Hashgacha Pratis (Part 5): Rambam’s Explanation Of Levels Of Providence & Why Bad Things Happen To Good People

You can read the other parts in this series here.

We have established until this point that Hashgacha Pratis is commensurate with one’s knowledge and understanding of God. We continue in Rambam’s Guide to understand what this means, and how this works.

Guide For The Perplexed 3:51:

An excellent idea presents itself here to me, which may serve to remove many doubts, and may help to solve many difficult problems in metaphysics. We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine Providence departs from them.

Rambam here lays out a fairly simple formula. When you are cognizant and meditating on God, in a perfect and complete manner, your Divine Providence will as well, in turn, be perfect and complete. Those that live their entire lives this way — in this God-intoxicated state — will enjoy constant Divine supervision. Others, who indeed possess a perfect understanding and knowledge of God, but who at times break their concentration or contemplation of the Divine, enjoy Providence only at those times during which they are properly connected to God. Rambam elaborates on this latter category of human…

The absence of Providence in this case is not like its absence in the case of those who do not reflect on God at all: it is in this case less intense, because when a person perfect in his knowledge [of God] is busy with worldly matters, he has not knowledge in actuality, but only knowledge in potentiality [though ready to become actual]. This person is then like a trained scribe when he is not writing. Those who have no knowledge of God are like those who are in constant darkness and have never seen light. We have explained in this sense the words: "The wicked shall be silent in darkness" (1 Sam. 2:9), whilst those who possess the knowledge of God, and have their thoughts entirely directed to that knowledge, are, as it were, always in bright sunshine; and those who have the knowledge, but are at times engaged in other themes, have then as it were a cloudy day: the sun does not shine for them on account of the cloud that intervenes between them and God.

Thus: Someone who possesses a proper understanding and cognition of the Divine, but perhaps at times is too preoccupied to exercise it, sometimes, Rambam states, has a “cloudy day”. The sun (God’s protection) is still there in potentiality, but is somewhat obscured. This is in contradistinction to one ignorant entirely of the Divine, for whom there is no protection ever, at all. Such people don’t have sunny days, nor cloudy days, but rather exist in constant darkness, devoid of Divine protection entirely. Someone utterly ignorant of the Divine receives no protection therefrom.

Hence it appears to me that it is only in times of such neglect that some of the ordinary evils befall a prophet or a perfect and pious man: and the intensity of the evil is proportional to the duration of those moments, or to the character of the things that thus occupy their mind.

Here Rambam turns to the age-old question of how bad things could befall pious people. The answer, Rambam proposes, is that the bad things occurred at a point at which the pious person did not have his or her heart connected to God. God only protects so long as one is connected to and thinking about Him. In short, while God is on your mind, He will protect. Should He slip your mind — should that connection break — one receives punishment commensurate with just how terribly that connection was broken. Rambam continues…

Such being the case, the great difficulty is removed that led philosophers to assert that Providence does not extend to every individual, and that man is like any other living being in this respect, viz., the argument based on the fact that good and pious men are afflicted with great evils. We have thus explained this difficult question even in accordance with the philosophers' own principles. Divine Providence is constantly watching over those who have obtained that blessing which is prepared for those who endeavor to obtain it. If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains a knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God, and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him; for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents.

Rambam says it best himself, without much elaboration needed here. It is noteworthy, though, that here Rambam shifts slightly from implying that a break in connection results in punishment, to stating that a break in connection simply results in being left to the elements of nature (in which sometimes evil things do indeed, unfortunately, occur).

Hence it may occur that the perfect man is at times not happy, whilst no evil befalls those who are imperfect; in these cases what happens to them is due to chance.

Evil might occur to good men due to nature taking its course during an interruption in their thinking of the Divine, whilst good things might happen to evil people (who surely do not have any Divine protection) due to them simply getting lucky with various positive occurrences in nature.

This principle I find also expressed in the Law. Comp. "And I will hide my face them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them: so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us?" (Deut. 31:17). It is clear that we ourselves are the cause of this hiding of the face, and that the screen that separates us from God is of our own creation. This is the meaning of the words: "And I will surely hide my face in that day, for all the evils which they shall have wrought" (ibid. ver. 18).

God operates as a mirror. The closer we are to Him, the closer He shall, in turn, be to us.

There is undoubtedly no difference in this regard between one single person and a whole community. It is now clearly established that the cause of our being exposed to chance, and abandoned to destruction like cattle, is to be found in our separation from God. Those who have their God dwelling in their hearts, are not touched by any evil whatever. For God says: "Fear thou not, for I am with thee; be not dismayed, for I am thy God" (Isa. 41:10). "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee" (ibid. 42:2). For if we prepare ourselves, and attain the influence of the Divine Intellect, Providence is joined to us, and we are guarded against all evils. Comp. "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do unto me?" (Ps. 118:6). "Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace" (Job 22:2:1); i.e., turn unto Him, and you will be safe from all evil.

Rambam concludes, summarizes, and also makes the important point that these same principles apply to communities, and larger groups of people, just as they do at an individual level. (We shall see in time that not all accept this particular point.)

An Elaboration

We now turn to an earlier chapter in the Guide in which Rambam further explains his understanding of the mechanics of Hashgacha Pratis.

Guide For The Perplexed 3:18:

Having shown in the preceding chapter that of all living beings mankind alone is directly under the control of Divine Providence, I will now add the following remarks: It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence, with which, e.g., Zeiḍ, Amr, Kaled and Bekr, are endowed.

The entire concept of a species, Rambam explains, is nothing more than a human invention — semantics we have invented so as to better refer to groups of creatures. In truth, a “species” does not exist. It is purely a human construct. As such, Rambam concludes, Providence cannot extend to a species (as no such thing truly exists), but can instead only extend to a specific intellect, commensurate with the level of said intellect. Rambam also takes for granted — as shown previously and proved again right here — that Providence does not extend to animals (nor inanimate objects) as they possess no intellect capable of comprehending the Divine — a prerequisite of Divine Providence.

Hence it follows, in accordance with what I have mentioned in the preceding chapter, that the greater the share is which a person has obtained of this Divine influence, on account of both his physical predisposition and his training, the greater must also be the effect of Divine Providence upon him, for the action of Divine Providence is proportional to the endowment of intellect, as has been mentioned above. The relation of Divine Providence is therefore not the same to all men; the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence. This benefit is very great in the case of prophets, and varies according to the degree of their prophetic faculty: as it varies in the case of pious and good men according to their piety and uprightness. For it is the intensity of the Divine intellectual influence that has inspired the prophets, guided the good in their actions, and perfected the wisdom of the pious.

Thus far, this is mostly a reiteration of what was elaborated on above, with the addition of more details about prophets who obviously possess an extremely high level of Divine comprehension. Rambam now continues explaining the other side of things, namely those that are deficient in their understanding of the Divine…

In the same proportion as ignorant and disobedient persons are deficient in that Divine influence, their condition is inferior, and their rank equal to that of irrational beings: and they are "like unto the beasts" (Ps. 49:21). For this reason it was not only considered a light thing to slay them, but it was even directly commanded for the benefit of mankind.

For fear of misinterpreting Rambam here, I shall add nothing to his words other than pointing out just how intense said words seem to be.

This belief that God provides for every individual human being in accordance with his merits is one of the fundamental principles on which the Law is founded.

This proper understanding of Hashgacha Pratis, in essence, forms the very basis of s’char v’onesh — a true fundamental of the Torah, without which, as explained in the previous installment in this series, the entire Torah becomes pointless. As such, an improper understanding of Hashgacha Pratis is to misunderstand the very core of Judaism and how God works.

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