The Five Hardest Words

At Mussar Kallah V, R’ Ephraim Becker said something that really resonated with me.

Of all the phrases in English that one could say — and mean what one says — which five words are hardest?

R’ Becker offered the sentences: “I’m fine. How are you?”

To say “I’m fine” and really mean it, one must have bitachon, belief that the A-lmighty is in control, and therefore that everything that happens in one’s life happens for a good purpose.

Whenever things are going well, R’ Becker said, a strange bird called a “Yeahbut” flies into the room. My wife made me a special dinner? The Yeahbut flies in, “Yeahbut usually I get home well after dinner time, and need to reheat a cold meal.” There is always some reason why the good isn’t perfect. Even the perfect vacation must end. The yacht one always dreamed of is great until someone you know comes by with a bigger yacht.

The only way to be truly content, to be “happy with what one’s lot”, is if one has bitachon. This imbues what we have with purpose, and what we don’t have — we also know that too is for a good reason. See this thought for Shabbas Nachamu for more on the connection between spirituality and happiness.

To really ask “How are you?” you have to care about the answer, and really want to know how the other person is.

Therefore, “I’m fine. How are you?” can only really be said by someone with a strong and healthy relationship with his Creator and with other people.

Five words that contain the core of the entire Torah…

The Kindness of Hashem

For many years — from before my bar mitzvah until my marriage — I had the honor to learn with Rabbi Matis Blum (who was a teen when we started) on Shabbos morning. Yesterday I had the heartwrenching experience of attending his wife’s funeral. Rebbetzen Etty Blum was 45 at the time, a mother of ten children.

I just want to make one point that emerged from the hespeidim.

When Rn Blum was diagnosed with a brain tumor, 1-1/2 years ago, she brought the news to her oldest daughter, Binah, and her husband with the opening, “Let me share with you the challenge Hashem gave me.” Chasdei Hashem, she said — the kindness of Hashem.

Initially they thought she was diagnosed on time. It was Elul. She thanked Hashem for giving her the tools to pray that Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur with real intent.

Then she learned that she would have to go for scans every three months to monitor the tumor. Rn Blum thanked Hashem for not giving her an opportunity to slip back into complacency after appealing to Him from within her crisis. Again, “Chasdei Hashem“, as she saw it.

Then the first scans came back, and the news wasn’t good. Again she thanked G-d,  “Chasdei Hashem” as she described it to her family, because He gave her the news piecewise. Had she heard how bad it was when she first got the news, would she have been able to accept it?

During her illness, Rn Etty Blum gave talks about davening, about accepting Shabbos just a little earlier even in the winter, about teaching our children that Shabbos is about more than a day to play ball. In particular, she herself took on the Jerusalem practice of lighting Shabbos candles 40 minutes before sunset rather than 18.

Two weeks ago, she and her sister  were in the hospital, but Rn Blum was unaware, staring off into the distance. The illness, after all, was attacking her brain. As Shabbos approached her sister told her it was time to light. Suddenly, awareness dawned. And they turned on the lamp together and started Shabbos.

Last Friday too she drifted off. And her sister tried again to tell her it was time for Shabbos lights. Her sister didn’t see her move, but the nurse noticed her eyes turn to look at her sister. So, her sister took her hand, and again they turned on the lamp together. A short while later, she was gone.

Rabbi Matis got the news before he began Shabbos. But he didn’t tell anyone. He carried through Shabbos giving his usual talks. He carried the burden and didn’t ruin anyone else’s Shabbos but his own. And as soon as havdalah was over, he called their children over, and  finally released the pain of a partner lost.

Many people say “chasdei Hashem — the lovingkindness of G-d”. How many actually feel it? Actually are capable of being happy with their lot,  both when enjoyable and even to have the opportunity of living through trials, through challenges?

“Moshe rejoices with the giving of his portion, for a trustworthy servant you have called him.”

תהא נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים

Vera’isa es Achorai

After the Golden Calf, Moshe asks Hashem if he could see His “Face”.

Hashem then said, ‘I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain. When My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by. I will then remove My “Palms”, וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵֽרָאֽוּ — and you will see my “Back”; My “Face”, will not be seen.

– Shemos 33:21-23

Even in the depths of hesteir panim, of Hashem hiding His “Face” from us, we can sometimes get a glimpse, a tantalizing hint, that there is more going on than it seems.

Last Thursday the Jewish world was shocked by the murder of eight boys who were studying in the beis medrash of Mercaz haRav.

