What Is Belief In God?
The Israelites' Struggle To Believe
After the Exodus, we hear, "And the nation believed in God, and in Moses, His servant." They have complete faith in God! The relationship between the nation of Israel and God is really at a high point. It's beautiful, it's exciting.
But then... things go downhill, and fast. Over the course of the parsha, the people become hungry and thirsty, and over and over again, they panic and scream about their unhappiness. The Israelites struggle with their belief in God every time something bad happens.
So what kind of belief in God was that? Did they lose their belief in an instant?
Join Rivky as she explores these stories and the difficult concept of what it means to truly believe in God.
Hi, I'm Rivky Stern. Welcome to Aleph Beta, this is Parshat Beshalach!
Parshat Beshalach has always bothered me. Whew, okay, I said it. Let’s set the stage.
Why Did the Israelites Struggle to Believe in God?
Pharaoh has freed the Israelites, he’s sent them out of Egypt. But then he has a change of heart. He dispatches his army into the wilderness to go chase down his former slaves.
The Israelites see the mighty Egyptian military coming, and they’re terrified. They scream to Moses: we wish we would have peacefully died in Egypt, rather than be massacred in the wilderness. And then, of course, God saves them. The Almighty splits the sea, allowing Israel through, and destroys the Egyptian army in the waves.
And what was the people’s response to all this?
וייראו העם, את-יהוה
And the nation was awestruck by God
ויאמינו, ביהוה, ובמשׁה, עבדו
And they believed in God, and in Moses, his servant.
They believe! They’re awestruck by God. Yeah, they saw the plagues, they were incredible, but compared to this scene at the Sea of Reeds, they were small stuff.
Now, the entire army of Egypt has been wiped out in a single, fell swoop. The Almighty has brought to bear the power of an entire ocean to carry out His Will. This is… truly epic. And their response, according to the verse, is that ‘they believed’: ויאמינו, ביהוה, ובמשה, עבדו.
So far, so good. But in light of all this, the series of events that takes place next is downright bizarre.
Just three days after that miracle at the sea, the people become thirsty. They arrive at an oasis of water, but the water’s bitter. So what would you expect from people who had just witnessed the most astounding miracle, who had been touched deeply by God’s providence, and who believed wholeheartedly in that providence?
You’d probably expect them to turn to God and say, ‘Please, You’re so amazing, can You do it again?’ Kind of nice, kind of polite.
But that’s not what happens.
Losing Belief in God as Soon as Bad Things Happen
Instead, they scream to Moshe, we’re going to die! And, Moshe miraculously saves them. He throws a stick that God showed him into the bitter waters, sweetening it.
But then, it seems to happen again, and even worse, this time. The people now start to worry about food – and again, their faith just seems to evaporate.
They scream to Moses:
מי-יתן מותנו ביד-יהוה בארץ מצרים – God should have just killed us in Egypt!
כי-הוצאתם אתנו אל-המדבר הזה – Instead, you brought us to the wilderness,
להמית את-כל-הקהל הזה ברעב – to kill us from starvation??
They sound defeatist, almost sarcastic and snarky. But again, God saves the people, providing them with food.
Then, the panic escalates even more in a third incident. Again, they were thirsty – and again – they seem to forget God’s incredible salvation at the sea, and their incredible faith in response. They panic, again screaming for water. And this time, look how bad it is: Moshe, this leader who took them through the Split Sea, he actually fears for his life!
He turns to God and says:
מה אעשה לעם הזה
What am I going to do with these people?
עוד מעט, וסקלני
If this keeps going, they’re going to stone me!
So we have to ask: how did it get to this?? Remember, we just read that the people believed. But what kind of belief is it, if it turns off in an instant?
God had saved them, they professed this huge faith in the Almighty; and now look at them. The people’s faith crumbled... immediately. And it’s not like it happens once, it happened three times, in a pattern that seems to involve increasing levels of panic – and seemingly, almost no faith. What happened?
I have bad news: before I try to make matters better, I’m about to make them worse. Because, let’s look at the next story in this week’s parsha – inexplicably, you’re going to find, their faith… just seems to come right back.
A Restored Belief in God – so Soon?
It almost seems like whiplash. You see, immediately after the people complain about the lack of water, and the lack of food, and again about the lack of water, a nation known as Amalek ambushes Israel, and suddenly, war is thrust upon the people: Their very first battle since leaving slavery.
Imagine you were part of the nation of Israel right now. You’ve been starving and thirsting; your faith in God has dwindled. You’ve been complaining about dying. And now, you’re in danger of annihilation by this brutal enemy army. I’d expect that you’d just crumble, give up, pack your bags, you’d go back to Egypt.
But when you read the text... it’s almost calm. Amalek attacks, and… the people don’t panic. It’s just like, okay, what’s our plan?
Moses draws up a battle strategy, Joshua pulls an army together, the people follow instructions and begin to fight. Moses goes up to a mountain and holds up his hands to God... and the people of Israel win the war, and move on with their lives.
Strange. No panicked screaming to Moses. No wailing that God has abandoned them. And no threats to go back to Egypt. Every time up until now, hunger and thirst caused their trust in God to evaporate. Wouldn’t you expect that being attacked by this fearsome army would do the same? But that’s not what happens. The people trust that they’ll be safe, that God will protect them.
