A few months ago, I was riding the Amtrak train from New York to Baltimore, sitting by myself, talking on the phone, when someone approached me, trying to hand me something. My first assumption was that this man was a Christian missionary. Who else gives things out to people – especially Jews? I finally looked down at what he had in his hand and saw it was a Chazzanus CD. I assumed maybe this man knew of my father – honestly, I wasn’t really sure. I took the CD and motioned that as soon as I got off the phone I would come over to him.
A few minutes later, I sat down with this man, who introduced himself as Zev Lewis. He was a philanthropist who had just commissioned a Conservative synagogue in New York to create a CD with cantorial music. We chatted for a little while, I told him about our shul, he told me about what he does, and that was it.
About a week later, I received a letter from Zev with a check for $100. So nice! I though to myself. This is not his shul, he goes to a Reform temple in DC, but this man is clearly very thoughtful and classy. So, I sent him a message, thanking him for his generosity.
A month later, I received a letter in the mail, this time with $50 cash, telling me to use it for my family for Chanukah. Now this was over the top. I barely know this man and he’s giving me Chanukah gifts. This time I picked up the phone to thank him. While we were schmoozing, he told me his foundation was about to give some major gifts so I figured I’d tell him about some things happening in our shul that could use sponsorship, hoping that maybe we would receive one of those gifts. I shared a project or two with him and waited to see how he would respond. After a long pause, he said, “I’ll be honest, none of these projects really speak to me or our foundation. However, I really appreciated how you called me to thank me. Not enough people do that. I’ll send you something.”
Two weeks later, I opened a letter from Zev Lewis to find a check for $10,000.
(We subsequently found something that was in line with his foundation and directed the funds to that project.)
Now let me ask you a question – was my being on that train a coincidence or not? If I remember correctly, I was actually supposed to take a different train and changed my ticket last minute. Was the fact that I was on that train two rows behind Mr. Lewis a stroke of luck, pure chance, or was it divinely ordained?
Most people I shared this story with said, “It was bashert!” The Yiddish word for something predestined. Others would say it was a sign of Hashgacha Pratis, which means, Personal Divine Providence. Hashgacha Pratis is the belief that everything that happens to us is divinely orchestrated, that there are no coincidences.
Sometimes we realize it – we receive a check in the mail for $10,000, and sometimes we don’t. But it’s always there. The Ramban, in explaining why we are constantly reviewing the story of the Exodus from Egypt, writes beautifully, how through the open miracles of the ten plagues, we, the Jewish People are supposed to open our eyes to the endless hidden miracles that take place every moment.
This belief in what I would call Extreme Hashgacha Pratis, how every single occurrence in my life is set up by G-d is part of the everyday education of our sons and daughters. They will be bombarded with beautiful stories of apparent mishaps that turn out to be blessings. Stories like people missing planes on 9/11 and the like.
Most recently, a mini-movement has developed, known as Thank You Hashem. It is a movement which promotes this idea – that no matter what happens to us, we need to say, thank you Hashem. You may have seen their bumper-stickers, #TYH, or countless other forms of TYH swag, they even make TYH jewelry. They composed a song, called, you guessed it – Thank You Hashem. The music video is filled with people losing their job or experiencing other mishaps, but learning to nonetheless say, “Thank You Hashem!”
Beautiful! No? What could possibly be wrong with more gratitude and more G-d-awareness?
Let me tell you another story. My wife was once seeing a client. A young woman who was really struggling. It turned out that this young woman was once violated, which she was obviously grappling with. But what she was really grappling with was – why did G-d want this to happen to me? What did I do wrong that I was deserving of this terrible punishment?
You see, if I believe in Extreme Hashgacha Pratis, that every single that happens to us is G-d pulling the strings, then just like G-d wanted me to sit down next to a future friend and donor of Ner Tamid, G-d also wanted this horrific violation to happen to me. I must be a terrible person. I must be scum of the earth. G-d must hate me. Why else would He do this to me?
I could just imagine the Thank You Hashem theme song screeching to a halt.
