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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.


Waging War Against Canaan

In 2009, when Israel went into Gaza and killed a lot of people, I was discussing religion with one of my friends, and he said that in the Torah, God told us to go out and murder people that we don't like. The verse he quoted was in Deuteronomy about the Jews driving out the Canaanite nations from the Land of Israel.

Does the Torah really say that, and if so, why does everything need to be so violent?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Canaanite nations were hardcore idol worshippers and as such, were an unacceptable influence on the holy Jewish nation building its home in the Land of Israel. Today, it is hard for us to imagine what could be so evil about a society, since we imagine idolaters as normal families who just happen to worship the sun or a statue. In reality, idol worship was much worse.

Rabbi Akiva (2nd century CE, Israel) reported that he saw a son bind up his father and feed him to ravaging dogs in service of one his idols. Part of their cult worship was to sacrifice children to the gods (Deut. 12:31), and modern archaeologists have found mounds of children's bones by their altars. These nations were also involved in various sexual immoralities like incest, bestiality and temple orgies (Leviticus 18:27).

Today, most Westerners grow up in quiet neighborhoods, and never experience war, persecution and racism. So they don't easily relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Questioning someone's sense of justice and morality is really not fair if you haven't dealt with the harsh reality of their experience.

Judaism taught the world the utopian ideal of world peace, yet sometimes war is necessary. We taught the value of life, yet we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is part of justice. If you choose to leave evil alone, it will eventually attack you (Rashi, Deut. 20:12).

It is ironic that the Jewish people and Israel, who introduced to the world the concept of the sanctity of life, are now criticized as being "cruel" by today's Western civilizations which are built on that Jewish moral foundation! People today can only criticize the State of Israel because those very Jews taught the world that murder, conquest and abuse are wrong.

People mistakenly think that the Torah directive was to wipe out the Canaanites cruelly and indiscriminately. In truth, the Torah prefers that the Canaanites would avoid punishment; they were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they'd change and adopt the basic pillars of human civilization which distinguish a community of humans from a jungle of wild animals.

Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy, as the Torah states, "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." (Deut. 20:10)

Before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." If they refused, a second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." If they again refused, a final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to fight." Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations, the Girgashites, heeded the call and settled peacefully.

In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jewish people were still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape. (see Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4-5, with Kesef Mishna)

It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature. At various stages throughout the 40-year trek in the desert, Moses was forced to reprimand the Jews for having the fear of war. He inspired them with various pep talks, and assurances of victory. Years later, King Saul lost his kingdom by showing misplaced mercy and allowing the Amalekite king to live. (see Exodus 14:3 with Ibn Ezra; Numbers 21:34 with Nachmanides; Deut. 31:6; 1-Samuel ch. 15)

In modern times, Israel has often shown tremendous restraint in dealing with its enemies, and regret at any loss of life. Israel absorbed 10,000 missiles before attacking Gaza. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, "It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers."

So let's put things into perspective before criticizing.


Delaying Funeral for Relatives to Arrive

This may but hopefully will not be relevant to my family situation. If an older person dies, how long can the funeral be delayed to give the relatives time to arrive?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

As you wrote, I hope your question is only theoretical for quite some time.

It is much better to do the burial right away, on the day the person died. The Torah forbids leaving a dead body overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23). In addition, it is considered a terrible cause of suffering for the deceased for his burial to be delayed.

A burial may only be delayed if it is for the sake of the deceased himself – such as to properly prepare the funeral or to allow family members to arrive.

In practice, a funeral is only delayed so that the immediate relatives of the deceased can attend (parents, siblings, spouse, and children), not siblings-in-law, children-in-law or any more distant relatives. Even for children a funeral is delayed only for 1-2 days and almost never longer, especially if some of the relatives are already present. In fact, in Israel the custom is not to wait even for the children but to bury as soon as possible.

(Sources: Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 357:1, Aruch HaShulchan Y.D. 357:2, Shevet HaLevi IV 154:2, Teshuvos V’Hanhagos I 687.)


Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

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