Picture a scene from the Spanish Inquisition: Juan Mendoza is a second-generation converso who works as a cloth merchant. He knows that he's Jewish, but he doesn't know what that means beyond not eating bread for a week in the spring and fasting one day in the autumn. Somehow the Inquisition discovers him. They give him the choice of swearing eternal allegiance to the Cross or being burned at the stake.
Juan, like many conversos, chooses a martyr's death. Looking at this story 450 years later, when we are distant enough to romanticize it, we would applaud the ending. A seemingly ordinary man made a heroic choice to die for his ideals and thus achieved greatness. Juan's soul is enjoying a state of illumination and closeness to God in the spiritual world, which, had he died of gout at the age of 47 like many of his contemporaries, he would never have had access to.
However, had you been in Madrid at the time, and seen Juan dying a horrible death, his widow and children crying in anguish, chances are you would have bemoaned the dreadful ending of the story. This is true of practically every chapter of Jewish history.
The Maharal of Prague, the great 16th-century mystic, says the problem is that in this physical world we have no distance; we are so close to the events that are transpiring around us that it is virtually impossible for us to view them with perspective. The end of any story, which takes place in our own lifetime, is necessarily hidden from us. This is the main trial of bitachon.
The Sfat Emes, the 19th-century Hasidic Rebbe of Gur, says that we are like deaf people at a concert. We can see the conductor gesticulating wildly, but we have no clue what his movements mean. Just as deaf people lack the faculty to hear the music, which would make sense out of the whole scene, so we lack the faculty of perceiving the spiritual dimension, the infinite interplay of souls and the working out of the Divine plan, behind current events.
Joy Amidst the Crisis
When I was a child, I hung around with a certain Hassidic group. On Rosh Hashana afternoon, there is a custom to go to a body of water and symbolically cast your sins into the water, and this Hassidic group always went to a fishpond in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. It was arranged ahead of time with the authorities that the gate would be left open for them on this day for this ceremony.
One Rosh Hashana, someone slipped up. Despite having received prior approval, the group, with their esteemed Rebbe in the lead, arrived at the Botanical Gardens and found the gate locked, with the gatekeeper nowhere in sight. The Hassidim were milling around, not knowing what to do. Suddenly the Rebbe climbed over the gate. At first the Hassidim were startled but then, one by one, they followed. When they caught up with him, the Rebbe said, "You have to know that you meet obstacles so that you can climb over them."
This is how bitachon confers on us a deep and abiding joy. Bitachon is not saying, "I want no obstacles." Bitachon is saying, "The obstacles, the difficulties, the ordeals are there so that I can overcome them, and in the process become a deeper, finer person than I would have been without them." Joy is the result of this consciousness.
Bitachon is not measured by your success in climbing over the gate. Bitachon is measured by your response upon seeing the gate -- whether you grimace and give up, or whether you appreciate that God has put the gate there for your ultimate benefit.
True joy has nothing to do with ease in life, or with things going well. Rather, our joy must come from who we can become in the face of trying circumstances. True joy comes from resolution within oneself. The Talmud says, "There is no joy like the resolution of doubt." Joy comes from embracing life on its own terms, because you have a basic belief that life is good and as it should be and that challenges are an integral part of life.
Let's apply the concept of bitachon to the current crisis in the Middle East.
There has been much heated debate about whether or not Yassir Arafat is in control of the violence. Without exonerating Arafat in any way -- because every human being bears responsibility for the evil he does -- we must be aware that God is ultimately in control. God is not only aware of and involved in all the events taking place in Israel every day, but He is orchestrating events with as much compassion as we can take.
Although it is exceedingly difficult for us to see this compassion in the present moment, bitachon means knowing it is there nevertheless. Each of us must strive to maintain the consciousness of God's being in control from moment to moment.
One thing is certain -- the Land of Israel is the place where, even in spite of oneself, one is aware of God's involvement in human affairs. Living in Israel, it is very hard to ignore God's hand in our destiny.