Shabbat Shelakh: Trust

Perhaps the undermining of the idea of trust began for many of us with the cultural saturation in the U.S. of the slogan “trust, but verify.” Or perhaps it is an internal result of the persecutions Jews have endured for many centuries. No matter the cause, the lack of ability to trust – to suspend suspicion and cynicism – is inimical to spiritual life. It is also directly destructive of Jewish community.

In our parashat hashavua we see the effect of anger, discomfort, and fear on the first Jewish community’s ability to trust. That is to say, they couldn’t. Poised on the edge of what they said they wanted, the Jewish people were unable to find within themselves what it took to take a step together, in trust that they would be all right in the uncertainty of the step. 

From that day to this, life keeps sending us the lesson that spiritual life demands trust. Yet so little in our daily life encourages it! Yet we are not the first to face such a challenge. One of the rewards of being part of a community is to learn about others who have struggled to learn trust – both in ourselves and our capacity, and, relatedly, in those who share our path with us.

To be unable to trust, our parashah shows us, is to remain in Egypt. It is to be a slave: to one’s fear, to one’s past patterns, to one’s isolation. 

The opposite of spiritual slavery is not safety; it is not making it “home.” It is knowing that one is not alone even when one is unsafe, wandering in uncertainty, afraid of tomorrow. The opposite of spiritual slavery is the kehillah kedoshah, the community that becomes holy because those who are part of it are able to trust each other with their lives and the meaning of their lives.

Without trust in ourselves and each other, we cannot sustain meaningful community.

Trust, correctly understood, is not about passively expecting a Divine presence to care for us. It is also not about assuming that the other with whom one disagrees is correct. It is about letting go of the mistaken idea that one can control the world – when, truly, all we can control is our response to it, as the Talmud teaches:

One who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith. 

– Talmud Bavli Sotah 48b

Bitakhon (“security” in modern Israeli Hebrew) is an important ethic in Judaism. Learning the power of trust in oneself and one’s capacity, when it leads to trusting others appropriately within one’s community, is also a source of strength.

This type of confidence was so important to Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardak school of Mussar (19th-20th century, Lithuania), that he would give his students drastic challenges so they could grow in bitakhon

One student was afraid of the dark. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel instructed him to spend the night in the cemetery saying psalms. Another student was afraid of being humiliated. To him, the rabbi gave the challenge of going into a bakery and asking for nails and into a hardware store and asking for bread. 

The point of both these challenges was to condition the students to have bitakhon and realize that nothing harmful would happen to them if they faced their fears. The students of Novardak went on to found over 100 yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe, withstanding tremendous opposition and threats from Russian authorities. (Bitakhon) https://images.shulcloud.com/428/uploads/PDFs/bitachon-for-participants.pdf

Trust is not easily learned when one has been hurt. Thus community life is difficult, often marked by disappointment. Those who engage in community organizing and relationship development know that the unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine trust, because it is the most important connective tissue of all.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors came so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance. They remained slaves.

The spiritual path is not one of arrival, but of one day at a time. May we learn to wander not alone, not enslaved by our past fears, but together, with trust in each other. The wandering will still be uncertain, but the path will be so much more beautiful.

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