Posts Tagged ‘bitachon’

The Joy of Struggle

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
By Sam Glaser
For most of us, summer is a carefree time. As one Jew wrote: “Summertime, and the living is easy.” We all have sweet memories of summer vacations at camp or road trips adventures with the family. Thanks to our agrarian past, schools had to offer a few months off so that the kids could help with the harvest. Nowadays our kids use that time to forget everything they learned the previous semester. For Jews, there’s one wrinkle in the enjoyment of the long, hot days of our beloved summer. Just in case we are having too much fun at the beach, the spoilsport rabbis of yore gave us three weeks of semi-mourning smack dab in the middle of waterslide season.

The Three Weeks serve as an “ice bucket challenge” to cool us off amidst our summertime frolicking. We are commanded to always serve God with joy, in every situation, everyday. During this short period of time, however, we “lessen” our joy by refraining from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts. Minor inconveniences, but just like preparing for the happier holidays, they make a difference in our day-to-day, just enough so that we acquire a sense of mourning that begins with the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and peaks in the observance of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av.) This day is the saddest on the entire Jewish calendar and commemorates the destruction of our Temples and other assorted calamities throughout history. Our experience of the Ninth of Av is intensified thanks to the three-week gradual integration of the tragic loss of Jewish influence and cohesiveness when our Temple was destroyed. I’d like to examine the purpose of struggle and hardship in the Jewish experience and hopefully find a silver lining behind our personal and collective tribulations.

Everyone knows the saga of the boy who found a caterpillar and put it in a cage as a new pet. Soon he observed the fascinating metamorphosis as the caterpillar disappeared within a cocoon. Just as he assumed that his prized pet was dead he noticed a small hole in the cocoon…just as he was promised, a butterfly was trying to emerge! At one point he noticed that it was stuck so he took a scissors and ever so carefully opened the hole a bit wider so the new creature could emerge. Sure enough the butterfly appeared with a large swollen body and small, misshapen wings. Days went by and those wings never grew. The malformed butterfly spent its last days crawling around the cage and the boy learned that the wings only develop when the butterfly mounts a tenacious struggle to escape its cocoon. His misguided act of kindness led to the creature’s doom. The lesson is, of course, that life’s struggles make us strong and give us the ability to fly. This is the period when we acknowledge 3500 years of Jewish suffering, hopefully perceiving that it has made us stronger. On the personal level, when you are in a tough situation, practice choosing the situation! Embrace it. You may ask for God’s kindness to make the pain go away, but realize that this challenge is a gift from God to help you grow. I know…easier said than done.

Last month I had a bit too much fun with the kids at shul. I love getting mobbed by the local children who know I that I’m a big kid who will happily chase them to their heart’s content. At one point I had a line of kids waiting to be swung by Sam the human swing. All went well until later that evening when I felt a funky twinge in my neck that sent tingles down to my thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, the next day I couldn’t sit down without immediate pain. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive and I became an ornery grouch. I opted for massage and chiropractic, both of which gave me relief, until I tried to sit down again. I was inconsolable in this place of darkness. I felt like my career was over, that I’d never be able to ski or bike, that without yoga my body would plunge into a downward spiral. No one could convince me otherwise. Thankfully a few weeks later I was scheduled to perform in Reno and at the High Sierra Music Festival. I wasn’t sure how I would pull it off but remarkably, after five days without deadlines in my studio or enduring LA traffic I was cured, thank God! Perhaps it was the magic of the soul-enriching Sierras. I emerged with a new “no piggyback ride” policy and a reminder that it’s much easier to be grateful for life challenges after the fact.

I recently enjoyed a mid-summer hike with my brother Yom Tov. We set out on a favorite LA trail that hugs a mostly dry riverbed as it ascends through stands of sycamore and oak. The trail then departs the shade of the riparian zone with switchbacks that lead to a series of rocks with panoramic views that we have named Shipwreck, Hawk and Eagle. As we gingerly avoided the poison oak that arched towards our exposed legs, we discussed the struggle of the typical artist. Is a life filled with obstacles a prerequisite for great art? I remarked that I noticed that in the wonderful autobiographies by Sting and Joe Jackson that their early years were fraught with financial and familial turmoil. Both authors chose to end the books with the first taste of stardom. In other words, once these singers hit easy street, their lives no longer offered the challenges that made for compelling reading.

As we crested the apex of Hawk Rock I mentioned to my brother that I often wonder why it is that God has opted to maintain the two of us on a financial precipice throughout our adult lives. While we enjoy frequent miraculous salvations from destitution, this situation engenders stress and worry especially for our beloved wives. I have discovered that the more I “go for it” in my career, the more I reap such salvation. Month to month we always seem to make it, establishing for me the clarity that in spite of a modest bank account one can live abundantly with joy and bitachon (trust in God.) Perhaps it’s due to my limited funds that God’s providence is readily apparent! My brother responded with a teaching of the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, z”l: God keeps the emissaries that are doing God’s work hungry. In other words, if they are self-satisfied with the riches of life, they will opt for retirement on the beach instead of life on the road or a career in education. When Aish was in dire financial straits the Rosh Yeshiva launched on a multi-year tour of the Diaspora to teach and fundraise. He pointed out to his frustrated acolytes back in Jerusalem that without the cash flow issues, all those people around the world would not have been touched by his presence. When I pondered this reality, I realized that my brother is right. Would I fly to destinations around the globe for my concerts and workshops, enduring the pressure of deadlines and the physical and emotional pain of travel if I didn’t have to? Or would I move my family to a chateau in Fiji and forget the woes of the world?

