"Happy is the Man Who Puts His Trust in God"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat VAYESHEV

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

"Happy is the Man Who Puts His Trust in God"

Adapted by Dov Karoll

Rashi at the end of the parasha (40:23 s.v. va-yishkacheihu) states:

 

"And he [the butler] forgot about him [Yosef]" afterwards. Since Yosef had made himself dependent on the butler, he was punished by being imprisoned for another two years, as the verse states (Tehillim 40:5), "Happy is the man who puts his trust in God, who does not turn to rehavim, the arrogant," meaning that he does not trust in Egypt, which is called rahav [the singular of rehavim].

While Rashi looks negatively upon Yosef's request, the midrash on which Rashi is based seems to lead in a different direction. The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 89:3) starts by quoting the same verse as Rashi, but the midrash applies the first part of the verse to Yosef:

"Happy is the man who puts his trust in God," this is Yosef. "Who does not turn to the arrogant," because he [Yosef] asked the butler to remember him, he was punished by being imprisoned for an additional two years.

Whereas in Rashi one gets the impression that Yosef is being criticized for lacking bitachon (trust in God), in the midrash Yosef is praised for being a man of bitachon; nonetheless, adds the midrash, he suffered a momentary lapse by asking the butler to mention him to Pharaoh. However, it appears that the midrash criticizes Yosef not for the very fact that he asked for help, but rather because he did not maintain the proper balance between bitachon and hishtadlut (exertion of human effort). While Yosef generally maintained this balance impressively, he showed some weakness in this request, for which he was punished.

When it comes to the dilemma of bitachon as opposed to hishtadlut, the solution does not lie in either extreme. The ideal is neither to remain totally passive and inactive, nor to assume total independence from God.

Extreme and exclusive bitachon, precluding any human effort, is not the appropriate course, and that is not what was expected of Yosef. The biblical verses that address this issue do not speak of inaction, but rather of recognition of God's role. This is true of the aforementioned verse from Tehillim, as well as the famous verses in Yirmiyahu:

Cursed is he who trusts in man, who makes mere flesh his strength, and turns his thoughts from God. He shall be like a lone tree in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good; it is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant.

Blessed is the man who puts his trust in God, whose trust is God alone. He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream; it does not sense the coming of heat, and its leaves are ever fresh; it has no concern in a year of drought, and does not cease to yield fruit. (17:5-8)

Anyone who understands the book of Yirmiyahu will realize that Yirmiyahu is not advocating total passivity. Furthermore, he is not even saying that one should never utilize "protektzia." Rather, one needs to put his trust in God and not in people.

This is also the idea of the famous verses in Parashat Ekev:

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God…. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses… beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…. Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end.

You say to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me." Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers… (Devarim 8:11-18)

 

Clearly, Moshe is describing a scenario where you carry out the actions yourself, but you need to realize that it is God who gives you the strength and capability to do so.

The same holds true for the verse at the end of today's haftara (for the first Shabbat of Chanukka), "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts" (Zekharya 4:6). The verse does not mean that Zerubbavel should use no "might" and no "power;" rather it means that achievement does not come through these alone, but through the addition of "My spirit," through the spirit of God, through Divine Providence.

The Torah tells us at the beginning of last week's Parasha that Ya'akov prepared for his meeting with Esav in three ways: by sending a peace offering, by praying, and by preparing for war (Bereishit 32:8-23, summarized in Rashi 32:9, s.v. ve-haya). Especially in a Yeshivat Hesder, we need to realize the importance of each of these aspects. The proper response to danger is not solely the recitation of Tehillim, but the recitation of Tehillim should certainly be one aspect of any such plan.

It is true that the Ramban (Vayikra 26:11 s.v. ve-natati) says that, in an ideal situation, those who are entirely righteous do not need medical care, and that God directly provides for their needs. Nevertheless, the standard Jewish approach is an activist one. For example, the Rambam (Mishna Commentary, Pesachim 4:10) explains why the rabbis praised King Chizkiyahu for hiding the "Book of Medical Cures." (Although this fact appears in a Tosefta and not in the Mishna, the Rambam explains that he felt it important to diverge from his general focus on the Mishna and explain the crucial lesson to be derived from this Tosefta.)

The Rambam brings several explanations of what this book may have been, and then cites a claim that it was a book that had medical remedies, composed by King Shlomo, and that Chizkiyahu hid the book because people trusted in the book for their recovery rather than trusting in God. The Rambam rejects this interpretation and declares that such an approach would be foolish. Why would Chizkiyahu be praised for denying the people medical treatment? If reliance on medicine were forbidden, then by the same logic, the Rambam continues, would one claim that a hungry person who ate to relieve his hunger and heal himself would be considered to be turning his trust away from God? Rather, says that Rambam, just as I thank God for the food He provided me to enable me to overcome my hunger, so too we would thank God for providing the cure that heals me when I utilize it.

The Rambam highlights the notion that even while a person ought to take an active role, he must recognize God's role in producing the results.

I will conclude with an incident that was related to me by a rabbinic acquaintance of mine. This rabbi once held a position in Vancouver. He told me that once a meshullach (charity solicitor) came to his house and wanted to meet with him about fundraising. However, right at the time this visitor arrived, the host rabbi needed to leave for a demonstration, and the meshullach opted to wait behind for the rabbi's return.

Those were the days of the Iron Curtain, and a certain Soviet leader was coming to a local hotel. A group of rabbis and community leaders wanted to organize a small protest against this man. They planned to enter the hotel in overcoats, which was not in itself suspicious given the weather at the time, under which they wore shirts with different letters. At the right moment, they would open their coats, revealing their lettered shirts spelling out the phrase "Let My People Go."

On the arrival of the Jewish group in the hotel, a policeman who knew the rabbi saw what was going on, and instructed them to leave before any trouble would ensue. The group left shamefaced.

The rabbi returned home and told this story to the meshullach, who had waited for his return. On hearing the story, the meshullach - who was an adherent of the Eastern European Jewish tradition of shtadlanut, working quietly with government officials but without political activism told the rabbi that this incident was a proof to the phrase from the daily liturgy, "Ki Hu levado… ba'al milchamot," "For He [God] Alone… is the master of battles" (in the first blessing before the morning shema). The rabbi responded that in the same prayer we also describe God as "zore'a tzedakot," "He who sows righteousness/charity," and yet nonetheless the meshullach has come around collecting tzedaka, and even asking for assistance in his collection.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Vayeshev, 5763 (2002).]

 

 


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