Faith vs. Trust, Thinking About the Difference between Emunah and Bitachon

Our house…isn’t selling.  We had two couples THIS close to making offers this week.  One couple couldn’t get financing enough and the other chose another house because we have a dog.  The realtors did reassure them that we would be taking our dog with us, but the fact a dog had lived here was enough to drive them off.  We’ve had a lot of feedback and fixed anything we possibly could, but much of the feedback are things we simply can’t change…like the number of floors in our home.  We’ve cut our price twice and our realtor has cut her commission twice and now we’re at the lowest selling price we can do and still break even.  Any further and we’ll have to bring money to the closing.

There are other stressors, too.  We’re back to not knowing if we will convert this month or next year and back needing to make a trip out East to convert there in addition to the trip to move.  Our Rabbis are working with other Rabbis and doing their best to get this all straightened out to convert us, but for now, we just don’t know if it will be next week or next year…which makes it hard to know what to pack since we may or may not need new dishes soon…or for a year or more, among other things.

It’s against this backdrop that a non-Jewish friend asked me, “Can you tell me what Judaism says about faith?”  She’s trying to learn different perspectives on faith and wanted me to provide the extent of what Judaism has to say.  I was surprised by her question and while I had some ideas of my own, I didn’t want to just give her what I think Judaism has to say about it, but rather go back and do some digging.  Perhaps there was something there I may not have fully digested when I first began learning or some deeper level to explore?

I already knew that a lot of things that may seem simpler in other religious paths are a bit more complex in Judaism, at least once you begin to dig down into all the layers of thought.  In my weekly Tanya class, we’ve been spending an entire year studying just one concept…the fear of G-d.  In that class, we’ve delved into different types and levels of fear, what fear really means, how to cultivate the different levels, etc, etc.  If you had asked me before that class what fear of Hashem meant…I probably would have given you a one sentence answer, but now?  I’m not sure I’d know exactly where to begin and would first try to narrow down what aspect of that fear you wanted to know about.  The more I learn, the more I defer to teachers a lot more learned than me, but in this case, I was the closest thing she had, so I looked for some kind of answer for her.

The first level that I already thought I knew about was that “faith” doesn’t really translate the same way in Hebrew as we think of it in English.  For one, even just the word, “faith” in English is already colored by mostly Christian ideas of what faith is.  The closest word in Hebrew is probably emunah, but really, that’s a bit more limited in scope than the English word even if the depth might be deeper.  The other related word that comes to mind most readily is bitachon, but that to me means more “trust.”  Then there are swirls of other concepts like menucha hanefesh, hishtadlus, and histapkus, but for simplicity’s sake, I decided to focus just on emunah and bitachon and how they compare and differ to make something of an approximation of what is commonly referred to in English as “faith.”

Emunah is defined as simply the belief in our Creator and acknowledgment of His power over all creation.  The Rebbe says that this kind of faith is constant, a given in the person’s life and is easier for most people than bitachon.  Bitachon is taking that belief a step further and surrendering ultimate responsibility for one’s needs to Hashem, trusting that everything will be fulfilled as is meant to be.  A person with perfect bitachon still does their part, but they don’t stress about the outcome, trusting that everything will work out according to Divine will  in a way that is for our highest and best good.

I feel like I have had emunah most of my life, if not all of it.  Even when I would call myself an “agnostic,” what I really meant was that I didn’t understand Hashem.  I was angry at things that had happened in my life and loved ones I’d lost and in my anger, the best way to rebel against who I saw as responsible…was to try to deny His very existence.  To me, it was less painful to say I doubted He existed than to admit that I disagreed deeply with what He seemed to think was just or fair in His world.  Even in my rebellion, though, that anger was only there because I still believed that there was someone to be angry at and that I believed that He did indeed have control over things as complex as who in my family would die young of cancer.

I believed in His sovereignty before I had a framework to even attempt to understand His mercy or kindness.  I believed in His great power even while I certainly didn’t trust Him.  I was like a hurt child after surgery, crying out in pain and turning away from the parent who had sent me in to surgery, not understanding and feeling betrayed, pretending I had no parent.