Life disconnected from life’s vicissitudes does not make for great art. Perhaps that’s why many successful musicians are never able to top their debut album. That precious early repertoire typically chronicles the adventures in the trenches as the artist claws for recognition. The sophomore release often fails to recreate this degree of emotional intensity and without radical reinvention, the performer joins the heap of “one hit wonders.” Great artists take us on a ride as they chase a personal vision, never satisfied with the status quo. We marvel as Picasso transitions from Blue to Rose, from Cubism to Surrealism or as Miles Davis pushes the boundaries of jazz regardless of the critic’s disdain. Miles lambasts those who imitate others or who at the sunset their careers, “ape” themselves. In other words, having nothing novel to offer, they simply perform an endless greatest hits package into their retirement. He stated, “if you’re trying to ape…you don’t have anything to give the world, you might as well be dead.” The message is simple: celebrate the process, don’t settle for the same old same old, remember that all the drama in your life is your life, learn to perfect the art of making lemonade out of lemons.

All of us, in whichever career we have chosen, can be artists. An artist seeks to deliver the best at all times, no matter who is paying, without regard to impressing anyone. A true artist isn’t afraid of individuality, of performing his or her task with total integrity. Artists are known to be extremists, defying convention, standing out from the crowd. In Judaism we can approach our faith as an artist, crafting a unique relationship with the Creator, painting our personal practice with nuances that customize our religious experience to match our predilections, all within the rubric of Halacha (Jewish law.) We can each be extremists in our own way, choosing those mitzvot that speak to us and making them our raison d’etre. According to famed Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and by extension the artist defines who and what they are. In other words, if we decide we are an artist, then we are! While Rambam may encourage the middle path, the “shvil hazahav,” in some ways we must become extremists, fashioning our lives as daring artists, pushing the boundaries in those areas in which we hear a calling.

We are naturally attracted to extremes, to polarities that go beyond our personal experience. Only these extremes have the velocity to become ingrained in our consciousness that is already overflowing with input. My Aunt Lynnie taught me this important lesson when I was a child. She had returned from a tropical vacation at Club Med with a gift of three beautiful shells for our family. As she explained how she scuba dived to find these treasures she reported about the people on her trip that she really liked and a few that she found obnoxious. I then queried about all the other people that she must have met but didn’t mention. She responded with a lesson on the bell shaped curve: only those individuals that delight or disgust you are going to be remembered. This begs the question: how do you want to be remembered? What unique communal contribution will mark your having visited this planet?

The same paradigm is extant in my memories of grade school. Those peers that made a lasting impression were extreme in some way. Extremely athletic, beautiful, talented, smart, extremely kind or extremely annoying! I too was extreme in my own way; when I run into my teachers after all these years, I find that they usually remember me. I was a devious class clown and had no tolerance for mediocrity. Some teachers loved me, some despised me, but all had an opinion. I thrived with magnanimous teachers who understood that my perfectly timed joke or clever prank was never malicious but only intended to get a laugh and get me some attention. Others chose to do battle and therefore I got kicked out of nearly every educational institution that I attended. One of my Hebrew School teachers, Michael Waterman, admitted to me that his rowdiest students were the ones who went farthest in life. They had the gall to take on the establishment, to stick their necks out, often possessing natural self-confidence, quick reflexes and the ability to defuse dry, overly serious situations. This begs the question whether as parents we should always be pressuring our children to fit in, to toe the line.

Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. He emphasizes that Avraham’s quintessential trait wasn’t necessarily chesed (kindness.) It was his utter refusal to accept a substandard status quo. Only when he was willing to accept the role of rebel, regardless of the reaction of his family and society, was he able to follow his unfettered logic to the revolutionary conclusion of Ethical Monotheism: that a loving, unique Presence is intimately involved in our lives and created the world for our pleasure. The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu recognizes and uplifts the holy rebel. Rabbi Cardozo insists that we keep kosher as an act of disobedience against eating like an animal, that we join a community in prayer as an act of rebellion against the tendency to think one can go it alone, we use the mikvah to protest against our society’s obsession with sex. This is quite the opposite of the current tendency of “religious” communities to commit to mitzvot in order to fit in or to please a wrathful deity.

Sadly, the typical “Moshe Rabeinu” Talmudic style of study creates a “safety in numbers” reluctance to challenge and innovate. This is the modus operandi of the Charedi world, and it is quick to decapitate any rebel that refuses to or cannot toe the line. Rebbes feel that they cannot reward the “bad” boys, and paranoid families are forced to excommunicate lest they endanger the shidduch opportunities for well-behaved siblings, God forbid. Is it any wonder that there is a epidemic of “off the derech” youth (those abandoning traditional Judaism,) many of whom are like zoo animals released in the wild, without the basics of street smarts or secular education to survive in society at large. My brother Rabbi Yom Tov states that Orthodox youth are given 90% of Torah. What they are missing is the first 10%: the “why” of Judaism: why we do mitzvot, why we serve God, why we are different from the other nations of the world, why we merit redemption. Picture that butterfly without the chance to fight its way out of the cocoon. Without a personal engagement with the WHY of Judaism, observance can become rote and meaningless.

Clearly all the movements in Judaism are facing unprecedented challenges. The answer to our collective salvation lies in offering every individual the permission to dedicate his or her individuality to the service of the Jewish people and ensuring that service to God is artistic, mindful and joyful. The struggles that our people face are like those of the butterfly…we are writhing and striving and competing, building and breaking and building again. While it is hard to perceive the merit of setbacks, the challenges we face are creating the most powerful, beautiful wings, wings that allow us to soar in this greatest adventure of human history.


Can’t Beat Bitachon

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

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.