The path of spiritual life does not run smooth. Every human being, even the greatest of the great, has periods of elation and depression, of ups and downs, and this lack of spiritual equilibrium is inherent in the nature of things and is not necessarily a function of the individual's own failings.
At some stage, man reaches a sort of identification with his spiritual achievements, experiencing each and every element in the manner appropriate to his nature in such a way that his spiritual powers find expression in thought, word and deed. However, one should not remain forever at a given stage of spiritual development but most continually progress to ever higher levels.
Now, regardless of whether such progress is purely intellectual or whether it is also emotional, there is between one stage and another a certain decline, even "collapse," because in order to acquire new concepts and insights, the individual is forced to abandon his previous notions and ideas; and if he doesn't do this, he cannot truly reach a new, higher stage of perception and comprehension. What is more, the new concepts cannot be acquired except in a kind of vacuum, in which most known notions are apparently forgotten and in which there is a return to the simplest fundamentals.
Alternatively, a man may gain certain spiritual insights which he absorbs intellectually but which do not generate any emotional enthusiasm and excitement. On the one hand, he cannot hold on to his former notions because they are cancelled out by his new insight. On the other hand, he is not yet able to fully comprehend the profound significance of the new concepts he has acquired. In such a case, we have an intermediate stage between two levels, the lower and the higher, and from the spiritual point of view this signifies a "decline".
The advice which Hassidism offers in such cases is to study the fundamentals of faith, which may not lead to the same exaltation of devotion and enthusiasm as a new insight, but which can still provide the safe and solid base to which to return in time of need. He who has studied and probed the principles of faith and the relationship between man and his Creator, even though he is still likely to meet with many pitfalls along his way, will still not fall so far from his level of achievement that he can no longer raise himself. Even when he cannot feel the necessary love and devotion in his heart – the link between knowledge and feeling – if he has a sound grasp of the basics of faith, he has something to which he can cling fearlessly at all times.
The varying concepts of Divine Providence originate in the different attitudes to God. As these attitudes differ, so too have different views of the nature of Divine Providence emerged – whether this is seen as general or particular, as relating to all of creation, to the human species as a whole or only to the Jewish people with the rest of creation being subject to some sort of general overall Providence.
At first glance, it might seem that the more subtle and exalted the concept of the Divine, so too will the concomitant concept of His Providence be more general. We know that the nature of the Divine is beyond anything that can be imagined or conceived by man and that the gap between human perception and the Divine Mind is inconceivably immense. Thus, if we perceive the Divine only in negative terms, if we are awarew only of the impossibility of describing the Divine in positive terms, how then can we imagine that the Almighty, who is so supremely exalted, will lower Himself to preside over the details of the lives of His creatures, even over the most perfect and worthy among men? Those who are devoted to God deserve His providence, while all other creatures are merely provided for in a general sort of way by a Divine Will which suffers their existence but does not concern Himself with details.
Even though this attitude originates in a deep feeling for, and recognition of, the greatness of the Divine, it is not the Hassidic way. Hassidism maintains that one has to perceive the connection between the Divine and the world in another way and by other means. This attitude comes not because Hassidism has not achieved a high degree of understanding of the infinite distance between the Divine and mankind, but, on the contrary, just because its adherents have studied this issue in depth, to a much greater extent than have other groups.
The philosophical approach essentially defines the Divine as the "Supreme Intellect," the Divine Mind which, as Maimonides says many times, is in no way comparable to the finite, limited human mind. Nevertheless, this concept does contain a measure of definition and limitation. The Maharal of Prague, on the other hand, insisted that the Divine cannot be defined nor confined in any way.
The appellation by the Sages – "The Holy One, Blessed Be He" – designates the Divine in the realm of sanctity, signifying that He is beyond any definition and limitations, while the notion of Divine Providence as Divine Mind is limiting and finite – and thus contrary to the truth. This notion of the Divine contains a kind of morphism, just as does a view of God as being in some way corporeal. In relation to the Divine Nature, the greatest spirituality is in no way superior to the physical or material.
In contrast to the Divine Light, those things which appear to us as pure and exalted are merely petty and finite. With this understanding of the otherness of the Divine supremacy we come not to a negation of His providence at the individual level but, on the contrary, to an increased awareness of the specificity of that Providence. If we see the wonder of the Divine as supreme and all-encompassing, it is possible to assert that it represents contraction and reduction.
However, when we understand that the greatness of God goes beyond these limitations of spirituality and physicality, concepts which are valueless and meaningless in relation to Him, then we cannot speak of Divine Providence as being limited only to the great and exalted, because after all, compared to Him, who is exalted? What difference can we find between the greatest man and the smallest creeping things? In relation to the supernal light we are all equally insignificant. Thus, the Divine Presence extends in the same measure towards the greatest saints who have been devoted to Him all their days and to the lowliest organisms who merely subsist, devoid of all intelligence.
In understanding that God is bout by neither time nor space, we must conclude that Providence is all-embracing, since from His viewpoint, the great and the small, the most sweeping generalization and the most precise detail are all equal – equal in their distance and insignificance in relation to the greatness of the Creator and equal in their closeness as recipients of the all-embracing Divine Love besides which nothing exists.
With a profound understanding of this duality, we can now interpret the verse from the Hallel prayer recited on festivals: "Great above all nations is God and His glory is above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, exalted on high, looking down to see the heavens and the earth." This verse outlines the various attitudes in the workings of Divine Providence in the world. The gentiles maintain "God is above all the nations" – that is, His Divine supremacy is beyond all the worlds, beyond human understanding, and therefore "His glory is above the Heavens," and only there does God reveal Himself in all His splendor, in spiritual concepts, in broad, world-embracing problems – not in the lower worlds of matter, and particularly not in the small and petty affairs of individual men and creatures.
In contradistinction, we find that the original Jewish concept expressed in "Who is like unto thee, O Lord" lays claim to knowing the greatness of His Divine revelation to the Prophets and to those who received the Torah, which is infinitely greater than is supposed by those who perceive His essence only in terms of the human mind. Because the Lord our God is great and infinitely more exalted above the concept of "His glory is above the heavens." Because the greatness of God is not only above the physical world, but also far above all the spiritual worlds, above the most sublime intellectual questioning. For, after all, we say that in the might of His greatness He "looks down to see the heavens and the earth," because in relation to His true greatness, there is a measure of lowering His glance even to regard the heavens. Yet, since God's grace created the world, He cares for, sustains and provides for it has He does "in heaven and on earth."
On this basis, Hassidism recognizes a highly individual Providence acting on each and every creature. God not only "guides the steps of man," but provides for each and every creature in the world, directing it to the goal determined for it in advance.
The Baal Shem Tov expresses this in a famous parable: "If a man stoops to lift a handful of sand and then spills that sand into a pit, he must know that each and every grain will fall in the place assigned to it during the six days of Creation by the Will of the Creator. Whoever does not accepts this is a heretic and an unbeliever."
The Baal Shem Tov ascribes individual Providence to each and every object, even a grain of sand is bound by God's will which determines its place and its role in the world. Thus, any negation of individual Providence regarding the minutiae of life is a negation of Providence as a whole. The recognition of individual Providence bears witness to the greatness of God and to the depth and strength of man's belief in Him. Again, the Baal Shem Tov illustrates this point with a parable: a great storm arises in a forest, breading branches and tearing up the saplings by their roots. Why? In order to bring a single leaf nearer to the mouth of a worm somewhere in that wood. Divine Providence cares for each individual creature, for all its needs and desires, even for those of the lowly worm who, in the perfect plan of Creation, has his place and his task and for whom God's will and grace provide at all times.