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Everything Depends on Action

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

Rabbi Berachyah said, "The tablets were six tefachim long - in some sense, God grasped two tefachim, Moshe grasped two tefachim, and two tefachim bridged the gap between them." (Shemos Rabbah 28:1)

There is no doubt that great significance lies behind this rather cryptic statement. Let us try to uncover a little of the Sages' wisdom.

We can subdivide all mitzvos and, indeed, all human endeavors into three spheres: thought, speech, and action. There are some mitzvos which require a Jew to think in a particular way. For example, the first of the Ten Commandments demands belief in God. Another is that one must not attribute power to any force other than God. Yet another is that one may not covet another's property. There are, of course, many other illustrations. Other mitzvos are dependent on speech. For example, one must verbally recall Shabbos, some say on a daily basis. A Jew must not lie to the beis din or speak badly of another. Finally, there are many mitzvos which utilize the Jews' power of action. There are requirements to put on tefillin, shake a lulav, eat matzah, etc.

It is interesting to note that each of these three divisions reflect different interactions between man and God. Thoughts are not entirely under a person's control; they can pop into the mind when unwanted. It is all too common that while concentrating on a complex problem inappropriate ideas spring to mind, often causing great frustration. One can only conjure up particular thoughts, not prevent unwelcome ones from arising. It is reasonable to say that man's thoughts are in God's control.

Action, on the other hand, is entirely in the individual's domain. He is not forced to do anything that he doesn't want to do. If he chooses to spend many hours performing a mitzvah, or instead not to do it at all, he is perfectly at liberty to do so.

Speech enjoys a sort of in-between status. In this case, there is a partnership between man and God. King Solomon tells us:

The preparations of the heart belong to man, but the tongue answers from God. (Proverbs 16:1)

He arranges his counsel and his words in his heart, but when he comes to answer, God makes him stumble over his words, or, if he [the man] merits it, He prepares a good reply for him. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Using the information gathered thus far, we can reexamine the midrash with which we began. The two tefachim of the tablets which were grasped by God express the power of thought, which is the dimension of man that remains in Divine control. The two tefachim grasped by Moshe Rabbeinu, the representative of Yisrael, symbolize action, which is entirely in man's domain. The space of two tefachim between Moshe and God symbolizes speech, the control of which rests between them.

We have already seen from Proverbs that if we perform our job correctly in the world of action, then God will grant us control of the power of speech. Continuing this theme just two verses later, King Solomon declares:

Commit your affairs to God, and your thoughts will be established. (Proverbs 16:3)

Something very profound is revealed to us here: If we fulfill our potential in our domain of mitzvah performance, not only will we be granted command over our speech, but God will deem us worthy to receive an even greater gift. If we "commit our affairs to God," then He will enable us to rule even our own thought processes, relinquishing, as it were, control over even His grasp on the tablets.

This has serious ramifications. Everything is dependent on our actions. If someone has trouble curbing his speech, then he can regain some control by tightening up his mitzvah observance. If we find it hard to direct our thoughts, or find ourselves considering inappropriate subjects during our prayers or Torah learning, then Chazal have given us the key to success: greater perfection in our service of God. The actions of the Jew determine everything, even the ultimate success or failure of the peoples of the world. This idea is illustrated by our Sages:

After Yisrael did that wicked act [the sin of the golden calf], God wanted to grab the tablets from Moshe. However, Moshe prevailed and snatched them back. (Yerushalmi, Ta'anis 4:5)

We can understand this quote from the Talmud according to our earlier explanation. Since Yisrael had abused their strengths and perverted their deeds, God wanted to withdraw His original arrangement, intending to avoid future disaster by removing control over action from man's domain. However, Moshe Rabbeinu "persuaded" God that the Jews still had the ability to correctly utilize their great powers and by so doing to draw into their domain the control of everything - action, speech, and even thought.

To conclude, the actions of a Jew can have enormous consequences for good or for bad. Literally everything depends on it. And it could be that when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai they had all this in mind when they proclaimed:

All that God has said, we will do and hear. (Shemos 24:7)

They realized that action was the key to everything and thus disregarded all other concerns to give preference to their intended deeds. Let us hope that we can follow their example.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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