An Issue of Trust
Parshat Mikeitz overlaps this week with the celebration of Chanukah. Interestingly, it brings up an issue that defines the very essence of the holiday -- bitachon, trust in God.
We begin with Joseph, who just been dragged out of jail for the occasion, interpreting Pharaoh dream and then going on to offer this choice bit of unsolicited advice:
[And Joseph said to Pharaoh:] "Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed and let him appoint overseers over the land and he shall prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance." (Genesis, 41:33-34)
Where does courage end and presumption begin? Why did Joseph presume to offer Pharaoh unsolicited advice and thus jeopardize the grace he had gained with the interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams?
Joseph was a tzadik and he was not allowed to do something forbidden in the eyes of God.
Joseph may have been capable of doing something impetuous, but he was a tzadik and he was not allowed to do something forbidden in the eyes of God. For merely requesting that the cup-bearer remember him to Pharaoh if he were reinstated as Joseph had predicted, he was punished by having to remain two extra years in jail for his lack of faith. (See Rashi, Genesis 40:33.)
It is a much greater violation of faith to place oneself in a situation of danger needlessly. If Joseph was not punished for his apparent presumption, this was obviously what he was supposed to do. How did he know? What made him think that it was the will of God that he suggest to Pharaoh that an advisor was needed, implying that he be appointed for the job straight out of jail?
TRUST IN GOD
The commandment to believe in God subsumes within it the obligation to place one's trust in God. Nachmanides explains the relationship between these concepts thus:
- implicit in the command to believe in God is the command to believe in a just God;
- a just God inflicts no harm without reason;
- therefore, unless a person fears that his sins may expose him to harm, his belief in God necessitates that he trust in God's protection.
Other than humans who have free will, there is nothing loose in the world at all -- everything is under God's direct personal control. Even the evil forces of nature have no permission to attack autonomously without first obtaining God's permission. Thus no evil can befall anyone who is under God's protection.
On the other hand, explains Nachmanides, this does not mean that all one's designs are automatically guaranteed to have a successful outcome. In order to be confident of a favorable outcome, you must first be certain that what you are proposing to do is in line with God's will. If it is, you can proceed with full confidence, as it is written, "Trust in God and do good" (Psalms 37:3). But if you are uncertain that your chosen course of behavior is in line with God's design, there is absolutely no reason why you should be entitled to assume that God will engineer the outcome you desire.
Thus, Joseph's act of presumption can be understood if we assume that it was taken in line with this commandment to "trust in God and do good." He had bitachon that God would help him attain the seemingly impossible.
How can we learn from Joseph when to have bitachon and forge on (as he did in this instance) and when to question our actions (as he should have earlier)?
CHANUKAH VS. PURIM
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman finds the answer in the different actions taken by our ancestors in two times in history when the Jewish people were threatened -- the events which we now celebrate as the holidays Chanukah and Purim.
Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus -- a victory in the face of hopeless odds. The Al Hanisim prayer describes it as the victory of "the few over the many and the weak over the strong."
Knowing that there was no natural way they could possibly win, the Maccabees placed their faith in God.
Knowing in advance that there was no natural way they could possibly win, the Maccabees placed their faith in God, went to war, and succeeded in destroying the superior enemy. While there is no arguing with results, nevertheless, the decision to attack a vastly superior power under these circumstances is highly problematic, according to Jewish law. It is far from clear that such a course of behavior is always permissible. Judaism forbids useless gestures of resistance that can only be termed suicidal.
In line with this philosophy, when Haman issued his edict of genocide against the Jewish people, whose abolition we commemorate and celebrate with the festival of Purim, the Jews did not engage in war. The Book of Esther records public fasting and prayer and repentance as the method of resistance adopted by Jews. They did not attempt a war against hopeless odds. They called out for God's help.
How can we account for the difference in the policy adopted by the Jewish people in the Chanukah and Purim stories, in the face of situations that appear so alike on the surface? Which policy was correct, and if they were both correct how do we explain the difference?
This is the explanation presented by Rabbi Elchanan in the name of his mentor the Chofez Chaim. The reaction of the Jewish people in each case was correct according to Jewish law because it was tailored to suit the sort of danger they faced. Haman was threatening them with genocide. He was not offering clemency to anyone who would abandon his Judaism. All Jews were to be slaughtered no matter what. Antiochus was offering clemency to anyone who was willing to abandon the practice of Judaism. All a Jew had to do, to gain the rights and privileges of all Greek citizens, was to adopt a Greek lifestyle.
Explained Rabbi Elchanan: Perhaps the primary obligation imposed on the Jewish people by the Mitzvah of believing in God is the requirement of accepting His edicts. If God allows an edict of genocide to be issued against the Jewish people, a believer has to accept the fact that in the eyes of God such an edict must be warranted. If they did not deserve it, a just God would not allow such an edict to be issued in the first place. There must be something terribly wrong with the Jewish people. The source of the problem is not the external Haman as he is merely the executioner. Therefore the solution is not to attack Haman, but to repent. Thus the Jews did not go to war but focused their energies where they were required, into making peace with God.
Antiochus was not out to harm Jews at all. He was out to destroy their religion.
Antiochus was not out to harm Jews at all. He was out to destroy their religion. An edict against the religion is never from God but from the Satan. It is the Satan's job to make the Jews abandon their religion by any means at his disposal. Normally he only has the permission to tempt man, not threaten him with force. But if Jews are unwilling to come up with the small measure of self-sacrifice required to resist temptation, the Satan becomes stronger. The lack of Jewish resistance gives him the power to get Jews to abandon their religion by force. Nevertheless, an edict forcing a Jew to abandon his Torah does not issue from God. God commands Jews to observe His Torah at all times not to abandon it. Thus it was the Satan's edict the Jewish people were facing, not God's. In this situation the Jewish people went to war.
