Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 11 January 2020 / 14 Tevet 5780

Mr. Good-Man

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M. Dupont wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for your yeshiva’s Jewish educational service. It is the most informative and enjoyable one online. I was wondering what Judaism says about man being born evil. Thank you for your answer and regards.

Dear M. Dupont,

No, man is not "born evil."

The Torah says that "the inclination in man's heart is evil from his youth." (Genesis 8:21) The Talmud explains "youth" here to mean from the time of birth. However, this evil inclination is external; it is not intrinsic to a person's pure soul. Our pure soul is given to us even earlier, at the time of conception.

So, Judaism sees man as basically good, created in G-d's image, but with temptation towards evil. While the evil inclination is strong, Judaism believes that a person can choose to overcome it. This is the concept of free choice, which is basically the purpose of our existence: To choose good over evil.

  • Sources: Yerushalmi Berachot 3:5; Bereishet Rabba 34

Divine Providence and Falling Leaves

From David:

Dear Rabbi,

I would appreciate any help which the Rabbi can give as regards to the following point: When a specific leaf falls off a tree or a specific animal is killed by another animal, is there a specific reason or decree why that specific leaf fell? Or is there such a thing as natural occurrences which are random and uncontrolled? I would appreciate any information and sources that discuss and explain this philosophical point which touches on "bechira" (free choice), etc., and thank you in advance. Best regards.

Dear David,

The view that certain events are not individually guided is a view that is accepted by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, and also by Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno in his commentary on Chumash. They maintain that the degree of individual Divine Providence is directly proportional to the spirituality and G-dliness of the being. Hence, animals and plants have Providence only on a species level.

The exception would be when the animal or plant interacts with a human being — then there is guidance. For example, the apple falling near Sir Isaac Newton is Divine Providence, whereas an apple falling off a tree in Cortland, NY, with no human around, is a result of the laws of nature that G-d created.

Others, principally the Kabbalists and the Chassidic thinkers, maintain that absolutely everything is a matter of individual Divine Providence.

This argument may not be as extreme as it sounds: Perhaps the Kabbalists agree in principle with Maimonides' basic concept, yet they disagree in that they maintain that everything interacts with humanity on some level, and that even a very subtle and low level interaction with humans requires Divine Providence.

Regarding how there could be an argument in this area: Just as in any area of Torah, different minds see things differently — as long as they use Torah sources and methodology they are all "the words of the living G-d."

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