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?