Rabbi Daniel Stein
Rabbi Daniel Stein

Living with Emunah

The text of the Torah provides us with a scant amount of information regarding the background of Avraham Avinu, and no indication whatsoever regarding the nature of his previous activities or accomplishments. We are formally introduced to Avraham somewhat abruptly, as he is taking leave of his ancestral birthplace and embarking upon a pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael. It is only in the Medrash where we discover that Avraham independently deduced the existence of a Creator, and that he courageously promoted his monotheistic convictions to an unreceptive pagan family and society. In fact, the episode which occurred at Ur Kasdim, wherein Avraham was miraculously rescued from the clutches of a fiery furnace, is not mentioned at all in the pesukim of the Torah. Additionally, the Gemara (Avodah Zara 14b) attests that Avraham elucidated four hundred chapters of original halachic rulings in the area of avodah zara, none of which are recorded anywhere for posterity or future study. The Ramban and many other meforshim wonder, why would the Torah omit these impressive events which are not only critical to the narrative of Avraham but also justify why he alone was chosen to be the cornerstone of the Jewish people?

Rav Moshe Shapiro (Mimamakim) answers that while Avraham Avinu's brave brand of belief in the existence of Hashem was undoubtably noteworthy, emunah comes in varying degrees and depths. The Maharal (Gevuros Hashem ch. 7) explains that a theoretical belief in the existence of Hashem is merely the preamble to a religious existence. Mature and complete emunah requires a person to also be able to implement their belief in Hashem as a guiding force in their lives, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Therefore, the Torah commences the story of Avraham not by describing the profundity of his innovative theological breakthroughs or even with his willingness to sacrifice himself while defending the tenets of his faith, but rather with the transitional moment when his emunah began to dictate his actions even in the face of adversity. The true triumph of traveling to Eretz Yisrael was not in overcoming the inconvenience of the initial upheaval, but in Avraham's unwavering commitment to his divine mission even while being temporarily forced to flee as a result of the ensuing famine. Avraham only became the father of the Jewish people because his emunah in Hashem brought him to continue to invest in the promise of an enduring spiritual legacy despite the fact that he was aging and childless. Therefore, it is with these feats, and not the adventures of his past, that the Biblical narrative of Avraham's life begins.

For this reason, only after enduring the first round of challenges and tests is Avraham regarded as a "believer", when the pasuk states, "and he believed in Hashem and He considered it as charity" (Breishis 15:6). Why does Avraham only merit to be recognized as a believer at this relatively late stage of his life? How can the Torah discount the decades he spent developing and defending the articles of his faith? The Bnei Yissaschar (Sivan 5) explains that Avraham's emunah fully blossomed for the first time when he refrained from doubting the wisdom and legitimacy of Hashem's instructions despite the hardships and setbacks he had to endure. Only when he remained determined in the face of resistance did the reality of his transcendent emunah become tangible. This clarifies the comparison between Avraham's emunah and the institution of charity. Ostensibly, the requirement to give charity results in a fiscal loss for the benefactor; after all, money is being transferred out of his account and deposited into the account of another. However, from the perspective of a maamin, who trusts in Hashem's promise to reimburse and reward all those who distribute their resources to the needy, tzedakah is an investment which pays handsome dividends. Therefore, every sincere and enthusiastic act of tzedakah is likely the manifestation of a deeply held emunah.

According to the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos 1), belief in Hashem is a positive commandment and the first mitzvah. Other rishonim do not consider emunah to be a mitzvah at all since the entire notion of a mitzvah presupposes a basic belief in Hashem. Indeed, without some measure of emunah the very concept of mitzvos cannot possibly exist, for how can we speak of a commandment without a commander. Since this argument is so overwhelmingly compelling, many meforshim suggest that the Rambam would have to cede this point as well. The Rambam only asserts that the mitzvah of emunah demands more than just a rudimentary belief in the existence of Hashem, it requires us to act in accordance with that belief and to remain steadfast despite the difficulties we might encounter along the way. In other words, to fulfill the first mitzvah, emunah must be practiced not just preached.

This is supported by the Gemara (Makkos 24a) which recounts that Habakkuk distilled the entire system of mitzvos to one central theme, which is encapsulated by the pasuk "ve'tzaddik be'emunaso yichyeh - the tzaddik lives with his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4). The Ben Yehoyada notes that the gematriah of the word emunah is 102 while the numerical value of the word tzaddik is 204, because every tzaddik (204) must have two (2) dimensions to their emunah (2*102). There must be a theological belief in the existence of Hashem, but also a determination to put that emunah into practice. It is the relationship between these two facets of emunah which serves as the framework for the rest of religious life.

The Mishnah (Avos 5:19) identifies the disciples of Avraham as those who possess a good eye, a humble spirit, and a controlled personality. At first glance this is surprising, since the defining quality of Avraham was certainly his unshakable emunah. How can the emergence of emunah be completely absent in any reflection on Avraham Avinu's contributions? Rav Eliezer Geldzahler (Sichos Eliezer) suggests that intellectual emunah alone is not enough. Emunah is only meaningful when it is translated into action and ultimately produces a person who has a good eye, a humble spirit, and a controlled personality. Therefore, as we read about Avraham's historic accomplishments, we should be inspired to not only reinforce the theological foundations of our own faith, but to also concentrate on living constantly with that emunah and allowing it to become the guiding force in all that we do. Only if we are successful in this challenge may we proudly renew our claim to be the faithful students and spiritual heirs of Avraham Avinu.

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