An Amazing Story of Genetics & Hashgacha Pratis

A Brief Explanation Of Genetics

Genetics are a sensitive subject, made touchier by some general confusion on the subject. When something is wrong with a child, on top of all the serious fear and confusion, the idea of people attributing it to ‘genetics’ and ‘family problems’ (their mistaken idea of genetics) adds an entire element of shame and fear. I’d like to share an amazing story that happened during one of Temima’s genetics appointment, but I’m going to preface it with a quick explanation of what genetic does and does not mean.

Your genes contain all the information about you. The color of your hair, its texture and fullness; your bone structure and muscle mass; your height–these are all examples of genetic information. Much of this information may be hereditary, passed down in your family, but not all of it. For example, if you were born with a big bump on your nose, people might always be remarking, “Welp, you’ve definitely got Great-Aunt Shprintzy’s nose!” or they may be wondering, “Where DID you get that nose from! You must have been switched at birth!”  The heredity side of genetic (recessive/dominant traits) is what decides that information, and your genes are where its recorded. Regardless of whether you get a physical trait from your family or not, all the information is written and recorded on your genes.

Some of the challenges that families face are not hereditary and have nothing to do with the genes in particular family, but rather are about a change that came about in one particular child’s genes. These are genetic, because the information is contained on the genes, but not hereditary. Other challenges are inherited, and do run in families. (Many of those are screened by organizations like Dor Yeshorim.) When people start to whisper (or ask you straight out) about your child’s condition being genetic, they are usually combining and confusing these two categories.

Moving on though, what if the bump on your nose is a result from, say an over-zealous attempt to reach the last piece of chocolate cake before your sibling? Clearly that bump has nothing to do with genetics – your genes gave you a perfectly good nose, and you went ahead and broke it, causing this bump! That’s something that happened after your genes were fully formed and is not written on your genes.

Hearing loss can be caused by any of these three categories. It can be from an inherited gene, called Conexxin 26. If this is the cause of the hearing loss, it is highly likely that many of the immediate and extended family members are deaf as well. We knew that this would not be the case for Temima. My husband’s family and my family are both from the same city in Shiraz, and have peripherally known each other for many generations, and no one remembers anyone with any kind of hearing loss.

That leaves two possibilities: a new change in a gene that caused her hearing-loss, which would make it genetic because the information would be contained on her genes (but not hereditary), or an outside factor, such as a virus or infection, that she was exposed to before or right after she was born.

There are tens of thousands of genes that contain all the information of our bodies. Scientists only know about a few hundred of these genes. There are 40-some syndromes and conditions that include hearing loss (including the hereditary Connexin 26). Temima was tested for all of these, and had conclusively negative results–that means that we are sure she has none of these syndromes or conditions. The assumption, then, is that her hearing loss is not genetic at all, and just as a result of something she was exposed to during pregnancy. (The other possibility, is that it may be the result of some gene that science doesn’t know about yet (genetic but not hereditary).

Now, you might be wondering why we bothered to do genetic testing at all. Again, we went in fairly positive that Temima’s condition was not hereditary (i.e., it doesn’t run in our family). The short answer is that Temima was small and frail and we wanted to make sure that there was no underlying issue that could be contributing to that. Baruch Hashem, everything was negative (no other issues were found), and Temima has grown beautifully in the years since.

Finally, before I can start the story, I must explain what goes on at a genetics appointment. Any parent who’s had a child born with medical issues that I’ve spoken to recalls with a broken heart and horror “the loose-leaf”. Geneticists will typically have a nightmare-inducing loose-leaf full of pictures and descriptions of worst case scenarios and possibilities that they discuss with the parents at great length. After telling the patient about all the many possibilities, each one harder and harsher than the next, they send you for blood work that often takes weeks to get back. I’m sure there are science-y lab reasons why this is so, but the result is that the parents end up reliving, googling, and despairing over every possibility until the results come back from the lab. B’H, in Temima’s case all of these illnesses were completely ruled out, but the brutal days of those initial genetics appointments remain among the darkest days of my life. As I try to put the absolute devastation and heartbreak into words here, I find that I can’t and will just say: To those who have never been there, may Hashem guard you from that pain; and to those who are there now, may you be comforted and strengthened by Hashem.

