parsha of the week

Our deeds, or G-d’s?


In preparation for Tisha B’Av, I read through Artscroll’s Eicha and came across the following passage by Rabbi Nosson Scherman.

“The truth is far beneath the surface: ‘It is not the poisonous snake, but the sin that kills’ (Berachos 33a).

“Admittedly, it is enormously difficult for flesh and blood creatures in a cause-and-effect, material world to perceive that the pain, swelling, fever, and death were caused by the venom of sin rather than the venom of snake. But belief in G-d demands no less. Just as we know that the carpenter, not the hammer, drives in the nails, we must also know that is it G-d, not bacteria, Who punishes. The difficulty in first accepting this concept intellectually and then translating it into a formula of life is but a manifestation of G-d’s master plan: that His name be hidden, that His Guiding Hand be hidden – and that mortal man be charged with the task of discerning His presence and His will” (“Eichah,” Overview, p. xxvi-xxvii).

It came back to mind when reading verses in our parsha, selectively edited in the next paragraph, in order to ask the question which will follow (from 8:11-20)

“Be careful that you not forget Hashem your G-d … you will eat and be satisfied, build fine houses and live in them. Your herds may increase … you may amass much silver and gold — everything you own may increase … your heart may grow haughty, and you may forget G-d … [When you later have prosperity, be careful that you not] say to yourself, ‘It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.’ You must remember that it is G-d your L-rd who gives you the power to become prosperous … If you ever forget G-d your L-rd, and follow other gods, worshiping them and bowing to them, I bear witness to you today that you will be totally annihilated…”

So here is the question: What may we credit to ourselves? Is everything from G-d? What happens if humans achieve something incredible, which comes from G-d, but then it turns out to be a failure? Did G-d fail? Or is it a human failure? Did the humans not, in fact, achieve a G-d-worthy achievement?

One marvels at the Pyramids of Giza, Great Wall of China, Petra, the Coliseum, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Taj Mahal, and a large statue in Brazil.

Are these the works of man? Or are they G-d’s handiwork? The wonders of the ancient world are mostly gone — were they the works of man or G-d?

Surely all of these items were put together, worked on for years and years by many humans.

Did the people who put these things together have the right to turn around and say, “Look what we did”? (Never mind that slaves probably had a large role in each “wonder” being built.)

There is too much about the world that we do not understand for us to have the arrogance to say “We have done things G-d couldn’t do.” Sadly, we see this attitude a lot in the world of technology, in the world of medicine, in aeronautics, in everything related to transportation and mobility.

We even see it in the world of Torah sometimes, when people speak of “my chiddush,” the “new idea I came up with,” or in certain areas of psak which take a very clear position, to the exclusion of all others, when the facts of any situation will typically be more complicated and involved than one particular viewpoint. There isn’t a “one size fits all” for anything in life.

I recently asked some younger physicians “Do you ever get it wrong? For good, or for bad! Have you ever just given someone information that turned out to be completely incorrect — for the good or for the bad?”

They told me there is a world of a difference in how they were trained to relate to patients versus the old-school method. They never tell anyone “You have this much time to live.” As one of them said to me, “Who am I to play G-d?”

Rather, they told me a few things of note. There is a difference between trying to diagnose someone based on symptoms versus diagnosing a pathology, which is much clearer and based on specific tests. Meaning, it is OK to say to someone “You have cancer” (G-d forbid), but it is not OK to say “and therefore this is what is going to happen.”

Another important difference between their approach and older methods is that they give possibilities and statistics. “Your symptoms might be this, they might be that, or they might be something else. We can do more tests to try to ascertain with the closest thing to certainty we have as to what is going on with you.”

As far as statistics, “30 percent of people who have what you have go this route, 30 percent go this route, and 40 percent have this outcome. There is no way to know which percent you’re in, so I will keep it positive, believing you are in the best group, and we’ll move on from there.”

They told me of situations where their personal thoughts about a case (which they did not necessarily share with the patient) turned out to be wrong — the patient improved unexpectedly. But, to their credit, they had the humility to recognize that some things are beyond our comprehension. Being a doctor doesn’t mean “I am G-d” or “I replace G-d.” It means “G-d gives me the opportunity to do my best to help people.”

I think this is an important perspective that Moshe is sharing with us. When we contemplate human achievement on the global scale, or even our own achievements on a personal level, we must remember that the strength and abilities we have, possess and utilize come from G-d.

Our errors? Are our errors. One who believes that G-d is perfect and that His works are perfect recognizes and understands that it is only human beings who can and have messed things up in this world through their arrogance, haughtiness and their forgetting G-d.

When we remember G-d and that He is the one who gives us strength and power to become prosperous and successful and achieve amazing things, only then can we fully achieve and appreciate the blessings promised to us in our parsha.