Bittachon: Trust in God
Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler
Before addressing the broad issue of bittachon (trust in God), let us begin with one pivotal question: Must a person rely solely on God, or is one permitted to rely upon his or her own abilities?
The best-known application of this question pertains to medical intervention. The Christian Science movement, for example, forbids its members from taking any initiative whatsoever in the case of illness. This is for two reasons. Firstly, such an action is understood to be in conflict with the will of God, who providentially decreed that illness visit a particular individual. Secondly, this movement regards medical intervention as a form of hubris, in which mortal man attempts to utilize his powers to alleviate sickness, in spite of the biblical verse which loudly proclaims: “Thus says the Lord: Cursed be the person who trusts in man, and places his strength in flesh, removing his heart from God” (Yirmiyahu 17:5).
We generally tend to dismiss this approach, regarding it as a particular strain of Christian theology lying beyond the pale of Jewish thought. However, to be honest, it seems that this view can indeed be found within our tradition. Although it is perhaps not the mainstream approach, I would not characterize it as being completely alien to Judaism. For example, the Talmud quotes R. Acha:
One who is about to undergo bloodletting says: “May it be Your will, Hashem my God, that this procedure will bring benefit to me and will heal me, for You are a trustworthy healer, and Your healing is genuine. It is not the manner of human beings to heal, but this is the customary convention.” (Berakhot 60a)
That is to say, they should not have occupied themselves with medicine, but rather should have entreated God’s mercy. (ad loc.)
The talmudic passage, however, continues:
Abbaye says: A person should not recite this prayer, for in the academy of Rabbi Yishmael it was explained: The verse, “And he shall surely be healed” (Shemot 21:19), refers to the granting of permission for the physician to heal.
Although a simple reading indicates that Abbaye is in fundamental disagreement with R. Acha, it is possible to understand Abbaye’s objection as does the Taz (Yoreh De’a 336:1). He explains that even Abbaye believes that Rabbi Acha’s opinion is fundamentally correct. However, since not all people have the merit to “be saved through the mercies of Heaven,” it is appropriate and permissible for a physician to heal.
An additional source, quoted by the gemara (Pesachim 56a) from the Tosefta, relates that Chizkiyahu, King of Judea, hid away the “Book of Medical Remedies” and, in so doing, won the support of the Sages. Rashi explains the reason:
For until that time, people would not be humbled by illness, but would instead effect immediate healing. (ad loc.)
This approach is most forcefully expressed by the Ramban in his commentary on parashat Bechukotai. In speaking of the blessings promised to the Jewish people, the Ramban explains that these are national in scope, and applicable when “the entire nation is righteous.” Under at least those circumstances, the Ramban relates,
When the entire people of Israel is perfect in their conduct, their matters do not function according to the laws of nature at all, neither with respect to their bodies nor their land, neither in general nor in particular. Rather, God will “bless their bread and water” and “remove all manner of sickness” from among them. Thus, they will have no need of a physician’s services nor of medical science, as the verse states that “I, God, am your healer” (Shemot 15:26). The righteous people who lived at the time of the prophets would conduct themselves this way, for even if they would fall ill as a result of transgression, they would not consult the doctors but rather the prophets, as, for example, Asa and Chizkiyahu. . . One who seeks God through the prophets does not consult the physicians. What role does the physician have for those who follow God’s will, since He has promised them that He will . . . “remove all manner of sickness” from their midst? (Ramban, Vayikra 26:11)
The Ramban’s conclusion is forceful and unmistakable:
When God is pleased with a person’s conduct, he has no need of physicians.
The Ramban’s approach so disturbed Rav Chayim Soloveitchik that he was inclined to believe that the offending words were not the work of the Ramban at all, but rather an interpolation by a later copyist! Rav Chayim’s far-reaching claim lacks a textual and historic basis, and I personally cannot accept it. Clearly, however, the tradition that informs Rav Chayim’s words is the central one in Judaism. In contrast to the Ramban, the mainstream approach is activist and interventionist, an outlook which appeals to modern man.
We tend to identify more strongly with the Rambam’s interpretation of the tosefta presented earlier, which stands in stark contrast to that of Rashi. The Rambam, who in his Commentary on the Mishna generally concentrates on the Mishna itself and ignores the parallel Tosefta sources, here goes out of his way to explain the matter in order to preclude erroneous conclusions. He writes:
I have explained this matter at length because of the other explanations that I have heard. Others have explained that Shlomo authored a book of medical remedies so that an individual who fell ill could consult his work and, by following his medical advice, become well. When Chizkiyahu saw that people forsook trust in God and instead followed the prescriptions in the book, he removed it from circulation.
How nonsensical is this explanation of the matter, and how mistaken! It ascribes a degree of foolishness to Chizkiyahu (and to the Sages who supported his efforts) that we would not impute even to the basest rabble! According to this absurd reasoning, if a hungry man assuages his hunger with bread and thus overcomes the “sickness of hunger,” shall we say of him that he has thereby forsaken his trust and belief in God?
