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What is Divine Providence?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

A. Divine Providence is Hashgachah Pratit (pronounced hahsh-GAH-chah PRAH-tit). The universe is a symphony; G-d is its conductor. Every atom, every breath of wind, every grain of sand is tracked and guided by the ultimate supercomputer—G-d. This is Divine Providence—the concept that G-d didn’t create the universe and then step back to let it run by itself, but that He remains actively involved, intentionally pulling levers, pushing buttons and flipping switches behind the scenes.

B. Why does He do that? A classic Chassidic story explains. A Rebbe once saw a leaf fall out of a tree and drift to the ground. He asked the leaf, "Why did you drop out?" The leaf answered, "I don’t know—my branch shook me off." The rebbe asked the branch why he shook, and was referred to the wind. The wind didn’t have an answer as to why he blew at the branch, except that he had been let loose by his angel master. The angel, in turn, told the rebbe he had received orders from G-d Himself to get things windy. So the rebbe posed the question to G-d, and was told: "Pick up the leaf." The rebbe lifted it off the earth… to find a little worm sheltering in the shade the leaf created underneath. Everything—even the falling of a leaf—happens for a reason, and it is up to us and our minds to find or acknowledge the stewardship of G-d behind it all.

Everything:even the falling of a leaf:happens for a reason, and it is up to us and our minds to find or acknowledge the stewardship of G-d behind it all.
C. Why doesn’t He get more involved, or less involved? Well, if G-d got more involved in daily life, He’d have to start performing miracles. And assuming a more dominant, aggressive role in directing the universe’s doings is in direct reverse proportion to our Free Choice: the less G-d is openly involved, the more freedom we have, and the more G-d is openly involved, the less freedom we have. In other words, if G-d were to shoot lightning bolts at bad guys, would we have the free choice to do bad things? Nope. But on the other hand, neither does G-d want to be totally uninvolved. So he doesn’t control people—he controls nature. If, for example, He knows that the place you’re headed for is just not for you, he won’t stop you with a lightning bolt—but He might send you a flat tire. Divine Providence means nothing "just happens"; things happen for a reason, and we need to turn each encounter into a learning experience.

How do I know what is Divine Providence and what isn’t?

1. Divine Providence or Personal Negligence?

If you ignore your alarm clock, get up late and miss the bus to work, that’s not Divine Providence — that’s personal negligence. If, however, you bounce out of bed bright and early, but your boiler is somehow broken and you spend time calling repairmen instead of showering, then dash down the street to the bus stop just in time to see it pull off, G-d’s trying to tell you something. Likewise, if you do something reckless, like home improvement from the top of a ladder, and you fall off and break your leg, don’t go blaming G-d for that one! He didn’t do it—you did it. G-d doesn’t directly intervene in personal decision making—if He stepped with a miracle in every time we did something foolish, there’d be no consequences and we’d never learn our lesson.

If, for example, He knows that the place you're headed for is just not for you, he won't stop you with a lightning bolt; but He might send you a flat tire
2. In Control, Out of Control

Essentially, Hashgachah Pratit works like this: events and things we can’t control are Hashgachah Pratit—the weather, physics, the laws of probability. Events and things we can control are not—discipline, responsibility. If something doesn’t work out, it’s because G-d is telling you it’s better if it didn’t.

3. You Too Can Be an Angel

Ever had a thought that just popped into your head out of nowhere? That’s G-d trying to tell you something. The blockbuster bestseller Small Miracles is full of amazing true tales of Hashgachah Pratis. The classic example is the driver stranded in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Not a soul in sight. Out of the blue comes a taxi. The cabbie pulls over, the driver hops in and says, "Thank G-d you showed up!" With a faraway look on his face, the cabbie responds, "I never come down this way—I just decided to for some reason tonight…" Now that’s Hashgachah Pratis. But does that mean that G-d controlled the cabbie? What happened to his Free Choice? Nothing. It’s still intact. It’s just that G-d inserted the impulse to take a different route in his mind, and he had the Free Choice to act on it or not, which he thankfully did.

The Hebrew word for "angel" is "malach," which literally means "messenger" or "agent." And usually, G-d doesn’t send picturesque angels to get things done for others—He sends us. So the next time you get such "random" thoughts, turn 'em loose into action—you’ll be blown away by the results.

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