Everything Happens for a Reason?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

It is crucial when searching for truth, that we vigilantly use our minds. We must avoid remaining “loyal” to cherished beliefs. For many cherished beliefs are wrong, such as wearing a red string (red bendel) to “protect from an evil eye,” placing notes in the Western Wall (as if God can’t hear your prayers without it), or believing a mezuzah actually possesses protective powers. Tosefta Shabbos chapter 7 refers to red strings this as idolatrous, and no “evil eye” — the power to alter reality — has ever been demonstrated. Such practices are equally invalid and sinful, as any other superstition. As stated in our Shulchan Aruch (Gilyon M’harsha, Yoreh Dayah 289): “If one affixes the mezuza for the reason of fulfilling the command, one may consider that as reward for doing so he will be watched by God. But, if one affixes the mezuza solely for protective reasons, it in fact has no guidance, and the mezuza will be as knives in his eyes.” This means if one believes mezuzah possesses powers, whenever he looks at it, this idolatrous belief will damage him as much as knives in his eyes.  

Using our mind means we don’t believe everything; we think critically. God gave each of us intelligence and senses as He wants us to trust what we see, and reject what we do not see. This applies to sound, touch and all senses. What is not detected, God wants man to reject. I see there’s no “elephant in the room,” so that must be a form of speech. Maimonides describes one who believes what is not detected through the senses, or through rational thought, or found in Torah: “Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said, ‘The simple believes everything’ (Prov. 14:15).”  Maimonides criticizes a person who ignores his faculties. Reason too must teach a person that God’s design of the human being is perfect. The faculties God gifted us teach this lesson: “Use them.”

Another vital consideration is that all opinions cannot be correct; certainly if 2 views are in direct opposition. This is obvious, but apparently not to many people. The very fact that our great Rabbis argued on each other, teaches that they did not subscribe to today’s “disease of the mind” where 2 contradictory views are equally accepted as truths. Many people say, “Who am I to decide, if the 2 views are authored by great Rabbis like Nachmanides and Maimonides?” The reply is, “You have no choice.” For by accepting a contradiction, your mind is not functioning. 

So, how do we determine who is correct?  Nope, that’s the wrong phrasing. For God alone knows what is absolute truth regarding which opinion is “correct.” As humans, we do not possess absolute knowledge, and the best we can do is “decide.” So the proper question is, “How do we decide between 2 conflicting views?” There’s only one answer: we must use our senses and our reason. This is all we have…and they must be reliable tools, since God designed them.

Let us now analyze the popular belief that “everything happens for a reason.” This means that there is a “will” guiding all events, for all people, plants, elements and animals, and at all times. The contrary view is that all that occurs follows natural laws, without God’s intervention or guidance. Jewish teachers that are divided on this. Maimonides, Sforno and the Chinuch agree: individual members of soulless existences like the elements, animals and plants are not guided in their existences. God created laws that govern these species. God is not willing a particular leaf to fall from a tree at a precise moment, angle, speed; He does not will “this” frog to catch “that” fly, and so on. 

Now think about this. God created man with autonomy; man has free will. Now, as God created man, and granted him the ability to govern his decisions and action, what is so difficult about accepting that God also created other autonomous things that govern, like natural laws? Furthermore, is it not a greater perfection that God does not need to attend to each leaf, but that He created many natural systems that work harmoniously? Is not the watchmaker viewed as a genius, when he does not have to move each gear every second, but creates a mechanism of hundreds of parts that does so automatically? So too, God’s systems of weather, gravity, and all natural laws work in tandem to create and sustain all He created. This is far more impressive than suggesting God guides every atom of all existences at each second. And regarding the Talmudic statement, “All is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven,” this means that God is the Author of all natural laws. Except man’s free will, God set all in motion long ago. Pirkei Avos (5:6) too says all miracles were set in motion during Creation. God need not wait until a moment in time to enact a miracle, since He has foreknowledge of the precise moment that miracle is needed. He planned it to occur during Creation. Additionally, God created time, and is above it, so He need not “wait.”

Additionally, is God fooling us? Meaning, as intelligent men such as Plato, Newton and Einstein attribute the working of the universe to laws — not God’s second-by-second intervention — did God fool them? No. God gave these great minds — and us all — the sense that fire has a “property” of heat, water has a “property” of moisture, and all other natural properties. We don’t say fire is not hot, and water is not moist, but that God is making each flame hot every second, and not due to the fire itself. It is foolish to suggest water is not moist, but that God is making all water droplets moist each second. No human being would say this.