Rather, just as we thank God at the time of eating for having provided sustenance and allowed us to overcome our hunger and to survive, so do we thank Him for having provided the medical remedy that heals us. I would not even have bothered addressing this issue if not for the fact that so many people are mistaken about its interpretation. (Commentary on the Mishna, Pesachim 4:10)
THE HALAKHIC EMPHASIS ON HUMAN EFFORT
It seems to me that the approach that demands passivity and complete dependence on God’s intervention does make an occasional appearance in our tradition. Clearly, however, the Rambam’s approach is the dominant one, and it is the most relevant for our generation.
This activist approach regarding medicine parallels the activist Jewish approach with respect to spiritual endeavors. In Christian theology there is a time-honored tradition—rooted in the words of Paul and transmitted by Augustine, Luther and others—that sees human redemption as being dictated solely from Above. In Luther’s formulation, any human attempt to achieve spiritual or ethical perfection is a grave error, for it bespeaks arrogance. Man, in his view, is a despicable creature who cannot achieve redemption except through Divine intervention. Rather, a person can only wait passively for grace, just as a woman (according to his metaphor) waits for conception to occur after the seed has been implanted in her.
The Halakha, in glaring contrast, is founded on the touchstone of free will, on the principle that human effort constitutes the essential component of spirituality. The gemara (Berakhot 33b) tells us, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.” This being the case, it follows that a human being has a central role to play in regulating the events of his or her personal life, as well as in affecting the direction of history in general. This is particularly so in light of the Rambam’s declaration that, since all of a person’s activities express whether he is Godfearing or not, all human activities are included within the phrase “fear of Heaven” in the gemara just cited (Shemona Perakim, Chapter Eight; Teshuvot Ha-Rambam, ed. Blau, #436; Iggerot Ha-Rambam, ed. Shailat, p. 236).
As the Rambam implies in his Commentary on the Mishna, the activist posture applies not only to medicine, but to the war against hunger and poverty as well. In fact, it would include any attempts to influence historical processes through the application of human efforts. In his formulation, the verse “Blessed be the man who relies on God” (Yirmiyahu 17:7) applies to every area of life, but this in no way precludes human effort and initiative.
“WE DO NOT RELY ON A MIRACLE”
In truth, however, the quandary is not simply whether a person ought to be totally passive or rather should act. The matter is much more complex, for one must consider the degree to which Heavenly intervention should be taken into account as a determining factor within the context of human initiative. When faced with fateful decisions, should the situation be evaluated from a purely rational and analytical standpoint, or, since in the end we must rely upon God’s help anyway, should one factor that intervention into the decision-making process?
Clearly, when I mention the possibility of factoring in divine assistance, I am not referring to specific Divine assurances addressing defined situations, or to detailed inquiries addressed to the Urim Ve-tumim. Rather, I am considering the role of general Divine pronouncements which, of course, are reliable on the grand historical scale, but typically do not have a direct connection to a particular problem that arises at a given time. This leaves the matter undefined and shrouded in obscurity.
For example, Chazal declare in a number of places, “Those engaged in a mitzva-related mission do not come to harm” (Yoma 11a, Kiddushin 39b, Chullin 142a). On the other hand, the gemara concludes, “This principle is inoperative where danger is to be expected” (Pesachim 8b; see also the above sources, where the formulation is slightly different). To complicate matters fur- ther, another passage declares that it is forbidden to rely upon a miracle (Pesachim 64b).
Obviously, since it is almost impossible to define precisely terms such as “danger” or “miracle,” these general statements in the end do not yield practical guidelines for action. When addressing fundamental political issues—for example, whether we should retain Judea and Samaria and rely on God’s protection, or whether we should cede these lands in recognition of internal and external pressures—we are likely to discover that sincere and profound disagreements exist even among believing Jews. It is not my desire, nor is it within my ability, to decide such matters either way. I must, however, emphasize one point: Let us not fall prey to overzealousness in the realm of bittachon. We would be erring grievously to believe that an approach that seemingly champions excessive trust in Divine intervention is, in fact, imbued with a greater amount of fear of Heaven than a view which adopts a more rational and pragmatic methodology.
In certain instances, to be sure, adopting an adamant or compromising approach indeed results from too much or too little fear of Heaven. But this is not necessarily the case. It is possible for one to be intransigent, spouting slogans of faith, yet motivated in truth by irresponsibility. It is also possible to be pliant and yielding, yet possessed of an abiding trust accompanied by great caution. Certainly, differences of opinion will exist with respect to evaluating the chances of success of a particular diplomatic or military initiative, as well as with respect to the degree of statistical probability necessary to remove an endeavor from the category of “relying on a miracle.” In any case, for God’s sake, let us not allow a discussion about fateful national issues degenerate into a “competition” over which position expresses greater fear of Heaven.
TWO APPROACHES TO BITTACHON
Our approach to humanity’s role in shaping history thus combines two factors: bold and responsible action accompanied by a deep and daring bittachon. What, however, is the nature of this bittachon? It seems to me that we must distinguish between two fundamental approaches.
