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Home » The Jewish Faith, Vaeirah

Vaera: Just Stop Asking

Submitted by on January 7, 2013 – 3:17 amNo Comment | 1,059 views

My Shoes Hurt My Head

Herbert Weiner, author of Nine and a Half Mystics, enjoyed warm relations with many Chassidic Jews.  Herbert reportedly asked a Chassid, why it is that despite their mutual Jewish base he feels that the Chassid walks through doors that he simply cannot. As I understood it, he meant that he could converse with a Chassid on any subject, but when it came to accepting the truth of G-d on pure faith, Herbert was arrested by his intellect whereas other fully intellectual Jews waltzed along with ease.

The Chassid replied cryptically, “sometimes when my shoes are too small I get a headache. “ By this he meant that though there appears to be no link between tight shoes and the wellbeing of the head, the body is interconnected. Tightness in the foot can cause strictures in the brain. His point was that though there appears to be no connection between the physical observance of Mitzvot and one’s ability to believe, there is an invisible thread that connects the two.

This is not to say that Mitzvah observance answers all our questions. It is to say that when one is immersed in a life of Mitzvah one is less bothered by the question. This is not a loss of intellectual integrity, we can still be intellectually stimulated by the question and devote our lives to the pursuit of answers, but the question no longer has the power to shake our faith. It is an exercise in intellectual curiosity and a rigorous one at that, but not a theological challenge that stands between us and G-d.

Patriarchs and Moses

The Patriarchs were different. When G-d called on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob they responded with alacrity. When G-d made promises He didn’t keep in their lifetimes they never questioned Him. In fact, when comparing them to the Jews, who lived in Egypt, G-d declared,” I miss the Patriarchs”. They never questioned me, but, in Egypt, the Jews question. When I don’t liberate them or come through for them with immediate miracles they question my inherent goodness and even my integrity.  (1)

Indeed, our Patriarchs were blessed with the intrinsic gift of faith. They were born with it and it came easily to them. They bequeathed this gift to us, their spiritual children. We too are born with it, but it doesn’t come easily to us. Unlike our Patriarchs’, our faith comes in an abstract shell and unless we tease it out of its shell it isn’t real to us. It is a theoretical belief in an impersonal G-d, inherent, but completely irrelevant to our lives. (2)

The truth of G-d’s existence might resonate with us on faith and on logical grounds and still G-d could remain irrelevant to us simply because He is abstract; intangible, invisible and inscrutable. just stop asking - innerstreamDespite our noblest aspirations our material nature handicaps our ability to relate to the spiritual. Simply put, it is hard to take a non empirical G-d as seriously as we might an empirical one. If we want our faith to have a real life impact we must work to make it real.

Practicing Faith

How do we make our faith real? The answer is embedded in the word for faith in Hebrew, Emunah. The etymology of this word is multilayered. On the one hand it connotes truth, loyalty and faithfulness. One who is loyal to the truth renders oneself faithfully. On the other hand the word also connotes practice or training. An Uman is a trained craftsman in Hebrew.  A M’amen is a trainer in Hebrew. What is the link between faith and training?

In a stunning dissertation, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad School of Chassidic thought, taught that faith, though inborn, is only made real through a regimen of constant training.

Faith requires consistent implementation of thought; continuous reminders that the world and all in it, heaven, earth etc. have no independent existence, but are constantly imbued with a vivifying vitality breathed into them by G-d. Their very existence and vibrancy are vestments of G-d’s creative spirit making Him imminently present is in the physical world. In this way we train ourselves to perceive G-d as a real life presence despite our inability to see Him in the physical sense.

It is not sufficient to acquire this material on an intellectual level. To integrate it into our very being, for it to speak from our depths, for it to graduate to a deeply held and cherished belief, we must meditate on it continually till it becomes a mindset, a fabric of being. Faith is sustained only through continuous practice and reinforcement not unlike a craftsman who continually practices his craft, sharpens his skill and upgrades his training. (3)

We are born with faith in G-d. It is our inheritance from our Patriarchs. But it is useless to us until we learn to make it real. People often tell me they are jealous of my faith, but no one is born with more faith than another. We all have it in equal measure, but the degree of its relevance to us depends on the effort we choose to invest.

Expanding our Reach

Constant reinforcement of faith is a good strategy, but by no means a complete one because doubts inevitably filter through. The mind cannot be the only instrument used to secure our faith because faith isn’t a theory. It is a spiritual conviction of truth, an expression of the soul.

Using the mind to answer questions or to repeat faith mantras doesn’t by itself secure our faith. Because faith is a facet of the soul we must use the soul’s language, namely holiness, to secure it. Holiness derives from practicing Mitzvot and living by the Divine mandate outlined in the Torah, a lifestyle that renders us vehicles of the Divine Will, suffuses our soul with holiness and secures our spiritual health.

This constant feeding of the soul inures us against spiritual crises of doubt. Just as a healthy body can overcome a health crisis so can a healthy soul overcome doubt. When our souls are made vibrant through Mitzvot, we become comfortable with its sacred convictions and beliefs despite our intellectual skepticism and the compelling nature of our questions. We don’t magically discover all the answers, but the questions cease to speak so loudly in our minds as to form barriers to pure and simple faith. We just top asking. (4)

There are those who refuse to observe the Mitzvot until they fully believe. At first blush, this approach seems logical. How can we entertain a commandment before accepting the authority, legitimacy or even existence of its commander? The problem, as argued in this essay, is that seeking faith on a purely intellectual level can never secure faith. The proper approach is not to hold off on practice until our faith has been secured, but to initiate practice in order to secure it.

This is why we raise our children to observe the rituals even when they are far too young to consider theological questions. When they grow older we leave plenty of time for questions, but in their youth we teach them to cherish tradition and nurture faith. In this we follow the model set for us by our ancestors at Sinai when they proclaimed, “We will do [first] and listen [for explanations second].” (5)

 Footnotes

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin: 111a. See also Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 6:3.
  2. This sentiment is captured in the poignant, but simple statement of our sages, “They are believers, children of believers.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 97a) For a more detailed explanation see Tanya ch. 18.
  3. Tanya ch. 42.
  4. This is akin to majesty of a human king that is very much felt in his presence, but is derived from his inner person, not his body. Yet it is through the bodily vestment that we perceive the king’s imminent presence. Similarly, when we accustom ourselves to seeing G-d through His vestments, namely the world that He created and vivifies, the fact of His invisibility ceases to obscure His presence. Rather than a far off and abstract being He now becomes an imminent and relevant one.
  5. This teaching is found in many places, but was beautifully presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM to Herbert Weiner. See www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/524749/jewish/Alone-with-Little-Moses.htm
  6. Exodus 24: 7.

 

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