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Home » Free Choice, Lech L'cha, The Jewish Faith

Lech L’cha: True Faith

Submitted by on November 2, 2019 – 11:14 pmNo Comment | 1,532 views

True faith is not easy to come by. Abraham possessed true faith, but most people in his generation were incapable of true faith until a particular event occurred that made it possible to achieve true faith.

Let me tell you two stories about Abraham:[1]

The first story: At the age of three, Abraham was wise enough to realize that the universe could not have been created by idols carved of wood or stone. He also understood that the planets and stars could not be responsible for our existence. He concluded that there must be a single creator, who is invisible and unknowable, but who is eternal, omnipotent and omniscient. Abraham could not stand by and watch people believe foolishly in idolatry, so he began to hold mass lectures and open debates about Monotheism.

Abraham’s efforts made inroads in the Mesopotamian society, where he lived, and this threatened the status quo. Nimrod, the king of Mesopotamia, had young Abraham imprisoned, but Abraham would not acquiesce. Wanting to make a spectacle of Abraham, Nimrod built a cauldron of flaming fire and ordered Abraham bound and thrown into the fire. Abraham’s bindings quickly burned, but Abraham was miraculously unhurt. He simply walked out of the fire. When the people saw this, they prostrated at his feet, but Abraham pointed them to the one true G-d.

The second story: Many years later, Abraham was living in Israel when his old nemesis Nimrod made war against several local tribes including Sodom, where Lot, Abraham’s nephew had settled. When Abraham got word that Lot had been taken captive, he marched into battle. Miraculously, Abraham defeated Nimrod’s army and rescued his nephew. On his way home, Abraham passed by a field of claypits, where several of the defeated kings and their entourages had taken refuge. The claypits became a death trap as the kings began to sink to their deaths. Several died horribly, but as Abraham passed by, a miracle occurred. The king of Sodom, alone among the refugees, emerged from the pit unaided.

The Link
Two stories of rescue separated by many years. One occurred to Abraham and the other in Abraham’s presence. That is the extent of the commonality. The subjects of the miracles could not have been more different. One was pious and deserved to be saved, the other was the king of Sodom, a vicious that was eventually punished by extinction for its crimes. Why did G-d save this terrible king?

Our sages offered the following insight. Some people did not believe that Abraham had been saved miraculously, but when the king escaped the claypits, they believed in Abraham’s miracle retroactively.[2]

This is a curious explanation for several reasons. Firstly, how could people deny an event that occurred before hundreds of witnesses who could corroborate the story?[3] Second, the king of Sodom was pagan. If anything, he would have attributed this miracle to his idols rather than to G-d, in which case this miracle would serve to plant further seeds of doubt in the hearts of the deniers.[4]

Fact and Faith
There is an appreciable difference between fact and faith. If you know something to be true, and can prove it, you don’t need to believe it. It is precisely when questions arise and doubts creep in—when you can no longer prove it—that faith becomes possible. At this point, you either deny it or believe it.

On this basis, the meaning of our sages’ statement can be redrafted. Those who had witnessed Abraham’s miracle at the cauldron could not deny what they saw. The only possible explanation for this event was that G-d had come to Abraham’s rescue to bear out his righteousness. But since the miracle gave them proof of G-d, there was no room for faith in G-d. They knew G-d and, thus, could not believe in G-d.

Once the king of Sodom, a vicious rascal who did not deserve to be rescued, experienced a similar miracle, those who witnessed Abraham’s miracle could doubt their earlier conclusions. If a degenerate pagan like the king of Sodom could experience a miracle, they could conclude that (a) pagan gods can also perform miracles and (b) those who experience miracles are not necessarily righteous. They could now doubt the two conclusions they had reached earlier. A, Abraham was not necessarily saved by the G-d of Abraham and (b) Abraham’s salvation did not vindicate Abraham’s views.

Now that those who witnessed Abraham’s miracle could experience legitimate doubt, the door opened for them to believe. When you know that G-d exists, the choice is taken from you. When G-d reveals Himself and proves His existence beyond a shred of doubt, you have no choice but to accept Him. When G-d is concealed, and there are many plausible arguments against His existence, it becomes possible for you to accept G-d on faith.[5]

This was so important to G-d that He was willing to risk the possibility that many, who had embraced Him after witnessing Abraham’s miracle, might now reject Him. G-d doesn’t cherish the embrace of those who believe in Him only because they have no choice, i.e. they were stripped of the ability to reject Him. G-d cherishes the embrace of those who can reject Him but who choose to believe in Him. That is precious to G-d and He was willing to lose hundreds of embracers to gain one or two believers.

When all seems lost, when we feel abandoned by G-d, but continue to believe in Him anyway, our faith means something. That is when we are tested and are true colors emerge. That is why our sages taught that our ancestors were not bonded to G-d when they received the Torah at Sinai. At that point, it was hard not to believe. It was at Purim, when they faced extinction and believed anyway, that they truly internalized their faith in G-d.[6]

This is also why many of our sages were jealous of our generation. They said, I want the Mashiach to come, but I don’t want to live in the generation that will experience it. [7] This generation has many trials of faith. Compared to Biblical times, we see few miracles and cannot prove G-d’s existence,[8] but precisely because of this, our faith is meaningful. Our sages did not want to be tested as our generation is tested, nevertheless, they were jealous of the purity of our faith.

[1] Bereshis Rabbah 38:13 and 42:7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] We are aware of today’s Holocaust deniers, but (a) this occurred in Abraham’s lifetime and (b) the deniers are hardly taken seriously. It is hard to imagine G-d performing a miracle for the deniers.

[4] Nachmanides (Genesis 14:10) asked this question and answered that since the miracle occurred as Abraham passed by, it was evident that it was in Abraham’s merit and that the G-d of Abraham was responsible.

[5] Imrei Harim ad loc.

[6] Shabbos 88a.

[7] Sanhedrin 88b

[8] We can argue many aspects of G-d’s existence and can demonstrate that it is more rational to believe in G-d than to not believe in G-d. But we cannot prove that G-d exists because G-d transcends all logical arguments. As a wise man once said, the G-d whose existence can be proved is not a G-d I could believe in.

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