.