By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Struggle and uncertainly are a part of life. And as we move into the yet unknown future, especially in difficult situations, there is an inner call for a sense of security — a desire to know that everything will turn out OK, that we will overcome obstacles, and succeed.
It is during these times that our essential character and approach to life is tested. The ability to dig within and muster up the unwavering confidence that things will turn out the way that one hopes is not easy. In these moments, some are able to stay purely optimistic, some aren’t. And how this attitude or inner power plays a role in the outcome is a big subject of discussion.
There is a short phrase in this week’s Torah reading that serves to provide some insight into the Jewish view on this subject. It appears in one of the most famous biblical narratives, where Moses makes a critical decision, killing the Egyptian who is beating his Jewish brother. The passage reads:
“Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers…so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, ‘Why are you going to strike your friend?’
“And he retorted, ‘Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?’ Moses became frightened and said, ‘Indeed, the matter has become known!’ Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moses; so Moses fled from before Pharaoh.”
In the classical system of scriptural analysis, there is a principle that all descriptive information (i.e. a character’s emotional experience) must relate directly to the core events at hand; otherwise it would not be mentioned. Based on this, the commentaries pick up on a stylistic aberration in the above passage.
What difference does it make to the sequence of events that “Moses became frightened”? His fear seems to be unrelated to the progression and to the end result — his needing to flee (which only took place Pharaoh heard of the incident.) If so, what is the relevance of Moses’ emotional experience to the events of this story? One answer given proves to be a profound message about the power of thought, and our ability to determine our own destiny.
In order to appreciate this, let’s turn to a Midrash, which addresses a similar issue. It reads: “R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Reuven: An explicit divine promise was given to two biblical heroes, and nevertheless they became frightened: the choicest of the forefathers (Jacob) and the choicest of the prophets (Moses)…” The prescribed message here is unclear: is the fact that they “became frightened” a compliment, an expression of humility (teaching never to take things for granted)? Or is it a criticism (a lack of trust in God)?
Most agree that it is communicating a criticism, that their fear was in some way a character flaw. But this begs the question: what’s the problem? Isn’t it normal to be scared? And here, we return to the opening issue of how one reacts in moments of uncertainty, in difficult situations. In dealing with this question, there are two general qualities, described in Jewish literature: emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust). While these terms are often used interchangeably in English, in Hebrew they connote different experiences. Furthermore, many regard them as actual commandments.
Bitachon entails a powerful sense of optimism and confidence in his or her ability to succeed in his life’s ambitions. But one’s trust is never tested in an easy environment, as one walks along the beaten path. It is tested in a situation of risk and uncertainty.
So the real question becomes: what is the basis for this confidence? Indeed, many times, the situation that presents itself gives us no reason to be confident or optimistic, as the outcome appears out of our control.
From a Jewish perspective, this trust is based on emunah. Notwithstanding the necessity for our initiative, we must continually recognize that, behind our effort, “it is He who gives us the power to succeed.” Yet, faith and trust are not the same thing: To have trust in God, it is first necessary to clarify belief. And even if/when one has perfect “faith” (in God’s omnipotence, that “He is the only one in charge” and therefore “everything is for the best” and “therefore there is no room for fears or panic”) the quality of bitachon, the feeling of trust, can still be absent.
The classical work on Jewish ethics, Chovat Halvavot (Duties of the Heart) states: “bitachin is not simply the beliefin the ability of God to provide good, deliver from harm, etc. Rather one trusts that He will bring about this good in actuality.” Thus, faith alone does not dictate the confidence and feeling of certainty. After all, faith itself may entail a system of divine reward and punishment. But the feeling of “trust” goes a step further and says, “whether or not I deserve, I am certain that things will turn out the way that I am hoping.”
Furthermore, the struggle to generate this “trust” can override all obstacles and define the outcome. When we work on ridding our mind of worry and increasing our trust, there is a greater chance that, measure for measure, our wishes for good will materialize and our dreams will unfold in front of our eyes.
The dynamics are succinctly captured in a famous Yiddish phrase, “Trucht Gut, un es vet zein gut.” The simple understanding is “everything will be OK.” The deeper explanation is that if one fulfills the first clause, the second will occur as a natural outcome; it is specifically “the thinking good” that ensures that “it will be good.” Thus, this attitude of bitachon is not based on experience, but can create experience. It argues that negative thinking will manifest negative results, positive thinking, positive results, echoing the words “One who trusts in God, kindness surrounds him.” (Psalms 32:10)
While this may appear to resemble the “law of attraction” and other typical new age “positive thinking” — wherein truly believing in the object of your desire and focusing onto it will lead to that object or goal being realized on the material plane — the Jewish perspective is slightly different. The former confidence places the human being at the center of the universe and appeals to the ego: “The world is yours; you can have anything that you want; you create your own reality, etc.” Jewish optimism is more about a relationship. It is predicated on the faith in a fundamentally beneficent higher reality, and a struggle to further develop that faith, to recognize a force within and without that can defy all calculations, and to pay attention to how that manifests itself in the details of our lives.
For this reason, developing sincere trust is perhaps the hardest of all mitzvahs. It involves changing ones attitude. It takes work. It begins not at the moment when one suddenly feels turbulence on a plane or when a big business deal is about to close, but comes through conscious struggle to remain optimistic and refine our way of thinking. Only when we humbly make this effort, can we then influence the outcome.
Plugging this back into our story, we arrive at a novel interpretation of the verses and the relevance of Moses becoming frightened. The juxtaposition of the verses implies that because he was worried, Pharaoh ended up hearing about it. Had he been more at peace and confident, perhaps the whole episode of his needing to escape would have turned out differently.
Finally, it is important to clarify that this is not an automatic recipe. Indeed there is a complex system at work and, in certain cases, questions will always remain about why some people suffer, and others prosper. Nevertheless, the notion that thought is a powerful tool in determining an outcome in our lives stands. Simply put, faith can lead to trust and trust to peace of mind and happiness.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the non-profit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Café, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.