A Ripple of Grass in the WindMeans Something to G‑d

At a Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengen,1 the Previous Rebbe once related:

One day in the summer of 5656 (1896), I was strolling with my father in a field in the country resort of Bolivke, near Lubavitch. The crops were almost ripe; the grain and the grass rippled in a gentle breeze.

“Behold G‑dliness,” my father declared. “Every movement of each single ear of grain and blade of grass was included in the Primeval Thought of Adam Kadmon,2 He who watches and gazes until the end of all the generations. Divine providence causes this thought to be realized for the sake of a specific G‑dly intent.”

As we walked on, we found ourselves in a forest. [I continued, proceeding] deep in contemplation of what I had just been told concerning Divine providence, overwhelmed by the gentleness and earnestness of my father’s explanation.

As people often do, I plucked a leaf from a tree that I passed by without taking particular notice and held it for a while in my hand. As I walked on engrossed in thought, every so often, I tore off small pieces from the leaf and tossed them to the ground.

My father then said: “The AriZal teaches that… every leaf… is a created being with Divine vitality which G‑d created with a specific intent and role in the ultimate purpose of creation….

“We were just discussing the subject of Divine providence and without any thought at all you plucked a leaf, held it in your hand, played with it… tore it up into little pieces, and scattered it in various places.

“How can a person act so lightmindedly in relation to one of G‑d’s creations?… One must always remember the mission and Divine intent of every created being: what is the task a plant has to fulfill in the world, and what is the task a person has to fulfill in this world.”

These words so pregnant with feeling, touch on several fundamental themes of our faith: the all-encompassing nature of Divine providence and the unique manner in which man must interact with it. They also reflect the distinct approach of Chassidus , and the revolutionary ideals which the Baal Shem Tov integrated into Jewish thought and life.

Divine Homemaking

G‑d created our world out of absolute nothingness.3 We may have trouble fully understanding this statement, not only because it is intellectually complex, but primarily because it requires us to conceive of a framework of existence outside of our own. When we think of nothingness, we picture empty space, but we forget that space itself and time are creations which did not exist previously. Absolute nothingness, utter non-being, we cannot fathom.

Moreover, not only did our world not exist: there was no reason for it to exist. G‑d did not have to make it. For if He did if some rationale could have compelled Him to bring it into being than He would not be G‑d. For G‑d must be above all possibility of being changed or influenced by external factors.

For this reason, the Alter Rebbe4 explains that G‑d created the world, because He desired to have a dwelling in the lower realms. There is no binding rationale for creation; it is only a desire, and “With regard to a ‘desire,’ you don’t ask why.”5

On one hand, that fact that there is no reason compelling the creation introduces a dimension of utter randomness. There is no need to conform to an existing plan; G‑d can do anything He wants.

Conversely, however, it necessitates that everything which He did create reflect His desire. Every successful homemaker keeps a careful inventory of everything in her home, making sure that everything is in its proper place and functions as desired. Moreover, she makes certain that all the possessions within the home are aligned with the general mission to which the house is directed. Everything should be carefully planned out. Nothing necessary for the home’s functioning should be lacking, nor should there be anything extraneous. There should be nothing in the home that does not serve the intent of that mission.

An ordinary homemaker may not always manage to run her home in this fashion, for she must conform to an external environment which is not of her making (not to mention the concerns of health, finances, and stress to which mortals are subject). Nevertheless, G‑d is not bound by such concerns and can and most assuredly does run His home, our world, in a careful, thought-out manner. His providence controls all the particular events which occur to every created being and every one plays a part in consummating the Divine intent for the creation as a whole.

Choosing a Partner

Since G‑d’s desire is for a dwelling place in the lower worlds, it is preferable that it not be His initiative alone which brings this desire to fruition. His intent should resonate within the creation itself and created beings should take it upon themselves to become G‑d’s partners in creation6 and mold the world to conform with its intended purpose.

This is the function of the Jewish people. Our Sages relate7 that before G‑d created the world, He “consulted with the souls of the righteous.” Before the world came into being, He designated His people as the spiritual force that would achieve His purpose in creation. He chose them, vesting a dimension of His essence in them so that they could carry out His mission.

A person may choose whether to accept this mission or delay his involvement in it. Ultimately, however, this is his raison d’être. For no other purpose does he exist.

Taking Care of One’s Partner

Because of man’s unique role in bringing the creation to its fulfillment, the manner in which Divine providence focuses on man is entirely different from the way it focuses on the other created beings. Indeed, as expressed by The Rambam,8 the traditional approach of Jewish philosophy was that:

Divine providence focuses on the individual only in regard to the human species… What occurs to animals or to plants… is pure coincidence…. In regard to other species, [His] providence governs the species as a whole, but not its individual components.

