Faith forms the bedrock of Judaism. Our religion is pivoted upon a three-part system of Torah study, mitzvah performance and belief in fundamental religious principles. In practice, we are often so intensely immersed in study and ritual that we take our faith for granted. Even though faith is actually a mitzvah in itself, we sometimes don’t invest significant resources in studying or articulating its details. True, it is deeply ingrained but it often remains in the background. To a degree, this inattention is understandable and even may be beneficial; constant questioning and probing of belief systems can often destabilize faith.
However, tragic events often force us to stare into the religious mirror and probe our faith. These events may be personal struggles similar to the travails of Iyov, who struggled to reconcile his personal misfortune with his belief in a God of mercy and justice. Additionally, large-scale disasters can elicit questions of faith; facing the imminent obliteration of Sodom, Avraham is wracked with theological questions as he challenges God’s decision. Tragedy can raise questions of faith to the surface while forcing us to reconsider an innate belief system that we often leave unspoken. Questioning faith isn’t necessarily a sign of religious frailty or rebelliousness. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, wrote, “Asking questions is itself a profound expression of faith in the intelligibility of the universe and the meaningfulness of human life . . . questions testify to faith—that history is not random . . . that what happens to us is not blind chance. We ask not because we doubt but because we believe.” Sincere questioning is an attempt to reconcile bewildering events with our unending belief that God is compassionate and justful.
The past year has evoked numerous questions for religious people. How could a compassionate God allow such indiscriminate death and widespread suffering among so many innocent creatures? When the world is shattered or wrecked by human behavior, we are less troubled about God’s decisions. By empowering Man with freedom of choice, God freely abdicated control over human experience. Evil madmen such as Hitler and Stalin will employ their God-given freedom to commit heinous crimes and drag humanity into disaster. Of course, God can always intervene and impede or redirect these decisions, but the natural order allows for human-manufactured suffering. However, a pandemic is a different calamity, one which isn’t necessarily wrought by human hands. Human malice isn’t responsible for a viral outbreak and for the past year of widespread death and global suffering. Certainly, we can trace various features of this pandemic to modern culture and technology, but the viral infection wasn’t directly authored by malevolent human behavior. Covid-19 has left us with many unanswered and unanswerable questions. Faith doesn’t just promise answers; it expects us to live with questions.
Yet the demands of emunah don’t end with discovering answers or accepting enduring mysteries. Emunah challenges us to process tragic events and to respond to the Divine mystery. How can people of faith process the sadness and misery of the past year while strengthening their emunah and their relationship with God? Here are five general guidelines to assist us in navigating this religious course and in reinforcing our faith.
1. Proportion or Panic
Faith lends proportion. Panic during crisis isn’t just a psychological handicap, it is also a product of unsteady faith. Whereas panic conjures worst-case doomsday scenarios, faith levels our assessment of suffering and provides a more nuanced version of the situation. After receiving the Torah on Har Sinai the Jews were concerned about Moshe’s delayed return from the mountain; but while concern or anxiety was legitimate, their dread and panic paved the road to idolatry. Likewise, we can’t indict the insubordinate spies for noticing the imposing military might of the warlords in the Land of Israel, but their panicked alarm and demoralizing tactics upon their return were shameful.
The death and suffering this past year were shocking, but we mustn’t ignore the potential greater tragedies that thus far have been averted. Any loss of life is devastating, but modern science and technology have braced humanity against more overwhelming fatalities. One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu—a two-year pandemic—took the lives of fifty million people or 2 percent of the world’s population. Thankfully, God has empowered modern science and technology to help contain this contagion while allowing us to maintain some semblance of routine life. The evolution of the Internet and rapid changes in communication have enabled us to maintain education, community and reasonable occupation from a distance in a manner unimaginable a mere twenty years ago. Appreciation of these factors and gratitude for our more manageable pandemic are also part of emunah.
