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.