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Faith and Doubt

I have come to understand that for spiritually mature people, faith and doubt are inextricably bound together. For such people, faith and doubt are normal, recurring and necessary points on the continuous cycle of their spiritual lives. These people know that the depth of their faith is constantly in flux in response to the changing circumstances of their lives. They are aware that their spiritual lives are dynamic, not static. They understand that there will be moments of ecstasy and moments of despair and many other moments in between. They have learned that they have to celebrate life's high points, honor life's low points, and express a grand sense of awe and wonder at the entire process.

It is impossible for us constantly to keep our faith -- our belief in life's goodness and our sense of thankfulness for our blessings -- at the same level. Just when things seem so clear, life always manages to throw us a curve ball. Even at its best, life is difficult. Nothing comes easy. It is hard to grow up. It is hard to grow old. We have to work to keep our jobs, to maintain our relationships.

Every success is followed by new challenges. We have to return to our regular lives after every vacation. Every weekend is followed by Monday. It is not surprising that we chant havdalah, the prayers that mark the end of Shabbat, in a sad melody. We would be denying the reality of life if we did not let our spiritual lives follow the cycles of life.

Life is full of problems, from the simple ones of trying to find time to do everything necessary for our jobs, our families, our friends and our community, to the harder ones of dealing with issues of personal loss and family tragedy, and on to the universal ones of human poverty, political oppression and environmental decline. It takes a real effort not to get discouraged, become depressed and lose one's faith.

Yet somehow we manage to go on and discover moments, places and people who fill us with such surprising delight, that, at least of a while, everything seems clear and beautiful and our doubts subside. But then the cycle begins again. Until I realized how very human this cycle of faith and doubt is, I often found it hard to understand the attitude of our ancestors, who lost faith at every setback, even though they had experienced the wondrous Exodus from Egypt and the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. In this week's Torah portion, Beshalach, immediately after we read about the Israelites' joyous celebration following the Red Sea crossing, we come to a series of stories describing their discontent with life in the wilderness. How could they so quickly lose their faith?

But the truth is that in the desert there was not enough to drink or eat. Our ancestors, who just a few months before had been slaves in the rich and fertile Nile valley, were now free men and women in the dry and barren wilderness. It is not so hard to imagine the despair of a woman struggling to find water for her thirsty children as the family wandered from one small oasis to the next. It is not difficult to comprehend the doubts of a man watching his elderly parents struggling along with insufficient food.

Our ancestors were people who had only begun their journey into both faith and freedom. When they were slaves in Egypt, both God and liberty seemed distant. Moses' return from exile in Midian awakened in their hearts dreams and beliefs deeply buried by centuries of oppression.

Over the last year their lives had been radically dislocated. They had been stirred by new hopes for liberation that were immediately followed by increased oppression. They had seen their world turned upside down by unbelievable miracles, only to have their very real hopes shattered time and time again by Pharaoh's hardheartedness. At the very moment of freedom, they barely escaped destruction by Egypt's army and crossed the sea only to see their pursuers destroyed. I doubt that I would feel different or behave differently if I were with them.

But things change and miracles happen -- bitter waters were made sweet (Exodus 15:22-25), the wondrous food, manna, fell from heaven (16:1-35) and at the moment of deepest doubt, water spurted from the rock (17:1-7).

With faith and hope renewed, our ancestors journeyed to Sinai, where the cycle of faith and doubt began anew.

As we mature as individuals and as a community, we begin to understand that life is in a constant state of flux. We learn that there are good times and bad times and we develop the wisdom and insight to live through and grow from both. The Book of Exodus records our people's earliest encounter with faith and freedom and their struggles to understand the meaning of both. Those were difficult times, but we should not judge our ancestors too harshly. The lessons we have learned from their experiences have given us the insight and power to remain spiritually strong through periods of unbelievable triumphs and unbearable defeats. Their stories have taught us to be open to the wondrous experience of life, to understand that there will be times of darkness, and to believe that miracles do happen. Spiritually, we have grown.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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