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Hishtadlus in Ruchnius

Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

After the Avodas Hamishkan was completed the workmen could not erect the Mishkan because of its massive weight. Since Moshe Rabbeinu had not had a share in the actual work of the Mishkan, HaShem wanted him to have the honor of erecting it. Hashem told him to make the attempt and the Mishkan would stand on its own, and it would appear to the onlookers as if he put it up himself1.

This incident poses a difficulty – it seems clear that just as all the builders of the Mishkan were rewarded for their work, so too Moshe Rabbeinu was surely rewarded for the actual erecting of the Mishkan – why is this the case, he did not actually do anything, HaShem performed the erecting Himself?! In reality we are only able to perform any Mitzva because HaShem enables us to do so – HaShem is constantly sustaining the world and every human being in it – without this siata dishmaya we would not be able to do anything. The only difference in the case of the erecting of the Mishkan is that it was an open miracle whereas every mitzvo that we perform is a hidden miracle. The reward that we receive is not because of the result but because of the effort that we make. Moshe Rabbeinu made the effort to erect the Mishkan, therefore he was rewarded as if he performed it himself.

Sifsei Chaim develops this theme further; he writes that we all realize that we do not have the ability to achieve anything in the physical realm (gashmius), without HaShem. If that is so, then why do we do so much activity? After the sin of Adam haRishon, HaShem decreed that man must exert physical effort in order to survive – however “we must realize that, in reality we do not achieve anything, all of our actions are only the exertion of the necessary effort which is a fulfillment of the passuk “you will eat bread by the sweat of your brow.”2 All of our work in earning our livelihood and other worldly activities are a result of this ‘gezeiras hishtadlus‘ – we are required to expend such effort but we must recognize that ultimately it does not really achieve anything. However, we are less aware that the same is true even in the spiritual realm (ruchnius). We do have free will, which is the ability to decide whether we will choose good or bad. However, the final result is not in our control at all. For example, a person may expend great effort in buying a beautiful esrog, but when he comes to use it on Yom Tov he may drop the esrog and the pitom could break. We can make the decision to do the Mitzva but only HaShem can actually enable us to completely fulfill it.

Based on the idea that the gezeiras hishtadlus applies equally to gashmius and ruchnius, one may want to equate the two realms in another way: It is well known that bitachon (trust) is more important than hishtadlus in gashmius, and the more bitachon we have the more we will receive, regardless of the hishtadlus that we put in. A person may want to approach ruchnius with the same attitude – that the main avoda in ruchnius is bitachon and that hishtadlus is merely a secondary factor. However, Sifsei Chaim stresses that it is incorrect to totally equate ruchnius and gashmius in this regard – there is a crucial difference between the two: “In matters of gashmius, the required hishtadlus is a penalty that one must pay and it is not good to add to payment of the penalty [ie. one should minimize his hishtadlus as much as possible]. In contrast, in avodas HaShem he must do as much hishtadlus as possible and strive with all his strength..”

This is a very important lesson; we generally recognize that bitachon is an essential aspect of avodas HaShem and that our own hishtadlus should be minimized as much as possible, yet one might also have the same attitude in spiritual matters; he may limit his hishtadlus in ruchnius with the mistaken assumption that he can trust in HaShem to do the work for him – this is a serious mistake for, as Sifsei Chaim explains, in ruchnius there is no limit to how much effort one should expend. This idea is illustrated by the following story involving Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l. “As a teenager, Hertzl Shechter was invariably a few minutes late for Reb Shraga Feivel’s 9.00am Tanach shiur, and one day he received a notice that ‘the Boss’ wanted to speak to him. Shechter entered the room trembling. “Nu, Hertzl, when are you going to start coming on time?” Reb Shraga Feivel asked. Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Shechter could manage nothing more than, “Im yirtzeh HaShem.” But Reb Shraga Feivel was not to be put off so easily. “Nein,” he began shaking his head, “not im yirtzeh Hashem, Im yirtzeh Hertzl – no, not if HaShem wants; rather if Hertzl wants.”3 There are times when a person should not comfort himself with the fact that HaShem will ensure that everything runs smoothly, rather he must take the initiative himself.

If there is a misconception about the role of hishtadlus in one’s own personal avodas Hashem, then this is certainly the case with regard to the state of the Jewish people. One may easily be tempted to think that, no matter how bad the situation is, HaShem will not let it deteriorate indefinitely and that we can trust that eventually things will automatically improve. Chazal teach us that this is a grave error; if people do not take action to resolve the problems of Klal Yisrael then they will only persist – HaShem requires us to bring about an improvement through our own efforts. This idea is expressed in the Mishna in Pirkei Avos: “In a place where there are no men hishtadel [strive] to be a man.”4 Many commentaries explain this to mean that when there is a lack of people serving the needs of the community, must stand up and fill the gap.5 Rav Hirsch zt”l writes that in normal circumstances one should be humble and avoid publicity, however when people are needed to serve the community then humility and modesty are totally inappropriate, rather one should do whatever is necessary to improve the situation even if it involves receiving unwanted publicity.6 It is noteworthy that the Mishna chose to use the word, ‘histhadel’ when it could have simply said ‘in a place where there are no men be a man.” The reason for this is that the word, ‘hishtadel’ implies great effort; the Mishna is teaching us that it is not enough to merely ‘try’ to help the community, rather, one must exert great effort into the task at hand.

The Alter of Novardok stressed the need for such exertion in the battle to uphold the Torah. “When a person becomes aware of as grievous a failing within society as its present educational structure, which has taken such a tremendous toll on our youth – how much must he summon up all of his powers to guard the breach, remove the impediment and raise up the standard of truth…. there is no alternative but to rouse ourselves from our slumber, consider the dangers which confront us and go out with energy and drive, and use all our talents and sensitivities to do all that we are able.”7 One may argue that there is a great limit to what a single person can achieve even if he expends much effort: The Alter seems to have thought differently: He once said that, “if a person works as hard for the benefit of the public as he works for the benefit of a single member of his family, he could found a hundred yeshivas!”8

Throughout his life, Moshe Rabbeinu was willing to extend great effort to fulfill HaShem’s wil – as a result HaShem gave him the ability to achieve superhuman results such as lifting the beams of the Mishkan. We can learn from this that all HaShem requires is that we extend the effort, the results are in HaShem’s hands.

  1. Rashi, Pekudey, 39:33,
  2. Sifsei Chaim, Midos v’Avodas Hashem, 2nd Chelek, p.24.
  3. Rosenblum, Reb Shraga Feivel, p.175.
  4. Avos 2:6
  5. See Rashi, Bartenura, Tiferes Yisroel, Mili d’Avos, Rav Hirsch on Avos.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Madreigos Haadam, Maamer Mezakeh es harabim, Ch.1 p227..
  8. Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar, p.113.


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