At the beginning of Parshas Vayeitzei (Bereishis 28:17), Rashi says that Yaakov Avinu traveled out of Eretz Yisroel all the way to Choron before heading back toward Yerushalayim. Why did he go back? Rashi explains that Yaakov said to himself, “Can it be that that I passed by the place where my ancestors davened and I did not daven there?” He then set his mind to return and went back as far as Beis-El, which is north of Yerushalayim. When he arrived there, Hashem performed a miracle and brought Yerushalayim toward him in Beis-El. However, Rashi asks, if Hashem was prepared to perform such a great miracle for Yaakov, why didn’t Hashem simply stop him when he reached Yerushalayim on his way to Choron in the first place? The answer, says Rashi, is that “if Yaakov didn’t set his heart on his own accord to daven, should they halt him from the heavens?” Only once he set his mind to go daven and took action to get there did Hashem perform the miracle for him.
In 2013, I was scheduled to spend Sukkos in Los Angeles and had booked the last direct flight from Cleveland to LAX on the day before Erev Sukkos. Unfortunately, I arrived at the airport one minute after they stopped accepting checked baggage for that flight and had no direct way of getting to Los Angeles before Yom Tov. Hashem was very kind and sent me a helpful gate agent to assist me. I explained to her that I must get to LA by the next morning and would be willing to fly through any city, so long as there’s a connecting flight from there to LA. She found only one option for me, to fly east from Cleveland to Washington, DC, and from there to turn around and take the midnight flight from Washington Dulles Airport to LAX. She mistakenly upgraded me to first class for the Washington-LAX flight, and when I protested, she said that it was too late and she was not able to change it.
My boarding pass said that I was to sit in seat number 3a, and as I walked on to the plane, holding my lulav and esrog, I saw the unmistakable trimmed white beard and bespectacled face of the well-known journalist, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, in seat 3b. I told him that I don’t own a television, but still know who he is, to which he jokingly said, “Are you telling me that you own a lulav and esrog but you don’t own a TV?”
He could not have been friendlier, and the two of us spent a lot of time talking. One of the things Wolf shared with me was a vertel that his father told him just before his bar mitzvah in Buffalo, New York: “You will see that everyone will wish you ‘mazel tov,’” his father told him. “If you wonder what mazel tov means, I will explain it to you. Spelled in Hebrew, the word mazel has three letters, mem, zayin, and lamed. Mem stands for makom, place; zayin stands for zeman, time; and lamed stands for la’asot, to take action. And this is hinting to us a very important lesson for life. If you are in the right place, at the right time, and you take action, meaning that do what is within your capability, then Hashem will help you succeed.”
I found this to be a very apt remez and have shared it with many people since hearing it, because it speaks to this very important principle. Mazel connotes supernatural assistance, but as we’ve explained, it requires us to make ourselves into a vessel within which the blessing can be placed.
The other bookend of this principle is that the results are always up to the Ribono Shel Olam, no matter what. This idea is expressed very beautifully with the following story.
Rav Noach Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah in Yerushalayim, sent a talmid of his to open an Aish branch in a certain North American city. This particular branch of Aish ended up becoming very successful, but the first year was excruciatingly painful. They simply weren’t making it. They weren’t finding students to attend their classes, and most harrowing of all, they weren’t successful at raising money and couldn’t cover the basic costs of running the center. It was terrible.
At the end of the first year, the director met with Rav Noach and cried his heart out to him. He explained to his rebbi that he was clearly the wrong person for this job and should never have been chosen for the task. He said that he was not successful at developing relationships with donors and hasn’t accomplished anything. He was depressed and viewed himself as a failure. “I’m quitting,” he told Rav Noach. “Please find someone else who is actually qualified for this job.”
When his talmid finished crying to him, Rav Noach said, “Chaim, I don’t know if I’ve ever met such a big baal gaavah like you.”
Chaim couldn’t believe it. “A baal gaavah? I can understand if you would call me out for being deficient in bitachon or simchas hachaim. I would understand if you would tell me that I am lacking self-confidence. But how can rebbi tell me that I am guilty of gaavah? I don’t see even a shred of arrogance and conceit here. Just the opposite. I am depressed and feel worthless. I say clearly that I’m a total failure. I’m asking rebbi to get me out of this mess by finding someone qualified to do the job, unlike me. Where is the gaavah?”
Rav Noach answered, “Your problem is that you sincerely believe that if you don’t have success, it is your fault, and accordingly, if you are successful, it is to your credit. You seem to believe that it is you who charts your own destiny, and your success and failure rest on your talents and abilities. You should know, however, that this assumption is false. Only the Ribono Shel Olam gets to decide if you succeed or not. Neither your successes nor your failures are controlled by you. When you take yourself out of the picture, and take the actions you are supposed to take, Hashem will help you and bring results. When you speak the way in which you are speaking, it is an expression of gaavah, not humility.”
My brother, Rav Elimelech, shared a similar story with me. Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, when he was already past the age of ninety, needed to undergo a surgery. Before being wheeled into surgery, he asked to meet with the surgeon. “I am told that you are a very skilled surgeon,” Rav Boruch Mordechai told him, “but I know that there is a possibility that the surgery will not be successful. I want you to know that if it is not successful, it is not your fault.”
Rav Boruch Mordechai went so far as to ask the doctor to repeat this message to him word for word. And then the doctor walked out of the room.
Just as he was moving out of sight, Rav Boruch Mordechai called the doctor back. “I also want you to know that if the surgery is successful, it is not you, but Hashem!”
The Chovos Halevavos, in the fourth perek of Shaar Habitachon, teaches us of the correct attitudes we must have regarding all the different relationships and interactions in our lives. He says there that there are many rich people who worked very hard for their wealth, and there are those who never worked a day but received incredible wealth through inheritance. And the truth is, says the Chovos Halevavos, that they are both the same. They both have wealth from the same Source, from Hashem Yisborach Himself.
In this week’s parsha, we learn that on his way back from Choron, Yaakov wrestled with the angel of Eisov, and the angel could not overcome him. After their struggle, the angel said to Yaakov, “No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisroel, ki sorisa im Elokim v’im anashim vatuchal – For you have struggled with the Divine and with men, and you have overcome.” The name Yisroel is derived from the word “sorisa,” which means to struggle. And the question is: Shouldn’t Yaakov’s new name have been derived from the word “vatuchal,” which means that he overcame? Why focus on the struggle and not on the successful result?
The answer, says Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, is because the result of the struggle is in the hands of Hashem. Vatuchal is the domain of Hashem. The only thing man can do is struggle mightily. The successful struggle, never giving up and placing one’s trust in the benevolence of Hashem are the parts that are celebrated. Ki sorisa, for you have struggled.
And if you’ll ask, “What’s the point of doing anything if the credit for the results is not mine anyway?” there’s a Mishnah for that. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:2) says, “All those who toil for the benefit of the community should do so for the sake of Heaven, because it is in the merit of their ancestors that you will succeed. And if you do toil with the right intentions, I will reward you generously, considering it as if it was you who actually brought about the results.”
It is our job to do that which Hashem wants of us, and Hashem will do more than we are capable of. And then He will reward us so bountifully, as if it was us who brought about all the goodness. But we have to remember that it is He, not us, who decides.