Monday, November 26, 2007

can worry and trust in G-d co-exist? - a realistic model of bitachon

Brachos 4 raises the question of why Ya’akov feared Eisav when Hashem had promised “u’shmarticha b’chol asher teileich”, protection in all circumstances. Surely Ya’akov did not lack bitachon! The gemara answers “shema yigrom hacheit”; Ya’akov trusted in G-d, but feared that he might have sinned and become unworthy of receiving G-d’s protection.

My wife showed me a beautiful Abarbanel on this issue. Abarbanel writes that there is no contradiction between Ya’akov’s fear and his trust in G-d’s promise. Trust in G-d cannot make a person impervious to the natural emotional reactions of worry and fear – that is not what bitachon demands. Bitachon means that despite having worries, one must be guided by Torah reason and knowledge, not by those worries. Ya’kov did fear Eisav, as any person would, but in his mind he never lost sight of the fact that G-d’s promise would protect him.

I think this Abrabanel provides a realistic model of bitachon. Most people think of true bitachon as some sort of state of nirvana through which one escapes life’s worries. I can’t deny that this idea is out there in seforim, e.g. the Chovos haLevavos seems to equate bitachon with “menuchas henefesh”, but at least speaking for myself, such a goal is so far removed from what I consider achieveable as to be of little practical relevance or value. I see the modern religious persona as a conflicted, tormented soul struggling to make sense of the world, not existing in a peaceful state of self assurance. The Abarbanel’s model of bitachon does not demand that we deny our worries and fears, our conflicted thoughts and emotions, but rather that we fulfill our religious duty despite those emotional doubts and turmoil.


  1. Anonymous1:22 PM

    > at least speaking for myself, such a goal is so far removed from what I consider achieveable as to be of little practical relevance or value.

    I don't understand you at all. You believe in God 100%, right? I assume so. You believe that Hashem rewards and punishes, right? I assume so. You believe that everything that happens in this world is judged by God, you believe that this world is only a test for the next world, and that ultimately you will get exactly what you deserve in Olam Habah, and that Olam Habah is the only thing that really matters (though of course shaah acchas beolam hazeh is more important etc etc). So the only thing you need worry about is your own behavior and reaction to your environment. Worrying about anything else whatsoever would be totally contrary to your beliefs.

  2. Non-sequitor. That is like saying that it is contrary to belief for one's mouth to water if one sees a delicious non-kosher steak. Aderaba - true belief (in the Abrabanel's view) means not eating the steak *despite* the fact that one's mouth waters. The raison d'etra of religion is overcoming human temptation, not denying that temptation exists.

  3. Anonymous2:23 PM

    I'm not sure that analogy works. You can have a physical desire for steak, and an intellectual knowledge that it's ossur. But worry isn't a physical desire, it's an intellectual state. And if intellectually you believe that there's nothing to worry about, then why would you worry?

    I think the answer (and I actually learned this in a sefer last week) is that there are different madreigos of emunah. There's intellectual emunah, there's emunah shebelev, and then there's emunah that's 'in your bones'. When I first learned that I didn't understand it, but I think this post is a good illustration. If you had true emunah, that was 'in your bones', i.e you totally believed it with every fibre of your being, then of course you wouldn't worry. Just like you don't worry about the sky falling on your head, or anything you truly don't believe will happen.

  4. Anonymous2:52 PM

    the rashbam says similar to abravanel but more concisely and convincingly. see it inside

  5. Nachum, which comment of the Rashbam do you mean? It sounds like Rashbam learns along the lines of "shema yigrom hacheit", not like the Abarbanel. He writes
    ואני עדיין לא קיימתי נדרי ולא עבדתיך כראוי, לכך אני ירא, אף על פי שהבטחתני

  6. Reb Yisroel Salanter in the sefer printed by the Kovner Kollel in 1880, Eitz Pri or Pri Eitz, says that although Avrohom Avinu was consciously positive, even enthused, about the akeida, his unconscious mind was terrified and upset. This is the same general idea as the Abarbanel, in the sense that there remains an ireconciliable conflict between what we know to be right and good and what we feel emotionally.

    The Arvei Nachal in Vayishlach brings a medrash that both Yakov and Moshe Rabbeinu were promised safety but were fearful despite that promise; he says it's because their spiritual ascent after the promise rendered the promise tenuous.

  7. Sometimes there seems to be two contrary thoughts on bitachon. In some seforim bitachon seems at tension with hishtadlus. Should you work or rely on Hashem? Then in some seforim bitachon seems at tension with worry/fear. Don't worry and instead have bitachon.

