What happens when we have religious doubts? Does it indicate a flaw in our religious worldview?
A student asked me this week: If Abraham is instructed to “Go forth from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you,” why do we never sense that Abraham “arrives”? After all, he keeps walking and traveling throughout the parsha!
Another question. The Midrash is filled with stories and depictions of how Abraham discovered, “found” God, but the biblical text is virtually silent regarding Abraham and Sarah’s background. We are merely informed of their childlessness. But what makes them special? Why does God choose them? Why did they follow God?
The answer to both questions is the same. Abraham’s story is a dynamic one and the story only begins with God’s call to journey to the land. The story does not commence with Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s journeying is indicative of movement, of growth, progress, metamorphosis. Faith is not his point of departure, it is his disposition, his demeanor; and when he arrives at his destination, his faith will be larger but entirely different than that with which he began. His faith is a process that is in flux, fluid, growing, shaped by trials, setbacks, questions, and breakthroughs. As Abraham grows, so does his relationship with God:
“Go forth – Lech-lecha” (12:1)
“Arise and walk (hitha-lech) the land” (13:17)
“Walk (hitha-lech) before Me and become whole” (17:2)
Abraham is issued a divine promise of land and progeny – “To your seed I have given this land” (12:7) – but all his life stories mock and thrust those promises into question: The land is inhabited by Canaanites and Perizites, it is famine ridden and war-torn. First his wife is taken from him, then his nephew and heir abandons him. How will God fulfill His promise?
At certain moments, Abraham questions and doubts (15:1-7) and in response, God reassures, but clarity and fulfillment elude Abraham for 25 years. Only then – after a life of wandering and preaching, after transformation of name and body — are he and Sarah promised the birth of their one and only son, Isaac.
Sometimes I hear of people who experience religious doubt and questioning as a debilitating crisis, a loss of faith. At times, the upheaval is a product of a deep misconception, a mistaken conception of the notion of faith. People have been taught that they must be devoid of doubt, of challenge, of tumult, that they are expected to believe with a “perfect faith,” without a shadow of doubt, to have absolute clarity in religious thinking. And then, if that is your expectation, then when life is cruel, when challenge arrives, one’s stability is questioned, one’s security is shattered.
But if faith is a journey, then a crisis of faith is a sign that your assumptions and expectations of yesteryear do not fit your current reality; your circumstances have changed, your reality has altered, and by implication you must reframe your religious thinking, your spiritual mindset and orientation. As many have pointed out, the Hebrew word for crisis – mashber – is the same word for a birthing stool. A crisis, a breaking, will generate new life if we keep walking. People use a phrase I dislike: – “Off the Derekh,” as if there were a single path, only one route to God.
Faith is a verb, not a noun, it is “to be,” not “to have,” it is a journey which leads to unexpected places, but, like Abraham, we can walk with God.
“Lech Lecha – Go forth : Man is defined by his walking, and indeed man must always move up, level by level… and with each of Abraham’s 10 tests, he was born anew … and every human being must seek this renewal on a daily basis.” (Sefat Emet 5656, 5674)