Sunday, January 10, 2021

Portion Vaera: Faith/Emunah

During my rabbinical school years, I attended a fascinating debate between two faculty members—one a devout believer, the other a staunch atheist.  They disagreed about almost everything, and as the conversation wore on, each of them grew frustrated.  Finally, the atheist exclaimed: “You keep asking me why I don’t believe, based on the Torah!  Well, if I had seen firsthand the miracles described there—the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the thunderous voice upon Mt Sinai—then I, too, would have faith in your God.”  To which the believer responded: “No—if you had been there, you’d have turned to me and asked, ‘What’s this ruckus all about?’”

In this week’s Torah portion, we see the truth of this argument: miracles never make believers out of skeptics.  Pharaoh repeatedly fails to take to heart the lesson of the plagues; for him, seeing is not necessarily believing.  Alas, as the story of our liberation unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that the Israelites are equally unconvinced by God’s marvels.  Miracles do not move us any more than they do Pharaoh.  Much as his heart is hardened, our spirits are crushed.  Thus, when Moses first performs portents and proposes to bring us out of Egypt, we refuse to listen.  Immediately after our miraculous passage through the Red Sea, we complain about the bitter water.  Our response to the revelation at Mt Sinai is to ask Aaron to make us a golden calf.  Indeed, in the entire Hebrew Bible, there is not a single case of a miracle inspiring sustained faith in God for anyone.  My teacher, Rabbi Herbert Brichto, z”l, argued that this is, in fact, the core lesson of miracles: Torah comes to teach that they are no grounds for spiritual living.  We don’t believe on account of what we see; we see on the basis of what we believe.

So if miracles inevitably fall flat, what does constitute a firm foundation for a faithful life?  David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are swimming along when they meet an older fish coming from the opposite direction.  “Morning, boys,” he says, “How’s the water?”  The two young fish continue along silently until eventually one of them looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

Wallace’s point is simple: the only way to open our hearts—and therefore also our eyes—is to live mindfully.  What blinds the young fish—and Pharaoh and our own biblical ancestors and, of course, ourselves—is our tendency to operate wholly unconsciously, to take things for granted rather than making our choices consciously.  Our challenge is, as Wallace notes, to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”  It all begins with mindfulness.  Full consciousness is the real miracle.  


The Hebrew noun for faith—emunah—refers to a kind of trust and reliability.  It is less a matter of belief and more a case of mindful conviction.  When we commit to true attentiveness, we see that there is always more than meets the eye, whether or not we choose to call it God.  As Alan Morinis notes, “in Mussar, faith is not so much something held as pursued.  How could it be otherwise when relating to divinity that is not only hidden, but that has hidden that very hiddenness?”

Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week, begin and end each day with the words of the Shema:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad

Pay attention, children of Israel, the Holy One is our God, the Holy One is One.

As you speak or sing the words, be mindful of your breath—and of the beauty in the people and world around you.  For a moment, at least, trust in the God/the Universe.

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