Bitachon is always something I have struggled with.  It’s one thing to believe, but a much bigger step to trust.  It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve really felt like I’m gaining ground in really feeling that kind of trust that the Rebbe describes, where I no longer “look to the mountains, where does my help come from?” simply because I already assume that the help will come whether I am looking for it or not, that it will be freely and generously given when needed, in the form it is most useful.  I began to approach projects at work without the usual stress looking at timelines.  Somehow, it would all come together in the proper time…as it always did.  Even in this move and the conversion chaos, except for a few rough days, I feel like I’ve manage to mainly stay grounded, simply believing that somehow, everything would come together as it needed to.

That is…until this week, the very week my friend asked me about faith as my own was being put through an earthquake, testing its foundations and causing me to look for cracks.

I’m still a work in progress even as I’m a Jew in progress and this week felt like so much coming from so many directions.  One day, I got the word that I would not be able to keep working for the company I work for directly, but that we’re going to have to work out some kind of contractor arrangement and there are no details yet on how that might all work out.  The next day, I hear that our conversion plans are changing again and the timeline might be moving up a lot, which is good news, but also means that we may need to scramble to adapt our plans and find money and time off for a sudden big trip.  And the next?  News that we must again drop the price of our house.

Maybe I should focus on being proud that it took this many things so close together to finally shake me and help me realize I still have some room to grow?  Even a couple of years ago, this kind of a week would have had me on my knees, on the ropes, an emotional mess.  Now, this week?  I stood, took a long, deep breath, and then reassured myself that it would all somehow work out…and went back to cleaning for another open house, focusing on what I can do and leaving the rest to Hashem.

I think maybe it takes some humility to have faith, particularly bitachon.  It takes recognizing that there is so much that is simply outside my ability to even influence, let alone control.  All I can do is pray and ask and look for those small ways I can do my part to help make room for the blessings I’m begging the King for, but I don’t have the power to make them happen myself and I just have to trust that He’s a good King and doing what’s best for the whole Kingdom, so if my request is never fulfilled, it’s for a very good reason…all while simply trusting that it either will be or that some other solution will come.

As I tried to wrap bitachon and emunah up into words and hand them to my friend I began to realize just how much has no translation without immersion in the culture that birthed it.  I’ve only spent 7 years among Jews and of that, most of it has been in tiny outposts of communities, so I’m sure I have so much more to grasp myself, so much that I don’t yet have the context of living within a larger Orthodox community to grasp and yet, even with my limited experience, I felt like words failed me to pass on what I had learned, even at a superficial level.  I did the best I could, but I could tell that my answer probably didn’t really reveal much deeper truth, not the kind that I could feel tangibly in that moment between hearing the last piece of earth shaking news and that long, cleansing breath that let me release it to Hashem to manage, judging it above my pay grade.

When “bad” news comes these days, I no longer feel the stirrings of rebellion because I’ve learned to recognize that my perspective really doesn’t even let me see the real difference between “good” and “bad.”  Sometimes things make more sense years later, but definitely in the moment, my perspective is just too close to really see the full picture.

My family and I are on an epic adventure, a journey of faith.  I’m sure there will be more twists and turns and our path may suddenly veer in directions we never could have imagined now, but I firmly believe that as long as we just keep following, we will be led to where we are meant to be.

Maybe that is faith?

“Turning Over” My Kitchen…and Turning Over my Pre-Passover Anxiety

The same thing happens EVERY year without fail.  I always plan to “turn over” my kitchen (that is, clean and kosher it for Passover), as close to Passover as possible so that my family doesn’t have to either eat kosher for Passover food longer than necessary or eat their floury, chametz-leaden food in the garage.  I plan and think I have everything down and scheduled.

Inevitably, I always wind up beginning my cleaning and then just turning over the kitchen a few days earlier than I’d planned.  Every.  Single. Year.

I’m not even sure why, but at some point, it seems less stressful to just get it done.  Maybe it’s that I hear of other women turning their kitchens over earlier and I begin to worry I won’t have time to cook?  Or, perhaps it’s just that the cleaning begins to take on its own momentum?  I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with a discomfort with living “in between.”

