How much is really in our control?
In the midst of his five-week-long farewell speech, Moshe Rabbeinu informs B’nei Yisrael that Hashem does not ask much of them. “Only to fear Him,” Moshe assures the nation (D’varim 10:12).
What does this mean?
Chazal understood that Yir’as Hashem is the “only” thing G-d asks of us, in the sense that it is the unique domain of life that is completely within human control. Hashem does not require anything else from us, because He already has it. The singular matter that Hashem demands from mankind is that we use our free will to remain devoted to Him and dedicated to His laws. It is based on this verse that our Sages coined the phrase: Ha’kol biydei Shamayim chutz mi’yir’as Shamayim – Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven (B’rachos 33b).
Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein zt”l (in Tosefes Brachah) writes that, unfortunately, many people fail to live by this distinction; they tend to confuse what is within the human realm and what is not. For example, when it comes to earning a living – an area largely dependent on Divine intervention – they work extremely long and difficult hours and may even resort to unethical behavior to get ahead. And yet, for religious growth – the only matter truly in man’s grasp – they throw up their hands and pray for success, without expending the requisite effort to achieve yir’as Shamayim. People have it completely backwards!
Elsewhere (My Uncle The Netziv, p. 50-54), Rav Epstein explains that he became aware of this phenomenon after witnessing a strange incident involving the Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, d. 1892). A young man who had studied under the great rabbi several years earlier had returned for a visit. The Beis HaLevi was glad to see his former student, and asked, “So tell me, how are you doing?” The alumnus smiled, and replied proudly that he had gotten married, had several children, and opened a store that was thriving. The conversation continued pleasantly for a few minutes, before the Beis HaLevi asked again, “So tell me, how are you doing?” The man looked a little puzzled but repeated that he had built a family and was the owner of a successful business. Shockingly, just a few minutes later, the Beis HaLevi – yet again – restated his question. “So, tell me, how are you doing?”
Seeing that the man looked utterly perplexed, and even concerned for his rebbe’s mental state, the Beis HaLevi explained the true intention of his question. “I was hoping that, by the third time, you would understand. I am eager to hear about how you are doing, that is, in the matters that are in your control: Torah study, mitzvah observance, and yir’as Shamayim. However, you keep answering about marriage, children, and parnasah – gifts that are entirely in the hands of Hashem. I didn’t ask how Hashem was doing by you; I wanted to know: How are YOU doing!”