Faith at Sea

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein





Parashat beshalach

guest sicha by rav elyakim krumbein


Faith at the Sea

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“And they believed in God” (Shemot 14:31). How did the nation achieve this state? And how are we to achieve this faith, which transcends the level of merely reciting slogans?


One may affirm God’s existence as a fact – either out of strongly-maintained tradition, or out of philosophical conviction. The author of Chovot Ha-levavot elaborates at length on both possibilities. However, the Rambam offers a third path.


The Rambam, who believed that the human epitome of knowledge of God was possible based on philosophical logic, also knew that only exceptional individuals would ultimately attain this level. However, he believed that there was also another way, which was not based upon the original acceptance of the forefathers, but rather anchored in the experience of the individual, even if he has not achieved the highest levels of theoretical understanding. This path is what he proposed to the students of his Mishneh Torah, a work intended also for those who are far removed from intellectual pursuits. As such, his suggestion remains a live option for our generation:


What is the path to loving and fearing Him? When a person contemplates God’s works and His great, wondrous creations, and stands in awe of His wisdom which is immeasurable and without bounds, he immediately loves and praises and glorifies [God] and feels a strong desire to know the great God, as David said, “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.”


And when he meditates upon these very things, he is taken aback and fearful and knows that he is a tiny, lowly, dark creature that stands with faint and little knowledge before He Who is perfect in wisdom, as David said: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers – what is man that You should take note of him?”


In accordance with these things I [shall] explain fundamental laws in the actions of the Sovereign of the worlds, in order that there shall be an opening for one who understands to love God, as our Sages taught concerning love – that out of this one comes to know Him Who spoke and the world came into being. (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2)


In chapter 1, Rambam established the mitzva of knowledge of God and of His unity. But he did not ask here, “How does one go about knowing Him?” Before explaining the path of knowing God, the Rambam waited until he had finished describing the personal significance of this knowledge: love and fear. Indeed, the Rambam is not talking about knowledge, or faith, in the objective, rational, abstract sense. I believe that the term he uses for knowledge – “hakara” – means a personal, experiential sort of familiarity.


“And they believed in God and in Moshe, His servant.” This is the climax of a process of inculcation of faith, which had been promised in advance: “And you shall know that I am the Lord Who brings you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt” (6:7). Could this possibly be talking about a rational conclusion drawn from the miracles of Egypt and the Red Sea? Is it more likely that this refers to proofs of God’s existence, omnipotence and providence, or to an existential connection to their Redeemer?


It must be noted that first the text reads, “They feared God,” and afterwards “they believed.” This follows the same order set forth by the Rambam: first comes the experiential significance, and only afterwards is there recognition and knowing. So as to illustrate this point, the Torah juxtaposes the Song of the Sea to this faith in God, and we understand with certainty that this is not faith that has been arrived at through intellectual proofs alone. The direct result of their faith is that they burst into song.


In other words, faith results in meaning; without meaning it cannot survive. If faith does not infuse my life with meaning and does not cause me to sing, then it does not exist. A person cannot believe in God in the same way that he believes that the sun will rise tomorrow. There is no belief in God’s existence without that existence influencing the life of the individual and giving it meaning.


What was the existential meaning that was the foundation for the faith of the generation that left Egypt?


Let us consider the example of Avraham, the first believer. Our Sages describe the beginnings of his faith by invoking the midrashic parable of the burning city. Some interpret the parable in the following way: Avraham saw a world going up in flames, the land controlled by evil people, and he concluded that there must be an “owner of the city” who will care enough to come and save the world. How is it possible to arrive at a cosmological conclusion based on a wish? Avraham identified within himself the inability to bear the situation, and analyzed this feeling: where did this human moral sense come from? Surely it could not have arisen from blind natural laws. It must be, he reasoned, that human morality is embedded in the world beyond, in the supernatural realm of the holy. There must be Someone Who is just, and He must have fashioned man with that aspiration. The existential significance of his faith gave rise to his trust. He had understood that God was the Supreme Source of the moral sensitivity which was so central to his life.


This was the axis upon which revolved the spiritual world of the generation that left Egypt. They lived in a world that was cynical and corrupt, which had built a culture on the foundations of oppression and infanticide. It is no wonder that their faith in justice was almost extinguished. But then Moshe arrived and announced that God was going to fulfill His 400-year-old promise. This was difficult for them to believe, since the value of loyalty was entirely foreign to their concrete experience.


The crux of the “proof” embodied in the “strong arm” is not intellectual. Rather, it was the observation of how the natural world – the Nile, the frogs, the locusts – all served Divine justice that gave rise to the understanding that there was Someone Who wanted to deliver the oppressed from the hand of the oppressor, and that the inner essence of the world is indeed good and upright. Moshe had to beg the people to take vessels of silver and gold – because Pharaoh, king of Egypt, owed them wages. To the slaves this sounded mad – and they responded with absolute disbelief. But the request had come not for the sake of the wealth, but rather for the sake of the awesome revelation that such a level of justice existed in the world.


When our forefathers were struck with astonishment at the Sea, this resulted in faith. In other words, those who had been redeemed permitted themselves to revive what had been almost completely vanquished during their long years of slavery. They were guided by their inner senses and found there confirmation (intuitive and unproven!) that the Splitting of the Sea was not a one-time event, but rather the reflection of something fundamental and integral to the world, and to themselves as people. From now on, man’s loftiest aspirations were no longer an illusion; goodness was no longer condemned to be shattered on the rocks of cynicism; the conduct of the world ultimately had to make sense.  This could be demanded of man. It could be expected of God.


Great faith means a great song. If the Rambam’s vision doesn’t affect us, perhaps we are reading the words without singing the notes. Our wonderment is locked up inside the routine view that attributes everything to human rule. If we sit down and write just some of the important, precious and essential things in our lives over which we have no control, and which – for all our effect on them – could just as easily not have come into existence, perhaps we can begin to touch the outermost edges of the greatness of the world in which, amazingly enough, we awaken and find ourselves. Perhaps we can still awaken the wonderment, and perhaps the song will awaken on its own, and we shall merit to come to know Him Who spoke and the world came into being.