Garments

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“The righteous emulate their Creator,” say our sages.[1]

If you want to know how to behave in a given situation, see what G-d does.

On the whole, G-d chooses to run His world in accordance with a series of unchanging (and thus predictable) behavior patterns—what we call “the laws of nature.” It would be just as “easy” for Him to rain down manna from heaven as to cause grain to grow and flour and water to bake into bread; but with the exception of one forty-year period in our history, G-d has consistently chosen to nourish us via natural bread from the earth rather than miracle bread from the heavens.

So we, too, manage our lives in accordance with the rules of nature. While we believe with complete faith that G-d is the sole provider of life and sustenance, we labor to construct the natural vehicles through which His providence may flow. We know that to be nourished by a piece of bread supposedly produced by human hands is no less a “miracle” than to be nourished by “bread” falling from the heavens; nevertheless, we do not sit around waiting for manna to rain down upon us, but devote hours, energy and talent—resources that could have been devoted to “holier,” more spiritual pursuits—to plowing, sowing, milling, kneading and baking, or to earning the money to pay others to produce our bread.

In the 12th chapter of Genesis, we find our model for this approach to life in the behavior of the first Jew, Abraham. G-d had commanded Abraham to take up residence in the Holy Land; but when shortly thereafter a famine swept through the land, Abraham journeyed to Egypt, where there was bread to be had. Approaching Egypt, a land notorious for its depravity, Abraham realizes that he is in mortal danger on account of the beauty of his wife, Sarah, and he tells her to say that she is his sister, lest he be killed by an Egyptian coveting her beauty.

The famine in the Holy Land and Abraham’s travails in Egypt are counted among the “Ten Tests” which established the depth and invincibility of his faith in G-d.[2] At first glance, however, it would seem that Abraham “failed” these tests: he did not stay in the Holy Land, trusting that G-d would provide for him even under conditions of famine; he did not assume that if G-d desired that he live, no lust-maddened Egyptian could take his life.

In truth, however, a disavowal of the natural tools of life does not imply a greater faith in G-d. Indeed, to do so is to go against the divine desire that we live within the natural world as G-d’s “partners in creation.”[3] The true test of faith lies in how a person regards his natural activities. Does he consider them the source of his achievements? Or does he recognize that they are merely “garments” within which G-d enclothes and disguises His essentially supra-natural sustenance of our lives?

Abraham’s faith did not prevent him from going to Egypt when the natural sources of nourishment ceased to function in the Holy Land, or from resorting to connivance and deceit to ensure his safety when his life was threatened. Indeed, the fact that he could take these actions and experience their apparent success in bringing him material gain and, at the same time, relate to G-d as the sole source of his safety and enrichment, was the ultimate proof of his faith in G-d.

Joseph

But G-d, on occasion, does perform “miracles”—events in which the cloak of consistency and predictability is swept away and His involvement in our lives stands denuded from the garments of nature. In this, too, we are enjoined to emulate our Creator: there are occasions in our lives that call for a “miraculous” response, for a mode of behavior that utterly disregards the dictates of nature and convention.

These, however, are the exception rather than the rule, to be employed under exceptional circumstances in our lives, or by exceptional individuals whose entire lives emulate the miraculous dimension of G-d’s relationship with our reality.

Such an individual was Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph. When Joseph was incarcerated in an Egyptian prison and did a good turn for a fellow prisoner, the chief butler of Pharaoh, he availed himself of the opportunity to request of him:

In three days’ time, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your station…. But remember me when your situation is improved. Pray, do me a kindness and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and have me taken out from this house.[4]

Joseph, however, is criticized for his behavior; indeed, he is punished for placing his trust in man rather than relying solely on G-d. “The chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him,” and he was left to languish for two more years in Pharaoh’s dungeon.[5]

What for Abraham was desirable behavior and a demonstration of his faith in G-d, was a breach of faith for Joseph. For Joseph belonged to that select group of righteous individuals whose mission in life is to emulate their Creator in the miraculous, rather than the natural, plane of His relationship with His creation.

The Many and the Few

These two approaches to life were personified by two great Talmudic sages— Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In the words of the Talmud:

It is written: “And you shall gather your grain.”[6] What does this come to teach us? But since it says, “This book of Torah shall not cease from your mouth [and you shall study it day and night],”[7] I would have thought that one must take these words literally; comes the verse to teach us, “you shall gather your grain”—conduct yourself also in the ways of the world. These are the words of Rabbi Ishmael.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: If a person plows in the plowing season, sows in the sowing season, reaps in the reaping season, threshes in the threshing season, and winnows when there is wind, what shall become of the Torah? But when Israel does the will of the Almighty, their work is done by others, as it is written, “And[8] strangers will stand and graze your sheep…” [9]

The Talmud concludes: “Many did like Rabbi Ishmael, and succeeded; like Rabbi Shimon, and did not succeed.”

In every generation, a few elect “Josephs” rise to a state of utter aloofness from the ways and cares of the material world, exemplifying the truth that, in essence, there is literally “none else besides Him.”[10] But for the vast majority of us, the path through life is the path blazed by Abraham: a path in which G-d clothes His involvement in our lives in the garments of nature and we employ the resources and norms of our physical existence as the implements of our relationship with Him.

Based on a letter by the Rebbe dated Kislev 2, 5707 (November 25, 1946)[11]

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[1]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 67:8; cf. Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment #8.

[2]. Ethics of the Fathers 5:3 and commentary of Bartenura there.

[3]. Talmud, Shabbat 10a; 119b.

[4]. Genesis 40:13-14.

[5]. Ibid. v. 23; Rashi on verse.

[6]. Deuteronomy 11:14.

[7]. Joshua 1:8.

[8]. Isaiah 61:5.

[9]. Talmud, Shabbat 35b.

[10]. Deuteronomy 4:35.

[11]. Igrot Kodesh, vol. II, pp. 179-181.

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