By Erica Rachel Sultan, News Editor
Bitachon (trust in God) is a fairly recent component of my understanding of Jewish beliefs. To be fair, a lot of ideas, even some as simple as the many names of Hashem (God), such as the word Hashem itself, would seem like natural knowledge to some of my peers at Yeshiva University, but to me, as little as two years ago, such things were unfamiliar — yet they are such integral elements of my life now as a Baal Teshuva (a newly observant Jew). Growing up in a secular, predominantly Christian town in South Jersey, shaped my understanding of bitachon (trust) in God. I believed it to be interchangeable with emunah (faith) in God. My teachings were that of western theology — that having faith in God was synonymous to believing the idea that everyone’s lives are predestined. I was taught to believe that God, the perfect Playwright, created this masterpiece by the name of “Life,” in which He has decided the plots of all His characters, which scenes they would be placed in in order to continue the play, but without the consideration of his audience and their feelings. This belief creates an interesting question though — what happens when we, human beings, are both the characters and the audience? It wasn’t until I placed myself in a Jewish environment that I was not only able to understand the difference between faith and trust in God, but I was also able to answer this question.
I had grown up around people who had this idea of faith and trust in God, and I saw the comfort it brought them. I had taught myself to be comforted by this idea, whether I’d need to rely on it in times of good or bad. When I did better on a test than what I thought I would have, I thought it was just destiny. If my parents let me have a sweet before dinner, I thought that was destiny as well. So, when my grandmother died when I was twelve, I told myself that it was her destiny. And when my grandpa died when I was thirteen, I told myself that it was his destiny. But when my friend died when I was fourteen, I found it really hard to swallow “that was his destiny.” And when my mom died a few months later, I was starting to get angry with God. With the emotional, mental, and physical changes that the losses of those I loved brought me, I eventually began to feel like a mere puppet on a string, being controlled by a cruel puppeteer. And truthfully, I was scared — I wanted the strings to be cut! I was terrified of what I didn’t know and of what He knew. It wasn’t until I spent three weeks of summer in Israel that my helplessness started to fizzle away.
There is something about Jerusalem that allows the pumping of my heart to become a beat which I dance to. It plays as I hear the clicks from shoes on the shiny limestone trails. The wind and which it carries — the prayers, discussions, moans that were uttered by our forefathers — harmonizes with the thousands of voices that endure the land today. It’s a thrill that makes me feel as if I am a part of Jerusalem’s past, present, and future. So, when I had the opportunity to attend the Mechina Program’s “July in Jerusalem,” which allowed me to learn its past while exploring its present, I took it.
Excited as ever to learn about Jewish history in Jerusalem, that’s frankly all I thought I would learn. Learning Torah was expected, as it is integral to our history. Learning some tefilot (prayers) and a bit about Mashiach (the Messiah) was expected as well. I had no idea though, that the answer to my pondering over trusting Hashem, and my anger towards Hashem, would be put to an end.
The honorable Rebbetzin Dina Schoonmaker taught a few classes during my time in Israel. Our second shiur hit close to home as it was on emunah and bitachon. Immediately, I went to my default standpoint of feeling helpless in having control in my life — whatever happens to a person is their destiny because solely Hashem made it be their destiny. But I was absolutely shocked to hear from the Rebbetzin: “Emunah and bitachon can go hand in hand, but they are different.” She explained that emunah is a general belief that Hashem exists and is present in mine and everyone’s lives. And then she described bitachon in a way I’ve never heard before.
Rebbetzin Schoonmaker explained that while bitachon does mean putting your trust in Hashem and in what He has decreed, you should also have bitachon in yourself. “Have bitachon in yourself” made no sense to me at all. How could I have trust in myself if I had no control over what Hashem has planned for me?! I told the Rebbetzin: “We are just puppets on strings!”
Mrs. Schoonmaker gave me a knowing smile and the words that came out of her mouth next single handedly dismantled the age-old anger I had towards Hashem and His edicts on my life. She asked if I and my fellow classmates believe that our souls and bodies were separate. We unanimously said, “yes.” She then told us that when a soul is conceived, Hashem allows it to see everything that will happen in its lives — the good, the bad, the ugly, the precious, it gets to see it all. Rebbetzin Schoonmaker told us that our souls then sign us up for the life that is placed in front of us. She explained that while we don’t necessarily have a choice in the matter of “being puppets on strings,” we do get to decide which scenes in the play, “Life,” we want to be in. She explained that neshamot (souls) have the option of picking a “more pretty than pleasant life” or a “more pleasant than pretty life.”
The perfect analogy to this philosophy is a person deciding to buy a car. One could be stuck between wanting the car of their dreams, or settling for something that will just get them to where they need to be. The dream car — it’s the perfect color, has seat warmers and seat coolers, has a blaring stereo, will definitely benefit a growing family, but it also costs a pretty penny which they may not be able to afford right now. Then, there is another car that will get them to where they need to be — well, it will do just that, is small, may not pay off in the long run, but it is cheap and they can get the car as soon as possible. If they choose the dream car (the pretty), they will undoubtedly have to work more hours at work in order to afford it. If they choose the car that will get them to where they need to go (the pleasant), it will feel nice to own a car, but what happens when this car is not big enough to take a family road trip in?
Our neshamot chose pretty because Hashem is gracious enough to show them what they’re in store for. So, bitachon is not only about trusting Hashem, but it’s also about trusting yourself, your soul, and what it has planned for you. And this is not to say that one should ever feel as if their emotions are illegitimate. Everyone has every right to be happy when something good happens unexpectedly, just as they have every right to feel devastated when something bad happens unexpectedly. These are our souls that chose to fight these struggles, not our bodies! But what bitachon does for our bodies, in times of struggle, is reassurance that while yes, we are the characters in Hashem’s greatest show, we are also the audience who decided to pay for the tickets, grab some popcorn, and laugh and cry at the brilliant production Hashem created.