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Not My Job

Not My Job


I cannot claim to have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union upon my return from a five-week stint in that country in 1987. But neither did I come away with the impression that the system functioned very well. A case in point was an incident that occurred shortly before my arrival in Moscow. A car parked in the yard of the Chabad shul was broken into, and valuable equipment was stolen. When the caretaker/​watchman was confronted with this blatant failure to do his job, he shrugged, “My job is to make sure that everything’s okay. When something’s not okay—that’s not my job!”

That incident reminded me of a story which the Lubavitcher Rebbe would often tell about his predecessor and namesake, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789–1866). The wife of Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s youngest son had fallen ill, and the doctors were unanimous in their opinion that there was no hope of recovery. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel was informed of the doctors’ verdict, he noted that the Talmud raises the question, “From where do we know that a physician is allowed to heal?” and answers that this is derived from the verse (Exodus 21:19), “And heal shall he heal.” “But nowhere,” concluded Rabbi Menachem Mendel, “has a physician been given the right or the ability to determine that a human being is incurable.”

The Talmud’s query is a very real question for the believer. If a person is stricken with illness only because G‑d has determined that he should be ill, what use is there in summoning the doctor? It’s not only a question of “how do you dare to interfere with G‑d’s will?”—it’s also a matter of “how can you think that anything you do will make a difference?” The answer given by the Talmud is that, indeed, the physician is permitted to “interfere” only because G‑d allows—nay, commands—the physician to interfere, and the physician’s efforts make a difference only because G‑d desires that the physician’s efforts should make a difference.

Which led Rabbi Menachem Mendel to conclude that the physician’s authority and influence are strictly limited to the function that the Torah has given him. Namely, to heal. Anything beyond that is not his job.

While illness and healing provide a dramatic illustration of this principle, chassidic teaching applies it to all areas of life: earning a livelihood, helping the needy, etc. We have the ability, the right and the duty to make a difference because—and only because—G‑d has empowered us to make a difference. But this authority has its limits. When we reach these limits—i.e., when we have truly done everything that is within our knowledge and capacity to do—what happens beyond that is beyond our domain.

This is why the concept of “despair” is given no credence in Chassidism. It is generally assumed that there exist two types of people: fatalists and activists. The fatalist maintains that things are the way they are, and that nothing that anyone does really makes a difference. So there is reason neither for exultation nor for despair (though some would say that the fatalist’s state is one of perpetual despair). The activist, on the other hand, believes himself to be the master of his fate, so he exults over his achievements and despairs when things do not go the way he’s planned, believing the latter to be the result of his failure to make happen what he wanted to have happened.

The Jew is neither, and both. He’s a fatalist, in the sense that he believes that whatever transpires is the direct result of G‑d’s will that it should transpire. But he’s also an activist: he believes that there is much he can do and must do, and that what he does makes a difference.

So that Russian watchman did have a valid point. To make things right—that’s our job, and the joy and fulfillment we experience in our successes are real and true. But when we reach the limits of what we can do, that’s not failure. It simply means that we have done our job, and now it’s up to G‑d to do His.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Judy Kava Snowmass Village, Co/Usa via February 26, 2012

thank-you for providing such clear and much needed perspective! Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US February 18, 2012

Thank you! The balance you presented here is right "on point!"
We accept G_d's Will in all things....but that does not mean we do not use the talents He has given us to do as much as we can to help the sick, to strengthen the weak, to improve society, to better our business etc. etc.

I think of the story of King David who fasted and prayed while his child was sick.
After the child died, he accepted G_d's will, and washed his face, and ate. Reply

Joalie Davie, MD Santa Fe,, NM February 14, 2012

Doctors who practice conventional medicine look at diseases and diagnoses and prognoses. However, what is the difference between a person who heals from a disease and someone else who succumbs to the same disease? There is a basic difference. Yet, most doctors cannot predict the outcome. However, there are many ways to heal. Healing the mind can heal the body. Healing the spirit can heal the mind and body. When I practice complementary modalities ( energy psychology, mind body medicine) and use spirituality, I witness healing that by conventional medical standards are considered impossible or just miracles. Yet these healings feel natural and normal.. I fully agree with the statement that one needs to do one’s own best and trust that Hashem will do the rest whatever this may be. Even when there isn’t a cure, there can healing and peace. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma February 14, 2012

this is true we need to act to change what we feel needs healing in diverse ways but we are ultimately not in charge so healers often fail despite their best efforts.

it seems despair is a human condition. We cannot always will it away. It seems all emotions are part of being including hope whis is contained by the French word (despoir/espoir).

You cannot tell a psychotherapist who has seen Job re enacted in the Clinics that we have no despair...Jewish or other. I fully believe we are here to help each other through some incredibly harrowing times.

We all hit the rocks and even fatalists are moved to tears and become when faced with overwhelming suffering that brings them to the same wall. I say we all go to Jerusalem, however we feel about what moves us and that is: to pray, to question, at The Wailing Wall. We can only accept so much. We are made to be human. Even knowing..we must somehow get up, and to act in despair, in deep depression is an act of courage. Reply

Anonymous Mesa, Arizona, USA February 12, 2012

Not My Job Dear Rabbi Tauber,
You are so right in this statement. I learnt about that limit we have about my dear ones. I thought I had done all possible to make wrong right. There IS a limit of how much we can do in this world. When I learnt that lesson, I surrendered the rest to Hashem, blessed be He. Your article, the subject is an ill person. But there are so many other illnessess indeed. It is not only the physical body, but mind, and spirit can get very, very ill also. Sometimes, depending on the bruises, there might never be a cure. Only Hashem has the power to bring us back to complete health. Blessed be He. Reply

Anonymous Vancouver, B.C. February 21, 2009

This article has helped me learn to accept the help I'm given because at times, perhaps I have been a G-d only knows kind of person and patient. The tension I felt being needy of a Doctor and perhaps at times seeing the worst of the system, has just been replaced by a reverence in G-d and what is provided. How I look to His help for continued support. I accept others do have limitations as health providers and spiritual counsellors. Its clear as day that help is given and much virtue there is, as it comes from others - G-d provides in amazing ways as doctors make their decisions. Reply

Yitzchok February 9, 2005

I really enjoyed this one, there should be more like this. Reply

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