Satan's edicts can always be overcome by Jewish self-sacrifice no matter how great the temporal power backing them may be. The overcoming of such edicts requires the very display of the self-sacrifice toward the practices of their religion that Jews failed to demonstrate in the peaceful course of their ordinary lives. The victory over the Syrian Greeks was only gained at the cost of much Jewish self-sacrifice.
But the war against the Syrian Greeks was not an act of suicide because it was a war against Satan, not a rebellion against God's edict. No matter how great the odds against it were, ultimate victory was always assured. The mismatch between the power possessed by the Jews and that wielded by their enemies was merely an indication of the great self-sacrifice that was being demanded. As God wins wars, not man, military prowess has no bearing on victory.
A war against Haman would have been considered an act of suicide.
A war against Haman, however, would have been considered an act of suicide. As Haman's edict was directed against Jews themselves rather than against their religion, it originated from God and not from the Satan. To war against Haman would have amounted to warring against God.
To demonstrate how strongly He backed the policy Israel adopted against the Syrian Greeks, God sent the Jews a most unusual miracle. Generally, miracles are not provided as gestures of pure affection and approval. But the miracle of the Chanukah lights was an exception.
In the absence of ritually pure olive oil, the Maccabees could have, under Jewish law, used tainted oil for the lighting of the menorah. But in appreciation of Jewish self-sacrifice God miraculously provided Israel with ritually pure oil. The purity of the oil was symbolic of the clarity of vision that was required of the Jewish people to decide to engage in this apparently hopeless war.
How can we apply this to situations we find ourselves in today?
Interaction with God always requires an intelligent assessment of one's life and circumstances. A person always has to think to himself, "Assuming that I live in a world that is controlled by God in all particulars, how can I account for the circumstances that I find myself in?" The answer always provides the background for the proper application of bitachon.
But the story of Chanukah illustrates a deeper concept of bitachon as well. The victory over the Syrian Greeks that Chanukah serves to commemorate is the redemption of one of the four major exiles of Jewish history.
When the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2). Rabbi Shimon interpreted this verse as referring to the four kingdoms that took Israel into exile. The word "empty" refers to Babylon, as it is written, I have seen the land and behold it is empty (Jeremiah 14); "astonishingly" refers to Persia, as it is written, and they made extreme haste; and the word "darkness" refers to Greece, who darkened the eyes of Israel with their edicts, because they said to them "write on the horns of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel..." (Genesis Rabba 2:4)
Each of the four kingdoms is distinguished by the fact that it provides an alternative organizing principle to the one offered by Israel around which human society can be organized. As humans are intelligent, they cannot live in a senseless world.
Israel explains the world as a place God created in which man can earn his reward by serving God. But the Greeks envisioned the world as a self-contained entity. God was a part of it, but Aristotle defined God as a first cause who created the world not because He chose to, but because it was in His nature to do so. Consequently, the world He created was exactly the world He was compelled to create. Man has no recourse but to come to terms with the world he lives in, for the natural world constitutes his entire reality. Greek culture rejects Judaism on the grounds of practicality.
This rejection is focused more at Torah study than at actual observance. The investment of so much effort in knowledge that does not seem to improve man's lot by an iota seems futile to the Greek mind. All the divisions of knowledge organized by Aristotle were designed to improve man's lot.
Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God.
But perhaps it can be argued that Judaism is a practical necessity for Jews as Jews cannot live without a close relationship with a personal God. Just as one doesn't think of one's children in terms of practical advantages, and would never consider selling them for any kind of price, an emotional attachment to God cannot be measured in terms of its utility either.
Maharal explains that this is the proposition the Greeks were shooting down by making the Jews write on the horns of the ox. This ox is a reference to the golden calf. If the people who stood at Mount Sinai could serve an idol a mere forty days after the experience of bonding with God in such an intensive way, this amply demonstrates that Jews can manage quite well without their attachment to this God of theirs. In the post- First Temple world, Judaism is of no practical or emotional necessity, so why stubbornly cling to it?
The downside of Greek knowledge, which is fully shared by the modern secular culture (which is its great grandchild) is that it is forced to accept a pointless universe. If the universe was not created for any purpose by an intelligent God who designed it in conformity to His purpose, it just is. And, human beings, as they are a part of this pointless universe, also have purposeless lives -- they live and they die and it all makes no difference.
It is precisely in this area that Torah knowledge is focused. The Torah teaches us the purpose of the universe. It explains how and why it was created, what God wanted to accomplish with it, and how the purpose of human life relates to God's design. Man lives in a world of relationships, not in a world of practicalities. The practicalities of the world are related to its purpose and have no importance in themselves. They merely provide the venue in which the relationship between God and man can develop.
CLASH OF CULTURES
The clash of cultures that Chanukah commemorates was over the willingness of the Jewish people to live in a practical but purposeless world, or to insist to the point of self-sacrifice on leading lives of significance and meaning.
Bitachon is only rational in a word that has purpose and meaning. If this is truly such a world, than we can place our trust in God that He will never allow considerations of practicality to force us into leading meaningless lives. No matter what economic or military force may be aligned against the practice of Judaism, a Jew can always succeed in leading his life according to Torah values if he is willing to undergo some self-sacrifice.
Bitachon is the certainty that God will never demand more self-sacrifice than one is capable of. A person who approaches life with bitachon learns to expand his own self-perceived limits. He knows that, if God asks him for more self-sacrifice, then he is capable of demonstrating it.