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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Why Might Faith in God Be Important to Us


Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 5773 (2012)
Why might Faith in God be Important to Us

What is faith in God? And why might faith be important for us? Today I want to differentiate faith from two more common attitudes. On the one side, agnosticism, on the other, certainty. In between agnosticism and certainty, stands, uneasily, unsure of itself, faith. I want to persuade you that having faith makes more sense than agnosticism. And I want to convince you that the person with just faith is closer to God than the person who is certain of God.

I begin with a story from this past year: Our children are now all in their 20's; we don't get to see them so much anymore. When one of them does come home, we take a Shabbat afternoon walk through Rock Creek Park together. It sounds nice, right, a lovely walk in the woods? But this year, I came to realize that these walks weren't always so pleasant. Even though I usually love walking through the woods, these strolls had become a source of anxiety.

Now, I was anxious for good reason. How could one not worry about children, and their schooling, their loves, their happiness, their budding careers. Unfortunately, that had become all that I felt during these walks. I enjoyed the woods, of course, and the occasional flower or butterfly, but my overarching emotion was anxiety.

Worse, yet, I always came to these walks with an agenda. Some particular point I felt it was urgent to make to the child. I always had a sermon that I felt they needed to hear. Now I knew, of course, that any nudging on my part had to be amazingly subtle to have any hope of producing an effect. So, the whole walk for me was about looking for an opening so that it wouldn't look like I'd brought up the topic. Of course, waiting for that opening when I could pounce made for an anxious walk for me, and also, quite likely, for my kids.

Only very recently have I found a way to work myself out of this incessant worry. Only recently have I realized that the point of these walks is not to nudge my kids. Perhaps you think I'm a ludicrously controlling parent, not to have realized this, not to have realized that a walk in the woods is not for nudging. But cut me a little slack here. When the kids were little, nudging, constant reminders, the certainty that Dad was right was all that was necessary. I had to be a nudge. As the kids got older, I realized that I had to change, but it's a tough transition to make, and it's not an abrupt one. There are still times when young adult children need to be lectured. So backing off, even though I know it's now more often the right approach, is hard to do.

Anyway, I came to see things differently partly because I finally recognized that my kids were way too smart for me, and that they could see my supposedly subtle nudge coming from a mile away. I came to realize that the point of our walks was just being together, sharing time with one another in a lovely setting. That was it. And it wasn't a little thing. In fact, I came to realize, maybe that togetherness was just about everything.

Along these lines, here's a passage from the New York Times this past year - if you want to look it up later, you can find it on page 6 of my packet. The article was entitled "Why Does it Matter That Families Eat Together?" by Sam Sifton (2 October 2011) - at the end of the article he writes: 

The goal is simply to gather and talk, eat and be merry. Who knows if any of it will make our children smarter or keep them safe from illness or delinquency? The point of our faith is not the future but the present. We are simply together when we so often are not, enjoying domestic comfort and good food and the feeling that everything is going to be all right, if only for the moment. 

I love that, especially the waffling in the last line: "the feeling that everything is going to be all right, if only for the moment." - so is everything going to be all right, or is it only for the moment?? There's faith in the beginning of the sentence - "the feeling that everything is going to be all right", and then there is the backtracking of the one who cannot admit to his faith, of the one addicted to rationality: "if only for the moment."

Or maybe I'm too harsh. Maybe this is faith. Faith is not absolute confidence that things are going to be all right. Faith is less sure of itself than that. In fact, maybe Faith and Doubt are like Siamese twins - you usually cannot separate them without killing them. You can have certainty without doubt - that's the definition of certainty. But faith without doubt? Isn't that just certainty?

There are many - Jews and non-Jews alike - who seem to feel that faith, well if faith isn't the same as certainty, at least it inevitably leads to certainty. I'm not so sure. There is an example of this faith-leading-to-certainty in one of the readings in the Yizkor service contained in our Shabbat siddur - it's not in our new mahzor, Lev Shalem, thankfully. Anyway, in a passage about national tragedy, it addressed God as follows:


In spite of your silence, we reaffirm hope,

Sustained by the certainty born of faith.


