Hishtadlus and Bitachon on the Contemplative Journey (Aug 2011)

(photo: Sorelle White)
Reflecting on the current week’s Torah reading (Parshas Devarim) which recounts some of the stages and battles of the time we were in the desert, I began to see how it might provide us with a sort of manual for some aspects of our contemplative practice. This month’s article takes that idea and develops it a little. Though it is directly related to Parshas Devarim and its accompanying Haftaras Hazon, it has a year-long application as it concerns the very basic nature of a contemplative’s relationship with the One who is Avinu Malkeinu...both our Father and our King. He can be both at the same time. Can the contemplative Jew emulate that balance in some way by being both His child and His servant simultaneously?

Do we simply allow the wind to blow a “Divine seed” to the place of its intended growth or do we also need to prepare the land which will receive it ourselves? Are there times when no plant would grow at all if we ourselves failed to plant a seed of our own choosing?

Are we receptive like suckling children or are we on active service like zealous soldiers?

My suggestion is that though we may never quite attain it, our aim should be to discover and to create a balance between these two expressions of  contemplative practice.

Commentary: Parshas Devarim and Haftaras Hazon

There are times when we are asked to wait, to listen, to hope and pray, to be patient.  

And there are times when we are asked to take the initiative, to help ourselves, to fight for something, and to make things happen ourselves.

They are the delicate balance between hishtadlus (initiative and action) and bitachon (trust and faith).

We are born God’s children and called to be His servants- so perhaps bitachon is in some way superior?  We are told not to fear enemies but to confront them bravely- so perhaps hishtadlus is in some way superior?  In truth they are two inseparable facets of a spiritual life lived in balance.

We are not instrumentally passive like angels... we become God’s instruments when we act bravely and then, paradoxically find ourselves used as passive channels of His Light. Once we have “obeyed” by performing deeds we become “purified” in our spiritual essence by losing our self-focus in the blaze of His activity.

Parshas Devarim and Haftaras Chazon are like a manual for such a process.  The Parshah describes the balance between hishtadlut and bitachon and the Haftarah describes the purification process and its link with halakhah:

“Behold I have set the land before you
Go in and possess the Land”
(Deut. 1:8)


I will turn my hand upon you
And purge away your dross as with lye”
(Isaiah 1:25)


In our daily lives we can usually plod on with religious routines and hope that our zeal can introduce a freshness and a joy into all our practices. But in the lives of all contemplatives there are moments of decision, periods of uncertainty, turning points and changes of focus and most significantly...an endless activity in which we encounter obstacles and difficulties as stages in a journey. Parshas Masei and Parshah Devarim both seem to highlight such events.

God sends inspiration in our prayer and direction in our study but we have to choose to see what He is trying to tell us, and sometimes we prefer to misread Him in order to get what we want ourselves. He may “set the land before us” (Deut. 1:8) but we have to help to remove the “dross”(Isaiah 1:25) ourselves, by “going in” to do battle.

He is ever leading us “in the fire by night” and “in the cloud by day” (Deut:1:32) but we have to keep moving ourselves or be left behind by the ever-moving caravan. The fire of our nightly hitbodedus may give us a sense of direction, but we may fall asleep before we are galvanised into action the next dawn. The clouded “daily” messages from Above which come to us in the significant events we encounter Below in our everyday lives-may be ignored if we attend only to the “noise and traffic on the street” and “forget to look up at the sky” ( where the message is writ clearer). And of course we can also drag our heels and actually refuse to go anywhere!

In other words, God may be showing us where He wants us to go but we may either choose to be blind, or we may choose to look the other way. Either way we will make no progress unless we at least attempt to work out what we are being “shown” or “told”.

Sometimes the contemplative finds that the obstacles one meets on the journey are too great to overcome and so a “failure” ensues. Sometimes this is not a failure but merely a necessary step along the way. An event with a purpose we are unable to see. This too is highlighted for us in Parshas Devarim. Speaking of an enemy of Israel, Moses reminds us:

“for Hashem your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate
that He might deliver him into your hand, as it has transpired today”

Applying this text to this commentary, it would seem that there are times when our struggle has to fail in the face of obstacles so that our eventual rescue or redemption may be clearly seen as something which God alone could achieve for us. These are times when HaShem “sets His seal” on our lives clearly. 