At a certain point, you begin to have some areas cleaned and some things kashered and some things not and in that state, it gets harder and harder to keep things separate and not make any mistakes.  I feel a sense of relief when the kitchen is all turned over and set for Passover, even if my family is huddled around the toaster oven in the garage or eating potato kugel for an extra week.  I’m fine before I begin turning things over, but once it’s started, I really feel this need to get it all finished as quickly as possible so that the wrong spoon doesn’t wander out or someone cooks in the wrong pot.

I think that probably says a lot about me in general.

There is a discomfort that comes with living in any half-completed state.  I think we feel this in the last weeks of school before a graduation or those rushed weeks before a wedding.  A big life transition is taking place, but, at least for a short while, there is a space where you’re between and there is a mental and emotional discomfort that accompanies that state.  It’s a feeling you’d think our family would be accustomed to by now!

I find comfort in the idea that there is a purpose to such states, though.  Hashem certainly could have simply brought the Jews out of Egypt and directly to Israel.  It would have been simple given all the other miracles He performed.  Alternately, He could have just led them on the most direct route right to Israel.  Instead, the Jews had to wander for 40 years in the desert.  They needed to dwell in the discomfort of being free from slavery, but not yet having their own land.  As uncomfortable as that state was, it was necessary for so many reasons for them to become the nation they were meant to be.  Similarly, when we individually make big life transitions, sometimes, as painful and awkward as it can feel, we need to live in a state between one thing…and another.

I have a friend currently experiencing this in a very personal, visceral way.  Her marriage has ended, but both her civil divorce and the process of getting her get have stalled (to be clear, she is not an agunah and it looks like everything will work out…it’s just going to take more time than she ever imagined).  She has to live in an awkward place between being married…and being single and not really being either.  A chapter in her life has ended, but she can’t yet begin the next chapter and she’s stuck at the turning of the page.

Life just simply isn’t as orderly as the numbered pages of a book.  My rush to turn over my kitchen is my small way of trying to make it more like that, to make the world simpler for me to understand, where the change between one state to another is so much easier to see and so much neater and cleaner.  That anxiety I feel where things are halfway turned over and my kitchen is not quite kosher for Passover but also already contains things that need to remain kosher for Passover is such a mirror of the powerlessness I often feel when I feel like I’m stuck at the turning of a page.  In my kitchen, I have the freedom to rush through and my family is patient enough with me to allow it.  In fact, they know by now that when I say I’m going to turn the kitchen over on X day…they might as well subtract three days from that.  They just smile knowingly.

In life, we rarely have the ability to control the big transitions of our lives in this way.  I’m sure it’s for the better than we can’t because who would willingly choose to live in-between for any longer than they had to?  Still, within that tension of not quite being what we were and yet not being able to step fully into who we are becoming is where we find some of our deepest growth.  We’re off balance between steps, essentially falling forward until our foot catches us, but that’s how we move forward in this life.

As I finish turning over my kitchen tonight, I will pray that I become more graceful when it comes to these in-between spaces and try to resist the urge to rush through them so much.  Who knows what I might miss along the way?

My Son and His Passover Sacrifice

One of the things my son was looking forward to most about 8th grade was the Advanced Orchestra trip to Hawaii that the 8th graders in his school take every year.  He had been thrilled when he’d first heard of it during his Junior High orientation and he’d fundraised last year to help send the previous class.  It’s one of the pivotal events of Junior High in his school, something that inspires a lot of kids to stick with Orchestra even as their elective options increase.  For Ian, it was a dream as he’d never been to Hawaii, unlike most Alaskan kids.

This fall, we discovered that the trip had been scheduled over Passover.

His face fell when we got the news of the dates.  Before, we were willing to figure out how to work kosher food, how to adjust travel times around Shabbos, anything so that he could be involved.  With one email confirming the dates were set, his dream was gone.  He smiled bravely to us, but I knew he was heartbroken.  The year went on and he still fundraised so that his classmates could go.  He still practiced the songs they would be playing there along with the orchestra.  He still loved his viola.  I couldn’t have been prouder of him.

This week, his fellow orchestra students are excitedly packing their bags and finalizing their trip plans.  He is helping me clean for Passover.  His classmates are packing sunscreen and talking about swimming with sea turtles.  He is helping me plan Seder menus.

