When a calamity takes place, should it always be seen as “an act of God”?
When Ya’akov is encouraged by his children to send his son, Binyamin, with them to Egypt to face the viceroy and free Shimon from prison (unbeknownst to him, the viceroy was his own son, Yosef), he refuses to allow Binyamin to travel with them, fearing pen yikra’enu ason – lest a calamity befall him (see Bereshit 42:4). Abaye presents this passage as Ya’akov’s fear that a calamity from God would befall him, but Rav Ada bar Ahavah argues that it is not clear that Ya’akov is warning them about tzinim u’pahim (heat and cold), he may have been warning them of aryeh ve-ganaveh (wild animals and bandits) – or, for that matter, he may have been warning them about both!
In a counter-intuitive fashion the Gemara concludes that tzinim u’pahim are, in fact, dangers that are controlled by our activities, while aryeh ve-ganaveh are considered calamities brought down by heaven. That tzinim u’pahim are in human hands is decided based on a passage in Mishlei (22:5) that teaches that tzinim u’pahim are stumbling blocks that an intelligent person knows to avoid. Based on this the baraita states: “Ha-kol b’yedei shamayim hutz mi-tzinim u’pahim – everything is in God’s hands except for tzinim u’pahim.” Aryeh ve-ganaveh, on the other hand, are seen as heavenly messengers, based on a teaching of Rabbi Ḥiyya that from the time of the destruction of the Temple, even though the Sanhedrin no longer operated, still criminals received capital punishments that they deserved. Someone who deserved to be burned would be killed in a fire, someone who deserved to be killed by the sword would be set upon and killed by bandits, etc.
As far as the passage in Mishlei is concerned, most of the commentaries there agree that the words tzinim u’pahim mean thorns and obstacles. Nevertheless, in the context of our Gemara the term is interpreted in a number of different ways. Rashi and most of the commentaries on the Talmud understand it to mean “cold and heat.” The intention, however, is one. Most calamities that befall a person appear suddenly, and a person cannot possibly prepare himself for them. There are, however, calamities that a person brings upon himself because he is not careful and does not plan in advance.