Destiny & Bashert II

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Dear Editor,

I appreciate the JewishTimes and even implement your rational approach to Torah and Judaism presented excellently. Rambam, Ibn Ezra and Saadia HaGaon, zt"l, have improved my life. This is especially true of Mesora's stance against superstitious practices derived from Kabbalah. The Jewish Times truly follows the great proponents of Torah rationality, making it their mission to instruct mankind in the ways of G-d, pulling precious souls from ignorance and false religion.

It is in this vein that I feel I must respond to the article entitled "Destiny, Astrology & Bashert" by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, featured in the January 4, 2008 (Volume VII, No. 11) issue of the Jewish Times. Rabbi Ben-Chaim has written many articles which have encouraged and strengthened the emunah of Am Yisrael toward their Creator. I am convinced that the impetus behind the article was to show the spurious nature of "fate" and fatalism which erroneously removes human responsibility from the equation of daily existence. This passive "bashert" attitude toward life is certainly false and may be refuted easily from both the Written and Oral Torah. However, it is my view that the article went further than necessary in its assertions and is fraught with straw-man arguments, eventually leading to the subversion of Torah and Chazal in order to reach its conclusions.

Rabbi Ben-Chaim begins with the importance of introspection as a response to life's troubles and ego problems. He shows well the fallacy of always crediting "fate" (or, bashert) for negative events and the "self" (or, ego) for positive events. After this, he moves on to express his strong aversion to "all is for the good." Although regularly mis-used by those who have a strong desire to not acknowledge evil in the world, I think it very pertinent to affirm the place that the Gemara affords such sentiments: "Why was he called Nachum of Gimzo? Because whatever befell him, he would say, 'Gam zu l'tovah', 'This too is for the good'." (Ta'anit 21a) Rabbi Nachum responded "This, too, is for the good" in two examples; one concerning his suffering with amputation and boils which was in retribution for his allowing a starving man to die, and another when he was entrusted with a gift for the government that was eventually stolen. Was this tzaddik a fool, God forbid? Most surely not. In one case the sage is receiving just punishment for his sins in this world so as to escape judgment in the next, in the other he had not sinned at all, but was wronged by thieves. Should his attitude have been rebuked? Are we allowed to sit in judgment over Rabbi Nachum of Gimzo? Surely not.

Also of note is that for twenty-two years, none other than the great Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, zt"l, was a student of Rabbi Nachum (b.Chagigah 12a). This is noteworthy since it is Rabbi Akiva who is remembered for the famous maxim, "All is foreknown and free will is given" found in Pirkei Avot 3:19.

The article's example of Kayin murdering his brother Hevel is clearly a straw-man argument since it is obvious that no reasonable person would ever assert that murder is not our choice. Thus, this example cannot be used to as a proof for anything since it is arguing against a non-position.

What most concerns me is where Rabbi Ben-Chaim claims to dispel the supposed myth of there being any concept of 'destiny' in the Gemara. Not only does this undermine Chazal who contradict his premise, but the Talmudic portions simply do not support his conclusions. He begins by quoting Megillah 25a, which says, "Amar Rabbi Chanina, 'Everything is in the hands of Heaven outside of the fear of Heaven." (b.Megillah 25a) Although the plain sense of this saying is that everything is under the control of G-d except for man's choices, it is immediately inferred that to believe that "everything" includes leaves falling off of trees is somehow absurd since that is merely "nature" or "natural law." It is also portrayed as being equally absurd to believe that G- d has control over "chance meetings" between people.

The next Gemara quoted is from Avodah Zarah 3b. Rabbi Ben-Chaim quotes it as saying "All is in the hands of Heaven except cold and heat" and goes on to explain that it refers to the cycles of "weather patterns." He also maintains that this saying appears to contradict that of Rabbi Chanina quoted first in Megillah 25a. Upon a closer look at the passage, however, it becomes clear that it does not contradict Rabbi Chanina and has nothing to do with "weather patterns." The full passage in context reads as follows:

"Amar Rav Chanina, Everything is in the hands of Heaven outside of tzinim and pachim. As it is said, Tzinim and Pachim ("thorns and snares") are in the path of the perverse, he who guards his soul will distance himself from them [Mishlei 22:5]."

As can be clearly seen, this passage has absolutely nothing to do with "weather patterns" or "nature" but is instead entirely ethical in its scope. The words sometimes translated as "cold" and "heat" are tzinim and pachim, which literally mean "thorns" and "snares" respectively. To interpret them as referring to the varying temperatures of the weather does not make logical sense since then it would have to be read as "Everything is in the hands of Heaven outside of weather patterns" which is most certainly false. 

