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Parashat – 01/08/2010

Weekly Torah portion:

Parashat Shemot

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And Yosef died and all his brothers and that whole generation …

Once Yosef was gone, Israel’s protector in high places was gone, and things went south pretty quickly after that.  This is as was foretold at the “Convenant between the Pieces” (See Gen. Chapter 15) – Know for sure that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will afflict them, four hundred years… Now Gd’s announcement of the Egyptian exile comes right after he has promised Abraham that he would be given the Land of Israel.  Abraham’s response is “How will I know that I will inherit it?”  (This whole exchange takes place 30 years prior to Yitzchak’s birth, so the idea of having offspring was already getting fairly questionable in Abraham’s mind.)  From this juxtaposition our Sages deduce that the Egyptian exile was required by a lapse of faith on Abraham’s part, and provided the opportunity for Abraham’s offspring to grow in faith and rectify this lapse.  The entire rest of the Torah, and perhaps the entire rest of the Hebrew Bible, can be looked at through the lens of Israel’s waxing and waning faith.  The foundations are in our Parashah.

We must understand what we are talking about when we discuss Abraham’s level of faith.  First, Abraham was the only member of his generation to get past the prevalent climate of polytheistic idol worship and to recognize that there is one Gd who created Heaven and earth.  Abraham was able to argue with Gd (about Sodom and Gemorrah) and was even able to transcend his own conception of what Gd must be, when Gd told him to slaughter his son as an offering.  He had an intensely personal, direct relationship with Gd.  This was not a person of little faith!

On the other hand, Abraham was also the founder of the Jewish nation.  Every beginning is both very precious and very delicate.  Any slight deviation at the beginning of a process will be amplified as the process continues, leading to disastrous results in the end.  If the foundation of a building is out of alignment, the building will surely not stand.  The same lack of alignment in the roof will not be nearly so threatening.  Therefore, if there was any slight lack in Abraham, and nobody in the Bible is perfect, it needed to be corrected early on, before the very existence of the nation of Israel became impossible.

When we use the word “faith” in English it is often modified by the word “blind.”  That is, we think of faith as belief in something that has little or no rational basis.  This is very far from the Jewish understanding of faith.  In our tradition faith is always based on experience.  For example, we often hear the expression “faith in our Sages” (emunat chachamim) – those Sages who have proven themselves by giving sound guidance have earned our faith, and although we may not always understand their reasons behind some of their rulings, we do owe them our faith.

In the case of faith in Gd of course we can’t speak of Gd’s earning our faith.  Gd created us and we owe him all our allegiance, trust and love.  Where there is a process of development is in our ability to know and understand Gd’s ways, and to emulate them in our individual lives.  As we grow, our faith grows, and as our faith grows, we grow.  It’s a self-reinforcing cycle of growth, and we see, even in the greatest of our leaders, the same process of growth.

In our Parashah we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is quite resistant to leading the Israelites out of Egypt.  He has no faith in himself, and very little faith in the people that they are deserving of redemption.  All this, it seems to me, may be reflective of a lack in his faith in Gd.  Had Moshe had perfect faith that Gd could, and would, carry out His plan of redemption, I think he would not have had the slightest hesitation.  But we see here that even in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, there is room for growth.  (Contrast the tentative, tongue-tied reluctant leader of our Parashah with the Moshe Rabbeinu of Deuteronomy for example.)  Malbim (19th century Poland/Lithuania) points out that at the beginning of Parashat Va’era the word used to describe Gd’s communication with Moshe Rabbeinu changes, from the root ‘amr,  to say, which is used with all the Prophets, to dvr, to speak, which is unique to Moshe Rabbeinu.  This indicates, as Malbim says explicitly, that Moshe Rabbeinu has reached a new level in his relationship with Gd, one that is more intimate, and one in which all doubts and obstacles to faith have been removed.

Our time is certainly not one in which faith is highly valued, even (sometimes especially) by those who loudly proclaim themselves as people of faith.  I would submit that as faith has waned, experience of the Divine has waned, and as experience of the Divine has waned, doubts have replaced faith.  What faith we have is often a relic, passed down from our ancestors and venerated under glass, not a living, breathing, integral part of our lives.  We need to restore our faith, and to do so I believe we have to learn to see the world with different eyes.  We need to look beyond the surface level of existence, and learn to perceive the play of the Divine, infinite effulgence of life in every little bit of existence.  Prayer and Torah study I have found to be two very effective ways to begin on this road.  It is a very different path than one commonly finds in our world today, but it is the path trod by our great and holy forebears, and it leads straight to an intimate relationship with Gd.  What more could we want?!