This is long, but if you read only one thing I ever write, maybe this should be it.
The following essay appears at the end of my book EndTheMadness Guide to the Shidduch World. I wrote it to help singles navigate the confusing world of dating, where they are pulled back and forth between pressure to force the issue and admonishments to relax and trust in God. Many people have been alienated from the Torah, pressured into disastrous marriages, or driven crazy as a result.
The underlying concepts and challenges, however, come up in every aspect of life. How much do we push for what we want – at what cost – and how much do we leave to God?
The virus / “vaccine” situation has forced people to confront the tension between bitachon [trust in God] and hishtadlus [human effort]. Most people throw these terms around without any real understanding of how they are supposed to be applied together, in harmony, in real life.
I am presenting the essay in its original form, but have inserted notes specific to the current situation.
Bitachon and Hishtadlus in Shidduchim (and elsewhere)
The concept of bitachon, putting one’s trust in Hashem, is a central theme in the Torah, and is meant to deeply impact how we conduct our lives. At the same time, we are instructed to exert hishtadlus, a significant human effort, to achieve our goals, and not to rely on miracles.
Despite the centrality of these concepts, they are often misunderstood and misapplied. This leads to inaction when action is required, or too much exertion when less is appropriate, or the wrong type of action altogether – all of which are likely to produce frustrating results, confusion, and alienation from one’s faith. Striking the proper balance between these two seemingly opposing concepts is critical to becoming a sophisticated Jew and living a serene, confident life.
The speculative nature of these concepts, unlike practical halacha, makes it especially difficult to find the right path. We cannot simply look in the Shulchan Aruch or seek a straightforward p'sak to decide the precise point where hishtadlus ends and bitachon takes over. The philosophical underpinnings that guide our lifestyle cannot be codified in a legal compendium; every person and situation has far too many nuances. Even with a seemingly straightforward halacha a posek must be sensitive to nuance; how much more so in these matters, which are entirely dependent on the person and the situation, as we shall see.
What often happens is that one who is trying hard without success is told to take it easy and have more bitachon, while one who takes a more passive approach is told he needs to put in more hishtadlus. This flippant reaction is based more on the individual’s lack of success to date than on an educated probe into his methods, and is thus unfair and irresponsible. It is essentially advising someone to change merely for the sake of change when supporting his current course of action may be more proper.
If we believe that success is ultimately in the hands of God, and if we believe that God’s timetable for deliverance is often lengthy, we cannot assume that one’s approach is wrong simply because his success has yet to come. His lack of success to date might be a sign that his approach is faulty, but it could just as plausibly be a test of his faith and commitment to an entirely proper approach. It is extremely difficult to know for certain, but if the best one can do is speculate, let him speculate intelligently.
Fortunately, Torah literature is rich with illuminating teachings on these matters. While each situation must be examined individually, as noted, we can derive fundamental principles to guide us on a holistic level and help filter out wayward advice.
The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of Tanach sources on this topic focus on physical protection from enemies and on parnassa. Mussar texts tend to focus almost entirely on the latter application of bitachon and hishtadlus, exhorting us to limit our monetary pursuits and make Torah study our primary enterprise. These sources do not translate smoothly into other areas; for example, we cannot simply replace the word “money” with “shidduch” to have a ready-made approach to one’s search for a spouse. Consequently, there is a great void that needs to be filled, particularly in our generation, where there is widespread confusion and wayward applications of bitachon and hishtadlus.
In this essay we will examine a multitude of sources on this topic with the goal of developing a derech for balancing bitachon and hishtadlus in all areas of one’s life, with particular emphasis on shidduchim.
Perhaps the most striking collision between bitachon and hishtadlus in the Torah is the story of Yosef interpreting the dreams for Pharaoh’s wine officer and baker, all of whom were imprisoned (Bereishis 40:1-23). Yosef interpreted the wine officer’s dream favorably, predicting that he would soon be released from prison and restored to his position. Yosef then asked the wine officer to mention him to Pharaoh so that he would also be released from prison, as he had been kidnapped from his land and imprisoned unjustly. Yosef’s interpretation came true, but the wine officer put Yosef out of his mind; Yosef remained in prison two more years as a result.
Rashi cites a Midrash that is critical of Yosef for placing his bitachon in an Egyptian instead of Hashem. It is because of this that Yosef was forced to spend an additional two years in prison.
