When do we relate to reality?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 7, 2004
Perhaps no issues arise so frequently in the lives of both individual Jews and the community as a whole as those concerning the relationship of hishtadlus (human endeavor) and bitachon (trust in Hashem). What kind of efforts should a Jew make to ensure his parnassah, and what is excessive? The same question exists on a communal level. How, for instance, should the Torah community react to the deep cuts in government support for large families and for Torah institutions? What does the mitzvah of bitachon require of us as a community in such a situation?
Unfortunately, these issues are as intractable as they are common. There are no answers for every person and every situation. At best, we can state some general rules and guidelines.
The question of the extent to which we should relate to external realities confronting us has historically, presented itself most dramatically in the military context. The recently concluded Chanukah holiday, for instance, celebrates, inter alia, the victory of the few over the numerous, the weak over the strong. When Mattisyahu, the son of HaKohen HaGadol, and his five sons declared their rebellion against the Seleucids, they did so against overwhelming odds.
At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chafetz Chaim declared that had he been younger, he would have taken up arms against the Bolsheviks. The Chafetz Chaim apparently did not view the seeming hopelessness of a revolt by religious Jews as a bar to action.
Does this mean, then, that the proper path is always to ignore the odds, on the grounds that even if all the power in the world is arrayed against us, it is as nothing compared to the power of Hashem? No, for there are as many historical examples pointing in the opposite direction.
Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, a great dispute arose among the defenders of Yerushalayim. There was a faction, known to us as the biryonim, who argued for directly confronting the Romans. Opposing them were those loyal to the Sages, under Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who preferred to seek some form of negotiated settlement with the Romans to preserve as much as possible of Jewish life. The Sages realized that the Jewish forces were no match for the Romans in open combat. Yet Jerusalem was a heavily fortified city with sufficient provisions of wheat, wine, and firewood to sustain the population for 21 years. The Sages hoped to take advantage of the city’s ability to withstand an extended siege.
The biryonim, however, destroyed all those provisions in order to force the inhabitants of Yerushalayim to directly engage the Romans. The result was the loss of both political independence and the destruction of the Temple.
In an illuminating article in the Jewish Observer, Rabbi Ben Tzion Kokis of Monsey once offered a startling insight into these events. He pointed out that it was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Sages who were accused of being from the ketanei emunah (those of little faith) for their insistence on rationally analyzing the relative strength of the opposing forces rather than just relying on Hashem. By contrast, the biryonim relied on Hashem’s power to destroy any enemy, and placed their full faith in His salvation.
Today, as at the time of the Churban, many voices are raised calling upon the Jewish people to demonstrate their faith in Hashem. We are told that it is a failure of emunah to take note of the demands of the United States or to worry about the attitude of nations of the world to Jewish settlement in any part of Eretz Yisrael.
Anyone who points out that Israel does not manufacture its own F-16s, or that the loss of American loan guarantees would invite economic catastrophe by impairing Israel’s credit rating and its ability to borrow internationally, soon finds himself, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, accused of lacking faith in Hashem.
The vast majority of contemporary gedolei Torah, however, have consistently and repeatedly spoken out against gestures likely to arouse the wrath of the nations against us. They criticized, for instance, laws declaring Israeli sovereignty over areas captured in 1967 as both empty gestures and needless provocations of the nations of the world. In short, they never hesitated to take into account the full range of diplomatic, economic, or military circumstances in which the Jews of Eretz Yisrael find themselves.
STILL IT REMAINS TO BE EXPLAINED what is wrong with the claims of those who say that we should just trust in Hashem and ignore the nations of the world. If we believe that Hashem runs the world, and that what we call "nature" is nothing more than a constantly recurring miracle, why should we take into account the apparent weakness of our diplomatic, economic, or military situation?
I once heard an answer to this question from one of the leading ba’alei haskafa of our generation. The belief that we can always rely on Hashem’s help, he said, is more fitting for Yishmael than for Yisrael.
Yishmael is the only other nation whose name includes one of the names of Hashem. His name means literally "Hashem will listen." Yishmael posseses faith, but it is a distorted faith. The essence of Yishmael’s faith is that whatever he does, wherever he goes, Hashem will be with him.
The confidence that Hashem will always be with him is nothing less than avodah zara (idolatry). That is why Avraham Avinu insisted that the three "Arab" wayfarers wash their feet before sitting down to eat. For it is the way of "Arabs," Rashi comments, to bow down to the dust of their feet. "The dust of their feet" represents the idea that wherever one’s feet take him, Hashem will be with him.
As a example of this distorted emunah, the rav cited a statement by James McDonald, the first United States ambassador to Israel. In one of his communiqués, McDonald wrote that in every decision of the Israeli government decision factors in at least 25% reliance on a miracle. Far from being praiseworthy, that "trust" in miracles reflects an arrogant belief that Hashem will always be there to support whatever course one takes.
Now we can understand why the great Torah leaders throughout the generations have often acted as cleared-eyed realists, taking into account the relevant military, diplomatic, and economic considerations prior to making their decisions. They did not adopt a policy of relying on miracles.
How do we know, then, whether the relevant model for our current situation is that of Mattisyahu or that of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. The answer is: We don’t. That determination can only be made by the greatest figures of the generation. Only they are able to evaluate the historical circumstances to understand what Divine Providence demands of us.
Looking for historical analogies is futile. At most, they can help illuminate the range of choices, but the actual decision depends on the evaluation of so many factors that only the gedolim of our generation can make the determination. Once a pathbreaking publishing project was undertaken with the written haskomos of most of the gedolim of our generation. A talmid chacham approached one of the most venerated figures of the generation, who had given his haskoma, and pointed out that a similar project had been proposed nearly a hundred years earlier by a major Torah figure. He had abandoned it, however, in the face of the opposition of the gadol hador HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski.
The great figure to whom the question was addressed responded that he was fully aware of the apparent precedent. But he was undisturbed by it, for that was then and now is now, and the circumstances of the generation are so different that what was problematic in an earlier generation is now a necessity.
And so it is with the grave threats to our community from the outside. Only the gedolei hador can tell us to what extent we have to adapt to those threats and to what extent our response should be to ignore them and rely on Hashem’s power to fulfill all our needs.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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