Faith In Times of Crisis and Desperation
From Fear To Faith
"Birth is a beginning
and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness—
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith….”
At every funeral at which I officiate, I read those words, by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine. They capture for me an essential Jewish idea: that life is not just about growing older; it’s about how we grow as a person and develop our character and spirit. One line, though, always stands out for me. We can understand the progression from youth to maturity, the journey from foolishness to discretion to wisdom. We can see how a person might move beyond resentment and learn to forgive, overcome loneliness and learn to love unselfishly, learn compassion for others from suffering pain oneself, stop taking good fortune for granted and feel gratitude for the blessings in one’s life.
But what about the movement from fear to faith? Often we think of faith as something we leave behind as we grow in knowledge and wisdom. One writer, explaining his own atheism, wrote, “For people who have been lucky enough to have a good education, belief in God, I say, should be rejected.” In other words, grownups should outgrow religious faith just as we outgrow fairy tales.
Far from being the sign of a strong, mature personality, we tend to see faith as the refuge of the unsophisticated and weak – “a crutch,” as science fiction Robert Heinlein wrote, “for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” And rather than being the outcome of personal growth, faith often seems to us to reflect a narrowing of the mind and heart, common to those who cling to simplistic or even dangerous ideas.
Some kinds of faith deserve to be given up, deserve to be grown out of --or, better yet, we should not inflict such faith on children in the first place. But there’s also the kind of faith that Alvin Fine is talking about – the faith which we can grow into, the faith that comes with wisdom, with maturity, as a sign of inner strength. The kind of faith that can help us face our fears.
Here's story about faith from the 18th century. Once there was a learned man, a man who prided himself on his education, and who boasted of being modern and “enlightened.” He made a practice of going from one rabbi to another to debate with them about their faith and refute all their claims and arguments, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned. Finally he came to Levi Yitzhak, the rabbi of Berditchev, hoping to prove him wrong, as well. The rabbi looked into the man’s eyes and said, “My son, the great Torah scholars with whom you argued wasted their words on you. After you left them, you only laughed at what they had said. They could not place God on the table before you, they could not show you God’s reality, and neither can I. But think, my son. Just think! Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is true after all.”
The enlightened man made the utmost effort to reply, but the word “perhaps” beat on his ears again and again, and he departed in silence. The rabbi doesn’t reject him or attack him for his doubts. He doesn’t debate with him either, but states flat out that he can’t offer definitive proof that God is real. He offers him, instead, just one word: “perhaps.” It doesn’t sound like much, at first. You’d think that a great religious leader should be able to come up with more than “perhaps.” But Rabbi Levi understands that “perhaps” is irrefutable. It simply opens the door to the possibility that God is, and that there may be something to religion, after all.
Immature faith is rooted in certainty, a conviction that it alone possesses the truth. It cannot tolerate ambiguity or doubt; it is threatened by opposing views. Far stronger is faith that is rooted in “perhaps.”
Mature faith understands that all thoughtful people have doubts and must live with uncertainty. It is gentle, modest and humble in its assertions. It does not make grandiose pronouncements or give absolute assurances. Mature faith respects the world’s complexity; it acknowledges that there are many paths to truth; it does not seek to denigrate or dominate others through dogma.
A second story, about fear and faith: A midrash says that when the Israelites, fleeing from slavery, came to the shores of the Red Sea, the frightened people began wrangling with one another, each one saying “I will not be the first to go down into the sea.” While they were arguing, a man called Nachshon sprang forward and was the first to enter the waters. Meanwhile, Moses stood in prayer before God. God said to him, “My beloved children are in danger at the sea, and you stand here praying?” Moses said, “But Master of the universe, what can I do?” And God answered: “Speak to the children of Israel and lead them forward.”
Immature faith looks to God as the parent in the sky who will get us out of trouble and solve our problems. But the midrash teaches something different: that human beings must face reality and act to solve their own problems, and that faith, and prayer, give us the strength to go forward. (This is what some call, active faith - we act, trusting in God's guidance - not ourselves).
