Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Question & Answer With Rabbi Zvi Leshem - The Emuna Of Yosef HaTzaddik

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

If we are not supposed to rely on miracles, what did Yosef do wrong by asking the chief wine steward to help him get out of prison? While keeping in mind that Hashem is exacting with tzaddikim and that a tzaddik must have rock-solid emuna and bitachon, how was Yosef to know that the chief wine steward was not the rope Hashem was throwing to him to rescue him? Should Yosef have waited for a bas kol or relied on his ruach hakodesh to determine when he would be released?

Rabbi Zvi Leshem answers:

At the end of our parsha (40:23) Yosef asks the butler to remember him to Pharaoh. For the “sin” of trusting in man instead of G-d, Rashi informs us, Yosef was punished with an additional two years in prison. Rashi is based upon Midrash Bereshit Raba 69:3: Happy is the man who trusts in HaShem. This is Yosef, and who doesn’t turn to the haughty. [But] because Yosef spoke to the butler two years were added on. [1] The Netivot Shalom points out that the Midrash seems to contradict itself. Yosef is described as both the one who places his faith in HaShem, and the one who was punished for turning to a human for salvation. [2] His answer is clear. Whereas for the average person, one must use every human means possible (hishtadlut) to save oneself from a difficult situation, for a tzaddik such as Yosef this is considered as a lacking in his reliance upon HaShem (bitachon). [3]

This question, of course, is not only a matter of Biblical commentary; it is a major issue in all of our lives. How do we balance the conflicting values of bitachon and hishtadlut in our daily lives, in issues such as parnasa (vs. learning), shidduchim, medicine [4] and a host of others? [5] The Netivot Shalom continues, when [a Jew] trusts in HaShem all the gates are open to him…if he reaches the highest level of bitachon he requires no hishtadlut, if not, he still requires some hishtadlut, it is all according to the level of each individual.

A short but systematic treatment of the topic of bitachon and its balance with hishtadlut is found in the Chazon Ish’s Emuna u’Bitachon. [6] Firstly the Chazon Ish distinguishes between emuna (belief) and bitachon (faith). While both are dependent upon the belief that everything that happens in the world is absolutely in G-d’s hands and that nothing is coincidental, the former is a general (and theoretical) belief. However, when one finds himself in a situation of uncertainty, testing his belief, at that point, his bitachon must come to fore, to guide him in this particular, practical test. [7] If his belief that all is in G-d’s hands is powerful enough to remove his fear (since he knows that all options are equally open to HaShem) he has passed the test of bitachon. [8] Here the Chazon Ish also admits of a range of levels, with the master of bitachon turning to teshuva, whereas one of lesser faith will seek out natural means of salvation.

But how are we to navigate this unclear path? Even the Chazon Ish admits that some acts constitute permissible hishtadlut, whereas others are prohibited according to bitachon. Before engaging in any activity we need to judge if it is in accordance with bitachon. This of course brings us back to the story of Yosef. The Chazon Ish explains the Midrash as teaching us that Yosef’s act constituted zilzul, making light, of bitachon. But how could such a tzaddik have fallen into this trap? The answer is that Yosef knew that his salvation was not dependent upon hishtadlut, but that all was from HaShem. However, since one is enjoined to act and not to rely upon miracles, Yosef forced himself to ask the butler. If so, what was inappropriate about his behavior? Yosef knew that the butler was a haughty individual, and therefore could not realistically be expected to help him. Thus his turning to the butler was not a serious act of hishtadlut, but rather an act of despair, in which one grabs at any ridiculous option for salvation instead of relying upon HaShem’s exclusive powers of salvation. This type of “hishtadlut”, according to the Chazon Ish, is prohibited. [9] Hishtadlut is required; we are not supposed to rely upon miracles. However, certain acts are so far-fetched that they are disqualified from the category of true hishtadlut.

There are no simple answers here. This remains a very individual issue. While we must strive to be baaley bitachon, people of faith, we must also be honest regarding our true level. We must certainly be careful not to fall into what the Chazon Ish calls bitachon hamizuyaf, false bitachon. [10] For most of us, honest and reasonable hishtadlut, combined with an acute awareness that the results are ultimately in the hands of Heaven [11], would seem to be most viable path.


