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Weekly Chizuk

Parshas Vayeishev

How Much Hishtadlus? Too Much or Too Little?

"If only you will remember me when it shall be well with you, and please do me a kindness: mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon"... Yet the wine steward did not remember Yosef, and forgot him. (Bereishis 40:14-15, 23)

Introduction: An innocent victim, Yosef was incarcerated in a dank underground dungeon for a crime he didn't commit. It is true that he was appointed overseer there and enjoyed a few special privileges, but there can be no doubt that his foremost concern was how to secure his freedom.

Finally, after several years of imprisonment, a golden opportunity arose: two of Pharaoh's chief ministers - the chief baker and the wine steward - were thrown into prison. In an obvious display of Divine Providence, the two hapless men simultaneously experienced troubling dreams. Yosef, expert in the art of unraveling dreams, sympathetically listened as they recounted their stories, and his interpretation was that in three days the chief baker was to be executed while the wine steward was to be reinstated to his post. The wine steward was doubtlessly overjoyed to hear such good news.

Yosef, the bearer of these wonderful tidings, felt that this was a Heaven-sent opportunity, and he hoped to utilize the minister's gratitude and thereby effect his own release from jail. He requested, "If only you will remember me when it shall be well with you, and please do me a kindness - mention me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon" (Bereishis 40:14-15). What followed is well-known, as Yosef's interpretations came true down to the finest detail: three days later, during Pharaoh's birthday celebrations, the chief baker was hanged and the wine steward was restored to his position. However, it appeared that Yosef's attempt to secure his freedom with the help of the steward's good will failed. The Torah relates: "Yet the wine steward did not remember Yosef, and forgot him" (ibid. 40:23). Yosef had to endure two more years in the dungeon until Divine Providence finally deigned to have him delivered as a result of Pharaoh's dreams.

What had gone wrong? It seemed like such a simple and flawless plan, and everything appeared to be divinely orchestrated. Why, then, was Yosef's suffering extended for another two years?

The Hishtadlus / Bitachon Balance

"Fortunate is the man who has made God his trust": this refers to Yosef. "...and does not turn to arrogant ones": Because he asked the wine steward to remember him [saying: "זכרתני והזכרתי"- a double usage of the word "to remember"], two years were added to his stay in the dungeon. (Bereishis Rabbah 89:2) The Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, parashas Miketz, comments:

This Midrash appears fraught with difficulties. To begin with, it starts by referring to Yosef as having bitachon: "'Fortunate is the man who has made God his trust,' this refers to Yosef." Then, it immediately chastises him lacking faith!

Secondly, the Torah permits a person to do hishtadlus (exert effort) to secure his personal needs. The Gemara (Berachos 35b) discusses this topic at length and seems to concur with R. Yishmael, who rules that one should pursue a livelihood along with studying the Torah. Therefore, if it is indeed permitted to exert effort, why was Yosef criticized for doing so?

In order to resolve these difficulties, we have to realize that one of the major goals in a Jew's life is for him to be at peace and truly place his trust in Hashem. Ideally, we should strive to maintain an awareness of the Almighty in our consciousness at all times. Once someone reaches this pinnacle, Hashem will take care of him and he will have no need to engage in hishtadlus. The reason the Torah sanctions hishtadlus is because not everyone is able to achieve the heights of pure bitachon. Consequently, it is permitted for a person to exert effort so that he can have some assistance as he strives to reach the level of pure trust. Everyone is allowed to engage in some auxiliary activity so that it will be easier for him to trust in the Almighty.

We find this concept throughout the Torah, wherein less than ideal conduct is occasionally sanctioned so that we will ultimately attain the desired goal. (For example, the Gemara says that a person should always be involved in Torah study and the performance of mitzvos. This is so even if one's reasons are not altruistic [לא לשמה], because the very act of studying will eventually lead him to study for the sake of more noble intentions [לשמה]. We thus see that one's non-altruistic reasons can serve as a stopgap measure while he develops more idealistic motives.)

According to this understanding, the amount of hishtadlus in which a person should engage to accomplish his goals is determined according to the level on which he finds himself. One whose bitachon is relatively weak is permitted to exert more effort than one whose bitachon is stronger - until he genuinely trusts that Hashem will resolve everything. The main thing is for a person to relieve his heart's anxiety and throw his burden on God.

If a person is able to achieve a high level of trust with a minimal amount of exertion, then whatever effort he engages in beyond this minimum is considered to be a blemish on his level of bitachon. When he tries unnecessarily hard to achieve his goal, he will suffer by having the amount of effort he needs to accomplish it increased - measure for measure. His livelihood will be more difficult to obtain, and he'll have to work that much harder because this is the path he chose for himself.

