Spiritual Gravity: The Need for Human Effort

by Rabbi Yosef Kahanov, Jax. FL

Nothing you have acquired is real unless you worked for it. If you were born a nice guy, the niceness isn’t yours. If you started off not so nice, and now you do a little, that’s Divine. (Tzvi Freeman, Be Within Stay Above)

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“Nobody ever drowned in his own sweat.”

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Never having flown before, an old-timer was about to embark on his first air travel venture. Standing at the check-in counter he queried the ticketing agent: “Nu, so tell me, how does the plane stay in the air?”

“There are four engines that impel the jet,” said the agent, “the force of the impulsion combined with its aerodynamic design keep it from falling.”

“What happens, sir, if one of the engines fails” questioned the first time flyer. “Not a problem,” explained the agent patiently. “The plane can easily complete its flight on three engines.”

“Please don’t mind my asking, but I am curious to know what would happen if two of the engines were to go-out?” The agent continued to assure the apprehensive passenger that there was no need to worry: “The plane could surely be brought to a safe landing on two engines.” “And what if three engines falter?” persisted the old-timer. “Sir, you really have nothing to worry about,” replied the agent, a bit agitated by now: “You can trust me no one has ever remained airborne!”

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Ever since the dawn of time, man has been preoccupied with making life easier. The desire to make life work-free has spurred the invention of the wheel, the industrial and technological revolutions and the continuous onslaught of new gadgets and inventions. But has the quality of life become any better as a result?

From the moment we enter the world until the day we leave, we are busy trying to outsmart nature by finding ways to beat the system and do away with the demands and burdens that life presents. Can it be that the pursuit of this elusive goal is delusional? Is it possible that our distain for  labor, even toil, of any sort  is unrealistic, unwise, and most of all unholy?

Expounding upon the stark contrast between Yosef’s and Pharaoh’s respective dreams – as related in this week’s Parsha; Mikeitz and last week’s Parsha; Vayeishv – the Lubavitcher Rebbe derives an extraordinary lesson regarding the fundamental nature of “Holy” and “Unholy’ existence. Let us explore the Rebbe’s intuitive principium, beginning with the basic narratives as recorded in the Torah:

. . . Then Yosef had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. “Listen to the dream I had” he said to them. “We were binding sheaves in the field, when my sheaf suddenly stood up erect. Your sheaves formed a circle around my sheaf, and bowed down to it.”

. . . He had another dream and he told it to his brothers. “I just had another dream,” he said. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Genesis 37:6-10)

“Two full years passed. Then Pharaoh had a dream. He was standing near the Nile, when suddenly seven handsome healthy-looking cows emerged from the Nile and grazed in the marsh-grass. Then another seven, ugly, lean cows emerged from the Nile and stood next to the cows already on the riverbank. The ugly, lean cows ate up the seven handsome, fat cows. Pharaoh woke up.

He fell asleep again and had a second dream. He saw seven fat, good ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Then suddenly, another seven ears of grain grew behind them, thin, and scorched by the [hot] east wind. The seven thin ears swallowed up the seven fat, full ears. Pharaoh woke up and realized that it had been a dream” . . . (Genesis 41: 1-7).

Why though is so much attention paid to Pharaoh’s dreams? If the point of the narrative is to convey how Yosef was thrust into power by means of interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, what difference do all the nuances make? Would it not suffice to say that Pharaoh dreamt of seven healthy cows and seven healthy ears of grain, which were then swallowed by seven ugly and meager counterparts, and that only Yosef was able to decipher the dreams for Pharaoh? What significance is there in the expansive narrative and all its minutiae? Moreover, the entire story, details included, is related a second time.

When all else failed, the wine butler’s memory was suddenly jogged and he remembers the Hebrew lad who had so accurately interpreted is own dream when he was in prison two years earlier. Yosef is quickly pulled from the dungeon and introduced to Pharaoh as the master dream interpreter.

Pharaoh proceeds to recount for him the entire sequence. Does the Torah have to actually repeat the whole thing? Could it not have said: “And Pharaoh related the dreams to Yosef in their entirety?”

There is a lesson in Pharaoh’s dreams, suggests the Rebbe, that goes well beyond the immediate storyline. The structure and detail of Pharaoh’s dreams and their radical distinction from the formerly related dreams of Yosef, bespeak a message unto themselves.

While Yosef’s dreams begin with an image of service; of bread earned by labor: “We were binding sheaves…” Pharaoh’s dreams are wholly bereft of this property. Pharaoh is merely a passive bystander, observing the events that transpire around him. In Pharaoh’s dreams, food is seen as coming without effort: “Seven handsome healthy-looking cows emerged from the Nile.”

There is, however, a major flaw in Pharaoh’s dreams that render them unrealistic.  Divine reward and blessing don’t just fall from the sky, they are issued as a response to effort and cultivation. Man must work to be worthy of receiving them, just as Yosef was actively involved in binding the sheaves in his dream.

Yosef and Pharaoh’s dreams edify the difference between “True” existence and its opposite. True existence is, by definition, an extension of the only true reality and being; the creator of all existence and hence eternal and unchanging. In the realm of truth, if there are changes, they are always ascents, going from strength to strength – which in essence is not a change at all, but a more perfect realization of the one and only essential reality. Given their Divine allegiance and temperament, this form human expression is classified as holy.

Against this is the realm of secular and ephemeral existence. Given the fact that this form of human expression is not in accord with the Divine source of reality and truth, it is not a true existence. It is at most a means to an end, to test man and to evoke his highest powers of sanctity. The more man responds to the test; becomes stronger and elevated in his service, the less he needs to be tested. And automatically, the existence of un-sanctity becomes weaker and more tenuous. This realm is hence subject to change, indeed, to continual decline.

