One of the more difficult hashkafic issues dealt with by ba’alei machshavah is that of Hashem punishing Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Although there was a clear decree back in the days of Avraham Avinu that the Jews would be in servitude in a land where they would be strangers and they would be cruelly oppressed there Hashem punished them for their actions. If so, hadn’t Pharaoh merely been carrying out the dictates of Hashem?
This question can be asked any time someone does something against another, from damaging one’s property to robbery, to ruining a person’s reputation, getting him or her fired from a job, causing harm in any manner. To what degree is such an occurrence predestined —gezeiras Hashem— and to what degree is a person liable for his or her bad decision to perform an act of his or her own free will?
The Gemara in Chullin (7a) states that a person does not stub his finger in this world without this having been decreed from Above. Everything that happens to a person in this world is decreed from above, for better or for worse. When someone does something harmful to me, he has exercised his or her bechirah poorly, and will be punished for that. However, this is only true from the perspective of the sinner; from the perspective of the person harmed, it occurred only because it was so decreed. As the Ramban states (Bereishis 15:14), “A person upon whom death was decreed on Rosh Hashanah will die; but the murderers who killed him certainly will not escape their punishment.”
Nevertheless, how could that be? Let us say that the sinner would have exercised his free will and not harmed the person, is it legitimate to ask, “Well then, what would happen to the Hashem’s decree?”
The Gemara in Taanis (18b) discusses the story of how a Roman general wished to have Lilinus and Papus put to death. These two martyrs were also known as ‘harugei Lud’ —the martyrs of Lud. The two said to him, “If you succeed in killing us, it is clear that we were condemned by Heaven to die. If so, the truth is that even if you do not succeed [in killing us]; there are many means by which Hakadosh Baruch Hu can have us die. There is no dearth of bears, lions and other wild animals in this world that can attack us. Yet if indeed Hashem has seen fit to deliver us into your hands, you will surely be held accountable for our deaths.” The Gemara continues, “Nevertheless, he did kill them, and suddenly assassins arrived at the scene and slew the General.”
We see once again, clearly, a two-track system, so to speak. The General’s ability to kill them was predicated upon their having been condemned to death in Heaven. Nevertheless, this predestination did not mitigate his culpability at killing them.
Making sense of this depends very much on being aware of (although actually understanding it is well nigh impossible) Hashem’s foreknowledge of all that occurs, and all that will ever occur and that that in itself does not take away our complete free-will. Once we internalize that, we can understand that Hashem knows just what a person will choose to do, and ‘uses’ that knowledge to carry out His decree. As in the above example, Hashem knows that the General will choose to kill Lilinus and Papus, and ‘uses’ that knowledge to carry out the gezeiras shamayim that they are to die. (Bear in mind that the General was not sent on a mission from Hashem to kill them unlike, for example, Yeihu, who was sent to kill out the house of Achav).
All of this is true as well regarding good things. When someone does me a favor, lends me money, finds me a job, saves me from harm —this was supposed to happen to me, yet that person exercised his faculty of free will to do good, and Hashem “used” His knowledge of that to carry out what was supposed to occur to me. In this case, that person will receive his due reward for his performance of the mitzvah.
This is virtually explicit in the Torah itself, in the mitzvah of ‘ma’akeh’ (building a fence around a roof to preventing someone from falling off). The passuk states (Devarim 22:8) “Make a fence… do not put dangerous things in your home, for the one who falls will fall from it.” Chazal (Shabbos 32a) teach us, “[What does the passuk mean when it states ‘the one who falls will fall?’ Rather, it should state, ‘a person will fall?’] This teaches us that this person was destined to fall to his death, for we see that even before he fell the Torah calls him ‘the one who falls’ (because of his destiny). This teaches us that good things come through good people, and bad things come through bad people (i.e., people who choose to do evil).” Thus, it is clear that the person’s predestination to fall is one track, whereas the person who transgressed, violating halachah by not erecting a fence, is quite another. The Torah states quite clearly, “Do not put dangerous things in your home.” You are obligated to take steps to ensure that such things do not happen through you.
Now we can attempt to understand some difficult episodes in Tanach. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is the story of how King David, while running away from the temporarily successful rebellion of his own son, Avshalom, met up with a famous great person, Shimi ben Geirah, who proceeded to vehemently curse King David, throw rocks at him, taunt him, and declare loudly how David was a sinner who usurped the kingdom from King Shaul, and was now getting his just desserts. Avishai ben Tzeruyah, David’s chief of staff, offered to behead Shimi Ben Geirah, as befits one who rebels against the monarchy of the House of David. David responded, “How can his curses bother us? For it is Hashem who has told him to curse David. Who can tell him ‘Why are you doing this?”
How are we to understand this response? King David knew that Shimi had not actually been sent by Hashem. Rather, the reference is to the fact that this was obviously supposed to occur. But so what? Haven’t we seen that this does not exempt the evildoer who has chosen to do evil?
We will explore this topic further, im yirtzeh Hashem next week.