The soul wants to live in an atmosphere of trust since the alternative is anxiety and worry. But people find it difficult to trust, for so many good and valid reasons. This world is so unreliable. Hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and other natural disasters can strike at any moment. Your life can suddenly be overturned by illness or accident. And most of all, there is the unaccountable cruelty, incompetence and stupidity of people. A level-headed view of life seems to offer us every reason not to trust.
How and where could we possibly put our trust?
The Hebrew term for the soul-trait of trust is bitachon. To the Mussar teachers the only place to put our trust is in God, therefore bitachon means "trust in God." Including God in the definition may offer you some help, or it may bring on an additional challenge, depending on the role faith plays in your life. Growing in bitachon is a very different proposition for a person who already has a strong relationship to the divine as opposed to someone who has no active sense of Who/What he or she is being asked to trust.
A person who tries to practice trust in God while leaving himself a backup plan is like a person who tries to learn how to swim but insists on keeping one foot on the ground. - Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz
But who could possibly trust a God who allows a million children to be killed in the Holocaust, who permits AIDS and smallpox and ALS, who rains fire on the innocent and allows the guilty to die in their comfortable beds? If this is the best that omniscient, omnipotent divinity is capable of, then it seems you'd have to be crazy to trust that God.
The fact that this is a difficult world is no accident or sign of bad design. The Source of all has made our world just as it is so we will not become complacent and lethargic, but instead be surprised and challenged. The stretching and pulling -- by love as well as by blows -- is what brings us to the threshold of growth that we would likely never otherwise approach.
With your free will, you have it in your power to turn away from the opportunity to grow, and instead to build thicker walls of anger, hatred and despair around your heart. Or you can offer up your heart for its initiation. The Kotzker Rebbe said, "There is nothing so whole as the broken heart." Once you recognize that the world is not meant to be nice, or comfortable, or certain, or easy, but that it is set up to be the ideal training ground for the heart, you can trust in God because the world is working just as it should be.
The suffering or difficulty in our lives almost never makes sense in the moment, and only reveals its logic in time. Have you ever looked back over a section of your life, or your whole life itself, and only been able to see the storyline in retrospect? How many people have you heard say something like "losing that job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me" though at the time it seemed like a blow to the solar plexus? Maybe you've already had an experience like that yourself.
At the beginning of World War II, the Mussar teacher Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, along with his wife and children, were exiled from Poland to Siberia. The Russians had invaded the part of Poland where the Nekritz family lived, and because Rabbi Nekritz had been born in Russia, he was judged suspicious and was sent to labor in the harsh north country. Of course everyone in the town was distraught for the poor Nekritz family, since all the others were allowed to remain at home while this one family was singled out for the punishment of exile. "Terrible, terrible," they moaned, and it was indeed terrible, except for the fact that remaining in the town ultimately turned out to be an even worse fate -- the Nazis rolled into that part of Poland and consigned all the Jews who lived there to the death camps.
At the end of the war, the Nekritz family was released and made their way to the United States. The exile to Siberia had been their ticket to survival.
Who in the moment could have seen the big picture? No one in the middle of a story is able to see how everything will work out in the end. So our reactions to what unfolds in life are either pure speculation or they reflect our clinging to a story we ourselves generate from our unconscious.
This is true for personal events and for history as well. The Mussar teaching is to call up trust to counteract our reactivity. When you recognize the truth that you do not write the full script of your life nor do you direct all the action, then it sinks in that there is really nothing to worry about. Trust.
I am not saying that evil and suffering are not real. But it is available to us to see everything that confronts us in life as a challenge to our own soul-traits. We are meant to be good and loving, generous and kind, but we can't make any of those qualities take firm root in our inner soil unless we face the challenge of rejecting their opposites. Only if these challenges are entirely real will can we use them to help our hearts to grow in positive ways. When Rabbi Nekritz would be asked by the peasants in Siberia, "Why have you been sent here?" he would always answer, "To teach you bitachon, trust in God."
Do we draw from all this that having strong bitachon means being fatalistic? In its extreme form, the answer is actually yes. There is a Hassidic story about a rebbe who saw a frantically busy man, and he asked the man where he was running in such a frenzied rush. "I'm chasing my destiny," the man answered. To which the rebbe replied, "How do you know it isn't also chasing you? Maybe all you have to do is to stand still for a moment to give it a chance to catch up."
While our destiny is surely in the hands of God, we are still obliged to make our own efforts.