Temima’s Story

And now to our story–an amazing tale of Hashgacha Pratis, (Divine Providence). This story took place when Temima was around 2 years old (she’s three and a half now). It was a short Friday and our schedule was packed. We were headed into Manhattan for a follow-up genetics appointment at 8, followed by our standing bi-weekly speech session on the other side of Manhattan at 10 sharp. I don’t drive to the city; I find that between traffic, exorbitant parking fees, and navigating streets I don’t know, it’s worth my while to take a car service (a cab, for the out-of-towners).

I’m the type that hates being late, and for the entire week before the appointment I was worried how I would swing it. I didn’t Uber at this point but instead relied on a few different car services that I could call. I was very anxious about the appointment, and a lot of that anxiety came out as straight up panic of how I would leave my house at 6:20 latest to make it to the 8 o’clock on time, and how I would get a car service fast enough to make it to the 10 o’clock appointment as well.

As I went into the hospital building that morning, I took the wrong elevator and ended up on the 7th floor in the South building instead of the North building. Deciding against taking the elevator back down, I began to walk across the 7th floor, across the hallway that bridged the North and South buildings. Sadly, it appeared that the floor was full of different pediatric specialists for children with life threatening illnesses. As I pushed the stroller past each office, and read the description on the door of the treatments offered within, I murmured a small prayer of thanks that this was not our destination. I considered that perhaps Hashem had guided me along this path to learn a lesson of gratitude. Little did I know that a bigger lesson was forthcoming.…

Before we continue our story, let’s examine what Hashgacha Pratis really means. We are currently in the fourth week of the Omer, which corresponds to Netzach, making this an ideal time to learn about it. Let’s begin…

Hashgacha Pratis

R’ Aryeh Kaplan, gives a great explanation of how Hashgacha Pratis works, using an example that predates the invention (or at least widespread use of) GPS technology: Imagine the bridge that passes between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Imagine there are sensors that are able to discern when the traffic is dangerously congested on the bridge, and are able to block access to the bridge at those times. Now, imagine you are on your way home from work and along with many other travelers, you’re forced to take alternative, lengthier roads home. At the time, it seems like a horrible inconvenience, but only because you don’t see or know the full picture and don’t realize how much longer it would take to sit in traffic at the bridge. This is Hashgacha Pratis.

R’ Aryeh continues and gives another driving mashal, again referencing technology that wasn’t widely known at his time: Imagine there were cameras that were able to detect when cars were driving too fast, and were able to alert the local police so that you could be apprehended and stopped. You may think that the incident and the resulting fine were bad events and perhaps even Divine punishment, but you would not realize or comprehend what tragedy you were saved from by the police intervention. This, says R’ Aryeh, is Hashgacha Pratis.

The word “Providence” (as in Divine Providence, the usual English translation for Hashgacha Pratis) is sourced from Latin. ‘Veeder’ means to see, and “pro” means before. The root of this word therefore lies in the fact that Hashem knows what will be and guides us in ways that we, not being all-knowingly Divine, cannot grasp.

In every person’s life, there are instances of miraculous proportion– ‘coincidences’, where events fall into place, opening doors of opportunity and pathways of health and success. It is abundantly clear, when we look with the benefit of hindsight, that the events in our lives are being guided, or orchestrated, by the Divine. This is Hashgacha Pratis.

We mentioned earlier that we are now in the time period of the Sefira of Netzach. Let’s briefly explain what the sefiros are.

The Sefiros

In Kabbalah, the study of the hidden levels of Torah, there are ten Divine aspects, called the sefiros. It is important to clarify that Hashem’s oneness is absolute, but is completely above the grasp of the human mind. These sefiros serve as a way for Hashem’s light to shine in our world, in a translated way so that we can learn to be like Hashem, and thereby be closer to Him. In fact, these so-called bridges to the Divine are also referred to as the middos Hashem uses in dealing with our world.

In Kabbalah, the sefiros correspond to many things. Notably, the 7 “lower” sefiros correspond to the 7 weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer. (In fact, the connection goes deeper, as each day within each week corresponds also to a sefira. For example: the first sefira is Chessed and the second is Gevura. Thus, the first week of Sefiras Ha’omer is the week of Chessed, and the first day is Chessed She’b’Chessed, and the second day is Gevurah She’b’Chessed, and so on. See the list of sources in the first comment for two great books on this subject with daily lessons.)

This week enters us into the fourth week of Sefiras Ha’omer. The sefira of this week (starting on the seventh day of Iyar) is Netzach. Let’s explore this sefira and the message of Hashgacha Pratis it brings us.

