Sunday, February 13, 2011

Divine Providence

Kabbalah assures us that where we are today is exactly where we need to be in order to bring G-d’s universe to completion.  Whatever they are, our current life situations offer opportunities to be partners in the grand scheme of creation.  We have all heard the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”  In Chassidic philosophy this is called hash’ga’cha pratis, which is usually translated at Divine Providence.  Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity - where everything is interrelated and influences all other parts of the cosmic web - is similar to it.  It is the Divine Will as it plays out in seemingly random events.

For example, a Chassidic Rebbe was once walking with his son after a violent storm had passed through their small town.  Everything was in disarray – roofs torn off of houses, trees uprooted, livestock wandering away from their fields, etc.  As they walked, they both looked down and noticed a tiny caterpillar eating a leaf from a fallen tree.  The Rebbe remarked to his son, “This entire storm happened just so that caterpillar could eat that leaf.”

Contemplating hash’ga’cha pratis - which is the belief that everything happens for a reason - is a great antidote for depression and anxiety.  Through our meditation we come to realize that everything happening in our lives comes from a holy source (G-d) and is for our ultimate benefit.  There is a Chassidic story that beautifully illustrates this point.

Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia were brothers and tzadikkim (holy saints).  They would spend their days travelling to far-flung communities in Czarist Russia to bring joy to downtrodden Jews and draw them closer to G-d.  One day, close to nightfall, they came to a certain hamlet.  The sheriff of this town had devised an ingenious scheme to make some extra money.  He would occasionally arrest some hapless Jew on trumped up charges and wait for the community to bail him out.  In this way, he was able to make a nice living.

As soon as Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia came into town they were arrested and thrown into jail.  They had to spend quite a while incarcerated because no one knew who they were and that they had been arrested.  They woke up the next morning in a jail cell crowded with tough-looking criminals.  Not intimidated by their surroundings, they prepared to recite their morning prayers.  Presently however, they noticed that there was an open bucket being used as a toilet in the cell.  Halacha (Jewish law) is quite clear that one cannot pray in a room that contains such filth.  Reb Zushia gazed at the bucket and started to cry because he realized that they would not be able to pray that morning.  It was almost too much for his pure heart to bear.  He looked over at his brother expecting him to also be downcast and miserable, but instead Reb Elimelech had a broad smile on his face and was on the verge of laughing.

Reb Zushia said, “Brother, don’t you realize what’s happening?  Not only are we stuck in this awful place with no one to get us out, but now we can’t even pray!”

Reb Elimelech replied, “I understand perfectly what is going on.”

“Then why do you look so happy?” Reb Zushia pressed.

Reb Elimelech explained.  “It’s like this brother.  Every day of our lives we have gotten up in the morning and prayed to the Holy One Blessed is He.”

“Correct,” Reb Zushia affirmed.

“And why do we do that?”  Reb Elimelech inquired.

“Why do we do that?” Reb Zushia exclaimed incredulously.  “Because that is what our Creator expects from us!”

“Exactly,” Reb Elimelech said, “And in this case we are not praying because that is what G-d expects from us.  Either way we are fulfilling the will of G-d.  In fact, today is actually a great day.  It is a day to celebrate!  This is the very first time we can serve G-d in this particular way.”

A look of dawning comprehension spread across Reb Zushia’s face.  He soon burst out laughing and then even started to sing and dance a lively tune in praise of his Creator’s wisdom.  His brother joined him, and because their singing was so joyful and contagious, the other prisoners started to sing as well.  Pretty soon all the prisoners in the entire jail house were singing and dancing.  The guards came rushing in thinking that a riot was taking place.  They shouted at the prisoners, asking what was going on and demanding to know who started it.  They were told that the two Jews had started it.  The guards stomped over to Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia and shouted, “What’s going on here?  What started this?” 

The brothers simply pointed to the bucket and said, “That started it.”

“Oh yeah?” sneered the guards.  “We’ll take care of that!”  They marched into the cell and took out the bucket.  The brothers were then free to pray.

This nifty resolution of Reb Elimelech and Reb Zushia’s problem only occurred because they reacted joyfully to it.  They were able to react joyfully because they viewed the situation through the lens of hash’ga’cha pratis, recognizing that what they were experiencing was sent by G-d as an opportunity to grow in their service to Him.  This is an example of active faith.  Chassidic philosophy teaches us that we should not just sit back and take whatever garbage comes our way, nor should we become angry and rage at the injustice of life.  Rather, we should view each trial as divinely orchestrated and then respond accordingly.  This allows us to plant and nurture true joy deep in our hearts, keeping depression and anxiety at bay.


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  2. Nachshon, it's probably my favorite chassidic story, one I recently used firsthand to keep my spirits strong.

    Several months ago I attended the graduation of a loved one, taking place on Shabbos. I'd first called a well-known posek in New York who gave me the green light to attend, notwithstanding the event not being in the spirit of Shabbos, provided no actual chillul-Shabbos took place on my part, chas v'shalom, and that I couldn't be in pictures taken by Jews.

    I stayed in the DU neighborhood and attended, all the while highly uncomfortable with the live band, the mixing, witnessing chillul-Shabbos, and more.... not exactly a Shabbos'di'ke environment.

    But then I thought of the story above I'd first heard from Rabbi Engel, and then Mendel Popack, and realized I should be b'simcha, because that's exactly where I was supposed to be! First, I had gotten a heter from a posek to attend, and secondly, well, that's where I was so it must be hashgacha pratis!

    I typically serve Hashem on Shabbos through being in shul, having Shabbos meals with friends singing zemiros, learning Torah, doing Shabbos'di'ke things! But that Shabbos I was serving Hashem through being exactly where I was, even if it hardly seemed to be a Shabbos environment!

    It's so true, realizing where we are is exactly where we are MEANT to be is the tool for simcha!

    Thanks for the great post!