Spiritual Insights – Unravel an Ancient Jewish Wisdom

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In this post about spiritual insights, we will unravel an ancient Jewish wisdom. What is this ancient Jewish wisdom? Read on to find out. 

This evening’s topic is the concept of Divine Providence. Divine Providence is known in Hebrew as השגחה פרטית‎ – Hashgochoh Protis. This concept is discussed throughout rabbinic literature. The classic medieval Jewish philosophers speak about it. It is also found in the tradition of the Jewish mystics, especially the founder of the Chassidic movement of Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov taught that every event in the universe, every experience in a person’s life and every aspect of these occurrences is specifically guided and determined by the divine will of God. The Baal Shem Tov would explain that even the falling of a leaf from a tree was part of God’s divine plan and He is controlling that leaf to fall.

There is a famous story that says the Baal Shem Tov was walking with his students, explaining the concept of Hashgochoh Protis. They watched as a leaf fell from the tree to the ground. They went closer and saw there had been a small caterpillar suffering in the heat of the sun, and the leaf fell and covered the caterpillar to give it shade. So, the Baal Shem Tov explained that this is an example of God’s greatness, and how He controls everything.

There is an important question to answer. If everything is according to God’s divine will how do we retain our free will? Let’s explore this question and at the same time find a source in the Jewish bible for the concept of divine providence.

The first source I want to mention is from Psalms 33:14. It says, “from His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the Earth.” The Hebrew for “gazes” is “hishgiyach” and it shares the same root as the word Hashgochoh, which is the first word in the term Hashgochoh Protis. The second word “protis” means “particular.” Hashgochoh means God is gazing at all the particulars of creation.

Does God’s ability to see everything mean that He is controlling the events that happen around us?

We find an answer this in Psalm 37:23. The Baal Shem Tov would often quote this verse to demonstrate that the concept of divine providence is a biblical concept. The verse says, “The footsteps of men are established by God.”

This means every step we take, and every place we encounter are guided by Divine Providence. Although we are led to a place and to the events that occur around us, we still retain freedom choice to decide what we will do at a particular instance.

Here’s a story

Some years ago, I was visiting Israel with my wife and my younger son. We were traveling from the northern city of Sefas down to the city of Modiin. The instructions someone had given us took us on seven different roads. We stopped at Tzomet Zikhron Ya’akov for a break. As we got out of the car, there was a loud scream, and we turned and saw that a young girl was running across the highway, to use the facilities at the gas station. Unfortunately, she was hit by a taxi, and the force was so great you could hear the thud of the car hitting her, and she flipped over the top of the car and landed on her head.

Everyone around me froze from the shock of witnessing this accident. Fortunately, I had recently completed an advanced Critical Incident training as a police chaplain. The training gave me the fortitude to run towards this young girl and check her pulse and her breathing. Neither was present, and she appeared dead. I started CPR to try to revive her. Out of nowhere an Israeli came and asked if he could help. We shared doing the CPR. I did the chest compressions, and he did the breathing. To our relief, we revived this girl, and paramedics came and took her to a hospital. She survived and made a complete recovery.

We had witnessed a miracle. Standing in the middle of the roadway I was approached by the Israeli who helped me. He told me that he travels back and forth from northern Israel down to Tel Aviv every single day back and I many years he never turned off on this exit for Zikhron Ya’akov. However, this one time he did, and as it was happening, he couldn’t understand why. Then he saw this girl hit by the taxi and immediately stopped to help.

He asked me, “Rabbi, how do you explain this? I wasn’t supposed to be here because I never turn off on this exit.” I responded, “if you weren’t supposed to be here then I definitely was not supposed to be here. I came all the way from Los Angeles 7,500 miles away. The directions I was given took me on seven different roads.”

Realizing the improbability that we should both be at this very spot at this very moment, he wanted an explanation. I responded, “we can’t understand why this young girl had to be hit by the car, but we do know that you and I were both led here because ‘the footsteps of men are established by God.’” God brought us to this place at that moment to witness this event, and we had the freedom of choice to decide if we continue driving and ignore what happened, or do we stop and do a Mitzvah of rendering aid to help save a person?

This is the first true story of Divine Providence I want to share with you.

I mentioned earlier that the Kabbalists— Jewish Mystics— also speak about this Divine Providence. The famous Italian Kabbalist Joseph Ergus, who lived from 1685 to 1730, taught in his famous work Shomrei Emunah, that nothing occurs by accident without intention and divine providence. He quotes a verse in Leviticus 26:24. The verse says, “and then I will also walk with you in hostility.” The Hebrew word for “keri” literally means “hostility,” but it can also mean like “by chance or by accident.” The Kabbalist was teaching that even when something happens, that appears to be simply an accident, and without intention, it is God walking with you. Even is something appears to be a coincidence it is still attributed to God who planned it.

We are left with a question. If God controls everything that happens to us, do we lose free will and responsibility?

For example, if someone decides to hurt or kill another person, can he argue that he should not be held responsible since God causes everything? This argument was unsuccessfully used by the Adolf Eichmann when he was put on trial in Israel for Nazi war crimes.

The response is based on a statement in the Talmud Berakoth 33b. It says, “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” This means that although the events that happen around us are being directed by God, and it is always up to us to choose to do right or wrong.

The Talmud continues and quotes Deuteronomy 10:12, “and now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.”

