R. Arama says the sha’ar will discuss how far we have to go in our personal efforts to secure what we find productive and fend off what is damaging. Lack in such effort (aside from reducing the odds life will go as we want) also leads to less providence for a person.
We will see more of what he means in the course of the sha’ar, but I want to be sure we notice it already: R. Arama thinks part of the calculus for how much providence a person merits is how much effort the person him/herself invests. Heaven helps those who help themselves, for real.
He opens with Bereishit Rabbah 76, where R. Pinhas quotes R. Aybo: Yaakov and Moshe were each afraid at certain junctures (Yaakov at the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach, when he hears Esav is headed his way with 400 men; Moshe’s is inferred from Hashem telling him not to fear Og). Their fear begs explanation, given verses where they were told they were chosen by Hashem and were promised divine protection. Their fear tells R. Aybo that the righteous have no ironclad promises in this world (whatever the promises mean, and they clearly mean something, they do not guarantee safety in this world).
The Four Causes
Free will is part of the reason. As groundwork for his presentation of free will, R. Arama lists four causes of human events: providence, human action, the stars and chance [scientific determinists of various sorts used to deny the role of chance, although I think the random elements in quantum physics have restored its place]. The least obvious of those is human action, considering providence could run the world without any help.
Three arguments show him humans must have some free will. First, unless the human intellect has freedom to exercise its powers, it would be futile to have given it to humans (and it is unthinkable Hashem would act futilely). Second, reward and punishment assumes free will. Finally, the Torah also requires us to take steps to avoid accidents, such as by building a maakeh, a fence around elevated spaces, and Hashem told the Jews to stay inside the night of makkat bechorot, the plague of the first born.
As political philosophy has shown (he says), effort only makes sense if it has some ability to succeed. Even where many people fail (Niddah 70b speaks of many trying, to no avail, in a particular situation), or their efforts are self-destructive (as with Yosef’s brothers, he says), effort does often help, proving life is not ruled completely by Providence, the stars (what we today would call natural cause and effect), and chance.
Our Actions Shape Our Providence
In addition to a role for free will, R. Arama cites verses to show Heaven reacts according to how we act. Someone who always makes good choices will certainly receive providential aid, to the point s/he will barely need to try. As Tehillim 37:23 says, Hashem guides the steps of those whose path Hashem likes.
On the flip side, no matter how good one’s birth circumstances (he says a good astrological sign, we would say good genetics and environment), if s/he chooses poorly, Hashem will break the person’s pride, regardless of his/her efforts. As Yeshayahu 44:25 says, Hashem can overthrow people’s wisdom, foil their various plans.
During Avshalom’s rebellion in II Shmuel 17, Hashem prevented Achitophel’s advice from being accepted, to preserve David’s monarchy, despite Achitophel’s great wisdom, his ideas always being the best ones.
Those are at the extremes, however—people who are fully good or evil. For people in the middle range, providence does not tip the scales, the role of chance and the stars becomes significant, leaving room for personal effort to have a real impact. It’s why Mishlei 10:4 could say effort helps people become rich, and Mishlei 19:3 that a person’s evil ruins his path.
Efforts Also Help Interpret Life
Lack of effort where effort is appropriate constitutes a sin, phrases such as be-chol mishlach yadecha and asher ta’aseh (in Devarim 15:10 and 18), everything you put your hand to and all you do (implying we are supposed to “put our hand” to things, supposed to do).
Because most of us are in that category, the Torah gives advice on how to make the proper efforts, for example in building a maakeh. Those of enough merits do not need protection, and those on the other extreme will not be able to avoid Hashem’s punishment. Practical advice in the Torah is aimed at the large middle.
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.