from the heart of jerusalem

Accepting faith that’s beyond reason


There is a story told by Rav Ephraim Oshry, one of the last rabbis of the Kovno Ghetto, in his monumental work of Holocaust responsum, Mima’amakim.

When the Nazis arrived in the small villages of the Ukraine with their accursed Einsatzgruppen units, they followed a specific recipe: the Jews were ordered to assemble, any thought of resistance was crushed, and the entire Jewish community was led out of town away from prying eyes, usually into the forests on the edge of town. The people were made to dig ditches, undress and pile their belongings in ordered piles, and then to stand in rows one group after another in front of the ditches. …

In one small village, as the Jews were assembled in a clearing in the forest outside of town, it was abundantly clear what was about to happen. The remains of the previous day’s action for a different nearby village were obvious; the ditches were already dug, the piles of clothing still present, and the machine guns set up on tripods opposite the ditches left no room for doubt. 

In the midst of it all, one of the rabbis of the town stepped forward and addressed the SS officer clearly in charge: “Sir! Is it not customary for a prisoner to be granted a last request? I should like the opportunity to lead my congregation in one final blessing.”

Amused, the SS officer decided to grant the Jew this last request, whereupon the rabbi turned towards the community and recited out loud the morning blessing: “Blessed are you oh Lord our G-d, Master of the Universe, who did not make me of the nations of the world (shelo’ asani Goy). Then the rabbi led the community in the final Vidui (confessional) prayers.

The SS officer, now curious, asked the rabbi what the prayer meant and the rabbi explained he was thanking G-d for having created them as Jews and not as Germans, whereupon the SS Officer roared with laughter: “Fool!” he said, “If you had been born a German you would not be standing in front of ditches about to leave this world! Why would you be thankful for being Jewish?”

And the Rabbi explained: “For whatever the reason G-d has decreed some will be murdered and some will be murderers, we are blessed not to be murderers.”  

How does one explain the incredible faith the Jewish people have displayed through the millennium of exile culminating in the Holocaust? This week’s portion of Yitro suggests a fascinating possibility. 

This portion, the apex of Jewish faith (including our first reading of the Ten Commandments), is named after a Midianite pagan (not withstanding that he was the father in-law of Moshe). What lesson of faith do we learn from Yitro?

The portion begins with Yitro’s arrival at Sinai. “Va’Yishma Yitro, Kohen Midian, Kohen Moshe, Et Kol Asher Asah Elo-kim Le’Moshe, U’Le’Yisrael Amo’, Ki’ Hotzi’ Hashem Et Yisrael Mi’Mitzraim.” (“And Yitro, [High] Priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that G-d had done for Moses and Israel His Nation: that Hashem took Israel out of Egypt.”) (Shemot 18:1)

The Talmud (Zevachim 116a), noting that no one else outside of the Jewish people is recorded to have made the journey to Sinai, asks: “Ve’Chi Mah’ Shamah Yitro U’Vah’?” (“What did Yitro, who came [to Sinai] hear?” (Zevachim 116a)

The Talmud suggests a number of possibilities: he heard of the battle of the Jewish people with Amalek, or of the imminent giving of the Torah at Sinai, or, according to another opinion, of the splitting of the sea. Why did it take the splitting of the sea or the battle of Amalek for Yitro to finally decide to come and see for himself what was going on? 

And how could the Talmud suggest that it was actually the battle with Amalek, the nation which attacked the Jewish people after the splitting of the sea, that caused Yitro to leave Midian and come to see for himself what was going on? Why wasn’t he motivated by the ten plagues, or the great Exodus from Egypt without a shot fired, or even the splitting of the sea? 

The Slonimer Rebbe in his Netivot Shalom suggests that while a person’s belief can emanate from a logical conclusion often based on the events of the day, a higher and purer form of faith is a person’s willingness to forgo logic and embrace an absolute and independent faith. Avraham, the first Jew, represents a classic example of this distinction. Avraham’s early decisions (that the idols in his father’s store did not create the world and neither was the sun the source of creation) led him, through logic and reasoning, that Hashem the source of all reality. 

Nevertheless, Avraham is subjected to ten challenging tests, and it is only with the binding of Isaac (the Akedah) that Avraham rises to an entirely different level, in which he accepts Hashem’s command even though it is entirely beyond logic and even unreasonable: Why would G-d want Avraham to offer up his only son, given to him miraculously and of whom G-d promised would be Avraham’s successor? It makes no sense! Which is precisely the point. As long as faith is based on logic, as soon as logic dictates otherwise, the faith will not survive.

This is a much higher and deeper level of faith, independent of reason and absolute. It is the love of a parent for a child, independent of reason, remaining true no matter what the child does; it is the love we hope our children and all those we love will have for us, no matter what mistakes we make. 

When Yitro sees that the Jewish people still follow G-d in the desert even after being attacked by Amalek, he understands something is happening that is an entirely new experience for the world.

Paganism was based on logic: Egyptians worshipped the Nile because it provided sustenance. But if the Nile stopped overflowing its banks the Egyptians would defer to a different god assuming another force of nature now had the upper hand; pagan gods had to earn the peoples’ faith. 

So even after the splitting of the sea, if Amalek could attack, then where was G-d? And yet, the people, despite their struggles, still believed. Indeed, Jewish tradition notes that the numeric equivalent (gematria) of the word Amalek is equivalent to the word safek (doubt). Because the experience with Amalek, attacking the Jews when the entire world trembled before Hashem’s miracles, introduced doubt into the world. 

And when Moshe hits the rock to bring forth water (itself an experience one might have thought unnecessary — why not just let it rain to begin with?) he does it from Mount Chorev (Shemot 17:6) which is another name for Mount Sinai (ibid. 3:1 and Rashi ad loc.) as if to suggest the Jewish people were meant to learn that Hashem is the source of reality. They were not ready for an absolute and independent faith which would now transpire with the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Sinai.

This is the secret to every meaningful relationship: can we move beyond the initial logic and reason that brings us together, and arrive at a level of faith in each other, and ultimately in G-d, that defies reason? Perhaps it is no accident that after the ultimate test of the Jewish people’s faith, an experience which defies all logic and undermines all sense of reason, that the Jewish people are finally coming home.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.