The current crisis here in Israel compels each one of us to develop greater bitachon, trust in God.
To understand what bitachon is, let's first define what it isn't.
Bitachon doesn't mean blithely believing that everything will be honky dory. It doesn't mean trusting that I can walk through a dangerous neighborhood at night and I won't get mugged. It doesn't mean trusting that no matter how fast I drive to that appointment, I won't get into an accident. This is not trust -- this is wishful thinking. It has everything to do with our desire for ease and comfort and nothing to do with trust in God.
Bitachon means trusting that: (1) God creates reality moment by moment in a way which reflects His awareness, involvement, and compassion; and (2) we would wish reality to be exactly the same way if we saw where present events are ultimately taking us.
God is aware of everything that takes place, including every thought that is entertained by every human being. Nothing can exist without God bringing it continually into existence. The fact that anything exists, whether it's a rock in the street or ant #8162 in this particular ant hill, is a revelation of God's constant will and awareness. Nothing happens without God's will.
Nothing happens without God's will.
But there's a vast difference between will and involvement.
Although God wills ant #8162 to exist, God is not intimately involved in the life of ant #8162. An ant is created to be part of something bigger than itself -- the ecosystem of the universe. Its life is meant to be lived according to the laws of what we will call for the moment "nature."
God created the laws of nature, and He continuously runs the so-called "natural order" according to those principles. And generally speaking, God will not alter those principles, and say, reverse gravity nor alter the pull of electromagnetic attraction. (Although He did do just that at the time of the Ten Plagues.) However, even working within the laws of nature, God's timely intervention can only be labeled miraculous. And miracles are something that God does only for the benefit of us human beings who were created in His image.
To give an example from the current crisis: If a sniper fires a rifle at a slow-moving target, such as an Israeli on her way home from work, the laws of ballistics might dictate that the bullet will hit its target. But God (for whatever reasons) may decide that there will be a pothole in the road which will alter the path of the car just enough that the bullet misses and the life of the intended victim is saved.
God can also decide that there will be no pothole and for the bullet to hit its mark.
In order to understand that the way God creates reality is also always compassionate -- whether the bullet hits or misses its mark -- let us look at an incident in the life of Moses.
God had instructed Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelite slaves go. Pharaoh's response was to punish the Israelite slaves. He decreed that they not only had to make bricks but also to gather the raw materials for the purpose. Moses, shocked that, as a result of his following God's directive, life was made much harder for his people, asked God: "Why are You doing evil to this people?"
Moses asked God: "Why are You doing evil to this people?"
In his question, Moses was admitting that God's will was incomprehensible to him. Nevertheless, the next time God commanded Him to do something, Moses obeyed with his whole heart.
True bitachon doesn't mean not having questions. True bitachon means resolving in one's own mind that the answers are there and that they are good, but that they may not be known to us at the moment.
When someone is faced with tragedy and asks, "Why did God do such a thing?" often the question is not a question at all, but an implied statement: "God should not have done such a thing." True questions are an admission of our own smallness, of our limitations in comprehension. Questions are not a lack of faith. But to think that the question is the answer is a lack of faith.
The difference is whether we doubt ourselves (that is, our ability to comprehend everything) or doubt God.
THE END OF THE STORY
No one in the middle of a story is able to see the end of the story. Bitachon means believing that there is an end to the story, and that if we could know the end we would have no doubts now.
Here's where this concept gets tricky: There are two worlds, the world of physicality that we experience and the world of spirituality which is beyond our perception. Often a person can seem to fail in the physical world, but be victorious in the spiritual world. The "end of the story" really takes place only in the spiritual world.
Picture a scene from the Spanish Inquisition: Juan Mendoza is a second generation converso who works as a cloth merchant. He knows that he's Jewish, but he doesn't know what that means beyond not eating bread for a week in the spring and fasting one day in the autumn. Somehow the Inquisition discovers him. They give him the choice of swearing eternal allegiance to the Cross or being burned at the stake.
Juan, like many conversos, chooses a martyr's death. Looking at this story 450 years later, when we are distant enough to romanticize it, we would applaud the ending. A seemingly ordinary man made a heroic choice to die for his ideals and thus achieved greatness. Juan's soul is enjoying a state of illumination and closeness to God in the spiritual world which, had he died of gout at the age of 47, like many of his contemporaries, he would never have had access to.
However, had you been in Madrid at the time, and seen Juan dying a horrible death, his widow and children crying in anguish, chances are you would have bemoaned the dreadful ending of the story. This is true of practically every chapter of Jewish history.
The Maharal of Prague, the great 16th century mystic, says the problem is that in this physical world we have no distance; we are so close to the events that are transpiring around us, that it is virtually impossible for us to view them with perspective. The end of any story which takes place in our own lifetime is necessarily hidden from us. This is the main trial of bitachon.
The end of any story which takes place in our own lifetime is necessarily hidden from us.
The Sfat Emes, the 19th century Hasidic Rebbe of Gur, says that we are like deaf people at a concert. We can see the conductor gesticulating wildly, but we have no clue what his movements mean. Just as deaf people lack the faculty to hear the music, which would make sense out of the whole scene, so we lack the faculty of perceiving the spiritual dimension, the infinite interplay of souls and the working out of the Divine plan, behind current events.
JOY AMIDST THE CRISIS
When I was a child, I hung around with a certain Hassidic group. On Rosh Hashana afternoon, there is a custom to go to a body of water and symbolically cast your sins into the water, and this Hassidic group always went to a fish pond in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It was arranged ahead of time with the authorities that the gate would be left open for them on this day for this ceremony.