Earlier that day, Rabbi Zev Segal was found drowned in his car in the Hackensack River. Friends of the Segals and numerous people who felt a connection to him from his years as a rabbi in Newark, in the leadership of the RCA, through his sons’ work teaching and on the radio followed the search closely. All the community help organizations were mobilized.

Unfortunately, this was not the first attack by arabs on yeshiva students in Israel studying in their beis medrash. The recent attack holds strong resemblance to the attack on the yeshiva students of Chevron during the pogrom in 1929, killing 23 boys. As Rav Yaakov Shapira, rosh yeshivah of Mercaz haRav, said between tears in his eulogy, “You are the holy of the holies, you are the yeshiva, the dear sons of Zion. This massacre is the continuation of the 1929 massacre, and the prophet’s blood is still boiling.” (There is much to be said about this reference, but I don’t know what it is yet. I did, though, pull out copies of Eikhah Rabasi and Kinos for Tish’ah be’Av to see what the rosh yeshivah meant. I invite people to post comments on the comparison to the killing of Zechariah.)

One of the survivors of the massacre in Chevron was Rabbi Segal.

I am not claiming I can understand the meaning of this “coincidence”, but I can’t help but believe this is a glimpse beyond the curtain. That even in days of darkness, Hashem makes sure we can see Him, if only from behind.

Lehman Brothers and Bitachon

During last night’s commute home, someone asked me how my preparations for Rosh haShanah were going. I had to admit, not well, as I had no thoughts as to which particular issues were calling for my attention this year, which were the battles to choose to fight.

Thank G-d, this morning I saw the following by R’ Chaim Brown on his blog “Divrei Chaim“:

… Sometimes a ma’aseh turns out so badly that it seems only Divine intervention can explain what happened. When you consider a 158 year old company (Lehman Bros.) drive to bankrupcy in the course of weeks, insurance giants (AIG) reduced to nothing, banks one after the other on the verge of failure, one is faced with either assuming the best minds in business simultaneously have all been overtaken by a bout of very contagious stupid disease, or someone up there is pulling the strings in ways that are just out of everyone’s control.

R’ Elchanan in one of his ma’amarim, which if I recall correctly has no date attached but must have been written in the ’30s, writes that the failing of the economy (at the time of his writing) was not caused by a lack of money, as plenty of people still had fortunes and great wealth. The economy failed because of a loss of confidence in the institutions of finance – a loss of faith in the economic system. What was true then is certainly true today, as the credit crunch is primarily a loss of confidence and trust. The key to understanding this phenomenon is the principle of middah k’neged middah. R’ Elchahan writes that a loss of faith in worldly institutions comes about because of the greater loss of faith in our spiritual institutions – a failing of emunah. And only through the strengthening of emunah can we find the tools to emerge from such a crisis.

As I spend much of my waking hours providing software support for traders, the air I’m breathing is thick with this insecurity. And then to note that our self-confidence is being shaken within Elul… I’m not sure how Hashem could have made His point much clearer.

This isn’t an attempt to play prophet, to claim one knows the reasons G-d chooses to do something. Rather than prophecy, this is wisdom, as in “איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד — Who is wise? One who sees upcoming consequences.” (Tamid 32a) The conclusion emerges from simply looking at the impact of the events — we are now worried about our own financial stability, about our savings for the future, of the stability of all the support systems we usually rely upon. To not use that emotional shift in our avodas Hashem by leveraging it with a constructive alternative would be foolhardy.

Emunah and Bitachon

There is a halakhah of semikhas ge’ulah letefillah, that one must finish the last berakhah after Shema, that about the redemption, immediately before the Shemoneh Esrei, with no interruptions. The Mishnah Berurah even advises that in Shacharis the chazan should whisper the end of the berakhah to himself, so that the congregation would not be obligated to interrupt between their own birkhas Ge’ulah and Shemoneh Esrei by having to answer amein.

In Ma’ariv, we insert “Hashkiveinu“, a berakhah about peace, and outside of Israel most communities also say “Barukh Hashem leOlam“. These are generally justified because Hashkiveinu is also on the broader subject of redemption, and Barukh Hashem leOlam is a surrogate for Shemoneh Esrei. So the concepts of ge’ulah and tefillah are still juxtaposed. A full discussion is off topic, but even in the case of Ma’ariv, R’ JB Soloveitchik would limit his responses to the intervening Qaddish to just “Amein. Yehei Shemei rabba…” and the final “amein” since these interruptions are mandatory, whereas the other reponses to Qaddish are custom.

