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Way of Life
Part ThreeWe tend to limit God, and ourselves. We tend to expect specific results from specific actions. For example, if I show up to teach a class, students should show up to listen. If I go fundraising for a worthy cause, people should open their doors, and their hearts, and give generously. When we do anything meaningful, especially something that we know God wants us to do, we expect our efforts to meet with success, and we become disappointed when they don’t, especially when they could have.
However, that is not necessarily the way it works for a Jew. There is not necessarily the same cause-and-effect relationship between what we do and what we get, as exists for the rest of the nations of the world.1 This is because, even though we may require a particular physical result from what we do, still, our main goal is not the physical success, but the doing of avodas Hashem, that is, the service of God.
This is what we Jews are all about: avodas Hashem. We are here to serve God, and nothing else. Now, though that may sound like a statement that only righteous people can celebrate, it is not true, because serving God is not the same as serving a flesh-and-blood ruler, even if he is benevolent. Serving God, when done correctly, can often resemble serving ourselves. Take Shabbos, for example. Even though there are things that we must do on Shabbos, and things that we cannot do on Shabbos, when observed properly, Shabbos is one of the most Divine human experiences. This is one of the main reasons why it is the most effective outreach tools, because it is a wonderful experience, packed with meaning and tremendous pleasure.
True, there are some mitzvos we’d rather not do, and require additional incentive to perform properly. But, that is only because we are out of touch with our souls, for all the mitzvos really are just to help us get more in touch with our inner being, so that we can enhance our lives, and do that which earns us more reward in the World-to-Come—all for our benefit. So, ultimately, the service of God is really self-service. Hence, whenever we do something, be it join a minyan or go to work, prepare for Shabbos or prepare for a vacation, we are supposed to do it as part of our service of God. To onlookers, such extremes may appear very different from one another, but that is just in appearance. It’s all supposed to be avodas Hashem, that is, serving some ultimate Godly purpose. In other words, a Jew does not earn a living by going to work. We serve God by what we do at any given moment in time, and then God gives us whatever it is that we need to further do His will, which happens to include surviving, and even enjoying life.
Obviously, this is a longer discussion unto itself, and I have written about it extensively in other works. However, for now, the upshot of this idea is that, whatever we set out to do does not have to achieve the intended result to be called a success. Success, by Torah standards, is doing the best you can, to do the best you can, when performing some kind of meaningful task. God expects no more, and the true remuneration for an action in this world comes in the next one, in World-to-Come:
According to the effort is the reward. (Pirkei Avos 5:26).
Hence, in Judaism, “A” really is for effort. The beautiful thing about this truth is that there is no imperative to see physical results of our physical labors to be a success. The fact that we tried to do a good thing is success enough in God’s eyes, and sometimes, even just the desire to try and do the right thing is enough, such as when physical circumstances prevent our being able to carry out our plans. God just wants to know that we are on the same page as He is in life.
Part of the reason why many people have difficulty with bitachon is because of the way they define success and failure. In Eisav’s world, success means accomplishing what you set out to do—you went to make money, you have to make money—and failure is not accomplishing that goal. It’s that black-and-white because, for Eisav, there is only this world, and its value is only in terms of the physical pleasure it can provide. However, once the physical result is detached from the physical effort, that is, they are no longer interdependent, then it becomes easier to see how God is helping us out the entire way through. We give God more options, so to speak, to reward us for our bitachon, as I learned one day, many years back.
Though I prefer not to share personal stories in public, I will share this one because it really makes the point. I first moved back to Eretz Yisroel in 1993, just after I had published a new book called, “If Only I Were Wealthy.” I was working in the Old City in Jerusalem at the time, and one day had to make my way to the printers in Givat Shaul to arrange the printing of the next book in the series, “If Only I Understood Why,” a book about suffering. Since taking a bus would have taken too long (it was already 4:30 pm), it meant catching a taxi down by the entrance to the Kosel, usually a pretty easy thing to do. However, for some reason, the Kosel was particularly busy that day, and there was competition for taxis, which didn’t seem to be coming so quickly either. As I surveyed the situation, I noticed a well-groomed, middle-aged, secular man standing next to me, also trying to flag down a cab. I wasn’t sure who had gotten there first, and became concerned about taking a taxi before him, even though I was in a rush, lest it be a Chillul Hashem.
The next taxi to pass by happened to be a van, and the man and I looked at each other, seemingly thinking the same thing at the same time.
“Do you want to share the taxi?” I asked him.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“To Givat Shaul,” I answered.
“Great,” he said. “Why don’t you drop me off at the King David Hotel
on the way?”
“Sure,” I said, just grateful to be on my way.
