After the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was completed, the workmen could not erect it because of its massive weight. Since Moses had not had a share in the actual creation of the Mishkan, God wanted him to have the honor of erecting it. Accordingly, God 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 himself.(1)
This incident poses a difficulty: Moses was given credit for erecting of the Mishkan yet he did not actually do anything; God performed the erecting Himself? How can we understand this? In reality we are only able to perform any mitzvah because God enables us to do so; He is constantly sustaining the world and every human being in it. Without this Heavenly Assistance 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 mitzvah 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. Moses made the effort to erect the Mishkan, therefore he was given credit 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 world without God. If that is so, then why do we do so much activity? After Adam's sin, God 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 verse, "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 decree that one must put in physical effort, we are required to expend such effort, yet we must recognize that ultimately it does not really achieve anything.
However, we are less aware that the same is true even in the realm of spirituality. We do have free will, which is the ability to decide whether we will choose good or evil, but the final result is not in our control. 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 (stem) could break, thereby making the esrog invalid for use. We can make the decision to do the mitzvah but only God can actually enable us to completely fulfill it.
Based on the principle that the decree that one must put in effort applies equally to the physical and spiritual worlds, one may want to equate the two realms in another way: Trusting in God is more important than putting in effort in the physical realm, and the more bitachon (trust in God) that we have the more we will receive regardless of the effort that we put in. So too one may approach he spiritual realm with the same attitude; the main task in the spiritual realm is bitachon and that effort is merely a secondary factor. However, Sifsei Chaim stresses that it is incorrect to totally equate the spiritual and physical realms in this regard. He argues that there is a crucial difference between the two: "In matters of physicality, the required effort is a penalty that one must pay and it is not good to add to payment of the penalty [i.e. one should minimize his effort as much as possible]. In contrast, in serving God he must make as much effort as possible and strive with all his strength..."
This idea is illustrated by the following story involving Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. "As a teenager, Hertzl Shechter was invariably a few minutes late for Reb Shraga Feivel's 9.00am Tanach (Prophets) class, and one day he received a notice that 'the Boss' wanted to speak to him. Hertzl entered the room trembling. "Nu, Hertzl, when are you going to start coming on time?" Reb Shraga Feivel asked. Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Hertzl could manage nothing more than, "Im yirtzeh HaShem." (3) 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." (4) 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 effort in one's own personal Divine Service, 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, God will not let it deteriorate indefinitely and that we can trust that eventually things will improve 'automatically'. This seems to be a grave error. If people do not take action to resolve the problems of the Jewish people then they will only persist - God 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." (5) Many commentaries explain this to mean that when there is a lack of people serving the needs of the community, one must stand up and fill the gap. (6) Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch 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.(7)
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.
Throughout his life, Moses was willing to extend great effort to fulfill God's will. As a result God gave him the ability to achieve superhuman results such as lifting the beams of the Mishkan. We can learn from this that all God requires is that we extend the effort; the results are in His hands.
1. Rashi, Pekudey, 39:33.
2. Sifsei Chaim, Midos v'Avodas Hashem, 2nd Chelek, p. 24.
3. This is literally translated as, 'if God so wills it.'
4. Rosenblum, Reb Shraga Feivel, p. 175.
5. Avos 2:6.
6. See Rashi, Bartenura, Tiferes Yisroel, Mili d'Avos, Rav Hirsch on Avos.