Ari Hart

A Year of Emunah

Here we are, on the edge of a brand-new year, wishing each other a ‘Shana Tova,’ hoping and praying for health, success and sweetness for one another. I love this moment and the sense of hope and possibility it brings.

Unfortunately, I also have some potentially bad news to share. According to the Gemara, (Rosh Hashana 16b), 5784 might be a bad year. It says:

“Any year when the shofar is not blown at the beginning, will end in bitterness.”

That warning applies to this very year, 5784, which began on Shabbat, and as the halacha dictates, the shofar was silent on the first day.

Most Rishonim suggest that this bad omen only applies to a year where somehow the shofar was forgotten, but a year like ours, in which Shabbat is the reason we don’t blow, should not be a cause for concern. 

Rav Yaakov Ettlinger was not satisfied with this explanation. The 19th-century German rabbi known best known as the Aruch Laner, decided to conduct a historical investigation. He researched years in the bible where Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat, and found that, indeed, there were many bad years. The years of the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem were years where Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat and the shofar was not blown. However, he also found that there were wonderful years where Rosh Hashana began on Shabbat and the Shofar was not blown, such as the year the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, the year Yom Kippur was granted, and the year of the building of the Mishkan. 

Non-shofar blowing Rosh Hashana’s have led to years with destruction and tragedies, but they have also witnessed forgiveness, miracles, and renewal.

In our own times, the last year when Rosh Hashana coincided with Shabbat was 2020, a year many would prefer to forget. But prior to that were 2009, 2006 – not especially good or bad years.

The data is inconclusive. Which leaves us hanging in the balance.

I’ve been thinking of the Rambam’s powerful image in Hilchot Teshuva, where he tells us that during this time we should envision the world as on a scale teetering in the balance between good and evil. One good deed can push it over to the good. One evil did can push it entirely to evil. Today, more than ever, that image resonates deeply.

It feels as though the world hangs in the balance.

  • Will the Ukrainain war end peacefully or will we witness the first global nuclear conflict?
  • Will AI destroy the world, or will it save the world?
  • Will Trump go to jail or will he be our next president?
  • What will Israeli democracy look like in the 5 years? 5 months? 5 days?

So much feels like it is in the balance.

My sense, and perhaps you share it, is that the feeling of the world hanging in the balance isn’t limited to global issues. I feel it locally as well.

Perhaps this uncertainty is a residual effect of emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions and systems that we once considered pillars of stability now seem susceptible to collapse.

And it’s not just in our public lives; many private worlds are in the balance as well. Families are stretched to their limits, marriages teeter on the edge, and even our sense of self feels volatile.

As we stand on the cusp of 5784, we confront a year that holds with both immense promise and peril. And when I am faced with promise and peril, I often find myself locking into the half of that equation, imagining the worst case scenario possible or each and every situation where things feel uncertain.

This year, I’m challenging myself, and I want to challenge you, to respond differently; to respond with emunah. In the face of all the challenges of 5784, I want to ask you to make this year a year of emunah.

Now, I might not mean what you think I mean when I say emunah.

Let’s start with what emunah is not.

There’s the famous joke: someone is trapped in a flood and believes that Hashem will save him. He scrambles to his rooftop as the waters rise and prays for Hashem’s rescue. While praying, he rejects a rowboat, a motorboat, and even a helicopter that come to his aid, insisting that God will save him. Eventually, he drowns. He goes up to heaven and confronts God: I believed in you! Why didn’t you help me?” Hashem responds: “did you not see my rowboat, motorboat and helicopter?” 

Emunah isn’t simply believing that God will swoop in and solve our problems or that everything will somehow magically resolve itself.

So, what is emunah? Like many rich terms in Torah, the meaning of emunah functions like a constellation: points of light and information that are connected and distinct, that together light up the darkness and provide guidance.

To understand a Torah concept, it can be helpful to look at the first time the word appears in the Torah. 

The first time the word “emunah” appears, it has nothing to do with intellectual belief or even emotional conviction. It relates to a physical act: when Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands during a battle, the text tells us his hands were “emunah” until the sun came up.  