Why the need to so closely preface ge’ulah to tefillah?

Ga’al Yisrael speaks of past redemption. We point to the miracle at the Red Sea and other redemptions as a source of emunah, of belief in the existance and involvement of the A-lmighty. We establish the foundation that there is a G-d capable of aiding us and we know this because He has in the past. It is only with that concept that Hashem is Omnipotent and involved in human affairs that it is meaningful to engage in the praise, requests and thanks of tefillah, to expect His involvement in our own lives.That’s bitachon, the belief of Hashem’s actual involvement in the present and future, that He can be relied upon..

Bitachon: Trust that …?

There are three basic models of bitachon:

1- Bitachon is the belief that everything will turn out okay. This message is taught in an entire genre of stories which create the image that if you only are properly observant and had sufficient bitachon, the only airplane you would ever miss is one that ch”v is going to crash.

This notion is not as absurd as I just portrayed it.

Rav Dessler gave a famous formula: The amount of hishtadlus (pragmatic effort) one must invest to solve is problems is only to compensate for a lack of bitachon. To try harder than that would imply a lack of faith. For example, when Yoseif asked the wine steward to remember him to Par’oh, he was punished for the lack of faith by having to wait another two years for rescue (Chazal, as repeated by Rashi ad loc). For us, such effort would be fine, but for someone on Yoseif haTzadiq‘s level, such hishtadlus was beyond the appropriate. Notice the implication: Bitachon gets you what you otherwise would have been working toward in more physical ways — getting what you want, what makes you happy.

2- The big problem with the previous model is that it doesn’t stand up very well to real world experience. Which then leads to a second version of the idea: that bitachon means that everything works out for the best. I may never know how and why Hashem wants me to experience some challenge, but as Nachum Ish Gamzu would say, “gam zu letovah— this too is for the best.” Or, to quote his student, Rabbi Aqiva, “Everything which the All-Merciful does, He does for the good.” Everything that happens is from G-d and therefore good, but I don’t always know what “good” is, and therefore often want something else. In the long run, it’s “letovahfor the good” even if the short-term event itself doesn’t seem so good.

3- The Chazon Ish (Emunah uBitachon ch. 2) not only differs, he calls both of these positions “wrong”.

This view of trust is incorrect, for as long as the future outcome has not been clarified through prophecy, that outcome has not been decided, for who can truly know Hashem’s judgements and providence? Rather, bitachonmeans realizing that there are no coincidences in the world, and that whatever happens under the sun is a function of Hashem’s decree.

Bitachonis the denial of the concepts of randomness, happenstance and accident. Not that everything is for my good, even if in some unfathomable way, but everything is according to Hashem’s plan and wisdom. The Chazon Ish has a problem with our assuming that something is good, since we never will know when an event’s story is complete, when we can judge it with full hindsight.

Rav Soloveitchik (e.g. in his disussion of the Holocaust in Qol Dodi Dofeiq) would state this more vehemently. One can’t deny the experience of suffering. Entering a meta-level, in which suffering is good by providing some reason for it, is either intellectually dishonest or emotionally frigid, and often both. The power suffering can have in our lives is when it is experienced as suffering. As he titled his essay “Uviqashtem misham“, from the pasuq in VaEschanan, “וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃ — And from there you will seek Hashem your G-d andyou will find Him, if you pursue Him with all your heart and all your life-soul.” (Devarim 4:29)

The Chazon Ish is not denying “gam zu letovah” (in the sense of the 2nd definition of bitachon, above), rather he is excluding it from the concept of bitachon in particular. As he writes later

There is another aspect to bitachon — that there rests a ruach haqodesh upon a person who possesses unique bitachon. It is a spirit of confidence that Hashem will help him, as King David says: “אִם־תַּֽחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֨י ׀ מַֽחֲנֶה֮ לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י; אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֭לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃ — If a camp encamps against me my heart will not fear; if a war arises against me…” (Tehillim 27:3). This aspect is relative to this special person’s unique bitachon and special measure of his sanctity.

This confidence is not bitachon, it is the inspiration, the almost-prophecy of ruach haqodesh that emerges from bitachon. And, it would seem, the confidence will not always be met by the reality of how things unfold.

In sum then, how would I define bitachon?

