by Sam Glaser
Emunah is typically defined as belief in God. According to medieval commentator Rambam, it is the knowledge that Hashem created and continues to maintain all creation. Jews are not Pantheists, those who share a sense of wonder for the universe but eschew an immanent God. Our legacy is the radical concept that there are no random occurrences, that God is intricately involved in every detail of history. We see “acts of God” not only in famine, disease and disaster. One with emunah perceives that God is present with every individual on a 24/7 basis, loving us, hearing our prayer and decreeing our fate.
Bitachon is the next level of connection. It means that you take this relationship on the test track. It means that you are proactive in life but acknowledge that God is in charge of the results. It’s possible to have great emunah in God’s existence but then say, “so what!” In fact, according to a recent poll, three quarters of American adults say that they believe in God. The Jewish goal is beyond belief. The ideal is living every day manifesting that belief, or as I like to put it, walking the talk. A ba’al (master of) bitachon has a feeling of serene confidence that the Creator of all reality is on the scene and doing what is best for creation. God isn’t out to punish. Rather, God systematically tests and tempts to enable us to grow. “Gam zeh l’tova” (this is also for the good) is the bitachon mission statement.
True bitachon progresses from the simple level where one might say, although things aren’t great right now, it’s all for the best. A higher form is to be able to perceive that everything right now is good, even though on the surface, circumstances may seem nightmarish. We don’t ask for tests or jump in front of speeding cars in hope of a miracle. One with bitachon is grateful that God has given us a world with reliable, predictable physical and spiritual laws of cause and effect. But within these limitations, the ba’al bitachon knows that no challenge is insurmountable with God’s help. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to urge his Aish outreach staff to remember that their strength comes from the Almighty; that the all powerful God who creates heaven and earth will assist in anything they might undertake, especially the challenging work of inspiring God’s children. A master of bitachon sees his or her paycheck as coming not from the employer but the employer as a channel for God’s blessing. Similarly, a disease is cured not by the doctor, but the doctor or the drug is a channel for God’s healing power. People with bitachon can easily avoid jealousy since they know God gives them exactly what they deserve.
The Jewish concept of mindfulness is really just livingwith bitachon. You can tell when you are with a ba’al bitachon. They are not fazed by life’s craziness, and are able to focus on what’s important and slough off what’s not. Our sages explain that the ba’al bitachon is humble, avoids disappointment and never loses his or her temper. In fact, anger is described as equivalent to avodah zarah. That term is usually translated as idol worship,one of the ultimate transgressions, but really means “strange worship.” In other words, someone with bitachon sees an anger-inducing situation for what it is: a test. To lose one’s temper can only mean that you have lost sight of God’s omnipresence and master plan, if only for that moment. Therefore you must be “worshipping” something other than God.
A ba’al bitachon would never brag about his or her level of trust in God. That is akin to asking for a test, and one only need look at characters like Job or King David to know that tests can be perilous. To further clarify this distinction, sharing one’s emunah is a great idea as it helps others to solidifying their faith. Bitachon is a more personal thing. If you are following this argument you may conclude that a true ba’al bitachon might as well retire. After all, one can sit and learn Torah all day…God will provide, right? Not so fast, say the sages. Hashem blesses us in everything that we DO. In other words, we have to initiate the blessing with our own passion, drive and courageous effort. The word for this mandatory exertion is Hishtadlut (or hishtadlus in the Ashkenaz pronunciation.) The best bet is to choose a goal, make your hishtadlus and know that God will finish the job, one way or the other.
Perhaps the best Torah example of bitachon is Nachshon ben Aminadav. According to the Midrash, while everyone was panicking and/or praying at the Red Sea, Nachshon intuited that God would not miraculously bring the Jews out of Egypt only for them to perish at the hands of the Egyptians. He took a serious leap of faith, jumping into the sea up to his nose and only at that point of radical commitment did the waters part. The lesson is that God can part the waters in our lives, helping us overcome any obstacles in our lives. But first we have to get into the water.