According to the first approach, trust is expressed by the certainty that God stands at your side and will assist you. This is a variation of the words of the mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 3:8, 29a): “As long as the Jewish people looked Heavenwards and humbled their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed [in their war against Amalek].” This approach is fundamentally optimistic, saturated with faith and with hopeful expectation for the future. On the field of battle, the warrior who can adopt this trust feels that he is on the threshold of victory; in moments of crisis, one feels that salvation is on the way; during a night of terrors, this type of trust heralds the break of dawn. In short, this approach is expressed in the familiar formula, “With God’s help, everything will be all right.”
The Chazon Ish, in his book Ha-emuna Ve-ha-bittachon, categorically rejects this approach, complaining that:
. . . an old error has become rooted in the hearts of many concerning the concept of trust. Trust . . . has come to mean that a person is obligated to believe that whenever he is presented with two possible outcomes, one good and one not, then certainly it will turn out for the good. And if he has doubts and fears the worst, that constitutes a lack of trust. (Ha-emuna Ve-ha-bittachon, beginning of chapter 2)
The Chazon Ish continues by criticizing this approach:
This view of trust is incorrect, for as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, that outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know God’s judgments and providence? Rather, trust means realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of God’s decree.
Unlike the Chazon Ish, I would not go so far as to consider this view as being beyond the pale. It seems to me that many Rishonim adopted an approach akin to the one which the Chazon Ish rejects. For example, Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (a disciple of the Rashba) writes in his work Kad Ha-kemach:
The matter of trust in God was explained by the saintly Rabbeinu Yona [Gerondi] to mean that a person ought to accept wholeheartedly that everything is within the power of Heaven. God can transcend the laws of nature and change a person’s fortune, and though a situation may appear to be hopeless, Divine intervention can change that reality in an instant. God’s salvation is close at hand, for He is omnipotent. Even if a sword rests on a person’s neck, he should not imagine that salvation is impossible. . . Thus said Chizkiya to Yeshayahu the prophet: “I have received a tradition from my grandfather’s house, that even though a sharp sword rests on a person’s neck, he should not withhold himself from supplication to God.” (Bittachon, s.v. inyan)
This theme also characterizes the words of Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda in his Chovot Ha-levavot. There he defines the “essence of trust” as:
the peace of mind of the one who trusts, that the one upon whom he relies [whether God or man] will do the best and the most appropriate for him in the matter. . . The main definition of trust is that one’s heart should believe that the one relied upon will fulfill what he has promised and do good on his behalf, not out of obligation but out of kindness and mercy. (Sha’ar Ha-bittachon, chap. 1)
Clearly, this is a description of popular, simple faith, the belief that “it will work out fine,” rather than a belief in an all-encompassing Providence. The fact that at this point Rabbeinu Bachya does not distinguish between trust in God and trust in man proves the point. Thus, I would not characterize this first approach as “an old error,” nor would I deny its relevance to the issue of trust.
There is, however, a second approach to bittachon. The Kad Ha-kemach continues,
Also included in the matter of trust is that a person must surrender his soul to God, and should constantly occupy his thoughts with this matter: If brigands should come to kill him or to force him to abrogate the Torah, he should prefer to give up his life rather than go against the Torah. Concerning this, David said, “To You, God, I shall offer up my soul” (Tehillim 25:1), and it further states, “My God, in You I have trusted, let me not be disgraced” (ibid. 2). One who gives up his life under such circumstances has performed an act of bittachon.
Obviously, this approach has a completely different meaning. It does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future. It does not claim that “It will all work out for the best,” either individually or nationally. On the contrary, it expresses a steadfast commitment— even if the outcome will be bad, we will remain reliant on and connected to God. We will remain faithful until the end and shall not exchange our trust in God for dependence on man. This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather, it asks us to remain at His side.
Naturally, this approach is much less popular than its counterpart. A demand is always less marketable than a promise. For one who makes an honest assessment, though, this approach also functions as a source of solace and strength. In truth, this approach presents not just a demand but also a message. Being disconnected from God constitutes the greatest tragedy that can befall a person. When the Torah states, “To Him you shall cleave” (Devarim 13:5), it simultaneously expresses a demand as well as an opportunity. Similarly, the psalmist’s call, “Israel, trust in God” (Tehillim 115:9), constitutes both a demand as well as an opportunity.
FAITH AND LOVE
These two approaches stem from different halakhic obligations. The first is, practically speaking, an aspect of the mitzva of emuna (faith). This mitzva has a purely cognitive aspect, which asks of a Jew to recognize certain metaphysical or historical facts. Beyond the conceptual component, this mitzva also has an experiential facet. It is important for us to distinguish between these two facets of faith.
