[Sermon] What does faith mean?

Rabbi Charley Baginsky
High Holy Days 2019/5780

Tradition suggests that the story of Jonah is a true repentance story, not only does Jonah repent during his time in the big fish for running away from God, but the city of Nineva repents as well, perhaps making Jonah the only really truly successful prophet of the Tanach! Nevertheless Jonah is troubling. Were God to talk to me – face to face – directly in my ear – after questioning my sanity, I am not sure I would feel like I could run away. Who does Jonah think God is when he attempts to avoid God by hiding on a ship? While many would suggest Jonah was a coward to run away from the responsibilities God wanted him to undertake, I think you have to be pretty brave to run away from God! Perhaps instead Jonah did not really believe in God, did not really believe it was God’s voice he had heard.

Once a follower of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk came to him and told him he could no longer believe. The Rebbe asked him patiently why. The man answered: “Because I doubt the world has any rhyme or reason. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.” Why asked the Rebbe, does that concern you. “What do you mean?”, asked the man, “of course it concerns me, if there is no justice in the world, I doubt there is a God governing the world.” So what do you care, asked the Rebbe. Rebbe, said the man shocked, if there is no God in the world then my life has no sense and no meaning. Do you care so much about the world and the existence of God, asked the Rebbe. Of course, with all my heart and soul, answered the man without hesitation. The Rebbe smiled, if you care so much, are pained so much, doubt so much, you believe.

Faith is hard work, we have plenty of good reasons to be distrustful of it – perhaps like Jonah we would be better running away from it, taking to a boat in the middle of the sea. Or is it possible that faith can be a mature reaction to an unknown world – can help us to face our fears?

This question matters in this period because it helps answer the fundamental question of what exactly we are doing with this time. Is this coming together in prayer simply an inherited ritual, something we feel obliged to do? Is it fulfilling Freud who said we were acting out a primitive grovelling to an imaginary king in the sky, longing for the perfect father? Or perhaps it is just a chance to get together as a community, enjoy some beautiful singing and spend some time away from the chaos of the real world?

In Hebrew the word for faith is emunah. We know it from when we respond Amen – an acronym for the phrase El melech ne’eman – meaning God is faithful ruler. But really the word Amen comes from another root – alef-mem-nun meaning I believe as in the song – Ani ma’min – I believe. Eugene Borowitz and Frances Weinman Schwartz, in their book The Jewish Moral Virtues, prefer therefore to translate emunah as “trustworthiness”. Trust is the basis of any strong relationship.

We do not need national polls to tell us we do not have faith or trust in the same way as we used to, we do not trust politicians or the media or often each other let alone God. As the authors of The Jewish Moral Virtues observe, “A world bereft of trust, with life utterly indifferent to righteousness, would reduce trustworthiness to random, ad hoc occurrences.”

Faith, Rabbi Marder – an American Rabbi, states is “when a son goes to visit his elderly parents after work, and helps with the shopping and the bills and the medications, and listens to their stories and their complaints and tries to preserve their dignity, because these are the people who gave him life. Faith is when parents hang in there and refuse to give up on their teenage son or daughter, no matter how painful it is. Faith is when people stand by a friend who has cancer and travel with her all along the way, even when they’re afraid. Faith is when a wife takes care of her husband through many long years of illness because she remembers the handsome, smart and loving man who gave everything to her when he had the ability to give.”

In other words faith has the potential to keep us going, even if it is hard and demanding. Martin Buber said: “God does not want to be believed in, to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.”

The prayers that we will say over this period speak to our predecessors attempts to understand their world, be that the Temple, Talmudic times, the Crusades, the Shoah and today. They express the same human need to comprehend the nature of being and our place in the world. L’chaim – to life in its plurality, with all its happiness and pain, but they are never nonchalant about the face that we are here at all. Indeed this is the time when we focus most on how fragile and precious life it and they believed. They believe we were each accountable and responsible to a moral law beyond ourselves and needed to be committed to repairing what was broken.

They are never blasé about the incredible fact that we are here at all. And they felt most of all that in this autumn season we keenly sense the fragility of life. They believed that all of us, no matter how rich and powerful, are accountable and responsible to a moral law beyond ourselves – and that we are summoned to lift up our lives to a greater purpose of repairing what is broken and wounded and that there was hope. As Martin Luther King said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They said – Amen, they did not run away to sea.

The words of gesher tsar m’od still echo round my house, weeks after the kids have returned from Kadimah – the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid. Faith can sustain us, even when it is hard and demanding and even when we can only utter perhaps I am not alone.

Dear God as we face the challenges and risks of this coming year please let us remember our dignity, and our responsibility to others and the world and let us find those moments to trust that you will be with us and find the strength to utter Amen.

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