This passage teaches that our mission in life is to revere God and obey Him. We retain freedom of choice.

Other places in Jewish scripture speak about how everything comes from God. As it says in, Psalm 147:8-9, “who covers the Heaven with clouds, provides rain for the earth, makes mountains, puts forth grass, who gives beasts their food, to the raven brood what they cry for.” These things, are coming from God, but we can affect how things happen, as it says in Deuteronomy 15:5, “you will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today.”

If everything comes from God except for the freedom of choice to do good or evil. How do we explain evil we encounter around us and our temptations to do evil?

The question, is evil from God or not, is compounded by a shocking statement in Isaiah 45:7 that says, “God says I form light and create darkness. I form peace and create evil.” The Hebrew word “rah” is sometimes translated as “calamity,” but it literally means “evil.”

For many people, it is confusing to read that God creates evil. In fact, in the Jewish prayer book, after the Barachu prayer, when this verse is quoted the sages changed the word “rah” to “et haKol,” which means God creates “everything.” The sages changed it the prayer book to avoid confusion among average people who lack a philosophical understanding of this concept.

What does it actually mean that God created evil?

It means everything is created by God except the bad actions we create with our freedom of choice. Additionally, if something bad happens to us, this is from God to provide an opportunity to test us to see if we will take the proper action.

Everything that happens, both good or bad, has a purpose, but we don’t see it is because the reasons are concealed from us.

The creation of a finite world conceals and hides truth and Godliness. The Hebrew word for “world” is “olam.” In Exodus 3:15, the famous story of the burning bush, says, when Moses asked God what name should I give you? God says. “I will be what I will be, this is my name forever.” The word “olam” here is translated “forever” and is from the same root as the words for “hidden” and “world.”

In Kabbalistic teachings, we learn that the creation of the world conceals Godliness, in the same way, concealing light produces darkness. The more concealment the darker it appears.

Many of us are preparing to see the total solar eclipse that is going to happen across America on August 21st. If we wear special dark solar glasses to look at the sun, the area around us will look completely black, even though it is light outside. The glasses only block our perception, causing us to perceive the opposite of light which is darkness.

The Kabbalists use this example to teach that the opposite of something that is infinite and transcends time and space, would be something finite. By concealing spirituality, God created a finite world. If God’s concealing power were removed, the world would revert to spirituality. Therefore, Isaiah 40:5 says that when the Messianic age arrives the revelation of Godliness will be so great that, “the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

Although this revelation is usually concealed from us, we do on occasion, get a glimmer of Godliness in this world. We often don’t notice it, because things become so natural and habitual, like the rising and setting of the sun. This is also miraculous because a miracle means that God is causing it.

When we do see something out of the ordinary, what we call a coincidence, this is when we precieve God’s presence.

To better understand this, we can turn to Genesis 1:2, which says, “the earth was unformed and void and darkness was over the surface, and the spirit of God was sweeping across the water.” The word “ruach’ is translated as “spirit” and refers to God. However, in Hebrew, the word “ruach” also means “wind.” Wind is something that happens when air moves. Air is something we take for granted until we are made aware of it when the wind blows. Similarly, we sense God’s presence or spirit when he reveals it to us like air blowing in our face.

God created the world from nothing to something. The Kabbalists point out that the terminology used in the bible for God created the world is “speech.” Speech is something that also conceals that which is revealed in our mind.

If we were to picture what our homes look like, we could envision it in a moment. But if we want to share this with someone else we need to tell them some small increments, how many floors it has, what color it is, and whether it is made of wood or brick. As we are sharing them those individual details, we are holding back the rest of the information.

The Torah also uses the expressions, “words” to describe how God sustains the creation. It says in Psalm 119: 89, “God’s words stand forever in Heaven.” We don’t believe that God simply created the world and left. We believe that God is constantly involved in the creation. But the concealment of the creation process hides the Godly source.

But there are occasions when we do perceive Godliness, and that is when Divine Providence is revealed to us.

When I first become more spiritually committed to Torah and mitzvahs, it was because I started witnessing in my daily life how events were not a coincidence.

Maimonides, the great philosopher, writes that divine providence does not rest upon all men equally. The degree of providence extended to an individual will increase in proportion to his superiority in the perfection of his human qualities.

I believe this means the more sensitive, refined and focused we become, the more likely we are to be able to perceive divine providence in our lives.

For example, we become more focuses when we go to a funeral because at that moment we are not thinking about materialism. We are thinking about how finite our life is. And for a moment we become more spiritually focused on the things that matter. The more refined a person becomes is a result of sanctifying the way they think, talk, eat and interact with people. Then, when they look for spirituality they are more sensitive to discovering it.

Let me conclude by sharing another personal experience with Divine Providence

Once I was driving to Nevada with a friend who did not believe in God. Suddenly a large tire flew off a truck in front of my car, and I swerved to avoid it. I thanked God for saving us, but my friend said, “I don’t believe in God.” Amazingly, right after he said this, there appeared on the side of the road several gigantic signs quoting the ten commandments. He turned to me and said, “what are the odds that those signs should be there right after I said I don’t believe in God.” I answered, “I have driven this way many times and have never seen these signs before, God must be giving you a sign that he exists.”

This is just one of the story that I wanted to share with you. There are many others that I have experienced.

Thank you all for joining us for this program.