Dear Readers

Welcome to the February edition of Mind Body and Soul, titled “Conquering our Fears”.  Whereas anxiety may be considered a constant companion to only some of us, COVID has brought some degree of fear and uncertainty to virtually all of us. In this vein, I hope you, our readers, experience the following articles, in a soothing, calming manner. 

In this edition, Rona Novick walks us through the steps of providing reassurance to our children. Dvorah Levy illustrates how to wade through our own feelings of anxiety and depression.  Douglas Balin helps us confront worrisome aging-related myths. Alan Singer addresses relationships plagued by estrangement.

In addition, Adina Segal touches on anxiety, in guiding us past the anger we feel toward others and self. Moshe Norman peels back the curtain on the transformative power of Gestalt Therapy

I’d like to focus your attention on an idea that’s related to conquering our fears. In Jewish thought, we are given the conceptual tools, on the one hand, to feel safe and secure, and, on the other hand, to express reasonable concern and to take appropriate measures. We label the former Bitachon – trust in Hashem. We label the latter Hishtadlus – effort. Hishtadlus pertains, in particular, to endeavors that are mundane, that are not overtly spiritual. 

How might the opposing ideals of Bitachon and Hishtadlus interact with one another? There is more than one answer to this question, and this was driven home to me, several years ago, on a Friday night.

Prior to Ma’ariv, I overheard a young teacher speaking to other congregants about Bitachon. He related how riders of one Egged bus noticed a child sitting in the seat directly behind the driver.  The child gripped a miniature steering wheel, which he vigorously turned one way and then the other.  When someone nearby asked the child what he was doing, he calmly replied “I’m driving the bus.”

The passengers who overheard this smiled. They recognized that the child’s steering wheel was not, in any way, connected to the bus’s driving mechanism. The child’s sense of control existed only in his imagination.   

“So too,” concluded the teacher, “do we mistakenly believe, when we make our Hishtadlus - our efforts in the realm of the mundane - that we are exerting some sort of control or influence on the outcome of our lives. In reality, it’s completely in Hashem’s hands.”

As I overheard the teacher, I couldn’t help but think of a lesson I’d encountered – a lesson that, like the young teacher’s, was about Bitachon and Hishtadlus, that likewise was associated with wheels. My lesson, though, was taught by a considerably older teacher and it arrived at a very different conclusion. 

The Rebbi who “taught” me is Bachya Ibn Pakuda, 11th century author of the Sefer, Chovos Halevovos, Duties of the Heart.  Ibn Pakuda divided his Sefer into thematic sections, one of which is the Sha’ar HaBitachon -  Gate of Trust. 

Ibn Pakuda approaches the  interface of Bitachon and Hishtadlus, with the following illustration: A man attaches an ox, by rope, to a wheel that is at the center of a circular path. The wheel is connected, by other ropes, to a pulley system, which is in turn secured to a bucket positioned over a well.  As the ox moves on its path, it turns the wheel, activating the pulley, which then lowers and raises the bucket in and out of the well.

Ibn Pakuda argues that the bucket, pulley system, and wheel, as well as the ox and the man who attached them are all necessary components of the process that brings water to the top of the well.  Were any part of the process to be interrupted, any power source to go down, any rope to be detached, the water would not be accessible. 

Ibn Pakuda then applies the above to real life situations. He notes that if food is already on our plate, then our part of Hishtadlus is to lift the food to our mouth and eat it. If the food is not yet in front of  us, our job is to find the ingredients and prepare the meal or, even earlier, to hire ourselves out, so that we can earn the money to buy groceries. Ibn Pakuda’s message is clear: If we fail to perform our Hishtadlus, our mundane efforts, we go hungry.

According to Ibn Pakuda, our Hishtadlus is a necessary and integral part of Hashem’s plan. This is a far cry from the young teacher’s argument that Hishtadlus is akin to an imaginary steering wheel.

The conflict between these two approaches to Hishtadlus  remained largely theoretical, until the pandemic hit. The Shuls whose Rabbonim subscribed to “Hishtadlus is imaginary; not real,” seemed less concerned about the physical danger posed by COVID than by the disruption that state-imposed guidelines had caused to their congregation. Their primary focus was, therefore, to resume the customary rhythms of their Shuls as quickly as possible.

The above Shuls barely adhered to state guidelines; they generally sidestepped advice offered by local medical doctors. More than one of their Rabbonim stated that, considering that our Hishtadlus doesn’t ultimately matter, no one is allowed to remind a fellow congregant to wear a mask. After all, it might cause that congregant embarrassment, which is a serious Aveirah.

On the other hand, the Rabbonim who approached Hishtadlus as a necessary contribution, treated medical advice with the utmost seriousness. One organization brought together its Rabbonim and CDC experts to decide when, where, and how Minyanim could reconvene.  Their Shuls have consistently adhered to safety guidelines, even as this forced them to find more creative ways to restore social and spiritual connection.

It may not be my place to decide for you which approach to Hishtadlus is correct, but I am comfortable letting you know that there’s more than one Mashal/illustration about wheels, to explain the interface of Bitachon - trust in Hashem - and Hishtadlus - our mundane efforts

May we all find safe passage through our fears and concerns toward a brighter future.


Photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash