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Faith and Faithfulness

May 9, 2009 | by

Personal trustworthiness is the foundation for faith in God. Why?

An excerpt from, With Hearts Full of Faith, A Selection of Addresses by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

When young people get married, the primary blessing we give them is that they should build "a bayis ne'eman b'Yisrael, a faithful home among the Jewish people. This is surely a beautiful blessing, but why is it so fundamental? Why does it take precedence over all other blessings we could give them? Why is faithfulness the bedrock of the Jewish home?

Let us take a look into the Torah in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, where we once again find this extraordinary emphasis on faithfulness. Moses grows up and ventures out from Pharaoh's palace, in which he was reared as an Egyptian prince, and he sets off to investigate the condition of his Jewish brothers and sisters. As he walks through the fields, he catches sight of an Egyptian taskmaster thrashing a Jewish laborer. Moses looks around to make sure no one is watching, then he strikes down the Egyptian and buries his body in the sand.

The next day, he comes across two Jews fighting. "Why do you strike your fellow Jew?" he says to the aggressor.

"Who appointed you an officer and magistrate over us?" the man answers back. "Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?"

Frightened, Moses declares (Exodus 2:14), "Achein noda hadavar. Surely the thing is known."

What "thing is known"? The simple meaning is that Moses realized that his supposedly secret act had been discovered. The word was out that he had killed the Egyptian, and he was in danger. Rashi also brings a second interpretation from the Midrash. Moses saw in the Jewish aggressor's sarcastic reply that he intended to inform to the Egyptian authorities, as indeed he eventually did. Could it be that there were evil informers among the Jews? Moses was shocked. "Surely the thing is known," he declared. At last I understand why the Jewish people are unworthy of redemption. At last I understand why they are still sitting in exile.

Idolaters could be redeemed, but informers could not. Why?

This Midrash is very puzzling. At the lowest point of their bondage in Egypt, the Jewish people had sunk to the 49th level of spiritual defilement. Had they sunk to the last and final level, the damage would have been irreparable. They were so close to utter disaster, and still, Moses did not see their nearly absolute moral corruption as an insurmountable obstacle to redemption. But when he discovered informers among them, it suddenly became clear to him why they were still in exile. Apparently, idolaters could be redeemed, but informers could not.

Why was the presence of informers such a decisive block to redemption, more so than just about the worst spiritual defilement possible?

Every morning, before we pray for our needs, we express our praise and gratitude to God. Among others, we repeat the stirring words of the Levites at the consecration of the Second Temple (Nehemiah 9:7-8):

"You, O God, are the one and only One; You made the heavens, the upper heavens and all their hosts, the land and all that is upon it, the seas and all they contain, and You sustain all of them; it is to You that the hosts of the heavens bow down. You are the One, O God, that is the Lord, Who chose Abram, brought him forth from Ur Kasdim, changed his name to Abraham and found him faithful before You; You forged a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizites, Jebusites and Girgashites, to give them to his offspring, and You kept Your word, because You are righteous."

If we look closely at these words, we find an unusual point of climax. These two verses are clearly one continuous flow. You, O God, are the one and only, the One Who made heaven and earth, the One before Whom all the hosts of heaven bow down. You, O God, are the selfsame One Who chose Abram and miraculously saved him from the fiery furnace in Ur. And why did You do all this? What rare and wondrous quality did Abraham possess that so endeared him to God? Because You "found his heart faithful before you." Because he was a ne'eman, a faithful man.

Abraham was famous for his acts of chesed, kindness. His hachnasas orchim, hospitality, was legendary. Yet faithfulness was the quality that endeared him to God above all else. He chose Abraham because he was a ne'eman, a faithful man.

The word ne'eman, which appears many times in the Torah, takes on different meanings in different contexts. It can mean trustworthy, faithful, loyal, reliable, responsible, firm, honest. These are all variations and nuances of one overriding quality. A ne'eman is steadfast as a rock, unwavering, unfaltering, unswerving. You can count on his support, his loyalty, his word. Above all, you can count on his word.

We find that ne'eman is actually used to describe God Himself. The Talmud states (Shabbos 119b), "What is the meaning of the word Amen? Rabbi Chanina said, ‘It is the acronym of the words E-l melech ne'eman, the Lord the faithful King.'"

The theme of divine faithfulness is particularly striking in the blessing we say after the Haftarah:

"Blessed are You, O God our Lord, King of the universe, Rock of all worlds, Righteous One of all generations, the faithful Lord Who does as He says, Who speaks and fulfills His word, Whose every word is truth and righteousness. You are the One Who is faithful, O God our Lord, and Your words are trustworthy. Not one of Your words is left behind unfulfilled, for You are the Lord King, faithful and merciful. Blessed are You, the Lord Who is faithful in all His words."

God can be trusted to reward virtue and punish sin. He can be trusted to keep His promises. He is absolutely faithful to His word.

Why is this quality so crucial? Why does God value it above all others?

Let us look a little further. We all know that the Jewish people were deemed worthy of redemption because they kept their Hebrew names and spoke the Hebrew language and because they did not become promiscuous. The Midrash Tanchuma (Numbers 25:1) adds to the list a little-known fourth reason -- because they kept their secrets.

What precisely does this mean? The Midrash explains that God gave Moses a lengthy first message to deliver to the Jewish people when he first returned to Egypt. Among other things, he was to tell them to borrow valuables from their Egyptian neighbors on the eve of the Exodus, and he was to assure them that God would compel the Egyptians to surrender these valuables gladly (Exodus 3:22).

Moses conveyed the entire message as soon as he arrived in Egypt (ibid. 4:30), fully 12 months before the actual Exodus. Had word got out that this is what they intended to do, the Egyptians could easily have concealed their valuables deep in the walls of their homes, as the Amorites were to do in Canaan many years later. But word did not get out. For those 12 months, the Jewish people kept the secret faithfully, and in this merit, they were deemed worthy of redemption.

For 12 months, the Jewish people kept the secret faithfully, and in this merit, they were deemed worthy of redemption.

Why was it necessary for them to know for a whole year what they were supposed to do on their last night in Egypt? Why entrust an entire people with such a sensitive secret for 12 long months when they could just as easily have been told only days before the Exodus?

Apparently, God wanted them to demonstrate their trustworthiness by keeping a secret for such a long time. For 12 months, He waited to see if anyone would inform the Egyptians of what Jewish people were planning to do. Would they remain steadfast and faithful? And when they passed the test, He deemed them worthy of redemption.

Again we see how highly God values the quality of faithfulness.

King Solomon declares (Proverbs 11:13), "Gossips go about revealing secrets, but those of faithful spirit conceal things." The opposite of a gossip, according to King Solomon, is a faithful person, a ne'eman. It follows that the ultimate failing of a gossip is not so much the damage he might cause to others as the corruption of his own character, the destruction of his own faithfulness by acts of betrayal.

Why is faithlessness such a terrible thing? The answer lies in the profound connection between faith and faithfulness.

The heart of the Jewish relationship with God is emunah, faith. The Jewish people believe in God. What does that mean? That we believe He exists? Not at all. When the Jewish people saw the sea split open to let them pass in safety and then closed over the heads of their Egyptian pursuers, the Torah tells us (Exodus 14:31), "And Israel saw the great hand of God laid upon the Egyptians, and the people feared God, and they believed in God and in His servant Moses." Under those circumstances, it certainly didn't take much for them to "believe" in the existence of God; it was clear as the day.

So what exactly did they "believe"?

Jewish faith is the absolute trust in the absolute truth and trustworthiness of God's every word.

They believed that God would keep His word. They believed that God was trustworthy. They believed that just as He had fulfilled His promise to bring them forth from Egypt and save them from the clutches of their pursuers, He would fulfill every promise He had ever made to their ancestors and would ever make to them. He would lead them through the barren wilds of the desert and watch over them for all eternity. This is the essence of emunah, the Jewish faith in God. It is the confident knowledge that God is "the faithful Lord Who does as He says, Who speaks and fulfills His word, Whose every word is truth and righteousness."

Centuries earlier, God had assured the childless Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens above. And the Torah tells us (Genesis 15:6) that Abraham "believed in God Who considered this an act of righteousness on his part." Think for a moment. Abraham was in the midst of a prophetic revelation. He was listening to the voice of God. Why then was it considered an act of righteousness for him to "believe in God"?

Clearly, this does not mean a belief in the existence of God but in the reliability of His word. When God promised him many descendants, Abraham accepted this as a fact. He believed without a doubt that God "speaks and fulfills His word." This was his act of righteousness.