Netzach

Netzach has a few different literal meanings: it can mean eternity, it can mean a conductor, and it can mean victory. The message here is a message of The Eternal One that endures for eternity and controls, or orchestrates, all.

Netzach is the sefira that allows us to see Hashem’s Hashgacha Pratis in our lives, even when His hand is hidden and not clear. It is interesting to note that while middos are divided into two categories, din and chessed, Netzach, though it seems like din (harsh judgment), is actually in the category of chessed. Netzach is when things we perceive as “bad” happen, but unknown to us, there is a hidden chessed behind it all.

We’re taught by Chazal that every leaf, every insect, every element in the natural world is under Hashem’s close and personal supervision. Nothing in the world is purposeless, and nothing is unconnected. Indeed, Hashem is the מנצח, the conductor, and the world is the orchestra He is flawlessly conducting. None of us is playing a solo—our actions, and how we move in and out of the lives of others—are all part of the Eternal orchestra.

The seven shepherds that B’nai Yisrael have had (mentioned throughout nevi’im acharonim and throughout Chazal) also correspond to the Seven sefiros of Sefiras Ha’omer. Moshe Rabbainu, the one who famously sought to understand the ways of Hashem, when he asked “הראני נא את כבודךis the one who represents this sefira. Indeed, as a response, Moshe was shown a chain of events that could only be justly orchestrated by Hashem.

Iyar

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ve caught on to the depth and meaning infused in the Jewish calendar. Let’s take a quick moment to look at the meanings of this month and how they pertain to Hashgacha Pratis.

We mentioned in the last article that the symbol of Iyar is an ox. The song of the ox in Perek Shira is a possuk from Parashas B’Shalach, from the shira song at the Yam Suf:

אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת ויאומרו לאמר אשירה להכי גאה גאה

Many meforshim point out that what we tend to consider the big miracle of the moment, the splitting of the Yam Suf, isn’t really even mentioned in the song at all. There is a brief, peripheral mention just once, of Hashem blowing the waters away so that they stood as a wall, but even that possuk jumps straight to what seems to the main message of this shira: the drowning of the Egyptians. Surely B’nai Yisrael were happy and rejoiced at their salvation. But what seems to have brought about this song is the destruction of their enemies. (Indeed, Miriam’s version of the shira focuses solely on this.) Why is there emphasis on this point?

Rav Schwab explains that the miracles that happened here were two-fold. There was a supernatural parting of the waters, which revealed dry land for the Yidden to walk across. This miracle was on par with what they had seen in Egypt and was beyond human comprehension. This did not cause them to sing. The second miracle seemed to follow the natural pattern of the world: the waters returned to their place and drowned the Mitzri’im. This was the cause of the shira.

The Sfas Emes quotes the medrash in Shemos Rabba and writes that once they witnessed the death of the Mitzri’im, they understood the message that Hashem had wanted them to learn all along: that Hashem is present in the natural world, and we are surrounded by His care. They recognized the Hashgacha Pratis in seeing the ‘catastrophic’ event of the Mitzri’im chasing after them turn out to be what ensured their full punishment. 

And for this, they sang.

(Interestingly, the Midrash Lekach Tov notes that the midda k’neged midda for the drowning at sea is connected to this as well. It was not the drowning of the Jewish babies that this was retribution for, but for their declaration: “’מי ה, in which they denied Hashem’s hand in the natural world. The words mi and yam consist of the same letters, hinting to this midda k’neged midda.)

Chazal call this shira the first shira. However, we know that Adam sang shira, too. Even B’nai Yisrael, as they left Egypt, sang to Hashem in praise. Let’s explain what makes this song special, and with that we will go back to our story.

B’nai Yisrael’s Job

The other two songs did indeed take place before it chronologically, but the song of Az Yashir is the first of its kind. It is the first song that was sung with the realization that Hashem’s world contains a big picture, a reel of events that we cannot grasp. When Adam sang his shira, he thought that he had reached full salvation. When B’nai Yisrael left Mitzrayim and sang, they thought they were free—and indeed, they would have been had Hashem not hardened Paroh’s heart for the express reason of orchestrating the miracles of the Yam Suf. In both of these songs, the singer was praising Hashem for a finished product, so to speak.