[1] See the comment of the Maharzu, who points out that Yosef always relied exclusively upon HaShem. Just this once he relied on a human and was punished. While it is beyond the scope of this drasha to elaborate, I wish to point out that seemingly conflicting opinions are found within the Talmud and Midrashim.

[2] Rav Tzaddok HaKohen preceded him with this idea in Pri Tzaddik, Vaera 4. The Meor v’Shemesh goes further and states that in the Biblical narrative it seems as though Yosef relied exclusively upon the butler, not turning to HaShem at all!

[3] A similar answer is given by Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh in Maayan Ganim, who also sees this as a paradigm for the various scenarios for Am Yisrael’s future deliverance. For other Chassidic comments upon this Midrash see Sfat Emet in several places, and the Piaseczner in Derech HaMelech, Miketz (1). See also Rebbe Nachman’s short story Maaseh M’Bitachon.

[4] On the issue of hishtadlut in medical issues, see the Rambam, Commentary to the Mishna: Pesachim 4:9, who absolutely insists upon the use of medicine. See also the Ramban, in his comment to Vayikra 26:11, who views medical practices as a bidieved, showing a of lack of bitachon See also the Rambam: Guide 3:51 on the interface of devaikut and hashgacha pratit.

[5] See the fascinating Halachic discussions of Rav Moshe Feinstein regarding insurance in Igrot Moshe O.H. 2: 111, 4: 48. For Rav Moshe insurance is in the same category as other business activities that he sees as not only permissible, but also obligatory. It is not only prohibited to rely upon miracles, it is also prohibited to pray to HaShem for a miracle for parnasa. While one must believe that ultimately his parnasa comes from HaShem, not from his hishtadlut, he is absolutely required to work for a living through natural means. In relation to insurance, his bitachon is expressed in that he has faith that he will be able to keep up with the payments!

[6] This slim volume is the only published work of the Chazon Ish that deals with philosophical topics. Chapter two is on Bitachon. For a detailed Mussar treatment, see Madregat HaAdam of the Nevordeker, Maamar Darchei HaBitachon. Chapter Four deals with the story of Yosef. Incidentally, Chapter Six discusses the issue of bitachon in relation to the Shmita Year.

[7] See the [attributed to] Ramban, Sefer HaEmuna v’haBitachon, chapter one, anyone who has bitachon is called maamin, but not all who believe are called botaach. Emuna is like a tree and bitachon is like the fruit.

[8] Just a few days before my teacher Rav Shagar zt”l died of cancer last spring, he remarked that the possibility of a miracle was still a completely realistic option.

[9] Shortly before looking in the Chazon Ish, I heard an almost identical explanation from my cousin, Reb Shaya Britz.

[10] This Bitachon hamizuyaf is, in his opinion, much worse than no bitachon, and often leads to a chilul HaShem, whereas true bitachon is a Kiddush HaShem. “Real” bitachon, according to his words, is often revealed to be false when tested in situations of competition between people. The phony will plot the downfall of his rival (in spite of his “bitachon” that all is from HaShem), whereas the true man of faith will help his competitor. It is also worthy of note that whereas the Chazon Ish is often credited with the revolutionary approach that encourages all men to study in kollel for as long as possible after marriage, he also encouraged them to send their wives out to work to support their families. For all that can be stated regarding this approach, it clearly recognizes the fact that someone has to work!

[11] We are therefore enjoined while engaging in hishtadlut, to constantly augment it with sincere and intensive prayer as well. May HaShem guide us to serve Him in truth. May we merit receiving all of our spiritual and physical needs and clarity regarding what is happening in our lives. I would like thank Rav Yaacov Moshe Poupko and Rav Meir Munitz for fruitful discussions and sources on this topic.


At November 28, 2007 at 10:33:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reb Avrohom ben HaRambam asks the same kasha in HaMaspik. He gives a teirutz very similar to the Nesivos Sholom -- that the type of bitochon Ha-shem expects from big Tzaddikim is different from the bitochon expected from the average ehrlicher yid.

At November 28, 2007 at 1:02:00 PM EST, Blogger A Talmid said...

Rabbi Leshem and ASJ- Great post.

anononymous - I don't know if you realize, but today is the yartzeit of Reb Avrohom ben HaRambam ZY"A. The lips move in the grave.

At May 1, 2008 at 12:37:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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