In Rabbi Chaim Brown’s observation that motivated these three posts on bitachon, we actually find a union of these ideas. We are taking a lesson, meaning we are aware that the insecurity we feel due to the current financial climate is from G-d. Following Rav Elchanan’s words about the Great Depression, we are assuming it is middah keneged middah, repayment in kind, for relying on one’s own efforts for success. Trusting the wine-steward, as Yoseifdid. And so, Hashemshakes the institutions we consider our means for self-made success in order to remind us that we need His assistance.

Bitachon is awareness that the A-lmighty is acting in a covenental partnership with you. It is from there that Rav Dessler’s formula for hishtadlus emerges, one partner only picks up what he does not expect from the Other’s contribution. It is the Chazon Ish’s awareness that every event in our lives is part of a plan. And yet we can avoid simplistic dismissals of suffering. Yes, Nachum Ish Gamzutells us that everything is for the best, eventually. But since I must remember that no story, no “eventually”, is ever over, I can not find meaning or redemption in that fact. Pain remains pain. And yet, having bitachon demands that trust in “כחי ועצם ידי — my strength and the might of my hand” is misplaced, and through my activities I can not avoid the tragic. It is part of the role I play in the Divine Plan, and to not accept them as from Him and part of the covenant would be disloyalty to it.

Bitachon and Melukhah

Perhaps it is just that we have been exploring these two topics simultanously, but I think there is an interesting relationship between them.

I wrote about bitachon that

Bitachon is awareness that the A-lmighty is acting in a covenental partnership with you. It is from there that Rav Dessler’s formula for hishtadlus emerges, one partner only picks up what he does not expect from the Other’s contribution. It is the Chazon Ish’s awareness that every event in our lives is part of a plan. And yet we can avoid simplistic dismissals of suffering. Yes, Nachum Ish Gamzutells us that everything is for the best, eventually. But since I must remember that no story, no “eventually”, is ever over, I can not find meaning or redemption in that fact. Pain remains pain. And yet, having bitachon demands that trust in “כחי ועצם ידי — my strength and the might of my hand” is misplaced, and through my activities I can not avoid the tragic. It is part of the role I play in the Divine Plan, and to not accept them as from Him and part of the covenant would be disloyalty to it.

And the melukhah of Malkhios can be seen as

אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ בְּטֶרֶם כָּל יְצִיר נִבְרָא

לְעֵת נַעֲשָׂה בְחֶפְצוֹ כֹּל  אֲזַי מֶלֶךְ שְׁמוֹ נִקְרָא

Eternal Master Who was King before all things were created

Once He, with His Will, made all, then his name was called “King”.

In Shema, we are referring to “asher Malakh”. On Rosh haShanah the goal is to make that manifest in this world – “azai Melekh shemo niqra“. Not the theory of Kingship, but actually declaring Him as King. “Hashem E-lokeikhem” even before we reach the point of “Hashem Echad“.

Hashem is unchanging, He was King in some ideal sense even without creation. But to be a king, “ein melekh belo am – there is no king without a nation” declaring Him their King.

A Melekh need not impose His will in the same way that a Mosheil does. A Melekh, therefore, has the opportunity to act with kindness and mercy at times when a Mosheil could not. We therefore introduce High Holidays, the days of judgment, by declaring G‑d’s melukhah. By voluntarily accepting Him as king we obviate the need for G‑d to direct us on the right path through trials and tribulations. The point of Rosh haShanah is accepting Hashem as our Melekh not just in theory, but declaring our acceptance of His Reign, thereby changing His relationship to us from one of Mosheil to that of Melekh.

Comparing the two, it would seem that both are about the beris, the covenent by which Hashem is our constitutional Monarch. Bitachon is the trust we have in His contribution to the beris. In Malkhios we declare our willingness to contribute our share.

More on Finance and Bitachon

In an earlier post, I mentioned R’ Elchanan Wasserman’s essay on the Great Depression. ) Despite the past couple of days looking promising, it is still too early to rest comfortably. The markets are still volatile, meaning there is too much uncertainty. A 10% one day jump isn’t meaningful — people’s opinion of what the typical US company is worth didn’t increase by 10% in one day. People are still lost, and looking for what things should be valued. I recommend watching the VIX, a measure of the volatility of the S&P 500 as implies by options on it traded at CBOE. Until it goes back down to usual levels, people still aren’t really operating on their usual levels of trust, and it ain’t over yet.

