Faith in Hard Times
Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve
September 29, 2019 • 1 Tishrei 5780
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
When I realized, years ago, that I felt called to be a rabbi, I had a problem. Yes, I was a woman, and that was a problem then, and a lesbian, and that was a bigger problem. I grew up celebrating Jewish holidays but never going to synagogue; that was not so much of a problem.
But none of those were the big problem. There was something more important. I didn’t believe in God.
But I’m persistent, so I dug in to explore what Judaism teaches about belief, and I discovered that our tradition is built on something different: faith.
I did have faith, and I still do. Faith, or in Hebrew, “emunah,” is what I want to talk to you about this evening. These are hard times for having faith, but the hard times make it even more important.
Hard times: the absurd, but real, high-stakes dramas playing out in our nation, and in many other places throughout the world. The exploitation of racism, sexism, religion, and fear of the “other” to gain power for corrupt purposes. Rising seas, melting glaciers, hurricanes, fires, threat of mass extinction. Beyond these specifics, and many more, the 24-hour news cycle from an ever-expanding number of sources can be literally overwhelming, adding to a sense of impending threat.
What is faith during such frightening, turbulent times?
It’s the same question we might ask ourselves on a personal level when our lives are in turmoil.
Let’s go back to the word “belief.” It means having knowledge or certainty. In English the word "faith" often means the same thing.
The Hebrew word for faith, though, “emunah,” has more to do with steadfastness and loyalty.
Emunah doesn’t require specific beliefs. Quite the contrary. Jewish tradition holds certainty to be arrogant. Judaism is based on multiple, even contradictory viewpoints, that we’re meant to explore, discuss, and add to. (There’s a reason there are so many Jewish lawyers.)
Uncertainty, for many of us, is terrifying, a blank canvas onto which we can paint our fears. Emunah is the choice to tolerate uncertainty and fear, and instead of falling into despair to step forward into the unknown. It is about courage and connection. Courage to act in the service of hope, understanding that each of us is deeply connected to something far larger – ancestors, future generations, traditions, community, humanity, the cosmos, the sacred.
Courage and connection in the face of uncertainty. This is the Jewish story. It began with our spiritual ancestor Abraham. Our tradition tells us that he heard the call of the Divine to leave his homeland, all that was familiar, and to go, with his wife Sarah, to a place they did not know. For what purpose were they to begin this journey into the unknown? “To become a blessing to the world.” (Genesis 12:1-5)
The future is never certain. It is only when we move past our very human impulse to cling to what seems to be certain that we can fully discover the good we may bring into the world.
Imagine another moment in the Jewish story. The Israelites have fled slavery in Egypt, and Pharaoh’s army is chasing them. They reach the edge of the sea. There is nowhere to go. They are trapped, and afraid. If you’ve seen The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt you know what happens next. Moses lifts his staff and the sea parts.
It’s a spectacular miracle, but the rabbis of about 1500 years ago offered a different version, less grand, but, I think, more inspiring. The Israelites are gathered at the water’s edge, Moses lifts his arms... and nothing happens. Panic races through the crowd. Then a man named Nachshon steps into the sea, and keeps walking. The waters rise to his knees, his waist, his shoulders, and the Israelites nearby stare in horror. The moment the waters come up just over his nostrils, the sea parts, and the people rush behind him, towards freedom. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah pages 36b-37a, Mechilta Beshalach 6)
In a moment of terrifying unknowns, emunah, faith, means walking forward anyway. Perhaps feeling fear, doubt, even despair, but not letting it stop us. Sometimes this faith can turn an impasse into an opening, sometimes not. But we will never know if we put a premature stop to our journey because we cannot see its next stage.
Emunah, Jewish faith, is not about waiting for a miracle, or acting only when we are assured of a good outcome. It is about doing rather than wishing, understanding that because the future is uncertain, even the smallest step may make a difference.
Let’s look at one more part of the Jewish story, that speaks directly about the sacred. The Israelites are enslaved. God calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he free them. Moses begins by begging God, “Please, choose someone else.” When he finally agrees, he asks, “Who shall I say sent me?”
God responds, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. Tell them Ehyeh sent you.” (Exodus 3:14) Ehyeh, I will be. God is not being cute or cagey here in this crucial moment. God is hinting at the very meaning of God’s Hebrew name, an unpronounceable word made up of four letters that combine the past, present, and future forms of the verb “To Be.” God is revealing God’s essence that is central to the Exodus story and to all of Jewish thought and faith.
God’s name is telling us that God is the sacred power of possibility, of transformation, of changing what is into what could be.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair... Judaism is a sustained struggle against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.” (Future Tense)
People often use the word “faith” to mean not doubting, not questioning, obedience, turning off our rational minds, believing that everything is or will be OK. As you see, the Jewish story explains faith, emunah, quite differently. We doubt, we question, we use our rational minds. We see that everything is not OK. We know it can and will change, and that even a small step may play a role in that change.
I’m sure you see by now that the problem I faced when I felt called to be a rabbi was not a problem after all. The Jewish question is not, “Do you believe in God?” It is, “Are you doing your best to live with emunah?”
We cultivate and practice emunah so that we can act steadfastly with courage, and based on connection.
Courage. In a culture that often says our actions don’t matter, we practice the courage to use whatever resources we have, whatever gifts we were given, for whatever time we have, to be a blessing to the world.
Connection. In a culture based on ever-increasing individualism, even isolation, we remind ourselves, again and again, how interconnected we all are to one another and to something larger.
The word emunah is closely related to a Hebrew word we all know, Amen.
In this new year, in the face of turmoil and uncertainty, doubt and fear, in the world, in our own lives, or both, may we choose to say – and to act on – an Amen to hope and possibility, to courage and connection. May we live with emunah.