Responding To Divine Providence
After enslaving the Jewish people, Pharaoh was informed by his astrologers that a baby boy was destined to be born who would redeem the Jewish people from their terrible galus (exile). Pharaoh responded with great efforts to prevent this prediction from being fulfilled, including his order that every baby boy born should be thrown into the Nile.
The Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, notes the irony of the events that followed Pharaoh's decree. When Moses was born, the Egyptians sought to throw him into the Nile; as a result Yocheved placed Moses in a basket and left him to drift down the river to an unknown fate. His salvation came from none other than Batya the daughter of Pharaoh who drew him out of the water. The young Moshe was then brought up in Pharaoh's palace by Pharaoh himself. All of Pharaoh's efforts to alter events failed, but what is more remarkable is that Moses' salvation came about because of the very decree to kill the boys! As a result of that decree, Moses was placed in the Nile and saved by Pharaoh's daughter!
The Steipler Gaon teaches us that from here we learn that if God desires that a certain event take place then it is impossible to change His plans despite the greatest possible efforts.(1) A person may make great hishtadlus (effort) in a specific venture and do well, but the Steipler asserts that he succeeds only because the Hashgacha (Providence) decrees it. If he were not intended to succeed then no effort could change that reality.
This fundamental lesson assumes great relevance in the financial crisis that has been gravely affecting people's lives throughout the world for the past few years. Many people who have invested incredible amounts of time and energy into earning a livelihood have suddenly been placed in a very precarious financial situation. How should a person react to this difficult challenge? The Steipler's idea can help us answer this question.
The Steipler cites the Gemara that tells us that a person's year is decreed on Rosh Hashanah. Accordingly, there is no amount of effort in the physical realm that can change the Providence decreed upon a person. A natural reaction for one who has suddenly lost a significant amount of money is to strive to find new ways of earning money. This is understandable however it is important to realize that excessive effort will not lead him to earn more money. How can he know how much effort is appropriate? Rav Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that whatever is considered within the realm of 'normal' effort is acceptable, however one should be careful not to go beyond that boundary. Devoting vast amounts of time and energy to earning money to the exclusion of everything else is considered unnecessary effort and will not produce any fruits. Thus, one lesson derived from the Steipler is that if God decrees a specific event then there is no way to change that decree through physical effort.
An amusing example of this phenomenon is told over in the name of the Ben Ish Chai. It is the story of a man who had incredible success in all his business ventures. This man earned so much money that he became deathly afraid of ayin hara (the evil eye) that would arouse from the jealousy of others. Consequently, he strived to lose all his money in disastrous business ventures. To his distress, his efforts proved fruitless and all his wild ventures succeeded! He went to a Rav to share his dilemma. The Rav told him that he should stop trying to lose his money because if God decreed that he be wealthy then there is no way that he can change that decree. We see from here that both success and failure in the physical sphere are completely beyond our control.(2)
There is, however, one way of changing the decree of Rosh Hashanah; The Steipler explains that efforts in the spiritual realm can change the decree. The Gemara tells us that prayer can change a decree. It further states that repentance can make the decree pan out in a way that reduces the damage of a negative decree. For example, if a small amount of rain was decreed for the year because of one's sins, a person's repentance can make that rain fall in a propitious fashion. Similarly, it would seem that if a person is decreed a certain amount of money based on his spiritual level at Rosh Hashanah, his subsequent repentance could make it so that that money arrive in a more beneficial fashion and suffice to provide for his needs.
While growing spiritually can help one's financial situation, it is important to remember that the main benefit of such growth is that it brings a person closer to God. Very often, a loss of money can provide a person with an opportunity to focus more on the spiritual realm. For example, if one's business suffers to the extent that he has less work, he can react in one of two ways: He can either work harder in a vain attempt to stem the downturn, or he can accept the decline in his wealth and use the opportunity to learn more Torah or be more involved in other spiritual pursuits such as kindness. A striking example of this phenomenon is the story of the beginning of the Soloveitchik dynasty of great Torah scholars.
In the time of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, lived a wealthy, G-d fearing man, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. He had inherited his wealth from his parents. Since he owned great hardwood forests he went into the lumber business, cutting his trees and selling the wood for a good profit. Because of his busy work schedule, he was not known as a Torah scholar, but he was very generous with his great wealth, giving liberally to charitable causes. Yet the day came when he suddenly lost all his money, leaving him penniless. Everyone who knew him was left wondering how such a great philanthropist could suffer such a terrible fate. Rav Chaim of Volozhin convened a special Court to delve into this question. They examined his account books exhaustively but found nothing amiss. Unable to point to any other cause for his economic collapse, they concluded that he must have transgressed the prohibition of giving more than a fifth of one's fortune to charity.(3) They reported their conclusion to Rav Chaim, but he rejected their findings. He could not accept that for such a transgression Reb Moshe should be punished so badly, and thus the matter was left unresolved.
In the meantime, now that Reb Moshe had no business to attend to, he turned to the Beis HaMedrash (study hall) and embarked on a vigorous course of study. Little by little, hidden talents revealed themselves until it became clear that he excelled in Torah study. He advanced steadily, until before long he was counted among the most learned in his town, and he eventually attained the position of Av Beis Din (head of the Jewish law court) of Kovno. He also encouraged his sons to follow in his footsteps, and they too, took up the challenge and became famous Torah scholars. Now, Rav Chaim understood why Reb Moshe lost his fortune so quickly. For his great acts of charity he deserved a tremendous reward; to begin a dynasty of Torah scholars. Since is very difficult for greatness in Torah to rise from a wealthy house, his wealth was taken away, in order to release himself from worldly involvement and allow him to learn Torah, setting the path for generations of outstanding scholars.(4)
It is very difficult when a person experiences providence that seems to make his life more difficult, however every challenge is an opportunity to change our life direction. Loss of money may trigger a person to put more effort in this worldly activities, but this is a great shame. We learn from Pharaoh's fruitless efforts to change a heavenly decree that no amount of physical effort can change Divine providence. The only fruitful reaction is to use the extra time gained by less work in to be more involved in spirituality.
1. Birchas Peretz, Parshas Shemos.
2. Arush,'B'Gan HaEmuna'; p. 364.
3. Kesubos, 50a.
4. Meller, 'The Brisker Rav', p.1-3. In subsequent generations, some of the greatest Gedolim emerged from this dynasty, including the Beis HaLevi z"l, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l, and The Brisker Rav zt"l.