As Rav Elchanan wrote, it’s all about trust. No actual wealth was lost in the Great Depression, and none now. What was lost was a false belief in wealth that didn’t really exist. The lesson of a depression, he writes is “אַל־תִּבְטְח֥וּ בִנְדִיבִ֑ים בְּבֶן־אָדָ֓ם ׀ שֶׁ֤אֵ֖ין ל֥וֹ תְשׁוּעָֽה׃ … אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣-ל יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃ — Do not rely on generous people, in humans who have no salvation… Enriched is he whose help is the G-d of Yaakov, whose dependency is on Hashem his G-d.” (Tehillim 146:3, 5) And, “ט֗וֹב לַֽחֲס֥וֹת בַּ֑ה’ מִ֝בְּטֹ֗חַ בָּֽאָדָֽם׃ ט֗וֹב לַֽחֲס֥וֹת בַּ֑ה’ מִ֝בְּטֹ֗חַ בִּנְדִיבִֽים׃ — Better to rely on G-d than to rely on man. Better to rely on G-d than to rely on generous people.” (118:8-9, and said in Hallel, such as on this morning, Roch Chodesh).

Perhaps a key to getting through this is to say the following words of
bentching and think about what one is saying:

וְנָא אַל תַּצְרִיכֵנוּAnd Please, do not make us require,
ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּHashem our G-d,
לֹא לִידֵי מַתְּנַת בָּשָׂר וָדָםnot the power of the the gifts of flesh and blood
וְלֹא לִיֵדי הַלְוַאָתָםnor the power of their loans,
כִּי אִםrather only
לְיָדְךָYour Power (lit: “Hand”)
הַמְּלֵאָהWhich is full,
וְהָרְחָבָהand broad.
שֶׁלֹּא נֵבוֹשׁ וְלֹא נִכָּלֵםSo that we will not be shamed, and we will not be extinguished
לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.until the end of time.

Notice we asked to be freed from “the power” or authority — literally, the “hand” — of people’s loans. Not the loans themselves. Having a loan and trusting in Hashem to have the means to repay it is very different than being under the control of the loan.

And in that is all the difference.

The True Hero of Chanukah

No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to HQBH, although clearly it could. (Or can it: Can we define “heroism” with respect to One for Whom there are no risks to take?) Nor Yehudah haMakabi, nor Matisyahu, nor Chana or any of her sons, nor Yehudis…

The Beis Yoseif famously asks why we celebrate the first day of Chanukah. After all, the oil burning on the first day wasn’t miraculous, was it? It was only the additional seven that constituted the miracle. There are many answers to this question. When I was in grade school, a rebbe told of a seifer that was entirely a collection of 100 answers. Some show why the first day was a miracle — they only put 1/8 of the oil in each day, they put it all in, but at the end of the day the cup was 7/8 (or entirely) full. Or, one day to celebrate even finding the oil, or perhaps the military victory.

I want to give the Alter of Slabodka’s answer, but I want to present  it on top of my own thought.

The miracle of the oil is an odd reason for Chanukah. In fact, it’s not mentioned in either of the books of Makabiim, not in Megilas Taanis, not in Josephus, not until the gemara. But what makes it odd is that it’s not a neis in the traditional meaning of the Hebrew term. A neis is a banner, a standard or a flag. When used to refer to miracles, it refers to the fact that nissim call G-d’s Presence to our attention. But the oil burning for 8 days could only have been witnessed by the Chashmonaim and the few believers who made it into the heichal (the Temple building itself) with them. Celebrating private miracles is common in other religions. However Judaism is proud of standing on the notion of national events, public miracles — nissim.

I would therefore suggest that when the gemara asks “Mai Chanukah?” it wasn’t because Ravina and Rav Ashi thought that anyone learning the gemara needed a remedial lesson in what Chanukah was about. Rather, it’s because Chanukah had to shift in meaning. Gone were the days of the Beis haMiqdash. Jewish autonomy was by that point ancient history. The authors of the gemara were living in a Babylonia where it, not Israel, contained most of the world’s Jews. Everything G-d gave us back from the Saleucids, He had since took away in the hands of the Romans. The question wasn’t “What was Chanukah made to be about?” But “What does Chanukah mean to us in the hear and now?” Chanukah was not made to be about the oil; as I argued last paragraph, we don’t make holidays for private miracles. But the miracle of the oil, and what it meant, is all that remained.

