R’ Linzer on Parshat Beshalach

“And they Believed in God and in Moshe, God’s Servant”
A dominant theme is Parsha Beshalach is that of emunah, belief – having it and losing it.   That the Children of Israel should believe in God after witnessing the miracles and plagues in Egypt is to be expected.  What is more of a question is how long that belief will last – will they continue to believe even when they are not experiencing miracles, and even when they are beset with hardship?   As one story after another of their wanderings in the desert make clear, the ability to sustain belief was a chronic challenge for the Children of Israel, one they failed in time and time again.
The faltering begins at the beginning of our parsha.    One minute they are leaving Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (Shemot 14:9), and the next minute, when Pharaoh and his troops draw near, “They said to Moshe, ‘Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the Wilderness?’.”  What is the reason for such a quick loss of faith?  Did they no longer believe that God exists?  Did they no longer believe that God could make miracles?  While we can acknowledge that this generation were complainers and had a slave mentality,  this seems insufficient as an answer to this question – even for such people, how could belief be lost so quickly?
In answer to this, it is important to distinguish between two types of belief: ‘belief that’ and ‘belief in’.  To ‘believe that’ is to believe or accept that a certain statement is true; to ‘believe in’ is to have trust in a person, and to believe in that person’s trustworthiness.  I believethat the world is round, not in the world being round.  A childbelieves in her father – this is not the assertion of some fact about him that is true, it is that she trusts her father, she knows that her father will always be there for her, and she trusts that he will protect her.
The word emunah can refer to either of these two meanings, and this is reflected by two parallel words – amen and o-men (spelled aleph-vav-mem-nun).  Amen is a word uttered to indicated agreement and concurrence with a statement or sentiment.   It is to assert something as true.  O-men is to nurture and raise, and an omanet is a nursemaid.  The emunah that is connected to amen is a belief that, the emunahthat is connected to o-manet is a belief in.   The first form of belief is intellectual and connects to the mind, the second is emotional and relational, and connects to the heart.
What type of belief, of emunah, is our parsha most concerned with? The Children of Israel, recovering from their earlier faltering, see God’s power at the Splitting of the Sea, “believed in God and in Moshe, God’s servant” – was this a belief in or was this a belief that?  Is the Torah telling us that they trusted God and Moshe, or is it telling us that they believed that God existed and that Moshe was God’s prophet?
Rambam, in his famous discussion in chapter 8 of his Yisodei HaTorah, Fundamentals of the Torah, his first book in Mishne Torah, asserts that the Torah is concerned with our belief that, or belief that God exists, and that Moshe is God’s true prophet.  Rambam in concerned with the question of how we can know, as an absolute certainty, that Moshe was communicating the direct word of God.  Rambam’s answer to this is that it was not due to the signs and miracles, because “one who believes due to signs and miracles, always has some doubt in his heart, for perhaps the sign was done through some trickery.” (Yisodei HaTorah 8:1).   Thus, says Rambam, when God says to Moshe that Bnei Yisrael will believe because of the signs that Moshe will do (cf. Shemot 3:11-4:9), Moshe was troubled that this would not lead to firm belief, and thus God told Moshe that that would come when the Torah was given at Sinai, and everyone saw with his and her own eyes that God gave the Torah and spoke directly to Moshe.
For Rambam, the philosopher and the one who authored the list of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, what was and is of central importance is that the Jewish People believe that certain propositions about God and Moshe are true.  Thus, Rambam also begins this book, indeed the entire Mishne Torah, by stating that it is a mitzvah to know that God exists.  What is key is what we intellectually assert, and – better yet – what we know as fact.
This emunah, however, is not the type of belief that our parsha is concerned with.  There is, in fact, a way to tell what type of emunahwe are talking about.  Just as the divergent meanings of belief in andbelief that are marked in English by the use of different prepositions, so is the case in Hebrew.  Li’ha’amin or li’ha’amin li… is to believe that, li’ha’amin b…is to believe in.  When, in Parshat Shemot, God tells Moshe to do signs so that the people will believe that God has sent him, the Torah says, “v’ya’aminu ki” – and they will believe that [God has appeared to you], and “im lo ya’aminu lakh,” if they don’t believe you (that what you are saying is true), then “v’he’eminu li‘kol ha’ot ha’acharon” – they will believe the evidence of the last sign (Shemot 4:5, 8).    These are all to prove that something is true, that God has sent Moshe to redeem the Children of Israel.  This is the specific concern at the beginning of the Exodus.  This, however, is not the abiding concern of the Torah.
