The Guiding Light Parshat Chayei Sarah: Relying on Miracles
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Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Relying on Miracles

After arranging the burial of his wife, Sarah, Abraham sends his faithful servant, Eliezer, to search for a suitable wife for his son, Isaac. Eliezer brings along with him ten of Abraham’s camels. In that time, most people were not careful to muzzle their animals, despite the fact that they would inevitably graze from other people’s land. The Medrash brings a machlokes (dispute) as to whether Abraham’s camels were muzzled or not.

The first opinion holds that Abraham’s camels were indeed muzzled in order to prevent them from grazing. However, Rav Huna and Rav Yirimiyah points out a difficulty with the idea that Abraham needed to muzzle his camels in order to prevent them from stealing. They discuss the donkey of the great Rabbi, Rav Pinchas ben Yair, who would not eat forbidden food. From there, the Talmud in Chullin learns out a principle that God does not allow the animals of the righteous to commit sins.1 Accordingly, Rav Huna and Rav Yirimiyah notes that if Pinchas ben Yair was on the level that his animals would not sin, all the more so that should be the case with regard to Abraham. Therefore, they argue that there was no need for Abraham to muzzle his camels. The Medrash ends with that argument unanswered.2

There is a disagreement amongst the commentaries as to which opinion in the Medrash is correct. Rashi adopts the first opinion, that Avraham did indeed muzzle his camels.3 In contrast, the Ramban prefers the second view, that the camels were not muzzled because this was unnecessary, due to Abraham’s great righteousness. Indeed, the proof from Rav Pinchas Ben Yair needs to be answered by the opinion in the Medrash that Avraham did muzzle his camels, (and according to Rashi who follows this opinion). According to them why was this at all necessary; Abraham’s camels would surely not have stolen in any event?!

The Re’eim and Maharal both answer that the first opinion agrees that Abraham’s camels would not steal. Nonetheless, Avraham had to muzzle them because of the principle of ‘ein somchim al haneis’4, that a person should not act in such a way that he relies on miracles.5 Based on this principle, Avraham would not have been allowed to take his camels to places where, according to derech hateva (the regular laws of nature), they would have grazed on other people’s land. This answer seems so persuasive that one now must explain how Rav Huna and Rav Yirimyahu, and the Ramban who follows them, could maintain that Avraham did indeed leave his camels unmuzzled, thereby relying on a miracle that they would not eat any grass on their whole journey.

It seems that they do not totally reject the principle of ‘ein somchim al haneis’, rather they hold that it only applies to normal people. However, tzaddikim (righteous people) need not follow this principle, rather they can rely on miracles. Avraham Avinu was on such a level of greatness that he could live beyond the normal laws of nature (me’al derech hateva).

The idea that the Ramban holds a tzaddik can rely on miracles, and that Rashi argues, was heard from my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlita, in his discussion of an earlier section in Sefer Bereishis. In the beginning of Lech Lecha, Abraham leaves the land of Israel immediately after arriving, because of a famine. Rashi understands that he was correct to leave, however the Ramban explains that this was a great sin. He argues that Avraham should have relied on God and stayed in Israel despite the fact that there was such a strong famine, which one could not survive, derech hateva. Rav Berkovits explained the disagreement in the same vein. Rashi held that to remain in the land would break the idea of ‘ein somchin al haneis’, whereas the Ramban held it does not apply to a tzaddik such as Avraham, therefore Avraham was obligated to stay and trust that God would somehow provide him with food.

According to the Ramban, why is it the case that ‘ein somchin al haneis’ does not apply to tzaddikim? It is a well-known principle that God does not like to break the normal laws of nature for a person. The reason for this is that when such events occur they take away from one’s free will ability to decide whether to serve God or not – now that they see such a clear manifestation of His presence they have no choice but to believe in Him. Because of this idea, a normal person cannot rely on a miracle, because he is forcing God to change the laws of nature and cause an imbalance in his free will. However, a tzaddik is so clear that everything is from God, that events that transcend nature do not change his free will anyway, because, regardless of such ‘miracles’ he is fully aware of God’s presence. Since for him, a miracle is no different than anything else, the Ramban holds there is no problem of relying on miracles. For even when they take place, they do not alter his free will.