Now for the Alter…

The Alter of Slabodka says that the miracle of the first day of Chanukah is that oil itself burns. This is reminicent of the story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s daughter, who accidentally filled the Shabbos lamps with vinegar instead of oil one week. This was tragic, as Rav Chanina was so poor he lived off a qav of carob from Shabbos to Shabbos. (Carob grew untended, and was available for free.) Rav Chanina’s daughter was distressed by this mistake, perhaps because of their inability to afford wasted oil or vinegar. Rav Chanina answered her, “He Who made oil burn can make vinegar burn.” And the vinegar burned. (Taanis 25a) Similarly, the miracle that oil burns at all, as it did on the first day, is no less a wonder than it burning on the other 7!

Going back to my own edifice… Rav Chanina  saw the supernatural burning of vinegar no more proof of G-d’s existence than he saw everyday within nature.

Similarly there was a heroic kohein who, back in the days when everything was falling apart around him, took a sealed jar of oil and hid it. He saw G-d within the natural course of events, even when they were flowing in the direction away from holiness. And that kohein, with full bitachon, trust in the Almighty, that “this too shall pass”, another generation would arise, and someone was going to need it. His bitachon made the first day possible, and according to the Alter of Slabodka, it is seeing the world as he did which underlies its observance.

For the Good

אמר רבי אבהו כתיב (תהילים ד:ב) “בְּקָרְאִי עֲנֵנִי אֱ-לֹהֵי צִדְקִי, בַּצָּר הִרְחַבְתָּ לִּי[; חָנֵּנִי, וּשְׁמַע תְּפִלָּתִי].” אמר דוד לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, “רבון העולמים! כל צרה שהייתי נכנס לה, אתה הייתה מרחיבה לי. נכנסתי לצרתה של בת שבע, ונתת לי את שלמה. נכנסתי לצרתן של ישראל ונתת לי את בית המקדש:”

Rabbi Avohu said: It says, “When I called, You answered, my G-d of justice, when in trouble you released me[; show me grace and hear my prayer].” (Tehillim 4:2) David said before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the universes! Every trouble which I entered into, You used it to release me. I entered the trouble with Bas Sheva [where David sinned in how he courted her], and You thereby gave me Shelomo. I entered the trouble with Israel [David counted the population, despite a prohibition], and You thereby gave me the Temple.”

– Yerushalmi Taanis 2:9 (vilna ed. 11a)

Notice the preposition in these two quotes of tannaim:

ואמאי קרו ליה נחום איש גם זו דכל מילתא דהוה סלקא ליה אמר גם זו לטובה זימנא חדא בעו לשדורי ישראל דורון לבי קיסר אמרו מאן ייזיל ייזיל נחום איש גם זו דמלומד בניסין הוא שדרו בידיה מלא סיפטא דאבנים טובות ומרגליות אזל בת בההוא דירה בליליא קמו הנך דיוראי ושקלינהו לסיפטיה ומלונהו עפרא כי מטא התם שרינהו לסיפטא חזנהו דמלו עפרא. בעא מלכא למקטלינהו לכולהו אמר קא מחייכו בי יהודאי אמר גם זו לטובה
אתא אליהו אדמי ליה כחד מינייהו א”ל דלמא הא עפרא מעפרא דאברהם אבוהון הוא דכי הוה שדי עפרא הוו סייפיה גילי הוו גירי דכתיב (ישעיהו מא) יתן כעפר חרבו כקש נדף קשתו הויא חדא מדינתא דלא מצו למיכבשה בדקו מיניה וכבשוה עיילו לבי גנזיה ומלוהו לסיפטיה אבנים טובות ומרגליות ושדרוהו ביקרא רבה כי אתו ביתו בההוא דיורא אמרו ליה מאי אייתית בהדך דעבדי לך יקרא כולי האי אמר להו מאי דשקלי מהכא אמטי להתם סתרו לדירייהו ואמטינהו לבי מלכא אמרו ליה האי עפרא דאייתי הכא מדידן הוא בדקוה ולא אשכחוה וקטלינהו להנך דיוראי:

And why did they call him “Nachum ish Gamzu”? Because for anything that happened to him, he would say “This too is for the good (letovah).
One time they wanted to present Israel’s gift to Caesar’s home. They said, “Who should go?” “Nachum ish Gamzu should go, because he is learned in miracles. They sent in his hands a chest filled with precious stones and pearls. He went, and spent a night in a certain inn. In the night, the proprietors arose and emptied the chest and filled it with earth.
When he arrived there [at Ceasar’s palace] they untied the chest and saw that it was full of earth. The king want to kill all of them. He said, “The Jews are laughing at me.” [Nachum] said, “This, too, is for the good.”
Eliyahu came and [happy ending deleted…]

