From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
ויביאה יצחק האהלה שרה אמו
And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother
Is it heresy to say, “G‑d helps those who help themselves”? Does it deny the hand of G‑d in our successes?
I recall a conversation with a self-proclaimed atheist who used the expression very cynically, suggesting that his considerable achievements were entirely his own and that G‑d had nothing to do with it.
I beg to differ. To my mind, “G‑d helps those who help themselves” is a perfectly religious statement. What it means is absolutely consistent with traditional Jewish thinking. G‑d does indeed help us to accomplish things, but He requires us to help ourselves first. If we just sit back and wait for miracles to happen, we may be disappointed.
“And Hashem your G‑d will bless you in all that you do” (Devarim 15:18) makes it very clear. Our blessings come from Hashem, but we must do something about it, too. He helps, but we must do. Of course we believe in miracles—but we mustn’t rely on them. The combination of our own hard work and efforts coupled with Hashem’s blessing is the ideal road to success.
The classic case is the farmer. He can plow and plant, sow and shvitz, from today until tomorrow, but if the rains don’t come, nothing will grow. Conversely, all the rains in the world will not cause anything to grow if we haven’t planted first. After the farmer has done his work and the rains come from above, there will be a plentiful crop. And it is the same story whether we are farmers or shopkeepers, professionals or artisans, employers or employees.
There are religious ideologies that frown upon medical intervention when someone is ill. They see it as a lack of faith in the great Healer of all flesh. In fact, in my own community, there was once a court case because a hospital gave a blood transfusion to a child who was critically ill, but it was against the wishes of the parents, who objected on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Judaism, however, maintains that while Hashem is indeed the Great Healer, He chooses to work through the efforts of trustworthy medical practitioners.
This week’s parashah tells of Isaac taking Rebecca as his wife. “And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother.” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains this to mean more than the obvious. When she entered the tent, it was as if she were Sarah, Isaac’s mother. Because Sarah was of such saintly character, she was granted three special miracles. Her Shabbat candles burned the entire week, her dough was particularly blessed, and a heavenly cloud attached to her tent. When Sarah died, these blessings disappeared. When Rebecca arrived on the scene, they resumed immediately. This was a clear sign to Isaac that Rebecca was indeed his soul mate and that the shidduch was bashert.
Each of those three miracles, however, required some form of human input first. A candle and fire had to be found, the dough had to be prepared, and a tent had to be pitched before G‑d would intervene and make those miracles happen. In other words, He does help us, but we must help ourselves first.
It’s a little like the fellow who would make a fervent prayer to G‑d every week that he win the lottery. After many months and no jackpot in sight, he lost his faith and patience. In anguished disappointment, he vented his frustration with the Al-mighty. “O, G‑d! For months I’ve been praying to You. Why haven’t You helped me win the lottery all this time?” Whereupon a heavenly voice was heard saying, “Because you haven’t bought a ticket, dummy!”
I wish it were that simple to win lotteries. But the fact is that it is the same in all our endeavors. G‑d helps those who help themselves. May we all do our part. Please G‑d, He will do His. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.