He would also say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. (Avot 2:4)
There is a film which was directed by Nazi-era actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl entitled Triumph des Willens, or Triumph of the Will, whose purpose was to promote the worldview of the then-burgeoning Nazi party. It did this through breathtaking cinematic images of orderly mass rallies and marches, as well as riveting speeches made to large crowds by Hitler, may his name and remembrance be obliterated. The implicit message of the film was, if the German people would cast their lot with Hitler and his untermenschen, through their collective will, Germany would rise up to become the dominant power in the world. The film won awards in Germany and in several other countries, as well as many hearts to the cause of German nationalism.
The idea is compelling: if we just put our minds to something, we can bring it about, through concentration of will. All of us use this concept to propel our ways through challenges and towards accomplishment, whether this means a college degree, better fitness, mastering a language, or, in some cases, world domination. And the Nazis, may their names and remembrance be obliterated, were not the first people to apply collective willpower to achieve world domination. That dubious honor belongs to the builders of the Tower of Babel. Both are instances of what power there is in the exercise of collective will. The verse states, “And the L-rd said, ‘Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do?! Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?” (Genesis 11:6). Amidst G-d’s expression of His displeasure at the choice made by the builders of the tower, there is a twofold implication: one, that it is imperative to “withh[o]ld from them all they have planned to do”; two, that without G-d’s intervention, it could not be withheld, for such is the power of the human will. With this in mind, we can understand how tragic it is when human willpower is applied to evil ends.
Now, Rabban Gamliel takes us a step further: the ultimate use of the human will is its nullification before the Will of G-d. G-d has a dream, as it were, of the world as it should be. When we bring our wills into accord with His, we serve as conduits, enabling His dream to be realized. In other words, we stop obstructing His dream. This does not contradict our notion of enterprise, but adds an ultimate dimension to it. We can now estimate the value of will power by its application.
A simple illustration of the mishna can be seen from the following passage from the Talmud:
The mishna states: One who ate but then forgot to utter a blessing afterwards: the House of Shammai says, “he should return to his place (i.e. where he ate) and make the blessing.” The House of Hillel says, “let him make the blessing wherever he is when he remembers”. It was taught: the House of Hillel said to the House of Shammai, “according to your logic, one who ate on the roof of a high tower and descended should re-ascend to make the blessing”. The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel, “according to your logic, one who forgot his moneybag on the roof of a high tower should not re-ascend to get it. If, for his own honor, he would certainly climb the tower, should he not do so for the honor of Heaven?” The gemara concludes by saying, “there were two students who forgot to make the blessing after eating, one who unintentionally followed the ruling of the House of Shammai and found a bag of gold, and one who intentionally followed the ruling of the House of Hillel and was eaten by a lion” (Berachot 53b).
The student who followed the ruling of the House of Shammai nullified his will (which would likely have been to not exert himself by re-ascending the tower) before G-d’s—and in this manner, he merited the second half of Rabban Gamliel’s statement, namely that the “will of others”, i.e. the hungry lion, was nullified before his will. It is interesting to note that this illustration also involves a tower as a measuring instrument for human will.
May we all merit to discover our true potential and to maximize it in the service of G-d.
GOOD SHABBOS! SHABBAT SHALOM!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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