Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Guiding Hand of Heaven


A young man once approached the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz ztzl, to ask a pedagogical question. This young rabbi was about to assume the position of mashgiach ruchani (spiritual mentor) in a boys' Yeshivah high school. He wanted to know what moral points he should try to stress to the boys during his lectures. Which ethical principles should he emphasize?

The Chazon Ish replied that the mashgiach should focus on one point and one point alone: hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence). "If the boys come away from your lectures with one lesson, it must be that the world is not hefker (abandoned, in no-one's charge), that there is a Creator and nothing happens by chance! If you manage to teach this to your students, you will have achieved a great success. If you plant within them a deep appreciation for hashgacha pratis, their lives will be changed forever."

The Hebrew phrase, hashgachah pratis, is generally translated as "Divine Providence" but literally, it means "individualized supervision" from Hashem. It refers to the fundamental Jewish belief in the constant guiding hand of Heaven, which controls all Creation - from the orbits of the planets to the flight pattern of a mosquito.

As the Midrash [Midrash Rabbah, Bereshis 10:7] explains: "Rabbi Simon said: There is not even one blade of grass that does not have its own mazal in Heaven that taps it and says "Grow!" And the Talmud states that every living creature "from the massive ox to the tiny flea, is directly sustained by the support decreed for it in Heaven" [Avodah Zarah 3b].

Hashgachah pratis means that Hashem notices, cares, and pays attention to all creatures. If this is true for plants and animals, it is even more so for human beings. Although events in our lives may be masked as "natural", hashgachah pratis means that everything that happens to us is Hashem's Will. As Rabbi Chanina declared: "A person does not prick his finger below (on earth) unless it is decreed for him above (in Heaven), as it is stated [Tehillim 37:23] "A man's footsteps are established by Hashem" [Chullin 6b]

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler explains how even seemingly natural events are really acts of Heaven. He points out that with minimal effort we can all recognize the miracles of daily life:

Even someone on the lowest (spiritual) level, someone to whom it appears that all events are 'natural', if he will simply desire to think into the matter honestly, he will see that everything happens with direct guidance - that Hashem guides all 'natural' events.

In order to understand how all natural events are really miracles, consider the following metaphor. A man is standing behind a curtain and is peeking into a room through a tiny hole. He sees a pen writing but he does not see the man who is writing with the pen. (Nevertheless, he knows that a man must be there, guiding the pen to write). In a similar vein, the one whose eyes are closed and sees only 'natural' events does not understand that Hashem is at work. All 'natural' events are being directed by Hashem. Just as the pen does not write by itself, so too, events in this world do not happen by themselves.

Rambam cites belief in hashgachah pratis as the first of his Thirteen Principles of Faith which constitute the basis of Judaism. These principles are listen in many siddurim at the end of Shacharis, the morning service, and they are recited by many at the conclusion of their prayers:

I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, creates and guides all creatures, and that He alone caused, causes, and will cause everything that happens.

Why did Maimonides and the Chazon Ish place such a primary emphasis on hashgachah pratis? Why is this principle so important?

Perhaps we can understand this with the insight offered by Rashi. In his commentary on the Torah verse which commands us to remember how Amalek attacked the Jews after the Exodus from Mitzrayim [Devarim 25:17]. The Torah further commands us to destroy the very memory of Amalek.

Why is this enemy of the Jews singled out for total annihilation? Wheren't there other nations who also attacked the Jews? What was so terrible about Amalek?

The Torah commands us to remember Amalek and "what happened to you on the way". Rashi emphasizes that the Hebrew word "happened" is similar to the word "happenstance". In other words, Rashi lists as the first of his three interpretations of this phrase, that Amalek's wickedness was rooted in their attitude of happenstance - as if the Exodus had occurred, and did not result from Providence; as if the Jews were freed from slavery because of geopolitical forces and not Divine Intervention; and as if the Red Sea "coincidentally" split just when the Jews needed to go through, and was not a miraculous event.

According to Rashi's commentary, we can now understand why Amalek was singled out for total destruction. The attitude that events in this world are happenstance or coincidence is diametrically opposed to all that Judaism stands for. It is an attitude which contradicts everything that Jews believe. It is an attitude which the Torah declares cannot co-exist with the Jewish people's fulfillment of their mission in this world.

Throughout the history of the Jewish people, the greatest idological threats have come from the "isms" which espoused philosophies antithetical to the principle of hashgachah pratis. On the other hand, in ghettos and concentration camps, the greatest inspiration that kept Jews alive both physically and spiritually was the unshakeable belief in hashgachah pratis.

Especially now, as we hear Moshiach's approaching footsteps, let us re-affirm our belief in hashgacha pratis as we witness its impact on our daily lives.

Source: Dr. Meir Wikler "Einei Hashem" [Feldheim Publ]

2 comments:

  1. Rambam did not write the "ani maamim" that is found in the siddur. The author is unknown.

    Rambam's own views on hashgachah are more complicated. You should never cite an "ani maamin" to indicate what Rambam thought.

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  2. Wow, Devorah!
    "A picture talks a thousand words"!
    You seem to have an inborn appreciation of the beauty of Hashem's handiwork.
    May He abundantly bless you for sharing it with your readers.
    Toda Rabba!

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