And yet, he remains upbeat, proud, his kippah still on his head at school.

This…this is what it means to be an observant family far from an observant community.  It means living by what you believe even when it’s really hard and my son has really integrated that into himself.  He never once pleaded or bargained with us to make the trip once he found out it was during Passover.  He didn’t complain to his teacher or demand we protest to the school.  Instead, he used it as an opportunity to be a light to his fellow students, to show them that he would stand by his beliefs even when it was hard and that he would still support them even though it might sting.

One fundraiser, he waited tables for a meal he couldn’t eat to raise money for a trip he would never go on.  Later, the parents that sat at his tables came to me to tell me what an amazing young man he is.

I just smiled and said, “I know…we’re very blessed.”

We have promised him, after we settle in our new community, a trip to Israel with us to celebrate all that he has accomplished.  I think it’s time to buy him a travel guide for Israel that he can read over Passover so that he has a picture in his mind of the promised land after all this time in our own desert.

I’m certain that Hashem is also very proud of him.

Teachability, Conversion, and Life

I have a couple of really wise friends that I listen to and always learn something from our conversations.  Today, we were talking about the power of teachability and it seemed to fit exactly with a lot of what has been going on in my life recently as well as struggles I have seen around me.

We all live in a culture where just about the worst thing you can admit is that you “don’t know.”  Information is literally a major driver of our economy and we can research almost any topic with a web search.  When you’re asked a question, either in school or especially later at work, “I don’t know,” becomes an unacceptable answer.  We aren’t allowed to admit the limits of our knowledge.

The problem with this is that we are all full cups.  We’re so full of certainty and what we “know” that we are no longer open to accept more.  I know I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times in my life and also in my conversion studies.  I often feel resistance to being told something I think I already know or having to study something that I’ve studied before.  At work, I sometimes make assumptions based on what I think I know about a system or process, in too much of a rush to reach a solution or move on to the next task.

As I grew older, it became worse.  I no longer looked for teachers at work or at home.  I became more resistant to learning from others because I thought I had to appear an authority.  Obviously, if I’m open to learning from my kids or junior coworkers or even my customers…then it must mean that I’m not really worthy of the position I’m in.

This resistance to learning…made me stagnate.

It’s basically like Hashem took a look at me and shrugged and said, “Well, if you KNOW, then I guess you don’t need to learn anything new or move up any levels.  Ok, stay where you are.”

I thought I’d gotten a lot better at this and I probably have.  I’ve opened up a lot more to learning and become a lot more teachable.  I’ve actively studied subjects that I “thought” I knew and found new facets, new richness, new depth.  I’ve learned so much from the younger engineer I’m mentoring that often I feel like I’ve learned more than I’ve taught.  Still, I have a long way to go.

As my friends and I spoke, I realized that there are still places I’m resistant to change, resistant to learning new ways to handle situations.  At work, I’ve been struggling with a customer who has had a high amount of employee turnover and quickly changing processes.  Now, I wonder where I could be more teachable there, more able to move with their changing environment?  At home, my children seem to be rapidly changing as they move into adolescence, yet I realize that I’ve been relying on the same parenting techniques that have worked before.  Where could I be more open to learning new ways to parent them that work better with who they are now rather than keep trying to treat them like the children they were?  In my conversion studies and process, where am I still resisting being led or learning at a new level?  Where am I still stubbornly sticking with how I think things should be rather than accepting and working with how they are?

thought I understood lifelong learning, particularly since I work in a field that is constantly changing and I’m always having to learn more to keep up, but I realize that I’d fallen into a very common trap of knowing too much and not being able to admit that even the things I think I knew, I may no longer know.

Widening this out from my own personal experience, I would say that teachability is one of the bigger predictors of who will be successful in Orthodox conversion.  The converts that I have known that have successfully completed conversion, for the most part, have been those who were teachable, who were willing to admit what they didn’t know, and who were willing to do what they were told was necessary rather than insist on doing things their own way.  When they were told they needed to move to within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue, they didn’t waste much time arguing about the expense or difficulty or unfairness or trying to find some way to not have to move…they instead focused their energy on finding the right community and working out the logistics.  I’ve even known of converts that left their home country and had to learn an entirely new language besides just how to read Hebrew in order to convert.

