I will never forget my first day in prison. I was ordered to self-surrender on a specific date, before noon. I drove myself on a one-way trip and have been here ever since.
As I walked in, I could immediately feel myself being viewed in a manner completely different from before. My old identity was still in the parking lot, and now I was a place that did not recognize who I was the day before.
The layout seemed designed to be an intentional violation of the senses. I had been in many different environments but nothing prepared me for this. The buildings were oppressive, the air hostile.
I was led to my cell and stared at the steel bunk beds and barred windows, trying to make sense of it all. The peeling gray paint stared back at me, cold and indifferent.
(I am doing, in total, two years of house arrest, four years in prison, and an additional two years of supervised release, for my role in an attempt to retrieve a Get for an abandoned Jewish woman.)
There was something blaring on the microphone, and it seemed like all were shuffling to their cells in response. I followed suit and wondered when I would find someone I could relate to.
After a day of wandering aimlessly among the “locals,” it was finally Shabbos candle-lighting time. I found out where chapel services were held and upon arrival immediately recognized the warm, friendly face of Sholom Rubashkin.
R` Rubashkin welcomed me warmly, with strength that only years of experience can bring. After lighting, it was time for our Friday night shiur, and now I encountered a new world of understanding: Jewish philosophy as articulated in the Chovos Halevavos (Sha’ar Habitachon) based on the ideas that had held us strong for generations.
R` Rubashkin told me I would see Hashem as never before, helping me at every turn. I nodded but felt like a fake. It always bothered me when people suddenly remembered Hashem`s existence only after they had gotten themselves into a tight spot.
Nevertheless, during one of our regular learning sessions I received a new perspective on faith. It begins with the fundamental reality that every Jew has a neshamah that is never disconnected with its infinite source, which is Hashem.
This was illuminated further as we examined how to pinpoint the essence of someone or something. The question on the table was, why is it that a sea otter is considered a land animal when it spends most of its time in the sea?
The answer is that when escaping from its water-bound predators, it will run out of the water to the safety of land. It is in essence considered a land animal because in its moment of crisis, it runs to the land for protection.
So it is with us. When we seek Hashem during times of crisis, we prove that we are the people of Hashem, even if we had allowed ourselves to be distracted along the way. This is because every Jew’s neshamah naturally has complete emunah, and it is just the physical distractions and demands of the world that cover over this sublime force within.
Sometimes it is only when all the distractions are torn away that we can hear its calling, which transcends all external stimulation and internal physical gravitation.
When someone leaves civilian life, he leaves behind any sense of security, discretion, or privacy. He can never shut a door behind him and achieve peace of mind. Prisoners have no control over what and when we eat, our schedule, even our sleep.
Normally, people build layers of familiarity, and keep a buffer between themselves and the world in order to maintain their balance. That simply does not exist in prison. On this side of the razor wire, our guard is always up. And it is precisely when all the familiar expectations of control are shed that the Hand of Hashem emerges into plain view, without any intermediaries.
In the real world, for example, we would not worry about something as basic as acquiring food. We know we can just go to the grocery store. Don’t have any cash? Use the card. But in here, nothing is guaranteed; we live hour by hour. One never knows where he will get what he needs, no matter how basic.
We therefore must have faith; we need to possess a better understanding of how the pieces move around so that we are provided for. This also serves to remind us that we are never alone. Hashem is not somewhere “out there” while we are all the way “over here.”
It is a lesson from our history. We find the emunah we always had but never knew we had. So this newly discovered emunah is not actually coming from an insincere or false source. It’s just that once the noise of life is dimmed, we can hear the sound of the neshamah clearly.
As I learned from R’ Sholom Mordechai, there are two fundamental principles that comprise the basis of Jewish hope and faith in God; one is called bitachon, the other emunah.
Chovos Halevavos defines bitachon as “The tranquility of soul of the one who trusts – his heart’s reliance on the one in whom he trusts to do what is good and right for him [in the matter of the trust] according to his ability and knowledge of what is for his good.”
That is to say, every Jew should have hope in Hashem to guide and deliver us with Divine Providence in a way that is tangibly good for us. “Knowledge of what is for his good” refers to a good that we can see as good with our own eyes, not just a good that is understood as such only by Hashem in His infinite wisdom.
Emunah, in contrast, is explained as our faith in Hashem’s plan, which is difficult to understand and from our perspective may seem like a painful decree. We strengthen ourselves with emunah, the belief that every incident that has occurred is for the good, even if at present the purpose of the events in our lives is beyond our comprehension. This concept is often expressed as gam zu l’tovah – this too is for the best.
These two ideas are seemingly at odds with each other: Should we have bitachon or emunah? Should we have hope in Hashem to help us in the way we perceive we need His help, via a specific type of comprehensible outcome, or should we accept a given situation with the understanding that Hashem’s plan may be beyond our capacity to understand?
The resolution to this apparent conflict is that once something has already occurred in our lives, we have to employ our emunah to know that it is in our very best interest, irrespective of how the facts may appear on the ground. Regarding our future, however, we should have bitachon that Hashem will help us in a manner we can more readily recognize and understand.
Incidentally, bitachon and emunah are not just nice optimistic ideas; it is actually a mitzvah to engage them. And it is specifically from the source of these mitzvos that our redemption will sprout forth. The goal is for a person to be tranquil at heart, because we know that whatever transpired up until now is precisely what we needed. Going forward, Hashem will also give us exactly what we need, in an intuitively satisfying way.
It’s interesting that it is specifically when people go through adversity that they experience a surge in their faith and are able to better appreciate what they have. This seems counter- intuitive, but clearly Hashem knows what we need to bring out the best in us.
When things are running smoothly, it is human nature to forget what we have and from where it came. I see on a daily basis what circumstances do to people. Among some people – as in our community here – you witness kindness when there are few resources available. But you can also see how people behave when there are no consequences.
It is a blessing to be part of a community that is founded on kindness. This is testament to the fact that a Jew can never really be imprisoned – only the body can be limited.