This Midrash is extremely difficult to understand. All indications we have are that Yosef consistently trusted in Hashem throughout his lonely years in Egypt. In this very episode Yosef credits Hashem for the ability to interpret dreams. Surely he recognized this strange event as a providential opportunity to obtain his release from prison, and performed the necessary hishtadlus. For this he was punished? What was he supposed to do?
Jerusalem was under siege by a massive Assyrian army. Chizkiyahu the king consulted with his officers and warriors, and decided to close off the natural water supplies outside the city so the enemy would not have access to them. He then fortified the city, organized his army, and gathered the people for an impassioned speech.
“Be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid or in terror before the king of Assyria and the multitudes that are with him, for we have even more with us. With him is the force of flesh, but with us is Hashem our God to help us and to fight our wars.”
The people were inspired by his words, and the city of Jerusalem was saved by a tremendous miracle. In the middle of the night an angel came and struck the entire Assyrian army dead, leaving only a handful of survivors to return home in shame. (Divrei Hayamim II Chapter 32)
Chizkiyahu seems to have done everything we would expect a good Jewish king to do. He performed appropriate acts of hishtadlus and put all his trust in Hashem, Who delivered a complete salvation. If only all our leaders acted this way!
Yet chazal are critical of Chizkiyahu. The Gemara in Pesachim 56A cites six controversial things Chizkiyahu did. For three of which he was praised and for the other three he was criticized.
All of the former were meant to reinforce bitachon: shaming the bones of his wicked father; destroying the copper serpent from the times of Moshe that the Jews had begun to treat as an avoda zara; and hiding a book of medicinal cures that influenced many people to forget God as the true source of healing.
Two of the latter demonstrated insufficient bitachon: removing the doors to the Heichal and sending them to the king of Assyria as a bribe to leave Jerusalem alone; and stopping up the natural water sources in the Assyrian siege.
Rashi makes the following comment regarding the criticism of the Sages for this last action: “For he should have trusted in God, Who had said, ‘I will shield this city to save it.’”
The Rashash is bewildered by Rashi’s comment, noting that the narrative of the story both in Melachim and Divrei Hayamim indicates that Hashem’s promise to protect the city only came after Chizkiyahu performed his hishtadlus. Since he was not operating under a prophecy of divine salvation, it is unreasonable to criticize him for taking normal defensive measures.
As with Yosef, it is not clear what chazal expected Chizkiyahu to do. Sit back and do nothing? We know that we are not supposed to sit back and wait for divine intervention, but to engage in hishtadlus while trusting in God. That seems to be exactly what Yosef and Chizkiyahu did, yet the former was punished and the latter was criticized. How can we make sense of this?
The following sources lend insight into the proper application of bitachon and its parameters.
1. “Ravin son of Rav Adda said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak: ‘If one is accustomed to going to shul and is absent one day, Hashem inquires as to his absence…if it is due to a mitzvah his way will be illuminated, but if it is due to a personal matter (such as business) his way will not be illuminated…Why? Because he should have trusted in Hashem and did not.’” (Brachos 6B)
One is expected to forgo business opportunities and other worldly matters that clash with his religious obligations, and trust that God will take care of him. One cannot rely on the excuse that he is performing proper hishtadlus; this hishtadlus goes too far and impinges on the domain that belongs to bitachon.
(Note: Closing shuls, yeshivos, and otherwise placing indefinite restrictions on our ability to perform our religious obligations demonstrates a severe lack of bitachon. The claim that this is proper hishtadlus to prevent people from getting sick is misguided. I wrote about this extensively here and here.)
2. “Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol says, ‘One who has bread in his basket and worries about what he will eat the next day is small in faith.’” (Sotah 48B)
3. “A certain student was walking behind Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yossi in the market of Zion. Rabbi Yishmael saw that he was afraid and said to him ‘You are a sinner, as it is written, “The sinners were afraid in Zion (Yeshaya 33:14).”’ The student replied, ‘But it is written, “Praiseworthy is one who fears constantly!”’ Rabbi Yishmael replied, ‘That is written in reference to Torah.’” (Brachos 60A)
4. “They taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva: ‘One should accustom himself to say that everything Hashem does is for the best.’” (Brachos 60B, see more there)
All of these sources indicate that one is not supposed to worry about the vicissitudes of life, only about how well he is performing his role as a God-fearing Jew. Fretting about the future is considered a lack of bitachon and even evidence that the person is sinner; a tzaddik goes with confidence and tranquility even in dark times.
Obviously this is a lofty goal that few can fully attain, but the principles can be applied by everyone according to their level.
