As human beings, we have a broad range of abilities and experiences that can be uncovered — whether intelligence, love, awe, compassion, courage or artistic expression. The crown of all achievements, the most vital feature within our being, is the capacity to create an inner bridge between our most sublime sentiments and external expressions: between faith and deed.
In the depth of our internal storehouse is the power of faith, which when activated infuses all other characteristics with momentum and meaning. The type of faith (Heb. emunah), as described in Jewish tradition, is not simply a strong belief beyond reason, but an underlying awareness that every person possesses by virtue of the soul’s innate connection to the Creator. Put simply, faith is what the soul sees, not what the mind calculates.
At the same time, the goal is for our faith to align with the conscious mind, emotions, and to find expression in daily actions. Whether this power of faith bears fruit and becomes conscious, or whether it remains dormant, depends on the circumstances a person faces. It often takes extreme pressure for our deepest resources to surface and shoot forth to inspire the most glorious deeds.
The great leader of Israel
The commentaries explain that each of the key figures in the Torah epitomize a specific noble quality: Abraham, for example, was the epitome of kindness, Jacob was compassion, Rachel was speech. Moses is referred to in Aramaic as raya mehemna, the “Faithful Shepherd” (lit. the shepherd of faith), which has two parallel meanings: The first points to a character trait within Moses himself; the second teaches about his broader leadership role.
On the surface, the title “faithful shepherd” describes Moses as a committed leader, completely devoted to his mission. The richer meaning is that he shepherds — i.e., nourishes — the quality of faith within the hearts of his people.
During the final stage of slavery in Egypt, Moses kept the people’s faith alive through his presence and later, after the Exodus, by teaching the Torah. He also had the profound effect of helping each person to bring their innate power of faith to the surface and internalize it.
There is a Moses in every generation
But Moses saw that he was not destined to lead the people into Israel. In this week’s Torah portion, he requests that God appoint someone fitting to continue this leadership role “so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17).
God then instructs him how to empower Joshua: “You shall bestow some of your ‘hod’ (majesty) upon him.” Placing his hands on his student’s head, Moses transfers his spirit to Joshua. Here, the transfer of “majesty,” a spiritual gift, is explained with an analogy of pouring liquid from one container to another (rather than lighting one candle from another). In other words, when Moses imparted his leadership power, he relinquished some of his own radiance.
Nevertheless, the biblical commentaries relate that “the face of Moses was [radiant] like the sun, whereas the face of Joshua was like the moon” (Sifrei Pinchas 23, Talmud Bava Batra 75a). This allegorical phrase likewise carries parallel messages: On the one hand, the spiritual splendor of Joshua was only a reflection of Moses’; on the other hand, Joshua was the ultimate disciple, “reflecting” the same essential qualities of his master, which guaranteed that the people of Israel would revere him too.
Later, God commands Joshua to prepare the children of Israel to cross the Jordan River and assures him success in this mission: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you, nor forsake you. Be strong and have courage; for you will cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.” (Joshua 1:5–6)
The esoteric texts (Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 69 [pp. 112b, 114a]) teach that in every generation there is “an extension of Moses,” a leader whose purpose it is to instill and nourish our faith. Just as miracles wake up people, dispel doubt, and point to the underlying force guiding events — their purpose is “to elevate” the natural order. So too, God planted human beings in each generation to serve as visible reminders of the grand plan, a link within our physical plane to that which lies beyond it.
Faith is tested primarily during times of darkness. Indeed, whenever the Jewish people have faced crisis, a mighty spiritual guide, unwavering in loyalty and moral clarity, has risen to serve as the shining personification of devotion while inspiring the people to manifest their own faith. This pattern continues through the generations, whether Mordechai and Esther guiding salvation in the story of Purim, Maimonides codifying texts in his time, or Jewish leaders in the modern era who helped sustain the Jewish people during oppressive regimes.
External andinternal barriers
In previous generations, the main obstacle to Jewish life was external dangers, widespread persecution. And the test was whether someone was willing to risk his or her life to uphold their beliefs. External pressure forced faith to flow from the depths into action.
Today, in America we face a different (though in some ways harder) challenge — the challenge of freedom and material comfort. While these blessings are to be appreciated, they open the door to a new internal obstacle. With all the technological advances and influx of information, our attention is pulled in many directions as the mind is given a buffet of intriguing ideas from which to select and process. Amid preoccupation with self-development, faith and self-sacrifice often takes a back seat.
This interference is compounded by enticing distractions and turbulent images flooding the media that easily affect one’s morale and confidence in humanity. Without the external pressure, the most vital part of the soul is neither nourished nor expressed in action — resulting in the tendency of the mind to fall prey to false narratives and free-flowing emotions.
The test, therefore, becomes: Can one think freely, critically and clearly, and remain a proud Jew amid all sorts of cultural demands? One must be able to shut out all the noise and get in touch with the deepest self. In the end, it’s not the mind or heart, nor creative juices that enable us to grow: Rather, awakening and solidifying faith proves to be the delineating force for our resolve, for detecting falsehood and interpreting events.
So, during confusing times, we must remember to look to our past and present leaders, those towering figures whose teachings, flowing from the Torah, provide the insight and strength to overcome all pressures — either from within or without — as they shine light into darkness.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.