Jewish National Self-Reliance

Mishpatim: Trust in God vs. Self-Reliance

The Talmud (Berachot 10b) tells a puzzling story about the righteous king Hezekiah. It is related that the king secreted away the medical books of his day. Why? King Hezekiah felt that the people relied too heavily on the prescriptions described in those texts, and did not pray to God to heal them.

Surprisingly, the Sages approved of King Hezekiah’s action. Such an approach would appear to contradict another Talmudic ruling. The Torah says one who injures his neighbor must “provide for his complete healing” (Ex. 21:19). The Talmud (Baba Kama 85a) deducts from here that the Torah granted doctors permission to heal. Even with natural diseases, we do not say, “Since God made him ill, it is up to God to heal him,” but do our best to heal him.

Which is the correct attitude? Should we rely on doctors and medical books, or place our trust only in God and prayer?

There is in fact a larger question at stake. When are we expected to do our utmost to remedy the situation ourselves, and when should we rely on God’s help?

Two Forms of Bitachon

Rav Kook explained that there are two forms of bitachon, reliance on God. There is the normative level of trust, that God will assist us in our efforts to help ourselves. And there is the simple trust in God that He will perform a miracle, when appropriate.

Regarding the community as a whole, we find apparent contradictions in the Torah’s expectations. Sometimes we are expected to make every possible effort to succeed, as in the battle of HaAi (Joshua 8). On other occasions, human effort was considered a demonstration of lack of faith, as when God instructed Gideon not to send too many soldiers to fight, “Lest Israel should proudly say ‘My own hand saved me’” (Judges 7:2). Why did God limit Gideon’s military efforts, but not Joshua’s in the capture of HaAi?

The answer is that the spiritual level of the people determines what level of bitachon is appropriate. When we are able to recognize God’s hand in the natural course of events, when we are aware that God is the source of our strength and skill — “Remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you strength to succeed” (Deut. 8:18) — then God is more clearly revealed when He supplies our needs within the framework of the natural world. In this situation, we are expected to utilize all of our energy and knowledge and talents, and recognize divine assistance in our efforts. This reflects the spiritual level of the people in the time of Joshua.

On the other hand, there are times when the people are incapable of seeing God’s help in natural events, and they attribute any success solely to their own efforts and skills. They are likely to claim, “My own hand saved me.” In this case, only miraculous intervention will enable the people to recognize God’s hand — especially when the Jewish nation was young, miracles were needed to bring them to this awareness.

From Rav Kook Torah, here.

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