The effort Yosef exerted to seek his freedom was the most minimal amount of hishtadlus imaginable. It consisted solely of his asking the wine steward to remember him and say a few words on his behalf. This is especially true in light of the fact that the entire episode was clearly orchestrated by Divine Providence. Yosef knew with total certainty that the wine steward's incarceration and his dream came about through Heavenly design, and were meant to plant the seeds of his redemption. However, his bitachon was so great that it was considered unnecessary for him to indulge in even this tiny effort - and he was accordingly called to task for doing so. The severity of the punishment proves that his bitachon was incredibly strong. This is the meaning of the Midrash's comment: "'Fortunate is the man who has made God his trust,' this refers to Yosef, '...and does not turn to arrogant ones.'" His bitachon was such that he should not have undertaken any effort whatsoever.

The Lottery Ticket

What is the minimum effort demanded of us? R. Zundel of Salant (the rebbe of R. Yisrael Salanter) put it like this:

The reason we must engage in physical effort is because we are not worthy of open miracles. Therefore, we must do the minimum to ensure that the bounty sent us by Hashem can be viewed as resulting from a natural phenomenon. In other words, we are obligated to perform the amount of endeavor which allows others to mistakenly attribute our livelihood to natural causes. As for myself, I buy a lottery ticket. This is the limit of my obligation as far as physical exertion is concerned. No matter how miraculously my livelihood may come, the world is satisfied to assume that I have won the lottery.

The Bitachon of a Simple Man

The Shomer Emunim, by Rebbe Aharon Rotte, p. 207 writes:

There is a famous incident which occurred during the time of the holy Opta Rebbe, author of Ohev Yisrael. There was a certain innkeeper who sold schnapps as a sideline. One day, this man suddenly and unexpectedly became a wonder-worker. Any blessing he gave came true. The man's fame began to spread, and in a short time word of his powers reached the Opta Rebbe.

The Ohev Yisrael didn't like what he heard, and he was determined to find out the innkeeper's secret. The whole thing seemed suspicious. Perhaps the wonder-worker was misusing kabbalistic secrets, or even worse, was engaging in kishuf (black magic). The Rebbe traveled to the man's inn and stayed there for a few days to see if he could detect any suspicious behavior. To his relief, he didn't see anything unusual. The man seemed neither especially learned nor brilliant. He prayed like everyone else and appeared to be completely normal. His whole day consisted of running the inn and selling schnapps.

Yet the Ohev Yisrael was still suspicious. He decided to confront the man to find out what was going on. One day, when no one else was around, he approached him and said, "I'm the Opta Rebbe. I've come here to find out by what merit you have obtained the ability to give blessings that are fulfilled. If you tell me, fine. If not, you'll regret it."

Simply and honestly, the man replied, "I have always had a great deal of bitachon in Hashem. I never worried about anything. Once, I suffered a terrible business loss. I didn't even have a single penny left with which to buy some schnapps. My wife became very upset, and insisted that I go to the city and find a partner who would be willing to put up some money so that I could continue my business. She argued that with a sufficient amount of investment capital, the inn and the schnapps business could support two partners.

"At first I rejected her idea, but she wouldn't stop nagging me. Day after day she continued with her pestering, until one day she broke into bitter tears and wouldn't stop crying. At that point I just couldn't stand it anymore. I also felt bad for my children, who hadn't had anything substantial to eat for several days. So I told my wife that I would go to the city in search of a partner.

"However, I had something slightly different in mind than what she was thinking. There is a huge forest just outside of the city. Instead of entering the city, I went into the forest, where I opened my heart to the Almighty and cried out, 'Ribbono Shel Olam, I don't want a partner of flesh and blood. I want You as my partner! I promise that whatever I earn I will split 50 / 50 - half to You and half to me.'

"I then returned home, feeling very strong in my bitachon. I told my wife that I had found a very good partner with lots of money. And since that time, the Almighty has blessed all my endeavors with success. As I promised, I split the profits 50 / 50 with Him, distributing His half of the money to the poor. I trust no one to help me, and I work in my inn from morning until night. As my reward for this, perhaps, I have been granted a gift from Heaven, and all of my blessings come true."

Deeply moved by the man's story, the Ohev Yisrael stood up, kissed him on his head, and declared, "It is proper that your blessings come true! You made a deal with the Ribbono Shel Olam. You give half to Him, and He grants you this power in return. Praiseworthy is your lot! May there be many more like you among the Jewish People

Gut Shabbos!

© Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
4 Panim Meirot, Jerusalem 94423 Israel
Tel: 732-858-1257
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop Lakewood).
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