He sat up front, while I sat in the middle section of the van. It is a short distance to the King David Hotel from the Kosel, and as we drove, I couldn’t help but think, being outreach-oriented, that God had thrown us together for some cosmic reason. But, what could I say in 5 minutes that could impact his life, and yet, not turn him off instead? I wasn’t sure, so I just struck up a casual conversation and waited to see where it went. After the niceties, he asked me what I do. So, I told him that I was a writer, and he told me that he too is in publishing. He asked me what I write about, and realizing that the conversation was progressing in the right direction, I told him that I actually had a copy of my latest book with me. (I always carried one in my briefcase, just in case an opportunity to sell a book suddenly presented itself, like that one.)
“Would you like to see it?” I asked innocently, and he sounded genuine in his desire to take a look. He was amused by the title and the cover, which is a professional illustration of a man being showered by real U.S. dollar bills (photographed in different falling positions, and then inserted into the illustration). I explained what the book was about, thinking to myself, This is why God put us together: so I can sell a book and he can read about the Jewish idea of wealth!
After all, judging by the way he was dressed, it did not seem to me that $8.95 would set him back that much. However, he just kept looking at the book, as the King David Hotel came into view, not offering at all to buy the book. That made me think differently, and moments before we were to part ways, probably forever, I felt the futility of the situation. Nothing would have come of our chance encounter, which couldn’t have been by chance at all, and I was somewhat distressed, even flustered.
Then it occurred to me: give him the book for free. For free? an inner voice questioned, as we pulled into the circular driveway of the hotel. To a man who could probably buy 100 of them at full price and not think twice? A slight inner struggle ensued, but the good voice won out, and I blurted out:
“Why don’t you take the book with you …”
“Thank you,” he said, as he reached for the door. “I will make a point of
reading it tonight.”
He had sounded very sincere, and I would not be surprised if he actually read the book that night. Besides, I told myself, even if he is just being polite, you never know who will pick up the book from him, and eventually do teshuvah because of it. God works like that. On the other hand, that other voice kicked in again, not only did I not sell a book, but I have one less book to sell. If I keep doing that, how will I make a living?
Then it hit me. Did I write the book to make money, or to positively affect people? Was making a parnassah my main reason for writing, or was it just a by-product of doing my avodas Hashem? If the latter, I told myself, then who says I have to sell a book to make living? Perhaps there will be times that I will, and perhaps there will be times that I won’t, and it was at that time that I made a deal with God, so-to-speak. I told him:
“Well, who ever said that I have to get paid for what I do, as if that is the way I must earn my parnassah. I write books to affect Jews, first, and earn money, second. Sometimes, this will mean selling them for the full price, and sometimes it will mean selling them at a discounted price, or even giving them away for free. It will always depend upon the kiruv opportunity.
Hey, but that’s okay, because that’s my avodas Hashem. “So, I’ll tell you what,” I told God in my mind, “if I stay focused on my end of the job, I’m going to trust that You’ll stay focused on Your end of the job, and take care of my parnassah—one way or another.” If that sounds chutzpadik, it’s not what I meant to be. I am well aware of the fact that God owes me absolutely nothing, and that I owe Him absolutely everything. Rather, it’s what I believe God wants us to think, and say, because it is actually the way He deals with us. I had just happened to come to the realization that day, in that taxi, with that man, kind of on-the-job instruction. In fact, in the end, I had merely been talking to myself.
Indeed, since that time, some 16 years ago, that is the way my life has gone. Sometimes my parnassah has come from obvious sources, sometimes it has come from mid-air, or so it has seemed to my wife and I. Sometimes, the money has come in advance, and sometimes, God has taken me down to the wire, at which point all had seemed lost, only to help me out just in the nick of time. During that course of time, I have never become rich for longer than about 15 minutes, but I haven’t stayed broke for very long either. More and more, it has become as it was for the Jewish people in the desert, with respect to the munn that they ate for 40 years: the salvation seems to be just in time, and just enough to get by.
As you can imagine, such a way of life leaves plenty of room for worrying. However, when I have worried, when I have capitulated to this innate yetzer hara that seems to say that worrying is the first step towards solving a problem, usually all I ever accomplished was to end up with egg on my face, once my personal salvation finally came.
On the other hand, when I hung in there until the very end, and didn’t let worry overtake me, instead telling myself, “It will be okay,” I won twice. My situation turned around, and I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had stayed with God until the end. Rather than rub my face with concern, I rubbed my hands together and said with confidence, “Gee, I wonder how God plans to save the day this time!”
So often, so very often, Heaven has answered that question positively, and quite quickly as well.
1/ When Ya’akov and Eisav met, and Eisav offered to share this world with Ya’akov, on the
condition that they share the World-to-Come, Ya’akov refused, effectively handing over this
world to Eisav and his descendants.
© 5769/2009 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston & Thirtysix.org