Thursday, March 26, 2009

Did You Lose Your Job Because God Is Punishing You?

I. Why Mezuzos?

Many people are suffering financially right now and Jews are certainly no exception. On some level, the question "Why me?" is not that applicable because just about everyone is hurting. However, the people who have been hit the most -- those who have lost their jobs and/or savings -- might very well be thinking that they have done something wrong to deserve it. Is this the right attitude to take?

There are some Jews who, when something bad happens to them, reflexively check their mezuzos. They reason that they must have had some religious failing to deserve this bad event. The introspection is praiseworthy but I'm not sure that mezuzos are always the best place to start. There are often more obvious religious failings that are better targets for improvement. For example, money problems often lead to marital stress, so maybe the original problem was with how the spouses treated each other. God might have said, as it were, "If you will treat each other poorly then I'll give you a good reason for marital tension." Or maybe there are other appropriate areas you can find for religious improvement. Frankly, I'd find it hard to believe that anyone can fail to find something.

But don't make the mistake of blaming yourself for your troubles.

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But don't make the mistake of blaming yourself for your troubles. You can never know for sure the reason. It might have been a divine punishment for your own misdeeds but there are other possible explanations for it. However, as we'll see, using this unfortunate situation as an opportunity for religious growth can serve multiple purposes.

II. General Decree

As we're all aware, the current economic downturn is affecting just about everyone. If that's the case, the question "Why me?" might not be the right one to ask. Perhaps you should ask "Why wouldn't it be me?"

There are multiple approaches to deciphering the ways of divine providence, and it is not at all clear that we can ever gain a true understanding. However, let us follow down one path and see what we can learn from it.

The Kuzari (5:20), based on a verse in Shmuel Alef (1 Samuel 26:10), lists three ways a person can die -- Divine (he is punished by God), Natural (he simply reaches his time) or Accidental (he goes off to war and dies "by chance"). R. Yosef Albo, in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim (4:21), restates this passage in the Kuzari and adds an important explanation of the Accidental category. He explains that sometimes there is a general decree that overrides an individual decree.

For example, while a person may be written for life in the year, if he goes out to battle for a country that has been decreed above to lose, this general decree (for the country) will take precedence over his individual decree. The "by chance" does not literally mean that God has no role in his fate. It means that his death is governed by global concerns that override his individual merit (cf. R. Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz Ma'amarim, part 2 sv. ha-tzur, p. 38).

III. Avoid a General Decree

However, all is not lost. The Gemara (Ta'anis 21b) tells the story of a community that was spared from a tragedy. Why? Was it the merit of Rav, who lived there, that saved them? No, answers the Gemara, Rav's merit was too great; it was the merit of some other righteous resident who, while not great, performed wonderful acts of chesed. This is, to say the least, quite a puzzling passage. What does it mean that Rav was too righteous to save the community from tragedy?

The Maharatz Chajes (Glosses to Shabbos 55a) explains that someone great can avoid a general decree. Even if there is tragedy all around him, he will be saved because of his great merit. However, someone who is not as great is subject to a general decree. Therefore, before God administers a general decree, He has to take into account the great people who might be affected by it. Rav was so great that he would not have been affected by a general decree. The other person was not as deserving and if there had been a general decree, he would have been subject to it. Therefore, he saved the community from a general decree to prevent the negative impact to that worthy person. While that saving might not always happen, depending on the divine calculus, this time it did (cf. Malbim, Gen. 18:24).

IV. Why You?

Translating this to today's situation, according to this one of multiple possible approaches, you were may have been affected by a general decree that is impacting the world. It isn't your fault. The guaranteed way of avoiding the downturn is to look at yourself, your actions and your attitudes, and ask: Am I worthy of getting a divine exception? If not, do what you can to change that. While it is a bit much to ask anyone to become righteous, there are certainly ways that you can improve religiously to make yourself more worthy.

If that doesn't work, and to be honest it is quite a long shot that any specific person will become completely righteous, you can at least have the solace that it is not your fault. There are forces at work greater than any individual and we can only go with the flow of the larger community and do our best in those circumstances.

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