This ethos is reflected in the two sets of dreams of Yosef and Pharaoh. Given their Divine nature, the pattern of Yosef’s dreams follow an upward progression. After he dreamt about earthly matters; sheaves of grain, he dreamt about celestial matters; the sun, the moon and the stars.

The  dreams of Pharaoh – representing the epitome of un-holiness and defiance – inevitably follow a downward progression. First he dreamt of cows; the animal kingdom, then of corn; a lower category of existence. Not only is their order of a descending nature, but the dreams themselves follow a descending progression. Seven healthy cows followed by seven sickly cows, and seven robust ears of corn followed by seven blighted ones.

Moreover, the fulfillment of Pharaoh’s dreams came about in a descending order as well. First came the years of plenty, followed by a famine that made the years of abundance seem as if they had never existed. It is rather clear that every detail concerning Pharaoh’s dreams was marked by decrease and descent.

The message of all  this, concludes the Rebbe, is that one must be aware that what comes without effort; merely as a result of chance, lacks not only spiritual vitality but authentic existence as well – it is in a continual state of decline. In other words, that which stems from the natural and default state of existence is intrinsically transitory and temporary rather than of enduring character.

The person whose life revolves around this type of fleeting ephemeral reality will, in the end,  be left with nothing. On the other hand, the one who labors in the service of the eternal G-d is assured of the promise, “You have toiled and you have found.” He will find from Heaven more than he has labored for.  “I’m a great believer in luck,” asserted Thomas Jefferson, “and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

It is abundantly clear from the above discussion that all things of true value and goodness require deliberate effort and planning. Yet, the question that seems to linger is why? Why must all matters of true value and existence come as a result of effort and exertion?

The short answer is that G-d desired a world in which man, through his effort, should perfect and complete His creation. Given the above, G-d has surly designed this world to support that end – a place where effort and blessing are inherently intertwined, and where, like the law of gravity,  the lack of positive and proactive activity in and of itself constitute a form of decline and deterioration.

Because the Almighty desires human participation He has instilled into every dimension of creation a gravity-like quality. Gravity dictates that when the force that moves an object upwards depletes, the object does not remain suspended in midair, instead it comes falling down rather abruptly. This reality is very much the rule of life  as a whole.

Effort and exertion are the forces of true existence and progression. Should the force be depleted, the free-fall begins. Without positive exertion we inevitably find ourselves in an inevitable state of decline.

Sure, G-d could have made a world in which man’s efforts, let alone toil, would not be necessary – a world in which bread falls from heaven, clothes grow on trees, and man’s every need is attended-to automatically. Only a fool would suggest that a G-d, who is able to create a universe from nothingness (ex nihilo), lacks the capacity to finish the job.

Only an ignoramus would recommend that the G-d who created all the ingredients i.e., the seed, the water and the soil, lacks the ability to create a loaf of bread. Anyone with intelligence understands that G-d does not need man to help Him with the creation of the world. G-d has rather deliberately designed it to be this way, so as to evoke man’s participation and partnership.

G-d, as it turns out, desired a world in which man – the creature with whom He shared His image – is to be His partner in creation. Man accomplishes this by lending his effort, talent, and ability to G-d’s world. In doing so, man brings blessing to himself and the entire universe, as the Psalmist declares: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy,” (Psalms126:5).

Effort and exertion are then inevitable prerequisites for achieving goodness and blessing. This reality is ubiquitous. It is true concerning the pursuit of knowledge, as it is regarding the pursuit of the fine arts.

The world-class pianist for example, does not become a world-class pianist inadvertently, neither does the accomplished artist. Notwithstanding their innate talent, a painstaking process of cultivation and development is necessary. “The artist is nothing without the gift but the gift is nothing without work.”

The world was created with goodness, and the ultimate good for man is that he should not be dishonored but feel like a partner in the fulfillment of the Divine plan. Free bread is “bread of shame.” That’s why nothing good comes without toil. And according to the toil, is the harvest that will be reaped in the end. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” quipped Thomas Edison.

“We remember the fish which we used to eat ‘free’ in Egypt,” lamented the rebellious rabble of the desert generation(Devarim 11:5). “Free?” asks Rashi, since when was anything free in Egypt? Free of Torah and Mitzvos,” says Rashi. The human desire for free rewards, and to have things easy is as old as man himself but it stems from the evil inclination. This is particularly the case with regards to our Divine service.

Holiness demands effort, even toil, as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos states: “Man was created for the purpose of work.” The choice we are given is whether our toil will be in the realm of spirituality or it will be in the realm of “Worldly cares, as the Mishnah asserts: One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares. (Pirkei Avos 3:4)

May we absorb the lesson from the respective of dreams of Yosef and Pharaoh and buck the mindset of society vis-à-vis effort and toil and accept upon ourselves the yoke of heaven for which we have been created, to make this world into a dwelling place for the holy Shechina and thereby hasten the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

One Comment

  • 1. People no happier! wrote:

    I got my first job in Manhattan – nice, small Jewish comapny – in 1983, after having graduated a 6-month course in computer programming. So, I was introduced to the IBM-PC, Visicalc (forerunner to Lotus 1-2-3, and, now Excell), Wordstar, office printers, etc. So, I was amazed at the ease of doing things, as compared to only a few years back, when we were using typewriters (sorry, make major error on that – have to start all over again).
    So, I expressed these sentiments to one of the co-workers,”Just think. Only a couple of years ago, we had to do these things on typewriters, calculators, etc. – look what we can do now!” HERE IS WHAT SHE SAID: “Believe me, people are no happier today.”


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