Monday, February 5, 2007

The Lonely Faith of Man

A belated Beshalach post, by Benjy Ginsberg

I am always a little taken aback at our ancestors' short-term memory. It was only three days after the most miraculous moment in our nation's history, the Splitting of the Sea, before they forgot the notion of divine assistance and began complaining about the lack of food. And it’s always about food. First, there was no water, then they wanted bread, then they complained because there was no meat, and to wash it all down, another complaint for water. It’s a veritable four-course meal of kvetching.

It’s also a slippery slope. When they first complained for water, Moshe warns them not to forget the miracles that just happened, and G-d himself tested the people. By the time they get around to their next complaint for water, the Jewish people have sunk pretty low. Now, they are the ones testing G-d! How did things unravel so quickly?

Before the events in this week's Parsha, the Jewish people handled their tests with remarkable consistency. Aside from the episode where their workload was increased, there were no complaints or lapses in belief. But it’s not really that difficult to believe in G-d when your enemies are getting ten plagues. In fact, witnessing the plagues required no work or show of belief on the part of the Jews. The first active display of faith was sacrificing the Paschal lamb and applying its blood to the doorpost. By that time, they were scared stiff of the consequences of disobeying G-d. No, the first real test of faith for the Jewish people began after they left Egypt:

Pharaoh was approaching and the B’nei Yisrael lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were chasing after them; and they were very afraid, and the B’nei Yisrael cried out to G-d. (Shemos 14: 10)

Surrounded by the sea on one side and a furious Egyptian army on the other, the Jews turn to G-d to help them. G-d’s answer, though is very puzzling:

Why are you crying out to me? Go tell the B’nei Yisrael to move onward. (ibid 14: 15)

What’s wrong with beseeching G-d? Isn’t prayer a big component of dealing with crises? Why is Hashem insisting that the Jews abandon their praying?

The answer, as Rashi explains, is that Hashem was not rejecting this instance of prayer, he was just explaining that prayer was not necessary. G-d was trying to show the Jewish people the power of their own faith. The abundant faith that the Jewish people had displayed throughout all their difficult ordeals was powerful enough to split the sea. The only option, then, was to move forward, because the splitting of the sea was a foregone conclusion.

Having faith in the worthiness of your own faith is a difficult task to undertake. Actually, faith by itself is hard enough, especially for a nation that had been enslaved for over 200 years. Even with an incredible spiritual boost of seeing the Splitting of the Sea, the Jews don’t believe that they are worthy to keep receiving Divine protection. They are still convinced that they will die in the desert, that they are unworthy of the miracles that they had just witnessed.

On a simple level, that is the difference between Emunah, or belief in G-d, and Bitachon, or faith that G-d’s plan is all for the best. The Jews had an abundance of belief. They witnessed all of the miracles from the Ten Plagues to the Splitting of the Sea to the Manna falling from the sky. They knew with spectacular clarity that G-d is real and has the ability to do anything. They had a hard time, however, integrating the concept of Bitachon, that G-d’s plan centered on a miraculous exodus, that they were indeed worthy of Divine salvation.

Chazal famously compare two ideas to the "difficulty" of splitting the sea: finding one's spouse (Sanhedrin 22a), and earning a livelihood (Pesachim 118a). These two endeavors are essential to human existence, but are always accompanied by obstacles. It is easy to become discouraged, to lose faith in the Divine plan. Knowing something can happen is one thing, believing it will happen is another. That was the challenge for our ancestors at the Red Sea, and that remains a challenge for us today.


  1. Welcome back Benji!

    Should we have faith in our faith? Should we believe that spouses and livelihood will materialize simply in merit of faith that they will?

    Terrific post!

  2. I think what I meant to convey was that sometimes, when things look bleak, there can be tendency to think that G-d is punishing us - that instead of offering helpful challenges, he is out to get us (C”V). Our faith by itself will most likely not lead to spouses or livelihood or pots of gold at the end of rainbows, but a healthy, positive attitude that G-d is protecting all of us and only works for our benefits would go a long way.

  3. At the Red Sea, Chazal say there was a contingent of Israelites that wanted to fight the Egyptians. Why were they held back? Wasn't it a sign of faith that they were willing to take the initiative, and rely on Divine assistance to win the battle (as happens later with Amalek)? Why was it so important that G-d, and G-d alone, would "fight for you?"

    Thank you again, and Shabbat Shalom to all!

  4. How true. As a wise man once said, "You gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith!"