(Note: Source #2 is especially relevant for those who are facing pressure from employers to poison themselves. We are not supposed to imperil our lives for any amount of money. We are also supposed to believe that our livelihood comes from God, and it is determined on Rosh Hashana. If we really believe this, we will not poison ourselves for immediate financial convenience.
Source #3 is speaking directly to us. The propaganda machines in Zion and worldwide are spewing a relentless diet of fear. We are not allowed to be frightened. If we live in terror of a virus it is a sign that we are sinners, and we need an immediate dose of bitachon. Those who fail to bolster their spiritual immune system will make very irresponsible and harmful choices instead to placate their fears.)
5. “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaacov taught: ‘Even the youngest of the daughters of Tzelophchod did not marry before the age of forty.’ Could this be? But Rav Hisda said, ‘A woman who marries before the age of twenty can give birth until sixty; a woman who marries at twenty can give birth until forty; a woman who marries at forty will not give birth.’ Nevertheless, since they were righteous a miracle was performed for them as with Yocheved.” (Bava Basra 119B)
Rashi: “They trusted that due to their righteousness a miracle would be performed for them as with Yocheved, and therefore they waited until forty so that they could marry someone suitable.”
This source indicates that one should rely on bitachon to an exceptional degree rather than perform hishtadlus that would have a disastrous effect, such as marrying someone unsuitable. This provides a terrific clue to help explain the stories with Yosef and Chizkiyahu, as we shall see.
The Chazon Ish clarifies some myths and misconceptions about emunah and bitachon in his sefer by that name. In the second chapter, he discusses a longstanding error in the popular definition of bitachon to mean that one must always believe that a positive outcome will occur. This is incorrect, he writes, because the future is unknown unless God reveals it to us. In other words, sick people don’t always get well, we don’t always get a verdict in our favor, and bad things do happen. It is therefore foolish to trust that every situation will have a positive outcome.
Rather, he explains, a true bote'ach will forgo the usual schemes of people to attain a positive outcome, and will instead take a spiritual approach that consists of repentance, prayer, and charity to alter the heavenly verdict. The litmus test to determine whether or not someone is merely paying lip service to bitachon or is a true bote'ach is how he responds when he is under duress. Many people encourage others to have bitachon, yet rely on everything but God when they are the ones facing a difficult time.
The Chazon Ish then addresses the story of Yosef. He explains that one is generally required to engage in a certain measure of hishtadlus in conjunction with his inner bitachon. However, some forms of hishtadlus go overboard and conflict with the required level of bitachon.
Yosef felt obligated to engage in at least a small degree of hishtadlus and not rely entirely on a miracle. Normally this is entirely correct. However, the Egyptians were immoral people to the extent that it was against their very nature to remember someone and return a favor. Consequently, relying on the wine officer to do just that qualified not as an appropriate act of hishtadlus but as an act of desperation, which is inappropriate. (It is without question that Yosef was held accountable for this extremely nuanced misstep only because of his exalted level and the expectations that come with it.)
This approach sheds light on the story with Chizkiyahu as well. After all, he was not criticized for most of the hishtadlus that he performed, only for stopping the natural water sources. That was akin to a scorched earth policy that harmed his own people as well as the enemy, and was therefore considered an act of desperation. Hishtadlus that causes unnecessary harm to oneself is outside the bounds of proper human endeavor and reflects poorly on one’s true bitachon. (Note: Similarly, actively injecting oneself with harmful, potentially deadly pharmaceutical products due to grossly exaggerated fears of a virus is indefensible from a Torah standpoint. It is an act of desperation that almost guarantees harm to one's body in some way in exchange for little more than a temporary, extremely limited feeling of security. This goes entirely against the Torah's position on proactive medical intervention, as discussed here and here, and demonstrates a complete breakdown of one's bitachon in favor of wildly reckless hishtadlus.)
This also resolves the question of the Rashash. Even though Chizkiyahu was not operating with the prophecy that Hashem would save the city, he was expected to trust that God would come to their rescue if he performed appropriate hishtadlus. While he did demonstrate a high level of bitachon, chazal determined that he fell short of the ideal with one action that went a bit too far.
Rabbi Avraham son of the Rambam develops this concept at length in his Sefer Hamaspik L’ovdei Hashem in his chapter on bitachon. He explains that the balance of bitachon versus hishtadlus that is expected varies from one individual to the next. He provides numerous examples to demonstrate that an extremely holy person who is used to experiencing miracles must engage in very limited hishtadlus, and at times none at all, since doing otherwise would be an insult to Hashem.
