The Torah’s words should never be interpreted in a manner that departs from their simple meaning.11 We must therefore assume that even according to the simple meaning of the phrase, “And Moshe became frightened” — that he feared for his life because it had become known that he killed the Egyptian — there is an explanation (at least according to the approach of derush)as to why the Torah mentions his fear.
To understand the above, let us first cite the comments of the Midrash12 on the verse,13 “And Yaakov became very frightened and he was distressed:”
R. Pinchas said in the name of R. Reuven: Two people received promises from the Holy One, blessed be He — the most outstanding of the Patriarchs and the most outstanding of the Prophets — and, nonetheless, they became frightened.
“The most outstanding of the Patriarchs” — this is Yaakov.... The Holy One, blessed be He, told him,14 “Behold, I will be with you,” and yet ultimately, “Yaakov became very frightened.”
“The most outstanding of the Prophets” — this is Moshe.... The Holy One, blessed be He, told him,15 “Behold, I will be with you,” and yet ultimately, Moshe became frightened. [This is intimated by the verse,]16 “And G‑d told Moshe: ‘Do not fear him (Og).’ ” And “do not fear him” is said only to a person who becomes afraid.
The commentaries on the Midrash differ with regard to the intent of this passage. Some maintain17 that the Midrash is praising Yaakov and Moshe. Although they received promises from G‑d, they did not rely on the promise,18 fearing that perhaps they had sinned19 and were thus unworthy of having the promise fulfilled.20
However, other commentaries21 explain that the intent of the Midrash is that “one should not learn from their example, for one ought not be afraid.” Rather,22 “[one’s] heart should be settled, trusting in G‑d.”23 This intent is apparent from the plain meaning of the continuation of the Midrash: “The Prophet Yeshayahu admonishes the Jewish people, telling them,24 ‘You have forgotten G‑d Who made you... and you are continually frightened throughout the day’ ” ; i.e., the prophet rebukes them for being afraid.25
The view of the commentaries that “one ought not be afraid” is worthy of exploration. What is wrong with fearing [that one is unworthy of the fulfillment of G‑d’s promises because of] “the effect of one’s sins”?
(On the contrary, at first glance this would appear to be a very positive quality: one’s humility is so great26 that he is always concerned that his Divine service is not flawless and that he has sinned.27 )
This question focuses on the nature of the attribute of bitachon, trust in G‑d, which we are commanded to pursue.28 Bitachon is not merely the faith that G‑d has the potential to bestow good upon a person and save him from adversity and the like. Rather, it means that the person trusts that G‑d will actually do this. And his trust is so absolute that he is serene and does not worry at all. As Chovos HaLevavos states,29 “The essence of bitachon is the serenity of the person who trusts. His heart relies on the One in Whom he has placed his trust — that He will do what is best and most appropriate for him in the matter at hand.”
Now, the grounds for such certainty are problematic. Even when a person has an explicit Divine promise, it is possible that “sin would cause” the promise not to be fulfilled. This certainly applies when there is no explicit promise. Moreover, the concern “lest sin cause” the promise not to be fulfilled is applicable to everyone (for “there is no man on earth [so] righteous that he does [only] good and does not sin.”)30 If even Yaakov our Patriarch had this fear, it certainly applies to others.31......
According to the above explanation, it appears that this simple meaning of bitachon is beyond the reach of the majority of the Jewish people. (For “there is no man on earth [so] righteous that he does [only] good and does not sin”30 — and who can adjudge himself as being worthy of G‑d’s kindness?) Hence, for most people, bitachon would be reflected primarily in the peace of mind that they have due to their awareness that, even if they are not to be found worthy of Divine beneficence, everything comes from G‑d. Moreover, they realize that everything is for their good, except that that good is not visible and manifest.
([According to this approach,] only perfectly righteous men, whose Divine service has reached consummate perfection and who therefore do not have to worry about the possible effects of sin,35 can trust that they will receive manifest and apparent good.36 )
Such an approach, however, runs contrary to the approach of the author of Chovos HaLevavos,37 whostates (in his explanation of “the circumstances in which bitachon is conceivable”) that “the One Who is trusted is infinitely magnanimous and kind toward whoever is deserving and to whoever is not. Moreover, His magnanimity is constant and His kindness is continuous, never ceasing and never severed.” According to this view, the concept of bitachon is based on the principle that G‑d bestows kindness even toward “whoever is not [deserving].”
Now, this requires explanation. After all, even though G‑d’s mercy extends also to someone who is not deserving, is it not possible that a person may be deserving of punishment for his undesirable deeds?38 What is the conceptual foundation for a person’s trust that G‑d will act benevolently toward him, even though he is undeserving of this?
