Parshat Shlach, a record of the tragic story of the spies, revolves around a concept that has no counterpart in secular culture. As the concept does not exist, there is no word in the vocabulary of the English language that encapsulates it. The concept is called hishtadlut in Hebrew, and although we shall loosely translate it as "effort," bear in mind in the succeeding discussion that we are dealing with an entirely novel cultural concept.

One of the most difficult and confusing problems that every believer in Divine Providence must confront is the determination of the proper measure of hishtadlut or effort that must be applied to life situations.

The believer walks around with the firm conviction that all effort is futile in a sense.

The believer walks around with the firm conviction that all effort is futile in a sense. He is taught that "everything is in the hands of God except for the fear of God" (Talmud, Brochot, 33b). Even the level of each person's income is set on Rosh Hashana till the following Rosh Hashana (Talmud, Baba Batra, 10a).

The need to expend the effort to bring about the foreordained result is presented by the Torah as a curse:

Accursed is the ground because of you; through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life ... By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Man's bread comes from God in any case and does not grow out of his application of effort. It was man's sin that brought the curse of effort down on his head. While no one can escape this curse entirely as long as our present world endures, it is obvious that it would be the act of an idiot to voluntarily subject oneself to a curse more than is absolutely mandatory.


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According to Rabbi Dessler, Rav Shmuel of Salant, one of the early luminaries of the Mussar Movement defined this minimum point of absolute necessity as the duty to live just short of miraculously. He made his living by purchasing lottery tickets. He would occasionally win modest sums which sufficed to provide him with his livelihood. His theory: this was a legitimate sort of effort permissible under the terms of the curse as it allowed the person observing his life from the outside a choice: 1) the observer (if he was a believer) could conclude that Rav Shmuel was living miraculously or 2) the obsever (if he wasn't a believer) could attribute Rav Shmuel's small periodic windfalls to luck or to chance.

But Rav Shmuel is hardly typical of the norm even for the greatest holy men, tzadikim. Universal Jewish custom has always been to engage in some sort of commercial enterprise no matter how modest. Thus the sage Hillel made his living as a wood chopper (Talmud Yuma 35b), and we find rabbis in the Talmud who were shoemakers or blacksmiths etc.

Illustrative of the rabbinic attitude toward this entire issue of effort is the well known statement of Rav to Rabbi Kahana, "hire yourself out in the market to skin carcasses and never say 'I am a great talmudic scholar [so how can I engage in an activity that is so beneath my dignity]'" (Talmud Baba Basra 110a).

Of course, today the curse of Adam appears to have greatly expanded. Very religious people, whose lives are genuinely focused around their Divine service are working full time as businessmen or professionals so that they have only an hour or two available in their day to devote to the study of Torah and prayer. Does this make sense? What is the correct measure of effort? How can we go about solving this very complex question intelligently?

Careful analysis reveals that the amount of hishtadlut necessary varies according to the measure of bitachon --one's trust in God, another Jewish idea that is very difficult to translate into secular vocabulary.


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There is a famous story about Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement. Rabbi Yisroel once delivered a lecture on the subject of bitachon in which he took the position that if you have "trust in God" that he will give you ten thousand rubles He will surely give it to you. A plaster worker sitting in the audience heard the talk and was inspired. He promptly quit his job, and began to spend his days in the study hall studying Torah while he waited for the money to just roll in. The money never materialized, and a few weeks later he had used up the family savings and had nothing left in the house with which to feed his wife and children.

The money never materialized, and a few weeks later he had used up the family savings and had nothing left.

At this point, the plaster worker's wife, who had waited patiently till now, sent him back to Rav Yisroel to complain that the promised rubles had never arrived. Rav Yisroel told him that he happened to have five thousand rubles and offered to buy the anticipated ten thousand rubles for five thousand rubles cash on the table. The plaster worker jumped at the deal.

Rav Yisroel pointed out to him that he obviously did not have the requisite bitachon in God to ensure the delivery of the ten thousand rubles without effort. If he did, he would never trade ten thousand rubles for five. Without such bitachon, however, he could not get any money from God without putting in any effort. Rav Yisroel advised him to leave the study hall and go back to work.

