Emunah: How do I apply it in my daily life? No extremism necessary!

Many people think that emunah is something that we store away for the extreme case in which we may need it. “Only if I need to die al kiddush HaShem (to sanctify G-d’s name as a martyr)- that’s when I need emunah. That’s when it kicks in”, people think. “But on a day by day basis? Why would I need it, right?”

WRONG! There could be nothing further from the truth! In fact the exact opposite is true. It is an extreme situation such as the above that the strength of our emunah, our commitment, and our resolve is put to the test.

The Gemara in Tractate Berachos on page 61a relates to us a very sad story. It is the story describing the death of Rabbi Akiva. (Very apropos to the time we are in now, about to start the 9 days up until the 9th of Av). The Gemara relates that the Romans flayed Rabbi Akiva alive using iron combs heated until they were red-hot, yet despite the agony, as it was the time to fulfill the mitzvah of Kerias Shema (reciting the Shema parshios from the Torah) Rabbi Akiva, instead, focused on fulfilling that mitzvah.

The Gemara relates that his students, astonished by their Rebbe’s actions, could not hold back and asked him “Rabbenu! Ad kan?” (Our teacher! Until here?) to which Rabbi Akiva responds “All of my life, when I read the words (first verse of the first paragraph of the Shema) u’bechol nafshecha (and with all of your soul) [which means] ‘even if He removes your soul’, I would say to myself ‘When will this come to my hand, so that I should fulfill it’. Now, that it has come to me should I not fulfill it?”

Clearly, this is a very moving Gemara. But on close inspection, it would seem that it is not a very clear Gemara at all. What, exactly, was the students’ question? I mean, it would seem that it’s a “yes” or “no” question. Furthermore, what was Rabbi Akiva’s response? Was it “yes” or was it “no”?

Out of the two, it would seem that the question is clearer than the answer. The students see their Rebbe being tortured in an extremely painful way, and yet he is reciting – at the same time – the verses of Krias Shema and accepting upon himself the yoke of Heaven. So they ask their Rebbe: is a person responsible for reciting the Shema even under such extreme circumstances? Are we commanded to fulfill the mitzvah even “up until here”?

To which Rabbi Akiva answers…? Yes? No? What?

In my humble opinion, I think that the answer he gives is “No”. Under extreme duress, one is not responsible for fulfilling the mitzvah of Kerias Shema. But there is so much more to Kerias Shema then just reciting the words!

The second commandment in the first paragraph of Shema is the mitzvah to love G-d. V’Ahavta es HaShem Elokecha bechol levavcha, u’bechol nafshecha, u’bechol me’odecha, (And you shall love HaShem, your G-d, with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your possessions). Our sages tell us in tractate Berachos that the rest of the verse is really the explanation how to fulfill it. The extent of the mitzvah of loving HaShem is supposed to be so great that a person would be willing to give up everything that he or she has out of love for the Creator. His personal desires (heart), his life (soul) and even all of his possessions (meodecha). All of that should be as nothing in the face of my love of HaShem!

So here was Rabbi Akiva, confronting his mortality face to face, having realized that he is being asked to fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem as commanded – even if He demands your soul. So he does it!

But even that’s not the full extent of his answer. He says alot more. If all he were doing was fulfilling the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem then why recite the Shema? Ahavas HaShem is one of the six constant mitzvos. All a person has to do is stop and think about his/her relationship with G-d during the course of a day and – bam! – he’s fulfilled the mitzvah! No Kerias Shema involved whatsoever!

No, Rabbi Akiva was telling us much more than that!

“Every day”, said R”A, “when I would say the Shema, when I would read the words that define the extent of the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem, I would stop and think about them for a little while. Bechol levavcha, with all of your heart. Bechol nafshecha, with all of your soul. Ubchol meodecha, and with all of your possessions. At every one of these”, said R”A, “I would stop and say a prayer in my heart (as it is forbidden to say other things during the recitation of Shema) ‘When will this come to my hand so that I could fulfill it!’, I would say to G-d. So now, that it has come to my hand, I should not fulfill it?”

