Jonathan Muskat

Last Week I Felt Like the Grinch Who Stole Hashgacha Pratis

Last week, I felt like the grinch who stole “hashgacha pratis.” I teach a Contemporary Machshava course to eleventh grade students. In this course, I address “big questions” of Jewish thought. Recently, we studied the relationship between “hashgacha pratis,” nature and free will. Many of these students have grown up listening to and being inspired by “hashgacha pratis” stories. Many of these students have grown up with the teaching of the Nefesh HaChaim, that there is no such thing as chance or coincidence, that every second God is recreating Creation anew.

I introduced the topic by teaching the position of the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:18), that not all people enjoy equal Divine Providence, that those who are pious and good enjoy more Divine Providence than those who are not and, therefore, many people must work through “teva,” or the natural order of the world. Even the Ramban seems to agree with this general approach. For example, he writes (commentary to Breishit 18:19) that God exercises constant “hashgacha pratis” on Avraham Avinu because he was righteous and the rest of us are often left to fend for ourselves according to “mikrim” or “chance” until our “time of accounting arises.” Does that mean that if we are not a tzadik then those “hashgacha pratis” stories aren’t true? Does that mean that if we are not a tzadik then whatever happens to us is mere coincidence and not a direct result of God’s involvement? I thought that there were no coincidences!

These questions forced me to sharpen my understanding of the relationship between “hashgacha pratis,” nature and free will. Additionally, I was confronted with the fact that “hashgacha pratis” stories resonate less with me than with some of my students and I reflected on how I connect to God in my daily life versus how many of my students connect to God.

First, my belief regarding the “no coincidences in the world” statement is that everything ultimately comes from God, whether it is something that seems to follow the natural order or not. God created the world according to a set of scientific principles and He can choose at any second to destroy the world. In a sense, then, there are no coincidences in the world insofar as everything is created and operates according to God’s will. However, more often than not, it seems as if God runs the world according to a set of scientific rules and we must act in this world according to that assumption (Rabbenu B’Chayei, Bamidbar 13:2). At the same time, according to the Rambam and Ramban, those of us who are on a higher spiritual level may enjoy greater benefit of direct Divine Providence. What that looks like for every person is hard to know because we can never be certain that anything that happens to us in our lives is the result of God’s direct intervention.

That being said, a miracle is a statistical improbability and it is in eye of the beholder. Some of us sense the presence of God intervening in our lives to provide even small miracles for us. These experiences are real and authentic even though they can’t be proven. As such, these “hashgacha pratis” stories can be the source of a deep feeling of God’s presence in our lives which is unfortunately so lacking in much of our community. My only concern with these stories is that we shouldn’t base our faith in God on these stories to such an extent that if we go through challenges in life, we say that obviously God doesn’t love us because we didn’t benefit from His “hashgacha pratis.” We don’t know how God operates in this manner and we shouldn’t draw unfounded conclusions based on the doctrine of “hashgacha pratis.”

For me personally, I try to sense God’s presence not as much through “hashgacha pratis” stories, but through the two methods that the Rambam suggests. The Rambam states that there are two methods through which we fulfill the mitzvah of “ahavat Hashem,” or love of God. The first is through nature (Hilchot Yesodei Ha’Torah 2:2). Every day we recite pesukei d’zimra. In his work on tefilla, Rav Isaiah Wohlgemuth explained the gemara in Shabbat 118b that if we recite Hallel every day, it is considered blasphemy. What this means is that if we only praise God for supernatural or “hashgacha pratis” miracles like the splitting of the sea and bringing forth of water from a rock, then it would seem that we only see God in supernatural miracles. In reality, we should see God in nature, in the hidden daily miracles. He writes, “We can just look around every morning at the great and beautiful universe in which we live, and that should be enough to strengthen our faith.” We fall in love with God and sense His presence through “teva,” through nature. Every time we recite a bracha on a food or drink or a natural event, we attempt to personally connect to God through that event. The Rambam also states that we fulfill the mitzvah of “ahavat Hashem” through studying Torah and observing mitzvot (Sefer Ha’Mitzvot, Mitzvot Asei #3). We fall in love with God and sense His presence through our religious experiences. As Rav Lichtenstein wrote, “Existentially, however, nothing has been more authentic than the encounter with Avinu Malkeinu, the source and ground of all being. Nothing more sustaining, nothing more strengthening, nothing more vivifying.”

I find myself fortunate that I often sense a deep connection with God as I go through my daily life. Many orthodox Jews may check the box and do what is halachically required, but they lack a deep personal connection with God, what Rabbi Lamm refers to as “affective faith.” Rabbi Lamm describes this type of faith as being “personal and emotional, bespeaking a sense of trust, reliance, dependence and hope” in God. Halachic observance without feeling a deep personal connection with God is very difficult to sustain and to transmit to the next generation. How do we develop that deep personal connection? Through “hashgacha pratis” stories? Through seeing God in nature? Through our religious experiences? I am less concerned with the method, as long as the result is a feeling of God’s presence and, to paraphrase Rav Soloveitchik, the gentle pressure of His hand resting on our frail shoulders.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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