Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            One of the more famous formulations in Judaism is 'I believe with perfect faith.'  What does that mean?  What about my faith is supposed to be perfect, and how do I achieve it?  This phrase is identified with the thirteen principles of faith listed by Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishneh, in the introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin.  However, he never used those words.  That expression became popular a couple of centuries ago, and appears in many prayer books right after morning services.  But the popularity of the Ani Ma'amin recitation does sort of require that we try to understand what is being demanded of us.  This week is the perfect (there's that word again) time to investigate this concept because in the week's Torah reading we have the famous verse:  And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant (Exodus 14:31).   This seems to be the instant of the greatest level of faith ever exhibited. 

            But was the faith demonstrated by the generation of the exodus and the splitting of the Sea perfect?  I'm not so sure, because this faith didn't seem to be very resilient.  Just a few days after the crossing of the Sea the Jews of the desert were whining about the conditions, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt.  The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moses and against Aaron in the desert (16:1-2).      That was not seemly behavior for those of perfect faith.  Of course, the situation deteriorated even further when a few short weeks after the revelation at Mt. Sinai the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf, apparently because Moshe was one day late returning from hobnobbing with God.  So, how perfect was their faith?  Maybe it was, indeed, perfect at that moment of seeing the Sea split, but didn't remain perfect.  Like in the expiration dates for our favorite foods, perfection may not have a long shelf life.

            Before we go on, I want to ask one question.  What exactly did the Jews believe at the shores of the Sea?  The Midrashic translation attributed to Rebbe Yonatan ben Uziel suggests that they believed in the veracity of every Divine statement and the prophecy of Moshe.  Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) explains that up until this point many Jews harbored doubts that Moshe was acting in concert with God.  Some suspected that Moshe was a magician like the Egyptian sorcerers.   However, finally at the Sea they firmly believed that Moshe and God were working together to bring about these wonders and the redemption.

            So, where does that leave us?  We're millennia separated from the miracles of the Torah, how are we supposed to have perfect faith about those events and our traditions which stem from them?  Is this a hopeless task?  Shall I rip those offending pages out of my prayer book?  Most of us (me, too) would like to shorten our prayer books anyway.  Recently I was learning about Mashiach with some wonderful teenaged students.  We came to the quote from Maimonides that we don't believe in this anticipated redeemer because of any sign or wonder that he may perform (Laws of Kings, 11:3, One should not entertain the notion that the King Mashiach must work miracles and wonders.).  These young people wondered how we'd know that this person was the Mashiach.  Well, he answers that question in the next law.  Maimonides writes:  If a king will arise from the House of David who delves deeply into the study of the Torah and, like David his ancestor, observes its mitzvoth as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law; if he will compel all of Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and repair the breaches in its observance; and if he will fight the wars of G-d; - we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.

            This appears to be Maimonides position on all issues of faith.  In his Laws of Basic Concepts he writes:  The Children of Israel did not believe in Moses solely because of the signs he presented, for someone who believes in a prophet solely because of the signs he presents their hearts are not true, for it could be that his signs are performed by means of spells and witchcraft (8:1).  We're even told in the Torah to ignore signs and wonders:  If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, 'Let us follow other gods' (gods you have not known) 'and let us worship them,' you must not listen to the words of that prophet (Deuteronomy 13:1).  Okay, so forget about miracles.  Where does faith come from?

            We come to faith the old fashioned way:  We work hard at it.  The path to faith is a long and difficult road.  It requires daily devotion to prayer and Torah study.  It demands that we are sincere in our mitzvah observance and diligent in our contemplation of moral behavior.  It necessitates a community of positive role models that we can respect and emulate. If we labor hard at this task and begin to feel within us the conviction that we are fulfilling the right and the just, then faith is born.  Rabbi Soloveitchik said that faith means an act that is only explainable through the revelation of Divine presence to man.  One must prepare for this revelation by living a pure and holy life, perfecting one's halachic ethical personality. There are no shortcuts to faith, not even super highways paved in the Sea.  And, perhaps, most importantly true faith emerges from within, and is not imposed from without.

            If we work hard at this endeavor, and sincerely develop an ethical life then maybe, just maybe, we can approach perfection in our faith.  But remember, perfection is not the norm in this world.            

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