This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition. As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.
Faith is often contrasted with doubt. In this understanding, faith means absolute certainty, usually around the existence and lovingkindness of God, while doubt is defined by skepticism about those things. In truth, however, many people of deep faith live with a great deal of doubt. For instance, Mother Teresa’s private writings reveal that she struggled mightily to find the faith that she embodied for so many of her followers: “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? Even deep down, there is nothing.” Thankfully, our Jewish tradition does not depict faith in this manner. For us, faith and doubt can go hand in hand. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis notes: “Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey.”
For us, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear.
A Jewish understanding of faith—in Hebrew, emunah—as moving forward despite our fear, stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah. The parshah opens with God’s challenging call to Abraham:
The Eternal said to Avram: “Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .” Avram went as the Eternal had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.
Abraham’s journey demands an enormous amount of courage and trust. God tells him to go, on short notice, with no map or clear destination. And though he undoubtedly felt a great deal of trepidation around leaving his homeland and kin, Abraham complies.
Sarah’s departure demands even more faith, because she agrees to embark upon the same journey--without the benefit of Divine reassurance. Sarah only hears God’s call secondhand, through her husband. Yet she goes, too.
We can learn a great deal from Abraham and Sarah, for most of our major life decisions involve this same sort of faith. No matter how much preparation and research we may do, we are never really aware of what we’re getting into when we first leave home, or get married, take a new job, move to a different city, or decide to have children. These journeys always begin with a leap of faith. Like Abraham and Sarah, we move forward despite our fear, trusting that things will somehow work out.
And it’s not just the big transitions; most of our ordinary actions are also, ultimately, based on trust. One of my favorite descriptions of this reality comes from the poet Tomas Transtromer:
How much we have to trust, simply to live each day without
sinking through the earth!
Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.
Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust
that the emergency telegram isn't for us and that the sudden
axe-blow from within won't come.
In the Mussar tradition, emunah—faith in the face of fear—is a very important midah, which we develop through years of dedicated practice. This is a good week to concentrate on trusting the Holy One, or, if you prefer, the Universe. Consider some of the things that you take on trust, consciously or unconsciously. Notice the earth, firm beneath your feet. And, as Mussar teacher Alan Morinis suggests, “Stretch into the territory of risk, not recklessly, but with trust.”
Mussar Practice for this Week:
Write yourself a note with the phrase, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.” Taken from Psalms 56:13, the “you” traditionally refers to God, but feel free to redefine the grounding for your faith however works best for you. Carry the note around and read it regularly over the course of each day. What does the practice of emunah/faith look like for you in your work and/or family life?