The abiding concern of the Torah is a belief in.  V’he’eminuba’Hashem u’vi‘Moshe avdo,” – and they believed in God, and inMoshe, God’s servant.  The experience at the Splitting of the Sea was imbued in them a faith in God, they knew that God would always be there for them, they knew that God was there to care for them.  They knew that they were protected by God, and protected by Moshe.  It was the faith of a relationship, not the belief in a fact.   Let us not forget that when they lose faith, it is often a questioning of God’s or Moshe’s trustworthiness – “And they said to Moshe, ‘Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the Wilderness.”  What they lacked was a full placing of trust in God, a full placing of trust in Moshe.  This is what they achieved at the Splitting of the Sea.
This also explains a troubling verse that appears before the Splitting of the Sea.  As Pharaoh and his troops are drawing near, God says to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to me, speak to Bnei Yisrael and travel forth.” (Shemot 14:15).  Why is Moshe being castigated for crying out to God?  Isn’t that what one does when one is in trouble?  The answer is, that since God had promised that God would redeem them from Egypt, to cry out is to lack faith in God.  By crying out to God, Moshe signaled – in contrast to his firm assurances 2 verses earlier – a certain doubt as to whether they would be saved.  To fully believe in God, to fully trust God, would be to know that God will protect you.  You can ask God what to do, but there is no need to cry out.  It is for this reason that the Rabbis say that when Moshe was unnecessarily extending his prayer, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in and caused the waters to split (Sotah 37a).  While Moshe’s actions could be interpreted as a lack of full trust in God’s promise, Nachshon acted in a way that showed complete  and uncompromising faith in God.  He trusted God, and he could take this leap of faith.
This helps us understand how the People’s faith readily faltered.  As opposed to belief that a fact is true, which should persists once proven, belief in a person, or in God, trust in a relationship, even trusting God, is something that is built over time.  Although God had shown God’s might in Egypt, could the People really believe in God in the future?  Would God be there for them at all times?  This type of belief, this trust, is something that gets cemented only when it is validated time and again.   That is how relationships work, and that is how the People’s belief in God worked.
What the Torah is primarily concerned with is not that we assert certain principles as true.  The Torah’s concern is that we listen to God and that we believe in God.  That we have a strong relationship in God, and that we trust that God will always be there for us.  Sadly, much of our community focuses on Rambam’s belief that, and ignores the importance of belief in.  While Judaism undoubtedly has principles of faith, we cannot call ourselves truly religious if all we do is follow halakha and assert our faith principles.  Religiosity, as opposed to observance, requires an ongoing relationship with God, a trust in God.  This lived relationship, this trust, can be fragile, especially at a time when God is not performing regular miracles, and we are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust.  It is a relationship that has been built over time – over thousands of years, but one that also needs regular nurturing.
According to Ramban, we may not be commanded to believe thatGod exists (he notes that the first of the Ten Commandments is phrased as a statement, not an imperative), but we are commanded to remember and not to forget the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  To remember the events – drawing on our collective, not individual memory – is quite different from Rambam’s approach, to believe in  the faith principles that we learned from these events.   To remember the events is to relive them, is to draw on the experiences, is to strengthen our relationship with God, to strengthen our trust in God.
Let us – as individuals, as parents, and as a community, work to cultivate and nurture our relationship with God, work to develop our belief in God.  Let us try to connect to those past experiences, our collective memory of the Giving of the Torah, of God’s protective presence throughout history, that will nurture this belief.  And let us work to identify, to notice, those moments in our own lives which allow us to feel God’s presence, and go back to them again and again, so that we may truly be able to trust in God, to believe in God.
Shabbat Shalom!

-Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovovei Torah

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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