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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Struggling with God

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Rabbi Michael Skobac

David Hazony’s recent book The Ten Commandments reveals that while most people feel strongly about the commandments, few are actually able to enumerate them. Even for those who have pondered these foundational spiritual directives, the very first one is often perplexing.

Indeed, some thinkers have questioned whether the introductory statement that “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2) should even be considered a commandment, but rather simply as a declaration of fact.

Nonetheless, belief in God as expressed in the famous credo, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) has always been the essential focus of Judaism.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and virtually every classical Jewish thinker, maintained that the ultimate goal of all the Torah’s commandments is to connect us to God. Judaism seeks not just assent to the idea that God exists, but the development of an intimate personal attachment and relationship. 

Of course, in a world where the winds of cynicism, secularism and materialism blow strongly, growing numbers of Jews find it difficult to fully embrace this ideal. Sadly, a recent Harris Poll revealed that 52 per cent of Jewish people surveyed claimed not to believe in God. Many would probably identify strongly with Woody Allen’s quip, “If only God would give me a clear sign… like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank!”

Many of our sages question how a commandment to believe in God even makes sense. If one already believes, there’s no reason to be commanded. And if one doesn’t believe, he or she can’t simply turn on faith like opening a water faucet.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky’s groundbreaking work Nesivos Shalom suggests that the essence of the commandment to have faith is really a challenge to yearn, seek and strive for faith – to struggle with faith. This applies to both the believer and the one who does not yet believe.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, the first thing we will be asked in the afterlife when we leave this world will be whether we conducted our business affairs faithfully. The holy Rebbe of Sanz had a fascinating spin on this question. He understood it to be probing whether we dealt with our faith in the same manner that people engage in business.

People who have some money don’t just want it to sit around. In order to grow their money, they do lots of research and seek all kinds of investment advice. Do we invest as much time and energy to grow and nurture our faith?

The etymology of our national name, Israel, reflects the idea of struggling with God (see Genesis 32:29). In many ways, this is also an inner struggle. Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin teaches that not only are we supposed to believe in God, we also must believe in ourselves. By getting in touch with our own innate spirituality, we can find a path to connecting with the Almighty, who created us in His image.

Rabbi Michael Skobac is director of education and counselling with Jews for Judaism in Toronto.

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