Jewish faith is the absolute trust in the absolute truth and trustworthiness of God's every word. This level of faith is the foundation that had to be laid before the Jewish people were capable of receiving and embracing God's holy Torah. It is at the core of the covenant between God and Israel.

How do we acquire such transcendent faith in God? How do we take the intellectual belief in the trustworthiness of God's word and implant it so deeply in our hearts that it becomes an absolute reality for us?

The answer lies in the connection between faith and faithfulness. Only a faithful person is capable of absolute faith. Only someone whose own word is inviolate can have faith on both the intellectual and emotional levels. Only a faithful person whose word is an absolute guarantee can accept someone else's word with a confident and serene heart.

An unfaithful person, on the other hand, can never have absolute faith.

An unfaithful person, on the other hand, can never have absolute faith. If his own word is not an ironclad guarantee, if it is at all possible that he might not honor an utterance that emerges from his mouth, if his own word is not an absolute fact, an inviolate reality, then how can he have faith in the word of another, even the word of God? If he does not know the meaning of true faithfulness from his own experience, how can he have faith in God's faithfulness?

An unfaithful person may believe that, although he allows himself to take liberties with his word, God would never do such a thing. This is a cold faith, an abstract faith. It does not penetrate to the heart. While he waits for the fulfillment of God's promise, he cannot help but feel apprehensive. He may sing Ani Maamin with the most beautiful inspirational melody, "Ani maamin! I believe with perfect faith that the Messiah will come!" But deep down, he is not so sure. He does not know the meaning of faithfulness as an absolute reality. He does not feel it. It is not part of his experience.

Even a person who is generally faithful, who keeps his word most of the time, cannot have genuine faith. For him, faithfulness is still not an inviolate reality but a choice. He may choose to keep his word often, he may choose to keep it almost always, but if there is the slightest possibility that he might not keep it, then it all becomes optional and unreliable. Such a person cannot have absolute trust in someone else's promise. He may consider it possible or even extremely likely that the promise will be fulfilled, but he will never accept it in his heart as a hard fact that is solid as a rock.

Absolute faithfulness is the key to absolute faith. God wants us to be faithful people not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because if we are not faithful we cannot have faith in Him. Not really. Not the sort of faith that He expects from us.

Twelve months before the Exodus, God entrusted the Jewish people with a sensitive secret in order to give them the opportunity to demonstrate their faithfulness. Were they trustworthy? Were they loyal to each other, to their friends, their families, their people? Were they faithful to their word of honor? Were these people capable of entering an everlasting covenant with the Master of the universe? Were they capable of absolute faith?

Many years before, Moses had discovered evil informers among the Jewish people. Now I understand, he had declared, why the Jewish people are unworthy of redemption. "Surely the thing is known!" If they are unfaithful, how can they have faith? And if they do not have faith, how can they expect to be redeemed? Yes, it is possible for people to be mired in just about the worst spiritual defilement, and still retain their faith in the Creator. As long as they themselves are faithful people, faith can live in their hearts. But if they are unfaithful, there is no hope for them. God may redeem them, uplift them, purify them, but He will not implant faith in unfaithful hearts. And so the Jewish people continued to languish in exile.

But now Moses returned and entrusted the Jewish people with a secret. This would be the critical test. If the Jewish people kept the secret, if they showed that over the years they had acquired the quality of faithfulness, they would be worthy of redemption. And for 12 long months the entire people remained steadfast in their faithfulness. Millions of people shared a secret, yet no one spoke a word of it.

This was steadfast, rock-solid faithfulness, loyalty, truthfulness, honesty, integrity on a vast unprecedented scale. People who exhibited this sort of faithfulness could indeed be expected to stand on Mount Sinai and receive the Torah with perfect faith.

When we give our blessings to a young couple establishing a new home among the Jewish people, we want to make sure that the foundation is rock-solid. We want to wish them the one quality that will make it possible for them to acquire all the other qualities that will make their home a holy place. And so we bless them that they should build a bayis ne'eman, a trusted home, a faithful home. If there is faithfulness in their home, there will also be faith, and if there is faith, there will also be Torah, mitzvos and good deeds. If the foundation is strong, it will be a home that will last forever.

From: With Hearts Full of Faith, A Selection of Addresses by Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY: 2002


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