The last time the root of emunah appears in the Tanach, it describes Mordecai’s relationship with Esther. He was her “omeyn”—her nurturer and protector. Mordechai raised, nurtured, and protected Esther, because he saw in her something good even if he didn’t know exactly what or how that goodness would be

So far we have hands that are emunah. Relationships that are emunah.

Expanding on emunah, we find that this Hebrew root brings us to a number of related but distinct words. There is ‘omanut,’ referring to craftsmanship or skill; ‘hitamnu,’ which means to be strong, enduring, or trustworthy; and ‘amen,’ the affirmation we offer in response to a blessing. All these words resonate around the same core, suggesting that emunah is a multifaceted and action-oriented concept rather than a static belief.

When people translate ’emunah,’ they often resort to the word ‘faith,’ which simplifies it to a binary state—you either have faith in God, or you don’t. But emunah in its original context is not merely a noun. It’s more fluid, acting as a verb, an adverb, or an adjective. It’s not something that you either possess or lack; it’s something that you enact, embody, and live out.

Contrary to popular belief, emunah is not the same as optimism. Optimism is a passive stance, a belief that everything will inevitably work out for the best. Emunah, on the other hand, is active. It’s about moving forward because you trust that there’s a larger purpose, even when you don’t know what that is. It’s acting with the awareness that your efforts have value and significance, even if you can’t see their immediate impact. It’s trusting that you have a role to play in a grander scheme, even when that scheme is unclear or uncertain.

This approach to life—as if God is present and active—is the essence of emunah. It’s not contingent on your ability to feel or perceive God in the moment or even over the long term. Even God, according to our tradition, acts with emunah. Our sacred texts describe God as praying, hoping, and acting. In next week’s Parsha, God is even described as El-Emunah. God is an Emunah God.

So as we navigate the complexities and uncertainties of life, both global and local, let us strive to act with emunah—trusting in the greater purpose, investing in relationships, and enacting our faith in real and meaningful ways.

This is our challenge in 5784.

Not to have Emunah; To be emunah.

The Slonimer Rebbe elaborates that emunah exists on multiple levels—

The lowest level is emunah of the mind. That’s the easiest. The second level is emunah of the heart. The highest level is emunah of the limbs; emunah in hands, feet, mouth, eyes, ears. This is being emunah: living in a way that our actions, our choices, our words become the agents for bringing more Godliness, kindness, help and love into this world.

That’s a very high level. And there are many forces in our world that fight against this emunah.

Turn on the news, turn on social media, and you will be met with an avalanche of stories on how bad everything is, how awful some people are, and how many insurmountable problems we face. There is a resurgence in nihilism, the philosophy that nothing matters, amongst young people. I’ve read that in response to climate change, many young people are sterilizing themselves so they cannot have children. They believe the world is completely doomed and don’t want to bring more life into it. Climate change is very real, but giving up hope, cutting off the potential for a human future is not the answer!

“Be Emunah” is not a comforting balm to these trends but a powerful response. The world doesn’t need more doomsayers; we have plenty. The world craves emunah. The world craves people who aren’t simply content to stand on the sidelines critiquing but are willing to engage, to help, to lift up.

Yes, the challenges of our age are substantial. Political divisions seem insurmountable; climate change looms like a dark cloud; societal anxieties are at an all-time high. It’s easy to look at these monolithic problems and say, “Why bother? We’re doomed anyway.” That’s the path of least resistance, but it’s not the path of emunah.

Being Emunah in such a world is an act of radical resistance against the tide of pessimism and inaction. It’s a refusal to be paralyzed by fear or uncertainty, and an affirmation that even in the face of great difficulties, each of us can make a difference. 

This approach doesn’t demand that we deny the stark realities we face; it simply asks us not to be defined by them. Yes, people do awful things; yes, a lot of things are bad; yes, we could be doomed. Yes, the world is on an edge. I’m not going to stand here and tell you it’s all going to be fine. Lots of things this year won’t be fine in our world.

But this year I’m asking you: be Emunah for the world.

The Torah says that the descendants of Avraham shall: “shamru derech Hashem laasot tzedaka umishpat” (to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is righteous and just). This is God’s path. This is the emunah path – to do righteousness and justice, to bring light, even and especially when the world is dark. 

This year, be emunah for the Jewish people.

