Rabbi Karen Citrin
August 1, 2014
The Torah likes to repeat itself. It embraces the “broken record” method of conveying a lesson. Our portion begins with the reiteration of the Israelites’ lament, some would call it whining, why did you take us out of Egypt? This life in the wilderness is so hard. When are we going to get to Israel? Are we there yet?
In this portion and book called Devarim, meaning words, Moses shares his final words of encouragement and hope to the children of Israel. He tells them, in the verses I just chanted, “Have no fear. God is with you, just as God did for you in the wilderness, carrying you as a parent carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place. Yet, you still have no faith, in God who is with you in fire by night and in cloud by day.” (Deuteronomy 1:29-33)
Moses encourages the people of Israel to keep their faith. What a beautiful image. God is like a parent carrying a child. Faith is one of those big life questions. What do we believe? What do we hold dear? What do we sense? What do we feel to be true even if it is not fully in our capacity to understand? I think that sometimes we write faith off because it is one of those ideas that seems too complex, too overwhelming, too irrational. For me, faith is about embracing the mystery. Having faith, I believe can be as freeing as floating.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are a few things a parent is supposed to do: “Circumcise a son, redeem him if he is a firstborn, teach him Torah, find him a wife, and teach him a craft or a trade. And there are some who also say teach him how to swim.” (Talmud Kiddushin 29a)
I will tell you that in the Citrin family we have done really well with the circumcision and teaching Torah. And we have started our kids on a good path with schooling and even piano lessons. We have been a little lax on the swimming.
But moving to Oklahoma, where heat and swimming pools abound, has motivated us to finally sign up for swim lessons. And our boys have done great; they are nearly water safe. It was a little shaky at first. But they have slowly learned to let go of the kick board and water noodle, to let go of the side of the wall. Watching then learn to swim has got me thinking more about this Jewish dictum. Why would the Talmud have included swimming along with being part of the sacred Covenant or Brit, learning Torah, entering the chuppah of holy marriage, and becoming self-sufficient with a trade? Well, if you stop to think about, all of these things sustain life. And all do not come easily. They take work and discipline. They take an element of faith.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles writes, “I remember when I was learning to swim. The hardest part was floating. Swimming is about propulsion: One must kick, stroke, move. But floating asks us to be still, to trust in the buoyancy of the water. Swimming is work; floating takes faith. In the ocean it is sometimes necessary to swim, but the swimmer goes beneath the wave while the floater rides its crest.” (Floating Takes Faith – Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World, Rabbi David J. Wolpe, 2004)
Floating takes faith. Do you remember when you first learned to float? I remember fear, disbelief that I would actually stay afloat, and finally complete relaxation. I don’t believe that having faith means the absence of reason. I do believe that having faith means having hope. The modern Jewish philosopher, Leo Baeck, said, “Through faith humankind experiences the meaning of the world; through action we give the world meaning.” (Essence of Judaism)
This past week’s New York Times featured an article entitled, “Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins.” The piece highlighted writer and historian, Renee Haynes, who introduced the concept of the “boggle threshold: the level above which the mind boggles when faced with some new fact or report or idea.” For example, Haynes herself was fine with telepathy, hesitant about reincarnation, and appalled that a friend had flown across the Atlantic to have her torn “aura” repaired by a guru expert in invisible mending. (The New York Times, Sunday Review, T.M. Luhrmann, July 27, 2014)
We all have these boggle lines or faith lines, partially shaped by our local culture, the synagogue or church we grew up in, the familiar rhythms of our family’s life. “We each of us have what we would call a belief continuum, with taken-for-granted obvious truths at one end (it does not snow in August) and whacked-out possibilities at the other (the tooth fairy, a Cubs triumph in the World Series).” This belief continuum is our wilderness of faith. It is common as we move through life for these faith lines to shift. Most of us come to our religious instincts and commitments slowly, carefully and deliberatively. Most of us struggle at one point or another. Yet, as the great Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk affirmed, “Faith is sometimes clearer than sight.”
What are your faith lines? What are your moments when faith feels foggy? What are your moments when faith is clear? Our tradition encourages us to struggle with and to ultimately keep the faith. Have faith that God is with you by night and by day, in fire and in cloud, in ways that you may not yet see. Faith is one of those things that is intangible, like God, like love. You can’t see it. But you know it’s there. And it keeps you going; it carries you through hard times; it keeps you afloat.
The Hebrew word for faith is “emunah.” Sound familiar? It is the same root as amen. We all know amen. You don’t have to believe a gospel preacher to know amen. Amen brother. Amen sister. Guess what, they got it from us. When we say amen, we are saying, yes, I believe, I affirm, I trust, I am here. Amen. I believe in myself. I believe in presence and power that is beyond myself. I believe God is carrying me. I believe I can float.
Rabbi Wolpe adds, “On Shabbat we are to consider the week’s reasonable tasks complete; Shabbat asks us to trust the wave of God’s world. This Shabbat, do not work on the world or on yourself. Save that for the other six days, and when Shabbat comes, float.” Faith is often more accessible on Shabbat. Faith is clear in the warmth of family and community, in the beauty of music and prayer, in the glow of candlelight and taste of braided challah. Shabbat is a buoy in the sea of faith. Dive in and float. Shabbat Shalom. Amen.