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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Effort versus Trust in God

I heard a joke about a man who wants to win the lottery. Each week he prays to win, and after many weeks go by, he finally complains to God, "Why haven't I won?" Replies God, "You should have bought a ticket."

While the obvious message is that "God helps those who help themselves," I imagine that God doesn't need someone to purchase a lottery ticket. I once received a lottery ticket in the mail as part of a marketing promotion. So if God wants you to win, you'll win.

So, if I want to win the lottery, should I buy a ticket?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

This is an excellent question and I think there are two answers.

First, God wants us to make the effort, not because He needs it, but because we need it. Our actions create a change within us.

In the Talmud, a scoffer tells Rebbe Akiva: "You shouldn't be helping poor people, because it was God who made them poor, and by helping them you're going against God's plan!"

Rebbe Akiva answered: "God made poor people precisely in order that we should help them. Helping others is what God wants us to do."

So you see, God wants us to make the effort. This same idea is expressed in many other ways in Judaism - e.g. circumcising a new baby boy, or turning raw kernels of wheat into bread. Obviously God wants us to be active and involved in bringing perfection to the world.

The second answer is that God made a system called "nature," through which He operates. Of course God can override that system (and He often does - that's what we call "miracles"). But God prefers to remain somewhat hidden - to preserve our quest to find Him.

So that's why if you want the money, it helps to buy a lottery ticket.

Though of course, don't go out and buy a whole stack of tickets. Because if God wants you to win, one ticket should be enough.

In the section discussing prophecy, the Torah states, "You shall (trust) wholeheartedly in God" (Deut. 18:13). We are enjoined to trust in God, but to what degree do we have an obligation to make a normal human effort and what is considered a lack of trust in God?

The question arises regarding testing people before marriage for being carriers of Tay-Sachs disease. Some people wonder whether such testing is not contrary to the trust we are required to have in Divine Providence - why search for problems when in all probability none exist?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, a foremost authority on Jewish law, clarified this point. "Although the percentage of infants born with this disease is small and one might be apt to apply the verse: 'You shall trust wholeheartedly in the Almighty,' (which Rashi interprets as meaning that one should not delve into the future), in light of the fact that a simple test has been developed for this, one who does not make use of it is like one who shuts his eyes to what can clearly be seen. Since the birth of such a child, God forbid, causes great anguish... it is prudent for all who are considering marriage to undergo this test." (cited in Jewish Observer, May, 1986)

Having trust in the Almighty gives a person peace of mind and serenity. However, one should never use a claim of trust in God to condone laziness or rash behavior. There is a thin line between the virtue of trusting in God and the fault of carelessness and irresponsibility.

There is the story of a man who lived by a river. A policeman warns him to evacuate because of a flood warning. The man rejects the offer and says, "I have perfect trust in God to save me." As the water rises, a person in a boat offers to take him to safety. The man again replies with his proclamation of trust and refuses the ride. Finally, as the man is sitting on his roof, a helicopter comes to rescue him; again the man proclaims his trust and refuses the rescue. The water rises, the man drowns and is finally standing in judgment before the Almighty. "God, I had perfect trust in You. Why did You let me down?" The Almighty replies, "But, my son, I sent a policeman, a boat and a helicopter!"

The only way to be considered a "failure" in life is by being lazy and not trying hard enough. Why? Because we can only expected to work with the tools God provides. And whatever He provides is precisely what I need. Whether or not the eventual goal is completed - that is in God's hands.

Is the Midrash Literal?

I respect the Torah greatly and try to observe its commands. One thing that bothers me, however, are the Midrashic texts which describe things in a very far-out way. I recently saw something about Moses being 10 feet tall. Is that to be taken literally? Because if so, I have a hard time accepting it.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You have touched on a very fundamental topic in Jewish thought.

Writing in Jewish Action magazine, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein explains:

There are a number of different ways of dealing with passages that seem to elude our grasp. The simplest is to ignore the problem. If that's what it says, then that's what it means – and let the chips fall where they may.

Many of our rabbis, though, would not concur with such an approach. The twelfth century Maimonides, for instance, wrote about three different attitudes in his day toward the Midrash (aggada). One group felt it an exercise in piety to simply accept everything in the works of the Talmudic rabbis, no matter how far-fetched. But rather than demonstrate their loyalty and tenacity, says Maimonides, these people cause much harm. Rather than praising us as a "wise and discerning people," the non-Jewish world reacts to this stance by thinking of us as "debased and foolish."

