The Invisibility of Providence — How?
The fact is that Hashem hides His Presence from us. The question of why is an interesting one. Here I would like to look at part of the question of “How?” (I have no current plans for a part II, but I would be surprised if it never happens.)
For example, Rav Dessler asserts the well-known formula like the amount of hishtadlus (personal effort on the physical plane) one must invest is inversely proportional to the amount of bitachon (trust in Hashem’s Providence) one has. If someone has more bitachon, then their needs take care of themselves without much or even any hishtadlus. In the extreme case, R’ Chanina ben Dosa who saw Hashem’s hand in the fact that oil burns had vinager burn for him.
How is this possible? Don’t we have the basic problem of theodicy — tzadiq vera lo, good people often fare worse than evil ones? How can we assert such a formula in the face of so many counterexamples?
Similarly Divine Justice. We assert that Hashem is Just, yet we all enounter stories of two siblings, one becomes an upstanding, observant Jew, and the other not — and it is the ba’alas teshuvah who has the harder life. How?
I was asked this question about bitachon recently by email. Novarodok’s position is that bitachon is experimentally provable — if you have sufficient bitachon, everything will fall into place. As a lesson in this idea, they would put a student on a train without return fair, and the student would see how despite this, if they have bitachon, they would make it back. Things work out. The Alter of Novarodok signed his names with a trailing “ב”ב” for “Ba’al Bitachon” (Master of Trusting in G-d’s Providence). He explained that this is not bravado, but objectively established.
The Chazon Ish rebuts this position. He defines bitachon in a manner with which I am more comfortable. Not that it is trust that Hashem will provide what I want and what I think my needs are. Rather, trust that everything happens according to His Plan, and that plan is in my best interests. Of course, I am very ignorant of what it is that is best for me in the long run, what His plan holds for me, and what pitfalls my life could have hit that He steered me away from. So, I can only trust, not know experimentally.
Second, there is the issue of only looking at one goal at a time. We talk about bitachon, but what if what is in my best interest harms the masses? Or if it would be inherently unjust?
I would like to suggest this metaphor.
Since Newton, science has taught that there is a law: Anything in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Cars don’t suddenly stop when we take our foot off the gas pedal.
Why didn’t anyone notice this law before Newton?
Well, why don’t our cars continue moving forever? There is always an outside force. Wind drag. Friction between the axles and their bearings. Gravity, particularly when we reach a hill. Etc… There are always other factors.
Except for experiments performed in space, where the friction is negligible (and even there it isn’t quite zero), no one has actually seen a pure example of the first half of that rule.
And yet, the basic principle is true — even though we only catch very imperfect glimpses of it.
Hashem’s decisions involving human lives take into account far more factors what goes into determining the speed and momentum of my car. We shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes these other things occlude our ability to see the various components such as our ability to connect to His Providence through bitachon, Divine Justice, helping us reach our goals in life even without our deserving His help, etc… That’s not to say that they aren’t all in play. The fact that none of us (any astronauts reading this essay aside) have ever seen a real example of Newton’s First Law of Motion doesn’t shake our trust in its being true. We can see how it plays a role in the fuller picture. So too, the providence provided through bitachon.
Larry Lennhoff replied to the first part of this post:
So how does the second solution support hishtadlus? Is Hashem’s master plan influenced by the amount of effort I exert? If so, is it influenced positively or negatively.
As a practical matter, I prefer the solution of ‘pray to Hashem but row away from the rocks’. But I think a simple ‘everything that happens, happens for the best’ philosophy is incomplete unless it includes an element where people’s own efforts have an impact.
I started writing the following in the comments field, but as it grew, I decided to reply here.
Your question about hishtadlus and Hashem’s plan is that of free will vs providence. It’s unresolvable; at least in any complete way. My point was that we can get glimpses of solution, and there are vectors we can understand within the whole. Being able to only see partial manifestations doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Just as the fact that my car eventually rolls to a halt doesn’t deny Newtonian physics. It means that each pattern I see can only be understood as one factor that goes into the (so to speak) Decision.
Hashem gave us free will. That means that His plan must include a path from every possible set of decisions we make to the messianic era and the World to Come. Not a single path from Adam until the end of time; then there would be no room for human decisions.
It also means that many people don’t live up to the role they could have ideally had. History has an equilibrium state but an individual’s final outcome is up to them.
I suggested in earlier posts that the role of halakhah defining aveiros is to forewarn us away from self-inflicted pain. Punishments are not defined by the aveiros, but the aveiros are those acts which will cause pain. Just as parents prohibit a toddler from touching a stove. The punishment is the cause of the prohibition.
Hishtadlus can thus negatively impact the plan. Not prevent the goal ch”v, but complicate and delay it. However, there is a guaranteed end-state, and thus being an impediment is standing in the flow of traffic.
In my “Four Sons” essay, I attributed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s sentiment to the wise son:
R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (”the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halakhah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”
Anything I write in this Theodicy category of this blog should be taken in that light. One person’s grappling with the question, engaging my Creator in a relationship. Not a complete solution.