What Is Emunah?
The Israelites' Struggle With Faith
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's parsha, Moses accuses the nation of Israel of not having faith. What? The people know firsthand about all the miracles God has done for them, how could they struggle with their faith?
Drawing on the Maharal's pillars of faith, Rabbi Fohrman gives us a novel approach to understanding the basis of faith, and challenges us to rise to this level of intimacy with God and with each other.
One of the great challenges of any religion is faith.
What Is the Meaning of Emunah?Often we think of the central challenge of faith as belief in God, believing that God exists, that He is around – and yet the Torah uses the word Emunah in a way which almost certainly does not mean that. After the splitting of the sea, vaya'aminu baHashem – the people had faith in God. Was that the first time they believed that God existed?
In this week's parsha, Moshe castigates the people for lack of faith, in the sin of the spies. Does Moshe seriously mean to say that the Jews did not believe in God? They doubted His existence? They got Manna from heaven, experienced revelation at Sinai, saw the ten plagues, saw the sea split; these guys didn't believe that God was around?
We might consider faith as the last thing that the Jews of the desert would have struggled with and yet, according to Moshe, this is the people's crime in the wake of the report of the spies.
The Torah isn't talking about faith in terms of belief that God exists. The Israelites in the desert knew God existed, and what the Torah is really telling you is that the real journey of faith begins then. Believing that God exists, that's the little leagues. What happens after you believe that, there is the real journey of faith, that's the big leagues.
Today, I want to talk to you about that journey, that journey towards something else, after we believe that God exists. What is that something else and whatever it is what are the milestones that we pass in getting there? How do we achieve this thing called faith? Let's try to define the terms.
What Is the Definition of Emunah in the Bible?It turns out that the word Emunah is used not just to describe human feelings, it is actually used to describe something that seems to have very little to do with faith at all. Moshe's arms in the battle against Amalek. The Jews prevailed in that battle only so long as Moshe's arms were raised. His arms were tired, so Aharon and Chur held his arms up; vayehi yadav emunah ad boh hashemesh – and his arms were Emunah, they were steadfast until the sunset.
Faith over Emunah, I think, is identified with that idea of steadfastness. When you take it out of the realm of inanimate objects like arms and you take it in to the realm of human relationships, it's a kind of steadfast quality in my relationship with you, a kind of unflinching willingness to trust you even as I confront my deepest fears. That's the sense in which Moshe uses in this week's parsha.
The Israelites' Struggle with FaithThe Jews were afraid, they were afraid of conquering the land. They looked at the inhabitants of the land and they seemed like giants. Moshe accuses them of a lack of faith at that moment: U'ba'davar hazeh einechem ma'aminim baHashem – and in this you didn't have faith, you didn't have trust, you weren't steadfast with God. You shrunk away from God even as God lovingly was telling you to trust Him.
It is very interesting I think, that when Moshe makes his accusation he doesn't say that you failed to blindly have faith in God, he actually appeals to a kind of rational basis for that faith, to their experience. He says, look at your experience:
Hashem Elokeichem haholech lifneichem – the God, your God, who walks before you;
Hu yilachem lachem – He is the one going to fight for you;
K'chol asher asah itchem b'Mitzrayim l'eineichem – He is going to do for you just as He did against Egypt before your very eyes.
U'bamidbar asher ra'ita – and in this desert you have seen;
Asher nesa'acha Hashem – how God has carried you;
Ka'asher yisah ish et beno – like a man will carry his child.
He is appealing to their experience. You have grounds for faith – u'ba'davar hazeh einechem ma'aminim baHashem – but you in this thing have failed, you haven't had faith in God.
The Basis of Faith: The Maharal's Three Pillars of EmunahIn Moshe's worldview, faith doesn't come from nothing, it comes from observing things about your beloved that makes them trustworthy. The Maharal, the famous Rabbi [Judah 4:06] Loew of Prague, identifies three milestones and correlates them with the three times the word Emunah first appears in the Torah in the story of the exodus.