So what is it about this attack by Amalek? What makes this event so different than everything that led up to it? Why did the pattern of escalating panic suddenly just… stop?
It seems almost like… the people have discovered their faith again. But why? What happened to bring it back?
Understanding the Israelites' Belief in God
I want to make a somewhat startling claim: Perhaps the reason why Israel was able to regain their faith through the Amalek event, had something to do with the Splitting of the Sea. What I’m suggesting, really, is that perhaps when Amalek attacked them, they remembered that God had protected them in the sea, and they felt confident they could expect that same protection again.
Now, you’ll protest and tell me: that doesn’t make sense. What? They just all of a sudden remember the Splitting of the Sea now – but they conveniently forgot about it in the other three intervening episodes, involving lack of food and water?
The answer might be: There are two fundamentally different kinds of crises here. Think about it: What was similar about the crisis involving Pharaoh at the Sea and Amalek’s attack, that was different than the intervening crises, those involving lack of food and water?
And the answer to that seems kind of clear: The commonality between the crisis at the sea and Amalek was war. In the Splitting of the Sea, the people of Israel expected to be destroyed by an enemy, by Pharaoh’s chariots and archers. But God saved them! Through God’s miraculous military machinations, the people of Israel survived, and their enemies lost.
When it comes to faith in God as their military savior, the people never lost that faith. So… a few weeks later, when Amalek attacked, the people of Israel, rather calmly, remember the military victory God orchestrated, and they’re not scared. They trust in God and in Moshe, and they follow Moshe’s instructions to a T.
But here’s the thing: Faith comes in more than one flavor.
Just because you trust God as your military savior, doesn’t necessarily mean you trust God in an entirely different arena. Because when the people lacked for food and water, it’s almost like they thought, sure, God’s a great military leader… but will God feed us? Will God give us water? Will God care for us in these ways?
Why might they have doubted this? If God wins wars, why doubt that the Almighty would also provide food and water? The answer might lie in a seemingly-unimportant verse that appears right after the three failures of faith – and right before the nation successfully musters faith during the Amalek attack.
It is the lowest moment for the people. The Torah explains:
ויקרא שם המקום, מסה ומריבה
And they called this place [where they were given water] Masah U’Merivah
: על-ריב בני ישראל,
Because of the fighting – [the riv], of the children of Israel
ועל נסתם את-יהוה
Because they tested God
לאמר, היש יהוה בקרבנו, אם-אין.
Saying, is God in our midst, or not?
This verse is fascinating because it seems to be revealing something to us. Time after time, the people have failed. And you and I, we’ve been struggling to understand why? Why have they failed so terribly? What was their issue?
And here, the Torah finally seems to explain it to us… in just five words. They were testing God this whole time; they were, in effect, saying to themselves: hayesh hashem bekirbeinu im ayin?
Now, we usually translate b’kirbeinu as “with us,” as in, “Is God with us, or not?” But I think we are now in a position to see something deeper in this phrase. “B’kirbeinu” comes from the word “karov,” closeness. The people of Israel aren’t just asking, is God with us, or not? They’re asking “Is God close to us or not?”
Understanding the Struggle Behind Believing in God
Closeness to God might sound too theological and ethereal, so let’s keep it simple for the moment and just imagine a human leader. Say I’m running for President. And, you know, I’ve spent 20 years as a bona fide military leader. I’m a 4-star general! I’ve helped win wars for my nation. The people know they can trust me to defend them against foreign threats.
And that’s great. But are my military credentials really enough for the people to completely trust me? No, of course not. The people don’t only care about my military prowess. They also want to know: does Rivky really understand my world? Is she… one of us? Will Rivky really make sure the garbage gets picked up, that houses in my neighborhood are affordable, that the buses run?
If I vote her into office, will she still remember that I struggle every day to give my family everything they need? Is Rivky really with me – is she close to me – does she understand my concerns, has she made those concern her own?
Now, if these kinds of fears can haunt us about a human leader, how much more so might they haunt us… about God. Think about it: a person could have grown up with his or her own economic hardship; maybe they have relatives who have gone through tough times. But God, God isn’t mortal. Can God understand those hardships? Can God really be close to me?
Is God B’Kirbeinu?
All this really comes down to one word: empathy. Does God really have empathy for me?
Now, I can only speak for myself, but this struggle that the children of Israel experienced, it’s a struggle that resonates with me. If my concept of God is purely that God is mighty and powerful, a great winner of battles… well, I might believe in that God 100 percent, but I, personally, I’m not going to be facing a military battle.
The question I still need to answer is: do I have faith in a different aspect of God entirely – the side of God that cares about my daily, all too human, needs? Is God there when I’m worried about where my next paycheck comes from? Does God understand the sorrow and fear that I struggle with every day? Is God here, is He right here, in my life? Hayesh hashem b’kirbi?
What It Means to Truly Believe in God
The struggle with faith is not just a matter of cultivating more of it. It’s a matter of cultivating a type of faith, and a relationship with God, that has… complexity in it.
God, the outwardly powerful, omnipotent King and Master, is also the God to whom I matter intensely; who is there with me in my own, seemingly-small, personal struggles.
It may seem like I’m insignificant to God, that the Almighty couldn’t possibly be concerned with my concerns, when there is the whole world to contend with. But to God, each and every one of us is the most important in the world.