This approach is clarified more precisely by the author of Shomer Emunim:9

There are three categories of existence in this world which do not receive reward or punishment: Animals, plants, and inanimate objects… They are watched over by angels appointed over… each of the species as a whole. However, no specific providence determines whether a particular ox will live or die…

There is no providence over a particular animal, and how much more so, not over a particular plant or inanimate object. For the intent in their [existence] is merely for the species as a whole… unless this somehow concerns man. [For example,] should a person’s chicken be seized by a hawk, Divine providence does not concern the chicken in its own right, only insomuch as it is the person’s property.

The Baal Shem Tov introduced a more comprehensive approach to Hashgachah Peratis , maintaining that:

G‑d’s providence governs every minute creation… a fallen leaf that has been tossed over and over by the wind… or a bit of straw which someone used when thatching a roof some years ago…. To move them from one place to another… a stormwind breaks out, shaking heaven and earth in the middle of a warm sunny day and brings to fulfillment the Divine providence that governs this small stray leaf and old wisp of straw.10

The movement of a single blade of grass in the depths of a forest, on a stately mountain, or in a deep valley where man has never passed… to its right or to its left… throughout its entire life is determined according to Divine providence.

G‑d, blessed be He, has decreed that a particular blade of grass will live for a specific number of months, days, and hours, and during the duration of this period it will turn and bend… a certain number of times….

Furthermore, the movement of this particular blade of grass affects… the creation in its entirety… [allowing] G‑d’s intent in the creation to come to fulfillment.11

With Strong Roots

Although the Baal Shem Tov’s approach appears to differ radically from that of the Rambam and those who share his approach,12 it is of course firmly rooted in the Tanach and in the Talmud. As we recite in Tehillim:13

He covers the heaven with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, and makes grasses grow upon the mountains. He gives to the cattle their food, and to the young ravens who call to Him.

Similarly, our Sages relate14 that when Rabbi Yochanan would see a shalach (a water-fowl), he would recite the verse,15 “Your judgment is [fulfilled] in the great depths.” Rashi explains, “Even in the depth of the sea, You have brought a shalach … to execute Your judgment upon the fish, to kill those who are intended to die.” In a like vein, the Jerusalem Talmud16 states, “A bird is not snared unless there is a decree from heaven.”

How G‑d Cares for Man

The difference between the Baal Shem Tov’s approach to Hashgachah Peratis and that of traditional Jewish philosophy also extends to the conception of the manner in which Divine providence governs the human realm. In this context, the Rambam writes:17

Divine providence does not rest upon all men equally. The degree of providence extended to an individual will increase in proportion to his superiority in the perfection of his human qualities….

As to the fools who rebel [against Him],… their interests will be loathed and will be controlled by the [natural] order as are those of the animals.

These ideas are echoed and amplified by the Ramban,18 who writes that:

G‑d’s providence in the lower world is to guard the species as a whole [i.e., not as individuals]. Also, it leaves even humans subject to circumstantial occurrences….19 In regard to His pious ones, however, He directs His attention to knowing every one individually, so that His protection does not depart from him.

Thus, both the Rambam and the Ramban appear to be saying that the revelation of Divine providence in an individual’s life comes in direct proportion to the extent that individual cleaves to G‑d in both thought and deed. The author of Shomer Emunim20 develops a similar concept, explaining that particular attention is not granted to all men. In this context, he refers to the principle of hester panim , “the hiding of G‑d’s face,” stating that, at times, “because of a person’s sin, G‑d will abandon him to the natural order and circumstance.”

This concept is implied by the verse in the Torah21 that first uses the image of hester panim: “I will hide My face from them…. Many evils and troubles will befall them. On that day, they will say, ‘It is because my G‑d is not in my midst that all these evils have beset us.’” When a Jew is estranged from G‑d “my G‑d is not in my midst” G‑d estranges Himself from him and allows the “many evils and troubles” to “befall” him.

Leveling the Hierarchy

According to the Rambam, commitment to G‑d’s purpose creates a hierarchy within existence. G‑d’s involvement with a created being and more particularly, with man is dependent upon and proportionate to that being’s or that man’s role in bringing G‑d’s intent in creation to fulfillment. When a man identifies with that purpose, G‑d identifies with Him and manifests His providence over him directly. Otherwise, He leaves Him subject to the random functioning of the natural order.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches a more encompassing perspective. G‑d identifies with every being and every phase in those beings’ existence. There is nothing not even the most minute particular which is apart from Him.22

Nothing Happens By Chance

One should not infer that the Rambam sees existence as separate from G‑d. On the contrary, G‑d’s oneness with the creation is one of the fundamental points of all Jewish philosophy.