Here, the meforshim note, B’nai Yisrael understood that Hashem, through the natural ways of the world, would continue to lead them on a journey that may be painful and challenging, but that His hand was ever-present in their lives. They knew this was not the end, and that they would continue into the midbar and be faced with more challenges, and yet they sang, acknowledging the greatness in the natural order of the world and the Hashgacha Pratis orchestrating it all.

We sing Az Yashir daily as we daven to remind ourselves of this as well. It is our job as  B’nai Yisrael to continue seeing Hashem’s hand in our lives, in ‘nature’, and in ‘coincidences’. The trait of bitachon is associated with the sefira of Netzach, because we must trust Hashem and know that there is more than meets our eyes. We are but one instrument in a beautiful orchestra, led by the Master Conductor.

Back to Temima

Now to the appointment. We had basically covered at this point all the testing for anything hearing loss connected, but still followed up with one additional test. Contrary to what seems to be standard procedure for Geneticists, the doctor had refused to tell me what exactly we were testing for. Now, with Temima testing negative for whatever it was, I pushed the doctor for an answer.

“Well,” she told me, “there’s one syndrome, that doesn’t typically have hearing loss associated with it that I tested your daughter for. My colleague suggested testing for it because he had once seen a case of a boy with that syndrome and hearing loss combined.”

Wanting to know details, I asked her what the syndrome was and what it’s markers were.

She hesitated, exchanging glances with the genetic counselor who sits in on each appointment. “You understand that your daughter tested negative, and there is no way she has it, right? So I’ll now tell you about it.”

{I don’t recall the name of the syndrome and don’t want to immerse myself in finding it. Apologies.}

“This syndrome has three main markers, all of which present when the child is 3-4 years old: A small head circumference that becomes more evident as the child hits the toddler years, sudden onset of frequent seizures, and no cognitive development past age three, that is, severe mental retardation. This syndrome is extremely rare, and pretty hopeless, and I thought to spare you the weeks of worry over a small possibility.”

Shaken, I thanked her and walked out. As I left took the elevator down, I tried the App for my favorite car service, which mostly operates in Brooklyn, not the city. To my surprise, a car was immediately available in my area. To my further surprise, it was the same car from that morning. At this point, I had been coming to Manhattan two to three times a week, always using this service, and often had repeat drivers who remembered me. This driver had a very distinct, odd colored car and I knew I hadn’t used him before, but here he was, and I didn’t give it more thought, just feeling very relieved that I wouldn’t be late.

He drove me to across the city to our next appointment. We pulled up at 50 Broadway with a just few minutes to spare before our session. He asked me if I knew what time I’d be done, because he wouldn’t mind getting breakfast and then taking me back. I jumped on his offer, and told him it was an hour-long session and I’d be down at 11 exactly. We agreed on spot and Temima and I went in.

As arranged, we came out at 11 and started driving back to Brooklyn. I told the driver that I’d be making a stop to drop my daughter off at school, and gave him the address of Strivright. He looked at me knowingly, and started talking, in broken English, but in a caring way.

“Oh, is your daughter special, too?”

Taken a bit aback, I responded that she had some difficulty with her ears, and had been at various doctors that morning.

“I understand….I have a special daughter too. My wife was 16 and I was 17 when she was born. She’s turning 27 next month and we’ve been taking care of her all along.”

I didn’t know how to respond, but he was waiting for an answer, “Your daughter is… special? That must be so hard…for you and your wife it’s been a lifetime of taking care of her. Wow.”

He took this as invitation to continue. “You see, she was normal when she was born. We were back in our country, and we lived with my parents and took good care of her. One day, after she was three, my wife started screaming for help. My daughter was on the floor, shaking. She had, what you call it, a seizure. Then, everyday, she had more and more. And the doctors don’t know anything what to do! We came here to help her.”

His words were beginning to sound eerily familiar. I didn’t want to pry or push…but I had to know. “I’m so sorry…that must have been so difficult for you and your wife…. What do the doctors here say? Do they have a name for this??”

He seemed to consider his words before answering. “Doctors have names for everything, but I don’t know, I say it’s from G-d.”

Yes, yes, everything is from Hashem, but I was burning to know more. Could it be that his daughter had exactly what I had just been told about? “So…she has seizures?”

“Yes. It started and never stopped, from that age. The doctor we took her to here told me, you see how she is today, cute and three years old? She will always be this way, and will not learn anything else. And it’s true! Her body grew, but her head is small, and she is like a big three-year-old! I’m making a party for her birthday next week and I told my friends: don’t bring things for a 27 year adult! Find something for a child, and she will love it.”

