Tikkun Middot Project Curriculum
Rabbi David Jaffe
Bitachon may be one of the most difficult middot to acquire. The Hebrew root for Bitachon is .ח.ט.ב which means to be at ease, to trust and to be confident. In modern Hebrew the word Bitachon also means security and thus the Misrad HaBitachon is the Defense Ministry and Bituach Leumi is the National Insurance system. In classic Jewish literature the ultimate source of this sense of security is God.
There are compelling reasons why Bitachon is so challenging. For moderns, whose belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing and loving deity has been severely weakened by over two centuries of rationalist, scientific thinking, and horrific violence and suffering of two world wars, to simply rely on God to take care of you rings hollow.
How can I trust a God who allowed Auschwitz to happen? There is not much stronger a challenge to the idea that we can rely on God than that. However, our post-Holocaust generations were not the first to struggle with Bitachon. Bitachon was also a challenge in Biblical times when Jewish society more readily accepted the idea of an all-powerful God.
Bitachon as a middah does not require that we have absolute trust in an omnipotent God. As with all middot, there is a continuum, and we each get to locate our own souls on the continuum. Some people move through life with an unshakeable belief in God’s goodness and protection. Others are much more anxious and worry fills their days. Neither extreme is necessarily good. Wherever you are on this continuum, working on Bitachon means moving towards balancing trust in a loving God or a benign universe with taking initiative. You never have to believe something you actually don’t believe to grow in Bitachon. We will start with a very practical issue, our livelihood.
Bitachon and Making a Living – the “Manna Test”
Just days after the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea accompanied by ample Divine pyrotechnics, God gives them a test to see if they internalized the faith they professed at the sea. God provides Manna, but only allows the people to take exactly what they need and not to save any for the next day. If they do save it, it rots (Exodus 16:4-20). Why did God choose food as the object of this test? Food is symbolic of our livelihood, our parnassah. Providing for our own material well being and that of our family has been one of the core sources of anxiety throughout human history. Will we have enough to eat? The feeling of scarcity awakened by this question is closely connected to the Yetzer Hara (the evil urge). An overly developed feeling of scarcity can lead to greed, violence and the worst aspects of human behavior.
The manna test was very carefully crafted. God could have just given every household the amount of Manna it needed to fulfill is daily nutritional requirements. Rather, they needed to work for their food by collecting the manna from the field. This requirement echoes the curse given to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it…By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat…” (Genesis 3:17-19). Part of being human is that we need to work for our food. But this comes with another challenge. We feel pride in our labor and our ability to make things and support ourselves. The Torah warns us not to say, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” (Deuteronomy 8:17) The Torah is calling on us to do something quite counterintuitive and perhaps paradoxical. We need to use our capability to earn a livelihood (symbolized by collecting the manna). At the same time we need to recognize that it was not just our own capabilities that earned us this livelihood (symbolized by the need to trust that more food will be there tomorrow) and thus, we don’t get to do whatever we want with it (symbolized by the need to not hoard the leftover manna).
Tzedakah is one of the mitzvot that trains us to do this. We earn money through our effort, but need to recognize that a portion of those earnings actually belongs to the needy. Bitachon calls on us to be powerful actors in the world, and employ what is called Hishtadlut, human effort. At the same time it reminds us constantly that we are not ultimately in control.
Where are you on the continuum of trust and control?
In what ways do you try to control things too much? What is the impact on yourself and others?
In what ways do you take too much credit for your successes or failures?
In which any areas of your life do you think you have too much trust and might assume more initiative?
From Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis
Bitachon gives us the capacity to act from a place of no fear. A heart cannot hold both fear and trust at the same time. When we cultivate trust, we inevitable loosen the grip fear holds on our heart. Fear stifles and censures, to the detriment of ourselves and the world. When we turn our soul to face the divine, we call on our higher nature and elevate ourselves away from animal instincts.
Love presupposes trust. You cannot love those who you cannot trust. Cultivating trust, love becomes possible.
By activating trust in God, we transform ourselves into fearless, loving beings. Bitachon is the inner attitude that respects that whatever is happening in our lives is nothing more or less than the curriculum that God gives us, through any of the myriad channels God has available in the world. The stretching and pulling—by loves as well as by blows—is what brings us to the threshold of growth that we would likely (almost certainly) never otherwise approach.
Morinis, Alan (2011-05-18). Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (p. 217). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.
Although I have been addressing anxiety and fear as if they are virtually the enemies of trust, in reality these sentiments can play a positive role in helping you develop this soul-trait. Every experience of fear or worry that strikes you is nothing but a signal calling on you to fan the inner sparks of your bitachon. Your task is to become aware of fear, anxiety, and clinging right as these experiences are occurring within you, and to respond to them inwardly by identifying them as signs of not trusting. These acts of bringing to awareness and naming should not be confused with self-recrimination, however. By simply being sensitive to whatever feelings you may experience that imply a lack of trust, you call yourself to self-awareness of the other option that lies before you—to trust.
Rabbi Ibn Pakuda ends “The Gate of Trust in God” with a prayer that is fitting for us as well: “May God in His mercy include us among those who trust Him and surrender themselves outwardly and inwardly to His judgment. Amen.”
Trust God with all your heart, and on your understanding do not lean.
Morinis, Alan (2011-05-18). Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (pp. 218-219). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.
Write a phrase on an index card and repeat it for several minutes at the beginning of your day to focus your attention on this middah throughout the day. These phrases can come from our reading or you can make them up. Below is one suggestion:
Blessed is the person who trusts in God, and whose hope God is. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)
More focus phrases:
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” ― Corrie ten Boom
“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ― Ernest Hemingway
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” ― Maya Angelou
“I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.” ― C. JoyBell C.
“You see, you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them, too–even when you’re in the dark. Even when you’re falling.” ― Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” ― George MacDonald
“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”
“Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.” ― Richard Rohr