As I mentioned in my last post, I thought the devar Torah (Torah thought) I wrote this week might be of interest. Because it’s not for a general audience, my use of Hebrew isn’t explained as much as usual and I don’t have time to edit it, but it should be broadly comprehensible.

This week’s sedra of Shoftim contains a difficult commandment: “You shall be wholehearted with HaShem your God.”[1]  This appears to challenge us to be completely wholehearted in our attitude to HaShem, a difficult thing to undertake.  If we look at the wider context of the passage, we see that this commandment is not quite as daunting as it appears.  The verses immediately preceding this one prohibit the use of charms, augury, soothsaying and other methods of trying to foresee the future or of contacting spiritual entities to receive hidden information.  Our verse is therefore telling us to focus wholeheartedly on our relationship with HaShem and not to turn to other supernatural methods of communication, regardless of whether such methods work or are merely foolishness, as Rambam would say – either way they distract from our relationship with HaShem, which should be our sole focus.

Rashi[2], basing himself on the Midrash, draws out a wider message from the verse.  He states, “Walk with Him [HaShem] wholeheartedly and put your hope in Him and do not inquire about the future, rather accept everything that happens to you wholeheartedly and then you will be with Him and be His portion.”  Here we see that not only should we avoid trying to predict the future, we should also accept the present wholeheartedly.  Even if challenging things happen to us, we should accept them as HaShem’s will, trusting that He knows what is good for us better than we do ourselves.  This will have the effect of bringing us closer to HaShem.

The issue of trust in God is very difficult, particularly at the moment when the news seems full of terrible things happening to lots of people.  It can be hard to believe that this is good for us, either on a personal or a global level.

Help here comes from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who distinguished between two types of religious trust, both valid, but slightly different.  He said that the most common is what he terms “faithful trust.”    This is trust that God will ensure that the best outcome will come to pass in any given situation.[3]  Rabbi Lichtenstein quotes the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Karelitz) as questioning the nature of “faithful trust”, saying “as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, that outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know God’s judgements and providence?” meaning that a humanly desired outcome may not be God’s will.  Instead, the Chazon Ish states that “trust means realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of God’s decree.”[4]  This is what Rabbi Lichtenstein calls “loving trust”: that even if the worst comes to the worst and a negative outcome occurs, we will still trust that this is part of God’s plan and will stay loyal to Him and to Torah observance.  Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to quote Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher that trust in God means, if necessary, giving up one’s life rather than transgressing the Torah.  It is, as Rabbi Lichtenstein puts it, a demand rather than a promise, but also “a source solace and strength” that HaShem is with us.

A famous example of this approach is found in Rabbi Akiva.  The Talmud [5] quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying that one must say that everything God does is for the best.  This is illustrated by a story.  Rabbi Akiva was travelling with a lamp, a donkey and a rooster.  He came to a town where none of the townspeople would let him stay the night, so he slept in a field saying that everything God does is for the best.  The wind extinguished his lamp, a cat ate the rooster and a lion ate the donkey.  Then an army came and took the townspeople into captivity.   Only Rabbi Akiva escaped.  If his lamp had been lit, he would have been seen and captured.  Likewise if his rooster had crowed or his donkey brayed, he would have been found and captured.  Rabbi Akiva said that this demonstrated his point, that everything God does is for the best.  Had he slept in the town or had his lamp not been extinguished or his animals killed, he would have been taken captive too.

This would seem to indicate that things will somehow always turn out for the best.  However, Rabbi Akiva is also famous for the story of his painful death at the hands of the Romans.[6]  While the executioners tore the flesh from his body, Rabbi Akiva said the Shema, extending the final word “One,” referring to the unity of God, until he died.  This can be seen as an example of trust in God as a moral demand on us that offers solace and strength in times of difficulty, as Rabbi Lichtenstein put it.  Rabbi Akiva showed his trust that everything that God does is for the best even when it seemed diametrically opposed to what he would have chosen for his life, even when he was called on to make the greatest sacrifice possible.  Indeed, Rabbi Lichtenstein saw Rabbi Akiva as a paradigm of both forms of trust: the faithful trust that God would redeem the Jewish people in his lifetime and the loving trust of willingly dying a martyr’s death even when this desired outcome did not materialise.

Let us all draw inspiration from Rabbi Akiva’s example in these difficult times.

[1] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 18.13

[2] Rashi Commentary to Devarim 18.13

[3] Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Bittachon: Trust in God in By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God : Based on Addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein Adapted by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler

[4] Chazon Ish, Ha-emuna Ve-ha-bitachon, quoted in By His Light

[5] Brachot 60b

[6] Brachot 61b

4 thoughts on “Bonus Post: Faithful Trust and Loving Trust: A Devar Torah

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