Similarly with regard to man, the Rambam’s statements that G‑d may abandon a person to the circumstances of the natural order,23 should not be interpreted as implying that G‑d does not control the events that occur to every person, even those individuals whose human potential remains underdeveloped. Quite the contrary, the Rambam himself writes:24

Should the people fail to cry out [to G‑d when beset by natural difficulties,]… and say, “What has happened to us is merely a natural phenomenon and this difficulty is merely a chance occurrence,”… this time of distress will lead to further distresses.

This is implied by the Torah’s statements:25 “If you remain indifferent (keri) to Me, I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance.” The implication of the verse is: When I bring difficulties upon you so that you shall repent and you say it is mere circumstance (mikreh), I will add to your [punishment] an expression of vengeance for that indifference.26

Thus, the Rambam is clearly stating that man’s fate and all the particular events that occur to him are controlled by G‑d at all times. Nothing which happens to a person, even to an individual whose conduct warrants Divine retribution, happens by chance. And thus a question arises: How can these statements be reconciled with his position stated above, that the interests of “the fools who rebel [against Him]… will be loathed and will be controlled by the [natural] order as are those of animals”?

An Unperceived Hand

This and other similar questions are resolved by the Mitteler Rebbe27 who explains that there are two levels of Divine providence: On one level, man’s fate is controlled by G‑d overtly; i.e., one sees G‑d’s hand working unveiled by the limits of the natural order.

A relationship of this nature between a person and G‑d is dependent on the conscious bond that individual shares with Him. Accordingly, created beings other than humans and human beings who do not choose to develop their connection to G‑d cannot enjoy such a relationship. For them, it appears that there is no direct Divine control of their fate, merely that of the species as a whole.

The second level relates to G‑d’s control of the world within the context of the natural order. Although G‑d controls the particular fate of every element of existence, the manner in which He determines their fate is enclothed within the workings of the natural order; it is not overtly visible.

This interpretation is reflected in the concept of hester panim described above: G‑d “hides His face.” This does not mean that He has ceased to control the fate of man (or of the world at large): it means that the manner in which He controls their fate is hidden.

This enables us to resolve the apparent contradiction between the Rambam’s perspective and that of the Baal Shem Tov. The Rambam is speaking about direct and overt providence. This is indeed dependent on the extent of man’s relationship with G‑d. The Baal Shem Tov, however, is speaking in a larger context, describing the all-encompassing connection G‑d shares with existence as a whole. The fact that His influence is not evident, so that it sometimes appears that the world is operating independently, does not detract from the reality of the bond with Him.

Thus all Torah authorities agree that Divine providence controls everything that happens to any and every created being in the world. The difference between the interpretations concerns only the extent to which that providence is manifest. For those united with G‑d’s wisdom, His providence is manifest and it is apparent and obvious how He controls every element of their lives. For others, the way He controls their fate is dependent on the natural order and it may seem that their lives are controlled by nature. That is, however, only the superficial truth. For even when nature controls the fate of a created being, nature is dependent on G‑d.

More particularly, however, there is a difference of opinion between the approach of the Rambam (and the others who follow the approach of Chakirah, Jewish metaphysics) and the Baal Shem Tov. According to the Rambam, G‑d’s involvement in the particulars of the future of any being other than the righteous is “passive.” He has created the natural order, and He has deemed that the natural order control the fate of these entities. In contrast, according to the Baal Shem Tov every element of existence and every slight change that occurs regarding it depends directly on G‑d’s will and desire.

Caring for His Chosen People

It was explained that the providence which controls the fate of the Jews who do not carry out G‑d’s will is concealed and enclothed in nature, while those who identify with His will receive their influence directly from Him. This, however, reflects merely the outward appearance of the situation. In truth, there is no difference in the quality of the relationship G‑d shares with the different members of our people. For in whatever situation a Jew is found, G‑d Himself controls his fate because he remains an inalienable part of “the people to whom [G‑d] is close.”28 (Likewise, our Sages quote29 G‑d as saying: “Regardless, they are My children.”)

This concept is also reflected in the phrase cited above: “I shall conceal My face.” The Hebrew word panai, “My face,” relates to the word pnimiyus, meaning “inner dimension.” The inner dimension of G‑d’s providence relates to every Jew even when outwardly He turns His face away. Through meditation, a person can gain awareness of this concept. And this recognition causes the unfolding of His providence to become more apparent.

In this, there is a fundamental distinction between the Jews even those who do not identify openly with G‑d’s purpose and the creation as a whole. As Rashi states at the very beginning of his Commentary to the Torah, all of existence was created “for the sake of the Torah and the Jewish people.” They are the mediums who fulfill His desire for a dwelling in the lower worlds. The creation as a whole, by contrast, merely serves to create a setting where this purpose is fulfilled.

