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Shiur #18: Trust and Reward

  • Rav Ezra Bick


Immediately after asking God to act against His enemies, we implore Him to reward the righteous:


May Your compassion be aroused, HaShem our God, over the righteous,

and over the pious, and over the elders of your people the house of Israel,

and over the remnant of their sages, and over the true proselytes, and over us.

Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in Your name,

and place our lot among them always,

and let us not be shamed, for in You we trust.

Blessed are You, HaShem, the support and the trust of the righteous.


This blessing lists seven categories of deserving people:


1.     The righteous;

2.     The pious;

3.     The elders

4.     The remnant of the sages;

5.     The true proselytes;

6.     Us;

7.     Who truly trust in Your name.


There is an obvious break between the first six, which appear in a series of objects of God's compassion, and the seventh, which is the object of "a good reward." Since we find the same term, "trust," in the chatima (though as a noun rather than as a verb), I propose we begin with this concept, the concept of BITACHON.


1. Trust in God


For centuries, Jewish thought has debated the relationship between trust in God to provide and the necessity to act on ones own to solve problems and succeed in the world. Conventional religious wisdom has at times elevated the trust in God above all other religious virtues, and there is a natural tendency to equate religiosity with a certain measure of "impracticality." Judaism has never come close to the pacifist and quietist strains of Protestantism, which abjure any attempt to change God's world and strive for simple trust and acceptance. The recourse to medicine, which is so often seen as a prime example of the test of trust in God precisely because it is so easy to see disease as the hand of God, was deemed by the Sages to be specifically permitted by the Torah ('verapo y'rapei' - from here we see that permission was given to the physician to heal"). Nevertheless, there is sometimes heard the idea that our engagement with the world is a sort of necessary exercise, based on a prohibition to overtly rely on miracles, but in fact we are enjoined to believe that everything is directly taken care of by God. Indeed, there are many verses in the Torah and Tanakh which appear to teach precisely this doctrine. "Many are the thoughts in the heart of a man, but God's plan - that is what will be!"


R. Yitzchak Arama'a, the author of the famous homiletical work "Akedat Yitzchak," was one of the first to point out that a belief in both the ability and the necessity of Man to take responsibility for the course of his life and his surroundings is religiously mandated, for without the ability to efficiently change the course of events there is no meaning to free will. Discussing Yaakov's measures in preparation for his meeting with Eisav (in Parshat Vayishlach), he explains that the basis of man's religious destiny is his freedom, which is predicated on the assumption that he is able to actually perform moral actions. If the evil cannot actually effect evil, they are not free to choose evil; if the good cannot make a difference, their choice to do good is meaningless. Hence, God's charge to Man to do good requires that He also hand over to Man the means to be responsible for his world. There must be a system of laws of nature, which is given to man to use in order to achieve his goals. If health is a good thing, then it should be achievable through human endeavor, in order that there be a chance for an individual to choose to help another by healing him. This requires that God not be totally active, for then He is totally responsible for all outcomes, and in consequence I am not responsible for any outcome.


This actually results in the conclusion - perhaps I am exaggerating just a bit here - that in order for one to act as God wishes, in order for one to act in accordance with the image of God in which he is created, he has to act as though God did not exist. To give an example, if one passes a lake and sees someone drowning, excessive belief in Divine providence will lead to the conclusion that the poor fellow's destiny is in God's hands; hence, there is nothing I can do to change it and it is pointless to try. On the contrary, the mitzva of "Do not stand on the blood of your fellow" implies that if one does not jump in and save him, one is TOTALLY responsible for his death. Faith may still say that God killed him; morality - Torah morality - says that YOU killed him by your inaction. I once read a saying of a Chassidic Rabbi - I cannot remember just which one - that is based on this idea. He stated that it is clear that everything God created in Man is meant to be used to serve God. What then, he asked, is one supposed to do with the inclination of atheism, for that is also part of Man. He answered that atheism is a necessary ingredient in moral behavior. At the moment of decision, one chooses as though the entire matter weighs only on your shoulders and God is not part of the picture at all. That is how one serves God.


So where does the important trait of trust in God enter? The standard answer of nearly all Jewish thinkers is that it appears AFTER one has come to a decision how to act. One goes to a doctor to treat disease, trusting in God that He will grant the doctor the ability to heal. That, explains R. Yitzchak Arama'a, is what Yaakov our father did. First he devised a plan how to escape from any evil Eisav might be planning, then he prepared his camp for all eventualities, and then he appealed to God save him. In a word - and this will come as no surprise - God helps those who help themselves.


B. The Berakha


With this in mind, let us examine our blessing. The prayer exhorts God to grant "a good reward" to those who truly trust in Him. Three questions:


1.     What is a GOOD reward?

2.     What does it mean to TRULY trust in God?

3.     Finally, why do we ask for a reward specifically for the trait of trust, and not for any other good deeds of the righteous and pious?


C. Trust and Human Effort


The solution outlined above does not actually treat the basic problem of who is responsible for what happens to us, even though it seems to provide guidelines how to act. It merely states that one should take responsibility while continuing to believe that God is responsible. The question is, how do our actions intermesh with God's ultimate power over everything.


I think that the only conclusion one can each from the premises I outlined above (following R. Yitzchak Arama'a) is that the nature of trust in God is somewhat different than is usually assumed. I think most people would conclude that the advise given above is to decide what you want, take actions to achieve it, and trust in God that He will grant whatever you have decide you want. I contend that there are two problems here:


1.     Such trust is misplaced - why should God give you whatever you want?

2.     Such trust is not particularly praiseworthy - it is closer to pride and self-confidence than a genuine religious faith in God.