Ok, maybe certainty can be born of faith. But is that even a good thing? Certainty, I've come to believe, is less about God, than about the believer. Certainty cannot entertain doubt, and so is by its very nature defensive, and closed, and inflexible, even dangerous. I found with my kids that certainty got in the way of closeness.

Listen, this is a problem with all adult conversation in general. We tend to focus on getting our message out there, as opposed to listening to the other. As Stephen Covey is often quoted: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." For when we are desperately trying to get our message across, the conversation is closed, predictable, anxious. But if we can replace our certainty in our own message with faith, with the faith that our human companion is a creation of God, and as such has something important to share - well then the conversation has a chance to become open, unpredictable, holy.

So with all this in mind, I've backed down a little from certainty, towards mere faith. Faith in my children to make good choices, however different those choices might be from what I would have made. Faith even that God will, in some way, be with them in their lives. Which doesn't mean I have no doubts. I have plenty of doubts about what's best for them, and doubts about the choices they are making. But I've found that living with a faith riddled by doubt is actually less painful than living with certainty.

I have a different feeling on these walks nowadays. Not being certain about what's best for my kids, I don't have to fight them on every point, I don't even have any point I bring to the walk. I just come to listen. Oh sure, I'll give advice - a father can only change so much. But I'm not so convinced that if they reject my advice, then all is lost. And that feels good. And it's not just that the anxiety level is way down. During these walks I often have this powerful feeling of timelessness, of connection, connection both to the one I'm walking with, and connection with the whole human experience. There we are, two human beings who have known each other for many years, who love each other, who are just walking together in a beautiful setting. We may think that we differ on whatever issues lie between us. But in fact, we are very close.

Like Abraham and Isaac in today's Torah portion, as they walk towards their destiny. Do you ever feel like screaming at Isaac - "Don't go with him. Don't you see what he's about to do to you? How can you not get it - you are going to be the sacrificial offering?" Or maybe you're like me and prefer screaming at Abraham: "That's not God asking you to sacrifice a child. You must have heard wrong. Get off that mountain this instant!"

Well, even though Abraham can't hear us screaming, somehow Abraham gets the message. Somehow Abraham is able to hear God's messenger, and realize, albeit at the last minute, that sacrificing his son is not the right thing to do. What is it that opens Abraham's heart? And how could we open our hearts to God in a similar manner, and avoid dangerous certainty in our own lives?

Maybe the secret of Abraham's openness is the way he walks with his son Isaac. As you may have noticed, the Torah repeats a phrase in this story, using it both at the end of verse 6 and the end of verse 8: Vayeilchu sh'neihem yachdav. The two of them walked on, together. Yachdav. From the same root as echad, meaning: one. It's unusual for a story as terse as this one to repeat a phrase. So, what idea is this phrase, "the two of them walked on, together" trying to get across?

I note that the second use of this phrase occurs just after Abraham has listened to his child's concerns. Isaac asks "Uh, Dad, I see we've brought fire and wood; but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?" Now I had always thought that Abraham's answer was disingenuous: "God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son." Oh please. Abraham, you are just lying to your child - you plan to sacrifice him, not some lamb that God will provide.

But now I wonder if Abraham is himself having doubts about the mission. Abraham's listening to Isaac may have made Abraham a little less sure of himself. Maybe, after listening to Isaac's voice, Abraham is now thinking to himself - "Hmm, is this really what God wants? I'm not so sure anymore - maybe I need to wait further instruction - God will have to provide the lamb, either by reiterating his instructions, or maybe by changing them." Maybe this walk with his son has changed Abraham for the better. Maybe Abraham has exchanged the certainty with which he began this story, the certainty that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac, with doubt. And it is that doubt that opens Abraham up to the possibility of faith. "I hope that God will provide the lamb, my son."

This story is famous in our tradition for the "hineni" Abraham says when God first calls him. "Hineni", meaning, "here I am", here I am God, ready to do whatever you ask. But when you think about it, maybe that's not Abraham's most heroic moment in this story. It is relatively easy to say "hineni" when God calls, or when you think that God is calling, especially when God seems to be asking for something extravagant, something that will make you famous.