"Amar Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak, 'When Reish Lakish began to expound concerning the sotah, he spoke thus: They do not yoke him, a man with a woman, except according to his deeds. As it is said, For the staff of the rasha will not rest upon the lot of the tzaddikim [Tehillim 125:3]' Amar Rabbah bar Bar-Chanah, 'Amar Rav Yochanan, It is as difficult to yoke them as it was to part the Yam Suf. As it is said, G-d settles those who are alone in a family; He brings forth those who are bound to prosperity [Tehillim 68:7].' It is not so, is it? For Amar Rav Yehudah, 'Amar Rav, Forty days before the formation of an embryo a bat kol goes forth and says, The daughter of so-and-so is for so-and-so...!' There is no difficulty here, this one [the latter] refers to a first marriage and that one [the former] refers to a second marriage." (b.Sotah 2a)

There are several factors in the proposed interpretation of this Gemara by Rabbi Ben-Chaim which are either unfounded or produce logical inconsistencies. The first of these is the preparatory assertion that the terms shamayim/shmaya (Aramaic and Hebrew for "Heaven") and bat kol ("Heavenly voice") refer not to G-d but are merely metonyms for "nature" or "natural law." Far from being a functional term for natural causes, Chazal frequently uses the term "Heaven" in ways that completely undermine its being understood as "nature." Many examples indicate the term shamayim all speak of G-d and not merely "nature." In addition, "Heavenly voice" is used by Chazal to denote a common function of prophecy or a Divine decree, but never to explain some natural occurrence.

It would seem that the redefinition of a term that refers specifically to HaShem as simply being "nature" is merely a philosophical exercise in an attempt to somehow remove G-d directly from the situation and prove his intended point in spite of the clear statements of the Gemara. Not only this, but by reading "Heaven" and "Heavenly voice" as referring to "nature" or "natural law" Rabbi Ben-Chaim creates internal contradictions in his own reasoning. To be consistent, he would have to understand the maxim of Rav Chanina (quoted above) as literally meaning "Everything is in the hands of nature outside of the fear of nature" and, even more absurd, "Everything is in the hands of nature outside of weather patterns." Clearly, he cannot intend such a reading in this case, since it undermines the very point that he intends to make, namely that "weather patterns" are natural events and not signs from G-d!

On a more anecdotal level, the equation of G-d with nature is dangerously close to the views expressed by the 17th century apostate, Baruch Spinoza, who, basing his approach on Aristotle and Maimonides concluded that G-d and nature were one and the same. While I am completely sure that Rabbi Ben-Chaim is not a student of Spinoza, I do feel that perhaps some of his views (which are overtly Maimonidean) are being cast in a similar mold and are in need of being seriously reconsidered.

As to the meaning of Sotah 2a itself, it is asserted, based on a misunderstanding of 'heavenly voice' being a reference to man's natural sexual propensity, that the situation of a "first marriage" is based merely on physical attraction exclusively, whereas a "second marriage" is usually based on what one has gathered from being married to a previous woman who, although physically attractive, apparently was not righteous. This interpretation has several difficulties. First, it is based squarely on the understanding of the bat kol ('heavenly voice') mentioned by Rav and Rav Yehudah as being a metonym for the natural processes involved in the physical formation of the fetus, a view which has clearly been shown to be in error. 

It is first stated that men are paired with their wives on the basis of a man's deeds, i.e. if one is wicked he will be paired with a wicked wife and if he is righteous he will be paired with a righteous wife. But then an objection is made on account of another statement which says that the pairing of a man with his wife cannot be based on his deeds since Rav says that such pairing takes place before a man is even formed and thus he has no deeds on which to base any such decision. The reconciliation comes when it is said that both are true but speak of two differing situations; that of a first marriage and that of a second.

The underlying principle which drives the conclusion of the sages is middah k'neged middah ("measure for measure"), i.e. to "reap" what one "sows." It is my view that G-d first destines a person irrespective of deeds since, being yet embryonic, he has no deeds to speak of, being as yet unformed. If, however, the individual should find himself with need to marry again, G-d then destines him according to what kind of man he is since once a person is credited with deeds, he is subject to the principle of middah k'neged middah and will then maritally "reap" what he has "sown." A driving point and assumption of the Gemara is that it is the Creator Himself and not physical drives or "nature" that destine a man to his mate. So then, the assertion that the sages are merely describing a natural process devoid of destiny and unaffected by the intervening hand of G-d is simply not tenable from the text. Even in the Midrash Rabbah, Rabbi Yose, zt"l, emphatically declares that it is the Creator who pairs men and women together for marriage and not human beings (cf. Breishit Rabbah 68:4). The Talmud cannot simply be haphazardly used to proof-text a position that one holds. 