Berachos 60b-61a

אמר רב הונא אמר רב משום רבי מאיר וכן תנא משמיה דר’ עקיבא לעולם יהא אדם רגיל לומר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד כי הא דרבי עקיבא דהוה קאזיל באורחא מטא לההיא מתא בעא אושפיזא לא יהבי ליה אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב אזל ובת בדברא והוה בהדיה תרנגולא וחמרא ושרגא אתא זיקא כבייה לשרגא אתא שונרא אכליה לתרנגולא אתא אריה אכליה לחמרא אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב ביה בליליא אתא גייסא שבייה למתא אמר להו לאו אמרי לכו כל מה שעושה הקדוש ברוך הוא הכל לטובה:

Rav Huna said that Rav said quoting Rabbi Meir, and so too is the beraisa in the name of Rabbi Aqiva : A person should always be in the habit of saying, “All that the All-Merciful does, he does for the good (letav).”
When Rabbi Aqiva was traveling. He came to some city and wanted to stay at the inn. They would not let him. He said “All that the All-Merciful does, is for the good.” He went into the woods [to sleep], and he had with him a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. A wind came and extinguished the lamp. A cat came and ate the rooster. A lion came and ate the donkey. [R’ Aqiva] said, “All that the All-Merciful does, is for the good.”
At night, a troop came and ransacked the city. He said to [his audience], “Did I not tell you, that whatever the Holy One, blessed be He does, it is all for the good (letovah)?”

Berachos 60b-61a

It is notable that Rabbi Aqiva studied under Nachum ish Gamzu. For that matter, even in Rav Huna and Rav’s version, the idea is presented in the name of R’ Meir, a student of Rabbi Aqiva’s. This optimistic view of what befalls us shows a clear line of tradition.

But they do not say everything that happens is “tovah” or in Aramaic “tav“. The word is “letovah“, or “letav“, with the “le-” prefix meaning the preposition “for”. Rabbi Aqiva says that Hashem does is “for the good.” Nachum ish Gamzu’s position is more extreme; all that He allows to occur, even if by “standing by” as people commit atrocities (in possible contrast to R’ Aqiva’s reference to what the All-Merciful or Holy One does), is met with “this too is for the good.”

And I believe this is David haMelekh’s point in our opening Yerushalmi as well. Not everything is good, although everything does lead to good. History runs from chaos and confusion to a world full of knowledge of G-d, when all join together “to do Your Will with whole hearts”. Even as he acknowledges his errors, David haMalekh admitting not acting in alliance with the Divine Plan, he still sees how Hashem only permitted him to succeed in sinning because He was able to bring some good to the world through it.

(See also this related post on the Thermodynamics of History.)

Casting Lots

Regardless of what one believes about Creation and the origin of the species, we have evolution since then. In order to even entertain the possibility of evolution as the origin of the species, one would have to understand that “random mutation” is not random, but Divinely guided. So that in addition to the filtering effects of “survival of the fittest” on the results of those mutations, G-d, by loading the genetic dice, entirely guaranteed His Will was manifest in the result.

Which raises the more general question as to whether the Believer’s lexicon even has meaning for the word “random”. Is anything truly random? How far does Providence extend — Only to those who know Him (Rambam)? Only to those who merit it? Only to humans? Or, as became mainstream thought in the Orthodox community since the idea was first introduced by the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov, that every event in history is providential? And if we do take the last stance, what does “random” mean? What does a statistician study?

Purim is an oddly named holiday. It comes from Haman’s means of selecting a date for his planned genocide. “Hipil pur hu hagoral — he cast a pur, that is a goral” (Esther 3:7). “Pur” is a Persian word meaning “lot”. Purim, the Lottery Holiday, actually represents, though, the presence of G-d’s Hand in events. The Persian conception of lots is actually the reverse of the holiday’s entire message!

More on target is the Hebrew word “goral“. When the land of Israel was divided in Yehoshua’s day between the tribes, a “goral” is used to determine Hashem’s Will. A goral is a means of opening up the options within nature, making no one outcome more miraculous than the other, to allow us to see Hashem’s choice without miracles. A kind of prophetic event.

Add to this the irony of “Purim Sameiach“.  Ben Zoma says the wealthy person is one who is “sameiach bechelqo — happy with his portion”. He is someone who knows his portion is planned, a goral given by G-d, not happenstance. “Everything that happens to me is in the Hands of the One Who made me.” “This too is for the good.”

A pur was cast before Haman, but in truth the pur was a goral.

