Insights in Pirkei Avot: The Workings of Divine Providence

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

He also saw a skull floating upon the water. He said to it: Because you drowned others, you were drowned; and those who drowned you, will themselves be drowned. (Avot 2:6)

A literal reading of this mishna leads to a simplified conception of divine providence. Since anyone who drowned must have been guilty of a crime worthy of this fate, Hillel could look at a person’s skull and determine which crime brought about this person’s death. However, many commentaries reject such a reading. As R. Yom Tov Lippman Heller (Tosafot Yom Tov) points out, our experience mitigates against this view of providence. Not all murder victims are killers deserving of death nor do all murderers receive the fate they meted out to their victims. Furthermore, logic dictates against the assumption that all murder victims were themselves murderers because someone had to be that first innocent victim.

Commenting on this mishna, Rashi (Sukka 53a) says: “and he recognized that he was a murderer.” Arguably, Rashi contends that Hillel knew the fellow and the violent life that he led. Therefore, he could see this dead skull and pronounce that justice had been served.

Offering a naturalistic interpretation, Rambam suggests that killers teach others to emulate their horrific actions. In addition, they enter a culture where they interact with others who share their vicious values. A Mafioso or a thug seems a more likely victim of murder than a librarian or a professor. According to Rambam, Hillel said nothing about how God runs the world; he simply pointed out how poor moral choices often come back to haunt those that make them.

Tosafot Yom Tov cites an earlier commentary who maintains the literal reading of the mishna but reconciles it with out contrary experience by introducing the concept of giligul neshamot. If we consider the other lifetimes of our protagonists, we would see how justice worked out and how violence returned upon the violent. Tosafot Yom Tov rejects this view since Hillel would not teach an esoteric kabbalistic secret such as reincarnation in a mishna. I add that not all rabbinic voices agree that Judaism believes in reincarnation.

Instead, R. Heller explains that this mishna links with the following mishna which teaches: “One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases Torah, increases life.” We do sometimes see how good moral and religious choices lead to more satisfying results than poor decisions. Those experiences provide us with faith that the same phenomenon covers a broader range of human existence even when our experience does not match this. Thus, Hillel did not know the particulars of why this fellow was killed; he merely made a general declaration about our faith in divine providence.

This serves as a good model for our thinking about God’s justice. We avoid simplistic formula in which we assume that anyone intensely suffering committed a serious sin worthy of such afflictions. At the same time, we affirm God’s wisdom and care in His providential running of the world.

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