Thursday, May 3, 2018
Tuesday, May 1, 2018
WHO DO YOU TRUST?
Rabbi David Walk
This week's title was the name of the TV show which launched the fabulously successful career of Johnny Carson, and BTW his sidekick Ed McMahon. That was the yardstick for trust while I was growing up. Would you trust your significant other to answer a game show question? Of course, there were many purists who wanted that title changed to 'whom do you trust', but grammar groupies never have enough clout. A generation later, the measure of trust was defined by Aladdin when he asked Princess Jasmine, 'Do you trust me?', before their jaunt on the magic carpet. Trust is a thorny topic. To whom should it be granted? Josef Stalin expressed the negative approach when he said, 'I trust no one, not even myself!' Eric Hoffer went in the opposite direction when he claimed that it's better to be cheated occasionally than to 'miss the wonderful feeling of trusting someone.' This week I'm going to look into how our Torah reading deals with the concept of In God We Trust, which goes all the way back to the beginnings of the Jewish people, and back to 1957 for Americans, when it started appearing on US currency.
Our parsha demands a very high level of trust in God, because it presents the mitzvot of Shmitta and Yovel. These precepts expect Jews in the land of Israel to leave fields uncultivated every seventh and fiftieth years. God assures us that there will be enough produce to sustain us while our fields are fallow, but we can understand how some might be skeptical and fearful. Therefore, the Torah goes out of its way to address those fears. The Torah places the question into the mouths of some farmers, 'What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow and gather in our produce! (Vayikra 25:24)' But the Torah assures us, 'You shall perform My statutes, keep My ordinances, then you will live on the land securely. And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety and live upon it securely (15:18-19).' In other words, keeping the mitzvot will assure prosperity and security.
The oft asked question is: How come God had to repeat the assurance of living 'securely'? In Hebrew that term is la'vetach, which gives us the modern Hebrew terms betach! meaning 'for sure' and bitachon which means 'defense' like the Defense Ministry. The traditional term, however, is a spiritual concept of confidence in God and Divine promises. Reb Ovadia Sforno explains the double promise as initially a promise about remaining in Eretz Yisrael and then God assures them that the produce will be sufficient. In other words, keeping the laws of shmitta and yovel will bring greater economic security than ignoring them.
This idea is highlighted in our daily prayers. Every weekday morning, we recite the prayer u'va l'tziyon goel (a redeemer will come to Zion) towards the end of the service. This longish collection of Biblical quotes has three verses emphasizing bitachon right at its conclusion. I've always felt that the rabbis wanted us to think deeply about faith in God before leaving the synagogue for the business world. We want to remind ourselves that the greatest odds for success are reliance on God and adherence to Torah values. We know how easy it is to be seduced into ethical compromises in the 'real world', therefore a gentle reminder of trust in God is appropriate before leaving the cocoon of the shul.
The most famous of the verses begins baruch hagever. The whole quote is: Blessed is the strong personality who trusts in God, whose trust is in God (Jeremiah 17:7). Notice we've got the double 'trust' issue again. There's a famous approach to this repetition by explaining that in bitachon there are three parts: the trusting individual (the gever), the entity expecting trust (God), and the actual promise which must be trusted. Our verse is stating that God is both the second party to the agreement and the actual promise in the deal, because God is the totality of existence.
I'd like to make another suggestion. When I commit to Torah observance, I'm buying into two expectations. First, I believe that this commitment is good for me. Ultimately, I will personally be better off because I have engaged in this endeavor. On the other hand, I am positive that 'the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage...to reach the unreachable star.' I also have faith that my loyalty to my forebears' heritage will assure the security and success of my offspring and my offsprings' offspring. My bitachon is a twofer, in both the micro and macro.
This approach works in the parsha, too. My adherence to the laws of shmitta assures my personal wellbeing, and the ultimate success of the Jewish people in their homeland.
But why should I have such unwavering loyalty to God's word? I think that Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1892), that great thinker, romantic and Bostonian, expressed it beautifully: All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen (Complete Works, XI Immortality, 1904). Even though our people have suffered greatly throughout the ages, God has an amazing track record for securing our continued existence while our tormentors have vanished. In our own age, we have witnessed the improbable return to the Promised Land. We may have questions and even complaints, but I firmly believe that God has earned our continued trust.
There are two more points about trust, which can't be ignored. My display of trust says something positive about me. We would rather associate with trusting people than those like Stalin. And, trust partners with love, as Joyce Brothers said, 'The best proof of love is trust.' I can't separate my love of God from my trust in God. Let's pray that In God We Trust is our way of life, not just a slogan.
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