A third story, recorded in the Talmud, about the loss of an immature faith. A sage called Elisha ben Abuyah saw a young boy fall off a ladder and die while engaged in performing a mitzvah from the Torah. Upon witnessing this tragic event Elisha denied the existence of God and declared: “there is no justice and there is no Judge”
Elisha’s faith was rooted in the belief that God rules the world like a fair and attentive judge, doling out rewards and punishments exactly as deserved. They are human efforts to make sense of a chaotic world. This kind of faith is still prevalent in our own day, for something inside us longs for the universe to be just. But this kind of faith is destined to collapse in the face of reality.
Shirley Ranz, the child of Holocaust survivors, defines herself as a Jewish nonbeliever, saying, “How can I be religious? My parents went through the worst hell on earth. How could I believe that a good, powerful God would allow this to happen, allow the murder of one and a half million children?” Of course, it doesn’t require a Holocaust for us to question God’s justice. Even the undeserved suffering of a single person seems to challenge this kind of faith.
But Elisha ben Abuyah’s kind of faith was long ago repudiated by Jewish tradition (and Bible scholars). It’s repudiated by the Gemara, the very commentary on that story, which speculates that the ladder was probably rickety, and says that one shouldn't rely on miracles when stepping on a rickety ladder. It’s repudiated by the book of Job, in which a good person suffers through no fault of his own. And it’s repudiated most powerfully in a remarkable passage in the Talmud : “Suppose a man steals a measure of wheat and plants it in his own field. – it would be right that the wheat not grow.” After all, it is stolen. But the passage ends by saying that the wheat will sprout anyway, because “nature pursues its normal course" Nature, that is, is morally neutral – earthquakes, hurricanes and viruses do not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked; bombs fall on the innocent because of the law of gravity, brakes tragically fail and cars crash not because God is plotting the action but because that is the way the world works.
Maimonides warned, in the Middle Ages, that it is naïve to imagine God as a wise and just parent who rewards and punishes us as we deserve. God does not micromanage the universe, he said, so heartbreaking things will happen. People lose their money, lose their homes, lose their health, lose their lives – and none of that is a manifestation of God’s disfavor. Rather, we live in a universe regulated by the laws of nature in which human beings operate with freedom of choice – and in such a universe the suffering of good people is inevitable.
If mature faith can’t offer us certainty, can’t offer us the comfort of being looked after by a God who will solve our problems for us, can’t offer us the guarantee that good behavior will protect us from misfortune, then what’s the point? What’s the value of a faith that leaves us with an ambiguous, dangerous, unpredictable and demanding world?
The value is that it’s a faith designed for the real world, the world we know through experience, the world that disappoints us and hurts us and challenges us every day. A faith that has the capacity to act with constancy and devotion; it is persistence and perseverance; it is the ability to withstand the challenges of the present because of one's devotion to a greater good.
Faith is when a son goes to visit his elderly parents after work, and helps with the shopping and the bills and the medications, and listens to their stories and their complaints and tries to preserve their dignity, because these are the people who gave him life. Faith is when parents hang in there and refuse to give up on their teenage son or daughter, no matter how painful it is. Faith is when people stand by a friend who has cancer and travel with her all along the way, even when they’re afraid. Faith is when a wife takes care of her husband through many long years of illness because she remembers the handsome, smart and loving man who gave everything to her when he had the ability to give.
Love is an emotion, but faith is what keeps you going. Faith is hard. Faith is demanding. Faith comes from inner strength. This quality of faithfulness, of human constancy and steadfast devotion, applies to religion as well as human relationships. It’s hard to be a person of faith today; it’s hard to live by your faith. A faithful believer is one who holds fast to cherished beliefs, even when it’s easier not to.
