By Rabbi Dan Lewin
It’s not our challenges themselves that are most challenging, but our ability to meet them calmly, with clarity and trust, without breaking too much in the process.
The early Torah portions of Shemos (Exodus) provide the platform for one of the most famous sichas (discussions) of the character trait called betachon (trust). Understanding this quality also reveals how inner struggle can influence outcomes. The Yiddish original of “Think good and (through this) it will be good!” has become a popular adage in recent years. But how is this approach different from other forms of positive thinking, or spiritual beliefs like the law of attraction, or any of the universal philosophies that emphasize how our thoughts shape results?
One core distinction lies in why someone in a difficult situation feels confident that things will turn out well. After all, so much can go wrong and, at times, there is no visible way out of the predicament. In such circumstances, the Torah concept of betachon is not a vague feeling of optimism. Nor is it simply displaying a good attitude in the face of apparent obstacles. Rather, this peaceful poise is a direct outgrowth of another fundamental attribute — faith (emunah) — that can be awakened through steady effort. From a different angle, this unique form of optimism sprouts from maintaining a personal relationship with G-d, not from a general approach to life.
One the one hand, faith precedes betachon because you can’t trust that something will save you unless you know it exists. But after one’s solidifying faith, there is still the need to cultivate an intuitive certainty that G-d will do good for you, take care of you and guide you to victory in achieving your goals. And within this emotion itself, there are two layers: developing a sense of healthy self-confidence — I have been gifted all the inner resources to overcome this challenge — and the broader feeling of entrusting one’s journey to the Almighty.
A new beginning
In the yearly Torah cycle, we have just concluded learning about the lives of our forefathers and mothers — the origin of the Children of Israel. We are now tackling a new series that describes an intensely bitter period but one that ends in magnificent redemption. In the famous episode of Moshe venturing out of his royal setting, witnessing the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and standing up for one of his brothers, he reprimands two Israelite troublemakers. They then spitefully retort: “Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Hearing this, Moshe is stunned. The verse continues: “Moses became frightened and said, ‘Indeed, the matter has become known (Exodus 2:14).’”
The commentaries pick up on a stylistic abnormality. Unlike other literary works, the Torah, while relating stories, provides the basic events; it scarcely delves into the main characters’ emotions. Why then does the verse communicate that Moses was scared, which seemingly has no bearing on the story or his fleeing from Egypt? One lesson has to do with the impact of our inner world on outside circumstances: In short, because Moshe reacted with fear, and, furthermore, verbalized his worry, Pharaoh learned about the incident, which then required Moshe to flee. Had Moshe demonstrated more betachon, the events would have played out differently.
But what is this emotion of trust about? A similar quality when dealing with another person is an underlying sense of dependability; there is, therefore, no worry about whether they will follow through on what they promised. In contrast, someone whom you don’t trust provokes suspicion or discomfort — you worry about what they may say or do. As this pertains to our relationship with G-d, someone who faces a tough situation but lacks trust is skeptical about the outcome. They have been conditioned to imagine the worst-case scenario or to respond to perceived threats with excessive worry — even if they have full faith in a Creator who sustains and guides all events in the universe.
To be sure, a more wholesome faith may allow one to accept any outcome, understanding that “everything happens for a reason,” even if the result appears negative. But this outlook is only an expression of faith (emunah), not betachon (trust). And they are distinct traits.
Some later Jewish commentaries erroneously define betachon as the ability to calmly accept any outcome. Because we see only a tiny piece of the big picture, we must continue to remain relaxed regardless of how things unfold. On a deeper level, this mindset also ties into an intricate system of reward and punishment, a comprehensive evaluation of every individual, that Maimonides explains is one of the core principles of the Jewish faith.
But the way in which the classical texts define trust is more than passive belief. It also comprises security and confidence that the outcome will manifest in the way that you want. As explained in Duties of the Heart, the emotion of betachon entails peace and certainty that everything will turn out well, in a visible way.
As one enters this state, there are no calculations: So long as I do my part, then somehow, some way, G-d will do good for me. And our effort to achieve this level of trust has tremendous effects both on our ability to tolerate transient difficulty and on future results. When we remain simple and assured, free of calculations and doubt, then, measure for measure, G-d abandons all calculations and provides the outcome we seek.
Strengthening the heart
If so, one may think that this technique can be employed to manipulate a favorable outcome. But it is not so simple. While we can trick the mind, the emotions of the heart are not always under our control. Betachon is perhaps the most difficult mitzvah, one that takes practice to maintain. For some people, it comes easier than for others.
In this vein, the Baal Shem Tov explains that someone who sins may be punished by having trust removed. An extreme example is the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in order to provide the fantastic display of plagues geared toward simultaneously doing justice to the Egyptians and uplifting the morale of the Jewish people.
When we carefully study these events in the Torah portion, the journey from slavery to freedom and all the wonders during this process, we strengthen our innate trust. Likewise, the deeper purpose of a miracle in Jewish thought is to remind us that even the natural world, including all the events in our lives, is being divinely orchestrated.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.