When the Torah tells us that Avraham “had faith in God” (Bereishit 15:6), this indicates not only his intellectual belief but also his general state of mind—he feels absolutely dependent upon and connected to God. Following God’s wondrous promise, “Lift up your eyes to the Heavens and count the stars if you can, for your descendents will be as numerous” (ibid. 15:5), Avraham pins all his hopes upon God and is completely convinced, experientially and existentially (not only intellectually), that those promises will be fulfilled. At this time he perceives God to be “a shield to all who trust in Him,” and he relies on God to fulfill this great and awesome vision. Thus, the first aspect of trust is obligated by the mitzva of belief.
Concerning the second type of trust, the mishna in Sota provides insight:
On that very day, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hyrcanus taught: Iyyov served God only out of love, as the verse states: “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him (lo aya- chel)” (Iyyov 13:15). The matter remains unresolved: Shall I rely [on Him] or shall I not? [Which is to say, shall we follow the written text that spells “lo” with an aleph and should therefore be rendered as “I will not trust in Him”? Or shall we follow the directive for reading, which renders “lo” with a vav and concludes that “I will trust in Him”?] The verses therefore continue, “Until I die I shall not surrender my innocence” (27:5), indicating that he acted out of love.
Said Rabbi Yehoshua: Who shall remove the dust from your eyes, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai? All of your days you maintained that Iyyov served God only out of fear, as the verse states: “He was a man whole and upright, who feared God and avoided evil” (1:1). Behold, Yehoshua, the student of your student, teaches that he served God out of love! (Sota 5:5, 27b)
The proclamation, “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him,” expresses a trust in God Himself, not as a function of what I can receive from Him, but rather as trust in Him. This trust is unconnected with what one may get out of the relationship, but simply describes a connection to God. The desire to come close to Him, to serve Him, to rely upon Him, to take hold of the Foundation of all else and the Source of existence, is predicated, according to this mishna, on love. The second aspect of bittachon, then, can be said to flow from the mitzva, “You shall love the Lord your God” (Devarim 6:5).
It is true that the Ramban explains the phrase “I will trust in Him” in the above-cited verse in Iyyov to mean, “I know that He will reward my righteousness in the Afterlife.” This is trust based on the expectation of future reward. A similar sentiment is expressed by the gemara:
It was stated: Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer both say that even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not withhold himself from supplication to God, as the verse states, “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.” (Berakhot 10a)
This approach, grounded in a hope for positive results, is based upon the teaching of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai—that Iyyov served out of fear. In contrast, Rabbi Yehoshua’s view in the mishna seems to be predicated on service out of love exclusively. The baraita quoted later in the gemara adds a comparison to Avraham Avinu, the paradigm of love of God:
It was taught: Rabbi Meir says, Fear of God is stated concerning Iyyov, and fear of God is stated concerning Avraham. Just as Avraham’s fear of God was predicated on love, so too Iyyov’s fear of God was predicated on love. (Sota 31a)
The nature of avodat Hashem motivated by love was described by Chazal in unequivocal terms. Commenting on the verse “to love the Lord your God” (Devarim 11:13), the Sifrei states:
Lest a person say, “I will learn Torah in order to be considered a sage, in order to attend a yeshiva, in order to merit length of days in the World-to-Come,” the verse therefore states, “to love the Lord your God,” meaning: Learn in any case, and honor will follow in the end.
The Rambam expands this principle from the study of Torah to the service of God in general. In the concluding chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, he writes:
One who serves God out of love will study Torah, perform mitzvot and follow the path of wisdom for no ulterior motive— not because of fear of punishment nor because of promise of reward. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and in the end, good will follow. . . Our early Sages explained: Lest one say, “I will learn Torah in order to become wealthy, in order to be called Rabbi, in order to receive reward in the World-to-Come,” therefore it says, “to love God,” meaning: Whatever you do, do it out of love. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:2)
Rabbeinu Bachya understood this to be the manner in which Iyyov served God. If one loves God properly, then he feels that no matter what, he will not abandon Him:
Such a soul can only love Him more, desiring His favor and trusting in Him. So it is related concerning one of the pious ones, who would arise in the middle of the night and declare: “My God, You have starved me, left me naked, and caused me to dwell in the darkness of night; but I swear by Your strength and might that even if You burn me with fire, I will only love You and delight in You more.” Similarly, it was stated concerning Iyyov: “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.” (Chovot Ha-levavot, section 10)
In this formulation, the quality of trust does not fully encompass the mitzva of love. Trust in God does not imply the readiness to sacrifice oneself on His behalf. It does, however, imply the ambition to attain a constant connection to Him, through fire and water. Therefore, when it is necessary to pass through fire, there is the possibility of cleaving to Him in self-sacrifice as well.
In summary, then, Judaism recognizes both the hopeful and expectant trust based on faith, and the steadfast and yearning trust based on love.
THE DUALITY OF BITTACHON IN TEHILLIM
The dual nature of trust in God receives strong expression in the Shir Ha-ma’alot chapters in Tehillim. On the one hand, we have mizmor 121:
A song of Ascents. I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come? My help is from God, Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your feet to slip; your Guardian will not slumber. Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers. God will protect you; God will shelter you by your right side. The sun will not strike you during the day, nor the moon by night. God will protect you from all evil and will guard your soul. God will protect your going out and coming in from now until eternity.