  8. I don't know how anyone can think that bitachon eliminates fear. The two paragons of bitachon are Nachum Ish Gamzu (gam zu letova and the box of gems) and Reb Akiva (kol de'avid rachmana le'tav avid and the stolen donkey and rooster). And how did Nachum and Reb Akiva die? One a quadruple amputee in a rotting hovel and the other publicly scraped to death. We're not talking 'happily for ever after' a la Walt Disney here.

  9. >>>I don't know how anyone can think that bitachon eliminates fear....And how did Nachum and Reb Akiva die?

    The physical pain is not necessarily an indicator of psychological fear or worry. I imagine a true Chovos haLevavos follower would say they were in a state of mental peace despite their physical suffering.

  10. I'm sorry, I don't see any connection at all. How many people out there avoid going to the dentist even though they know it is for the best and will help them avoid far greater pain in the future? A lot. They eventually sit in the chair and the beads of sweat break out. Did you know that the Alfred E. Neuman logo, "What, me worry?" was originally an ad for a "painless dentist"? Mental peace and worry may coexist, but the latter is dominant and the former absolutely subordinate to the point of practical irrelevance.

  11. Anonymous9:37 AM

    Chaim - can you copy the words of Abarbanel for us to see, I don't have a copy at home.

    The Abarbanel is beautiful but is he arguing with the answer given in the Gemora?

  12. The problem is I do not have a scanner at home attached to the PC I use for internet. Sorry!
    Yes, it does argue on the gemara.

    Barzilai, you were 'mechavin' to the exact analogy of the Abarbanel (except he says doctor instead of dentist). I can't answer how the Chovos haLevavos would explain it because I'm too enamored of the Abarbanel's pshat.

  13. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Does the Abarbanel have authority to argue with the Gemora?

  14. Everyone in the mikra'os gedolos argues with the gemara, starting with the ibn Ezra and on to the Rashbam.

    Rebbitzen Jungreis just spoke at the Agudah convention. One of her bon mots was that the word 'de’agah' has the first letters of the alphabet except the letter beis, because de’agah only exists where there is no bitachon. I guess she's a Chovos Halevavos person.

  15. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Barzilai - they only argue if they have another Gemora to support them. What is interesting about the meforshim is how they look at the earlier sources and then chose one medrash over another but they don't make things up themselves. Which is why I am interested in the Abarbanel taking a different view to the gemora in Brachos if that is the case.

  16. >>>they only argue if they have another Gemora to support them.

    I don't believe this is the case. In general, I think meforshim (esp pashtanim) fairly often will take stances against gemaras and dismiss the gemara is an isolated view we are not bound to accept or a derasha that is not pshuto shel mikra. In this particular instance one can resolve the Abarbanel with the gemara because, as the Rambam notes, the gemara in Brachos 7 seems to contradict the gemara on daf 4 of shema yigrom hacheit - perhaps the Abrabanel read these as two contradictory views and did not accept the Rambam's answer. (For the record I think that is a forced approach).

  17. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Chaim - I am surprised to hear this. I thought it is generally accepted that an Achron does not have authority to argue with a Rishon and likewise a Rishon with an Amora in the same way the Gemora rarely entertains an Amora arguing with a Tana.

    Are you saying that if the mefaresh believes the peshat is not covered in the gemora/ medrashim etc he has liberty to explain the posuk according to his understanding of the peshuto shel mikra. In that case they are not really arguing they are just looking at the same thing on different levels. I can live with that.

  18. "At times my quill will present a pshat which differs from the interpretation of Chazal. I have already explained that I do not argue on the Rishonim at all, but rather permission is given for all who explain the Torah to work and plant [zore'a] an 'ohr zar'ua latzadik' in its holy soil [i.e. the text] which causes all planted within to flower. Only in the area of one enjoined from creating new interpretations that have not been passed on..."
    (Into of the Ohr haChaim haKadosh to his peirush).

  19. I remember an article in the JO that listed errors in people's understanding of tefilla. Many wrote back saying that the alleged 'errors' were legitimated by other meforshim. The author of the article, rather hysterically, responded that the Mishneh Berurah paskened that the correct pirush is like I said, so all of your mar'ei mekomos are irrelevant.

    I think he is wrong, just as the Ohr Hachaim says. In the pirush of tefilla, as they say, "ha'adam assur bemuskalo vechafshi bedimyono."