Rosh Hashanah 2018 5779 – You’ve got to believe!
It is the 6th day of B’nai Israel’s journey toward freedom. Just three days ago Pharaoh finally understood that they weren’t coming back, and now he is chasing them. And this chase is not a benevolent one; 600 chariots and many many men of the infantry are coming after them. The noises of the approaching Egyptian army become closer and closer. The red sea is standing before them and there is no way out.
In the meantime, as night falls, the cloud that accompanied the Israelites during the day, now, stands between them and the Egyptian army, creating a fog that holds them back temporarily. The Israelites are horrified. The sense of fear among the camp is absolute. They never felt their death so tangibly close. Whether by sword or drowning, this seems to be the end. Moses asks for silence and starts to pray, but the crowd won’t calm down. The RabbisFOOTNOTE: Footnote say that:“… this tribe said: I am not going into the sea first, and that tribe said: I am not going into the sea first! “ No one was willing to take the first step.
Then, all of a sudden, “in jumped the prince of Judah, Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first.”
The waters were frightening but that didn’t stop him. He took a step, then another, the water was reaching his hips and then his shoulders… And as he walked deeper into the sea Moses went deeper into his prayer, to which God said:
שמות י”ד, ט”ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל “מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ”.
ט”ז וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת-מַטְּךָ, וּנְטֵה אֶת-יָדְךָ עַל-הַיָּם–וּבְקָעֵהוּ
Exodus 14:15 “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and get into the water!
So they did, and eventually they made it to the other side.
In a moment in which most people could see death on both sides of the equation, Nachson was able to see a “potentially” different future.
When most of them were paralyzed by fear, he was able to move on by Faith!
Nachson knew a very important truth, and it is that you need to believe in order to see and that faith is an action.
In Jewish tradition faith isn’t an external supernatural power, it is rather an extraordinary power that comes from deep inside.
Today I want talk to you about Faith, which in Hebrew is “Emunah”.
But first let’s analyze the name Nachshon. The name Nachson shares its root with the words Nichush and Nachush – to guess and to be determined.
So Nachshon ben Aminadav, the biblical character that symbolizes faith, synthesizes in his name the idea of taking risks and moving forward with determination. But when we talk about taking risks we don’t mean baseless actions.
In the biblical context, when the word Emunah is mentioned, it usually refers to trust. When it is said that Abraham “He’emin” in God, it means that he trusted Him. Similarly, the latin origin of the word faith is the word Fides, meaning fidelity or loyalty.
When God takes Abraham out to the fieldFOOTNOTE: Footnote and tells him: look at the sky and count the stars, see if you can count them… That’s how your offspring shall be! And Torah says:
וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן בַּֽיהוָ֑ה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ לּ֖וֹ צְדָקָֽה׃
“Because he puts his trust in God, He credited it to him for righteousness”.
God doesn’t show Abraham an exact picture of the future. That picture can’t just be seen by looking at the stars. God rather invites him to become a partner in a covenant of mutual loyalty. Abraham had to envision beyond the metaphor, beyond the reality that was known to him. Again, taking risk, moving forward with determination and in that way converting that faith, that covenant, into a life practice.
Kabbalah explains that Emunah – faith – is the connecting dot between the reality that we can grasp and the mystery of those things that we can’t grasp. They say that that link that connects between the existing and the intangible is called Faith – Emunah.
It is hard to realize how important, how needed that connection is in order for us to get closer to those things that we want to see or experience, and to move away from continuing to repeat that which is known to us.
The problem is that we often misunderstand, and don’t know how to work with that connecting dot.
There is a very popular story that many of you have heard before, but none of you have heard it this year yet!
It is about a Rabbi that was in a sinking ship. The crew urged him to leave with the first rescue boats, but the Rabbi said don’t worry about me I have faith that God will save me. Then while the last group of people were getting into a big rescue raft the captain came to him and said Rabbi you need to come now but the Rabbi again refused, I have faith that God will save me.
The ship was sinking and the Rabbi was there alone when he suddenly heard a helicopter approaching him, and a megaphonic voice blasting – Rabbi you have to leave now let us help you, or you will die! But the Rabbi responded don’t worry about me, I have faith that God will save me.
The ship sank… and the Rabbi died —and he came in front of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.He looked at God and said: “I can’t understand after all these years of faith why you didn’t save me”
God, absolutely surprised by the question, looked at him and responded: I didn’t save you!? I sent you a boat, a raft and a helicopter and I didn’t save you!