But we can also find more measured voices telling us that while our destiny is surely in the hands of God, we are still obliged to make our own efforts. To rely exclusively on God implies that we have absolutely nothing in hand to bring about change, when that is seldom if ever the case. Everyone has some powers that are gifted to them, like the ability to think, to speak, to write, to lift objects, to move about, to care -- and even if you are lacking one or more of these capacities, you should put what capabilities you do have to work to bring about the outcomes you see to be the best, rather than rely totally on God. God is the source of these capacities, so wouldn't it dishonor those gifts and especially their Giver not to put them to use?
When wise bitachon has taken root in you, you recognize how important it is to act on your own behalf. Making genuine effort to improve yourself, your relationships, and other circumstances in the world is a sign that you understand and accept your real responsibility for yourself and the world. It also reflects your acknowledgement of the gifts God has already put into your hands. Yet with bitachon, you also recognize that the outcome of your actions is always beyond your control.
In short, Mussar's guidance is that you should try to make things work out the way you think is best, and then be fully prepared to accept whatever occurs.
It's easy to see that practicing trust in this way will inevitably give rise to peace of mind. Effort combined with trust yields calmness -- because when you willingly accept whatever results come out of your actions, what could there possibly be to worry about? Jewish sources stress that through trust -- casting your burden on God -- you free yourself from worldly cares, bringing on the calmness and tranquility so many of us long for and that we often try to find in less-than-Godly ways.
Strong trust also makes you brave. Once you have developed the attitude that you will be just fine with whatever comes out of your actions, you will feel freer to speak out and take steps that reflect your deepest convictions, without concern for consequences. In this way bitachon helps strengthen soul-traits that are susceptible to fear. For example, people (like me, though thankfully more so in the past than today) often slip into saying things that are not true out of fear of consequences, which means that a person with strong trust is likely to find fewer challenges to being honest. And so on for any other traits that might be knocked off their proper measure by the force of fear.
When fear or worry strikes you, recognize the experience as a signal calling on you to fan the inner sparks of your bitachon. Your task is to become aware of feelings such as fear, anxiety, and clinging right as they are occurring within you, and to respond to them inwardly by identifying them as signs of not trusting. That naming should not be confused with self-recrimination. By being sensitive to feelings that imply a lack of trust, you call yourself to be conscious of what is happening within you. From that foundation of self-awareness, you can remind yourself of the other option that lies before you in this situation -- to trust.
Bitachon is not a mere philosophical principle; it is an act that requires practice. How do we practice trust? Let me prepare you with a story adapted from the Chofetz Chaim.
There was once a man who was visiting a small town in Europe. It was Shabbat morning, and he went to the local synagogue. Everything was just as you might expect, until unusual things started happening. There were well-dressed, obviously prosperous people seated near the front, but all the honors for the Torah-reading were given to scruffy men who stood clustered at the back of the room. When it came time for the rabbi to say a few words of wisdom, all he spoke about was the weather. After the prayers were finished, lovely food was spread on the table and nobody ate.
The man was flummoxed by all these incomprehensible goings-on. What kind of place was this? Was everyone here crazy? Finally, he pulled aside one of the locals and asked, "What's going on here? The men who got the Torah honors, the rabbi's talk, the uneaten food… nothing makes any sense!"
The man explained, "Those scruffy looking men had been unjustly imprisoned and the community worked long and hard to ransom them to freedom. Isn't it wonderful that they are now free to come to bless the Torah? The rabbi spoke only about the weather because there has been an unusual drought this season and the farmers have nothing on their minds but their crops, and the rabbi knew and cared for their concerns. Why didn't anyone eat? One Shabbat every month the community prepares its usual lunch but instead of eating it, the food is donated to the local home for the elderly."
"I can see how it might have looked to you," the local man told the guest, "but when you can only see part of a picture, it's easy to put together a faulty impression of what is going on."
This story offers a useful parable for our own lives. When you can only see part of the situation -- and in the present moment, all any of us can ever see is part of the picture -- then you can't possibly know what is really going on. That will only be revealed in the fullness of time.
But I introduced the story by saying that trust in God needs to be practiced, and I had in mind suggesting a way in which you can do that by making use of this story. Just by recognizing the truth in this parable, and keeping it in mind, it is there to serve you whenever you are shaken awake by something happening that doesn't fit your expected story line. Maybe the disaster will turn out to be a strangely packaged gift. Maybe in time it will be revealed that what appeared to be a glorious boon was actually the doorway to disaster. This happens, of course. Because at any moment you can only see part of the picture, and because this world and its Maker are ultimately trustworthy, you can trust.
© Alan Morinis