While there is something intuitively pleasing about Rav Yisroel's response, we have to unravel the details of his thought to get a solid grip on the issue. What did it matter that in his heart the plaster worker did not have the requisite bitachon? After all, he innocently followed the advice of a great sage and spent his days in Divine service. Why didn't God deliver?


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Rav Dessler offers the following explanation [see Michtav M'eliyahu Vol 1]. In truth if a person needs ten thousand rubles to support his family, these ten thousand rubles are placed for him in the natural world when he and his family are written in the book of life on Rosh Hashana. What is more, nature would automatically come up with a mechanism to deliver this money to him if not for the curse of Adam that requires the input of effort. For someone who believes that it would take a miracle to get the money to him without effort, the ten thousand rubles can only be delivered by the natural world if effort is applied. As the plaster worker clearly thought it would be miraculous for him to receive the rubles if he did not work for them, he was really waiting for a miracle. Consequently he could never receive the rubles by natural means. In the world of nature, unfortunately, there are no miraculous rubles.

Rav Yisroel could obtain the rubles without needing to go to work because he perceived clearly that nature had to supply him with the rubles he needed to live on by purely natural means. Just as he saw his life as not miraculous, the money he required to buy the food necessary to sustain his life could not be miraculous. The need for effort was not integral to nature but merely a curse and this curse was satisfied as long as the money materialized by some natural means, be it a windfall, or a gift, or some valuable item he found on the street. The curse of effort was not necessarily translatable into hours of work. Bending to pick up a lost item was also an effort. Because in his mind there was no need for a miracle to deliver the rubles if one didn't go to work, the rubles would arrive at his doorstep naturally and in due course.

He would accept the failure of their timely arrival as a test of his trust in God.

What is more, such was the clarity of Rav Yisroel's perception, that even if the rubles would not arrive when he needed them, he would not interpret their failure to materialize as an indication that they simply weren't there. He would accept the failure of their timely arrival as a test of his bitachon. Their ultimate arrival was as secure as his life itself.

The need for hishtadlut is thus directly proportional to the degree of bitachon. It is forbidden to rely on miracles. Any device that appears miraculous in a person's eyes is automatically an improper hishtadlut. On the other hand, if a person views the need for all hishtadlut as inherently unnatural and only a curse, than there is no need for effort in the conventional sense, and only the reliance on openly miraculous unnatural events is forbidden. Whatever is allowed by natural law will automatically happen, if it is supposed to happen, with the assistance of the tiniest possible application of human effort no matter how statistically unlikely such a result may be.

The religious person of today is perfectly correct in working a full day at his profession to earn his livelihood. As in his eyes, making a living without having to work for it is quite miraculous, his duty of hishtadlut embraces the full eight-hour working day. In earlier generations when people had more bitachon this level of hishtadlut was not mandatory and was therefore forbidden as a foolish waste of time and a violation of the commandment to devote one's time to the study of Torah.

Armed with this background information, let us now turn our attention to the story of the spies.


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The Jewish people in the desert had returned to the world as it was before the curse. They obtained all their earthly needs without hishtadlut. They ate the manna that fell at their door from heaven, they drank water from the well that followed them about, and they lived in the cloud of the Divine presence. However, this was not to be their fate forever. They were anticipating settling in Israel where the world would resume its natural course and they would be exposed to the need for hishtadlut. Looking at hishtadlut from the outside is possibly even more confusing than considering it from within. How much should one take on? When should one start?

The Jewish people concluded that as Israel was a land of hishtadlut.

Combining the information about the spy story given in the Book of Deuteronomy with what is set forth in Parshat Shlach, Nachmanides arrives at the following scenario: The Jewish people concluded that as Israel was a land of hishtadlut and conquest was the route of entry into the land, the proper time to begin this hishtadlut was right now. In the natural course of things, every invading army gathers intelligence as to the type of opposition it is likely to encounter and the type of terrain that lies ahead in order to work out the proper strategy of conquest. As they had determined that the time to rely on miracles had passed, and now they would have to apply effort under the terms of Adam's curse, the Jewish people requested of Moses that he send spies to determine the lie of the land. Moses found nothing objectionable in this request and he set about fulfilling it.