The Rabbi’s misconception of faith ended up killing him.
This is a very clear example of a harmful kind of faith, where faith and action are completely disconnected.
When we think about faith in that manner, many of us will say: “I don’t need faith” or “I am not a great believer”. I don’t blame you for that we surely don’t need that kind of faith.
However, I want to argue that we actually do need faith because taken in the right way it has the power of helping us transform our lives.
There is a story about a man who loved elephants and found them fascinating. Once, after watching a circus show, he decided to stay and look at them. Observing this spectacular animal for a few minutes he noted something strange. The huge creature was held only by a small rope tied to a small pole. Clearly the big elephant, who was strong enough to bring down a large tree, was able to pull the pole out of the ground and break away easily, yet he never did. Perplexed, the man found a trainer and asked why the elephant never tried to run away. “Well”, answered the trainer, “he is trained”. “If he is trained”, said the man, “why tie him at all?”. “He has been tied in this manner since he was a very young elephant” the trainer answered and walked away.
The man looked at the magnificent creature for another minute and then closed his eyes. He could see the baby elephant, tied for the first time, to a pole that was at that time strong and large for his size. The baby elephant tried to walk away and got held back by the rope, tried again and failed. The man imagined the exhausted elephant trying and failing for several days.
And then arrived one horrible day in which the elephant came to the conclusion that there was no way out, that he couldn’t make it. The man opened his eyes and looked again at the elephant…If only he knew how powerful he really is. If only he realized that by the time he was grown up, a rope “secured” to a pole could no longer contain him. Then he would know what true freedom is. But he doesn’tFOOTNOTE: Footnote.
The tragedy of this story is that moment in which captivity became his identity, that moment in which the Elephant could no longer envision a different reality. He never tried again because he had lost his faith.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does”FOOTNOTE: Footnote.
This is one of the most distinctive things about Judaism. We aren’t a dogmatic religion but rather a religion of praxis; by that I mean our deeds are to be a reflection of our ideas and we internalize those ideas while acting upon them.
As we learned in Nachshon’s story:
Faith is a simultaneous mixture between taking risks, moving forward with “nechishut” – determination, and envisioning the reality that we want to see! Faith is an inspired action, with the power to transform possibility into reality!
Leah Goldberg the Israeli poet wrote:
“For one who does not believe
it’s hard to live this year
the fields ask for a blessing
the sea asks for faith
and you—you ask for nothing
My heart sleeps its sleep
and I sleep…
How will I wake from my sleep
when my heart has no faith?
and you ask for nothing.”
But we do want our hearts to awaken, we do want to ask for things!
We are at the gates of a new year, in which we celebrate human opportunity but that opportunity can only be harnessed if we decide that we want to believe that it is possible. As Lea Goldberg wrote, How will I wake from my sleep when my heart has no faith?
We want to believe that we can better our lives.
We want to believe that we can heal, that we can fix, that we can dream, that we can love and be loved. We want to believe that we can transform and be transformed.
In order to embrace the practice of believing and the opportunity of transforming ourselves we need also to recognize the pole that is holding us back or the red sea that is signaling that we have gotten to a dead end.
We want to internalize that we have the power to transform possibility into reality!
Each of us in his own way due to frustration, exhaustion, pain, demoralization, has refrained from envisioning and from moving forward.
Think about all those places in which you have given up… Think about relationships that are or were dear to you,
Think about your personal health and challenges,
Think about your dreams, new and old…
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that: “Faith is the defeat of PRO BABILITY by the power of POSSIBILITY”.
I want to invite you to start this new year and defeat the fear of living in a world of probabilities by envisioning a world filled with your possibilities. In the next few days as we do our HHD’s season spiritual work I encourage you to find a moment for yourself, to close your eyes and to look deep inside…. And to ask yourself, Where do you need to place your faith now. And then whisper it to yourself
I want to believe that… (3 dots)
I need to believe that…(3 dots)
You will find your own words.
But make no mistake, embracing life in a faithful way does not promise the fulfillment of all those things that we envision. However it does promise us to live up to a life in which we understand our reality while honoring the vision of the life that we want to live and the person that we want to be.
You’ve GOT to believe!
Shana Tovah U’metuka!
Disclosure: I still not sure how to pass all my footnotes from google docs to WordPress / I hope I will get it soon so I can give proper honor to all the brilliant people that I have quoted.