This mizmor provides a classic illustration of hopeful, faithful trust, one that is certain of a positive outcome. Mizmor 131, on the other hand, portrays a completely different mood:
A Song of Ascents, for David. O Lord, my heart has not been proud, nor have my eyes been haughty. I did not tread in areas too great or wondrous for me. Did I not wait and did my soul not silently hope, like a suckling infant longs for his mother? Like a suckling, so too my soul. Israel will trust in God from now and forever.
What does the suckling infant think while in his mother’s embrace? Does he regard her as the one who will save him from crisis? Perhaps instinctually, this indeed may be the case, but practical expectations are in fact not the main thing on the infant’s mind. First of all, he turns to his mother because he wants to be close to her. At that moment, he is not preoccupied with future plans, nor is he anticipating the fulfillment of visions or promises. He knows only one thing: the world is a cold, frightening place, but here with his mother there is warmth and security! The mother, in turn, caresses him and comforts him. Over and above any response on her part, simply being in her presence gives him life and strength. Therefore, the suckling cleaves to her under all circumstances. This is not out of readiness to sacrifice himself for her, but rather because nothing in the world can separate him from her. Wherever she turns, he is at her side, tightly clutching her skirt with his small fingers.
Here, love is characterized by the image: “like a suckling longs for his mother. . . Israel will trust in God now and always.” The love is expressed by the kind of trust which led the Jews to “follow Me into the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Yirmiyahu 2:2). Again, this does not necessarily imply prepared- ness to surrender one’s soul, but simply the inability to be distant from God. The comparison to an infant’s longing for his mother implies an attachment that is experiential and existential, over and above pragmatic considerations of benefit or harm.
HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE TWO TYPES OF BITTACHON
Just as these two chapters of Tehillim are paradigmatic of the two approaches to trust, one can also trace the historical development of these two approaches over time. Of course, the Jewish people have adopted both approaches from their earliest beginnings, with our forefather Avraham being a classic example of both. Nevertheless, it is possible to suggest that the destruction of the First Temple and the consequent exile brought about a fundamental shift in attitude. Although historians have often exaggerated the effects of this turning point, it is nevertheless a fact that our own Sages also viewed this era as pivotal.
Rav said: The Jewish people offered a clinching argument in response to the words of the prophet. The prophet had said: “Return to God, for your ancestors who transgressed are no more!” The people responded: “And the prophets who did not transgress, where are they?”—as the verse states (Zekharia 1:5), “Where are your fathers? And will the prophets live forever?” . . .
Shemuel explained [that the people had a different retort]: Ten people came before the prophet and sat before him. He said to them, “Return to God.” They said to him, “A slave who has been sold by his master or a woman who has been divorced by her husband, can there be any claim between them?” [In other words, by destroying our Temple and exiling us, has God not in effect divorced us or released us from His service?] Said God to the prophet, “Go and tell them (Yeshayahu 50:1): ‘Where then is the bill of divorce of your mother whom you say I sent away, and to which of my creditors have I sold you? You have been sold on account of your transgressions, and your mother was sent away because of your misdeeds.’ ” (Sanhedrin 105a)
During the period of the Temple, when the people of Israel dwelt in their own land, it was possible for them to draw strength from bittachon born of faith. Of course, even at that time there were crises and difficult moments, but as long as the national and religious frameworks remained in place, it was possible to rely on the fundamental relationship between God and His people. The darkness of night was bearable because one could believe that the dawn would follow. With the Destruction, however, the foundations of that trust crumbled. At that time, the frightening query recorded in mizmor 22 (which our Sages attributed to Esther) was first raised:
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me, far from saving me and unheeding of my outcry? My God, I cry out to You by day—but You do not respond; and by night—but You are silent. You, Holy One, are enthroned by the praises of Israel. In You our ancestors trusted, and You saved them; they cried out to You and escaped; they trusted in You and were not disgraced.
But in the aftermath of the Destruction, when Mount Zion was desolate and foxes prowled its ruins, when the Jewish people was shamed and humiliated, how was it possible to trust in God that things would work out for the best? This was neither possible nor necessary, for “a servant whose master has sold him and a woman whose husband has divorced her” bear no responsibility towards their former relationship.
Concerning this, there was a dual response. God offered the awesome and striking rejoinder that we have not been absolved and that the initial obligation remains in place:
That which you are thinking shall never be, that you say, “We shall be like the other nations who serve gods of wood and stone.” As I live, says the Lord God, I shall rule over you with a strong hand, with an outstretched arm and with awesome wrath! (Yechezkel 20:32-33)
The Jewish people, for their part, discovered a treasure-trove of trust that was new to them, but ancient in origin. They remembered that they were not simply heirs to the Berit Bein Habetarim (Covenant between the Pieces, Bereishit 15) but also the “descendents of My beloved Avraham” (Yeshayahu 41:8). They came to the realization that it is possible to say “the Great, Mighty and Awesome God” even as the enemy forces destroyed His sanctuary and enslaved His people (Yoma 69b). It was possible to have a deep and abiding faith even “by the rivers of Babylon.”
