Don’t Believe It, Know It!
By: Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber
Passover is commonly known as a time to focus on Emunah – for renewing our belief in God’s existence and in His absolute control over the world (see Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 21). This theme was demonstrated to the Jews and the entire world through the open miracles which occurred in Egypt and led to the exodus that we celebrate on Passover. The Egyptians suffered ten horrible and unnatural plagues before they finally freed the Jews. These plagues were not just for the mere purpose of punishing the Egyptians for the horrific treatment they gave the Jews. For this purpose they could have suffered in more natural ways. God’s intention was for the Jewish nation to witness these supernatural afflictions, in order to instill within them the recognition of His existence and control over the world. So too, when we celebrate Passover, it’s not just about enjoying our freedom, but rather to instill in ourselves, the recognition of God and His absolute control (see Exodus 10:2). But isn’t belief something we either have or don’t have? What does it mean to instill in ourselves the belief in God?
Rabbi Noach Weinberg offers the following thought: Emunah is not about believing. When we use the term believing, we don’t necessarily refer to something based concretely. One could say for example, “I believe it’s going to rain today,” or “I believe so and so to be an honest man.” What we refer to as a belief, could be nothing more than our opinion that we have about a given subject. These “beliefs” are usually sourced primarily from our emotions, along with some level of judgement based on a combination of experiences. Emunah is not about “believing.” Emunah is about retaining the knowledge passed down to us from our ancestors, and solidifying their testimony as actual facts in our minds.
This idea coincides very nicely with Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s definition of Emunah: Emunah essentially really means “to stay steadfast”. Emunah is about clinging to the tradition that our ancestors have passed down to us. Our forefathers have witnessed the Hand of God demonstrated publically without a shadow of doubt. Our parents and their parents, all the way up from the time that we became a nation, were honest, wise and genuine people. They were not fools who accepted things blindly, nor did they get together and fabricate fairy tales disguised as truth to feed their children. The challenge of Emunah is to remain in loyalty with the facts that were passed down to us, and not to reject what our forefathers have taught us because we feel that we know better.
Even once we accept the truth of God’s existence and complete control over the world, intellectually, the challenge of Emunah is not over. The trial of Emunah is to keep these facts at the forefront of our minds as an absolute reality. If we don’t consciously pay attention to this “knowledge” of Emunah, our awareness of God’s existence and His control will slowly fade, and for all intents and purposes, we will no longer have the “knowledge” of our Emunah with us.
During in the Yom Kippur war, there was an IDF officer who was a staunch atheist. Ironically, he found himself fighting alongside a deeply religious soldier. The whole day, as they were fighting, the religious officer would yell out the verse of “Shema” – “Hear o Israel, the Almighty is our God, the Almighty is one”. This practice started to get on the nerves of the atheist, and so he turned to his companion and said, “Please stop your yelling, you know I don’t believe in God, and your chanting is annoying me tremendously.” In response the fellow said, “You fight your way and I fight my way.” The following day, the nonbeliever noticed that the annoying screams came to a halt. He looked beside him and saw that his friend was fatally shot. When the officer saw that his special friend was dying, he suddenly saw everything clearly. He bent down to his wounded friend and started crying. As he did so, he took his friend’s hand and said “Please let me die for you, is there anything I could do for you?” With his last strength he answered him, “Swear to me that you will say that God is one instead of me.” The former atheist responded “I swear to you by the living God that for the rest of my life I will yell that God is one and I will tell my children to yell that God is one.” In the words of this precious Jew, “At that point the gates of heaven opened up before me. It wasn’t that I believed that there is a God, I saw God.”
This is what Passover is all about. By discussing and contemplating the miracles that took place, we bring the reality of God to the front of our minds. We can’t wait for a particular situation to arouse to within us a moment of truth. We must constantly strive to be conscious of His being, to “see” Him, in our lives.