As the rhythm of the Jewish year flows from past setbacks, failures and disasters typified by Tisha B’Av to looking forward to Rosh Hashanah and the promise of the future, I personally find it a lot “easier” to accept that things have gone wrong than that they will go right. I suffer from a very widespread malaise within our people: Chisaron bitachon, an imperfect trust.
Oh, I have no problems — intellectual, emotional or spiritual — believing that God exists. That He created all there is, that He fills all creation with His essential Beingness, that we are, in final analysis, individual expressions of that Unknowable Unity. (One note: throughout this article, I use the masculine merely as convention; it’s fundamental that God incorporates and transcends gender, without requiring tokenism in speech or writing.)
I can also buy, intellectually at least, that God directs all of existence, that His ultimate aim is only good: The expression and realization of Divine love. I’ll also accept, perhaps a little grudgingly, that everything really will work out, that there is a higher, better realm of existence toward which we’re all headed, that the lion will, eventually, lie down with the lamb, that we’ll return in ultimate peace to our Holy Land, to Jerusalem, to a new expression and reality of the Holy Temple. I’m not even uncomfortable not knowing the details.
But when I try to apply that faith a little closer to home, addressing my own doubts and insecurities, it starts to break down. Why should the Creator of the universe take the time to look at, let alone care about, this individual life I call my own?
There is a mirror to this question. Just as I doubt God’s responsibility to me, I question my abilities to rise to the seemingly insoluble responsibilities and challenges our world now faces. How could God bring the world so close to the chaos and annihilation of economic collapse, ecological disaster, nuclear holocaust and worse, then dump it in our hands to manage? How, then, can insignificant I hope to make a difference and to have any real effect on these problems?
As Jews, we have a unique approach to life. We’re bound to the world and to its Creator through the mechanism of covenant. Our blessings and our responsibilities are directly and intimately tied with each other. But our unique relationship goes beyond “do this, do that” and even beyond “if you do this, I’ll do that.”
Rather, we’re heirs to a process where our mode of being is duty, reward and learning all rolled into one. Our path is described in the Torah. Our maximum reward and our means of achieving it are one and the same: to harmonize ourselves as much as we can to the Creator, imitating in the human arena His acts in the cosmic. We’re told to “Be holy because I am holy,” to be compassionate because He is compassionate, to be just because He is just, to be wise because He is wise and, as much as we can, to become whole because He is whole.
According to the Rambam, our first duty/mitzvah/clue/step is l’ha-amin, to believe. This very word, emunah, is very close to the word amanut, which means a craft. Just as an artist and craftsman works and reworks his medium in trying to perfect it, belief and trust also require constant work and tweaking and touching up. Blind faith is of no use to us as Jews.
To back up just a moment, we need to keep in mind that the Torah is richly minimalist. It is the very interface of the infinite into the finite. Condensed and concentrated into a limited number of words and letters, a finite amount of ink on a finite amount of parchment, is a full description of all that there is.
A fundamental postulate in our approach to understanding Torah is that it doesn’t “waste ink” in telling us anything we can figure out for ourselves. A common theme in the Talmud is called hava aminah, which means one could have thought — in other words, the Torah only intervenes to tell us something we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to know.
A byproduct of this, by the way, frees us from the rather stupid and unproductive chore of defending a fundamentalist/literal reading and all that implies. The Torah is neither, thank God, a science book nor a history book, so we don’t have to argue evolution or archeology. The Creator gave us the tools we need — intelligence, logic and observation skills — to discover the scientific and empirical on our own. The Torah is for what we can’t derive solely from fact-gathering and logic — that is, for the spiritual and ethical wisdom we need to reach our human potential of partnering with God to add the final touches to perfect Creation, thus earning our highest reward of becoming our highest selves.
This, finally, is the lesson I’m trying to share. We can reinforce and refine our emunah, craft our belief by taking this lead from God Himself. Just as He gives us the tools and abilities we need and then steps back, saying, as it were, “I trust you to reach your highest and to perfect your job,” we can enter the New Year with the mutual trust that God will, indeed, in spite of our inability to discern the details and the complex reasoning, complete and perfect this Creation of which we are all a part. May it be soon, in this coming year.