Recent times have been deeply challenging for anyone who loves the Jewish people and the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Lots of reasons, very good reasons to be critical, of Judicial reform, of the we are treating one another, of government policies. Some are giving up, calling for violence, losing all hope and trust, on both the extreme right and left. 

Whatever you believe, whatever your political orientation, now is the time to be emunah for Israel. To be present, to listen—even to those we disagree with—and to demonstrate love and care. That can look like protesting with emunah, defending with emunah, critiquing with emunah, donating with emunah, visiting with emunah, making aliyah with emunah. This may be a year when Israel needs our emunah more than ever. It may be a difficult year when things don’t go the way we want them to, or well at all. All the more so a reason to be emunah for the Jewish people. Real, long-term, grounded emunah doesn’t pretend that all is well; rather, it keeps showing up, day after day, lifting up the good, with our hearts, minds, hands and feet.

This year, be emunah for your community.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a master of emunah, taught that in a spiritual community, when we look at one another and see the “neukdah tovah”—the point of positivity, the core of goodness within each soul—it has the power to transform those we see. It lifts them up. It nurtures their growth. This isn’t merely theoretical; it’s spiritual physics. The mere act of looking at someone through the eyes of emunah can change their inner world and help them become better, stronger, holier.

So, this year, I challenge each and every one of us to use our vision constructively. Let us look at our community as vessels of emunah. Let us see each other, through eyes that are filled with emunah, and in doing so, become emunah for someone else.

As we strive to be Emunah in our communities and the wider world, let’s not forget the where our emunah can have the deepest impact: our families. The last few years have not been easy on families. Many of us have struggled personally, and many relationships and families have suffered deeply. But that’s not the end of the story.

Be emunah in your family. Build trust. Rebuild trust. Invest in the relationships. Be a source of steadfastness, trust, love and hope in the lives of your family.

And if you’re blessed to be a parent, remember: your children need your Emunah. They need your love, your steadfastness, and perhaps most of all, they need you to see them for their potential for good. Even in moments of challenge or conflict, let your actions toward them be Emunah actions. There is no more important place for our emunah. 

Emunah is so powerful. And even with all the emunah in the world, I still can’t promise  that everything will be great this year for your families, your communities, your world.

There will be tragedy, heartbreak, and trauma this year. And that scares me.

But in that fear, I find inspiration from our ancestors. Many of them endured hardships beyond what we can imagine:—exile, slavery, inquisitions, poverty, plagues, persecution, war, the Holocaust. And yet, they chose the most profound emunah action of them all, to bring children into this world, which led to our being here. There is no greater act of Emunah than trying to have a child, and without that emunah action, none of us would be here today. 

I think about those people gathered, just like we are today, for hundreds and hundreds of years on Rosh Hashana. I think about them crying out the same words we are about to cry out: Teshuva, Tefillah, and Tzedakah. They committed to lives of reflection, prayer, and giving. I don’t know exactly what they believed, but I know they tried to live lives of Emunah, and because of that too, we are here today.

And I am strengthened by our own community. I’ve had the incredible honor to witness those who’ve been through unspeakable challenges that live with Emunah. This doesn’t mean they’re without doubts, without questions, or without anger at God. They might even say to you: “I struggle with belief. I struggle with mitzvot. I struggle with where God is in my sickness, my loss, my pain.”

And then, they show up. They show up in shul, they show up for their families,t hey show up for their friends, they show up for strangers, they show up for themselves.

When you’ve suffered, when you’ve doubted, when you’re sick and tired, and unsure of what’s ahead, but you still take that next step—that is the holiest and highest form of Emunah. 

Hayom Harat Olam, today is the day the world is conceived, today is the the day when everything is in balance.

In a year where so much is compelling us to be fearful and disheartened, I urge you to be Emunah. Whatever you “believe,” be emunah.

We all hope for a Shana Tova, a good year, I know it won’t be perfectly ‘Tov.’ Yet, I trust. I trust that we’ll go through it together. I trust that there is goodness on the horizon.

And so, I believe that whatever challenges this year may bring, if we face them with minds, hearts, eyes, hands, and feet filled with Emunah, we can make this year happier, healthier, holier, and sweeter.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.
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