This teaches that God wants man to arrive at the opinion that all existences possess internal properties, and not that God is supplying all properties at each moment. The opinion of the Rabbis that “each angel can only perform one mission,” means to say that each agent (natural law) has a limited property and cannot function outside its sphere of natural law. This is the same idea, and our Rabbis agreed to it.

God does not want man to believe the thing in question doesn’t have the property itself. His design of our minds leads us to the firm conviction that the natural world operates according to laws. When sand gets in my eye and scratches my cornea, my vision is impaired for a few weeks. But the fool will say it is God who is making my vision blurry every second for 2 weeks, and it was not the sand grain. It is clear: God does not want man to reject his senses.

And if we go further with this foolish view, we reject the Torah. For God commands man not to sin. But, if God does all, then what is the purpose of God commanding? So much about the natural law…but mankind is different…

Maimonides[1], Sforno[2] and the Chinuch[3] agree that unlike soulless existences, man can receive Divine Providence, but this is limited, and in proportion to man’s perfection. This is the entire lesson of God’s prophecies and guidance to only a few members of mankind throughout time, as the Torah (Bible) records. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all other righteous people are not simply histories. These Biblical accounts contain as much wisdom and depth as the universe, also created by God. This explains why the Torah student never comes close to exhausting the Torah’s lessons. Each year as we repeat our Torah readings, new insights emerge that astonish us. We must appreciate that God’s Torah words offer immense insights. And one such insight is that His providence over man has many considerations, which we can derive by studying when, where and to whom God intervened, and what He did and said. 

Why do people accept that God is guiding every single event, or that everything has a meaning, like chance meetings? One reason is because man has an ego, and it is pleasing to believe that God is guiding every event in my life. This makes man feel quite important. It is man’s ego that forces him to believe this unproved doctrine. But as this doctrine is without basis, the intelligent man should reject this opinion. Primarily, these great minds cited above do not accept that God is guiding every event, for this is based on the teachings of the Torah. God recorded His intervention with only certain perfected men and women to teach that this is precisely how God relates man. And it is perfectly reasonable that God operates this way. For why would God intervene and guide a person who does not wish to follow Him? Such an act would be futile, and we know that God does not perform futile acts. God knows the future and as He knows an imperfect person will not wish to follow His moral instruction, God never attempts to guide the person who would reject such guidance. This is the meaning behind King Solomon’s words, “God rebukes those whom He loves (Proverbs 3:12).”  It is only the righteous people whom God directs, as He knows they will heed His direction to draw even closer to him. 

One other reason people believe God guides everything is that they are insecure, and need to feel that “all will work out fine.” So their insecurities fabricate a reality that comforts them, but its a lie. The serious problem with such a view is that one does not take responsibility for their actions. And as they believe God is guiding everything, they sit back, but sadly, they then repeat their errors. Their problems will never end, as they failed to view their fate as self-inflicted. Had they understood their own poor actions caused their misfortunes, they could have changed their behaviors, and finally escaped their sad situations. 

Unless one is on a high level, one must not attribute chance meetings to Divine plans. For each person has the free choice to travel where he or she wishes. It was their choice to be at the same place I decided to arrive at with my free choice. And what possible meaning could there be if a leaf fell from a tree at 9:00 and not at 9:01? What significance could there be by which angle the leaf falls, or upon which blade of grass it lands? Trying to find meaning in the meaningless will ruin one’s mind, and his view of God’s perfection. Even the Talmud’s discussion of who marries who (Sota 2a) is enlightening. One’s first marriage is based on genetics and psychological leanings (bas kol) decided 40 days before birth, when the genetics and psyche are forming. That is, young people marry based on love. But one’s second marriage is based on one’s middos – character — for after a failed first marriage, one has learned lessons and does not follow blind love anymore. He employs his character to select a new wife. And a failed first marriage must teach us that this was not Divinely ordained, as typically understood. For why would God plan a marriage destined to failure?

In conclusion, both opinions cannot be correct, as they are diametrically opposed to one another: God either wills the events of every atom, element, animal, plant and man at all moments, or He created remarkable systems. Why does the man who eats moldy food get sick, and one who eats fresh produce enjoy health? Is God willing sickness and health each moment, or do foods of various states of freshness possess varying properties which affect health? 

We are bound by our design as intelligent and sensual beings to use both, our intelligence and our senses as God designed us to operate. If you use your mind and your senses, you will arrive at truths. But if you remain loyal to what your emotions cherish and you do not engage your mind, you will conclude foolish notions.

[1] Guide tot he Perplexed, book III chap. 17, 18

[2] Leviticus 13:47

[3] Mitzvah 169, the Chinuch calls the view that every event is Divinely guided, “an opinion that is far from intelligence.”