What Does God Have to Do with My Parking Space?
The impact of monotheism on our daily lives.
Does God have anything to do with your finding a parking space? A job? An apartment? A spouse? And if you find any of these, does God have anything to do with your parked car getting scratched, your new boss having a temper, your apartment spouting a leak, or your spouse overspending or scrimping?
Are there domains ruled by God, such as tornadoes and earthquakes, and other domains, such as our daily lives, where God holds no sway?
Judaism propounds an idea that is as radical today as it was millennia ago: that there is one and only one operative force in the universe and that is God. In ancient times, that meant that instead of various deities of the sea, land, winds, etc., each with its own domain, there was only one God who ruled every place and everything. In our times, Jewish monotheism means that there is one ultimate power that directs and controls all that happens everywhere.
From a Jewish perspective, believing that the ultimate cause of losing your job is economic forces is as spurious as believing that the cause of thunder storms is Zeus.
The very job description of God is that God is the one who is in complete control, who runs the universe, from the nuclear fusion inside stars to your finding a parking space. The Bible tells us not to believe in “Elohim aherim.” The phrase is usually translated as “other gods” but it actually means “other forces.” From a Jewish point of view, believing that the ultimate cause of your losing your job is economic forces is as spurious as believing that the cause of thunder storms is Zeus. There is only one ultimate power behind everything, and that is God.
And God’s domain is not limited to cosmic processes. God is involved in the nitty-gritty. Indeed, this is how God introduced Himself to the entire Israelite nation at Mt. Sinai. The first of the Ten Commandments is: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Classical Jewish commentators point out that instead of introducing Himself, “I am the creator of the entire universe,” a more impressive moniker to be sure, God chose to introduce Himself as the one who intervenes in human history—for our benefit.
This is an old theological debate: Having created the world, does God leave it to run on its own?
The God of Judaism intervenes in history, both in the macrocosm and the microcosm.
Judaism is a radical rejection of that idea. The God of Judaism intervenes in history, both in the macrocosm and the microcosm. God communicates with human beings, directly through prophecy during the Biblical era, and indirectly through what happens in our lives since then. Your getting caught in a traffic jam and missing your flight is a Divine communiqué; it’s up to you to decipher the message.
Acts of God and Acts of Man
It’s easier to see what are customarily called “Acts of God”—such as hurricanes and earthquakes—as, well, acts of God. Either you believe in randomness—that things “just happen”—or you believe in some precise causal force. You could identify that force as “Nature.” (As a child, did you ever wonder who exactly “Mother Nature” is?) Or you could identify it as God.
If you believe in God as presented by Jewish sources, you recognize Divine control over not only whether a volcano will erupt, but whether your Wi-fi will go down; over not only whether it will rain today but whether you will give birth to a healthy baby. Judaism calls this Divine supervision, hashgacha in Hebrew. There is both general providence that directs whole populations, and individual providence that directs the minutia of the lives of individuals.
God created the world in order to have a relationship with human beings. Therefore, God is both involved in our lives and intervenes for our spiritual benefit, guiding the events of our lives in a way that will lead to our ultimate spiritual rectification. Illness, financial loss, or unemployment, albeit painful, may be the catalyst for rectification, which is the true purpose of human life. The bedrock of Judaism is that God is both involved and beneficent.
Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, God assesses the spiritual state of every human being and decrees what each person needs for their rectification. We tend to learn more from our difficult circumstances and tests than from days sunbathing on the beach. So Divine decrees are apt to include all manner of rigorous challenges, because this life is the “basic training” meant to turn us into the best human beings we can be.
But what if you are the victim of a human agent—the spouse who derides you, the co-worker who sabotages you, the neighbor who yells at you, the date who lies to you? Judaism insists that human beings have free will and are accountable for their actions. The irascible spouse, the plotting co-worker, the volatile neighbor, and the dishonest date are all responsible for their choices and will be held liable in a spiritual accounting system that is meticulous in its precision.
But where is God in these situations?
Free Will and Divine Control
Volumes have been written by Jewish sages over the last 1500 years on the question of how Divine control interacts with human free choice. Is everything that happens to you the result of Divine decree, or can someone harm you (or help you) despite the decree you received on Rosh Hashana?
One position is that only God’s decree determines what happens to you, although other human beings have free choice whether they will be the agent of that decree. For example, if God determined on Rosh Hashanah that Jamie’s inflated ego needs to be rectified by being humiliated, that act of humiliation may come through a scolding by Jamie’s boss in front of the whole office staff.
But if Jamie’s boss decides not to do that (good choice!), the humiliation may come through an in-law, a neighbor, or a spouse. As the sages say, “God has many bears and lions.” The person who humiliated Jamie (a serious moral lapse according to the Torah) is accountable for his/her action. But Jamie’s suffering was determined by God. And if Jamie uses the experience for self-rectification rather than anger or taking revenge (also a transgression of the Torah), then the trial will have served the Divine purpose.
All agree that human beings have free will and nothing happens without God’s permission.
Other sources maintain that human choice can affect another person regardless of Divine decree. A criminal on a dark street late at night can choose to rob a passerby even if the passerby had no decree for financial loss. Then it is a matter of, in the face of a miscreant’s choice, whether God will intervene to protect the victim. This is a complicated theological question, involving how much merit the victim has, the degree of danger to which the victim exposed him/herself, and other factors. Sometimes, although God did not decree it, God permits it.
But all agree that, whether the source of the suffering is Divine decree or human choice, human beings have free will and nothing happens without God’s permission.
God in Your Marriage
God’s control is often hardest to see in the testing ground called marriage. Most marriages degenerate sometimes or often into rounds of blaming and complaining. Yet, all the frustrations, disappointments, and irritations in our marriages come from Divine decree or at least Divine permission, in order to challenge us to react in a way that will cause us to become our best selves. That does not remove the onus of responsibility from the errant spouse. (Nor is it an invitation for abuse. The misbehaving spouse is always accountable for his/her bad choices.)
But as important as what your spouse did, which you cannot control, is your own reaction. If you react with blame or criticism in a futile effort to rectify your spouse (spouses do not change even by years of blame or criticism), you will have relinquished the opportunity to affect the only person you can change: yourself. Focusing on your own choices does not excuse your spouse’s wrong behavior. But it does empower you to act in the only sphere that is in your control: exercising your free will to fulfill your life’s purpose of spiritual growth and character development.
If you understand that marital challenges, like everything in your life, are a message from God offering a path for self-reflection (not guilt!) and self-improvement, then you will have scored a win/win/win victory. You will have strengthened your relationship with your spouse, with God, and with your own higher self.
And, yes, I always pray for a parking space. And I thank God when I get one.
Sara Yoheved Rigler gives a weekly marriage webinar for women, the Kesher Wife Workshop, based on spiritual principles and tools that have helped hundreds of wives.
Featured Image: Unsplash.com, Alevision.co