Hashgochah Protis (Divine Providence) is probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in Jewish thinking. It is so misunderstood being confused with notions of fatalism and lack of free choice. Properly appreciating this principle is so important that it must become a point of focus in every Jew’s life. The more one is attuned to it, the easier one’s life can be; the less one understands it, the more random, the more complicated and the more confusing life is.

We begin with a moshul (example):

Picture the Mona Lisa; a lady with her hands folded, a smile on her face, mountains in the background and a winding road. By concentrating hard, we can build up as accurate a picture of the Mona Lisa as our memory permits. But that mind-picture depends for its existence on our concentration. If our concentration is broken, the picture disappears. If we sit concentrating intently on the Mona Lisa and the phone rings with someone important on the line, our concentration will break and the Mona Lisa will be gone.

The Baal Shem Tov publicized a concept based on a verse in Tehillim (Psalms) not previously generally well known1. The effect of this explanation was to show that Hashem (G‑d) did not create the world and move away from it (in the sense that, say, a television once made then has an independent life).

The process of creating is continuous and is maintained all the time. If it were to stop, even for an instant, the world would revert to nothingness. This is an absolutely fundamental first principle. Everything physical depends for its existence on being recreated every moment and all the time. From continents and oceans to microbes on pin heads; clouds and wind to the number of hairs on our heads and the direction they point. If the recreating process were to stop for a moment the world would disappear in the same way the painting would disappear the moment concentration ceased.

Why is this such an important principle? Because there is an erroneous consensus of opinion even amongst people who believe in G‑d that He in some way established an evolving machine which runs, and because He is a Great Engineer, no repair is necessary. Some even maintain that the machine runs randomly. So the first principle of Divine Providence is that the process of creation is continuous: it requires Hashem’s effortless concentration, as it were, every split second to continue to bring physicality into existence.

The Baal Shem Tov further extended the concept of Hashgochah Protis to explain that Hashem controls everything every split second as it is being brought into existence. A leaf on the ground being nudged by a breath of wind is not by accident but has a specific reason and also relates to the general intent and purpose of creation. (Later we will discuss the one area Hashem has delegated namely human free choice. We will learn that this free choice is restricted to the area of moral decisions.)

There is a story about two great Rebbes; Reb Zusha of Anapole and his brother, Reb Elimelech of Lizansk. The two brothers decided they would renounce whatever worldly connections they had and undertake a spiritual journey by traveling from place to place in poverty. They came to an inn and, having no money, they prevailed upon the Jewish owner to allow them to stay, sleeping in front of the fire in the main room.

While they slept and in the early hours of the morning, a group of Cossacks opened the inn ordering the owner to bring vodka. They began to sing and then dance and, as they danced, noticed hapless Reb Zusha who was lying closer into the room than Reb Elimelech in the shadows. In delight the Cossacks began to kick Reb Zusha as they danced taking it in turn to enjoy the sport. Between dances, while the Cossacks were refilling their vodka, Reb Elimelech suggested to change positions with his brother so he could take a turn and give his brother rest. Reluctantly Reb Zusha agreed and they changed places.

The Cossacks began to dance again but spied two Jews! In a spirit of justice they resolved to leave alone the first victim and instead kick the “ other ” Jew. This is Hashgochah Protis. It was Reb Zusha’s turn to be kicked. He can move. He can move nearer the fire or further away from the fire. He can change places. No good. If he is to be kicked he will be kicked. The only question is why is he being kicked.

A second fundamental principle is that Hashem is all good and that therefore there can be no bad at all.2 Everything that happens in physical creation has to be ultimately for the good.3 This is a difficult principle which will be much explained later. For the present, it should be understood that things can only be apparently not good. It then follows that when one finds oneself in an environment, whether that environment is physical or emotional or spiritual, and if one understands the concept of Hashgochah Protis, the notion that Hashem controls everything in creation, then the shuddering fact is that one is in that environment, deliberately.