#BlogElul 8: Believe
August 14, 2013
I look at today's theme: "Believe."
And I'm washed in memory: my dear friend Evan, at the ALEPH Kallah this summer, warbling, "I believe the children are our future..." Thanks a lot for the earworm, Evan. (And my apologies to everyone else with whom I've now shared that incredibly annoying Whitney Houston song. Two earworms in two days; something else to atone for, I suppose...)
I push that away and-- from the ridiculous to the sublime! -- I think of the prayer ani ma'amin, a setting of Rambam's Thirteen Principles. "I believe with a perfect faith..." (It's perhaps most famous for the melody which arose during the Shoah.) How many of us can recite that prayer, or any prayer, with "perfect faith"?
Of course, as venerated as Rambam's list of principles may be (many of us sing it, either as ani ma'amin or as the hymn Yigdal, during services), it's still something written by a single person. He was a great rabbi and sage, don't get me wrong! But Judaism doesn't have a creed per se -- not the way that some other traditions do.
One of the things I love about the modah ani prayer is that it explicitly reminds us, every morning, to be grateful to God Who restores our souls to us and Who has great faithfulness. Raba emunatecha, "great is Your faith" -- the word emunatecha has the same root as ma'amin, believe. (The root letters are א, מ, נ, which spell "Amen.") Some siddurim translate that line as "great is Your faith in us." I love the idea that faith is something God has in us. It's bidirectional. God is the One Who believes in us, even when we can't believe in ourselves.
There's a story which I've heard my teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) tell many times. Someone, the story goes, says to a rabbi -- intending to be provocative -- "I don't believe in God." When I've heard the story told, that line is usually delivered with a kind of so-there tone. Gotcha, rabbi! And the rabbi's response, at least as it's come down to me, is "Nu -- the God you don't believe in, I don't believe in either." (There's a version of that story here: The God I Don't Believe.)
Here's how I understand that story: if "God" means a particular construct, that vision of the Big Old White Man With A Long Beard On A Throne In The Sky -- or if "God" means a force of venegeance and retribution in the world -- or if "God" means a cosmic force Who plays favorites among earth's peoples -- nu, that's not the God I believe in. I can join you in rejecting that understanding of God.
But if "God" means ein-sof, the kabbalists' understanding of the limitless infinity beyond all creation -- if "God" means the source of all blessing, the source of abundance, the source of love -- if "God" means a Presence Who yearned for relationship and brought the cosmos into being in order to be in relationship with us -- if "God" means something both far above and deep within, something we can glimpse in our moments of greatest love and deepest connection -- that's the God Who has faith in us. That's the ahavat olam, the unending love of which our liturgy speaks.
That's the God in Whom I believe. With as perfect a faith as I can manage. That's the God Whose love is extended to all creation, always.