Upon my reading of Rabbi Ben-Chaim's article, I began to recall the Torah narratives concerning Yosef. In my view, they serve to provide a complete illustration of the concepts of destiny, free will, and G-d intending evil deeds/events for eventual good all working together harmoniously and without any sort of logical contradiction. The Torah shows us that although all involved had free will, many uncanny "chance" meetings took place that served to bring Yosef to the place where G-d, through his dreams, had revealed to him that he would eventually arrive. When Yosef finally reveals his identity to his brothers, he states that all that happened was Divinely ordained:

"And he said, 'I am Yosef your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be distressed nor be angry with yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to give life that G-d sent me ahead of you. For this has been two years of hunger in the midst of the land and there are still five years in which there will not be either plowing or harvesting. So G d sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant in the land and to keep you alive in a great escape. And now, it was not you who sent me here, but G-d. He has made me father to Pharaoh, lord of all his house, and dictator throughout the land of Egypt." (Breishit 45:4-8, emphases mine) Still, the question must be addressed: How can both the Omnipresent and his free moral agents be responsible for the same events?

The issue is confused by the equivocation of "fate" (bashert) with "destiny." Fate is certainly false, in that it teaches that whatever takes place in the world is completely in the hands of G-d and not at all in the hands of human beings.  Destiny, however, maintains that while all is in the hands of G-d, human beings are responsible moral agents capable of choices and affecting circumstances in the world around them.

Since both the Torah and Chazal relate such a tension of Divine providence and the free will of humanity, it is thus incumbent upon us to do so as well, even if it doesn't fit into the molds we have cast for ourselves.

Thank you for your time in reading and considering what I have written here. I look forward to your reply.

Shalom U'vrachah,


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim:

Brian, you accuse me of quite a number of grave errors, starting with subverting Torah and the Rabbis to meet my baseless illiteracy in Talmud...judging Nachum Gamzu...and approaching Spinoza's heresy. Could it be, that I made so many fundamental errors, and in a single article? I hope my response sheds light on my reasoning.

"Gam zu l'tova - "This too is for the Good"

Before accusing me of criticizing Nachum ish Gamzu, did you consider that perhaps I was not not addressing Nachum? Certainly, you must have read that I never mentioned him once in my article. Nonetheless, your impute me of addressing him. Did you consider "this too for the good" may have more than the one meaning you understand? 

My critique is on common people – not Nachum – when they shift the blame for their errors by attributing their mishaps to some imagined "fate". They falsely indemnify themselves saying "this too is for the good", instead of reflecting and discerning their poor judgment, which can be a step towards their future avoidance of similar mishaps as Eicha suggests: "Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem". (Megillas Eicha, 3:40)

In contrast, Nachum ish Gamzu is a second and proper type of "this too for the good". Nachum said so on two occasions, as you mentioned. One occasion was said as an acceptance of punishment for his sin...punishment he verbally wished on himself. In the area of the Divine punishments, he admitted God's will is "for the good". This makes sense – man is better off being punished on Earth, than afterwards, again as you said. The second instance Nachum "looked on the brighter side", was when he was robbed of a gift he was to deliver to the emperor to placate him towards the Jews. This realm of life is not the Divine, but the mundane. While at the inn en-route to the emperor's palace, immoral guests saw Nachum's bag of gems and pearls, secretly stole them, and replaced the contents with dirt. Nachum didn't know of this thievery until he reached the emperor and looked at the contents before handing over the bag. Now – almost too late to salvage the situation – Nachum used his keen intellect or providentially supplied insight (referred to as Elijah) and turned a situation heading for tragedy, into great success. "This too for the good" – in this case – refers to Nachum's ability to generate positive results from negative factors. This is a great trait, and he, a great man...not one of whom I "sat in judgment", as you wrongly accuse. 

Again, my critique had nothing to do with Nachum, but is upon those who use that catch phrase to shift the blame from themselves onto "fate". Instead, one should reflect, admitting error, and make positive change in their actions.

"All is in the hand of heaven except free will. All is in the hand of heaven except tzinin pachin." 

