NO LAUGHING MATTER
One of the greatest universal challenges in religious Jewish life, is the effort to attain true bitachon (absolute trust in G-d). This is often an area of difficulty even for those who have no real doubts or struggles regarding matters of belief and faith. All the early sources in Jewish tradition seem to be unanimous in the view that attaining complete and absolute trust in G-d is not only a spiritual and moral imperative, but also plays a direct role in bringing about the desired outcome in any and all areas of life.
If you trust fully that things will work out a certain way – then they will work out that way even if you are undeserving on other fronts. If your trust is weakened for any reason at all, even due to seemingly legitimate spiritual concerns such as “perhaps the sin/s will be causative,” that itself can undermine the result, and in the case of the truly righteous (such as Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu) might be cause for punishment.
I was in my late teens when I first encountered the writings on the topics of belief and trust in G-d of a certain Lithuanian Torah scholar, who had become the uncontested spiritual leader of that segment of Jewry in the years immediately following the devastation of WWII. Living in Bnei Brak and holding no official position, he nevertheless was held to be the final word on just about every major issue facing the religious public in the fledgling state that chose as its founding principles many ideas that were antithetical to Torah.
Interestingly enough, the person who steered me in the direction of those writings recommended them because of the sections that were blisteringly critical and mocking of Chassidus and Chassidim. Although those sections had been excised from later printings, he showed me where I could read the entire work in the original. At this point in my life, I am horrified and dismayed over many of the ideas presented there, but even then, in my early teens, I found some of the positions taken there somewhat disturbing (despite enjoying and later quoting the jabs at Chassidus and Chassidim; may Hashem forgive me).
Particularly disturbing to me was the assertion that bitachon is nothing more than the sense of security and serenity that comes from knowing that G-d knows what is best for you and can be relied upon to do what is best for you, even if it is not what you think is best or even good. This is as opposed to those who labor under the (according to the author's opinion, false) impression that bitachon means that if one has enough trust in and reliance upon G-d, then He will reward that trust with the desired result according to what that person wants and desires.
I remember clearly that I wasn't buying it back then, even before I could articulate for myself just how divergent this position was from that of the early authorities such as the Chovos HaLevavos and others, as well as so much of Talmudic literature, not to mention that from a Kabbalistic viewpoint it borders on heresy. Maybe it was due to having been exposed to so many Baal Shem Tov stories as a child, which clearly portray a directly opposing worldview, or perhaps it was just instinctive. (Sadly to say, this view has gained much currency in the contemporary yeshiva [and even generic Chassidic] world, due to the esteem in which the author is held. It is especially sad when one encounters sincere people who labor in confusion trying to somehow juggle what they know on a soul-level to be true; “think good and it will be good,” and their unquestioning acceptance of the “daas Torah” of the “gadol” in question.)
Accordingly, when I started becoming exposed to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, I related very strongly to his formulation and articulation of the traditional understanding of this precept as Jews believed through the generations. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov goes so far as to say that if a Jew has true and proper bitachon in a given outcome, then G-d is compelled (as it were) to deliver on that trust. Obviously, the trust has to be real and meet the criteria set out in Shaar HaBitachon of the Chovos HaLevavos, which determine whether it is real or artificial and contrived.
LAUGHING FIRST AND LAUGHING LAST
Obviously, when it comes to bitachon, there are differences between the level of trust that a person must maintain regarding the provision of his everyday needs, and the level of trust that one needs to muster when confronted with a situation that requires special intervention. When one finds himself in a difficult or even dire situation (Heaven protect us) and is in need of salvation and deliverance, it is far more challenging to remain completely trusting and serene even as negative emotions rush to the fore and the mind is busy conjuring up worst-case doomsday scenarios.
In certain extreme situations, we are told that the best course is to demonstrate one's complete trust by simply putting the whole issue out of mind and leaving it up to G-d, much like King Chizkiyahu who when faced with the impending attack of the most powerful army in the world, led by Sancheiriv, said to G-d that “I will sleep on my bed and You take action,” which is exactly what happened. (Interestingly, back in 1991, those who would keep an eye on the Rebbe's windows from the outside, noticed that the night before the beginning of the first Gulf War, the Rebbe closed his lights earlier than he ever had before or later.)
