When trust and faith merge

The biblical theme of freedom from oppression is taken from the Exodus story. But it is not until this week’s Torah portion that the Jewish people experienced true freedom and exultation. They thought that the shackles of Egyptian exile had been broken, that the escape was complete and that the dream of their redemption had finally been fulfilled. Then everything changed. They looked behind and saw the mighty Egyptian army, led by the evil ruler himself, racing toward them. In front was endless water. They were trapped, facing inevitable death at the foot of the sea.
What kind of discussion took place among the leaders? Tradition relates that there were four perspectives: One group screamed, “We will never go back; let’s jump into the sea.” (Death is better than slavery.) Another group cried, “Let’s just surrender and return to Egypt.” (Even slavery is better than death.) Yet another exclaimed, “Let’s fight!” And the last group screamed, “Let’s pray to the Almighty for salvation.”
In the end, none of these options were employed, as Moses ordered, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again.” Still, the people hesitated. The Talmud relates that at that moment, Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, brother-in-law of Aaron, the high priest, boldly moved toward the swirling sea.
Wonders and miracles
The most spectacular scene then unfolds — the splitting of the Red Sea, walking through the sands surrounded by still walls of water while their enemy’s chariots were thrust deep beneath the waves. At that point, their freedom was stamped. And the Torah then encapsulates their euphoria with a simple statement: “And they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant.” (Exodus 14:31)
Within a previously divisive people emerged unparalleled unity, the memory of a common past, an inspired present and a shared fate. A spirit of prophecy permeated their being as words of intense joy and wonder were sung in perfect unison. The image was engraved in history, known as the Song of the Sea. The biblical passages, read this week, were inserted into our daily prayer service.
This portrait — optimizing faith, unity and the final feeling of freedom — is the masterpiece of all miracles, the pinnacle of the Exodus. This story has also served as the inspiration for the founding fathers of this country, who had Biblical ethics embedded into their thinking. Benjamin Franklin, a Renaissance man, was at the head of the Thirteen Colonies’ movement to create a free society based and often referred to biblical principles as inspiration. In August 1776, while serving on the subcommittee to come up with the design of the Great Seal of the United States — which now appears on the back of the $1 bill — Franklin proposed the above scene.
In a handwritten letter, he describes the precise image he envisioned: “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh, who is sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand…”
Although the United States government has never promoted any specific faith, certain principles were so central to the foundation of the United States that they were engraved on our coins and currency. The phrase “In God We Trust,” for example, still appears on every dollar bill.
Faith versus trust
From a Jewish perspective, faith (emunah) and trust (bitachon) are distinct qualities and both differ from the usual understanding. Both are beneficial in enhancing a person’s life and mindset and they are explained at length in the classical ethical works.
The usual way of thinking about faith is a strong sense of confidence in someone or something. Used this way in casual conversation, faith is personal belief — it may apply to any subject or system that the individual concludes is valid. “What do you believe in?” is a typical question. The quality of faith, as described in the classical Jewish sources — in Hebrew, emunah — functions differently.
On the one hand, Jewish faith is distinct from credulity or irrational loyalty. Faith must be developed through critical analysis, which is why emunah shares a common root with working on a craft, a skill gained through, repetitive and immersive practice. And it encompasses more than a mental conclusion.
In Jewish mystical works, emunah is an innate awareness within the soul. That’s why in the soul structure it is regarded as one of the 13 “powers” or abilities that exist in potential. In other words, everyone has it, though not everyone uses it. And even when active, it can remain subconscious, without penetrating the mind, much in the same way that someone may be intelligent but never utilize their capacities in a given context.
According to the kabbalistic model, every ability or experience is rooted within a specific soul “power” that allows it to be expressed in thought, speech or action. Faith in God is stationed within the innermost part of keter, the crown, which contain all the transcendent traits — faith, pleasure, inspiration and willpower. These powers are more potent in their effects. When they are active, however, they provide a boost to the entire system — mental and emotional, and functional faculties. (Thus, when someone studies something that is particularly relevant or interesting, they can achieve extraordinary results whereas someone with equal intelligence may fail to grasp the same content.)
More specifically, faith is an innate bond, not an acquisition or result of education; it is the deepest expression of the soul’s connection with its source. Because God is everywhere, guiding every detail of the universe, the soul has an instinctive perception of its source. Even a child can intuitively grasp this abstract idea with unadulterated sincerity (and sometimes better than adults, whose sophistication and ego can get in the way). As a person grows, faith can be blocked or covered by emotional leanings. Other times, faith is tested. It is our task to nourish and clarify faith through effort — investigation, study and periods of reflection. The ultimate goal is for this deeper, more potent power to also penetrate the rational mind, to sink into a detailed understanding and conscious experience.
For this reason, Maimonides outlines 13 famous principles of faith. There are also daily meditations to reinforce these principles within the mind, most notably the Shema, which entails not only the acknowledgment of One God, but of a oneness and harmony within all of creation, the pervading presence until the final recognition that “there is no existence besides Him.”
So, if, for example, one has faith in a Creator but one who abandoned the world or works with spiritual “partners” — a contradiction to the absolute unity of God — that would be a misdirected surrender, a powerful emotion, but still not tapping into the specific quality of faith — emunah.
Trust involves a more tangible emotion that finds expression in daily action. Related to the Hebrew word for feeling secure, certain or confident, this emotion entails a sense of calmness and tranquility rather than doubt or worry.
When one is happy with how everything is going, it’s much easier to experience faith and trust. But during difficult times, when the future is scary and uncertain, the power of faith and trust are tested and need to be brought to the surface. The greatest challenge is when a person sees no way out of the present hardship.
In such a situation, someone without faith can feel alone or abandoned, tossed into a random world where challenges may seem to outweigh capabilities. Any confidence in a positive outcome, optimism, or ability to cope then depends only on inner resources — character, skills and personality. The innate power of faith adds another dimension into one’s mindset. It taps the ability to feel that God is present within the details and that whatever happens is for the best. The problem is this type of faith may be comforting, yet vague. There is no sense that the outcome will be tangibly or visibly good.
During times of uncertainty — when the outcome is yet undecided — someone with faith may reason as follows: “Everything is in the hands of God. I’ll try my best and if things turn out well, I’ll be happy. If not, everything happens for a reason.” Trust is an altogether different experience. In addition to feeling calm, someone with trust has confidence that things will turn out positively — in a way that can tangibly be appreciated.
Thus, while both emotions can manifest as peace of mind, free of fear, trust is specific and more active. It is further explained that while trust is more difficult to attain than faith, one’s effort to arrive at this confident mindset directly provokes a corresponding response from above.
This passage of the splitting of the sea was inserted into our daily prayers because the event captures the themes of faith, trust and unity in their extremes. Nevertheless, there are important lessons that can be applied in daily life. Without needing the sea to split, we face tests of faith and Jewish unity during crisis. And our mindset is crucial to the outcome. When the heart is awake, we see warmth and connection between people. When we are stressed, we see only division. One must continually try to nurture faith and trust, and to recognize how each member of the community has a specific function and fits into the whole.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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