The Limits of Divine Control: Lessons From Barroom Mishaps

Guy walks into a lavish hotel bar. Ceremoniously plunks down two crisp hundred dollar bills. Loudly orders a double of 40-year Macallan from the limited edition bottle prominently displayed high above the bar. Bartender rings the cowbells twice, as per protocol, then ascends the ladder to pour the drink. With all eyes upon him, he stumbles on the descent, falls on his patron and kills him. The drink is lost as well.

Question: What is God’s role in all this?

The Torah draws the obvious distinction between intentional and accidental homicides, with capital punishment reserved only for the former. For accidents, the punishment is banishment to a city of refuge. But in setting out the prototype of an accidental murder, the relevant verse (Shemos 21:13) curiously, and ambiguously, brings God into the picture: “one who had not lain in ambush and God had caused it to come to his hand…”.

What is the implication of this reference to the Divine? Rashi, following the Talmud, understands the verse as teaching that accidents are not haphazard, but are orchestrated by God as part of His extensive engagement with the physical world. Specifically, Rashi asserts that the accidental murder in the Torah verse did not take place randomly. In actuality, there was some history to it. The accidental murderer must have done the same thing another time, but evaded the law, thereby avoiding banishment; and the victim must have killed intentionally before, but escaped the death penalty. So God now arranges for the two to meet in a hotel, where, using a ladder as a prop (in the Talmud’s supposition), He orchestrates an “accident” that results in each participant getting his due, death to the homicidal patron and banishment for the hapless bartender. The outcome is neat even if, in our case, the drink never wound up getting served that way.

Rashi’s implication seems to be that all accidental homicides are similarly orchestrated by God. However, as several commentators point out, this does not hold firm under analysis. For if God is responsible for all accidents, He must have caused the prior accidental murder too. This is problematic theologically. Neither our bartender, nor any other accidental murderer, should ever be subject to banishment if, indeed, God is the one responsible for the loss of life. Punishment for an accidental murder can be fairly imposed only if, either now or at some time in the past, the alleged perpetrator killed someone as a result of a true accident that he precipitated. This alone could justify the punishment. But this is only possible if accidents are sometimes not designed by God.

In truth, Rashi does not say explicitly that all accidents are caused by God, though his analysis prompts that conclusion (i.e., there would be no reason for the Torah verse to involve God at all if accidents sometimes occur naturally). The Artscroll Stone Chumash does understand Rashi to say that all accidents are manufactured by God. It tries to solve the logical problem by suggesting that the prior culpability inducing event was not necessarily an accidental murder:

“It is a fundamental principle of the Torah that events are not haphazard. Always there is the guiding hand of God… [In this case,] he must have committed some sin or crime that went unpunished and… his current victim must have been guilty of a capital offense that went undetected…. God was squaring the accounts.” (Emphasis added)

This avoids the quagmire of the bartender being banished for a string of Divinely caused accidental homicides. However, it comes at a different theological cost – the bartender will be punished in a manner (banishment) that is inappropriate for his earlier “sin or crime”. One would surmise that, surely, God would avoid such mismatches in His orchestration of retributive “accidents”.

In any event, a bigger problem with Artscroll’s interpretation is that it appears contrived. It is just not intuitive that all accidents are arranged by God so as to achieve a necessary purpose. Sometimes it seems obvious that an accident is just an accident. Some people are inherently clumsy; others are accident prone. Indeed, for most garden variety accidents, the perpetrator, even if negligent, typically goes unpunished.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, is sensitive to this cognitive dissonance. Unlike Artscroll, he does not take the position that Rashi is advocating the idea that God orchestrates all accidents. He brilliantly reads the relevant verse as having separate clauses: “one who has not lain in ambush [or where] God has caused it to come to his hand”. On this reading, two different scenarios are being addressed by the verse, one where a negligent accidental murder does happen naturally, and another where it is in fact caused by God. Either of these is a legitimate possibility. The lesson to be drawn is not the theological rejection of chance events, but rather that the Torah’s penal system applies even where there is a strong suspicion, perhaps due to the outcome being just too coincidental, that the debacle did indeed emanate from the hand of God.