The Maharal suggests that the people experienced three things that gave them rational grounds for faith:
- The first thing they experienced, the first time the word faith is used in the story of the Exodus. When Moshe came to the elders of Israel and said God came to me and here are the signs that God gave to me; vaya'amein ha'am (vayishme'u) ki pakad Hashem et Bnei Yisrael v'ki ra'ah et – the Israelites understood that God saw their suffering. The first thing, the Maharal says, is I need to know that you care for me, that you have empathy for me, that you see my suffering. But if all I know is that it is still not rational for me to place my faith in you, I need to know more.
- The next time the word faith appears in the exodus story is at the splitting of the sea. Vaya'aminu baHashem u'b'Moshe avdo – the people believed in God and Moshe His servant, what did they see then? They saw an incredible display of the power of the Master of the Universe. In order to really have faith in you, it's not enough for you to have empathy, you also have to have the power to help me.
- But even if I know that you have the power to help me and even if I know that you care and you have empathy, I still need to know one more thing and that brings us to the third instance of faith recorded in the Torah. It happens at Sinai. God said, I will come to you Moshe and I will speak to you in a way that the people would be able to hear Me speaking to you. V'gam becha ya'aminu l'olam – so that they should have faith in you and in the communication between Me and you forever. If I know that you have power and I know that you care for me but I do not know that you understand me. If I suspect that perhaps that you are so wrapped up in your own world that you cannot really get what it is that I need, I still cannot place myself in your hands. When the Jewish people saw God who was so different from them – a being that you cannot touch, that you cannot feel, that you cannot see – actually successfully communicate with Moshe, they became convinced that God understood Moshe and Moshe understood God. Then the final ingredient for faith existed.
If I know that you love me, that you feel empathy towards me, if I know that you have the power to help and I know that you really get what it is that I need, then I can trust you. There are grounds for me to place my faith in you and then, the real challenge occurs. My faith at that moment is still a product of an act of will, of sheer power on my part, to confront my fears and to take that leap.
What Is Struggling to Maintain Faith in God?Trust is always hard, to steadfastly place yourself in the arms of your beloved, even as your beloved reassures you that they will take care of you through the darkest night, through the greatest terrors, it is a tough thing.
When you steadfastly place your fate in the hands of someone who loves you, when you abandon yourself to them, you achieve a dizzying kind of intimacy with them. That intimacy as rewarding as it is, is also scary. It is a kind of leaving yourself behind, a kind of merging unabashedly with another. There is no more hiding, what of my sense of self, am I losing it all to you?
Loss of control involves a loss of self and loss of self is always scary and if you are the entire Israelite people, it is scary with God. It is easier to just shrink back and say, 'God, I am just not going to do this. I'd rather go back to Egypt' and it is here that you get to the great consequences of failing to have faith.
Because listen carefully to the bone chilling words that the people say when they shrink away from God in the sin of the spies. They don't just say we couldn't do this, they say: B'sin'at Hashem otanu hotzi'anu m'eretz Mitzrayim – it was in God's hatred of us that He took us out of Egypt. It sounds like insanity, how could you say that? That is what lack of faith will do to you.
Breaking the Pillars of Faith in GodIf I have grounds to place my faith in you, if I know that you love me, I know that you have the power to help me, I know you understand me and I balk at my willingness to cede control to you, I have to explain that failure to myself. What will I tell myself? Will I be honest if I just didn't have the courage to place myself in your hands? Or will I lie to myself and to you and compromise one of those three pillars?
In the case of the Jews, the pillar they compromised was love. They found a way to look back on their experience and say, our experience teaches us that God doesn't love us, He hates us. As crazy as it is, it is the only way that they could come to rationalize their unwillingness to place their faith in God.
This is why the challenge of faith is such a challenge because when faith is warranted, when our experience gives us reasons to extend ourselves and trust, but we fail to take that leap – that leap which has an element of blindness, the willingness to just let go and let our beloved lead us through our darkest fears – once we reach that point our relationship will never be the same.
Building a Basis of Faith and IntimacyIf we do it successfully, we will have achieved the most dizzying kind of intimacy with our beloved but if we fail, everything can come crumbling down – when we tell ourselves that really there was never any love there at all and we are not to blame.
May we rise to this challenge when it is asked of us in all of our relationships; with God, with our wives, with our husbands, with our children, with our parents. It is a supreme test, one we dare not fail.