Despite the fact that Rashi argues on the Ramban with regard to relying on a miracle, it seems clear that everyone agrees that the more trust in God that a person has, the more God will do for him in response. This idea is brought out in numerous places in the Prophets6 and the early works about self-growth, such as Chovos Levavos (Duties of the Heart). He writes that God reacts in kind to the level of bitachon (trust) one has in Him – for example, with regard to one who does not trust in God, he writes, “whoever trusts in what is other than God, God removes His Providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.”7 The only point that Rashi and the Ramban disagree on, is when the reliance leaves the realm of what could be considered derech hateva, and becomes me’al derech hateva 8 However, everyone agrees that when a person has higher level of trust, he is required him to act in a different way from someone with lesser trust. In this vein, the Vilna Gaon zt”l said that in truth, a sick person should not take medicine in order to heal him from his sickness, rather he should rely on God alone to heal him. However, since most people do not reach such a level, they are allowed, and indeed obligated to take medicine. Yet it is known that the Vilna Gaon himself did not take medicine. This is because on his level, it was appropriate not to take medicine, whilst for others, it would be irresponsible.9

We see from this principle that it is essential for a person to recognize his level of trust of God, and act accordingly. If he stands back and does nothing where his level of trust does not merit such inaction, then it is considered irresponsible. However, equally, he must be careful not to do too much hishtadlus (effort) where he should rely more on God. It is very easy to get caught in the trap for thinking one has not exerted sufficient effort, when in truth he should stand back and rely on God. A well-known example of this is that of Joseph, who, after languishing for ten years in prison, asked the butler to help get him released from prison. Joseph was punished for his seeming ‘lack of trust’ by suffering for an extra two years before being released. Why did Joseph make such an effort? Rav Tzadok HaKohen explains that Yosef felt that he had to make an effort because otherwise he would transgress the principle of ‘ein somchin al haneis’.10 However, in truth, for someone on his high level of bitachon, trust in God, it was appropriate to avoid any hishtadlus, effort, and rely on God for finding a way of getting him released in the most optimum fashion.

There are two very important lessons that can be derived from the above discussion. The first relates to the difficult question of how to find the correct balance between bitachon, trust, and hishtadlus, effort. As a general guide, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the amount of effort that is considered ‘normal’ given one’s situation, is correct. For example, if it is normal for such a person to work eight hours a day, then for him to work extra hours may constitute unnecessary hishtadlus, whilst working less hours may be considered insufficient hishtadlus. However, we have now seen that the appropriate level of bitachon varies according to each person, as well as what is normal in general. Therefore, if a person develops a heightened sense of bitachon, he may, in theory, be able to reduce his work hours, and learn more, instead, based on his clear recognition that one’s livelihood ultimately comes only from God and not from work.11

The second, connected, lesson, is that one should constantly strive to increase his bitachon. By doing this, he will then be able to increasingly free himself from the shackles of hishtadlus, and focus on more spiritual activities. Moreover, the Sefer HaChinuch writes that the more a person relies only on HaShem, he makes himself a vessel that is fitting to receive God’s blessings.12 Therefore, it is an essential aspect of one’s Service of God to constantly work on his bitachon. May we all merit to constantly grow in our trust of God.


1. Chullin, 7a.
2. Bereishis Rabbah, 60:10.
3. Bereishis, 24:10.
4. It is mentioned in Kiddushin, 39b, Pesachim 64a.
5. See also Sifsei Chachaim and Nachalas Yaakov for alternative answers to this question.
6. See for example, Yirmiyahu, 17:7 with the commentary of Metsudas David; Tehillim, 32:10. See also the gemara in Taanis, 25a
7. Shaar HaBitachon, Introduction.
8. It would seem that, according to Rashi, the case in the Torah of camels travelling constantly and never grazing from other people’s land constituted too great a miracle for even a tzaddik like Avraham to rely on HaShem.
9. Taam v’daas, Mikeitz, 41:1. It is possible that Rashi would disagree with not taking medicine, as being included in the idea of ‘ein somchin al haneis’, and that the Vilna Gaon held like the Ramban
10. Pri Tzaddik, Mikeitz, os 2.
11. Needless to say, one should consult with his Rav before making such life decisions.
12. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvo 477.

Published: November 14, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) dab, November 18, 2011 12:43 PM

How does one increase his bitachon?

Perhaps you could discuss this in a future article?!

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