The Importance of the Theme of Providence in Torah Thought

If in the way of My laws you go and you observe My commandments and perform them, then I will give your rain in its time and the land will give forth its bounty and the tree of the field will give its fruit.  (Sefer VaYikra 26:3-4)

1.  Providence as a motivation for observance

Parshat VaYikra begins with a description of the rewards we will receive for the fulfillment of the commandments and the punishments that we will experience if we abandon the Torah.  The passages explain that our experiences and destinies are not the consequence of arbitrary chance and blind nature.  Instead, our experiences and destinies are the consequence of Hashem’s providence.  The obvious objective of this message is to encourage our commitment to and observance of the Torah.  Our desire to receive the rewards motivates us to observe the commandments; our fear of punishment discourages us from violating the laws of the Torah.  However, these passages have an additional message.

It is a positive commandment of the Torah to cry out and sound the trumpets over any affliction that comes upon the congregation… This performance is one of the ways of repentance.  When an affliction occurs and they cry out over it and sound the trumpets, they know that as a result of their evil actions evil befell them… This will cause the removal of the affliction from upon them.  However, if they do not cry out and do not sound the trumpets but say this befell us because of the order of the world and this affliction is a chance event, this (attitude) is an expression of cruelty and causes them to continue their evil actions.  (As a result) further affliction will be added upon their afflictions… (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Taaniyot 1:1-3)

2.  The community responds to threats by turning to Hashem

Maimonides explains that when the community is confronted with disaster, it must turn to Hashem.  In the era of the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – this was accomplished through turning to Hashem in prayer and the sounding of the trumpets of the Bait HaMikdash.  He explains that this response acknowledges that the community’s suffering is a consequence of its actions and behaviors and is not a chance event.  Hashem will respond to this acknowledgment and bring us salvation.  However, if we do not sound the trumpets and turn to Hashem in prayer, but instead, regard our troubles as chance events, then our attitude will encourage us to continue to act evilly.  We should expect that this attitude will lead to the compounding of our suffering.

Maimonides’ comments are remarkable.  His assertion that the blessings and misfortunes that we experience are in recompense for or a consequence of our actions is consistent with the message of our parasha.  However, his views regarding the reforms required to alleviate the suffering are not those one would expect.  Maimonides does not say that the community must change its ways and return to the path of righteousness to secure Hashem’s salvation.  Instead, they must recognize that the suffering is an expression of Divine providence and not merely the consequence of chance events.  Why is this simple recognition adequate even if not accompanied by an abandonment of the evil behaviors?

3.  Recognition of Hashem’s providence places a person upon the path of repentance

A possible response is that Hashem does not require that we complete the road to repentance in order to be rescued.  However, he does insist that we begin the journey.  The process of repentance begins with the recognition that our actions are rewarded and punished.  This realization will motivate us to focus on our actions and improve our behaviors.  If this recognition is not present, then there is no reason for a person to abandon evil behaviors.

Maimonides’ comments suggest that our parasha is not only a motivational presentation.  It is also a radical interpretation of the nature of the material world and its operation.  Human beings are driven by a need to achieve security and to protect themselves from chance mishaps.  In order to achieve this security nations engage in complex diplomacy; they invest their wealth in arms and defense; they fund medical research to find cures and treatments for diseases.  The measures undertaken by a nation to achieve and maintain security are limited only by the nation’s resources and imagination.

Let us consider a contemporary example.  The State of Israel is facing several existential threats.  It is very likely that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state with Jerusalem as its capital within the year.  Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors.  One of them – Iran – will probably soon have nuclear capabilities.  Many of Israel’s Arab neighbors are politically unstable.  Of course, we all hope that the spread of liberal democratic principles throughout the Middle East will ultimately lead to peace and harmony.  But at least in the near future, regime change creates instability and Israel must always be concerned with the possibility that relatively “moderate” Arab governments will be replaced by elected governments dominated by fanatical Muslim parties.

Israel’s leadership is aware of all of these threats and is engaged tirelessly in extensive diplomatic efforts.  Israel invests heavily in its defense, expending immense human and financial resources.  Israel’s intelligence gathering efforts are second to no country’s.  Israel’s efforts to demonstrate its desire for peace, its willingness to make difficult and painful sacrifices, and its commitment to the principle that human life is sacred are endless.  Despite all that Israel has done, and continues to do, the elusive security that the nation seeks remains well beyond its grasp. What is Israel doing wrong?

Maimonides’ comments do not suggest that a nation should abandon its efforts to secure its future.  However, he does suggest that every nation must realize that these efforts are not in themselves adequate or even meaningful.  The ultimate cause of all that occurs is not the diplomacy between nations, their treaties, or alliances.  A nation’s wealth or poverty is not a function of the vastness of its resources or the health of its financial institutions.  All of these factors are significant; they should not be neglected.  However, underlying all of these factors, and more fundamental than any or all of them is the will of Hashem.  No effort succeeds without His acquiescence and even the most astute planning is meaningless if He opposes the plan’s success.  In short, Maimonides suggests a completely unique world-view or understanding of the operations of the world.

4.  A nation’s fate is ultimately decided by Hashem not by its diplomacy or the statesmanship of its leaders

Applied to the State of Israel, Maimonides’ comments suggest that although its leadership must continue to exert every effort to maintain and improve the safety of the nation, the people must also realize that these efforts are inherently inadequate.  The success or failure of these efforts is completely dependent upon the will of Hashem.  Leaving this consideration out of the nation’s strategy to achieve security innately undermines the effort.

Maimonides also provides another important message.  In order to secure Hashem’s rescue from danger, we need not agree on all of the details of religious life.  We need not all agree to the same specific modes of practice.  However, we must accept that there is a G-d and in Him rests the ultimate cause for all that we experience.[1]


[1] Maimonides’ comments as well as the parasha deal with providence as it relates the Jewish people.  The nation and community enjoy a special providential relationship with Hashem.  In no way does this imply that Hashem does not have a providential relationship with the individual.  Our daily prayers confirm our acknowledgment of this relationship.  The act of prayer is predicated upon conviction that Hashem interacts with the individual and we verbalize this truth in our prayers.