This week, as we ran the gamut of Jewish feeling from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Israel's Independence Day, a towering scholar in Israel passed away at 81. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein co-headed one of the finest academies of Jewish study in the world - Yeshivat Har Etzion - and he stood for a sophisticated type of commitment to tradition that was nuanced and complex. His lectures - for those who could fully understand them - were filled with quotes from world literature, philosophy, rabbinic texts and Jewish modern and ancient thought. He was an elegant spokesman for religious Zionism and commitment to Israeli military service and the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, the State's highest honor. In his memory, we will study one of his teachings.
In a stunning article called "Trust in God" in his book By His Light, Rav Aharon - as he was fondly called - offers us two notions of faith or "bitachon" in Hebrew. One level of trust "is expressed by the certainty that God stands at your side and will assist you." This is, in his words, an approach that is fundamentally optimistic - "saturated with faith and hopeful expectation for the future." This type of faith gives those on the battlefield the energy to soldier on, those trapped in the darkness of a concentration camp the belief that redemption will come. Ani Ma'amin - I believe with a perfect faith...
But this is not the only faith that can sustain an individual in crisis, since optimism may prove to be naïve or unfounded. When circumstances sour, the person with this type of faith alone will lose all trust in God and others. This second type of trust "does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future." It is a trust grounded in realism; "it expresses a steadfast commitment - even if the outcome will be bad..." This can be a challenge for modern human beings, nourished on empowerment and high self-esteem. It is spiritually demanding: "This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather, it asks us to remain at His side."
Rav Aharon marshals sources to demonstrate both kinds of trust and then relates it to sacrifices made to build our people and the State of Israel after the ashes. He writes that the first kind of trust is "endangered by our continuous accomplishments." He believes that religious Zionism as understood and taught by the State was successful at filling us with certain values: redemption, hope and expectation, "but neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to God without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises..."
Even though so many in Israel made and continue to make personal sacrifices for our homeland, it was done "riding a wave of optimism, that all would work out because the process of redemption was unfolding." It is here that Rav Aharon inserted the quote above. He was not giving up, God forbid, on the importance of personal faith. It was a faith in the eternity of the people and land of Israel that he would never abandon. He was, instead, offering a more mature complementary approach to faith, "to trust during suffering" and to realize that this kind of deeper trust, when coupled with faith and love, may be the most trust that ultimately shaped and will shape our people.
Above many a Torah ark is a verse from Psalms, "I have placed God before me always"(16:8) - what Rav Aharon called "God's constant overarching presence." The word "always" implies not only when it serves our needs or confirms our beliefs, but even when life flies in the face of them. Rav Aharon taught generations of students to understand and deepen God's holy presence through rigorous study, through commitment to the army and through the modern State of Israel that we celebrated this week. He challenges us still to see and to say this verse as we ask ourselves: is God before me always?
May his memory be for a blessing.