I remember being very moved by this young woman’s ordeal and her theological dilemma. I penned a little dark poem in response:
#ThankYouHashem for returning my precious soul
#ThankYouHashem for making me so whole
#ThankYouHashem for new opportunities each day
#ThankYouHashem for friends and family You have sent my way
#ThankYouHashem for making me so ill
#ThankYouHashem for depression, anxiety, and pills
#ThankYouHashem for loneliness each night
#ThankYouHashem for abusing me; I’m traumatized for life
There is a dark side to this belief of personalized Divine providence. I imagine that some, if not many of you have experienced this question on some level; why did G-d do this to me? Why is G-d punishing me?
The truth is that many great Jewish philosophers rejected this idea of Extreme Hashgacha Pratis. They argued that of course G-d is able to orchestrate anything, G-d is Omnipotent after all, but He most often does not (this is opposed to a heretical view espoused in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, which claims cannot always act). The ten plagues, in this view, are the exception, not the rule. Yes, there is justice – we will be rewarded for our good deeds, punished for the bad, but for the most part, not in this world. Justice will take place in the next world. And yes, G-d can intervene, that is the premise of prayer – asking G-d to change nature, but for the most part, He does not. He allows nature to run its course.
Within this second view of how G-d manages the world, when something happens to us, good or bad, it’s nature. G-d did not, heaven forbid, want you to be violated. G-d did not want you to be ill. G-d created a world with the capacity for evil, with the capacity for illness, and for the most part, He stands back and allows nature to do its thing, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And again, to emphasize, G-d is cognizant of what is taking place on earth, but the way He set things up is that He does not regularly intervene.
When my wife shared this second approach with her student, her entire sense of self changed. You mean this was not a punishment from G-d? You mean I have every right to be furious at the man who did this to me? You mean G-d does care about me, and like a parent, at times, makes the incredibly decision to stand back? Yes. Yes, and yes.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, a 12th century poet and scholar, in his magnum opus, The Kuzari, presents both views. He demonstrates the pros and cons of each one, there are philosophical and textual challenges to each one of these perspectives, and then he concludes with a pragmatic approach – assume that the big things in life come from G-d and take them to heart. The small things, not so much.
If he’s not willing to weigh in the I certainly will not do so either. I can’t tell you which one is right. I cannot tell you how to live your life – whether everything that happens is from G-d or everything, or most things that happen is a coincidence. I will leave that to you, to think about, to discuss, to debate. A sermon does not give us enough time to discuss this incredibly weighty topic properly.
But I do want to leave you with one definitive belief. Whichever way you land, extreme hashgacha pratis or a more hands-off approach, there is one belief that both these approaches agree on, and that I beg you to believe in as well. It’s a two line passage in a book called Tzidkas HaTzadik. Tzidkas HaTzadik was written in the late 19th century by a man named Rav Tzadok Rabinowitz, otherwise known as Rav Tzadok Hakohein. He was a young prodigy, married into a very wealthy family, and was set to live a life of uninterrupted scholarship for the entirety of his life. Unfortunately, things did not work out so well between him and his wife. He wanted to get divorced. She refused. He was forced to travel around Eastern Europe, penniless, with nothing to his name. He never had children and spent most of his life completely unknown.
In the 154th chapter of Tzidkas HaTzadik he writes, “K’sheim shetzarich adam l’ha’amin b’Hashem Yisborach, Just like a person must believe in Hashem, kach, with the same level of belief, with the same intensity, tzarich l’ha’amin b’atzmo, a person must believe in themselves. Ratzah lomar, meaning to say, sheyeish l’Hashem Yisborach eisek imo, Hashem cares about you… shenafsho mimkor HaChaim, that one’s soul is from the Source of all holiness, v’Hashem Yisborach misaneig umish’ta’sheia bah k’sh’oseh r’tzono, and G-d takes incredible delight when we fulfill His will.”
Whether our life is orchestrated by G-d down to the very detail or whether what is happening to us is simply nature running its course, G-d cares. A lot. About you. About me. About each of us. He is there, watching us, rooting us on, crying when we’re in pain.
Personally, I struggle with the #TYH bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot say thank you, Hashem. My version, based on that teaching of Rav Tzadok, would sound something like this. This is the conclusion of the poem I wrote:
#ThankYouHashem for holding me when I am ill
#ThankYouHashem for understanding me when no else will
#ThankYouHashem for loving me despite my many flaws
#ThankYouHashem for life; with all its gifts and all its loss