Identifying divine providence or hashgacha, if we’re being honest, is a tricky endeavor. Virtually any event can be attributed to free will just as easily as it can be to divine intervention, and I covered some of these views in one of my shiurim. Not only is our attitude towards events subjective, but even if we assume a “divine plan” it could take many years for this plan to unfold. I once gave a derasha pointing out that even Yosef Hatzaddik was relatively shortsighted in his view of hashgacha. As Yosef assuages his brother’s fears he tells them, “you intended for bad, but God intended for good; to have such a day to sustain a large nation” (Bereishit 50:20). As we know the descent into Egypt plays a much larger role in the Jewish story beyond Yosef’s limited perception. Furthermore, we recently read about the hidden divine role in Megillat Esther, the narrative of which which took place over the course of several years.
On the other hand, observing apparent instances of hashgacha immediately can have a profound effect on our outlook. Case in point, earlier today I had an appointment at 5:00 PM on the Upper West Side. On a normal Wednesday I would need to rush out of the downtown office, and depending on how well the 1 and 2/3 trains synch up, barely make it in time. But today, having more time on my hands than usual, I decided to head down earlier than usual and read outside on one of the benches in the middle of the pedestrian islands on Broadway. As I sat down to open the book1 I noticed an elderly woman physically struggling with a younger person who seemed to be trying to help the older one. The exasperated younger woman explained that elder one had a history of dementia and tried to cross the street against the light to get away from her and asked for help in trying to get her to sit down on the bench.
Initially I just tried to diffuse the situation by talking to the elder woman, and eventually did get her to sit down though she was still very distraught. But as I was sorting out things with her aide, she said three very familiar words: “ata medaber ivrit?” As it turns out she was Israeli, initially from Tel Aviv, and a whole lot more lucid when conversing in Hebrew. Without getting into the details I spoke to her in Hebrew, calmed her down, and despite her claims of being completely fine, convinced her to go with the medics to Mt. Sinai hospital.2
While I have no idea what would have happened if I hadn’t been there, I do realize that had I not been laid off I wouldn’t have been there to help both her and her aide.
And the great thing is that this story of hashgacha is just beginning.
1. In an amusing irony, the book I was reading was The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.
2. She wanted me to come with her, and I might have if I didn’t have the appointment (which I made with one minute to spare…again).