God’s Care

We have established that the God spoken of in the Steps is first and foremost a God of Power. But power does not necessarily convey beneficence. God may be strong, but is He good? In the Third Step, where we find the first use of the actual word “God,” we also find the answer to this question. God is not just the epitome of power; He is the essence of goodness as well.

The Third Step enjoins us to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God . . .” The word care is significant. Step Three is a surrender step—in recovery parlance, what is called “turning it over” or “letting go and letting God.” In theory, one could just as well be enjoined to surrender to the power of God or to the authority of God. Were God only all-powerful and not also good, that would still provide amply sufficient cause to submit to Him. Yet, the Third Step adds a vital dimension to the recovering addict’s concept of God. We “turn it over” to God, not just because He is stronger than we are, but also because He will take better care of us than we can.

Jewish tradition discusses the idea that, at least in theory, God could have chosen to relate to us only as a Power. In reality, however, He chooses to relate to His creation from a position of kindness as well. The Midrash says: “At first, God had thought to create the world solely with the attribute of stern judgment. He foresaw, however, that the world would not endure that way, and thus coupled with it the attribute of compassionate mercy.” In other words, if God had created a world in which He were present only as a Higher Power but not as a source of caring, that world would not be able to last. Judaism sees a world in which God is all-powerful but not kind as an impossibility, nothing more than a hypothetical construct that cannot actually exist. In this light, the very existence of the world is, in and of itself, a testimony to the fact that God is not just powerful but also kind.

Knowing and Nurturing

The word care connotes two distinct but equally important meanings. One meaning of the word care is “attentiveness.” To care about something means to pay it mind, to be concerned. It is the opposite of indifference. Another meaning of care is “nurturing.” To care for something means to look after it. Thus, the word care implies both attentiveness and nurturing.

Let’s first speak about God’s attentiveness. When we say that God “pays attention,” we are referring to his omniscience. “Does He that made the ear not hear? Does He that fashioned the eye not see?” (Psalms 94:9). If God is aware of anything, then He is aware of everything. For the Infinite, there is no such thing as having His attention divided, or being preoccupied, overwhelmed or distracted. It is axiomatic that the God who knows His creation knows every detail therein with intimate knowledge.

Maimonides goes as far as to consider this one of the most basic tenets of belief: “God knows the actions of people and does not ignore them. It is not like those who say (Ezekiel 8:12), ‘God has abandoned the earth’” (Principles of Faith). Those who are aware of the historical context of Maimonides’ writings know that this declaration of God’s omniscience was a direct refutation of the popular thinking of the time, which held that God was unconcerned with the affairs of man. This view of a lofty and aloof God was carried down from the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, whose ideas still very much dominate Western attitudes of today. They believed that God’s eternal unchangingness necessitates that He be completely unconcerned by a temporal world that is continuously in a state of flux. In other words, if God is unchanging, then how can He have a conscious relationship with that which is always changing? The Jewish view, in contrast, dismisses this as a nonargument. God’s being Infinite and One does not exist apart from creation; rather, creation exists within Him. As such, God, in knowing Himself, knows His creation. In the words of Maimonides (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah), “All existences besides the Creator—from the highest [spiritual] form to a tiny gnat in the belly of the earth—exist by virtue of His reality. In knowing His own reality, He thus knows everything.”

In layman’s terms: God does not need to be detached from His creation in order to be timeless. When God takes note of what is going on in the world, it’s not like a person who gets caught up in counting the cracks in the ceiling tiles, and is mentally absorbed in something outside of himself. God pays attention to the world because the world exists within Him. He knows Himself thoroughly, and thus knows every aspect of His world.

This belief that God is always paying attention is crucial to recovery. In order to recover, we must be willing to do something that is very scary: we need to step aside from playing God in our own lives, and place ourselves unreservedly in God’s care. Program literature voices this sentiment in no uncertain terms. “Abandon yourself to God as you understand God” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 164). How could a person—particularly one who is so used to trying to control every aspect of life—possibly find peace by surrendering to a God who is indifferent or unknowing? The God who keeps the recovering addict sober, sane and alive must be a God who can be counted on to care. And this care is not relegated to only some aspects of life. If one were to believe that God has limited or selective knowledge of His creation, then one could release to God only those things that one believes are relevant or interesting to Him. (And who could know a thing like that?) But the addict’s recovery is based upon his or her freedom to turn everything over to the care of God, and to do so without reservation.

Surrender that is conditional, incomplete, or later reneged is deemed “taking back one’s will”—a sort of anti–Third Step, or Third Step in reverse, as it were. Whereas the Third Step, taken properly, means a decision to trust that in all matters God does, without a doubt, care.

This brings us to the second meaning of the word care. As mentioned, caring also means “nurturing.” The idea of God as Caregiver is just as central to Judaism as any other conception of God, including that of Creator or King. Indeed, as noted above, a world without God’s compassion and kindness could not exist. Furthermore, God’s goodness is not just a necessary component of creation, but also the underlying and primary impetus for its existence. As Kabbalah explains, God created the world “in order to bestow goodness upon His creations, for it is the nature of the Good to do good.”

