The Baal Shem Tov’s Teaching of Divine Providence
Rabbi Sholom Kesselman
In the summer of 1896, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch (the Fifth Chabad Rebbe) and his son Yosef Yitzchak, were strolling in the fields of Balivka. The grain was close to ripening, and the wheat and grass swayed gently in the breeze.
Rabbi Sholom Dovber said to his son, “See G‑dliness! Every movement of every stalk and grass was included in G‑d’s primordial thought of creation and is guided by divine providence toward a G‑dly purpose.”
Walking, they entered the forest. Engrossed in what he had heard, Yosef Yitzchak absentmindedly tore a leaf off a passing tree. He continued his thoughtful pacing, while occasionally tearing small pieces off the leaf and casting them into the wind.
“The Holy Rabbis,” said Rabbi Sholom Dovber to his son, “say that not only is every leaf a creation of G-d and imbued with divine life, not only is every leaf created for a specific purpose within G‑d’s overall plan for creation, but also within each and every leaf there is a spark of a soul that has descended to earth to find its purpose and fulfillment.
“Only this moment we have spoken of divine providence, and unthinkingly you tore off a leaf, played with it in your hands, twisting and squashing and tearing it to pieces, throwing it in all directions.
“How can one be so callous towards a creation of G‑d? This leaf was created by the Almighty towards a specific purpose, and is imbued with a divine life-force.”
This Shabbos, the 18th Elul, marks the birthday of the legendary founder of Chassidus, Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov was renowned not only for his being a saintly and righteous man, famous for his ability to perform miracles and so forth, but even more so for the revolution he brought about in traditional Jewish thinking and philosophy.
One of his most remarkable teachings is his approach to divine providence. His ideas on this have since become mainstream Jewish thinking. Divine providence means G-d’s intervention or control over that which transpires in the universe.
How much does G-d control and deliberately orchestrate, and how much is left to chance or other forces?
Until the Baal Shem Tov, the view of most Jewish scholars including the Rambam, Ramban and Chinuch was that G-d does not intervene and control every detail within the universe. He ensures the continued existence of every species, but not the individual creatures that make it up. As an example, G-d will intervene and exert influence to ensure that a particular type of grass or insect exist, but what happens to a particular leaf or ant is left purely to chance.
Only when it comes to humans, and only those that are deserving of it, does G-d intervene and influence and control what happens to the individual.
The Baal Shem Tov, however, argued for and successfully proved that G-d in fact controls every single detail of the universe. The movements of every blade of grass, ant, speck of dust are all 100% directed and guided by G-d and for a specific purpose. He called this idea hashgachah pratis (individual divine providence).
With this teaching, the Baal Shem Tov completely redefined the nature of the relationship between G-d and the universe. The universe is not some independent functioning reality where G-d has some influence; rather it is entirely a G-dly reality. G-d is within every detail and nothing escapes His immediate and direct involvement.
If this is the case then nothing in the universe can truly oppose G-d or get in the way of our serving Him. Everything has a divine purpose and everything then can only serve to improve and enhance G-dliness and spirituality in the world. It may sometimes seem like there are worldly forces that are working against Torah and Yiddishkeit but that is obviously just an allusion. All is G-d, and G-d is all and when we train ourselves to think this way we begin to see an entirely different universe.
This also leads to a much happier and worry free life. As long as things are left to chance and G-d involvement is limited, there is reason to worry and be concerned. Once though we internalize hashgachah pratis and realize G-d controls everything, there is nothing to fear. We can be happy and content in the knowledge that G-d does everything, and all that He does is for the good.