Unlike Chizkiyahu, who had received a clear prophecy that the people of Judea would be delivered from the seemingly insurmountable threat and that Sancheiriv would have his downfall, most of us are flying blind when it comes to matters that we have to deal with in our personal lives. In the case that one receives a bracha from the Rebbe, then the challenge becomes to believe and trust in the fulfillment of that bracha to the degree of certainty as if it were an outright prophecy. The ultimate expression of this is when one actually achieves such a degree of certainty that he is filled with joy over his imminent salvation, much like the women in Egypt who prepared instruments in anticipation of the great celebration that would follow the exodus that was yet to take place.
Like in all areas of divine service, sometimes a person experiences a helping hand from Above which propels him to a spiritual level that he cannot account for being at purely through his or her efforts. I personally had such an experience in the area of bitachon regarding the matter of shidduchim (finding a marriage partner). At the end of a year of learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, I was planning to return to the US and going on to learn in Lakewood. My cousin who lives in Yerushalayim, expressed his horror over the fact that I had spent a year in Eretz Yisrael and was returning to America with the hopes of eventually getting married without having visited pretty much any of the Graves of the Righteous. He thought it was especially unconscionable that I hadn't gone to Amuka, the burial place of Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel, who legend had it that anyone who prayed for a shidduch at his gravesite would find his or her match within the year.
Having heard that a group of Israeli bachurim in the Mir that he was friendly with, and who were getting on in years, had arranged to rent a minibus and travel to Amuka and other prominent burial sites in the North and Center of the country, he asked if they would be willing to include me. The two main organizers knew me as a casual acquaintance (and a bit of a character) and so they agreed. That is how I found myself sometime after midnight in the blackest pitch of night (the only light was from the headlights of the vehicle, which had to be kept running the whole time we were there, and of course, part of the “fun” was that some wiseguy had to turn it off and freak everybody out for a while) I had ever seen, standing by the burial place of Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel in Amuka.
I can't begin to explain what exactly transpired there, but as I stood there I felt myself filling up with joy and the absolute certitude that I would be married within one year from whenever I would begin my efforts in finding a wife (or “dating” as it is called in America). When I returned from the trip (I could write a whole book about the adventures and misadventures of that trip, as well as the people [although now, twenty-five years later, some of the details are fuzzy]), I told my cousin and any of my friends who would listen to me that I was absolutely confident in that timeline. Some people reacted with a sort of wonder at my sureness and attendant jubilancy, but most just rolled their eyes in unabashed skepticism.
I flew home (to my home in exile) a few days later, on the night after Purim 5746, and I started learning in Lakewood immediately after Pesach of that year. Although I was only 22 years old and in no rush to start seeing people for the purpose of marriage, almost everyone else there was heavily involved in the process. One of the things that mystified my friends and acquaintances in yeshiva was the fact that when it came to this one topic, I projected a steadfast confidence that things would work out exactly as I had sensed on that fateful night, even as many people around me were struggling for years.
Well-meaning friends would try to prepare me for the inevitable disappointment that was to come, since people like myself who had reputations as being “nonconformist” generally had a hard time of it, as girls and their parents considered that to be a sign of possible instability (who knows - he might wake up one day and become a Lubavitcher?). I would just cheerfully thank them for their concern and reiterate my absolute confidence in the outcome.
To make a long story short, I only announced my readiness to get involved in finding a shidduch after Tishrei 5747. I met the first prospective candidate shortly after Chanuka 5747, and became engaged the day before Erev Rosh HaShana of that year. The wedding took place on the night following the eighth day of Chanuka 5748. How was I so sure? How did I stay upbeat and even joyful regarding this one issue even at times when I was feeling generally miserable and depressed? How was it that the rejections along the way only made me feel ever more certain that I was that much closer? I had no way to explain it, but even then, before I had the spiritual lexicon of Chassidus at my disposal, I knew it was a soul experience.
LAUGHING ALL THE WAY
Truth to tell, there is no need to get all mystical and the basic underlying premise is hardly esoteric. Human laughter as an expression of unadulterated joy (as opposed to mirth or scorn) comes when a person achieves a positive outcome following a period of uncertainty and tension. The less sure the person was of the outcome previously, the greater the relief of fear and tension there is when it turns out well, the greater the joy and celebration accompanied by ever heartier laughter. In fact, in the case where the person becomes certain of the outcome in advance, he already begins to experience that joy and laughter when his mind is on that specific matter, even if he may be worried and concerned about a whole host of other things, including the hardships and difficulties he may still have to go through on the way to the certain outcome.