In contrast, I know another conversion candidate who is stuck in the process.  She has been in process several years and yet still will argue about whether or not she should drive to shul or carry outside an eruv on Shabbos.  She can’t see how her own resistance is in the way of her desires.  There are countless others like her that really do yearn to convert, but just can’t seem to get out of their own way to do it.  Looking back, I can see places where we got in our own way during our process.

Learning how to be teachable, how to work through initial resistance to new information and change or being led…is such an important life skill, no matter what age you are or what your goals are.

Even if you aspire to join a “stiff necked people.”

Purim and Living Between Worlds

This week is one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  One of the very best things about Orthodox Judaism is that there are so many holidays and they’re all so different in their observances and traditions.  Purim is a particularly fun holiday for children, with costumes and candy galore.

This year, though, as we read the Purim story and prepare our treats for friends, I’m already quite a bit down.  Last week was a really rough week for our family and Adar is supposed to be a month in which we are commanded to “increase our joy.”  We did have some very good news last week as well.  We have secured a rental in our new hometown that’s close to shul.  My husband was able to see a good endocrinologist and should be getting a working pump soon, which is something he’d been fighting up here for since last June.  Still, we had some bombshell bad news on our conversion progress and then we’re still struggling to sell our house in a buyer’s market.

It’s hard to feel the kind of increase in joy I feel like I’m supposed to feel this Purim.

Re-reading the story of Purim, this year, I feel more connected to Queen Esther.  She’s the heroine of the tale, the girl who becomes Queen and uses her influence to save the Jewish people.  Yet, even as the story ends, she remains locked in the palace, married to a non-Jew and unable to join her people in their celebrations.  She saves her people, but cannot save herself.  She is trapped, living between two worlds.

Right now, my family and I are very much living between two very different worlds.  On the one side, we have Alaska.  Just yesterday afternoon, we were up in Hatcher Pass spending a bright, sunny afternoon high in the mountains watching snowboarders bravely make their way down snowy peaks.  All around us is a non-Jewish world.  We munched on potato chips because it was about all I could find in the gas station with a kosher symbol.  In the meantime, my husband makes periodic trips down to our new home to work out the logistics of our move.  There he can attend daily minyan and stand next to our childrens’ teachers.  Kosher food is plentiful and less expensive.  There are no mountains and life is far less wild and untamed.

It doesn’t help that we’re feeling less connected to our Jewish community up here.  Now that our Rabbis know that we’ll be starting over again in our new home, they’re no longer meeting with us or teaching us.  There are simply too many other pressing demands on their time.  Our children, now both past the age of bnei mitzvah, likewise are now on their own as well.  To be clear, I’m not blaming our Rabbis for using their time where it will do the most good.  There really just isn’t much we need right now or that they can help us with.  Still, it’s hard not to feel adrift through no one’s fault.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” my husband says.
“Where?” I ask in response, unsure which place he’s looking at the weather for anymore.

Did Queen Esther look out her window at her people celebrating and yearn to be with them?  Did she have a window that faced them or was her view focused inward on palace courtyards?  Did she live in two places at once or did she ever fully feel at home in the palace?

I know this Adar, I must work harder to increase my joy.  In just about 12 weeks, which isn’t long, I will be flying to a new home and starting a new journey and I’d rather not waste my last weeks here in the mountains in sadness.

May you all have a very Happy Purim and see all the hidden joys in your own lives!

April

“April,” he promised
again and again
his words became a mantra
a lifeline in dark places
we clung to April as our life raft

Life spun us around in riptides
April became the rope tied to the shore
we saw the shore grow closer
the other side of the water became clearer
our eyes full of hope

As April grew closer, his voice grew quieter
the shore no longer was clear
fog had rolled in
we strained to hear and see
“April?” we called, the rope felt slack

With a few words, April disappeared
the rope broke
the indistinct shore drifted back to the distance
we looked at each other, eyes wide with fear
orphans lost at sea

We held each other and wept
the loss of April a sharp pain
we found our oars again and began paddling
alone in the darkness
exhausted and empty

We saw the rope of April
frayed and torn
floating on the water
disconnected, useless
we lowered our faces and kept paddling

on

no one singing or speaking
the word April now forgotten

Plot Twist!