 At such times, our apparent failure is merely a way to enhance our eventual joy. In this sense we have been treated as “servants” with a certain harsh subservience demanded of us- in order that we may “become children” at the end and simply jump for joy in our Father’s rescue. Often, though we have to act ourselves, there are times when our patience and hopefulness are actually the only action we can offer Him. Again the whole scenario reflects the balance of activity and passivity, but in this case our activity is “in the act of trusting” itself.


Sometimes, contemplatives find themselves “stuck” at a stage on the journey and this is neither due to rebellion nor to an inability to see the signs of direction offered. Sometimes, we are in the grip of fear and have been paralysed by our spiritual “enemies”

The "enemies" which the contemplative is combating, those things which prevent the progress of the spiritual journey, are different for each person but they often have characteristics in common. They are often self-doubts or exaggerated notions of self importance (two poles of the same infirmity of self-absorption); or a fear of the future when the present is acting as a soporific; or a perennial dark night of faith in which Everything is called into question!

Parshas Devarim also tells us not to fear those enemies if we are sure we are doing God’s will. In Deuteronomy 2:36 we are reminded:

“You shall not fear them
For HaShem your God, He it is that fights for you.”

This is one of the many verses in the Parshah that demonstrates the balance between hishtadlus and bitachon as it is quite clearly our active combat that is described as the action of God. It is clearly a process with an “upward” and a “downward” flow whose dynamism is never one-sided. The verse may be telling us that “when we are doing God’s will” to the best of our knowledge and ability, our success will come directly from the Strength of God within us.

But how can we be sure that we are doing God’s will?

This brings me to next thread of advice for contemplatives which seems to run through both the Torah reading and the Haftarah. It is the notion that obedience and authority have an undisputed role to play in the way in which we progress on the contemplative/mystical journey. Once again it is a matter of balancing activity and passivity.

The “child” in us sometimes craves instruction and infused knowledge;
But it may also insist that its own opinion is “the right one” before it has acquired discernment or wisdom.

The “soldier-servant” in us recognises the honour of duty and the value of obedience- sometimes even blind obedience; But it also wants to win by its own prowess and develop pride in its conquests.

The “child” in us may want to use intuition
The “servant” may choose to be commanded

The “child” may demand its own way
The “servant” may lack initiative.

The “child” may burst with love but can also burst in spiteful rage.
The “servant” may lack creativity, but may also be an effective tool in the hands of the Master.

Can you see from these few random examples how subtle a balance of the two we all need to be?
We can never exist as one without losing the other to some degree.
We need to order the two drives into some kind of functioning balance.

How is that done?
There is a short Psalm text which may serve to light the way for us:
In Psalm 8:3 we read:

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings
You have founded strength”

We begin as children who are ravenous for the attention of God
And mature as servants who have developed the strength to give Him all our attention.

We begin with our own childlike intuitions and reflections
And mature by checking them alongside the words of our Sages.

We begin with an outburst of childlike love for our God
And mature by showing our love in practical action by observing the mitzvot more deeply.

We begin with childlike attempts to crawl and scramble up Sinai’s contemplative slopes
And mature by realising that we were lifted into the cleft of the rock by God’s Hand (and not by any effort or merit of our own) all along.

The Parshah tells us: “I took the heads of the tribes, wise men and full of knowledge, and made them heads over you.” (Deut. 1:15). The Haftarah reminds us: “If you become willing and obedient, you shall eat of the land” (Isaiah 1:19) and “I will restore your judges as at the first and your counsellors as at the beginning” (Isaiah 1:26)

It is a subtle balance of activity and passivity;
Of communal obedience and personal creativity;
Of individuality and conformity;
Of receptive waiting and humble action.

Our obedience makes us strong as good soldiers so that we may be as loving as good children.
Our simple childlike trust makes us want to fight for ourselves when we are given a Divine Challenge.

And the bottom line?

Well, the ultimate test of whether or not we are “doing what God wants of us” is also given in the Haftarah:

“Seek Justice, relieve the oppressed, Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
(Isaiah 1:17)

And each one of them can be done in our prayers as well as in our social interactions.


May we know when to act and when to wait;
When to reject and when to accept;
When to lead and when to follow;
When to be children and when to be soldier-servants;

May we learn to balance hishtadlus and bitachon in our lives
So that the work and prayers of Israel-
May be as the Work of His Hand and the Thoughts of His Heart.

N R Davies
Aug 1 2011