At this point God stepped in. God foresaw the potential pitfall of their chosen course. In His infinite wisdom, God perceived the approach of the people to the conquest as fraught with danger, and He hoped to forestall the negative consequences of the proposed mission in three ways:


  1. In case the mission would evolve in the tragic way in which it did indeed evolve, the responsibility for the sin should be spread over the entire people so that they could all equally share the blame.



  2. Those selected to carry out the mission should be people of the highest caliber, the best prepared to resist the temptation to which the spies ultimately succumbed.



  3. The spies should enjoy the special Divine protection that devolves upon those engaged in carrying out a Divinely ordained mission.


Moses also became alarmed upon witnessing God's reaction:

These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua. (Numbers 13:16)

The rabbi's remark on this name change with the following comment: "Moses expressed the following prayer for Joshua, 'May God rescue you from the conspiracy of the spies.'" (Talmud, Sotah 35b)


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What was the great spiritual danger that was so foreseeable here? What was the "conspiracy of the spies"?

Let us consider the spiritual downside of hishtadlut. The problem with the need for effort is that it is all too easy to confuse effort with control. For if the necessity of applying effort is congruent with the need to go about accomplishing life tasks, then it is easy to assume that these life tasks to which effort must be applied come under human control. No doubt God has to supply the initial input into the natural universe, but then it is up to people themselves to bring this input down to earth through the power of their own efforts.

The alternative view seems quite absurd at first glance: Such a view would argue that although man has to expend the effort as though he were in control, he is supposed to believe throughout the entire duration of his application of effort that he is actually accomplishing nothing at all. His effort does not move the natural universe by a single millimeter and it is God who is moving everything, even as man is pouring out his blood sweat and tears and exerting his utmost energy in applying his maximum effort.

His effort does not move the natural universe by a single millimeter and it is God who is moving everything.

If this view seems absurd to us, it is worth pointing out that it actually reflects perfectly our intuitive understanding of our spiritual actions. What do we actually accomplish when we observe the Sabbath, an activity that surely requires great effort? What do we accomplish by wearing tefillin or tzizit? In the view of most of us, absolutely nothing; we merely execute God's will. If any change occurs in the universe as a result, and we are told that indeed such activities have the power to bring about great changes, they are surely not caused by the application of our effort.

But if such is our view of our spiritual activities why is it so absurd to approach our physical activities in the same manner? Why should we be accomplishing more than merely carrying out God's will when we engage in physical activities?

In fact, a far stronger case could be made for the correctness of this position regarding our physical endeavors than for our spiritual acts! At least the necessity to perform our spiritual activities would exist regardless of Adam's sin, something that cannot be said for physical activities. If not for the curse of Adam, there would be no need of such activities at all.

We have finally stumbled upon "the conspiracy of the spies."


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The spies found that the Jewish people had no possibility of human control over the conquest under the rules of natural law. In their considered judgment, for the Jews to successfully conquer Israel would take a miracle. Miracles are by definition out of the realm of hishtadlut. But the conquest of Israel clearly fell under the area of hishtadlut. Thus, they could only weep.

Joshua and Caleb were of a different persuasion. Effort did not automatically imply control. Human beings had to put in the effort only as a curse. The control always remained with God. The Jewish conquest of Israel was not beyond the realm of natural possibility; it was merely highly statistically unlikely. Statistically unlikely natural events such as natural disasters, disease, the low morale of enemy troops could render the conquest naturally possible, but not miraculous. As long as man did not try to apply control along with his duty to apply his effort, it was perfectly possible to conquer Israel by means of human hishtadlut (with God's help).

Today we know just how right Joshua and Caleb really were for we have witnessed precisely such a conquest of the land of Israel in our lifetimes accomplished by purely natural means through the application of human effort. We are truly in the position to correct the conspiracy of the spies. All we have to do is open our eyes and we could certainly bring the redemption.