Tuesday, November 27, 2007

best intentions that lead to tragic errors: the Ibn Ezra on 'shema yigrom hacheit'

One last point on “shema yigrom hacheit”: the Ibn Ezra addresses the question of why Ya’akov feared when he had a promise from G-d and answers that Ya’akov was concerned lest he had sinned “b’machshava”, in thought, and become undeserving of G-d’s protection. What does the Ibn Ezra mean by a sin in “thought”? He gives us another example: when Moshe was commanded to return to Egypt as the redeemer of the Jewish people, he set out immediately at the cost of delaying the bris of his son. As a result, an angel attacked him along the way and almost killed Moshe before Tziporah came to the rescue and did the milah. Moshe certainly had acted with the best of intentions and undoubtedly considered his decision carefully before starting on his journey before performing the milah. Yet, whatever his calculations and thoughts were proved wrong.

Ya’akov Avinu had not consciously done any sin and undoubtedly had also planned his every move to be a fulfillment of what he took to be the ratzon Hashem. But, what one thinks is the ratzon Hashem may be completely in error. Perhaps we need look no further for an illustration than this upcoming week’s parsha, where the brothers of Yosef think they are doing good by eliminating Yosef and only years later realize their tragic error.

This approach of the Ibn Ezra is very discomforting. Does this really mean that a person can make cheshbonos and try to live l’shem shamayim with great sincerity and sacrifice only in the end to discover that misplaced intentions and sincerity cannot compensate for unforeseen (and perhaps unforeseeable) mistakes? R’ Chaim Shmulevitz in his Sichos Mussar accepts this approach at face value and counsels that the only thing a person can do is daven and hope for siyata d’shemaya. I prefer to read the lesson here in a bit more contextualized way based in part on the Shiurei Da’as (see the essay on Omek haDin). On the one hand, a person cannot be faulted for acting l’shem shamayim but somehow misreading the ratzon Hashem despite his/her best efforts. But on the other hand, “best effort” is itself a subjective bar. Perhaps a person has reached the correct conclusions in halacha and hashkafa based on where they are holding in life and how they read the ratzon Hashem, but had he/she pushed themselves to a higher level or been a greater or better person, he/she might have come to a different conclusion or not faced the dilemma at all. Problems exist only because we provide the context for them to crop up. We cannot be faulted for acting according to our best judgment to resolve them, but we can be faulted for providing the context for them to arise in the first place. Bottom line: this Ibn Ezra is a tough standard to live up to.


  1. A good source for this issue is Nachlas Shimon Melochim II 23:29. Yoshiahu refused passage to the soldiers of Pharaoh Necho on the basis of the drasha Rashi brings in Bechukosai 26:6. So what was Yoshiahu’s mistake? Rabbi Krasner starts with the Gemara in Taynis 22b and brings the vast array of perspectives of the meforshim.

  2. I recall hearing a similar idea about RYbZ's comment regarding two paths on his deathbed, that he was never confident that he had made the right decision when speaking to Vespasian.

  3. IIRC the Sichos Mussar quotes similar death bed gemaras.

  4. Your right this ibn Ezra is difficult, especially if yagati umatzasi al tamin, he tried his best and is still responsible for getting it wrong?!? But r Chaim does say later by pashas balak, that bderech sh'adam rotze lechech molichin. Just as in pilegesh bgiva, they asked the urim vtumim and they got it wrong. Doesn't mean the uv't was wrong chv'sh, but they did. As r dessler writes There's a tiny bias in the subconscious that is put into decisions, and one has to clear them for ratzon Hashem. So Yes they can get it wrong, and it's disturbing, but in the end they didn't make a clear decision. (My rosh yeshiva calls it lsheim shmaretz, shamayim +aretz Lol)