At the heart of prayer is an important life principle which can be summed up in one word: trust.
Trust – or in Hebrew, bitachon – is an essential component of our relationship with G-d. In fact, the foundation of any relationship is trust. As one of the great modern economic philosophers, Francis Fukuyama, said in his book Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, the success and prosperity of society is dependent on relationships of trust. When there is trust, he said, society and the economy will thrive; it is the foundation of the family and of society at large.
Our Sages teach us that trust is fundamental to our relationship with Hashem; and prayer specifically helps us focus on this aspect. When we pray, we reaffirm our trust in Hashem and our belief that He is in control of the world and that everything we need and strive for comes to us via His blessing. This is why so many of our prayers focus on our personal requests: asking Hashem for what we need forms part of our growth and development in realising that everything we have comes from Him.
Let us take this one step further, to understand what cements this relationship of trust. When we speak of trust in Hashem, the level we are aiming for is to feel that we are being looked after and that consequently we have no worries or anxieties. When we feel cared for, we know that everything will be okay.
To reach such a level of trust in Hashem, however, is no simple task. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of our great rabbinic philosophers of the twentieth century, writes that to achieve such a level of bitachon in Hashem is a lifelong mission. We must constantly work towards that goal, and our prayers assist us to grow in that direction; but it is a lifetime’s work, with our ultimate goal being complete trust and faith in Hashem, and acknowledging that He is in control of the world and governs everything in our lives.
Trust in Hashem leads to tranquillity of spirit
Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pekuda, one of our great philosophers from the Middle Ages, explains in his classic philosophical work Chovot HaLevavot, Duties of the Heart, that the mitzvot are not only the physical commandments we perform with our bodies but also what we do with our hearts and minds. One of these mitzvot, he says, is to trust in Hashem. He explains that trust in Hashem is about attaining menuchat hanefesh, tranquillity of the spirit – a sense that everything is alright; we can leave our concerns, worries and anxieties behind because we trust that Hashem is looking after us.
What would it take to achieve menuchat hanefesh, this tranquillity of spirit? Or, to put it in human terms – for although we know Hashem is beyond all human description, our only frame of reference is the human aspect of relationships – what kind of relationship would it take to feel completely secure in another’s hands, to feel that everything is being looked after and therefore we have no worries?
Seven qualities of Divine care
In a section called Sha’ar Habitachon, The Gate of Trust, Rabbeinu Bachya describes seven qualities, all of which would have to be present in order for a person to feel menuchat hanefesh, tranquillity of spirit, in the care of another individual. As we go through the list, you will see that there is no human being who meets all seven criteria; only Hashem possesses all these qualities.
Number one is that the person in whom you trust must love you and have great compassion for you.
Number two is that the person must know everything there is to know about you and what you need. What good is it if the person loves you and is compassionate but does not know what is going on in your life?
Number three is that the person must be powerful enough to help you; simply loving you and knowing what is going on in your life will not suffice. Sympathy and moral support are nice, but how can you actually feel looked after if the person does not have the power to help?
Number four is that not only must the person in whom you trust have the power to help but he must know how to help. There are people who are very powerful but they don’t have the insight to help and in their attempts to help they actually do more harm than good.
Number five is that the person must be present and available at all the times. If the person is there to look after you only during the day but not at night, only in the summer but not in winter, only during certain times of your life but not at others, you will not feel completely looked after.
Number six is that the person must have such power that nobody else can harm you unless they allow it. Even if the person has all of these aforementioned qualities, you will not have complete peace of mind if there are other people who can cause you harm, because you are still vulnerable.
Lastly, the person must be absolutely generous towards you and want only what is best for you.
Clearly, we cannot find all seven qualities in a human being. But Hashem possesses all them. Our task is to think about and recognize how Hashem possesses all seven of these qualities: Hashem loves us and has compassion for us. He is all-knowing and so He knows what is going on in our lives and what we need. He is all-powerful. He knows how to help. And because He is all-powerful and knows how to help, He is able to truly assist us and benefit us and does not cause any harm. We are under His exclusive care at all times, throughout our lives; there is never a time when Hashem is not there. He has complete control over the world and the environment such that no one can cause us harm without His allowing it. And He is absolutely generous towards us and wants only what is best for us.
