Festival of Faith

Emunah/Faith is a muscle like any other. It gets stronger the more we exercise it but it can also become strained when it must carry a cumbersome burden for too long. The seventh day of Passover brings with it a moment that helps address both of these aspects of a life of faith. As we all confront the various effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, this feels especially timely.

But before proceeding, it’s prudent to talk about what one means when they say emunah/faith. For this discussion, it will be defined as a belief in the fundamental goodness of existence and meaningfulness of life. For many, including myself, this belief emerges from a deeper one, in an ever present Being that connects all things together and yet transcends them all. In Jewish tradition we refer to that Being as Y-H-V-H, an unpronounceable name that we articulate as Adonai or HaShem. Perhaps the same belief emerges from somewhere else for those reading this. Nevertheless, we can still share a definition of emunah.

Returning to the seventh day of Passover, it is indeed a significant day for pondering emunah. In fact, the Jewish communities of North Africa call this day of Passover hag ha’emunah, the festival of faith. For, it was on this day that the Israelites of old crossed the sea of reeds as it split before them, and being overcome with a profound feeling of faith in God, they began to sing. As the Torah describes the moment itself, “and the people had faith in the Omnipresent and in His servant Moses. Then, Moses and the children of Israel sang…” (Shemot 15:1). In a midrashic passage, the rabbis of the Talmud utilize this verse in Exodus as a jumping off point to extol the virtues of faith, citing numerous Biblical characters who demonstrated this trait, from Abraham to Yehoshaphat, from the first book of Tanakh to the last. It is from these book end characters that we can glean an insight about strengthening our faith muscle, or supporting it if it is feeling strained at this time.

Abraham, we are told “had faith in the Omnipresent, and it was accounted to him as righteousness” (Breisheet 15:6). Looking at the episodes of Abraham’s life it is clear that one thing that strengthened his emunah was his dedication to action. Abraham rescued his nephew Lot, offered hospitality to wanderers (who turned out to be angels), argued with God, and was constantly on the move as the situation needed. This commitment to action allowed him to experience the results of living with emunah, for though he certainly experienced harrowing challenges, his persistence in action allowed him to see God’s promises come to fruition.

If we are trying to strengthen our own emunah, we can take a cue from Abraham, especially by engaging in acts of direct service. We can cook a favorite meal for a family member or friend, volunteer to deliver food for those in need or donate blood (many donation centers now have apps that show where your blood goes, in all of these cases be sure to abide by the health guidance of your area). By engaging in these actions and seeing their impact, it helps us have emunah in situations when the outcome is more distant or unclear.

Yehoshaphat was a successful king that also acted with an unwavering sense of emunah, however, he reached a point where that sense was seriously strained. Surrounded by enemy forces that severely outmatched him, he could not bring himself to set out against them in battle. He could no longer act with emunah as he had typically done. Instead, he gathered the people, and prayed in their presence. Unexpectedly, two individuals in the crowd prophesied that the people should go out to face the enemy and that God would fight for them. The next day, Yehoshaphat led the people out, but it would seem that his faith was still flagging, for he took counsel with the people about what exactly to do. Together, they decided that they would place singers before their front guard. And with that, the group set out, singing as they went. When they arrived at the scene of battle, they discovered that something had occurred that had created infighting among the enemy forces and that none remained. (Read his whole epic in Divrei HaYamim Bet 18-20).

While we do not live in times of prophecy, nor in a time that we expect that our problems will be miraculously solved (the topic of miracles is one unto itself, but the rabbis of the Talmud make it clear that we must use our agency to engage issues and not rely on miracles), Yehoshaphat nevertheless provides some important lessons that we can imitate as we seek to support of sense of emunah. First, when we feel our sense of emunah waning, it’s important to surround ourselves with people who can lift us up. This can of course be done virtually through online classes, live sessions on social media platforms or other means. Secondly, we can plan something together (thankfully, physical battle is not something we have to worry about). It can be a game night or song session, again either with family at home or through virtual platforms. Speaking of song sessions, there is also one more lesson from Yehoshaphat’s story. Never underestimate the power of singing together.

If we are struggling with faith, either trying to make ours stronger, or keep it intact, we are in company with some of the most remarkable people of our tradition. Like them, whether Abraham or Yehoshaphat, we can find our way in faith. This seventh day of Passover, let us take courage from those that came before us, let us take time to sing the Song of the Sea like the Israelites did as they crossed the sea (you can find a recording of it to inspire you before the holiday here) and let us continue forward knowing that we will make it to the other side.

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