The Jewish people emerged from the state of exile strengthened and fortified, with a faith that was more profound than before. They learned to appreciate that their connection to God, their reliance on Him and trust in Him, were independent of external, objective factors. This is the meaning of Chazal ’s statement that the people re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh. The Ramban, after citing the people’s argument that they were like a slave whose master had sold him, comments:
Therefore when the people returned a second time to the Land of Israel in the days of Ezra, they accepted the Torah of their own accord, without objections or complaints. This refers to the days of Achashverosh, when the people emerged from death to life, and it was more precious in their eyes than the Exodus from Egypt. (Ramban, Shabbat 88a)
The Jewish people learned that, even when re-establishing a state, the undertaking is accomplished “not with might nor with power, but through My spirit” (Zekharia 4:6). Since that time, these very lessons have remained with us and have strengthened us in difficult hours. The destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Commonwealth did not undermine our national faith and trust as did the destruction of the First Temple. For close to two thousand years, although we underwent great trials and tribulations, we remained attached to God, trusting in Him, yearning for Him, and sustained by Him as a result.
While we should generally try to maintain a balance between the optimistic bittachon of faith and the steadfast bittachon of love, there are historical periods when it seems that the latter type of bittachon is on the verge of disappearing completely, and therefore needs special reinforcement. Although it may sound paradoxical, I think that our own period, which has witnessed the rebirth of the State of Israel, is one of those times. All of the religious and national hopes and aspirations that arose with the dawn of the state tended to draw us completely towards “faithful trust,” while the second approach of “loving trust” was pushed aside.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that under favorable conditions, it is more difficult to demand religious self-sacrifice. As the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson pointed out, it is much easier to dismiss this world and to adopt an otherworldly stance when there is not much to lose in this life. In contrast, for a person burdened with many possessions, disdain for the material realm is much more difficult. It is also possible that our almost exclusive embrace of the first aspect of trust is engendered by our continuous accomplishments, which raise expectations even further. Perhaps the popularity of the teachings of Rav Kook, suffused as they are with national and cosmic optimism, is also partially responsible.
Whatever the cause, the phenomenon is clear: the equilibrium between the two aspects of trust has been lost by the Religious Zionist community in Israel. This fact was and is reflected in our educational system. We inculcated the ideas of faithful trust, redemption, hope and expectation very well, but neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to God without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises, conveying that the song to God must be sung even on the rivers of Babylon. We did not allow ourselves to wrestle with the possibility of national setbacks.
We taught our students about the “human comedy” but never about the “human tragedy,” on either the individual or the collective plane. We did succeed in nurturing the younger generation to be ready and willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the nation and the land. All of this was accomplished, however, while riding a wave of optimism, that all would work out because the process of redemption was unfolding. The engine of this process was faithful trust, and it found expression on the individual as well as on the national level.
I fear, however, that today we are beginning to pay the price for this skewing of values, and now is the time to rectify the error. Our obligation is to redirect our focus to embrace loving trust, to acknowledge that we are ready to hold tight to God because He is our steadfast Rock, and let the chips fall where they may. We must deal with the tragic dimension of trust, to renew the spirit of “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.” This expresses the essence of Jewish trust in the face of tragic situations.
I hope that my words are not misconstrued to mean that we must abandon faithful trust. Personally, I am brimming with the belief that God will not abandon His people and that our national existence in this Holy Land is secure. I do my utmost to pass on this belief to my children and students. At the same time, I feel that I must simultaneously instill in them loving trust, not as a spiritual insurance policy in case of crisis, but rather because sacri- fice and connectedness to God are essential in their own right, even under the most favorable circumstances. The ability to trust during suffering is important for a person, even when he thinks that difficulties do not lie on the horizon.
I also hope that my words are not taken to imply a devaluation of suffering or a negation of the pain of tribulation. In his essay, “Beyond Tragedy,” Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Christianity is a religion above and beyond tragedy. Tears as well as death are swallowed up in triumph.” This is because, for Christianity, suffering is transformed by becoming the foundation for personal redemption. Let it be stated explicitly that Judaism is not “beyond tragedy,” nor does it “swallow up” suffering. Jewish tradition educates the person to accept suffering, but also to bemoan it. Grieving—not philosophical detachment, stoic fortitude or open-armed joy—is the response which Halakha mandates when a person is faced by a loved one’s death. As the Ramban writes in the introduction to his work on the laws of mourning, Torat Haadam, “Strength of heart in this matter is of the path of rebelliousness, and softness of heart is of the path of confession and repentance.” Jewish tradition teaches the person to respond to suffering and to be educated through his or her experience of it, but certainly not to downplay or negate it. Let us recognize the magnitude of pain and suffering, but let us also continue to trust in and cleave to God.
The attribute of trust is thus antinomic, i.e., it contains conflicting aspects. On the one hand, trust demands that a person be convinced that God will assist him; on the other hand, it demands that a person be prepared for a time when, God forbid, help will not be forthcoming. That it is antinomic makes it more difficult to teach, but the model nonetheless exists.