One of the benefits of frequent worldwide travel with typically tight schedules is the opportunity to test my personal bitachon. The more I live on the edge, the more I have to rely on God to get me out of crazy situations. Not that I look for trouble, God forbid! I have learned that if you don’t break through barriers, you never get out of the box. Life is exciting outside the box! A corollary is the idea that if you are never asking, you don’t get. The Universe rises to meet your needs, to answer your prayers. So ask for the moon! I had an adventure last week that was a personal bitachon moment that I’d like to share.
About six months ago my famous cardiologist uncle helped buy a new car for his big sister, who happens to be my mother. He is so enamored with his Tesla that he wanted my mom to have the same electric thrill zooming down Sunset Boulevard. She has been making the most of this gas-free lifestyle and therefore wanted to take the car on the open road and try out the Tesla Superchargers that dot the US countryside.
Fast forward to last week when I had a series of concerts up in Northern California. One of my stops was Sacramento, which happens to be where my mom and her brother grew up. She called to suggest that I drive with her up the 5 freeway and then fly home at the end of the week after my other concerts. We would have a lovely day together sharing the drive in her 0-60mph in three seconds race car and then she would drive back the next day. That way she would have company for the car’s maiden voyage to the great wild north. My mom invited all her old high school friends (really old, at this point!) and a few relatives to my gala concert at the new performance space at Mosaic Law Synagogue. We rehearsed her McClatchy High School fight songs so that I could properly add them to my concert for the enjoyment of the alumni assembled. She would bring the tuna sandwiches and I would supervise the soundtrack, choosing a setlist that would ensure that we could both harmonize the whole drive.
The day before our trip my mom let me know that we would have to leave at least nine hours before my soundcheck. “What!?” I responded. “This drive should only take five and half hours!” She explained that the onboard computer indicated that due to the stops at the three superchargers we had to allot for the minimum waiting time…but not to worry since they were located in nice places to take a break. Suddenly this leisurely day with my mom was looking a bit too leisurely for my impatient bones. I prodded her into leaving a little later, promising her that all would be well…after all, I have bitachon that God wants me to reach my gig on time. She didn’t buy it. One thing is for sure…there is no arguing with my mom when she gets set on an idea, and I certainly did not want to add to her predisposition to anxiety. Yes, I would just have to get up early.
That next morning arrived too soon. I had so much work to do before leaving for a week and only got a few hours of sleep. Mom arrived right on time and we loaded my gear in the surprisingly roomy car. We sang our traditional trip song “We’re Off on the Morning Train” and sailed up the 405 freeway. A mere hour into the trip we hit the Grapevine, a long mountain pass that sucks heavily on electricity as the car labors on the climb. What I didn’t realize is that the range indicated on the odometer is sharply curtailed by excess speed and climbing. Therefore, the Tesla Corporation wisely put the first stop outside of LA at the other end of the Grapevine in a fast food/truck stop town called Lebec. Fortunately, co-located with the Tesla chargers is Yogurtland, a delicious do-it-yourself yogurt store that is kosher certified.
As we basked in the air-conditioned chill of the shopenjoying our treats we waited a half hour as the car recharged in the heat of a 95-degree morning. We returned to the vehicle to find that my mom didn’t insert the recharging cable properly. In fact, it didn’t get any charge whatsoever. Oy vey! She plugged it in more securely and we returned to the yogurt place to escape the stifling Central Valley temperature. After another half hour, when we came back to the car my mom screamed, “Oh @#$!, I locked the keys in the car!” After I calmed her down we called the Tesla dealer, eventually finding a service person that was able to unlock our car remotely. I did a quick mental calculation…we would still be on time but we had to get moving!
This time when we departed I could no longer keep my eyes open. I apologized to my mom for being lousy company, put my seat back and was asleep within minutes. I awoke a mere half hour later when I sensed that something was awry. As the street signs came into focus I observed that we were driving SOUTH on the 5. NO! I struggled to maintain my composure and growled, “MOM, what happened?” She responded that twenty miles out of Lebec the computer flashed a warning that she had to return to the previous supercharger; she didn’t have enough juice to make it to the next one and the car would be dead on the side of the road if she didn’t turn around. Now I could feel my well-developed bitachon eroding. Back to the same charger, back to the same Yogurtland. The lady behind the counter was giggling when she saw us return. Evidently this behavior is not uncommon for her Tesla-traveling customers. As we waited we called the dealership to assess the problem. They told us that the only way to make it from one charger to the next is to go between 55 and 60 miles per hour. That’s on a freeway where the speed limit is 70 and most are driving 85! And how ironic that our speed for the whole trip had to be slower than the diesel trucks and yet we’re in a hi-tech sports car!