A Retrospective Implication of Bitachon

Saying that I have bitachon, trust that Hashem sets up the world I experience to maximize my opportunity for success, implies that I believe that all of my failures are due to my own decisions.

So, if I am not succeeding, there are really only two possibilities. Either

  • I am not carrying my own side of the partnership. In which case, Hashem gave me the best chance of success and I made some wrong choice along the way. Or
  • I have a false definition of “success”. I chose the wrong goal, the wrong thing to try to succeed at. Again, the mistake was all mine.

So, doesn’t bitachon force me to take ownership of everything that turns out other than I’d like?

A Mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov

תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר, בַּכֵּסֶה לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ. כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא, מִשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב.

Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat [just law] of the G-d of Yaaqov.

– Tehillim 81:4-5

The Malbim (ad loc) writes (tr. Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner):

We do not analyze the reason for this mitzvah of blowing shofar; for Israel it is a choq, without any reason other than a decree from G-d. But it is a mishpat for the G-d of Jacob; Gd knows its reason, and for Him it is mishpat, not choq.

When seeing the Malbim, two questions leaped to mind:

1- The poetic doubling of Tehillim often involves the use of synonyms. But why is the name of the Jewish People who cannot understand the law of shofar “Yisrael”, but the ones who are associated with the G-d who could understand it called “Yaaqov”?

2- Why is this point made specifically with regard to shofar? Since no mitzvah is arbitrary, every choq is meta-rational, not irrational; they all must have meaning and purpose, even if incomprehensible to the human mind. Isn’t this statement that for Hashem it is a mishpat more about the nature of choq than about shofar in particular?

It seems Tehillim is being intentionally ambiguous when it says “hu — it is a choq…” What of the prior verse is the “it” — the blowing of the shofer, or “our holiday“? Since this is poetry, the answer would well be both. There is some indication that this verse refers to both Shofar and the holiday from its two appearances in the Mussaf for Rosh haShanah. Yes, the full quote, verses 4 & 5 are among the 10 citations from Tanakh used to buttress Shofaros. But pasuq 5 appears alone in the text of Zikhronos as well. “This day is the beginning of Your Deeds, a memorial of the first day. For it is a choq for Israel, a mishpat for the G-d of Yaaqov.” Our prayers actually utilize both possible references of the pronoun.

I would suggest that King David chose to discuss the theology of choq with respect to the shofar of Rosh haShanah is because the general point that our incomprehensible choq is Hashem’s rational mishpat is an important one for Rosh haShanah.

We are judged and the curriculum Hashem presents us with during the following year, the triumphs and the lessons we are to accumulate from the year’s challenges, are decided. We know that, and yet it’s hard to see when looking at the particular events of the year. Even without taking into account course changes we make during the year which may lead to an early re-assessment on Hashem’s part.

Remembering that nothing Hashem does is irrational is an important part of accepting Him as King on Rosh haShanah. My fate for the year might not make sense to me, but I have to understand that that’s only to me, with the limitations that come with my humanity. But there is a meta-rationality, a very logical reason for every facet of the King’s judgment, even if on a level I cannot hope to understand.

According to the Chazon Ish, this is true bitachon, trust in G-d. He rejects the prescriptive notion of bitachon of many mussarists, that define it as trusting in Him as a way to get desirable results. Rather, bitachon is descriptive, the belief that everything, every tragedy and difficulty in life (as well as the happy things) are part of a bigger plan. It all has a point and value.

Yaakov is born predestined to supplant his brother. When he learns that his berakhah was given to another (Bereishis 27:6) Esav complains to Yitzchaq, “הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם — Did you not correctly call his name ‘Yaaqov’, and he supplanted me (vaya’aqveini) now twice!” This is the name Yaaqov, the fate that someday right will win out over might.

He gets the name Yisrael, however, after spending the night fighting the angel. According to one opinion, the same Esav’s angel. In this battle, he gets complemented, he is told that the mission was advanced, but in terms of visibility — all we see is that the angel wins. Yisrael leaves limping, the angel returns to heaven unharmed. Yisrael doesn’t passively get brought to his fate, he has a destiny he has to work toward. And therefore life will necessary lack things that we must get for ourselves, contain challenges we must overcome, and force us to be shaped by tragedy.

“Blow the shofar at the new moon, at the fullness for our holiday. For it” — the message of this holiday — “is a choq [a trans-rational statute] for Yisrael, a mishpat of the G-d of Yaaqov!”