Given our extensive study of the various major primary sources in relation to the topic of hashgacha pratis, let’s recap what we now know:
God interacts with the world in four essential ways. One: He perpetuates the laws of nature, in what we call simply “nature.” Two: He violates or disrupts the laws of nature, in what we call a “miracle.” Three: He metes out punishment and reward as He sees fit, in what we call “s’char v’onesh.” Four: He protects deserving people from anything bothersome within nature in what we call “hashgacha pratis.”
The primary misconception that we have been working to dispel is the conflation of the former three forms of Divine interaction with hashgacha pratis. We have dealt extensively in previous installments explaining the former two forms of Divine interaction, and so we now turn to the latter two.
The fact remains that hashgacha pratis is very simply defined as God’s protection of a particular person from the harmful elements of nature. That is all it means. It does not mean that God made you miss your plane, nor does it mean that God made you get stuck at the red light, nor does it mean that God made you late for work. In all likelihood, you did those things to yourself by oversleeping.
Similarly, if a person overeats and clogs his or her arteries, one cannot conclude, upon this person’s demise, that it was his or her “time.” Rather, a person lives because God perpetuates the laws of science that cause a person’s heart to pump, and a person dies because God also perpetuates the laws of science that dictate that if a person eats unhealthily, he or she will die. In the same vein, if someone trips, he or she falls not because of some metaphysical reason, but because of science, math, angles, and physics.
The constant chiming of “hashgacha pratis!” at every detail of life that transpires to one’s liking is a truly misinformed understanding of what hashgacha pratis really is. In truth, and as we have discussed at length, hashgacha pratis is totally relative to the level of God awareness one lives with. Surely, all (who are at some level deserving) are privy to a certain modicum of Divine protection, but to assume that all that occurs within one’s life, down to the very smallest of details, was directly ordained by God as some sense of hashgacha pratis would be to presume oneself a complete and utter tzadik. More fundamentally, hashgacha pratis simply has nothing to do with God’s decreeing of all details of a person’s life. That would remove all free will; there is no concept of such a thing in Judaism.
A Hat Lost To The Wind
Let us elaborate and explain things a little bit more, and a little bit differently. Say someone’s hat blows off in the wind. What is one to make of this occurrence?
Well, given all we know, there are a few possibilities. On the one hand, this could be a punishment from God, some form of onesh. On the other hand, it could simply be nature that this person did not merit to be protected from, and the natural trajectory of the wind coincidentally took this man’s hat off. There is simply no way to know with certainty.
For the tzadik, however, things are different. If a tzadik’s hat were to blow off, he would know with certainty that it is onesh sent directly from God. Why is this the case? Simply because a tzadik receives hashgacha pratis, Divine protection, from any bothersome elements of nature. A tzadik’s hat could not simply be blow off coincidentally, by nature — God protects him from such nuisances. As such, should a tzadik lose his hat to the wind, he can be certain that it is an onesh sent from God to him directly.
Let’s now take a look at things from the opposite perspective. Say someone misses his plane and finds out later that his very plane got into a terrible accident and, would he have been on that flight, he would surely have perished. What is one to make of this? As above, this could very well be reward, or s’char, from God who felt this person deserved to be saved. On the other hand, it could simply have been coincidence and luck that this person showed up late to his flight and missed it. (As a result, it remains unclear if God specifically wanted this person to be saved, or if God never got directly involved and this person remains alive by sheer luck.)
For the tzadik, once again, things are different. God would never allow a tzadik to be killed via natural or coincidental events — the only evil that befalls a tzadik is that sent by God directly as onesh. As such, if a tzadik is saved from a lethal flight, he can conclude that this was hashgacha pratis, specific Divine protection, and that God surely and specifically did not want him to die on that flight.
How Are We To Know?
Given that we would all be rather hard-pressed to call ourselves tzadikim, how are we to know if an occurrence in our life is hashgacha pratis, coincidence, or s’char v’onesh?
