The Balancing Act of Bitachon and Hishtadlut

Parshat Beshalach 5772

It doesn’t matter where you look, there are contradictions.

For just one example, let’s look at an event recorded in Samuel I Chapter 16.

A Lesson From Samuel

Saul / Shaul is king, but he has not fulfilled his potential. God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem where he will anoint a new king.

We would expect Samuel to say something like, “Great idea! I’m on it today.”

What did he actually say to God? Here’s the translation from Judaica Press:

And Samuel said, “How shall I go? For, if Saul hears, he will kill me.”

What happened to faith and bitachon? Of course, we expect God to straighten him out and remind Samuel Who controls things. But here’s God’s answer:

And the Lord said, “You shall take a heifer with you, and you shall say, ‘I have come to slaughter (a sacrifice) to the Lord.’

It’s as if God said to Samuel, “Oh, you’re right. OK, here’s your cover story.”

So how do we properly balance bitachon (trust) and action (hishtadlut)?

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Our Verses

Here are the verses that I used as a basis for my questions earlier this week (translation by Judaica Press):

Exodus Chapter 14

9 The Egyptians chased after them and overtook them encamped by the sea every horse of Pharaoh’s chariots, his horsemen, and his force beside Pi hahiroth, in front of Ba’al Zephon.
10 Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.
11 They said to Moses, Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?
12 Isn’t this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert.
13 Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.
14 The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.
15 The Lord said to Moses, Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.
16 And you raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, and the children of Israel shall come in the midst of the sea on dry land.
17 And I, behold! I shall harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they will come after you, and I will be glorified through Pharaoh, and through all his force, through his chariots, and through his horsemen.
18 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I will be glorified through Pharaoh, through his chariots, and through his horsemen.

Some Answers

Verses 10 and 11 seem contradictory. In verse 10 the people are crying out to God. That is an act of prayer which demonstrates their faith and trust in God. But in the next verse they are complaining to Moses. What changed?

Ramban offers two solutions. The second one is applicable to our discussion.

He suggests that both verses refer to the entire Jewish people. They believed God and prayed to Him for salvation. That is a demonstration of their bitachon.

But then a doubt entered their hearts about Moses.

Perhaps Moses just wanted to be a dictator over them. But what about the plagues in Egypt? Yeah, they all happened, but only because the Egyptians deserved punishment. But now that Pharaoh was pursuing them was proof that they weren’t worthy of God’s salvation.

What is Bitachon?

You will sometimes hear people say, “Trust in God and everything will be well.” They seem to imply that only good things happen to a person who trusts in God. But we see with our own eyes that that is not true.

Rather, trust is the awareness that everything that happens, whether it appears to be good or bad, comes from God.

Then, perhaps I could say, “If it all comes from God, then I don’t have to do anything.”

To be more specific, could I say, “On Rosh HaShanah my income for this year was decreed. I’ll just sit back and wait for it to come. No need for me to exert myself.”


Here is the approach of Rabbi Shmuel Houminer from Sefer Mitzvat HaBitachon (my translation):

The Torah teaches us a great principle concerning the mitzvah of bitachon. When a person needs a salvation and help, and he does some action (hishtadlut), it is forbidden for him to trust in this act that it will save him. But he should trust in God with complete and perfect trust that He will help him, whether by means of this action or whether by means of some completely different cause. When a person sees that there is a way for him to do some action, he should do it. But he should trust that God will save him and he should request Divine mercy.

So we see that hishtadlut (action) is necessary, but it must never cause us to lose sight of Who is in control.

No Action Possible

Sometimes a person is in a situation where no action is possible. This is what happened to the Jewish people. They were completely surrounded and were not capable of fighting.

In verse 13 Moses told them “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch compares this to what happened when Moses’s mother put him into the Nile River.

Exodus Chapter 2
3 [When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile’s edge.
4 His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him.

At a time when no action is possible, then all you can do is stand still. As Rav Hirsch says on verse 14:13, Moses told the Jews you should “station yourselves expectantly, knowing that you can do no more than to trust in God’s salvation and to wait and see how and with what He will accomplish it.”


This interplay of bitachon and hishtadlut is not just for times of crisis. It applies to all situations.

For example, how many hours of hishtadlut (work) should a lawyer / teacher / plumber put in?

I was taught two rules of thumb.

1. What is the norm for this profession, in this city, at this time?

If the only way for a plumber to become successful is to work 50 hours a week and to be on call 24 hours a day for emergencies, then that is what you should expect to do.

2. What will you say if you fail?

Let’s say you’re a lawyer and want to be made partner. For the past decade, everyone who became a partner in your firm worked at least 55 hours a week.

You decide to have bitachon and work only 45 hours a week.

Now try this thought experiment: if you do not become a partner, what will you say to your friends? If you will say, “I should have put in more hours,” then you should put in those hours.

Your act is an act of bitachon when you can accept the outcome, good or bad, as coming from God and not from your effort or lack of effort.

Back to Samuel

So what about Samuel? I would say that he had bitachon. He also knew that in general it is best to act in a natural way. God agreed and told him what to do in those circumstances. There was no need to rely only on Divine protection when such a simple act would suffice.

Back to You

How do you decide when to act and when to be still? How do you balance hishtadlut and bitachon when faced with a difficult decision?

Please share your questions and suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture Credit: from Flickr

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

7 thoughts on “The Balancing Act of Bitachon and Hishtadlut”

  1. I also really enjoyed this one- very relevant and applicable. Thank you for such a lucid discussion of such an important topic.

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