I would suggest on the contrary the following:


First one should consider what actions should be chosen to achieve that which is RIGHT (and not necessarily that which you want). It is easy to know what one's heart desires; much more difficult to know what is the proper course of action in a given, complicated, real-life situation. We have been granted certain tools to aid us: intelligence, a moral sense, the guidance of the mitzvot, the examples of our forefathers and the advise of the Sages and our teachers.


Secondly, we trust in God that He will make sure that our choices will indeed result in the best outcome. Now just as the first step was different than in the original picture, since one must choose not on the basis of his desires but on the basis of his moral decision-making ability, so too the trust is different. We do not trust that God will agree to what we have chosen but to the goal that has guided us. For just as we have been granted wonderful tools to help us choose correctly, so too the possibility that we have chosen wrongly looms large. Error, especially in moral choice, given the complexity of a real human situation and the intricacy of the human soul, is an immediate and present danger at any moral crossroads. Having done my honest best to choose how to act, having taken responsibility for my world and the world about me, I trust in God that, if I have chosen correctly, He will fulfill my plan and support my choice, but if I have erred, He will nonetheless bring about the result that was the better and proper choice. In other words, if I am wrong, I trust in God that He will NOT fulfill my plan, but rather support my goal, my desire to effect the good and promote a better world.


This trust is based not only on God's benevolence, but on the nature of the partnership between God and Man implicit in the position of the Akedat Yitzchak outlined above. God wants us to take responsibility for our actions, for that is the necessary basis for the exercise of free will. God's providence, on the other hand, is committed to doing good. This necessitates a partnership between Him and ourselves, whereby IF we accept that responsibility, acting as moral authorities for ourselves, making the decisions that God would make if He alone were responsible for the world, then He fulfills His ultimate responsibility to the world to manage it for the best possible moral result. Since the moral development of man's free will is itself the acme of "best possible moral result," God agrees first of all to fulfill our decisions, while secondarily protecting those who trust in Him, even as they accept on themselves responsibility (in the "atheistic" manner described above) to shape their world with their own powers, from their own mistakes.


This explains, I believe, the Berakha. This is not a general Berakha asking that God be good to good people, but rather one requesting that God fulfill the trust of those who take responsibility for the world. We are not asking for prosperity for the righteous, or health, or salvation - those things have been requested previously, and have been requested for all Israel, not just the deserving. Here we are asking for a "GOOD REWARD" - not a reward for good deeds, but the protection of "bitachon." Make sure, God, that those who TRULY trust in You (in the manner I have described, exhibiting not mere religiously-colored optimism, but moral responsibility) receive the reward of trust, which is that you will fulfill their plans for GOOD - either fulfilling them as planned or changing them so that the best result, as You truly know, results. A "good" reward is not merely prosperity or health, but the object to which the person who is trying to make a considered moral decision should have been aiming.


This explains two things in the original list of six categories of people for whom we are praying. Firstly, the list is aimed at public functionaries. The "elders of Your people the house of Israel" and "the remnant of the sages" are clearly people who bear public responsibility, leaders and rabbis. This emphasizes that the "righteous" and the "pious" are also, if on a more private level, people who are exercising responsibility, at least personal responsibility. If the Berakha were merely about reward for good people, it would have sufficed to speak of "the righteous" alone.


Secondly, it is hard to avoid a sense of melancholy in the language of this Berakha. This is most evident in the term "the remnant of the sages." "Pleita" means not only "remnant" but also suggests that which has managed to be saved from destruction. The food left over on your plate is not "pleita" but "she'eirit." A "palit" is a refugee from war or catastrophe. The Berakha clearly reflects a galut feeling, where the righteous, those who trust in God's name, are a remnant, driven from their former positions, barely hanging on, a pale shadow of former glory. This would be irrelevant if we were only asking for reward in the general sense, but becomes crucial if we are asking for "good reward" for those who trust in God. The same then holds true for the special mention of the "true proselytes." It is rare to find explicit distinction for converts in Judaism, for the simple reason that, once having converted, there is no distinction. A convert is a Jew, a righteous convert belongs to "the righteous," and a pious one to "the pious." His reward is the reward of his mitzvot. Here, however, where we are speaking of the reliance of trust, there is a special category for those who have taken a moral decision beyond that of born Jews, a decision to change their world in a manner more radical than can be imagined by most Jews. This decision, the trust implicit in such a decision, deserves a special request for a "good reward." (It should be noted that R. Yehuda b. Yakar, the commentator whom I have frequently quoted in the past, identifies "the pious" as "baalei teshuva").


Hence the closing lines: "Place our lot among them always, and let us not be shamed, for in You we trust." The condition for the trust I have described is that one has truly tried to make an honest moral decision for the good, and not allowed extraneous considerations or the desires of the heart to influence the decision. Only then can one trust in God to support the decision for GOOD, since only then is the decision based only on the good. Who can say that he is sure that that is the case? So we pray for that as well - place our lot among the groups mentioned above, and let us not be ashamed, let it not appear that we are to be disappointed, which would mean that we have not done our part of the partnership, for in You we trust. Help us honestly make the right decisions, so that we can be counted among those who trust in God, who is the "support and the trust of the righteous."



Next time we move on to Yerushalayim.