"HP" stands for Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence)
Recent events in earthquake-devastated Haiti have made me wonder a lot about the religious concept of hashgachah pratit, or hasgacha pratis, as Ashkenazic-accented Hebrew speaking Orthodox Jews like to say. Very religious Jews believe unquestioningly in Divine Providence, the idea that God is involved in every aspect of the daily life of every person on earth. And not only the lives of people, but also what happens to animals and in nature. “God appoints an angel and tells it to cause a blade of grass to grow. Only then does that tiny blade flourish,” we are told in a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah (10:7). It’s such a big thing that there’s even a website called hasgachapratis.com and a Hasgacha Pratis Facebook page , each being a means for internet users to share their personal accounts of Divine Providence.
Dan Woolley and his wife Christina at the hospital in Florida
Of course, the concept of Divine Providence is not exclusive to Jews, with many devout people from different faiths believing in it, as well. This is exactly what got Dan and Christina Woolley, a religious Christian couple, through a very trying ordeal this past week. As Dan lay injured and trapped in the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he maintained his faith in God. “I wanted to survive, but I knew that was something that I couldn’t control,” he said in an interview with Meredith Viera on NBC’s Today Show after being rescued and brought to Florida for medical treatment. Dan’s wife, Christina, also called on her strong faith in God’s omnipresence as she sat for days not knowing her husband’s fate. She was sure that “wherever Dan was, God was holding Dan in the palm of his hand. I just didn’t know if that was in Haiti or in heaven. I was begging God that Dan would still be in Haiti.”
While he was trapped, Woolley, a father of two young sons waiting for him at home in Colorado, wrote notes to them in case he did not make it out alive. He wanted his boys to know, that “I was in a big accident. Don’t be upset at God. He always provides for his children, even in hard times. I’m still praying that God will get me out, but He may not. But He will always take care of you.” In essence, he was conveying to his sons a similar message as can be found in the Midrash Rabbah (39:1), which relates the following parable: “A person traveling down an unfamiliar road noticed a magnificent palace in flames. He looked around, expecting to see the owner running with buckets of water to extinguish the fire. The palace appeared abandoned, however, and he wondered aloud, ‘Is it possible that a palace like this has no owner?’ At that moment the owner of the palace looked out and declared, ‘I am the owner of the palace.'” In other words, the world may be in bad shape and life and property can be lost, but not to worry because God is in control.
Dan Woolley's bloodstained notes to his sons, written as he was injured and trapped in the rubble
I, as someone who struggles with the existence of God and who finds myself a believer one day, an agnostic the next, and an atheist yet another, have always had a hard time wrapping my head around hashgachah pratit. If there is a God, then I doubt that He/She would be inclined toward delving into the minutest mundanities of my life, or anyone else’s. I believe that God’s presence resides in and makes itself apparent through the ever increasing knowledge, capabilities and kind acts of human beings. This, together, with luck and a lack thereof, governs our world and fate.
Dan Woolley, a filmmaker, was fortunate to have had his digital camera around his neck and his iPhone in his pocket when the earthquake struck and the walls came down on him. Somehow, he had the presence of mind to flash the light from his camera in various directions and snap images to help him figure out what was around him and whether there was a safer area in which to try to shelter himself. He also used a first aid app on his iPhone to learn how to take care of his badly broken and bleeding leg and head wound until help arrived. Wolley followed the app’s instructions to set the alarm on the phone to go off every twenty minutes for 65 hours so he would not lose consciousness and go into irreversible shock.
One of many first aid iPhone apps available
There are different ways to interpret Woolley’s survival and rescue. Maybe faith was involved. Perhaps it was luck and timing. It could have been hashgachah pratit. The way I see it, Dan Woolley survived in part because God was in his iPhone. It could be that the parable about the burning palace is meant to be understood differently. God’s not being immediately apparent could be taken as His/Her wanting people to use what God has given them (the engineering knowledge to produce an iPhone, for instance) to take the lead in repairing the world and putting out the flames, both manmade and natural, that are imperiling Creation.
I have to admit, though, that my theory about Divine Providence and my preferred understanding of the parable of the burning palace were tested only hours after learning of Dan Woolley’s rescue, when I read in the Wall Street Journal about the survival of an 8-day old newborn girl (now 15- days old) who was pulled from the rubble unharmed a week after the earthquake. Her crib fell from the second floor of her house, but it was not crushed, and the tiny baby managed to survive without water or nourishment for seven days – half her life. Despite my usual doubts and questioning, it would seem that, at least in this case – where there are no mitigating factors nor iPhone apps involved – hashgachah pratit is alive and well.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.