All short statements about faith seem trite when taken out of context. But the family narratives of Genesis and the Peoplehood narratives of the Book of Exodus are filled with several short but recurrent statements about faith. Faith, in the biblical sense, seems to be as much about getting and giving God our full attention as it is about anything else. The ancient covenant is based on devoting ourselves to God to the exclusion of other systems of belief, and in return we expect and need God’s attention. The narrative almost collapses whenever it appears as though we have forgotten each other. But the covenantal relationship based on giving each other our full attention (or devotion) is repeatedly tested. Yet God’s presence and faith in us is proven over and over again.

The Genesis family narratives reveal a consistent pattern of complicated families losing and regaining faith. God’s presence and attention appears and disappears, testing the covenant of devotion over and over again. Through violence, infertility, deceit and disappearance they maintain faith in God and sometimes even in each other.

The first Jew, Abraham, makes the greatest leap of faith into the future without even one child to give him a sense that becoming a “great nation” (Gen. 12) is even possible. Sarah, tested multiple times, laughs (with joy, with disbelief, with hope?) upon hearing the angels announce to her husband that she will be blessed with a child even in her old age. This is the first of three significant moments in the text when God “takes notice”: God pakad et Sarah (Gen. 21:1) The translation is difficult to render in English: God remembers, visits, takes notice of Sarah, when she had nearly given up.

Sarah’s only son, Isaac, in turn, is nearly sacrificed by his father (Gen. 22) but maintains his faith and even passes on the covenant through seeming deceit, shifting the blessing of the birthright – thanks to Rebekah’s insight – to the younger son, Jacob instead of to Esau. But this unlikely shift in the expected narrative flow, is something son Jacob repeats when he blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, at the end of the book. But here too, God remembers and takes notice. Joseph, upon his deathbed, assures Israel that God will also surely take notice of them, “pakod yifkod etchem...” and bring them up out of the land of Egypt (Gen. 50:26). God doesn’t just remember and take note and become present for individuals, but for nations as well.

If faith is about believing in God even in the darkest moments, it is knowing that God is with you. But the books of Genesis and Exodus are filled with them. God says to generation after generation of the members of a particular family: “I am with you, and I will be with you.” If the constant refrain about our relationship with God being one of a covenant of our ancestors throughout the Book of Genesis wasn’t enough, the Book of Exodus stresses Faith is about remembering a covenant even when it seems broken. Covenant is about knowing that God is with us, even when God seems absent.

With Exodus the narrative takes us from being a family of individuals to being a nation that God also takes notice of, and makes his presence felt. Enslaved, without a sure sign from God for generations, a hidden God ultimately does take notice, visits, and hears the cry of the Israelites crying under the burden of slavery and still hoping for freedom. Now too God takes notice, but the verbs become stronger and more numerous: God remembers, God hears, God sees and God knows the suffering of the Children of Israel (Ex. 2:24-25) and turns to a new kind of leader, Moses, and through the burning bush and a mysterious voice, makes Himself heard (Ex. 3:1-2).

This is how the saga of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and our future as a people begins: We hear each other, we take notice, we believe. Even generations later, the theme and the same verbs repeat in the text, reminding us of the foundations of a life of faith. In the Book of Ruth the narrative begins with Ruth’s mother-in-law, deep in mourning, hearing that after a long famine in the Land of Israel, God has again pakad, visited his people and given them bread.

Once again, God appears in the historical narrative, takes notice of his people there in Judah, and brings hope and faith back to those who seemed otherwise lost. This underlying chorus throughout the text is but one layer of faith that our ancestors taught us, but it is one that modern theologians, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan and Eugene Borowitz, have sought to re-teach us. Covenant is about paying close attention to God’s presence in the past, paying close attention to our current needs, and knowing that we have God’s attention and that we must find collective and consistent ways of giving God ours.

The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

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