Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been troubled by a discussion with an orthodox rabbi about free will. It was stated that one should not be angry at a person who hits you as this action was ordained by God. In addition, it was stated that if you were hit, you were meant to be hit as part of a life lesson. What is troublesome about this paradigm is it could become a rationalization for spousal abuse. Please clarify the Torah stance on this matter.
You have struck a Jewish philosophical nerve. Vast amounts have been discussed on this question.
Though a book would better answer your question, I’ll try to give you some food for thought in a story about King David. David’s son Avshalom was attempting to overtake the kingdom and kill his father, causing David to flee the palace. When David arrived at a place called Bahurim, Shimi, a man from King Saul’s family, approached David and his entourage, pelting them with stones and dirt, while cursing David profusely and calling him terrible names. David’s general Avishai exclaimed, “How could this dead dog curse you and we stand back and take it? Let me sever his head!” David retorted that this individual must be cursing him because God feels he’s worthy of being cursed. Perhaps, David added, God would see the tears in his eyes and would deliver a blessing rather than a curse. They continued on their way, with Shimi walking beside them, cursing David and throwing rocks and dirt. (Shmuel II Ch 17: 5-12).
The Midrash says the moment David expressed his acceptance of the Divine will that he be cursed and said “God told him to curse” he became the fourth leg of the Divine throne, (the first 3 legs being Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Through David’s complete subjugation he became the fourth patriarch. It then becomes difficult to understand how on his deathbed, King David commanded his son Shlomo to deliver the death penalty to Shimi for what he did to him (Kings II 2:8-9).
The answer is that one must separate between the perpetrator and the receiver. God would not allow a person to be hurt by another unless there’s a message the receiver needs. King David taught a timeless lesson through his example. When one is hurt or insulted by another, the Torah way is to look inward at why this must be happening, using the situation for self-improvement, rather than to focus on expressing anger at the perpetrator.
This path of acceptance in no way exonerates the perpetrator of the sinful act of insulting or hurting another. In the case of the King, Shimi was liable for the death penalty for what he did. David felt that for him to mete out that punishment would take away from his own introspection and the teshuva it had inspired him to do. He passed on the responsibility for punishing Shimi to his son after his death; what was coming to Shimi was between Shimi and God, and need not involve David.
When I first studied this message a number of years ago it was a life-changing lesson, and I continue to use it as a guide through thorny life situations. Living this lesson can bring about a life of calm, growth and introspection rather than one of anger, retribution and revenge.
This, of course, is no rationalization for spousal abuse or anything similar to it. When one is in an abusive situation the first thing to do is extricate oneself from it. If counseling hasn’t been effective to remedy the situation and one needs to stay away permanently, the abused spouse (or child, etc.) should consider the above lesson as part of their healing process. This can be a very therapeutic phase by taking responsibility in a positive, introspective and spiritual way, paving the way for a more positive future.
This in no way, vindicates the transgressor of his or her actions. They are considered wicked in the eyes of God for choosing to hurt or abuse a fellow human being, even if that same abuse, once it is taking place, may be utilized by God to teach a necessary lesson.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,