My heart was racing and my mind couldn’t keep up. Had this man been sent to show me what I had narrowly escaped, through the grace of Hashem alone? Regardless, he was waiting for an answer. “So…you only have her?”

“Well, we wanted to have another child, so we could have joy and pride too, but we were scared. Many in our family told us to put her in a hospital to get care, and have more kids. But we decided to do this for G-d. To put our life on the side, and take care of her…and maybe He will be happy with us.”

The conversation continued. He talked about her daily care, and his wife. He talked about the hardships and the joy and pride that he never thought he would have that he experiences with her small victories. I answered, and sympathized, but mostly I was dazed at this “coincidence”. 

For days leading up to my appointment and even more so while I was walking out, I struggled to have bitachon in Hashem, and struggled to see the big picture. There were many moments from the time after Temima was born that I wondered where the Chessed Elyon, the mighty kindness of Hashem, was and how this could all be happening on Hashem’s watch. At the end that exact understanding is what gave me comfort and strength:

הנה לא ינום ולא ישן שומר ישראל.

Behold, the Guardian of Yisrael neither sleeps nor slumbers.

This wasn’t an accident, an unorchestrated event. It did indeed happen on Hashem’s watch, and under His care. In that, I took comfort. It had been orchestrated and decreed by an Ever-Present Eternal G-d, One who is full of love for His people and does only good. I could rest assured and have faith in His continuing kindness.

If all miracles were openly miraculous, and the hand of Hashem were clearly seen, we would not be able to live in this world and grow spiritually, as we would have no choice but to see Him. Just as Hashem contained the excess waters that covered the entire surface of the world by hiding them deep in oceans in order that humans should be able to inhabit the world, He removed His obvious presence to enable spiritual growth. Hashem hid that awareness deep within B’nai Yisrael. Every time we realize that a coincidence is not coincidence, and every time we strive to believe and trust in Hashem, and attribute what happens to us daily to Hashgacha Pratis, we reveal some of His glory in this world. Thus, Yeshayahu (11:9) cries out for the day of the final geula, where

כִּימָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶתיְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם מְכַסִּים

…The earth will be full of the knowledge of Hashem, just as the waters covered the grounds…”

May we merit to understand Hashgacha Pratis, and to see it in our lives,

& To see the greatness that Hashem has planned for us behind any anguish that we go through

& May we merit to see the ultimate revelation of Hashem’s Mastery come speedily in our days!

Truly, Clearly, and Sincerely Yours,

Esther 🙂

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As always, sources will be listed in the comment section as the first comment! Further clarification of sources are always available on request.

Please comment below if you have something to share!

4 Comments on “An Amazing Story of Genetics & Hashgacha Pratis

  1. As promised, here are two great books that discuss the sefiros as they correlate to the days of Sefiras Ha’omer:
    1. “Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer” by Rabbi Yaacov Haber
    2. “Sefirat Ha’omer: The Significance of the Days Between Pesach and Shavuot” by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman

    Two other sourcese that were cut for space:

    Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov (in her book “Mirrors of Our Lives”) talks about the significance of the hidden waters and wells. She discusses the fact that Avraham and Yitzchak both dug wells, while Yaakov’s avodah was to roll the rock off so that others may drink, and the spiritual meaning of this.

    The sefer דרש דרש יוסף has explaines the difference between Az Yashir and Hallel: Hallel thanked Hashem for open miracles whereas Az Yashir is the recognition of “natural” miracles. He proves this with passages in the Gemarah and in Halacha. He also explains that a nation cannot survive and thrive if their faith is based on the former.

    Partial List of Sources:
    1. “Rav Schwab on Prayer” (explanation of Az Yashir)
    2. “Festivals of Life” Rabbi Zev Leff, article entitled “Ongoing Redemption” in his chapter on Pesach
    3. “Inner Space” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
    4. “The Three Fesitvals: Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes” compiled by Rabbi Yosef Stern
    5. Meforshim on Perek Shira
    6. Articles (from many years ago) written by R’ Dovid Aaron

    Like

  2. Hi Esther, it is Leah Hatanian. Wow! You have such well thought out and deep things to teach! Your writings are on par (sounds familiar? :)) with your diligent and determined personality. Hashem should always bless you with Chachma,Binah,Vedaat!Keep up the amazing work!
    Sincerely, Leah

    Like

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