One Rosh Hashana, someone slipped up. Despite having received prior approval, the group, with their esteemed Rebbe in the lead, arrived at the Botanical Gardens and found the gate locked, with the gatekeeper nowhere in sight. The Hassidim were milling around, not knowing what to do. Suddenly the Rebbe climbed over the gate. At first the Hassidim were startled but then, one by one, they followed. When they caught up with him, the Rebbe said, "You have to know that you meet obstacles so that you can climb over them."
This is how bitachon confers on us a deep and abiding joy. Bitachon is not saying, "I want no obstacles." Bitachon is saying, "The obstacles, the difficulties, the ordeals are there so that I can overcome them, and in the process become a deeper, finer person than I would have been without them." Joy is the result of this consciousness.
Bitachon is not measured by your success in climbing over the gate. Bitachon is measured by your response upon seeing the gate -- whether you grimace and give up, or whether you appreciate that God has put the gate there for your ultimate benefit.
Bitachon is measured by your response upon seeing an obstacle -- do you climb over it or give up?
True joy has nothing to do with ease in life, or with things going well. Rather, our joy must come from who we can become in the face of trying circumstances. True joy comes from resolution within oneself. The Talmud says, "There is no joy like the resolution of doubt." Joy comes from embracing life on its own terms, because you have a basic belief that life is good and as it should be and that challenges are an integral part of life.
Let's apply the concept of bitachon to the current crisis in the Middle East.
There has been much heated debate about whether or not Yassir Arafat is in control of the violence. Without exonerating Arafat in any way -- because every human being bears responsibility for the evil he does -- we must be aware that God is ultimately in control. God is not only aware of and involved in all the events taking place in Israel every day, but He is orchestrating events with as much compassion as we can take.
Although it is exceedingly difficult for us to see this compassion in the present moment, bitachon means knowing it is there nevertheless. Each of us must strive to maintain the consciousness of God's being in control from moment to moment.
One thing is certain -- the Land of Israel is the place where, even in spite of oneself, one is aware of God's involvement in human affairs. Living in Israel, it is very hard to ignore God's hand in our destiny.
THE STRUGGLE FOR THE LAND OF ISRAEL
The crisis in which we currently find ourselves is a struggle for the Land of Israel. Unlike earlier persecutors who wanted us to abandon our religion, or the Nazis who hated our very existence, the Arabs simply want the land. If we would give them the land and all go live in America, they would leave us alone and cease their cry of "Death to the Jews."
The Talmud says that three things are acquired only through suffering: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Next World. Suffering wakes us up and forces us to confront reality. It breaks through the "automatic pilot" on which we live most of our lives and compels us to reexamine our values and adjust our actions.
Depending on our response, suffering can be the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth, pushing us to move faster and further than the comfortable pace we ourselves would choose. Since we must all be on a high spiritual level in order to be worthy to inherit the land of Israel, we can understand why the land can be acquired only through suffering and the growth that suffering engenders.
The prophets tell us that the struggle for the land of Israel will herald the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) and will be very difficult. This period the Talmud calls "the birth pangs of Moshiach."
Pregnant women take Lamaze courses not because what they learn will quell their labor pains, but because knowing what to expect helps them to handle the pain. So too, knowing what to expect during the period of "the birth pangs of Moshiach" will not change the ordeal, but it will make it less frightening. The fact that certain events were prophesized should make it easier for us to see God's hand in those events.
We know from the Prophets that the Messianic age will advance in two stages: the first is to be led by Moshiach, son of Joseph, and the second by Moshiach, son of David.
The Gaon of Vilna, the great 18th century sage, in his book Even Shleima, writes about the era of Moshiach, the son of Joseph, as the era of the physical return to the Land of Israel. This era precedes the spiritual repentance of the actual Messianic age, that of Moshiach, the son of David.
There is a hiatus between the period of Moshiach the son of Joseph and the revelation of Moshiach the son of David. This is the time period we are in now, which is the most difficult of all periods.
The prophets describe a horrendous time, when all the nations will come up against Jerusalem.
The Biblical prophecies of the latter Prophets describe a horrendous time, when all the nations will come up against Jerusalem. These can be interpreted on various levels. For example, the nations coming up against Jerusalem could be fulfilled by condemnations from the United Nations, rather than a literal war. The only thing that is clear from the Biblical prophets is that this period will be very difficult, and that how it plays out will depend on us and our repentance.
What should we be doing during this particular time period? The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin (98b) says that during the "birthpangs of Moshiach" two things save us: acts of loving-kindness and learning Torah.
ANTIDOTE FOR CRUELTY
If you read the newspapers, as we all are avidly doing, you can see two kinds of reports:
- the daily attacks of violence, which are often characterized by hair-razing cruelty, and
- the political manipulations and power struggles (will there or won't there be a unity government, will the peace process continue, etc).
Acts of loving-kindness are the antidote for cruelty. Torah is the antidote for the political labyrinth which has left us desperate and dispirited. Learning Torah, in essence, means making our minds secondary to God's mind, without ego or power trips.
The Talmud tells us that we are going to recognize that we have no one to rely on except God. So anyone who thinks that our salvation will come from the Israeli government, or the American administration, or the Israeli army, will have to be convinced otherwise by the tragic denouement of events. Our salvation will come when we look to God alone.
We cannot say that this is how we like things to be: the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo under fire and Jewish people murdered and mutilated.
But Bitachon requires that we respond: "Although I don't like what's happening, I'm not going to surrender to a sense of calamity. Instead, I'm going to let the crisis move me forward. I'm going to be a person who does more acts of kindness; I'm going to learn more Torah. I'm going to see God's hand in day-to-day events. The locked gate is there for me to climb over it."