Faith is Not an Easy Thing

Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s address to the children of Israel before they enter the land. He opens this message with a reproof, in an effort to keep his people on course to accomplish their mission. In the prelude to this message, Moshe offers a brief summary of events in the desert, largely thought to be reminders of past offences, and finishes it off with mention of the victorious conquests which had already been accomplished.

And it was in the fortieth year in the eleventh month on the first of the month that Moshe spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had charged him concerning them, after he had struck down Sihon the king of the Amorites who dwelled in Heshbon and Og king of Bashan who dwelled in Ashterot in Edrei. (Deuteronomy 1:3-4)

Since Moshe intended to rebuke his people, the sages found mention of these victories surprising, and sought in them a lesson:

Moses said, “If I rebuke Israel first at this time, they will say of me, ‘It is because he has no power to bring us into the land and to overthrow Sihon and Og before us that he is rebuking us!’ ” That is why he waited until he had brought them into the land and had overthrown Sihon and Og before them, and only then did he proceed to rebuke them. Hence Scripture says, after he had smitten Sihon the king of the Amorites. (Sifre Devarim 3, Finkelstein ed. pp. 11-12; Rashi)

One gets the impression from this midrash that the relationship between the children of Israel and God was dependent on the strength of God’s continued providence. It was necessary to defeat Sihon and Og in order to prove to the children of Israel that God was capable of carrying out the redemption. Only after this assurance, would the people be able to listen to Moshe’s rebuke without the thought that it was intended as an excuse for God’s having abandoned them.

This perpetual concern that perhaps God has abandoned His people and/or His role in the world has troubled people in every generation. This midrash is an indication that this dilemma was a concern then as it is now.

This Shabbat is actually Tisha b’Av – the ninth of Av. (Its observance is postponed a day so as not to interfere with Shabbat.) In the past, this day was the ultimate challenge to Jewish faith. The Jewish world had to contend with the loss of its sacred center, the loss of national sovereignty, and the devastating loss of life. And this tragedy happened not once but twice, once at the hands of the Babylonians in First Temple times and a second time, by the Romans in Second Temple times. These events did not end Jewish suffering. I do not need to expound here. All of this culminating in our most immediate tragedy, the Shoah. These tragedies tempt some to lose faith or, at the very least, to question their faith assumptions.

The questions we ask are real and will remain so, but for many of us, to live in a void, without a story, without meaning and purpose, without a sense of grand appreciation, awe and a sense of blessing, despite the doubts, is no less difficult. Still, there is also comfort in being part of tradition that offers us the ability to challenge, question, and explore and to know that this is something that Jews have done since Judaism’s very inception, in the Torah itself, in the Tanakh and throughout our sacred literature. Judaism’s heroes have been questioners and challengers and this is, part and parcel, of what it means to be a Jew.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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