“Heaven Helps Those Who Help Themselves”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, parashat Pekudei, we read that after many days, weeks and months of labor (although no time is actually specified in the Torah) the work of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was completed.

In Exodus 39:32, we are told, “Va’tay’chel kohl ah’vo’daht mishkan ohel mo’ayd, va’yah’ah’soo Bnei Yisrael k’chol ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem et Moshe kayn ah’soo,” All the work of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the children of Israel had done everything that the L-rd commanded Moses, so did they do.

The rabbis find the syntax of this verse awkward. The Hebrew word “Va’tay’chel” implies that the work of the Tabernacle was finished on its own. But then the verse states, “Va’yah’ah’soo Bnei Yisrael,” the children of Israel had done everything that G-d commanded Moses to do. It would be much more logical for the verse to first state that the children of Israel had done everything that G-d commanded them to do, and then conclude with the phrase that the work of the Tabernacle was complete.

Interestingly enough, we find a similar description with regard to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. In I Kings 6:7, when describing the conclusion of the building of the great Temple, Scripture states, “V’habayit b’hee’bah’noh’toh eh’vehn sh’lay’mah ma’sah niv’nah,” For the house, when it was in building, was built in stone made ready at the quarry. The verse goes on to say that there was neither hammer nor ax, nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was being built. Just as with the Tabernacle, Scripture does not state that the Temple was being built, but that it was in the process of building, as if it were building itself.

From this textual nuance in parashat Pekudei the rabbis deduce the futility of one who says, “I’d like to perform this mitzvah, but it seems impossible in my eyes.” With that attitude of despair, the rabbis say that mitzvah will never be accomplished. However, one who starts performing a mitzvah, despite knowing how difficult it might be, will find that the mitzvah will become progressively easier because Heaven will help those who make the effort. And even though much, or most, of the mitzvah was actually done through the help of Heaven, Heaven itself considers as if that mitzvah was done by human effort alone. Therefore, explain the rabbis, our verse states that the work of the Tabernacle was completed, as if by itself, and the children of Israel did all that G-d commanded. Scripture, in essence, attributes the entire accomplishment to the people of Israel, and not to G-d.

The rabbis further explain that the biblical verse suggests that the people felt inadequate because of the highly skilled labor that was required for many of the Tabernacle furnishings. But because of their full-hearted commitment to complete the Tabernacle, G-d instilled in them the skills that were necessary to accomplish the task.

Among the important contemporary lessons that may be gleaned from this particular verse are: the need for faith in ourselves, the need for faith in G-d, and the need for faith that G-d really cares and will help us.

Very often, the greatest impediment to success is our lack of faith in ourselves. We find the “little stuff” simply overwhelming. I recall one memorable instance many years ago. I was instructing several students how to kosher their homes, and suddenly we came across some non-kosher chewing gum on one of the shelves. Immediately one young woman definitively declared (it was captured on video): “If I can’t have my chewing gum, I will never be able to be kosher!” Her perceived love for that brand of non-kosher chewing gum made her feel that she could never live without it. Fortunately, that was not the case. She currently lives in Jerusalem with her family and is a very accomplished and observant person.

If the desire and commitment is there (which may also be due to the help of G-d), there is really nothing that can stand in the way of accomplishing whatever we wish to accomplish, as long as we have confidence in ourselves.

The rabbis also teach that aside from personal confidence, faith in G-d is often as important as skill. There are different ways for us to develop our self-confidence. Obviously, those who dream of becoming great pianists or great swimmers need to practice their skills and retain expert instructors who help them master the skills and techniques that are necessary. What is also necessary is that we have the belief that we can do it. This is what our rabbis call “s’yah’tah dish’mahya,” help from Heaven.

There is, however, another aspect to this issue, that we often fail to note. The L-rd makes things happen for those who have trust in Him.

I have often wondered why Anwar Sadat concluded a monumental peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. After all, Menachem Begin was a hard-line Prime Minister. As a follower of Jabotinsky, he believed that not only was the West Bank of the Jordan part of Israel, but the East Bank as well. Nevertheless, peace came to Menachem Begin, and not to the more conciliatory Prime Ministers like Golda Meir or Levi Eshkol. I believe that this is directly attributable to the fact that Menachem Begin was the first Prime Minister in Israeli history, to ever use the phrase, “With the help of G-d we will achieve peace.” Menachem Begin opened the door just a little to the Al-mighty, and let Him in. The rest is history!

We need not only have confidence in ourselves and confidence in G-d, we need to truly believe that G-d will help.

A beautiful story is told of two chassidim who were on a business trip, and needed a place to stay for Shabbat. They finally found a kosher inn whose proprietor was a religious man. During the long Shabbat afternoon, the chassidim begin to regale the innkeeper with stories about their wonder-working Rebbe. Upon hearing the fascinating stories, the innkeeper pleaded with them, that when they return home to their Rebbe, that they ask him for his blessing that he and his wife should have a child. Although the chassidim were a little nonplussed, they agreed to do so.

That evening, after Shabbat, the innkeeper did a very strange thing. He outfitted a baby carriage with everything that a baby needed, and began to accost all the guests in the inn telling them to wish him a “Mazal Tov,” because his wife was going to give birth to a child. “Did you hear the news?!” he shouted, “The two chassidim are going to ask for a blessing for my wife and myself, and she is going to give birth!”

When the two chassidim returned home and met their Rebbe, they related to him the request and the strange behavior of the innkeeper.

A year later, the two chassidim were on the same road, but were reluctant to enter the inn, perhaps the innkeeper’s wife had not had a child. They listened by the door, and sure enough, they heard the cries of a newborn baby. Taking a chance, they entered, arriving at the circumcision ceremony of the innkeeper’s firstborn son.

The innkeeper blessed the chassidim and showered them with gifts. But one of the two chassidim fell strangely silent, and all the way home refused to speak to the other chassid.

When they reached the outskirts of the village, the chassid broke into a run and ran into the court where the Rebbe lived, pounded on the door, pushed the assistant aside, and entered the Rebbe’s chambers unannounced.

Startled, the Rebbe looked up, and saw the pained chassid standing before him.

The Rebbe said, “What’s the matter, my son?” To which the chassid replied, “How could you be so cruel and uncaring? I am a loyal follower of yours. My father was a loyal follower of your father. Every year I come to you and beg that my wife and I be blessed with a child, and we have no child! This innkeeper never even met you, and he has a child! How could you be so cruel!?”

The Rebbe looked up, gazed piercingly into the chassid’s eyes and said, “Did you ever push a baby carriage? Did you ever have the faith that my blessing would help?”

S’yah’tah dish’mahya, help from Heaven, comes to those who believe in themselves and in G-d, and are willing to make the special effort. The Tabernacle was finished by the people of Israel, even though they were unable to do it alone and needed G-d’s help. They became G-d’s partner, and G-d became their partner.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month of Nissan is read from Exodus 12:1-20.