A dominant theme in Parashat Beshalach is that of emunah, belief—having it and losing it. That the Children of Israel should believe in God after witnessing the miracles and plagues in Egypt is to be expected. What is more of a question is how long that belief will last – will they continue to believe even when they are not experiencing miracles, and even when they are beset with hardship? As one story after another of their wanderings in the desert makes clear, the ability to sustain belief was a chronic challenge for the Children of Israel, one they failed time and time again.
The faltering begins at the beginning of our parasha. One minute they are leaving Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (Shemot 14:9), and the next minute, when Pharaoh and his troops draw near, “They said to Moshe, ‘Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the Wilderness?'” What is the reason for such a quick loss of faith? Did they no longer believe that God exists? Did they no longer believe that God could make miracles? While we can acknowledge that this generation were complainers and had a slave mentality, this seems insufficient as an answer to this question—even for such people, how could belief be lost so quickly?
In answer to this, it is important to distinguish between two types of belief: ‘belief that’ and ‘belief in’. To ‘believe that’ is to believe or accept that a certain statement is true; to ‘believe in’ is to have trust in a person, and to believe in that person’s trustworthiness. I believe that the world is round, not in the world being round. A child believes in her father—this is not the assertion of some fact about her that is true, it is that she trusts her father, she knows that her father will always be there for her, and she trusts that he will protect her.
The word emunah can refer to either of these two meanings, and this is reflected by two parallel words—amen and o-men (spelled aleph–vav–mem–nun). Amen is a word uttered to indicate agreement and concurrence with a statement or sentiment. It is to assert something as true. O-men is to nurture and raise, and an omanet is a nursemaid. The emunah that is connected to amen is a belief that, the emunah that is connected to o-men is a belief in. The first form of belief is intellectual and connects to the mind, the second is emotional and relational, and connects to the heart. Which one of these two should be our primary concern?
Rambam asserts that the Torah is concerned with our belief that, or belief that God exists, and that Moshe is God’s true prophet. Rambam states that even the miracles did not lead to true belief, because “one who believes due to signs and miracles, always has some doubt in his heart, for perhaps the sign was done through some trickery.” (Yisodei HaTorah 8:1). Thus God told Moshe that the people would only believe at Sinai, when everyone saw with his and her own eyes that God gave the Torah and spoke directly to Moshe.
For Rambam, the philosopher and the intellectual, and the one who authored the list of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, it is all about belief that—the assertion of the truth of factual statements: God exists, God spoke directly to Moshe, God gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Thus, Rambam also begins this book, indeed the entire Mishne Torah, by stating that it is a mitzvah to know that God exists. The key is not what we believe, but what we intellectually assert, and—better yet—what we know as fact.
This emunah, however, is not the emunah of our parasha. In Hebrew, just as in English, this can be seen grammatically, in the propositions that follow the verb. Li’ha’amin or li’ha’amin li… is to believe that, li’ha’amin b…is to believe in. When, in Parashat Shemot, God tells Moshe to do signs so that the people will believe that God has sent him, the Torah says, “v’ya’aminu ki“—and they will believe that [God has appeared to you], and “im lo ya’aminu lakh,” if they don’t believe you (that what you are saying is true), then “v’he’eminu li’kol ha’ot ha’acharon“—they will believe the evidence of the last sign (Shemot 4:5, 8). These are all to prove that something is true, that God has sent Moshe to redeem the Children of Israel. This is the specific concern at the beginning of the Exodus. This, however, is not the abiding concern of the Torah.
The abiding concern of the Torah is a belief in. “V’he’eminu ba’Hashem u’vi’Moshe avdo,“—and they believed in God, and in Moshe, God’s servant. The experience at the Splitting of the Sea was imbued in them as faith in God, they knew that God would always be there for them, they knew that God was there to care for them. They knew that they were protected by God, and protected by Moshe. It was the faith of a relationship, not the belief in a fact. Let us not forget that when they lose faith, it is often a questioning of God’s or Moshe’s trustworthiness—”And they said to Moshe, ‘Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the Wilderness?” What they lacked was a full placing of trust in God, a full placing of trust in Moshe. This is what they achieved at the Splitting of the Sea.
This helps us understand how the people’s faith readily faltered afterwards. As opposed to belief that a fact is true, which should persist once proven, belief in a person, or in God, trust in a relationship, even trusting God, is something that is built over time. It also requires trust in oneself: will I continue to be worthy of this relationship? Although God had shown God’s might in Egypt, they would likely wonder: Will God be there for us at all times? This type of belief, this trust, is something that gets cemented only when it is validated time and again. That is how relationships work, and that is how the people’s belief in God grew and strengthened over time.
There was even a moment when Moshe faltered. When Moshe calls out to God as the Egyptians are drawing near, God responds: “Why do you cry out to me, speak to Bnei Yisrael and travel forth.” (Shemot 14:15). Why is Moshe being castigated for crying out to God? Isn’t that what one does when one is in trouble? Yes, but after God had already promised to save them, crying out to God signaled a certain doubt as to whether they would be saved. You can ask God what to do, but there is no need to cry out. It is for this reason that the Rabbis say that when Moshe was unnecessarily extending his prayer, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in and caused the waters to split (Sotah 37a). Nachshon acted in a way that showed complete faith and trust in God. He trusted God, and he could thus take this leap of faith.
In the end it is the difference between faith and belief. While Rambam’s belief that is essential, we as a community have for too long ignored the importance of belief in. While Judaism undoubtedly has principles of faith, we cannot call ourselves truly religious if all we do is follow halakha and assert our faith principles. Religiosity, as opposed to observance, requires an ongoing relationship with God, a trust in God. This lived relationship, this trust, can be fragile, especially at a time when God’s hand is more hidden. It is a relationship that has been built over time—over thousands of years, but one that also needs regular nurturing.
Ramban, Nahmanides, points the way. According to him, we are not commanded to believe that God exists. Rather, we are commanded to remember and to not forget the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. To remember the events requires drawing on our collective, not individual, memory so that we can relive them, so that they can be true for us, so that they shape our way of looking at the world, so that they strengthen our relationship with God and strengthen our trust in God.
This is our challenge. To work to cultivate and nurture our relationship with God, work to develop our belief in God. To find ways to connect to those past experiences, our collective memory of the Giving of the Torah, of God’s protective presence throughout history, that will nurture this belief. And to identify, to notice, those moments in our own lives which allow us to feel God’s presence, and go back to them again and again, so that we may truly be able to believe in God, to have faith in God.