Cast Your Burden upon G‑d
The above questions can be resolved in light of an adage of the Tzemach Tzedek, quoted frequently by my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe [Rayatz].39 Someone had begged him to intercede in order to arouse Heaven’s mercies40 upon a patient who was dangerously ill. The Tzemach Tzedek answered: Tracht gut, vet zain gut (“Think positively, and the outcome will be positive”). It is apparent from the response of the Tzemach Tzedek that thinking positively (having bitachon in G‑d) will in itself give rise to results that are visibly and manifestly good.
This teaching may be explained as follows: The obligation of bitachon which we are commanded to cultivate is not merely a component and a corollary of one’s faith (emunah) that everything is in the hands of G‑d and that He is compassionate and merciful. Such an obligation would not need to be stated separately. Rather, the obligation of bitachon is an avodah of its own, a separate thrust in Divine service. That challenge is that a person should rely and depend on G‑d alone, to the extent that he casts his lot entirely upon Him, as it is written,41 “Cast your burden upon G‑d”; i.e., the person depends on no other support in the world apart from G‑d.
It could well be that this is what the author of Chovos HaLevavos had in mind when he wrote42 that a person’s bitachon should resemble that “of a bondman imprisoned in a dungeon on the authority of his master.” That prisoner’s trust is beamed only toward his master, “to whose hands he is subordinate, and no man but him can bring harm or help.”
(It follows that our trust in G‑d is such that our actual material situation is of no consequence. Even if according to the natural order it is impossible for a person to be saved, he relies on G‑d, Who is not restricted by nature at all.)
An Interactive Relationship
This itself is the foundation for a person’s trust that G‑d will bestow visible and manifest good upon him, even if he is not worthy of this kindness.
For the definition of trust is not to believe that because the kindness of G‑d is utterly measureless and unlimited and can be extended to a person whether he is worthy or not, he will therefore receive G‑d’s kindness without any effort on his own part. (Were this to be true, the entire concept of reward and punishment would thus be nullified.) Rather, bitachon involves labor and exertion within one’s soul — and it is this effort and exertion that evokes G‑d’s kindness.
When a person truly trusts in G‑d alone from the depths of his soul, to the extent that he has no worry at all, this very arousal [of trust] evokes a reciprocal response from Above, granting him kindness — even when, without taking this trust into account, he would not be worthy of such kindness.
This concept is borne out by the writings of our Sages. For example, commenting on the verse,43 “A person who trusts in G‑d will be encompassed by kindness,” Sefer HaIkkarim44 states explicitly: “Even if a person is intrinsically undeserving, bitachon has a way of evoking unearned lovingkindness on those who place their trust in G‑d.” Moreover,45 “If a person had placed his hope [in G‑d] as he ought to, G‑d’s lovingkindness would not have been withheld [from him].”
These ideas are echoed in Kad HaKemach:46 “He who trusts in G‑d will be raised out of misfortune by virtue of his trust, even if he was deserving of that misfortune.”47
This, then, is what is meant by the command48 to trust in G‑d — that a person should “cast his burden on G‑d,” relying on Him to grant him visible and manifest good. Since he trusts G‑d alone (without making calculations as to whether or not it is possible for him to be saved according to the natural order), this causes a corresponding approach49 toward him in the spiritual realms. G‑d protects him and has pity on him, even if the tally shows that he does not deserve to be granted the kind of good that is visible and manifest as good.50
This is the meaning of the adage of the Tzemach Tzedek cited above: the person’s bitachon itself will lead to positive results. This principle is not a tangential element of our trust in G‑d: it defines the nature of the trust that we are commanded to have.
When Trust is Lacking
Based on the above, it is possible to say that this is the intent of our verse that speaks about Moshe’s fear when he heard his fellow Jew say, “Do you intend to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” The verse intended to teach this fundamental message with regard to the quality of bitachon: that it is bitachon itself that brings about G‑d’s salvation. The opposite is also true. When a person is not saved from distress, the reason is that his bitachon is lacking.51
This is the intent of the verse, “And Moshe became frightened and said: ‘The matter has surely become
known.’ ” (And directly after that we are told:) “Pharaoh heard... and he sought to kill Moshe. And Moshe fled....” The fact that Moshe feared for his life and did not trust G‑d52 that no harm would befall him as a result of his positive efforts (to protect a Jewish man from the Egyptian who was striking him and to rebuke the two Jews who were arguing) was itself the cause for Pharaoh to hear of the matter and to seek to kill him. Moshe’s lack of trust caused him to have to flee for his life.
(One might explain that this is the intent of the wording of the verse, “And [he] said: ‘The matter has surely become known.’ ” Not only did Moshe think these thoughts within his heart, he expressed them in speech.53 This increases the emphasis on his lack of bitachon. For in addition to having this apprehension in his mind, he spoke about it.)54
If he had had complete bitachon in G‑d and not have worried at all about his circumstances (that “the matter had become known” and would be discovered by Pharaoh), that would have caused the matter to have been forgotten and would have brought him visible and manifest good.