First, let me address your misunderstanding that I "misinterpreted tzinin pachin". Rashi and Tosfos on Avoda Zara 3b (and other places) both translate "tzinin pachin" as cold and heat, as I wrote. Cold and heat are phenomena which man can avoid. Repeating, cyclical phenomena allow man to predict a pattern, and thus, avert its harm. In light of Rashi's and Tosfos' glaringly clear and unanimous position, I am puzzled how you rejected the definition of "tzinin pachin" as referring to weather. Now let us address the main issue. 

How can Rabbi Chanina make these two seemingly contradictory statements: 1) "All is in the hand of heaven except free will".  And, 2) "All is in the hand of heaven except cold and heat (tzinin pachin)"? Think a moment...if Rabbi Chanina first said ALL is in the hand of heaven except free will, then cold and heat CANNOT be in man's control. Yet, Rabbi Chanina goes on to say cold and heat ARE in man's hands! And so are thorns and snares! So which is it? 

We are forced to explain "All is in the hands of heaven" to refer to how little man controls anything...all is in heaven's hands. But we cannot say that literally "all" is in heaven's hands except weather...and then say that in regards to free will. Each time Rabbi Chanina says his various statements, he simply wishes to bring to mind how few are the matters which man controls. 

Tosfos (Megilla 25a) asks and answers our very question pertaining to Rabbi Chanina's apparent contradiction. Tosfos answers that what is included in man's control spans two arenas: 1) man's nature, and 2) man's experiences. Rabbi Chanina addresses both spheres independently, with each statement. "All is in the hand of heaven except free will" is meant to address man's nature: i.e., man's height, hair color, and personality traits are not due to man, but heaven, or "nature" as Maimonides teaches. And the second statement, "All is in the hand of heaven except tzinin pachin" refers only to man's experiences. Here, Rabbi Chanina states that nothing in man's daily experiences is under his control except for bodily harm according to Rashi, or weather, according to Tosfos.  In these two ares, man can take measures to protect himself. These snares entangle the fools blinded by desire, unaware of the drastic results of their poor choices. Those who don't look before hey leap, will choose poorly, and pay the price, described by King Solomon as thorns and snares. So Rabbi Chanina's words  "tzinin pachin" can also refer to King Solomon's address of thorns or snares...or "life's troubles". Thereby, both understandings of "tzinin pachin" are equally true. Your error was in not fully researching the area, and jumping tom the first conclusion you read. You didn't look before you leaped.


You claim my argument about Cain and Abel is a faulty straw man argument, as you said, "this example cannot be used to as a proof for anything since it is arguing against a non-position". In fact, it was a rhetorical argument, as was Abraham's when pleaded to God on behalf of Sodom and others, "Will the Judge of the entire Earth not do justice?" (Gen. 18:25)

  My citing of Cain killing Abel as "not bashert" intends to expose bashert as false. Bashert has long been accepted as a truism....defined as that which is true 100% of the time. If however I show even one instance where bashert cannot apply – regardless of how obvious the case is – bashert can be reduced to a falsehood.

A similar method of teaching also used, is a Kal-v'chomer, an a fortiori argument – from the lesser to the greater: "If a child can lift a weight, certainly an adult can lift it".  If we can get a person to agree to an obvious matter, we may then succeed in helping them grasp more subtle points that share the same reasoning. 

As Jews, our goal is to imbue others with greater knowledge, knowledge unbeknownst to them at any given point. How then do we help them cross that bridge to areas in where they have no bearings? The method is through analogy, exaggeration, and other means. If I can get a person to agree that Cain's murder of Abel is NOT an example of "bashert", I have now succeeded in demonstrating that bashert cannot be used at "all" times. Once the person agrees, he or she can no longer find excuse in all cases for poor decisions, citing "this too is for the good". Having been shown that there are cases where bashert does not apply, such as Cain and Abel...that rule is no longer a "rule" (something ALWAYS true). The person can now begin to take responsibility for is or her poor actions. 

You also cited Pirkei Avos which states "All is foreknown and free will is given." (3:15) You incorrectly apply God's Divine orchestration of Joseph's (his decent into slavery then his rise to power) to all people. You wrongly feel God steers events in all of our lives, as was true with Joseph! You took license where you must not. Maimonides proves from Torah verses that "man enjoys Divine providence in accordance with his perfection". He cites King David's quote "they are equivalent to animals" to mean that certain people are so devoid of intellect and perfection, that they are "like animals" in that they too have no providence, just as individual animals: (Guide, Book III, chap. XVIII)

"The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious. In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are "like unto the beasts" (Ps. xlix. 21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind. This belief that God provides for every individual human being inaccordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded."

