How much effort do we do? Do we really need an army? Isn't prayer enough?
A couple of years ago, we had an electricity cut about an hour before Shabbat was meant to come in. Black outs were not unusual in my last house; they would frequently happen two and even three times a week, and often last for hours – but almost never on Shabbat itself.
I went out on to the street, to see if everyone else was out as well. They weren’t; it was just us. I came back in, and my husband flicked the little switch in the fuse cupboard up and down a few times. Nothing.
Shabbat was coming in an hour; I had guests arriving before then with small children; it was cold – and my electricity was out.
All this was happening at a time when I was really, really starting to internalise the fact that Hashem runs the world. I knew there had to be a spiritual reason for my electricity being out, apparently for no reason, so me and my husband sat and did hitbodedut for half an hour, trying to ‘get the message’.
I firmly believed that once I ‘got the message’, the electricity would sort itself out.
In the meantime, it didn’t, and my guests arrived. While I was busy still trying to ‘get the message’, my guest found the area directory, called an electrician that lived round the corner – who was willing and able to make a house call 20 mins before Shabbat came in – and even paid him the 50 shekels he charged for solving the problem.
I felt like such an idiot. Duh! Why hadn’t I just called someone? Why hadn’t I just got a move on, and solved the problem myself, instead of waiting for G-d?
Like I said, this was a couple of years ago, but I found myself thinking about it again this week.
The one thing I come up against the most – both in myself, and in my conversations with other people – is the whole active vs passive question. How much effort do I have to make? When is relying on G-d relying on miracles, which we are forbidden to do? What if G-d really wants me to ‘act’, to do something under my own steam, and I’m missing the point, and just sitting on my armchair asking Him to help me?
There is no easy answer to this question, as each person and each situation requires its own careful analysis. The one thing we can say, is that the more emuna a person has, and the more they talk to G-d, the less effort they need to make.
We’ve all read stories about our Rebbes and Rabonim that underscore this point. Take the Rav who needed to make a train trip in Europe, but who didn’t have the money to pay for a ticket. He got into a discussion with an ‘enlightened’ Jew at the station who was trying to make him see the absurdity of trying to board a train when he had no money for the ticket.
The enlightened Jew simply couldn’t understand how he was going to make the trip: what, was Hashem going to send an angel down with the fifty drachma (or whatever he needed?)
The Rav just stood their, smiling, patient, waiting to see how G-d was going to arrange things, and certain he was getting on the train with a ticket.
The train approached, and the Rav still didn’t have a ticket, or the money to pay for one. In sheer frustration, the enlightened Jew berated the Rav for being so passive, so trusting, so emunadik – and then bought him the ticket. If G-d wasn’t going to help him, then at least he, the ‘enlightened’ Jew would step in and do the job…
Or, take the holy people - like Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk - who used to ensure that they went to bed without a single penny to their name. Whatever money came in that day, they would spend it all on mitzvoth, certain that Hashem would send them whatever they needed the following day to help them pay their way.
This is the polar opposite from savings accounts; pension plans; stock market portfolios and nest eggs.
And for most of us, it just feels plain wrong.
It’s fiscally irresponsible; it’s shirking our duties; it’s relying on miracles etc etc etc.
And I hear that argument, I really do. My own yetzer hara says exactly the same thing every time I have a new situation present itself, where I have to really think about how much help G-d really needs from me to run His world.
But as time has gone on, Hashem has shown me that my own efforts to do something, to change something, to make something happen, usually don’t get anywhere.
For example: every time I go to the supermarket determined to ‘take control’ and not spend a lot of money, I end up spending hundreds of shekels more than when I just ask Hashem to help me, and then leave it all in His hands.
I simply don’t understand it. I’m not buying more, or different, as far as I can tell, but it always comes out 200 or 300 shekels more expensive.
You tell me, am I meant to make even more effort to control my supermarket shop, or do I just ask G-d to sort it out, and buy what I need without thinking too much about it?
And this question crops up everywhere, from going to doctors, to helping the kids with their homework, to tidying my house, to paying my mortgage. The more ‘active’ effort I make to get something done, or sorted out, the more hassle it becomes, and the more I see that I’m much better off putting my main effort into asking G-d to sort it all out.
But it’s very hard trying to explain this approach to other people. Until and unless they’ve experienced something similar in their own lives, they simply can’t believe that ‘letting go’ is the more responsible and useful way to really get things done.
Which brings me back to my black out.
That Shabbat, I could see that our house guests thought that we’d lost the plot a little bit. I mean, it simply wasn’t ‘normal’ or ‘sensible’ to just pray about the problem, instead of getting on and fixing it.
At the time, I more than half agreed with them, so I couldn’t really discuss it or argue my case. Maybe I had got the balance wrong? Maybe, I’d gone to a dangerous extreme of expecting too much from G-d, and becoming too passive. Maybe, G-d really did just want me to get off the couch and call the electrician?
But now, when I was thinking about it again, I had a revelation: G-d really DID come through for me. G-d really did fix the problem, with no help from me, after all. G-d arranged for my friends to come for Shabbat, and to call around for an electrician. He arranged it that the electrician was home, and local, and able to come out 20 mins before Shabbat. He arranged it that the problem was very minor, and easily fixed in a couple of minutes, without costing us a fortune.
I did nothing, except pray, and the problem still got fixed.
When I realised that, two years later, it gave me such a boost. From the outside, the prayer and patience approach looks so ‘passive’. We are all told that ‘our life is in our own hands’; that ‘we can make it happen’; that ‘if we build it, they will come’.
But the real truth is that it’s only going to happen if G-d wants it to happen. And if G-d wants it to happen, we really don’t need to do anything much at all except ask Him for His help, and be incredibly grateful when He gives it to us.