The truth is, it really makes no difference. R. Mendel Blachman explains thusly: When something bad happens in one’s life, he or she surely has to repent regardless of the precise cause of the evil. Either the suffering was sent directly by God, in which case repentance/bettering oneself is necessary, or the evil befell this person because he or she was not deserving of God’s protection, in which case repentance/bettering oneself is also necessary. When evil befalls a person, it is either direct Divine punishment, onesh, or nature that he or she did not merit hashgacha pratis to be protected from. In either scenario, the response should be to come closer to God. In truth, then, there is almost no practical difference if something is punishment or coincidence. This is quite a good thing, too, as it is simply impossible for us to know with certainty anyway.
(Indeed, the approach from the other perspective is much the same. If we discover that we have been saved from something, or something particularly lucky befalls us, we were either the recipient of direct Divine reward, s’char, or simply were lucky enough to be saved. In both cases, giving thanks to God is in order all the same.)
Which is all to say, no matter the precise Divine reason, resigned in our finitude to the perpetual response of “maybe,” one should still learn and grow from all that occurs, even if one cannot shout with vigor that it’s all “hashgacha pratis”.
I’d now like to turn our attention to some loose ends, as it were, and other rather popular related themes and ideas:
The Beshtian Approach: The first related discussion is what we will call the “Beshtian” approach to hashgacha pratis. In short, the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of chassidus, did indeed champion the perspective that truly everything that occurs to a person is hashgacha pratis, directly decreed and ordained by God. So much so that under his rubric, if a leaf falls from a tree, it could not have done so a moment later, nor earlier, as it was, at that precise time, decreed by God to fall. Needless to say, this approach runs absolutely counter to all the Rishonim we have discussed at length, and is the perspective called idiotic by the Chinuch and possibly even heretical by Rambam and Ramban. Simply put: The Beshtian approach to hashgacha pratis is exceedingly difficult to accept in light of these aforementioned major Rishonim, for what did the Ba’al Shem Tov know that they did not? If one hails from Hasidic descent, by all means, he should follow his tradition. For the rest of us, who have no reason to adopt this approach, we should practice Judaism as it was originally described.
"Gam Zu L’tov": Given all the above (and the previous eight installments, of course), what are we to make of the Talmudic dictums of “gam zu l’tov”, meaning “this too is for the best,” or ”kol man d’avid Rachmanah l’tav avid”, meaning “all that the Merciful one does, he does for good?” While a full treatment of these phrases — and an understanding of what they mean when they use the term “good” — is far beyond the scope of this particular discussion, a brief response will here suffice. One must understand that these are not necessarily universally accepted statements. The former was uttered by Nachum Ish Gamzu, and the latter as a reformulation by R. Akivah, his student. Whether widely accepted or not, though, both of these men were without question tzadikim, and, as such, the statements were certainly true when it came to themselves (which was the context in which both were said in the first place).
The Butterfly Effect: Many are bewildered by how it would be possible for God to shift nature so as to protect one person without causing unintended, possibly cataclysmic, effects in the lives of others. To this I say only: It’s God we are talking about. Let’s not put it past Him.
When Bad Is Good: It should be noted that sometimes what might appear at first as being bad, might well turn out in time to have been a positive occurrence. A hat might be blown off a person’s head so as to prevent it from being stolen, for instance. As such, when we talk about a negative occurrence being either onesh or coincidence, one should realize that in theory it could very well be s’char in disguise. Why, then, ever see something as bad if it might turn out to be good? And why thank God for something good if it might turn out to be bad? In short, as the key word in the preceding questions is “might,” because God says so. While this too is something of a topic outside the scope of our present discussion, the basic approach is that the halachic reality (as discussed in Tal. Brachos, amongst others) is such that we are to treat occurrences in the moment how they appear to us in that moment. Later, if one sees something differently, one can reassess at that time.
Certainly, this monograph is far from comprehensive, and there is still much to be said on the topic of hashgacha pratis. However, it is my belief that the most fundamental and key elements have been well explained, and the reader should emerge with a solid understanding, background, and foundational approach to the topic of hashgacha pratis, Divine intervention; as things come up, they can be filtered through this foundation. As always, feel free to get in touch.