Rabbeinu Bachya says that if we really think about this and internalise it, we can reach a level of menuchat hanefesh, of tranquillity of spirit and feeling complete trust in Hashem; and, consequently, our anxieties will be taken off our shoulders, knowing that Hashem is in control, that He loves us and wants what is best for us. This is indeed a very high level of faith and trust in Hashem; it is a lifelong process of growth and development in our relationship with Him.
A model relationship to understand and trust in Hashem
There is one human relationship which can serve as a frame of reference and help us understand trust in G-d. Obviously, it is not exactly the same because no human relationship can compare to our relationship with G-d, but there is one human relationship which comes as close as possible, and that is the relationship between parent and child, particularly that of a young child in the early years of life.
In the animal kingdom, when calves or cubs are born, they can usually stand up and walk independently soon after birth. Although the parents still need to look after them for a while, calves and cubs are able to do things for themselves; they are not helpless.
In contrast, there is nothing in this world as helpless as a newborn baby. Newborn babies cannot eat or drink independently, they cannot go to sleep or move around or do anything on their own; they are completely and utterly dependent on their parents. And yet, there is no being in this world that is as secure as a newborn baby, because a newborn baby knows instinctively that its mother or father is looking after it and that no matter what happens they will be taken care of; they know, intuitively, that their parents have only their best interests at heart (assuming, of course, that we are talking about a normal, healthy relationship where there is love, care and concern from parents towards the child).
This paradigm of a parent–child relationship helps us understand our relationship with Hashem. In Devarim (14:1) it says: Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem, “You are children of the Lord your G-d.” The verse then continues with the commandment of lo titgodedu velo tasimu korcha bein eineichem lamet, “do not mutilate yourself and do not tear out your hair over the dead.” In ancient times, there was a practice of self-mutilation or tearing out hair as a sign of mourning for the death of a loved one. The Torah says it is forbidden to do such things because we are the children of G-d. What is the connection between the two?
The Sforno explains that it is inappropriate to mourn to such an extreme, because even in the case of tragedy and loss we still have a Father in Heaven who is looking after us. The Ibn Ezra takes this one step further and says that it is inappropriate to mourn to such an extreme because we are children of Hashem and in the same way that little children do not necessarily understand what their parents are doing yet they trust that their parents have their best interests at heart, so too we have faith and trust in Hashem, even when we don’t understand why He does certain things.
This sheds light on our relationship of trust with Hashem. It does not mean that everything is going to turn out the way we want or expect it to; life does not work that way. Life is full of challenging, painful situations and we sometimes encounter tragic events which we cannot comprehend. What it means is that we trust that Hashem knows what is best for us, just like a child may encounter moments of distress or sadness when he or she wants something and the parent says no, or when the parent does things which are painful for the child, and yet deep down the child feels secure with the knowledge that the parent loves him and only wants what is good for him.
The Ibn Ezra interprets the aforementioned verse to mean that this is how our relationship with Hashem should be, namely, that even in painful moments in life, even when we do not understand how things work in this world, we should never forget that we are the children of Hashem and that whatever He does, gam zu letova – “this too is for the good.” Trust in Hashem doesn’t mean believing that everything will turn out the way we want or expect. Rather it means that whatever happens is ultimately for the good. The Ibn Ezra explains in the same way that children do not often understand why their parents do certain things that cause them pain, and yet they trust their parents, so too we trust that everything Hashem does is for our good; and then we feel looked after
This is really what prayer is about – building a relationship with Hashem and achieving a high level of trust in Him. Our relationship with Hashem moves beyond the intellectual and the philosophical. If we really work on our relationship with Hashem and internalise this principle of trust, then we can experience true peace of mind and tranquillity of spirit, even amid the turbulence of this world. Prayer helps us build a trusting relationship with Hashem because it expresses our complete dependence on Hashem, and is the gateway through which we can strengthen our connection to Him.
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