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FAITH IN AN UNFAITHFUL WORLD

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In the cool quiet forest, an aura of tranquility permeated the air. The only sounds to be heard were the chirping of the crickets and the crack of an ax against the wooden trees.

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In the cool quiet forest, an aura of tranquility permeated the air. The only sounds to be heard were the chirping of the crickets and the crack of an ax against the wooden trees. A lone woodsman stood, chopping fallen trees into small chunks. He labored for hours, chopping away with his ax. When he retires at the end of the day, who receives credit for all this work? The man who labored so hard for this accomplishment, or the ax he used to do it?

At the end of last week's Torah portion, Pharaoh's butler had asked Joseph to interpret a dream for him. Joseph obliged, determining that the dream meant the butler would be reinstated to his former position in three days time. After granting the butler this favor, Joseph asked that the butler return the favor by asking Pharaoh to release him from jail (Genesis 40:8-15). The Midrash explains that because Joseph relied on the butler to free him, and not Hashem, he was punished with another two years in prison.

The Beis HaLevi, one of the most brilliant Talmudists of the 19th century, asks why Joseph is faulted for requesting the butler's assistance? The Torah allows us to do hishtadlus to exert effort in order to accomplish our goals, and doing so is not considered a lack of reliance on Hashem. Why was Joseph's request not simply considered hishtadlus to be freed?

The Beis HaLevi answers that in order to understand Joseph's error, we must first understand the philosophy behind the concept of hishtadlus. Behind the scenes, Hashem carefully and lovingly orchestrates everything that happens in our lives. The people who help us, hurt us, or give things to us are all messengers from Hashem, who decreed that these things should happen.

Because everything is in Hashem's hands, our own actions really make no difference. Ideally, we should just do what is right and trust that Hashem will make everything work out for us. In an ideal world, we would not go to work. We would rely entirely on Hashem to bring us our income. However, the Beis HaLevi points out that we are not all on the spiritual level where we can trust entirely in Hashem. Therefore, Hashem allows us to do hishtadlus as a tactic to supplement our trust in Him. It is not because our efforts and jobs bring us our salaries, for Hashem is still the source of our incomes. However, by working we can feel a sense of security, trusting Hashem to bring us those salaries. Because of this, the extent of each individual's hishtadlus differs. The more a person is able to genuinely trust in Hashem without the effort, the less effort he would need to personally exert.

This is why the Torah faulted Joseph for asking the butler to remember him. Joseph was on a tremendously high level of trust in Hashem. Therefore, for him, even this minimal effort was considered too much. Joseph should have relied entirely on Hashem and not exerted any effort, because he was on the right level to do so. In a similar manner, Rabbi Isaac Sher, a great Torah thinker of the past generation, warned that overdoing one's personal efforts could be harmful. Doing so can lead a person to forget Hashem's involvement and make him feel that his own strength and exertion causes his success.

When analyzing the balance between trusting in Hashem and exerting our own efforts, we enter a very delicate area. On the one hand, our efforts are necessary in order to enable us to trust in Hashem. We are not capable of feeling entirely secure without any personal efforts. So, we do act to a degree, but not because those actions make any difference to the outcome of the event. On the other hand, too much action will defeat this purpose because we will feel that our own efforts provide our successes, and not Hashem. The balance between the two is very delicate and requires a personal, internal introspection to correctly evaluate.

By focusing on this message, we can understand that Hashem is the driving force behind everything. He carefully directs and determines every aspect of our lives to the point where a person does not even bruise his finger unless it is Heavenly decreed (Talmud Tractate Chulin 7b). There is constant supervision over our lives and it is our job to feel it. Exerting effort is just a tool to help us accomplish this.

If we understand this idea, it can be implemented in a number of ways. The Chazon Ish, a foremost leader of Jewry during the first half of the century, describes a scenario in which a person happily operates a small store. One day, a competitor decides to open a similar store close by. Naturally, the original storekeeper tries to lure customers into his own store, and does everything in his power, both legal and illegal, to put his competitor out of business. However, if the storekeeper were to realize that Hashem, and not his store, was the source of his income and that the store was merely a way for him to exert effort, the situation would be entirely different. The storekeeper would not be phased by the fact that a competitor exists next door. His income is still coming from Hashem, the same as it was before. He should just continue his business as usual, fulfilling his need for hishtadlus, and rely on Hashem to take care of the rest. He might even try helping his competitor set up shop and create attractive product displays, thus fulfilling the mitzvah to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Similarly, if we recognize Hashem's constant supervision and intervention, we will see that there is no reason to cut corners in our own business dealings. Our successes and bonuses do come through our jobs, but they originate from Hashem. All we should do is follow proper Jewish law, and trust that by doing what is right, Hashem will bring us the gains for which we toil. If for some reason it does not work out, we should realize that it is for our ultimate benefit, even though we may not see it now. At least we have done what is right and followed what was expected of us. Claiming that business is different, and trying to disconnect our financial dealings from our religious convictions is not the proper approach.

As well, we would not overexert ourselves in our business ventures to the exclusion of our spiritual endeavors. We have to follow the ways of Hashem, appointing time for learning Torah, praying with a minyan, and performing other mitzvot. Excluding these necessities because we are overly exerting our hishtadlus is an uneven balance that must be reevaluated.

Recognizing that everything is in Hashem's hands can also lead to a great sense of tranquility. If we realize that we do not control events, there is no reason to worry about them. We just have to do our best, following the ways of the Torah, and trust Hashem to take care of the rest. Interestingly, while trusting Hashem is a fundamental Jewish ideology, a few of the classical mussar (Jewish ethics) works do not entitle chapters to this topic. Instead, they include these ideas in chapters about happiness or tranquility. Apparently, this is because trusting Hashem and feeling joyous and tranquil go hand in hand.

When we consider whether the woodcutter or the ax deserves credit for the chopped wood, the answer is obvious. No one would think to accredit the ax. It is just a tool used by the woodcutter, who is the real worker. Similarly, we cannot honestly accredit our jobs, friends, or personal efforts with the successes that we achieve. They are merely tools through which Hashem produces our accomplishments. The real credit belongs to Hashem. May Hashem help us to develop a trust in Him, and feel His constant intervention. Then, as we proceed with the proper balance of trust and hishtadlus, may Hashem bless us with all our endeavors.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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