Parashat Pekudei: Who gets the credit?

God acts through human beings, but in the final analysis, it is our initiative and decisions which make them happen.

water fountain with birds_521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
water fountain with birds_521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
To what extent is prosperity a function of a person’s hard work and planning, and to what extent is it a result of the graciousness of the Almighty?
The great talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan teaches: “There are three keys solely in the hands of the Holy One Blessed be He, which He never handed over to an agent: the key to the rains, the key to childbearing, and the key to the resurrection of the dead.” From this passage, it seems that financial status, children and redemption are dependent on God’s will rather than on human activity.
A fascinating commentary of Rashi on a verse in this week’s Torah reading adds an important element to the words of Rabbi Yohanan. At the completion of the Sanctuary and its accoutrements, the Bible declares, “And they brought the Sanctuary to Moses with a tent and all of its vessels” (Exodus 39:36-42).
Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanhuma, interprets: They brought the Sanctuary in its entirety to Moses because they were not able to properly erect it. God left Moses the task of erecting it, and he succeeded. Moses said to the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘How is it possible for such a structure to be erected by human effort?’ He answered him: ‘You must occupy yourself by doing the work; it will appear as if you are the one causing it to be erected, but in fact, it will stand up by itself.”
If it was God who was erecting the Sanctuary, why did the Israelites bring it to Moses at all? The message seems to be that God operates via human agents; hence, in all areas of life it is necessary that we exert effort (this is what theologians like Rav Dessler refer to as hishtadlut). But we must understand that in the final analysis, whatever happens only happens because God willed it.
I believe the interpretation is a bit different. God acts through human beings; after all, he created us in His image, and so the things we do, which He would want us to do, derive their energy and power ultimately from God Himself. But in the final analysis, it is our initiative and decisions which make them happen, and this is the interpretation of Maimonides.
The rabbis of the Talmud teach that there were three things which were done by King Hezekiah for which he was praised by the sages. Taking a certain “Book of Cures” out of circulation was one of them. Maimonides, in his Commentaries on the Mishna, informs us that this “Book of Cures” was related to idolatry and completely ineffective. The great philosopher and legal codifier goes on to explain: “When someone became sick, he would turn to that book, act in accordance with its advice, and be cured. When King Hezekiah saw that people had stopped relying on the Lord [but were instead relying on the book], he took it out of circulation.” Maimonides himself then turns to the reader with his own words, which are uncharacteristically filled with invective. “And you must now understand the weakness of this statement, how there is within it a touch of madness, and to what extent it is impossible to imagine that Hezekiah would have anything to do with such foolishness, or that his devotees would praise him regarding such a fool-hearted and ill-advised action. Would you then suggest that were a hungry individual to acquire a piece of bread and eat it – an activity which would undoubtedly cure him of the terrible illness of hunger – that he would not thereafter rely on God, to whom he would give thanks for having provided him with the food which removed his discomfort?”
Maimonides insists that the only justification for taking the book out of circulation was its idolatrous nature. For Maimonides, it is incumbent upon every individual to work in his field as effectively as he can, and it is especially incumbent upon doctors to save as many lives as possible through the treatments they prescribe. A patient who is cured, however, must always remember to thank not only the doctor, but also – and perhaps especially – Almighty God, who initially implanted the wisdom to allow for such cures.
From Maimonides’s perspective, human beings must maximize their knowledge and their desire to produce the best results. Indeed, God operates in the world through His human creations, and the intelligence with which He has endowed them. In the case of the Sanctuary, it was Moses, his superior will – and concomitant strength – which erected the Sanctuary and understood precisely how God wanted it to be. This does not take away one iota of our reverence for the Divine. After all, it was the Almighty who created a soul like that of Moses our teacher, and endowed him with the ability to become the greatest prophet and leader in Jewish history.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.