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The Rabbi's Struggle With Faith

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

This is probably an odd confession for a rabbi- I struggle with a sense of faith. As someone who is too often in the human tragedy business, I just can’t reconcile so much suffering as “God’s will.” I am not comforted by a thought that “Everything happens for a reason,” and I cringe when I hear, “God doesn’t give you more to bear than you can handle.”

The protagonists in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, similarly struggle with their sense of faith. You know the story: Balak, the King of Moab, hires a very reluctant non-Jewish prophet named Bilaam to curse the Israelite people. God tries to discourage Bilaam, but Balak is persistent and promises great financial compensation. In one of the great ironic moments of the Torah, a magical talking donkey even appears to block Bilaam’s path. Bilaam initially beats the poor animal, and then, according to the text, God opens his eyes and the donkey is revealed to be a divine messenger, an angel.

Our own Debra Gettleman suggested that we too often react like Bilaam when we experience obstacles in our own lives- metaphorically beating them and cursing and not imagining that we might need to open our eyes and understand setbacks as, perhaps, divine messages. She writes, “The parsha is rife with characters that struggle against the will of G-d. Over and over we see the uselessness of such a struggle. So often in life we believe that we know the proper directions our life is to take. Yet time and again we are frustrated by unanticipated obstacles that block our way.” She suggests that “. . . we (can) trust that G-d is leading the way and the obstacles we encounter might be G-d’s angels sent down to continue to guide us on our paths.” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it like this, “Just as a small fire is extinguished by a storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it- likewise a weak faith is weakened by a predicament and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.”

I guess I have a weak faith. I can only imagine the comfort of believing that everything that happens is God’s will. Actually, I can’t even imagine it. The freedom from worry and anxiety, the “tranquility of soul,” as Bachya ibn Pakuda puts it. Sometimes, in despair, I wonder if I should just resign from my position as a rabbi? A rabbi who struggles with faith? Who rebels against God’s will? According to the Chofetz Chayim, “For the believer, there are no questions. For the unbeliever, there are no answers.” That seems to me to be a pretty absolute, maybe harsh standard. Aren’t we, as a faith community, very much about asking questions? Wasn’t Abraham’s very first reaction after connecting with God to then question God’s justice and wisdom? Aren’t we the people of Israel, Yisrael, the one’s who struggle with God?

The thing that saves me is the Mussar definition of faith. Mussar literature reminds us that faith is a process, a path, a journey. It is a goal, not a certainty. “The main feature of faith,” writes Alan Morinis, “is seeking it.” It is greatly comforting and encouraging to me to understand faith not as a “blind faith,” but as an ongoing discovery. Mussar suggests that the important thing is not what we believe about God, but where we look for God. If we can, indeed, like Bilaam- “open our eyes” to God’s presence, we can find strength and comfort in the myriad of blessings that surround us, and, perhaps, a faith that can sustain us in times of struggle and doubt, challenge and difficulty. I’ll conclude with this poem from Yehuda haLevi-

Where, Lord, will I find You: Your place is high and obscured. And where Won’t I find You: Your glory fills the world.... I sought Your nearness: with all my heart I called You. And in my going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me.

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