Clearly this celebrated automobile is not quite ready for prime time. It’s fine for local errands but that’s it. I made some mental calculations: I was expected in Sacramento for a soundcheck at 5:30pm and was breaking in a brand new drummer. I also had to rehearse with the local kids choir. Being late was clearly not an option. I have been on tour for over twenty years and have built my reputation on being reliable and prompt. I have never missed a downbeat…thank God! Now what was I going to do? Even with our lethargic 55 MPH pace there was still concern that we wouldn’t have enough power and the onboard computer kept sounding warnings that we wouldn’t make it. Who wants to drive a car that keeps one paralyzed with fear that it’s going to die at any moment? In spite of this predicament I somehow I retained a calm complacency that all was going to work out fine, that God wanted me to get to my show on time and would help us one way or another. As we limped along in the slow lane I did my best to change the subject, all the while realizing that at the next stop I was going to have to hitchhike with someone who had a very fast car. Electric vehicles need not apply!
The Harris Ranch charger is the halfway point on the journey and is situated next to a sprawling western-theme restaurant and gift shop. I went straight to the middle of the crowded main dining room, summoned all my chutzpah and asked aloud if anyone was traveling to Sacramento. Tourists from all nations stopped their meals and gave me an icy response as if I was a homicidal maniac. Or worse. Me! I tried the next dining room over, to no avail. I realized that I had to brave the heat outside the restaurant and wait for the perfect couple to emerge that might sympathize with myplight. I let the families and non-English speakers pass and finally set my sights on a middle-aged couple that looked like good-natured Christians. They replied that yes, they were Sacramento-bound so I walked with them to their car and explained my strange saga. When they saw my mom and her ill-fated Tesla they opened their hearts and allowed me to stuff my luggage, keyboard and stand into the back seat of their brand new Mercedes C300 Turbo Coupe. Christine was even kind enough to let me ride shotgun!
Yes, I abandoned my mom at the rest stop. She would have to wait a full hour for the charge and quite frankly, she was happy to be rid of me and my urgent deadline. I flew down the road with my new friends at 80 miles per hour as we conversed about Judaism, travel and life in the Navy. At one point there was a multiple car fender bender right next to us that Ron deftly avoided. We hit Sacramento rush hour and I deferred to Waze to find the most expeditious route. At long last we pulled into the driveway of the synagogue at EXACTLY 5:30pm, the aforementioned moment that I promised to arrive. A very relieved Cantor Ben welcomed us at the door, I did my soundcheck and rehearsal and then performed a spirited concert for the 250 congregants in attendance. My mom made it right at showtime nearly twelve hours after leaving her home. In the end she was elated that she survived the experience and got to share the evening with her friends and family. Yes, I lovingly dedicated my Blessing song to her.
Let me conclude by suggesting a few ways to transform emunah into bitachon. The first item on the agenda is to get off the couch and try something new, something that will fundamentally challenge you. Otherwise, your need for heavenly assistance is minimal. Another idea is to ask for whatever you want without fear that the answer may be no. Note that in the above story, I got a lot of no’s before I got to yes. I rely on Rabbi Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” The best trust-building technique is becoming one who is “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” occupied with daily mitzvot (commandments.) Mitzvot are actually “bitachon bites;” small doses of divine serum that inoculate you from triviality. Rather, you live powerfully in realm of action with everyday affirmations that God runs the world and gave the Torah as the instructions for living. Finally, acquiring bitachon requires a humbling reality check: you must discern that you don’t have the whole picture, that your perspective is subjective, that only God truly knows why things are the way they are.
Gaining bitachon requires time, patience and daring. Next thing you know, you are sailing on glassy smooth waters in spite of stormy seas, riding an endless wind of God’s providence and love, or at least keeping your cool with your semi-adventurous mother on a near calamitous road trip.