This morning, I saw a particularly timely cartoon come across my Facebook feed.

When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, “PLOT TWIST,” and move on!

My life has been full of plot twists.  Interestingly, I’ve always, in the moment, reflected on the fact that bad news, or a major life change, never seems to come in the form I think it will.  Every time I’ve been given news that changed my life’s direction, it’s been on a sunny day.  In the movies, bad news has weather to fit it.  It’s generally raining or gray.  When my mother reached across the table to take my hand and tell me my brother had been diagnosed with cancer the first time, I distinctly remember the sunshine streaming through the windows.  It was like a note out of key.  Here she was, talking about radiation therapy and my brother’s odds and it was a bright sunny Saturday morning.  Similarly, the morning my father called me to tell me my brother had passed from his second battle with cancer, it was a bright morning.  Plot twists in real life aren’t nearly as well scripted as they are in the movies.

Each time I’ve had a major plot twist as well, I’ve never had music come in to warn me or some foreshadowing to let me know how this story would play out.  When I was younger, I didn’t really have a faith to fall back on.  Every big, life changing change hit me with full force and it was hard to trust that any good could come of it.  I was fortunate that my brother passed when I had already begun exploring Judaism.  I had a framework in which to process my grief that most of the rest of my family didn’t have.  I had a hope that in some way, he was in a better place and had completed his work here and that his life and death had an ultimate purpose even if I couldn’t see it with my own eyes.  I found comfort in prayer and in looking for the good he had done in his life.  Most of my family were left without that same comfort and it seemed to me like their grief process was more difficult for it.

Most of the plot twists that have come in my life have been far less serious than losing my brother.  Some have even been comical.  I have noticed, though, that since I began studying Judaism years ago, I have come to handle the plot twists of my life better and better.  I’m sure ageing has some part in it as well, but a big part of it is that I no longer react so much to change, but instead, I wait, knowing that everything will work out for the good in some way if I’m patient enough.  If it hasn’t yet…then we’re not to the end of that plotline yet.  Knowing that there is an author writing the story of my life that cares deeply about each character in it rather than a room full of monkeys typing randomly on typewriters brings me comfort when suddenly there comes a huge shift in the story.

I trust in the Author, that He knows better than I how this story needs to play out.  I just need to play my part the best way I can.

This message was timely for me because we’ve run into a bit of chaos when it comes to our conversion process recently.  There is a lot that we thought was certain that isn’t now and we’re not sure how the story is going to play out.  At worst, we may have to begin our process over again after our move, adding on 1-2 more years in process before we can complete.  For my husband and I, 1-2 more years is little to worry about, but for our children, 1-2 years is a much bigger issue, particularly when it comes to their Jewish education as well as their hopes.

Years ago, such a plot twist this late in the story would have sent me reeling and reacting.  I consider it a sign of great growth that I simply shrugged and said, “It will all work out some way or other, for the best,” and then went back to the work of living each day, davening, volunteering, raising and educating the kids, and preparing for our move.  There is little time to worry about it before Purim, which inevitably leads to the rush of Pesach preparations.  Homework from both the kids’ secular studies and their Orthodox Online Day School studies must still be overseen and done.  Food has to get bought and cooked.  Cleaning has to happen.  Davening, mitzvahs, and tzedekah all still are a higher priority than worrying over things I simply can’t control.  At some point, living as an Orthodox Jew became even more important than the process of becoming one, which I firmly believe will follow if we stay focused on living this life.

So, we check in with our Rabbis periodically to see how things are going and if anything more is needed from us to help the process, but beyond that?  I leave it to above my pay grade except when I’m davening.  I channel all my tears and pleading there, to the only One who ultimately has control of any of it and leave it there.

The rest of the time, I focus on playing my part in this story the very best way I know how and wait for this latest plot twist to work itself out for the good, even if that isn’t the way I would have written the story.

I trust the Author with my life because it’s His life to write.  I’ve just been given the honor and responsibility of living it.