It is interesting that Judaism, particularly Kabbalah, uses blatantly feminine terminology to describe God’s role as Nurturer, evoking images of God as a loving mother. The name for God’s immanent presence, shechinah, is unmistakably feminine. It is this name that is used in describing how the divine presence accompanies Her children wherever they go, even into the darkness of exile, as in the Talmud’s statement: “See how beloved are Israel before God, for in every place where they were sent away, the shechinah went with them.”

When viewed in this light, the idea of giving oneself over to “the care of God” is one that evokes feelings of comfort, peace and security—feelings that are pleasant for all people, but essential for the person in recovery.

It is said that addicts have little tolerance for discomfort, hence the intensely felt reflex to self-medicate that can be triggered by the slightest feeling of uneasiness (or by none at all). The remarkable efficacy of spiritual consciousness as a means of recovery may, in large part, be explained by the serenity that it offers, which the addict needs so direly. This serenity is contingent upon a belief in a caring, nurturing God who always does good.

Everything Is Good

Combining what we have learned about God in Steps 2 and 3, we now have a “God of our understanding,” who is—in theological parlance—omnipotent (Power), omniscient (cares about) and omnibenevolent (cares for). Now we are faced with a problem. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then why is there suffering in the world? In other words, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But this is hardly a novel question. Throughout the ages, much ink has been spilled in attempts at resolving this conundrum. Thankfully, we will not rehash any of those arguments here. Philosophers may choose to grapple with this question, but believers seem to take a different, more practical approach to dealing with the existence of pain and suffering in God’s world.

Anyone who knows a good many people with quality, long-term sobriety has certainly noticed a remarkable characteristic that all such people seem to have in common—an almost uncanny equanimity to life’s ups and downs. Even more astounding is how opposite this is from the addict’s nature, which, as we have mentioned, is abnormally irascible, moody and hypersensitive. It seems that the recovering addict no longer searches in vain for an answer to the “why do bad things happen?” question. Indeed, it seems that he or she has come to regard it as quite the nonquestion. The real question is, “Do bad things happen at all?” This is not a word game. This is an expression of humility and faith. Can I really say that something is bad because I don’t like it?

The Baal Shem Tov described this attitude of trust as the constant awareness of God’s presence. The Psalmist says (16:8), “I have set God before me at all times.” The Ba’al Shem Tov relates the Hebrew word for “I have set”—shivviti—to the word shaveh, meaning “equal,” and explains that one who sets God before him is one for whom “no matter what, whether people praise you or shame you . . . it is all ‘equal’ . . . Whether you eat delicacies or other things, it is all ‘equal’ . . . Whatever happens, you say, ‘This too comes from God, and must therefore be all right.’ ” The Baal Shem Tov then adds, “[But] this is a very high level.” In assuming this attitude—that nothing that happens in one’s life can truly be deemed bad—the recovering addict attains a rare level of acceptance and trust, which most men and women seem to be able to live without. The addict, however, in order to live, is forced to utterly abandon the notion that if I don’t like something it can’t be good, and if it’s good, I am sure to like it.

In the Talmud, this sentiment is expressed by Rabbi Akiva’s adage: “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.”

The Talmud relates a story in which Rabbi Akiva’s attitude was put to the test. He was once traveling and came to a walled city, where he sought shelter, but the people of the city refused to let him in. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good,” and went to sleep in a field outside of the city walls. He had been traveling with three items—a donkey, a rooster and a lamp. Soon, a lion came and devoured his donkey. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” A cat came and ate his rooster. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” A wind came and blew out his lamp. Rabbi Akiva said, “All that the Merciful does, He does for the good.” In the morning, he discovered that during the night a band of marauders had come and attacked the city. Had he been allowed to sleep there, he would have met the same dismal fate as the others. Had the marauders heard his donkey bray or his rooster crow, he would have been spotted; certainly, if they had seen his lamp, they would have found him right away. Thus, all of the seemingly unfortunate events that happened that night saved Rabbi Akiva’s life. Indeed, everything that happened was for the good.

The Talmud’s message is that man, with his limited vision, cannot possibly see the true significance of earthly events. He must therefore withhold his subjective evaluation of things, and accept the events of his life with the faith that God knows all, can do all, and is the essence of good.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that nothing happens in this world by chance. Rather, God carefully orchestrates every detail of His creation by means of hashgachah peratit—literally, “individualized supervision,” but more loosely translated as divine providence. “Even when the wind carries a fallen leaf from one place to another,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “that, too, is hashgachah peratit.” No detail of creation is left to chance.

I once heard an alcoholic state emphatically that his “H.P.” was guiding every aspect of his life. I couldn’t figure out how he knew about the concept of hashgachah peratit, let alone the Hebrew term for it. Later, it dawned on me that “H.P.” meant “Higher Power.” Even later, it dawned on me that there really isn’t any difference.

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.