But there is another hineni in this story, found in verse seven. I wonder if maybe the hineni of verse 7 is Abraham's real heroic moment - the real example for us, today. Abraham says: "hineni, v'ni" - here I am, my son. The real hineni is that attitude of attentiveness when another human being is calling you out of the depths of their anxiety- can you listen to that, can you put your own agenda aside for a second, and hear the question? Can you prepare to abandon all your God-given certainty, and just listen. Can you just be there, and say hineni, my son, and nothing more. Because if you can do that, then maybe, just maybe you will get a glimpse of heaven.

It's not easy, listening. It's possible that it's a little harder for men than women, on average. And it's even harder via the telephone, or texting, or email. It usually takes face time, lots of it. A long walk is good. With Abraham and Isaac, it took three days of physical togetherness before the important conversation happened, before Isaac sensed that he could air his fears, and that those fears might be heard.

So, what is that glimpse of heaven Abraham gets? Abraham gets to hear the angel saying he doesn't have to sacrifice his son. Which, I think, is a pretty big reward. Call it the reward of clarity. This is what the person of faith can hope for - a moment of clarity. Not certainty. You don't want that. But a moment of clarity - that is divine.

So this morning I differentiate faith from certainty. But I also want to differentiate faith from the other side. Just as I think faith is better than certainty, I also believe faith is more healthy than agnosticism.

I worry we've lapsed, we Modern American Conservative Jews, into a lazy agnosticism, an agnosticism which doesn't help us at all. I worry that we think that there are only two options with regards to belief in God, namely, certainty and agnosticism. And since we're very uncomfortable with certainty, we choose what we believe to be the only other option.

So let me speak to those of you who think you are agnostics. Are you really agnostic? Some parts of God you're fine with. For example, you're ok with the God of meaning - that you can live with, that aspect of God you even celebrate. You sense a purpose to life, even if you profess no belief in God at all. You feel that we have been given a job to do, that we are responsible for repairing at least some little piece of this damaged world. We each may have a different role in this world-repairing scheme, and we may differ loudly about the best way to go about tikkun olam, but you are on board with the concept - we're here, at least in part, to make a difference for good.

Now, you may not think that it is God who sent us on our mission - maybe you think it is the Jewish Tradition, or maybe you think it is just common sense that gives us our charge to do good. I don't want to get into that question today. I don't want to quibble about definitions of God - for the purposes of this drash, I just going to call that force which calls us to do good, God. And the fact is, a huge part of what means to be a Jew is about being burdened with this God of meaning - again, even if we wouldn't all feel equally comfortable calling it God. So we're really not agnostics, most of us, I don't think.

Anyway, my bigger question today is: is that all of God? Is God just a God of demands and requirements? Is that all we can bring ourselves to believe in? Or are there other sides to God as well, other aspects that might be helpful in our lives? Because if God is just about demands, well, isn't that a pretty tough God? All work, and no reward. All demands, and no love. Who wants that kind of God, always schreiing about what you haven't done, but never appreciative of the work you have accomplished? Kind of like the parent who is full of jobs - clean your room, get good grades, get a good job, marry a Jew - but who is very sparing on the praise for a job well done. The kind of parent who, when you bring home a 98 on a test, has only one predictable, deflating, comment: "So nu, what about those two other points?"

I wonder. Could we non-Orthodox Jews ever have faith in a God that loves us, in a God that that not only commands but also rewards? Could we believe even in a God that comforts us, as well as challenges us? Because if we cannot, if we can only believe in a God of endless demands, then these High Holidays will not be the Days of Awe, as much as the Days of Anxiety. Granted, a Jew cannot ignore the God of meaning. But a Jew can, if he wants, ignore the God of love. But why would he want to?

Today, I talk about faith in a God who is not just strict with us, but is also good to us. Now I realize that this is problematic. Too many bad things happen to too many good people for us to think that God is good in any simple way we can be comfortable with. All I'm saying is that sometimes, God gives us gifts. Gifts of clarity. Which is, of course, not as much as might be wished. It's not long life, or even a healthy life, or, as I mentioned before, certainty. It's just clarity. Don't think this is nothing. It saved Abraham's son, and thus our entire people. It saves lives every day. This clarity gives us strength in difficult times, it helps us endure tragedy and disappointment.

