Chayei Sarah: Does G-d Really Pay Attention?

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What is the Jewish approach to understanding G-d’s involvement in the world? Is He involved in every detail, or is He only interested in the ‘important’ things? The Rambam, the Baal Shem Tov, and the first Chabad Rebbe chime in.

Divine Providence for Fish? Rambam’s Opinion

When a person travels from one place to another, his interest lies only in the points of departure and destination, while the areas he must traverse are secondary to his ultimate goal. However, our Sages teach us (even in the revealed parts of the Torah) that even the journey itself has purpose. When he travels to fulfill a Mitzvah, he is awarded “reward for his footsteps,” and every step creates another positive angel and so on.

This idea is reflected in the Baal Shem Tov’s view of Divine Providence, as opposed to the opinion of Rambam in the Guide to the Perplexed.

Now, it is important to point out a distinction between Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed and the Mishneh Torah on Jewish law. The rulings in Mishneh Torah have been accepted as Jewish law, while certain teachings in the Guide to the Perplexed are not to be interpreted literally, and some even come from the mystical elements of the Torah, where matters are evaluated from a higher prism.

…In regard to our discussion: According to Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed, there are certain creations that do not have a unique purpose of their own, rather, they are created “out of necessity.” For example, worms that emerge from rotten fruit are simply a result of two other creations that were created by design: fresh fruit and rotten fruit.

This guides his view of Divine Providence as well. According to the Rambam, G-d orchestrates the general course of events, but minor details – will a certain fish in the sea be swallowed or not – are not included. The two concepts are tied to each other: not everything is created with a direct purpose, and therefore, not everything in included in Divine Providence.

Providence On Worms? The Baal Shem Tov’s Opinion

However, the Baal Shem Tov taught that every detail in the world is guided by G-d’s hand, even those creatures that seem to be a result of another creation, like worms from rotten fruit. It’s not that there is purpose in fruits rotting, and G-d set in nature that rotting fruit produce worms, so automatically some worms are created. Rather, every single creation of such a worm is directly orchestrated by G-d.

This is not the Baal Shem Tov’s innovation, G-d forbid. It is an ancient Jewish belief with foundations in the Talmud. As we discussed at our previous gathering, the Alter Rebbe was asked about the source for the Baal Shem Tov’s opinion – because Jewish law cannot be based solely on Kabbalistic teachings – and he pointed out the teaching in the Talmud, “When Rabbi Yochanan would see a shalach bird (scooping fish out of the sea), he would say: “Your judgments are (even in) the great deep”, (for you orchestrate the arrival of the shalach to carry out your judgment and retribution, and to kill the fish that are destined to die).” Obviously, the fate of that single fish isn’t coincidental, because judgement and coincidence are a contradiction to each other. 

The Baal Shem Tov’s view of Divine Providence is that it doesn’t change the specific being, whether animal, vegetation or inanimate object. Rather, it supervises from above (to determine whether the fish will be snatched up or not). And this explains his view in the purpose of creation: if there is Divine supervision over every single creation, there is clearly a purpose in its creation as well.

This is one of the only topics – whether all creations have purpose or not – in which the “Genuis of Rogotchover” argues against the opinion of the Rambam. He maintains that even worms which emerge from rotting fruit – which are permitted to be killed on Shabbos – are created with a purpose, and he applies various proofs from the revealed part of Torah as well.

Personal Divine Providence

This serves as a lesson to each of us:

A person might only see value in his prayer and Torah study each morning, or in his charitable donations at the end of the day. He might think that only they have “Divine Providence,” only they have unique purpose, and that he will be rewarded specifically for those deeds [especially if he gives charity happily, because then he is blessed with eleven blessings]. However, all other engagements like engaging in commerce seem to be an unavoidable nuisance; he must engage in commerce in order to give charity, so his business is only a conduit for the real Mitzvah – giving charity.

So the Baal Shem Tov teaches us that there is Divine Providence in every creation, and all the more so, in every element of the life of a human being. Indeed, the ultimate goal is to give charity, pray and study Torah, but all other engagements have purpose as well, for there is Divine Providence at every step and detail. At every moment of the day, “G-d stands above you and inspects your deepest recesses to see whether you serve Him (and not simply serve Him, but serve Him) properly (as stated in Tanya). Thus, even something that is a conduit to a Mitzvah has a unique purpose of its own. 

Second day of Shevuos 5728. (Toras Menachem 5728 vol. 3 pg. 43).

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