Let us recall that our tradition preserves the account of a towering and heroic figure—Rabbi Akiva. He was full of faithful trust and optimism, convinced that the Jewish people would be restored to sovereignty and spiritual greatness in their land. In the sound of Bar Kokhba’s advancing footsteps, he heard the approaching herald of messianic redemption. On the other hand, his life was a paradigm of loving trust, for he literally fulfilled the verse in Iyyov, “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.”
Rabbi Akiva hoped; he anticipated the best and believed that it would transpire. Yet when this did not come to pass, when faced with a cruel and painful death—in this last, most bitter hour, he smiled. As he explained to Turnus Rufus, the wicked Roman governor, his smile was not an indication of “belittling of suffering,” but rather a sign of great bittachon (Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:5).
Do we succeed in following Rabbi Akiva’s example? I suspect that the movement that bears his name, a movement I admire, tends to emphasize the first aspect of Rabbi Akiva’s faith more than the second. This, in turn, is a reflection of our spiritual and educational state in general.
THE EDUCATIONAL IMPERATIVE
Practically speaking, I think that we must concentrate on one point: Trust is not an independent topic, but rather is associated with both faith and love. The ability to nurture the quality of trust depends upon one’s internalization of a general fear of Heaven, which is related to the quest for closeness to God as well as to the centrality of religious values in a person’s life. The attribute of trust, especially with respect to its second aspect of love, is not independent of other qualities, and it certainly cannot simply be activated, like a proverbial faucet, during an hour of need. Rather, bittachon is a function of a person’s general relationship to God, and depends upon his service of the heart, practical mitzva observance, devotion to study of Torah, and sensitivity to God’s constant overarching presence, in the sense of the verse (Tehillim 16:8), “I have placed God before me always.”
This approach is, of course, long and arduous. It offers no shortcuts and eschews facile slogans. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is, in the final analysis, a “long path which is short;” and I am not aware of any other. This approach is not presumptuous enough to suppose that it can answer all of our questions, but it does remove some of the sting from the questions. It is not the question of suffering per se that should trouble us. Our illustrious forebears have already posed the question of why the righteous suffer: David asked, Chabakuk inquired, and Moshe himself requested of God, “Please inform me of Your ways” (Shemot 33:13). The issue is rather the background and tone of the question. When one asks why people suffer, does he preface his question as does Yirmiyahu (12:1): “God, You are righteous, and therefore I will contend with You and question Your justice?” Or does he simply hurl rebellious and angry accusations at God?
It is natural that we have difficulties with these issues. Let us encourage the asking of questions. Our responsibility is to transmit a life of Torah that will ensure that these legitimate questions do not become serious doubts. Cardinal Newman assiduously distinguished between “difficulties” and “doubts.” From all of religion’s tenets, he related, nothing presented him with as many difficulties as the idea of God’s existence—yet of nothing was he more certain.
If we are interested in coping with questions concerning bittachon, then we must address the general state of our Torah life. Let us deepen our faith, increase our love, and in so doing, we will attain the necessary bittachon. This is a trust that will allow us to hope for the best possible outcome, but will also strengthen us for life’s most difficult moments. As “believers and children of believers,” we trust that God will do His part.
SOME RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS RAISED AFTER THE LECTURE
Q: Is it really possible to teach values, and if so, how?
A: Plato already addressed this ancient question. It seems to me that we champion an approach that maintains that it is possible to educate towards the development of values. To my mind, the most effective means of achieving this goal is to combine values-based instruction with the teaching of other subjects. This must be done in a manner that takes advantage of ongoing opportunities to raise, in the course of instruction, philosophical-existential issues, including those of faith and trust. This type of approach can be effective to the degree that it is part of a broader effort, rather than being pursued as a self-contained lecture on faith and trust.
Q: How are we to educate for values, if you present us with a variety of views?
A: Indeed, I did mention differences of opinion and opposing views with respect to several matters. On many levels, I advocate a somewhat pluralistic approach that is based on the Talmudic dictum, “These and these are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). In my opinion, this represents a central foundation of Jewish tradition, and we must reject any attempt to impose a narrow interpretation in areas of Jewish philosophy or thought, as if there were only one view on these issues.
This can be compared to the domain of Halakha, where we encounter a range of opinions and disagreements among the Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Acharonim. I do not see why we must think that in the realm of philosophical thought there has been absolute consensus throughout the generations. Moreover, in the realm of Jewish thought, matters frequently remain unresolved, since there exists no mechanism similar to the one of pesika (rendering a decision) that guides practical Halakha.
In studying Tanakh, for example, we find possibilities of interpreting in different directions, with the various options all falling within the parameters of reverence and tradition. For example, is Eliezer the servant of Avraham a positive figure or a negative one? In another vein, was Avraham three years old when he came to recognize God, as the Midrash posits, or was he forty or fortyeight, as the Rambam maintains? Obviously, the path of Avraham’s spiritual development is very different depending on which of these views is adopted. There is no pesak (conclusive decision) to settle the matter.