Last year, I read Victor Frankl's "The Will to Meaning" - a book he wrote years after his more famous book "Man's Search for Meaning". In the later book, Frankl asserts that there are three sources of meaning in our lives. Creativity, Experience, and Attitude. [repeat] I'm not sure why he limits himself to those three, or exactly how he delimits Creativity and Experience. But I'm completely with him on attitude. You can be an extraordinarily creative person, but still have an attitude that ruins your life - we see this on the gossip pages every day. And as far as experiences are concerned - we have all seen how a child can get fussy and unappreciative over what should have been a lovely outing. For that matter, we adults can get fussy and unappreciative also. You need the proper attitude to distill meaning from your life.

I mention Victor Frankl because faith is also an attitude. An attitude which a person can choose to cultivate, or not. Faith can bring meaning, just as a lack of faith can reduce meaning. It's your choice.

But maybe the word "faith" is putting you off. It somehow doesn't feel Jewish, you think. A Christian has faith, you think, but a Jew actually gets things done. Ignoring the negative stereotyping in that thought, let me try to address this concern. It turns out that the Hebrew word for faith, emunah, has, like most Biblical Hebrew words, a number of different, related meanings. Emunah means not just faith, but also faithfulness.

Let's take a look at a passage in the Amidah, one that we'll be singing together in just a few minutes. It's on page 142, 6 lines up from the bottom in the Hebrew. [repeat, wait]. Ok, so two lines from the end, we have [sing] "u'mkayyem, emunato leeshaynay afar". It's translated accurately in the English: "who keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust". Obviously, it doesn't mean who has faith in the dead. It's about keeping faith, or, faithfulness.

Now the fact that Emunah means not just faith, but also faithfulness helps me relate to the concept. Faith, which is just about belief, seems somehow very theoretical, and as such, maybe a little less important . But faithfulness - that's really about actions, it's a quality, a quality that describes a set of actions, or a person who did some particular deeds.

Maybe you, like me, feel a little funny aspiring to be a man of faith. But a man faithful to God's word - that I'm perfectly fine shooting for. And I could be faithful to God's commands, even when my faith in God sometimes wavers.

Which is not to undercut what I've said so far this morning. We do need faith - we need it for so many things. We need faith that we have a mission. We need faith that we can carry out at least a piece of that mission. We need faith that our mission is not just a self-deluded attempt to get attention. We need faith that we aren't completely deceiving ourselves today. We need to believe that we are able, however imperfectly, to evaluate our own actions, and make changes when needed. There are those who say such change isn't really possible. That's not what we believe. We have faith in the possibility of change, in the possibility that we humans can be, at least occasionally, open to a different way of looking at things, a different way of doing things. We cannot live on rationality alone. We need God's help.

Psalm 27, the psalm for this season, ends on just this note. Let's turn to it, on page 27 of your mahzor. [wait] Look at the last couplet - the last couplet is so painfully unclear. You'll see it translated a number of different ways. Our Shabbat siddur, Sim Shalom translates it as a cry of confidence:

"Yet I have faith that I surely shall see Adonai's goodness in the land of the living." [repeat]

Which would be a fine translation if only the first word in the Hebrew were not "lulay". But "lulay" occurs 14 different times in the Tanach, and it always means the same thing: "If not" or "if it were not that". A better translation, which I find both more unsettling and more powerful is thus more like:

"If I had not believed that I surely shall see God's goodness in the land of the living..."

You see our mahzor takes it even a little farther. "If only I could trust that I would see God's goodness." I think that's a little more doubting than the original. But you get the idea. This writer knows about doubt and faith. There have been times when he just could not bring himself to believe - that's part of his faithful attitude.

This psalmist is not an agnostic, he's not indifferent. He doesn't throw up his hands, and say, well, maybe there's a God, maybe there's not, whatever. It's a matter of life of death for him. If I hadn't believed, at least some of the time, that there was goodness in this world...who knows how I would have endured. Thus the last line: [read it].

If you are hoping for closeness to God, it may be that certainty is an unhelpful attitude. Better than certainty, if you want to experience God, might be faith. A faith that there is a bit of God in everyone. A faith that, the more you listen, the more open you are to God's creatures, the better glimpse you will have of our crowd-sourced God.

God will be with you in your uncertainty - in fact, it is only in your uncertainty, that you can be faithful to God's unpredictable presence.