And that they did. In the infamous polemical debates of medieval times, a frequent target of the venom of both the Church and the Karaites was the philosophical aggada. Passage after difficult passage was paraded out to show the foolishness of the Jews in believing in this kind of stuff (or their arrogance in elevating Man above God, or assigning human properties to Him, or, at a later time, to demonstrate from the aggada itself that the Jews should really accept the Christian messiah.)

Another approach, if it can be called that, is to assert that the rabbis were simply wrong about many things. This creates a frightful dichotomy in our relationship with the Talmudic rabbis. Is it tenable to see them as incredibly profound when it comes to Jewish law, and incredibly naive and shallow when it comes to the philosophical topics treated in aggada?

There is an alternative, one that accepts without reservation that every syllable of the rabbis resonates with brilliance and profundity. It approaches the words of the Talmudic rabbis with unqualified acceptance and regard. It assumes that every epigram, every passage, every remark flows with the Divine wisdom that is vouchsafed to those who immerse themselves in Torah. At the same time, it refuses to concede any irrationality to the words of these Sages. God himself is the ultimate Source of this wisdom; His Torah cannot be irrational nor even arbitrary.

One figure stands out as a master of this approach. He is Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, usually identified by the acronym Maharal.

Take the Midrash which says that Vashti, the original queen in the Purim story, had a “tail." According to Maharal, we should not be slaves to the literal meaning of words. The Sages employed a richness of expression, just as we today use our own idiomatic form for a functionless growth. We call it "spare tire." (Will future anthropologists, noting references to "spare tire" but unfamiliar with contemporary usage, assume that people once propelled themselves on two axles?) In explicating the words of the Sages, we must always look for symbolism, allegory, idioms, and the clever turn-of-the-phrase that can say so much in so few words.

Maharal does not reject the miraculous. Rather he rejects a superficial reading of the words of the rabbis, words he is convinced almost always disguise more than they reveal. When we probe the true intent of the rabbis, we discover that they saw Divine intervention occurring in ways that may be more profound than the simple miracle that the text suggests.

To properly understand these Midrashic passages, it is essential to have a learned and wise Torah teacher. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone that you could contact.

Nipples - Men

This one has puzzled me for a long time, and I thought maybe you would have an answer:

Why do men have nipples?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Nipples represent the ability to nurture. Women can obviously experience this from both a physical and spiritual perspective. As modern research has shown, mother's milk provides the best possible nutrition for a baby. But the same applies to the spiritual nourishment an infant absorbs from its mother. For example, a tender, caring mother will impart those deep feelings to the child. Thus, the physical act of breast-feeding passes crucial spiritual influences to an infant. (see Talmud - Avodah Zarah 10b)

Since a man does not breast-feed, his ability to nourish is limited to a purely spiritual level. The physical existence of nipples, however, remind him that although he lacks the means to nurture a child physically, he must still take a primary role in the child's spiritual nourishment. This is alluded to in the verse, "From my flesh, I will see God." (Job 19:26)

Throughout Torah literature, we see the breast frequently used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment. In his deeply symbolic work, "Song of Songs," King Solomon writes: "I am a wall and my breasts are like towers" (verse 8:10). The reference here is to Torah scholars: Just as the breast provides physical sustenance, so too Torah scholars provide spiritual sustenance to the world. (Talmud - Pesachim 87a, Rashi)

Furthermore, breasts symbolize the idea that each person must draw sustenance on his own level and must not seek a lifestyle that is inappropriate to his current abilities. For this reason, breasts are termed "Shadayim," which contains the word "Dai - enough!" The message is that there is no need to look beyond one's own source of bounty to fulfill one's needs; there is ample spirituality available for everyone. (see Rabbi Chaim Kramer - "Anatomy of the Soul")

On a more medical note, while only females have mammary glands, we all start out in a similar way in utero. The embryo follows a female template until about six weeks, when the male sex chromosome kicks in. By that time, the nipples have already formed.

By the way, there's one more reason for men's nipples. The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 30) describes the case of a man whose wife died shortly after giving birth. God then made a miracle and granted him the ability to breastfeed the baby. A miracle!