What is the faith that sustains me in the real world? What is it I affirm when I say the word “God”? I believe that the universe is constructed with beauty, order and coherence. I believe that it's astonishing that we are alive, and that the universe exists at all. I believe that all living things are profoundly connected, that human beings are one family, endowed with infinite worth and entitled to lives of dignity. I believe that we are not alone, and I believe that we are loved with an endless love. I believe that there are ultimate standards of right and wrong that transcend individual opinions. I agree with Bertrand Russell's words: "I find myself incapable of believing that the only thing wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." I believe that despite the fact that the world is unfair – indeed, because the world is unfair and unkind -- we are called to do justice and to love kindness; and that is the purpose for which we were created. I believe that the world breaks our hearts, and that therefore we must help one another. I believe that our deeds matter, and that we stand accountable for the lives we live. I believe that, despite the abuses of religion, it can summon forth the best in human beings and inspire us to reach for the highest goals; it gives us a community of those who share our deepest commitments. And I believe that none of the above is a fairy tale. It is as real and important and powerful as anything I know.
Ultimate purpose; ultimate obligations; ultimate standards of good and evil; infinite love. All of those are implied, for me, in the statement that God exists. That is the substance of my faith. Just think – perhaps it is true after all! Life is not about intellectual exercises or the philosophy we profess. It's about what we do with the years that we're given.
Birth is a beginning, and death a destination, but life is a journey…from fear to faith. What kind of faith can help us to face our fears?
Let me answer, and conclude, with some words by Jerome Groopman, professor at Harvard Medical School, a physician and a deeply committed Jew who says the Mishebeirach for healing for his patients. He writes about Barbara, a 67 year old woman, a retired history teacher, who three years ago was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a lumpectomy and six months of chemotherapy, the cancer was found to be growing in her liver and bones.
“It’s important to understand,” Dr. Groopman says to Barbara, “that….even if we achieve remission, there is no cure for breast cancer once it has metastasized. Treatment is palliative.” “I know,” Barbara says. Her expression remains calm. Over the following months of treatment, Dr. Groopman marvels at the poise and calm that Barbara continues to display. “She showed no fear or anxiety,” he writes. And he asks: “…Could someone really transcend the fear of death….?”
Months later, when Barbara’s remission has come to an end and the tumor is resistant to every treatment he has tried, Dr. Groopman comes to tell her he has no other drugs to offer. He writes: “Barbara greeted me warmly, as she always did. I moved a chair close to the bedside and grasped her hand. After we chatted for a short time, I began to break the bad news. ‘Barbara, we’ve known each other for well over a year, and we’ve been honest with each other every step of the way.’ Briefly, her lips trembled, and then she regained her composure. Her eyes told me she knew what I was about to say. ‘I know of no medicine that I can give you at this point to help you.’
“We sat in heavy silence. Barbara shook her head. ‘No, Jerry,’ she said. ‘You do have something to give. You have the medicine of friendship’.”
The last time Dr. Groopman visits Barbara he notices that her eyes are sunken and her skin is pale. “It would not be long, I thought. I knew how much I would miss her. ‘Are you afraid?’ I asked. … ‘You know, not really,’ Barbara said. ‘Not as much as I thought I might be.’ I moved my chair closer to to hers. ‘Why do you think that is?’
‘I’m not entirely sure,’ she said. ‘I have strange comforting thoughts….When fear starts to creep up on me, I conjure the idea that millions and millions of people have passed away before me, and millions more will pass away after I do. Then I think: my parents each died. I guess if they all did it, so can I.….As Ecclesiastes says, everything has its season – a time to be born and a time to die.
‘And… I believe in a hereafter, that we can return to God. What form that takes no one can really say.’ Barbara grinned. ‘It’s not like I’m expecting to get on the Up escalator and be delivered to paradise. Or find angels there playing harps. I was never one for airy music.’
….Barbara’s tone turned grave. ‘Of course, I also have doubts. Everyone who believes has doubts if they’re honest with themselves. I suppose it could all be an illusion. But deep inside, it doesn’t feel that way at all.’
Dr. Groopman ends his story by wondering how he himself will face the end of his life. “My work regularly brings me in close proximity to death,” he writes. “Like every doctor, I have learned how to compartmentalize the fear and anxiety it naturally provokes, in order to function effectively at the bedside. Yet there are times when my own mortality breaks through, and I ponder how I will face it. I, of course, will not know until the time comes. The idea that I might feel hope at the end gives me comfort.” [Adapted from The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness]
“From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
But life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage
To life everlasting life."
Just think: perhaps it is true, after all.