Perspective also allows us to appreciate how prosperous our lives were before the pandemic set in. Loss always allows us to better savor the successes and achievements we had long since taken for granted. This year of dysfunction has frustrated us precisely because our world once was so functional. Since the end of WWII much of the modern world enjoyed a period of unprecedented success, scientific advances, economic prosperity and political freedom. The absence of major international wars yielded an atmosphere brimming with achievement, hope and optimism. Our ancestors would probably not recognize the thriving and booming pre-Corona world; theirs was one of hardship, poverty, struggle and, of course, unnatural death. Our glossy modern world lulled us all into a false sense of security, and our success stoked outsized expectations from life. Human experience is characterized by hardship and struggle, and this past year reminded us that the past seventy years may have been atypical or even illusory. Perspective demands that we take a poised view of hardship, and also that we place it in context of the human condition. Emunah demands a perspective that can sometimes be clouded by too much success.
Jews, as the people of history, are expected to possess historical perspective as well. There has never been a better time to be a Jew: we have revived our national dream and resettled our ancient homeland. Torah study and religious life are flourishing while our robust communities are thriving. We have been embraced by nations across the globe who have afforded us influence and affluence. Living through this euphoria, we have rapidly forgotten the persecution which Jews have faced over the past two thousand years. Our world of kosher vacations, Pesach programs and summer camps has been too cushioned and too upholstered. Our world remains unredeemed and life in this not-yet-redeemed reality will always be challenging—especially for the nation tasked with redeeming humanity. In the imperfect world which we occupy, the road will not always be as smooth as it has been during the recent past.
Toward the end of the First Temple era, Yerushalayim was miraculously saved when the 180,000 Assyrian soldiers encircling the city were supernaturally defeated. Chizkiyahu, the king, declined to recite Hallel because despite the victory in Yerushalayim, much of Northern Israel had been ransacked by those same Assyrian armies. His grand expectations for a perfect triumph blinded him to the incredible miracle he experienced, and because of this lapse, his Messianic potential was postponed.
We have been gifted with a front-row seat to seventy miraculous years of Jewish history and that ticket should empower us to weather struggle and to appreciate our fortune even in an imperfect world. Faith demands perspective, balance and gratitude—especially during crisis.
2. Faith and a Life of Uncertainty
A different challenge of this pandemic has been living under the specter of uncertainty. Humans crave predictability and routine, but the pandemic has riddled our lives with question marks. On a daily basis we faced “short-term uncertainty” about our schedules: lockdowns, school closures and social distancing and, of course, our employment and financial stability. On a broader scale we continue to face uncertainty about our long-term futures. We are confident that, with God’s help, our routines will soon return to semi-normal, but how will the world change in the aftermath of the pandemic? Will we travel as frequently? How will our communities and communal structures look? What are the long-term economic ramifications of the pandemic? How will our own personal trajectories be altered? As the pandemic starts to taper off, we face insecurity about the long-term future.
Faith demands that we learn to live with a degree of insecurity. Faith in God, and reliance upon Him, should be firm enough to allow endurance even during periods of insecurity; God is the only reliable and unalterable certainty in life and an insecure world helps us better appreciate that reliance. The desert generation of Jews perpetrated several heinous crimes and, according to some opinions (see the mishnah, Sanhedrin 110b) abdicated their share in the World to Come. Yet, the gemara concludes that, despite their waywardness, this founding generation still merited afterlife. Their uncommon faith in following God into the desert compensated for their numerous betrayals. For forty years this former band of enslaved Jews lived with uncertainty about their daily survival. Faith demands living alongside uncertainty and surviving unpredictability.
Faith doesn’t just promise answers; it expects us to live with questions.
Bolstering faith during periods of uncertainty deepens our relationship with God. David Hamelech was pursued relentlessly by Shaul and having escaped, he acknowledged, “God is my rock and my fortress, my escape” (Tehillim 18:3). This world can take everything from us, and when it does, we realize that the only constant in our lives that is immutable is our relationship with God. Life without the illusory façade of security spotlights our sense of dependence upon God.
