Rabbi Israel Chait

We previously mentioned Abraham’s perfection and his trials. We said that trials do not refer to a test where someone must act in a certain way. Trials refer to acceptance: the attitude of an individual regarding any untoward event.

Today, I would like to talk about the concept of bitachon, faith in God. I will first discuss it in practical terms and later I will discuss it philosophically.

We say that a person is to have bitachon in God. What is faith in God? Everyone seems to feel intuitively that they know what this means. As Maimonides says, everyone feels they know what Olam Haba is. Of course, they have no idea of it because they do not use their intellects, and they do not care to [attempt to] understand it because they feel they know what it is. This is a bad practice in Judaism. The same applies to bitachon. People feel they know what it is: an imminent catastrophe about which one says, “Have faith in God that He will help you.” Does this mean that my belief in God dictates that He will help, which means to say that if the catastrophe occurs, it does so because I failed to believe in God? This produces a problem as there were people who were paragons of bitachon, and nevertheless they experienced catastrophe. Do we say that Abraham lacked bitachon because the Torah says, “The matter was very evil in Abraham’s eyes regarding the tidings of his son” (Gen. 21:11 regarding Sarah’s wish to exile Hagar and Ishmael)? Abraham had to send away his son while he had natural feelings towards him. Does this mean that if Abraham had more bitachon, that this would not have happened? It is absurd to say so.

The Chazon Ish raises the question of what bitachon is. He answers that bitachon does not mean that God will fulfill a person’s desire. For we see that this is false, for despite a person’s great bitachon, his wishes do not necessarily occur, like Abraham sending Ishmael away. Now, if a catastrophe might occur, what is bitachon and its role? 

The Chazon Ish wrote on the topic of bitachon and emunah, trust. He said that bitachon is the same phenomenon as emunah. Emunah means that a person believes that everything that occurs is due to God’s will. But we do not know how God is going to proceed [when we encounter untoward events]. The Chazon Ish says that bitachon is nothing more than emunah actualized. This means that person can be walking in the jungle and a lion approaches him. His emunah tells him, “The lion may or may not destroy me; it depends on God’s will.” Bitachon is when he personally feels that way; his emotions are in line with his emunah. Meaning, just as one knows if he would be walking in a dangerous place, whether the danger will befall him depends on God’s will, that is the way he feels at the time. That feeling is bitachon. Bitachon it was nothing more than emunah translated it into emotional, practical terms. Those are the words of the Chazon Ish.

I would like to elaborate more on bitachon. Bitachon is a certain kind of change in a person that takes place due to his knowledge of God. Everyone has basic fears. How do they handle them? Fear is a powerful force. By nature, most people handle their fears with some type of protective device, a manufactured psychological device that they create. It is like the Chofetz Chaim says: “When someone hears that another person died, at first it strikes him, but then the person denies his own death.” The mind creates such devices to offer a personal security and peace of mind. Some people engage in certain activities to protect them from their fears. But the ultimate expression of these manufactured security devices is idolatry. Idolatry is created by man precisely to ward off any evil that might befall him. It is fueled by fear. Chazal say that the denial of idolatry is the essence of the entire Torah because idolatry has many forms, such as primitive idolatry and sophisticated idolatry. In the latter, a person becomes the idol, whether it is another person or his own sense of omnipotence with which he protects himself. In modern society the protective device or sense of greatness is usually some aspect of the self. An actor once commented after suffering a heart attack, “I never thought that it would happen me, because I am one of nature’s favorites.” This feeling also prevents a person from doing chessed because he has no identification with the person stricken with unfortunate circumstances. Maimonides says the one who does not mourn over a loss is an achzar; two words, “ach” and “zar,” “only a stranger” mentioned in the book of Job (30:21). He is a stranger to others without any identification.

God created man in a way where he is not in constant psychological pain. The force in man for immortality and for omnipotence is so powerful that it emerges even from those who deny immortality. But if you listen to what such people say, you hear that what drives them is a sense of immortality, but in a disguised form. Many of their activities are attempts to grab immortality; they live a life riddled with the fear of death. Their actions were an attempt to overcome their own mortality, and their plunge into enjoyments were also an attempt to grab immortality. That is why it important [to them] to have certain words inscribed on their gravestones. But as a person who passed on is no longer here, there is no way to enjoy such words. [His desire for a gravestone inscription reveals a sense of immortality, for he feels he will not leave Earth and will somehow enjoy those words.]

But the immortality fantasy is unavoidable. A person can disguise it and try to fool himself that he is above it. But it is the most powerful force in man.

Then you have a person who listens to the Torah. He davens on Rosh Hashannah and says:

Man’s foundation is from dust, and his end is dust. We labor by our lives for bread, we are like broken shards, like dry grass, and like a withered flower; like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream. But You are the king who lives eternal. (Unisaneh Tokef prayer)

He recites the beautiful prayer that differentiates between God—the true king—and between man—the subservient king, who grasps for immortality as he tries to protect [perfect] himself before the inevitable dangers that lie before him. Old age and death cannot be talked away. But, as immortality is such a powerful force, even one who follows Torah and accepts his mortality, where is all that psychological energy—that until now was directed towards immortality—going to be directed now?

The answer is that it is converted. God created man in a way that he can exist in a psychologically happy state. Where does all that energy go?

Yours, Lord, are greatness, might, splendor, triumph, and majesty—yes, all that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship and preeminence above all. (I Chronicles 29:11)

Man takes all his unrealistic emotions about himself and transfers them to God. All that man wishes to ascribe to himself can only be ascribed to God. And regarding the person who lives according to Torah, this transfer of energies from himself to God is what takes place. The emotions cannot be changed. God did not create man where his emotions will be frustrated. Perfected man will transfer all his emotions to God.

This is the concept of the entire book of Tehillim. It is a practical book, a unique book. It is a book [through] which the human emotions are translated and given directly towards their realistic and true expression. What book talks more about bitachon than Tehillim?

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who seek You, O Lord (Psalms (9:11).

Trust in the Lord and do good, abide in the land and remain loyal (Psalms 37:3).

Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who turns not to the arrogant or to followers of falsehood (Psalms 40:5).

Many are the torments of the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord shall be surrounded with favor (Psalms 32:10).

O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and shield (Psalms 115:9).

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in mortals (Psalms 118:8).

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in the great (Psalms 118:9).

A song of ascents. Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion that cannot be moved, enduring forever (Psalms 125:1).

Bitachon is constantly mentioned in Tehillim. Bitachon is a yesod hadas (a fundamental of Judaism).