If that sounded too complicated, let's try for a real down-to-earth analogy from the wonderful world of sports. I was never into sports that much, but I think I have a pretty good sense of the role it plays in the culture. So let's imagine the final minutes of the Super Bowl with one of the teams ahead by less than one touchdown. There is too much time left on the clock to simply down the ball, and they don't want to hand the ball over on downs, so the team in the lead is forced to run a play.
The quarterback makes a bad throw in his own team's Red Zone and an opposing defender intercepts the ball with a clear field ahead. Nobody is even close to him. Yes, he has about ninety yards to run downfield with every single member of the opposing team focused only on trying to catch up to him and bring him down, but as long as he runs all out with everything he has it is obvious to everyone there including himself, along with all the millions of people watching, that none of the opposing team has a chance of catching him.
Do you know what happens then? Pandemonium. Every fan of that team present in the stadium comes flying out of their seats. They are screaming, cheering, laughing, crying and out of their minds with joy and excitement. So too, millions of fans around the world, at home or in their cars, in restaurants or in sports bars. People are hugging and/or pounding each other on the back, some are jumping up and down, and yet the points have not been scored and the game has not yet been won and so many things could still conceivably go wrong as unlikely as that might be. Additionally, many of these people have all sorts of other problems in their lives that are the source of much misery and unhappiness.
Afterward, with the game safely won and all of the celebrations done with, if you were to ask each person, from the player that scored the winning touchdown to his teammates and coaches, from their family members to the fans, what the happiest moment was for them, each would no doubt tell you that it was the moment that they felt that it was a sure thing, a done deal, even before it actually unfolded.
The player who ran with the ball, despite the fact that he knew that he couldn't slow down for a second for even the briefest respite, despite the fact that every bone, muscle, sinew and blood vessel in his body were all screaming in pain after months of training camps and more than twenty brutal games of football, will tell you that everything that followed was great and wonderful and he wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but there is still something special and precious about that first burst of exultation when he “knew” that he was going to take it all the way. Yes, he still had to keep running and overcome the various obstacles and hardships remaining, and yes, he still had other problems at home and in other areas of life, but all of that faded into nothingness in those moments when he “knew” but still had to run those last yards to complete the job.
As we approach the Days of Awe, beginning with Rosh HaShana, Jewish law says that we are expected to conduct ourselves as people who are approaching Judgment Day, and at the same time are fully confident of a positive outcome for a good sweet year. That is why we groom ourselves and dress up in our finest clothes, prepare fine foods and hold sumptuous meals on the day itself. In the words of the Prophet Ezra regarding this day, “Go, eat fatty meats and drink sweet wines, and send portions to the one who is undeserving because this day is holy to our Master. And do not be despondent because the gaiety of G-d is your fortress (of strength).” We begin the process of celebrating the positive outcome of which we are confident in advance, and draw our strength and confidence from the fact that G-d rejoices when we rejoice, and this in turn helps guarantee that we are blessed with a positive judgment, signed and sealed, for a good sweet year in the form of visible and revealed good. Of course, we still have to “finish the job,” by doing the necessary work of introspection and repentance, crowning the King and accepting the yoke of His Kingship, the prayer services and blowing the shofar etc.
Similarly, the Rebbe has told us that we have to “know” that Moshiach is here and not only to begin rejoicing as a “ploy,” but as an expression of absolute certitude in the outcome, not only because we were told that this is so, but because we see it happening before our very eyes. Yes, we will rejoice and celebrate then, when Moshiach is fully revealed and takes us to the Holy Land and builds the Third Temple, but there is still something exquisite and pure about that first realization, that first sense of “knowing,” from which everything follows.
Yes, we have to continue to carry the ball in the final days of exile, and yes, there are forces all around us trying to pull us down into the mud, but if we “see” the end zone and “know” that it's a done deal, we can do so without fear and worry. And beyond that we can do so with the joy of victory, “Didan Notzach” (our side has been victorious), as we crown Melech HaMoshiach and accept his kingship, in anticipation of his full and complete revelation, immediately, Now!