3. Suffering Is Transformative
Chazal assert the value of yissurim shel ahavah—suffering of love (see Berachot 5a), in which suffering serves as a personal catharsis, atones for national sin or protects humanity from greater disaster. Yissurim shel ahavah are effective to the degree that a person willfully embraces his trial. Though Chazal extolled this willful embrace of suffering, such an ambitious reaction feels less realistic in a modern world in which the rules of religious cause and effect are no longer apparent. However, the overall concept of yissurim shel ahavah showcases that within each struggle lies opportunity for transformation. In fact, the term nisayon (trial) stems from the same etymology as “nes” or raised flagpole. A trial challenges us to raise the caliber of our religious personality and improve our religious commitment.
Unlike personal suffering which more easily translates into a Divine message for personal change, a global pandemic can be more difficult to decipher. Yet, faith demands that we personalize a pandemic and draw individual meaning and message. These personal messages should inspire growth in our religious commitment and observance but should also promote change in our general lifestyles. Life this past year has afforded us opportunities which our fast-paced pre-corona world deprived us of. We spent less time commuting but more time with our families. The pace of our lives slowed, and we were allotted more time to think and process. We re-examined the role of prayer in our lives and in our communities. Suffering alongside the larger community, we were reminded that we are a chosen people, but that we live among a broader community of humanity to which we are joined at the hip and whom we are expected to lead morally and spiritually. A crisis is to be endured, but a nisayon should incite growth personally and communally. There are personal messages about the religious tone of our lives just as there are cultural messages about the lifestyles we maintain.
4. Faith “Hovers” above Our World
The Torah describes a faceoff with a false prophet who speaks in the name of God while lobbing prophecies and performing impressive miracles. Though he purports to represent God, he contradicts commandments etched in stone at Sinai. His feats may be impressive and his stern warnings frightening, but we are unintimidated by his antics. Our faith is based on a seminal moment at Sinai during which we experienced a direct conversation with God. Nothing that occurs in this world, short of a repeat of that mass revelation, can usurp the authority of Sinai or surpass the direct revelation our own eyes witnessed. Our national faith is based on that collective memory, and nothing which occurs on this planet can topple that system of beliefs. My rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, once described faith as a sentiment that should be strong enough for a person to be the last remaining Jew in the world, to walk out of Auschwitz and to still remain committed. Torah and faith are eternal and in no way impacted by events on this earth. The tonality of our relationship with God may change, but the basic terms of our relationship with God remain immutable. Har Sinai, which launched the history of faith, was otherworldly, and therefore hovers above historical events.
5. Faith and Loyalty
The word emunah stems from the same etymology as the word ne’eman, which typically translates as loyalty. Faith in God must also express itself as loyalty to God. Emunah isn’t just an attitude, it’s a relationship. Loyalty demands sustaining a relationship even when the terms of that relationship aren’t clear and obvious. Faith isn’t only a rational belief in God but an emotional commitment to adhere to Him despite what may come. In a lecture delivered in 1974, Rabbi Lichtenstein elaborated upon this aspect of emunah:
[Faith] does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future. It does not claim that “it will all work out for the best,” either individually or nationally. On the contrary, it expresses a steadfast commitment—even if the outcome will be bad, we will remain reliant on and connected to God. We will remain faithful until the end and shall not exchange our trust in God for dependence on man. This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather, it asks us to remain at His side. . . . In truth, this approach presents not just a demand but also a message. Being disconnected from God constitutes the greatest tragedy that can befall a person. . . . [Emunah] expresses a trust in God Himself, not as a function of what I can receive from Him, but rather as trust in Him. This trust is unconnected with what one may get out of the relationship, but simply describes a connection to God. The desire to come close to Him, to serve Him, to rely upon Him, to take hold of the Foundation of all else and the Source of existence. . . .”
Steadfast faith in God should not only provide reassurance or psychological security; more importantly, it should bind us to God even as we suffer. Whatever our fate, it can’t be worse than being disconnected from God. We cannot control the larger forces in our world but we can determine the depth and pitch of that relationship.
We are living through a once-in-a lifetime crisis, and we will tell the story of this experience to our grandchildren. We will share how society adapted, marshalled its resources and overcame the type of threat that in past centuries, overwhelmed humanity. We will describe the manner in which our schooling and occupations were reconfigured. Hopefully we will also tell the story of an event that taught us all the deeper meanings of faith.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush. He has semichah and a BA in computer science as well as a master’s degree in English literature.