We ourselves must develop, and inculcate in our students as well, different approaches within the framework of tradition. Whether or not we decide between them, we must realize that there is more than one view. Sometimes we can allow the students themselves to decide. A student should be presented with the primary sources against the backdrop of different interpretations, even if no single, conclusive view emerges at the end. Such a student will be richer, wiser and more sensitive.
Q: Where should our focus lie in trying to instill in our students a love of God?
A: Educating towards love of God and faith must be anchored in the intellectual realm. At the same time, other significant domains must be included, such as the experiential, the existential—the purity of feeling, if you will—and practical application. It is not realistic to concentrate on one area in the hope that it can achieve everything.
Q: But is it not too difficult to actually inculcate our students with love of God?
A: Although it is difficult to educate one to love, it is nevertheless essential, and we must make valiant efforts in this direction. We, as well as our students, must struggle with the fact that the Torah addresses us with demands rather than entitlements. The Torah commands, “You shall love the Lord your God,” discouraging the fulfillment of mitzvot for ulterior motives, such as achieving a place in the World-to-Come. Loving God is a central mitzva, which we dare not neglect.
Q: How do you explain the concept of yissurin shel ahava (chastisements of love)?
A: With regard to this concept, the fundamental question is whether it is possible for one to suffer without having transgressed. Our sages disagree on this matter, going back as far as Chazal and the Rishonim. The Maharal believes that yissurin shel ahava are indeed a form of punishment. I tend to understand “chastisements of love” as forms of suffering that come to purify a person. We begin with the assumption that there exist individuals who are purified by suffering, just as there exist those who are broken by suffering. One does not know how he or she will perform until the suffering actually takes place. Nevertheless, the experience of suffering is one which can contain an aspect of human refinement.
For example, what was accomplished at the akeida (binding of Yitzchak)? We cannot regard it as an exercise that reveals any facts to God, since He knows all at the outset. Rather, the akeida is a creative act that stands by itself. Avraham after the akeida is not the same Avraham as before the akeida, because the experience of suffering purified him.
Judaism does not demand that its adherents revel in suffering. But when suffering occurs, it is essential to turn it into a force for self-rehabilitation and growth. Then it can be transformed into “chastisements of love,” which can creatively build the person’s soul and enhance his or her spiritual development.
Q: Is it not more effective educationally to present students with an optimistic approach? And can’t we explain the suffering of the righteous simply by pointing out that reward is granted in the World-to-Come?
A: I completely reject the exclusive use of the approach that stresses hope and a positive outcome—the common attitude that “It will be OK.” We can certainly stress the positive aspects of a given difficult situation, but only on two conditions: a) we are being honest with ourselves, and b) we do not consequently ignore the second aspect of loving trust. Even if a person finds himself in Paradise, he must be prepared to cleave to God even, Heaven forbid, under hellish circumstances.
It seems to me that it does not suffice to explain to our students that the righteous may suffer in this world, but that in the next world they enjoy goodness. This is just one response to the problem of human suffering, but certainly not the only one.
Q: How are we to educate students to have faith and trust, if the secular environment all around us continually sends the opposite message?
A: Indeed, it is difficult to nurture values of faith and trust in an environment dominated by secularism. Faith and trust are not the most marketable merchandise. We must redouble our efforts in the educational realm, and must provide examples through our personal conduct. I am convinced that our students can easily distinguish between a teacher who is truly devoted to his or her calling, whose soul is bound up with that which he or she teaches, and one who only goes through the motions and regards teaching merely as a livelihood. There are many ways of being dishonest in our instruction. We must build ourselves and then try to develop the spiritual potential of our students. I believe that a person who is open and sensitive will in the end come to encounter God.
Q: What has the experience of the Holocaust taught us about faith and trust?
A: Concerning faith during the Holocaust, we must recognize that the most firmly rooted tree cannot withstand great storm winds. There were many whose spiritual roots were deep and strong, who nevertheless were broken by the experience of the Holocaust. It is not possible for us to judge the religious state of particular individuals, or of a particular generation, by inquiring whether they withstood the test of the Holocaust. Of course, if someone emerged from the Holocaust with his faith intact, we have no greater evidence of devotion than this. By the same token, one who was broken by the experience did not necessarily possess less faith and trust in God at the outset. The test was overwhelming, and it is not possible to derive meaningful proof from it.
Teaching values of faith and trust is a slow and incremental process. It presents us, as well as our students, with lofty goals, with the constant challenge of achieving love of God and accepting suffering predicated on a conviction that “Though He may slay me, still I will trust in Him.”
(Translated by Michael Hattin with Reuven Ziegler
This lecture was originally delivered in Hebrew to a conference of senior educators of the National Religious school system in Israel. This adaptation is based on a transcript of that lecture published in Elul 5735  by the Israeli Ministry of Education. It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)
The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God. It can be ordered from here: http://www.vbm-torah.org/ralbooks.htm.