The journey toward faith
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TorahParshat Yitro

The journey toward faith

Exodus 18:1- 20:23

(File photo)
(File photo)

In the aftermath of the 10 plagues, the Pharaoh has “let” the people of Israel go. But when it’s time to leave, the people take a circuitous route out of Egypt. Instead of going straight to their destination, God directs them to follow a different path that will take them to the Sea of Reeds. God does this intentionally because a straight route would have had the Israelites run directly into the Philistines which may have brought about a war that would have sent the Israelites running back to Egypt.

In the aftermath of hundreds of years of slavery, the faith of the Israelites is not rock-hard. But on their path leading to the Sea of Reeds, they come face-to-face with a major test of their faith. In front of them is the Sea of Reeds and coming up behind them is the Egyptian army.

There is a famous midrash about this moment in Israelite history. At God’s instruction, Moses tells the people of Israel to go forward toward and into the sea. No one wants to go first. They hesitate, waiting to see what happens when someone else goes in first. Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav, seeing the deadlock needs to be broken, heads into the sea. As Nachshon moves forward where the water is getting deep and above his nostrils so that he will not be able to breathe, he has clearly demonstrated his faith. God instructs Moses to raise his staff, and the water famously parts creating dry land for the Israelites to cross.

Nachshon was solid in his faith. He was sure of it, and should have been an example to those who were standing around waiting to see what happened before they walked into the sea. Yet it does not appear from the rest of the Torah that the Israelites learned this lesson. It is quite the opposite. The rest of the journey to Canaan includes many examples of a major lack of faith, from the 10 spies who report erroneously to the people about their scouting mission to Canaan, to the incident of the Golden Calf, and even to the unnamed man who goes out and collects wood on Shabbat immediately after learning of the commandment to observe the Shabbat. In fact, it is the lack of faith of the 10 spies that dooms the slave generation to die in the wilderness.

How is it that some people are so sure in their faith, while others struggle? The famed Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Rambam, was so sure in his faith in God and what God stood for that he codified that belief into 13 principles. As a prelude to each of the principles, he states that “I believe with a full belief.” His principles include a basic and firm belief in God and in God’s commitment to a future in which the dead are resurrected. Every time we sing the Yigdal prayer in the synagogue, we are singing a version of Rambam’s principles.

But one has to wonder what would happen if each person was asked to write down a basic statement of faith. Could each of us be as certain as Rambam? Rambam does not say anything terribly controversial. The remarkable thing is his statement that he believes with an emunah shlayma, a complete and utter faith, like that of Nachshon.

But for some, faith is not so certain and concrete. For some, the issue of faith is a struggle, much like the struggle of Jacob with the angel. It is, in fact, how Jacob got his name of Yisrael, one who has struggled with God. And inasmuch as we are the Children of Yisrael, we are the children, descendants, and inheritors of that same struggle.

Perhaps that is why Judaism focuses itself much more on action than it does on questions or commandments of faith. While we might struggle with the concept of faith, our ability to consistently carry through on ritual practices and ethical directions connects us to God in profound ways. While the perfect faith of the Rambam, Nachshon and others like them is admirable, for many faith is a struggle. And just as importantly, it is a journey, one with no end point. It is a journey that through its continuous effort brings us closer to God even when we don’t feel it or know it’s happening.

The journey toward God and faith has many paths and routes. Each of us has a path we can walk with God. As it says in the book of Micah 6:8. “He has told you O man what is good. And what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice and to love goodness and walk modestly with the Lord your God.” The journey toward faith requires that we find the path where we can walk humbly with God, where we can get close to God. We don’t need to be Nachson. But we do need to be walking. PJC

Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is the rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue.

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