G‑d controls every element of existence, because like the enterprising homemaker described above, He structures every particular element of the environment of His home, our world, in accordance with His intent. Nevertheless, with regard to the world at large, His will and desire are focused on those particulars only to the extent that they enable His will to be fulfilled.30 (To refer to the example of the homemaker: she does laundry, not because she likes to or she wants to, but because maintaining the health and cleanliness of her family are priorities for her.)

G‑d’s relationship with the Jewish people operates according to a different impulse. Every Jew, even one who does not outwardly identify with G‑d’s purpose, is the focus of G‑d’s desire and love. Again referring to the analogy, a parent will treat a child who rebels differently than one who identifies with the parent’s principles and goals. But that difference in treatment is itself a reflection of the unique bond the parent and child share and the parent’s desire that his child receive the best upbringing possible.

Similarly, G‑d cares for every Jew with the love parents have for an only son born to them in their old age.31 The manner in which He manifests that love may vary according to the person’s conduct, but the inner motivation is the same in all instances.

An Active Unity

The uniqueness of the Baal Shem Tov’s conception of Divine providence is not merely that it encompasses every aspect of existence, but that it sees all existence as a unified entity with a purpose and appreciates Divine providence as the active force bringing that purpose to fulfillment. As stated above, “the movement of this particular blade of grass affects… the creation in its entirety… [allowing] G‑d’s intent in the creation to come to fulfillment.”

Thus the concept of Divine providence teaches that the bond of unity that G‑d shares with the world is active in nature. Not only is G‑d at one with the world, but there is an inner dynamic working to reveal that oneness. Every element of existence, from an insignificant blade of grass to a conscious human being, plays its role in expressing this oneness.

Man’s Responsibility

When describing the events preceding his imprisonment and liberation in Russia, the Previous Rebbe relates32 that the maamarim which he delivered on Rosh HaShanah of that year mentioned the unique insights into Divine providence contributed by the Baal Shem Tov. Had he not mentioned these points, he continues: “I do not know whether I would have been able to endure to bear and survive the torment of that imprisonment.”

Because of his conception of Divine providence, the Previous Rebbe was able to appreciate that the hardships which he endured were not merely intended for a positive purpose, but that they themselves were an expression of G‑d’s intent. During the most rigorous moments of his imprisonment, he understood that he was fulfilling a purpose conceived by G‑d’s will. This gave him the inner strength to view his warders as “absolute nothingness,” and not to be intimidated by them at all.33

To relate this episode to our individual lives: Every situation in which G‑d has placed us has a single purpose to afford us an opportunity to reveal His oneness. Not only is this part of an ultimate purpose that will unfold in the future, but at every moment, G‑d is causing every particular element of this circumstance to happen for an immediate purpose to be expressed at that moment.

And when a man appreciates this, he will be able to live a happier and more fruitful life. He will not be encumbered by worry and fear, for he will realize that at every moment, his needs are being cared for by G‑d Himself. Moreover, he will be able to focus his energies on the true intent of his existence, aided by the realization that a Guiding Hand is constantly propelling that intent towards fulfillment.

The Consummation of G‑d’s Intent

The above realization is particular relevant at present, because of the unique nature of the times in which we are living. Our Sages teach,34 “the world was created solely for Mashiach.” As mentioned, the purpose of creation as a whole is for G‑d to have a dwelling among mortals, and it is in the Era of the Redemption that this ideal will be realized. In that era, “Your Master will no longer conceal Himself… and your eyes will perceive your Master”;35 i.e., the oneness of G‑d will be openly revealed throughout the totality of existence.

This is the goal to which, whether or not we realize it, Divine providence is directing every element of existence. The leaf fluttering in the wind is turning, because in a direct or indirect manner, its turning will bring the world closer to the Era of Redemption.

As mentioned above, when a human being conceives of G‑d’s intent and establishes a bond with it, it is possible for that intent to blossom forth openly in his life. Thus when a person lives to paraphrase our Sages’ expression36 “all the days of [his] life lehavi, to bring, the era of Mashiach,” he will experience a foretaste of that era at present. And, most importantly, he will hasten the coming of that era in the world at large.

At no point in Jewish history has this message been more pressing than in the present age. For we are at the threshold of the Redemption,37 and are indeed, in the process of crossing that threshold. To borrow an expression from the Previous Rebbe,38 “we have already polished the buttons.” Everything necessary to bring about the Redemption has already been accomplished.39

As the ultimate purpose of G‑d’s providence surges to fulfillment, every individual should actively seek his role in this initiative and should endeavor to bring together all elements of existence in this thrust. This will lead to the ultimate expression of G‑d’s providence, the era when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”40