So too, Job's afflictions were due to his erroneous opinions of God's justice. He was left without Divine providence until he learned new truths, and was only then healed. "All is foreknown and free will is given" is explained equally by Rashi, Maimonides and Rabbeinu Yona to mean that God knows all – NOT that He "destines" events to occur. (See their commentaries right there on the page on that Mishna in Avos.) Only when God expresses His steering of events, can we say He did so. But today, without prophecy which the Talmud states has ended, we have no right to say what is or isn't God's providence. 


Regarding leaves falling from trees, Maimonides openly states this is nature. Chance meetings with people too are literally "chance", and not Divinely ordained, unless the person – as Maimonides teaches – is on the level to deserve providence. Is each leaf predetermined when to fall from every one of the billions of trees on Earth, and at what speed and angle? Does this really matter in God's Earth dedicated to human perfection, that so many leaves – never seen by us – should be timed to fall exactly? That is absurd. And Maimonides too does not think so as I quote below (Guide, Book III, chap. XVI). He calls it "nature", which he clearly differentiates from "providence". So I put it to you to at least ponder Maimonides' reasoning, and explain his view, which contradicts yours:

"For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly,that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle."


Is man's choice of a wife "predetermined"? I thank my friend Howard for pointing me to Maimonides' statement (Shmoneh Perakim: chap VIII) that marrying a prohibited woman is a sin, and marrying a permitted one is a mitzvah. In no case might we say God determines us to choose a wife. For God does not force sin or mitzvah on man. Maimonides concludes that our selection of a wife is NOT both free will, and Divinely ordained as you suggested.

If man is truly predetermined to marry a certain woman, of what use were all of King's Solomon's counsels concerning which women to avoid? Why tell us this, if we are destined to marry someone? According to you, King Solomon contradicts the Talmud. But in fact, the answer is that we have free will to choose who we wish. We select our wives. But it is also true that in exceptional cases, a worthy man can benefit from God's providence over whom he marries, in accordance with his perfection. We are not forced to say that God provides a wife in any case except for the righteous. This is validated by the verse quoted in Sotah 2a: "The staff of the wicked will not rest on the lot of the righteous." (Psalm 125) Read carefully, this is unidirectional: the verse says it is only the righteous that earn God's merit of protection from a poor wife. But the reverse is not true – a wicked man is not granted any type of providence for a wife. The verse only speaks of providence over the righteous – "the wicked (woman) will not be given to the righteous (man)". This is the exact view of Maimonides that God's providence is in accord with man's perfection. And that is how this Talmudic portion concludes: the second marriage is where man's merit "may" determine his selection of a mate. Not in every case. But the first marriage is due to psychological and genetic design...the "Bas-Kol" which I referred to as nature. You took issue that I quoted a Rabbi who explained the Bas-Kol as nature, and not heavenly design. But Rashi on the spot describes what Maimonides mirrors in his Guide (Book II, chap. VI): 

"...all parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actualform, are produced through angels: for natural forces and angels are identical. How bad and injurious is the blindness of ignorance! Say to a person who is believed to belong to the wise men of Israel that the Almighty sends His angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form there the foetus, he will be satisfied with the account: he will believe it, and even find in it a description of the greatness of God's might and wisdom; although he believes that the angel consists of burning fire, and is as big as a third part of the Universe, yet he considers it possible as a divine miracle. But tell him that God gave the seed a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel", or that all forms are the result of the influence of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the world, frequently mentioned by our Sages, and he will turn away; because he cannot comprehend the true greatness and power of creating forces that act in a body without being perceived by our senses. Our Sages have already stated – for him who has understanding – that all forces that reside in a body are angels, much more the forces that are active in the Universe. The theory that each force acts only in oneparticular way, is expressed in Bereshit Rabba (chap. l.) as follows: "One angel does not perform two things, and two angels do not perform one thing"; this is exactly the property of all forces."

Brian, you accused me of "redefining a term that refers specifically to HaShem", as simply being 'nature'. You called my interpretation a "mere philosophical exercise attempting to remove G-d from the situation and prove my point, in spite of clear Talmudic statements." It appears from Maimonides that the exact opposite is true: I have in fact been loyal to the understanding of one of the greatest minds...who followed reason over all else. You originally stated that "I went further than necessary in my assertions". But is it not you who has gone further than necessary, accusing me of motives that are your own projections?

You also equated me to Spinoza who held that G-d and nature were the same. 

I feel you now see that your statements are truly without cause, when reading my words independent of your interpretations. I feel your major error is reading, and not studying. I hope my analysis of these sources unveils their depths you missed.