“My friends claim that I got into religion because it makes me feel safe,” Danna commented.

It was Shabbat afternoon, and Danna, Beth and I were lounging on the sofa.

“I get that a lot too, ever since I started keeping Shabbat,” Beth interjected. “I honestly don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s true, maybe religion is my escape.”

We sat quietly for a moment. The question weighed down our buoyant dialogue.

Isn’t religion just another way to feel safe?

“I agree with your friends,” I finally said. “Belief in G‑d should make us feel safe. But that’s not why we believe. We believe in G‑d because it makes sense. If there is a world, there must be a creator. Our brilliantly designed universe has G‑d’s signature written all over it.

“Even the authenticity of the Torah is logical. The Torah claims that three million people experienced the miracles and revelation at Mt. Sinai. Who would construe such a risky lie? For a people that constitutes less than one percent of mankind, our Torah should be an obscure account. But quite the contrary—our Torah is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. We believe in G‑d’s Torah because it’s true. If it also happens to make us feel safe—that’s a bonus!”

I wish that I felt safe all of the time. Observing the Torah’s laws doesn’t automatically make people feel safe; it doesn’t transport them into a world of serenity. If only it were that easy! Instead, faith in G‑d is like a muscle that needs constant exercise. It takes conscious meditation on G‑d to push back against stress and fear. Faith pulls everything together into a purposeful mosaic, while skepticism wonders if there is any purpose at all.

Some of the most religious Jews out there don’t feel particularly peaceful at all.

If there was one Jewish leader who challenged the notion that you can be ultra-religious and still ultra-uptight, it was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. He told practically anyone who would listen to him that the basis of our observant practice is the belief that G‑d desperately loves us and cares about the goings-on in our lives. The mitzvahs are our way of connecting back to G‑d. That’s how we love Him back.

The Baal Shem Tov was not without critics. (Can a Jewish leader ever be without critics?) Many people, even other respected leaders, felt that he’d gone too far by assuming that G‑d was so intimately involved in the life of every creature.

The Baal Shem Tov was not without critics

But the Baal Shem Tov insisted that G‑d cares, that He animates every creation at every moment, that He purposefully micromanages every detail of the universe. The Baal Shem Tov taught about divine providence from mystical Kabbalistic writings and from Talmudic stories. He even claimed that the Torah itself was full of references to G‑d’s concern for our everyday affairs.

There was another scholar, a Talmudic sage, who also saw G‑d’s love for humanity in the most simple verses of the the Torah. His name was Rabbi Yochanan. He inferred G‑d’s deep concern for us from the most unlikely of places—the Torah’s list of non-kosher birds: “And among birds, you shall hold these in abomination; they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle [or the griffin vulture], the kite, the osprey . . . the owl, the cormorant, the little owl . . .”1

After studying this verse, Rabbi Yochanan was inspired by the cormorant. Whenever he’d see a cormorant, he would spontaneously praise G‑d for providing every creature with his needs.2 Why did the cormorant so deeply inspire him?

The Torah calls the cormorant a shalach. According to the Midrash, the word “shalach” is derived from the word “sholeh,” which means “draws up.” The cormorant is a fish-eater—it catches its prey by diving from the surface, drawing out the fish that G‑d has preordained to die that day.

Rabbi Yochanan was so taken with the shalach and its meaning that whenever he noticed a cormorant, he marvelled, “G‑d, your judgment reaches the depth of the sea. Even the deaths of fish are predetermined by G‑d.”

If G‑d controls the life of each fish, then it’s obvious that G‑d manages the events in our lives.

Which sounds nice, but how does it jibe with the fact that a variety of factors contribute to our circumstances? What about society, politics, the economy—don’t those factors play a huge role in our lives? What about our own choices that we make?

What about society, politics, the economy?

That was precisely why Rabbi Yochanan would marvel at a the cormorant. The cormorant reaches its beak beneath the water’s surface as schools of fish swim by. The cormorant eats some but not others, and that is the story of our lives.

Life beneath the sea represents the complex labyrinth of systems that govern our lives. “Why did I get a flat tire? It was punctured by a nail on the road.” “Why did I get the job? Demand exceeded supply and I’m qualified.” But if we could view our lives from the inside out, we’d see that every experience was custom-made for us. G‑d humbly couched His master plan in a natural chain of events. “Yes, I met my Sally as a freshman, we both ended up in Calculus.” Ha! If only you knew how G‑d enticed both of you to go to that college, and how He put you in the same class just so that you’d meet each other.

G‑d’s hand is “drowned,” so to speak, underneath the sea of nature. In fact, the Hebrew word for nature is “teva,” which is very similar to the word “tubu,” “drowned.” Nature intentionally drowns out our ability to recognize the hand of G‑d as the cause of every single event in our lives. That facade allows us free choice.

Every time we recognize the hand of G‑d directing the natural course of events, we mimic the cormorant. We “draw the fish out of the water,” or expose G‑d’s plan from within the natural circumstance. The mere recognition of divine providence in our lives is an accomplishment.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that pessimism and stress is indicative of a lack of belief, no matter how religious one may be. If G‑d’s in control then He’s got your back and everything that happens is an importantThe soul is optimistic and self-confident part of your journey. The soul is optimistic and self-confident, and sees right through other factors that obscure G‑d’s control.

When Moshiach comes, it’ll be clear as day that every event in our lives, life-changing or mundane, was set into place by G‑d for us, with very specific intent and a lot of love.3