By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), contains a perfect example of religious faith as it is understood in our tradition. This example is based upon a biblical phrase which is elaborated by a Midrash and which, in turn, is further elaborated by a great Chassidic master.
The phrase appears in the verse immediately preceding the Song of the Sea, the highlight of this week’s parsha. The Lord split the sea, allowing the Israelites to escape their pursuers. Seeing the Lord’s “wondrous power,” Israel is inspired to join Moses in song. But first, “they had faith in the Lord and in His servant Moses.”
The Midrash emphasizes that all of Israel had this faith experience. “The lowly maidservant saw by the sea what even the prophet Ezekiel was never privileged to see” (Mechilta, Shira, chapter 3). It does not take special philosophical erudition to have faith. The “lowly maidservant” exemplifies the most ordinary among us, and her example illustrates the capacity of everyone to achieve a sublime spiritual experience. Faith does not require the special religious credentials of an Ezekiel. It is available to us all. This type of faith is known in Hebrew as emuna peshuta, simple faith.
In a book called Ginzei Yisrael, which collects the thoughts of a great Chassidic master Rabbi Israel Friedman, known as the Chortkover Rebbe, the Rebbe quotes the aforementioned Midrash, which implies that there are no differences between one Jew and another with regard to faith experiences. We are all capable of emuna peshuta. But, as we will read in next week’s Torah portion, there are clear distinctions between various segments of the Jewish people as they stand at Mount Sinai, at the moment of the Torah’s revelation.
Moses is instructed to stand alone, separate from his brother Aaron, who is to stand behind him. Aaron’s sons follow in a separate area further removed from the mountaintop. Behind them stand the elders, and even further behind stand the rest of the nation. How are we to explain, asks the Rebbe, the discrepancy between the rigid hierarchy dictated at matan Torah, at the time the Torah is revealed, and the inspirational moment at the splitting of the sea, at which point there were no distinctions?
The Rebbe answers that when one wishes to advance his spiritual level through Torah study and observance, there are natural differences between individuals. Some people are gifted with intellectual strengths that enable them to comprehend the depths of Torah, whereas others are more limited and can only understand Torah superficially. Some have prodigious memories so that they can remember all of Jewish law, and others can barely remember the basics. With Torah, there are individual differences. Hence, the prayer that we recite at the conclusion of the Amidah: “vetein chelkeinu betoratecha” — grant each of us our unique portion in the Torah. We do not have equivalent Torah portions.
But when it comes to emuna peshuta, to simple faith, the Rebbe concludes, there are no individual differences. Everyone is capable of sincere and genuine belief in God.
We possess an anecdote reported by the 16th-century rabbinic sage Moshe Chagiz, who sojourned in the ancient city of Safed at the same time as the great Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria. A converso — a Jew who was coerced by the Church to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition in Portugal — he was reared as a Christian. He knew nothing of his Jewish religion. He fled to Safed and found refuge there. He soon was exposed to the sermons of the great rabbis who inhabited that holy city.
At one of those sermons, he learned about the showbread, the loaves of bread which were arranged upon a special table in the innermost precincts of the holy Temple in Jerusalem each week. In his ignorance, he did not know of the distinction between our ancient Temple in Jerusalem and his modest synagogue in Safed. And so, he decided that each week he would bring two loaves of bread, two challot, to the synagogue and put them in the holy ark together with the Torah scrolls. The sexton noticed these loaves and happily took them home to his hungry family. The next morning the converso came to synagogue, opened the ark, and saw that the loaves were gone. He assumed that they were miraculously taken away by an angel, or perhaps by the Holy One himself. So, he persisted in his custom of depositing two loaves of bread in the ark every week with increasing enthusiastic devotion. And, the sexton consistently appropriated the loaves for his own family.
Finally, the rabbi of the synagogue discovered what the converso had been doing and criticized him severely for “such nonsense.” The holy Arizal, however, saw in the converso’s weekly offering not “nonsense,” but an example of pure simple faith of the highest order. He rebuked the rabbi and proclaimed to the entire community that this converso’s act of worship was cherished on high as a precious example of an act done with total religious dedication.
Nowadays, we don’t need academic training to achieve spiritual experience, nor does one need to be a theologian to serve the Almighty. All one needs is emuna peshuta, the kind of faith that the simple maidservant of the Midrash on this week’s Torah portion modeled for us. n
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.