Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

How to Be Calm When the World Seems Out of Control

Shemini

It is very difficult not to be stressed when things around you seem to be out of control. The more you read the news, the more distressing it is.

How can one deal with this?

Let’s start by reviewing the premise: are things really out of control?

I’d say nothing has really changed. The only thing that has changed is the sense of predictability. Everything is really the same, neither before nor now have things truly been under our control. That does not mean to say that things are out of control. Everything is under control; just not under our control. 

How does that help diminish anxiety and distress?

Here’s how. 

Imagine if everything were under our control. It would be an impossible burden and responsibility. How would we be able to sleep at night? Now that I know that everything is under control just not my control, I can stop worrying about what is not under my control and take care of the things that are. 

One of the foundations of Judaism is the concept of Divine Providence, that is, that everything that happens in the world is under the control of G-d. Absolutely everything. 

You might ask: Since G-d does and undoes whatever He wants to, whether I do something about it or not, why should I even make the effort to do anything?

The answer is that while G-d does what He wants, one of the things He wants is for us to do our part. Plowing and sowing is up to us; raining and growing is up to G-d. If G-d sends rain and you didn’t plow and sow your field, you will have nothing but a big puddle. 

The laws of nature do not compete with G-d; they are His creation and are the tools through which He works. Once you have obeyed Him and done whatever natural steps are within your power, trust that everything will go as G-d intended and your efforts will be crowned with success.

This idea of the precision and detail of Divine Providence is not so evident. There are great Jewish thinkers who did not speak of Divine Providence over every detail of existence, but of a more general providence over the species, and only with regards to the human race was there a detailed Providence over the goings-on with each individual. The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that every detail, including how and when every leaf falls from its tree in autumn and where it ends up on the ground is guided by G-d and fulfills a specific function. There are no coincidences.

What is this perspective based on?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, author of the Tanya and founder of Chabad, points out that this philosophy is clearly delineated thousands of years before the Baal Shem Tov, in the Talmud, in reference to the cormorant, a species of bird mentioned [1] in this week’s reading, Shemini [2], where it lists the non-Kasher bird species.   

The Talmud [3] relates that every time the sage Rabbi Yonathan would come across a cormorant he would quote the verse in Psalms [4], “Your judgments [are like] the vast deep.” 

What does the cormorant have to do with the judgments of G-d in the “vast deep”?

The exegete Rashi explains that G-d sends the cormorant to plunge into the depths of the sea to catch the fish when they are judged to die.

Here we see the idea that even the death of a specific fish and the bird that will catch it is orchestrated by G-d. We can deduce from here that Providence also extends to everything that happens to any animal, plant and inert matter and of course to every human being. 

Bearing in mind that nothing happens by chance, and that no one dies before his time — provided he or she does not expose him or herself to danger in an irresponsible way, relying on miracles— helps to greatly mitigate anxiety. As the saying goes: pain does not depend on you; suffering (from apparent injustice) does.

So this week’s tool is: take care of what depends on you; let G-d take care of the rest. As my colleague Rabbi Aron Moss says, when you wash your hands these days, remember that you are in good hands.

Based on Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7 Page 63 

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  1. Leviticus, 11:17
  2. Leviticus, 9:1-11:47
  3. Chulin 63a
  4. 36:7
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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