Torah reading 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
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.
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.
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.