In fact, the proper balance of bitachon versus hishtadlus even varies with the same individual from one time to another. At certain times holy people such as Yaacov and Eliyahu HaNavi relied on miracles, while at other times they innately sensed that more natural efforts were required of them.
A particularly sharp example he gives is the Jews in the midbar, who were expected to march into Israel and wage war against the occupying nations without any natural preparations. They were on such an exalted level, and lived under such constant miraculous protection, that the mere request to engage in regular hishtadlus was beneath them and considered a serious lack of bitachon.
After they compounded their error by believing the evil report of the meraglim, they lost their right to have such a high level of bitachon. What was previously required of them was suddenly forbidden altogether! A group of Jews attempted to reclaim their previous level by marching into Israel and fighting with confidence, in spite of being warned not to do so, but the moment had been lost. They no longer enjoyed divine protection, and were massacred.
We see that the same individuals within a 24-hour period can have completely different expectations of bitachon and hishtadlus. What is required for one is forbidden for another! Bitachon is subjective to the individual and the particular time.
What does all this mean for us? The most fundamental conclusion should not come as a revelation to anyone: the vast majority of us must act according to the ways of the world, but put our ultimate trust in Hashem to make our efforts successful.
(Note: We must make reasonable efforts to oppose the tyranny, while recognizing that we have no power whatsoever to achieve victory through these actions. Only God can save us. There is no contradiction. We must perform normal hishtadlus, while humbly acknowledging our complete reliance on God to bless our efforts or bring salvation another way. Our obligation to make reasonable efforts is independent of our powerlessness to control the outcome.)
But there are deeper lessons here that everyone must apply in his own way. We must examine our behavior to see if we are engaging in “acts of desperation” that fly in the face of true bitachon. If one does not engage in enough hishtadlus for his level he is arrogantly assuming that he merits more divine intervention than he is entitled to – but if he engages in too much hishtadlus he displays a lack of trust in divine intervention that should be expected! One must devote careful, honest thought to this lest he step off the tightrope in either direction.
(Rav Yosef Zundel Salanter, the rebbe of Rav Yisrael Salanter, wrote a letter to his son who was experiencing duress in his travels. Rav Yosef Zundel advised his son to seek the assistance of two people and not more lest he go overboard with hishtadlus and detract from his bitachon. The letter can be found in Chapter 25 of Or Yisrael.)
When it comes to shidduchim, it is not especially difficult to apply these principles. Those who believe that they must live a lie for shidduch purposes do not have true bitachon, plain and simple. This is reminiscent of the self-destructive actions that Chizkiyahu took for which he was criticized.
God does not want us to engage in acts of desperation such as bizarre segulos and other attempts at manipulating presumed spiritual forces. God wants us to serve only Him, fear only Him, seek only His salvation, and perfect our character. He will take care of the rest.
Since only God can help one find the right person to marry, it is senseless and counter-productive to attempt to force the issue. Much of the current shidduch world is one act of desperation after another trying to force the issue in ways that harm the individual. This demonstrates an absence of true bitachon regardless of how much lip service is paid to the concept.
(Note: Since only God can keep us healthy, it is senseless and counterproductive to become human pincushions for every new “vaccine” that drug-pushers insist we need. When it comes to one's physical wellbeing, the proper hishtadlus is to maintain a healthy immune system, take reasonable precautions that do not interfere with one's religious duties, and live with confidence and joy, not with fear. We are not supposed to live in terror of death from every breath and human interaction. We are supposed to live.)
The relationship between God and people in shidduchim is simple. It is God’s responsibility to provide singles with good opportunities. It then becomes the responsibility of the singles to take full advantage of these opportunities, to put their heart and soul into pursuing these opportunities. This may require considerable investments of time, money, and emotional energy; that is the hishtadlus that is required of us.
Those who try to force the issue in creating faux opportunities are going overboard with hishtadlus. Those who are quick to dismiss good opportunities are not going far enough with hishtadlus, and are putting an onus on divine intervention that they may not be entitled to.
It is incumbent on each individual to find a custom-fit balance between the two, but the principles are universal. Once we achieve the proper balance we can proceed with confidence that we are doing our part and optimism that God will surely do His. At this point we are no longer to worry; worry is the domain of those who lack bitachon. We are right to be concerned if we have difficulty attaining our goals, but we must accept God’s will and continue to hope only for His salvation.
In the merit of this, all those who need salvation should receive it quickly.
(Note: And in the merit of this, may we merit good health, long life, the downfall of the evil tyrants, and the great light of the final redemption.)