Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, January 25, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            We had a meaningful Martin Luther King Jr. Day Commemoration at our synagogue last week, and Reverend Doctor Tommie Jackson of the Faith Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church here in Stamford addressed the diverse audience as 'brothers in faith'.  I liked that.  We often refer to religious people as members of a faith based community.  What is the source or basis for our faith?  Does faith replace or trump evidence?  These are questions which haunt me and are very significant in this science based modern world.  Furthermore, these are good questions to ask this week when our parsha boldly proclaims that the Jews crossing the Yam Suf (usually translated as the Red Sea) 'believed in God and the Divine servant, Moshe (Exodus 14:31).'  However, I think that when we analyze this verse we have more questions than answers.

            My first problem with this declaration of the profound faith that the Jews had in God and Moshe is:  What kind of faith is this?  The same verse begins by telling us that they saw the great hand of God.  This isn't a statement of faith; this is eyewitness testimony.  Can we have faith in the presence of proof?  I have always felt that faith is a belief not based on proof.  So, aren't the two statements (1. they saw God's hand and 2. they believed in God) contradictory?  Not necessarily.  There are a number of ways around the problem.  First, we can say that the seeing of God's hand was metaphoric.  What they saw was perceived as God's hand because of their intense faith.  Secondly, one might suggest that the inclusion of Moshe was the major point of praising their faith.  They might have deep trust in God, but that wouldn't necessarily transfer this to Moshe and his leadership.  Finally, from a careful reading of the upcoming Song of the Sea, one can notice that the poem neatly divides into two parts.  The first section is about the miraculous events at the Yam Suf.  That later material discusses the future conquest of Israel and the eventual total domination of the native populations.  That was the point of great faith; the Jews at this moment in time believed with perfect faith that God would always be with them.

            But I really think that there's a deeper problem with this statement of devout belief.  The Torah informs us that the Jews had this marvelous trust in God.  Was that really true?  If the Jews' loyalty to God was so staunch, why didn't it last?  By the end of this week's Torah reading the Jews are in open rebellion against God and Moshe's leadership, the very things they have just proclaimed beyond question.  The complaints about food and the rebellion over water are just the beginning.  When Moshe returns slightly later than expected from Mount Sinai, the Jews immediately threw away the most basic commitment to Judaism, the prohibition against idolatry.  The Torah testifies that at the shores of the sea the Jews' faith was deep, total and pure.  But why, oh why, was it so short lived?

            A hint to an answer to this conundrum can be found in the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204).  In his Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, Maimonides states:  The Children of Israel did not believe in Moses because of the signs he presented, for someone who believes in a prophet because of the signs he presents is tainted, for it could be that his signs are performed by means of spells and witchcraft. All the signs that Moses performed in the wilderness were done so according to the needs of the moment, and not to bring proof to his prophecies. There was a need to sink the Egyptians, so Moses split the sea and drowned them in it; the Children of Israel needed food, so Moses brought down the manna for them; they needed water, so Moses split the rock for them; Korah and his followers rebelled, so Moses opened up the ground and they were swallowed up (Chapter Eight).  According to the Rambam, it's bad to believe because of signs and wonders.  Belief based on miracles lasts as long as the miracles.  If one's faith is based upon the nature of what's happening right now, then that person is going to be very fickle indeed.  We're not impressed with fair weather friends.  And, perhaps, this explains the continual lapses in faith presented by the Jews in the desert. 

            So, if, in the final analysis, we don't base our beliefs on these marvelous miracles, and we're supposed to treat them like impressive magic shows (notice how many magicians are Jewish?), then what is the basis of our faith in God and Torah?  Well, the Rambam says that our faith is built on the experience at Mount Sinai when the people heard directly form God, and didn't have to listen to a prophet or intermediary.  However, I'd like to present another idea which I read in an article by Professor Nathan Aviezer of Bar Ilan University and it truly resonates with me.  Prof. Aviezer wrote: The Torah reveals an extremely important message in the accounts of the splitting of the Red Sea and the golden calf.   The prevalent view that miracles bolster faith is fundamentally flawed.  The way to true faith is not the short road of wonders and miracles, no matter how impressive they may be.  The way to true faith is only the long, arduous road of daily devotion to studying the Torah, to observing its commandments, to deep thinking, and to living in a community of others sharing the same faith.   There is no shortcut to faith.   That situation of the people having "faith in the Lord and His servant Moses" does not endure at all.

            We may like to think that faith comes in a flash of insight or moment of miracle.  Really it comes from a life of thought and discovery.  There's an argument about when Avraham discovered God.  One source says three years old, another says forty.  The Rambam explains that he started thinking about the problem when he was three and got the answer when he was forty.  Thirty-seven years, that's about right.  Why should we think that we'll get it faster?            

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