In a previous article, we discussed the interplay of hishtadlus and emunah – human effort and faith in God, respectively. While the degree of our emunah may be fairly constant, the amount of hishtadlus we are able to invest can vary from situation to situation. If your car breaks down on the highway, a passenger who is a mechanic will probably be able to exert somewhat more influence over the situation than one who is a pastry chef. I was reminded of the limits of our hishtadlus during my recent back trouble.
When I started hobbling around on a cane, everyone had a theory as to what had gone wrong with my back. (Naturally, some of their theories were mutually exclusive.) One person thought the trouble must be that I put on some weight. (Quite the opposite, in fact. I put on weight because my back issues precluded physical activity.) Others assumed that it was the gym that had caused my back problems. (Also incorrect. My back issues preceded my gym attendance by years. If anything, my flare-ups were less frequent and less severe during my years of “gym life.”) Rather, my doctor – a spine specialist who read my MRIs – diagnosed my back problems as a congenital defect that finally caught up with me. To use his words, “Nothing you did caused it and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.” That was exactly what I needed to hear.
That’s also something people need to hear after experiencing the death of a loved one. A natural reaction when someone passes away is for those who remain behind to feel guilty and to suffer recriminations: “If only I’d done this differently, they might have lived,” “If only I’d done that differently, their last days would have been more comfortable,” etc. This is usually inaccurate and it’s never helpful. Far more often than not, people have done their honest best. Circumstances were simply beyond their limited, human control.
That hishtadlus has limits was something I internalized post-9/11. I was at the World Trade Center on that fateful day and I suffered some mild PTSD afterwards. I live near one of the New York-area airports and the sound of planes overhead had me constantly ducking my head. One of the things that helped me overcome this was, ironically, the crash of American Airlines flight 587.
At the time, I was a chaperoning an OU leadership program for teens, whom I would accompany to various political events in Washington. Despite the confidence that my logical side had in the event’s enhanced security measures, my PTSD side was anxious about attending a high-profile Jewish political event. And then the phone calls started.
American Airlines flight 587 to the Dominican Republic was downed not by terrorism but by malfunction; all 260 on board were killed, as were five people on the ground. While the crash site wasn’t all that close to my home, it was in my general area. I was sitting in a DC hotel lobby in those pre-Facebook days when my phone started ringing off the (non-existent) hook thanks to people checking that I was okay. It was then that I had my epiphany: I could have stayed home from DC out of fright, only to have a plane crash on my block. We do what we can but, ultimately, things are up to God.
Chazal tell us as much when they say, “hakol b’yidei Shamayim chutz miyiras Shamayim,” “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven,” i.e., one’s religious observance (Brachos 33b). Life and death, health and income – that’s all up to God. Whether or not we listen to God? That’s up to us. Our yiras Shamayim is the only thing we truly can control.
When the Jews were given manna in the wilderness, they were instructed to take the volume of an omer each, neither more nor less. Nevertheless, some people did indeed take more or less but when they measured it, they still had an omer each! Regarding this, the Torah tells us, “v’lo hedif hamarbeh v’hamamit lo hechsir,” “the one who took more had no surplus and the one who took less was not lacking” (Exodus 16:18). The gematria of the phrase “v’lo hedif hamarbeh” (“the one who took more had no surplus”) is 458, while the value of “v’hamamit lo hechsir,” (“the one who took less was not lacking”) is 494.
At first glance, 458 and 494 appear to be unrelated. Try adding the digits, however, and you’ll quickly discover that 4+5+8=17 and 4+9+4=17. The gematria is symbolic of this verse’s point: sometimes we think that we’re getting more or less than we’re supposed to, but upon closer examination we find that we’re getting our assigned share.
This is true in all aspects of life. The only thing we can truly control is our own spiritual development; everything else is ultimately God’s department. In our previous article, we cited the mishna in Avos (2:16) that we’re not responsible to finish the task but that doesn’t exempt us from investing our best efforts in the attempt. Yes, we absolutely must invest our human effort into earning a living, safeguarding our health, maintaining our vehicles, etc. There reaches a point, however, where all of our efforts simply aren’t enough. There comes a time when God has other plans. When that happens, we mustn’t blame ourselves as if our efforts were insufficient. Rather, that’s simply the natural order of things. We invest our best efforts and expect to find 458, or perhaps 494. At the end of the day, we get 17. This is what God has budgeted for us and no amount of creative accounting on our parts will change that.
Or, as my doctor put it, “Nothing you did caused it and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.” That’s a good reality check. Let’s try to remember it.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.