Monday, February 04, 2013

Corpses all the way down

A funny story, illustrating the infinite regress problem, is Turtles all the way down:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
—Hawking, 1988
This came to mind when I saw this Rashi on parashat Mishpatim:
13. But one who did not stalk [him], but God brought [it] about into his hand, I will make a place for you to which he shall flee. יג. וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה:

but God brought [it] about into his hand: Now why should this go out from before Him? That is what David said, “As the proverb of the Ancient One says, ‘From the wicked comes forth wickedness’” (I Sam. 24:14). The proverb of the Ancient One is the Torah, which is the proverb of the Holy One, blessed is He, Who is the Ancient One of the world. Now where did the Torah say, “From the wicked comes forth wickedness” ? [This refers to:] “but God brought [it] about into his hand.” To what is the text referring? To two people, one who killed unintentionally and one who killed intentionally, but there were no witnesses who would testify to the matter. This one [who killed intentionally] was not executed, and that one [who killed unintentionally] was not exiled [to the refuge cities]. So the Holy One, blessed is He, brings them [both] to one inn. The one who killed intentionally sits under a ladder, and the one who killed unintentionally is ascending the ladder, and he falls on the one who had killed intentionally and kills him, and witnesses testify about him and sentence him to exile. The result is that the one who killed unintentionally is exiled, and the one who killed intentionally was killed. -[From Mechilta, Makkoth 10b] והא-להים אנה לידו: ולמה תצא זאת מלפניו, הוא שאמר דוד (שמואל א' כד יג) כאשר יאמר משל הקדמוני מרשעים יצא רשע, ומשל הקדמוני היא התורה, שהיא משל הקב"ה שהוא קדמונו של עולם. והיכן אמרה תורה מרשעים יצא רשע, והא-להים אנה לידו. במה הכתוב מדבר, בשני בני אדם, אחד הרג שוגג ואחד הרג מזיד, ולא היו עדים בדבר שיעידו, זה לא נהרג וזה לא גלה, והקב"ה מזמנן לפונדק אחד, זה שהרג במזיד יושב תחת הסולם, וזה שהרג שוגג עולה בסולם ונופל על זה שהרג במזיד והורגו, ועדים מעידים עליו ומחייבים אותו לגלות, נמצא זה שהרג בשוגג גולה, וזה שהרג במזיד נהרג:

Thus, Hashem did bring about the killing to the accidental killer's hand -- as a way of bringing the accidental killer to justice for a prior accidental killing, and as a way of bringing about a death penalty to a prior deliberate killing.

However, what about that prior accidental killing? Was that not also וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, that God brought it to his hand? If so, why should he have any guilt in the matter, if it was Hashem's act even there? And why, in that prior incident, did God bring it to his hand?

We are forced to say that there was an even prior accidental killing to that prior accidental killing. And so, there are corpses all the way down!

Alternatively, say that that prior accidental killing was brought about by Hashem because he had committed some other sin which merited exile. But if so, what need is there for the intermediate prior accidental killing?

I believe that the resolution to this is that the midrash, and Rashi, is not saying that every accidental killing is  וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, brought about by God so that he would get the exile he deserved for a prior action. Rather, this is but one example of how an accidental killing could come about. The midrash is making a diyuk into this language in order to give an example of Divine justice in action, in its far reaching scope which is beyond most people's awareness.

The implication of the above would be that there are some occurrences which were not  וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ, but were simply the results of human negligence. There are certainly those in Chazal and Rishonim who take such a position.

Alternatively, we can say that this was meant as an illustrative example of how everything is within the Divine plan, so yes, even that earlier incident would have been brought about as part of the Divine plan, though this does not excuse the accidental killer for his negligence in it; and asking questions about turtles all the way is to miss the point.

On a peshat level, some say that HaElohim, as opposed to Elokim, denotes "the gods". I can see this possibility here, that on a peshat level, this is merely an idiom. Instead of saying that it was bad luck, or fate, it was an "act of God", or that "God brought it to his hand". But that one should not (on a peshat level) attempt to create a whole theology on the basis of this idiom.

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