Home » Philosophy » The Other Butterfly Effect

The Other Butterfly Effect

butterfly_effectEarlier this month,  Daniel Cohen joined the ranks of Israeli victims of unprovoked Arab knife attacks.  The only difference in his story is that it was the best thing the could have happened to him.

As doctors worked to stop the bleeding and stabilize his condition, they discovered that the 31-year-old father of five was suffering from an undiagnosed case of intestinal cancer.  Now receiving treatment, his prospects are good.  Had he not been stabbed, who knows how long it might have been before the cancer was discovered.

How many things that look really bad eventually turn out to be really good?  How many little things that go unnoticed may end up changing our lives in ways we can’t imagine?

It’s a topic worth revisiting, so I offer these thoughts from 2010:

On August 29, 1776, General George Washington’s first field command was about to end in disaster. Having divided his forces, Washington now found half his Continental army trapped between a superior redcoat contingent advancing on his position on one side and a fleet of British warships sailing up the East River to bombard his men from the other.

Instead, the rising winds of a nor’easter turned back the British ships, allowing the American force of over 9000 to escape across the river by night without losing a single man. As dawn broke, an impenetrable fog concealed the final stages of the withdrawal so that, when the air cleared around 7 AM, the British discovered an empty landscape where there had been an army only hours before.

On account of a timely wind and a providential fog, the American army survived to fight another day and the failure of the American Revolution was averted.

battles-takes-placeTwo centuries earlier, it was the British who found salvation from a change in the wind. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain dispatched his fearsome Armada to depose the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and make Europe safe for Catholicism. On the night of August 7, however, a powerful north wind sped a plucky fleet of English fireships from its southern harbor up into the English Channel. By engaging the enemy flotilla, the British ships delayed the Spanish from their rendezvous with an invasion force of 27,000 soldiers that would almost certainly have captured London and executed Elizabeth. The wind then drove the Spanish on into the North Sea where they posed no further threat to England.

If not for the strong north breeze, Spain, not Britain, would have prevailed as the dominant power in Europe, the counter-Reformation might well have purged Protestantism from Europe, and Spanish would today be the preeminent language of world commerce and politics.


Even before the popular movie of the same name, virtually everyone had heard of the “butterfly effect,” the theoretical phenomenon whereby a tiny breeze begins with the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Africa and gathers strength until it becomes a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean. A seemingly insignificant event on one side of the world may produce events of titanic proportions on the other.

And although it took winds stronger than the humble breeze of a butterfly’s wings to carry British ships to within reach of the Spanish Armada in the 16th century and hold them back from trapping Washington’s army 200 years later, in comparison with the rise and fall of nations we would generally consider weather conditions on any given day to be equally inconsequential.

In the grand scheme of creation, however, nothing is without consequence. The kabbalists tell us that nothing occurs on earth unless it is first decreed On High, and that nothing is decreed above unless it is first determined below. This is not a contradiction. Every event in this world is a reflection of the Divine Will, which changes each and every moment according to the behavior of man, the same way a mother and father may alter their parenting style to match every action of their child. The blessings and the retributions that come to the world, therefore, are a heavenly response to the conduct of human beings.

In the final moments before the destruction of the Second Temple, not satisfied to have razed Jerusalem to the ground and set fire to the House of G-d, the Roman general Titus showed his contempt for the sanctity of the Jewish nation by taking the Torah scroll, unrolling it upon the floor of the Holy of Holies, and laying with a prostitute upon it. In the place where the High Priest once performed the most intensely spiritual act of divine service, Titus committed the most despicable act of defilement.

Why did the Almighty allow Titus to so desecrate His innermost sanctuary? Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, founder of the great Talmudic academy of 18th century Europe, explains that Titus gained divine sanction for his act because the Jews had, in a manner of speaking, already done the same thing themselves.

Just as the Temple once served as the focal point of Jewish society, similarly should every Jew see himself as a microcosm of the Temple. And just as the focal point of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, wherein resided the Ark of the Covenant, similarly is the mind the holiest sanctuary of the human being, for therein resides the soul. By allowing the philosophies of Greece and Rome to infiltrate their thinking and shape their values, the Jews had yielded to the carnal seduction of their souls and defiled the inner sanctuary of their own minds. For that reason alone was Titus allowed to perpetrate his abomination.

Despite the Temple serving as a constant reminder of their spiritual purpose, the Jews in ever increasing numbers had compromised their cultural integrity by adopting Greek and Roman styles of dress, by eagerly attending the spectacles of the Greek gymnasia and the Roman coliseums, by passionately studying sophistry from the philosophers of Greece and courting the aristocracy of Rome – all the while convinced that their dabbling in foreign culture was as innocent as the flitting of a butterfly on the breeze. But the moral corruption that lay at the core of these societies released a hurricane of spiritual confusion, eroding the foundations of Jewish values until the Jews forfeited the merit to serve their Creator in the great Temple of Jerusalem.


eyjafjallajokullThough the guidance of Divine Providence, however, the flutter of the butterfly’s wings need not always result in devastation. In November 1991, a long and painful drought in Israel ended dramatically with rain and snow falling at record levels to fill the dangerously low Sea of Galilee beyond capacity and replenish underground aquifers. Climatologists attributed the precipitous weather to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, on the Philippine island of Luzon, five months earlier. Coming after nearly 500 years of inactivity, Pinatubo’s eruption was the second largest of the 20th century.

After months of special prayers and fasting, the religious community had a different explanation. When the Almighty wants it to rain in Israel, He causes a volcano to erupt on the Pacific rim of Asia. Indeed, a more recent volcano eruption revealed the hand of Providence less globally but no less dramatically.

Earlier this year, an 18 year old seminary student in Israel was diagnosed with fulminate hepatic failure. Following the advice of his doctors and rabbi, the young man traveled to Brussels, the world center for liver transplants, which offered his only hope of recovery. But with five patients on the list ahead of him and his health deteriorating rapidly, the young man’s prospects were bleak. And so he waited and prayed for a miracle.

In mid-April, a liver became available. The medical center contacted the patient whose name topped the list, but he was unable to get to Brussels within the lifespan of the liver. Patients numbers two, three, four, and five could not arrive in time, either. The young student waiting for a miracle in Brussels received word that a liver was available. The transplant surgery was successful.

Why were none of the other candidates able to get to Brussels to benefit from the liver? Because only days earlier, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano had shut down all air traffic in Europe. What should have been a journey of only a few hours now became an unbridgeable gap for all except the prayerful seminary student who waited seemingly without hope.

After seeing his diseased liver, doctors agreed that if not for the transplant the young man would have died within a week.

Nothing occurs on earth unless it is first decreed On High, and nothing is decreed above unless it is first determined below. As we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem today, Tisha B’Av, let us consider that the flapping of butterfly wings begins in our hearts, in our conduct toward our Creator and toward our fellow men. The breeze produced by every act of kindness and devotion works its way up to the highest reaches of the heavens, then wafts back down to earth as the wind of change that visits upon us the consequences of our misdeeds or, if we are worthy, the blessings of our virtue.

Originally published in Jewish World Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email here for new articles and insights. We will not share your info.

%d bloggers like this: