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Parashat Shoftim 5773 — 08/07/2013

Parashat Shoftim 5773 — 08/07/2013

You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G4 (18:13)

In our introduction to Sefer Devarim we pointed out that this last of the five books of Torah is concerned with the issue of human input into the operation of the universe.  In an essay in his book Peninim on the Torah, 17th Series, R. A. Leib Scheinbaum discusses this issue in terms of the distinction between bitachon (faith in Gd) and hishtadlut (individual action).

R. Scheinbaum delineates two approaches to bitachon.  On one side,

Rabbeinu Yonah [Gerondi, died 1263] and the Chovas HaLevavos [R. Bachya ibn Pakuda, mid-11th century CE] contend that if one trusts in Hashem with his full heart, Hashem will fulfill his request. This is true even if the individual is not deserving of Hashem’s positive response. If his bitachon is absolute and filled with integrity, if he really believes – Hashem will do His part.

In this view, bitachon apparently has an active component as it were; our bitachon can change reality.  On the other side is Rashi:

The other opinion is that of Rashi, who posits based upon the above pasuk [i.e. the verse quoted above], You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your Gd. “Walk with Him with wholeheartedness. Look ahead to Him, i.e. trust in what He has planned for you. Do not delve into the future; rather, accept with wholeheartedness whatever comes upon you, and then you will be with Him.” In other words, bitachon is an awareness that everything that occurs comes from Hashem. It does not mean that having bitachon will catalyze any changes in the life of the faithful. Having bitachon means that the individual believes that Hashem is the Source of all that happens in his life – regardless of his comfort level with what takes place.

This is a more passive view of bitachon, one might almost say a quietistic or fatalistic acceptance of Gd’s Will.  It is certainly a very high level, since it implies an equanimity in the face of circumstances that can be extremely challenging.  For example, as Rabbi Akiva was being tortured to death by the Romans, he calmly recited the Sh’ma, expiring on the word Echad (One).  And he did so with great joy at being given the opportunity to perform this mitzvah “with all his soul”!  This is an incredible level of trust in the Almighty and equanimity in the face of extreme stress – one that we should all pray we not be forced to demonstrate.

How are we to reconcile these different views?  What is bitachon anyway, and how can we develop it?  First I want to comment on a point that has always troubled me.  R. Scheinbaum, following Midrashic precedent, states that one who trusts in Hashem with all his heart will have his wishes fulfilled, even if he is undeserving.  How is it possible for someone to have this perfect level of bitachon and yet be undeserving of Gd’s grace?  If our faith in Gd is perfect, it must be based on some profound level of perception of Gd and the way Gd interacts with the world.  I find it hard to imagine that such a person could be undeserving.

I don’t know the answer to this question, but considering it does give us an insight into the meaning of bitachon.  The word bitachon comes from a root meaning “to trust” or “to be secure,” as in sherut habitachon (“Shin-Bet” – Israeli security services) or v’yashavtem betach, and you shall live securely.  Now while it is certainly possible for one to have an intellectual belief in Gd (this is expressed by the Hebrew term emunah, related to the word Amen, and, for those of you in eastern Iowa, the name of the Amana colonies), I don’t really think that it is enough to “live securely” under Gd’s protective wing, let alone have Gd fulfill one’s requests.  For that something stronger is needed – one must have a real connection with Gd on a deeper level than simply the intellect.  The intellect can certainly help in this regard – by making finer and finer distinctions it can lead us closer and closer to the infinite substratum of life which is beyond distinctions; perhaps this is the mechanism by which traditional Torah study refines the mind and the character.  Nevertheless, unless one’s entire personality – body, mind, intellect, senses – is connected to Gd, one is lacking in bitachon.

Now in our awareness, the form this connection takes is that our mind expands to infinity; we transcend the boundaries of creation and merge, to the extent possible, with the infinite.  From this vantage point, we have, as it were, left the finite aspects of our personality behind, and we just watch them do their own thing within the finite world of boundaries.  From this perspective, our bodies may act in the world, but we, that is, we in our essential, infinite nature, don’t do anything at all.  We simply are.  I believe this is the ultimate in bitachon – we trust in Gd because Gd is a living reality in our life, and not simply an intellectual assent to a set of principles or a group of ideas.  On this level there is really no human, limited input into the working of the universe; everything, including our individual personality, is the working out of Gd’s plan.

This is a description of the goal of our development.  On the path, the reality is different.  Before we are living infinity on the level of our awareness, we are still identified with the finite aspects of our personality, and those finite aspects of our personality still must draw their sustenance from the finite creation.  These finite aspects of our self – body, mind, intellect, senses – act in the finite, just as they do in the case of perfect bitachon.  The difference is not in the action, but in our evaluation of the nature of that action.  When we see ourselves as acting (hishtadlut), it means we are on one level.  When we see ourselves as separate from action (bitachon) then we are on a totally different level.  The closer we come to perfect bitachon, the less energy we have to expend on hishtadlut.  Adam was only cursed by the sweat of your face will you eat bread after he had sinned.

Our Sages tell us: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will (Avot 2:4).  When we have transcended all considerations of our finite nature – those considerations that can “bribe” us into turning away from Gd, then our individual will grows to a universal value.  Our desires are fully in accord with Gd’s plan for the world.  Naturally, our wishes are fulfilled, as Rabbeinu Yonah and the Chovot haLevavot state.  At the same tiime, since we ourselves are infinite, silent inside and completely detached from all the activity of creation, we can view that activity with complete equanimity, as Rashi describes.  Each one is emphasizing a different aspect of the phenomenon.  We have just entered the month of Elul, where we should be preparing ourselves for the upcoming Days of Awe.  We would all be wise to do whatever we can to move towards the state of perfect bitachon, to fix our behavior and our thinking so that we can be at one with Gd’s Will.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 4

Only 4 more weeks till Rosh HaShanah!  To accommodate all 6 chapters of Pirke Avot, this week and next we read one chapter each (Chapters 1 and 2), and the following two weeks we read two chapters each (3-4 and 5-6).

Yosi ben Yo’ezer of Tz’reidah says:

Let your house be a meeting-house for the Sages.  Roll in the dust of their feet and drink in their words thirstily.

There is a famous Chasidic story.  A Chassid goes to visit his Rebbe on one of the holidays.  When he comes home, a friend asks him to relate some of the Rebbe’s words of wisdom.  The Chassid replied, “I didn’t go to listen to the Rebbe’s words.  I went to see how the Rebbe ties his shoes!”  It is one thing to try to gain spiritual knowledge from a book, or, even harder, to refine one’s personality from a book.  But at some point, no matter how good the book, knowledge has to be conveyed from someone who has it (the master) to one who is seeking it (the disciple).  It is this way in every tradition that I know of, because there is an essential component that can only be conveyed by a living mind and a beating heart.  The reason is that this kind of knowledge is not merely intellectual knowledge, that one can perhaps gain from reading a textbook.  It is knowledge of the essence of life, which transcends thought and speech.  It is knowledge that can only be understood on the level of direct experience, and can only be conveyed by someone who lives it.  Thus our Sages say  (Avot 1:6) “Make [for] yourself a teacher.”  And to paraphrase a beautiful line from the musical South Pacific, Once you have found him, never let him go!