“All the days of my life I utilized the Shema to pray for, and improve upon, my love of G-d. I prayed during the Shema that I should be given the opportunity to fulfill every aspect of the love of HaShem. So even though, al pi halacha, (according to Jewish law), I don’t have to recite the Shema now, since I used it every day, twice a day, to pray that I should fulfill the aspect of loving G-d even if He demands my life, now that it has finally come to me, I should be a hypocrite?”

One might think that the lesson taught here is only about the greatness of Rabbi Akiva, (that’s also there), but it isn’t.

The real lesson that R”A taught here is twofold:

1> Don’t be a hypocrite.

Don’t say you’ll act one way and then act differently. Don’t profess the belief in something only to ignore it when it is inconvenient to you. If you pray that you should merit to do something, if you profess that you really want it, then when you finally get it – do it! (Unless, of course, we are talking about something OTHER than a mitzvah!)

2> We build the emunah that empowers us in the extreme circumstances over years of constant striving and effort. Beyond that it’s built with prayer and tears.

The greatest act of martyrdom al kiddush HaShem is only when it is preceded by living and striving to live a life al kiddush HaShem.

We are surrounded daily with opportunities to grow and strengthen our spiritual selves. The underpinning of all mitzvos is emunah. As we said in the earlier blog Emunah: What’s it For? emunah is constantly adding life to my life.

If you are utilizing your mitzvos as an opportunity, not “just” a responsibility.

If you are treating them as a merit, not just as a burden.

If you recognize that they are a gift, not a curse.

If your attitude is like the above – then you are using your emunah daily to add life to your life and forge a bond of love with HKB”H.

Do  you get up in the morning and say the modeh ani prayer, recognizing that another day of opportunity lies in front of you? Or is it just the old, same old, same old?

Do you pray to G-d because that act of conversation with He who created me (and everything else) wants to have a relationship with me, which can only be facilitated by conversation on my part, (His responses come in other forms), or is it just one more thing that I have to do before I can get on with my real life. (….Thanks G-d!)

Is your Torah learning my opportunity to grasp a finite piece of the infinite, or is it something that I do “because that’s just what Jews do”?

Clearly there is plenty of need for emunah on a daily basis! Every day, all day.

Emunah: What’s it For?

When it comes to our day to day life we are always using things. The list is, in fact, very long indeed. We get up in the morning, b”H, out of bed, (yes, that’s a thing), we get dressed wearing shirt, shoes, undergarments etc. We eat off of plates using silverware, drive to work/school in our car. To make a long story short: we utilize many many things during the course of a day. Each and every thing that I have I know what I need it for. In fact I work to acquire them because I have need of the form and function that they provide.

So, I ask myself, what do I need emunah for? What is its form and function? With what does it provide me?

The short answer? Practice what you preach!

Many people profess a belief in G-d, but do they actually live it?

There’s a joke about a guy who was driving around on the streets of Manhattan, looking for a place to park. He’s looking and looking – nothing! So he decides that the time has come to pray. He opens up his heart and starts saying “G-d! I really need you now! I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes and I could really use Your help just now to find a parking spot”. Just as he finishes he notices that up ahead a person is pulling out, so he quickly says “Thanks for listening G-d, but I’ve got it handled!”

We preach prayer, but do we ignore when it is answered, or worse, ascribe our success in the endeavor for which we prayed as solely our own?

As I discuss in detail in book 1 of Core Emunah (Hello? G-d?) emunah is not a noun, it’s a verb. It is the practice of what I preach, the result of which is that I internalize and improve upon my existing faith and trust in HaKadosh baruch Hu, (henceforth HKB”H, G-d). It’s how I internalize my core beliefs.

What do I need emunah for? To add life to my life.

The things that I preach: why do I preach them? Because I feel that they are attributes or attitudes that are worthy of praise. They are things that lead to a meaningful life. But do I put into practice those things that I preach? If the answer is “yes” then you are adding life to life. If you do them because HKB”H told you in the Torah – then you are practicing emunah.

Not everything, however, is emunah. Emunah, as its name implies, means trust. You trust HKB”H concerning things which are explicit, not things that are not. When the Torah says, for example, that if you keep the commandment of the Shmitta year that on the sixth year, (the one preceding Shmitta), you will get a double portion – there to trust HKB”H is an act of emunah.  If a person were to give a tenth of his/her income in fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzedakah, (charity), concerning which the Navi tells us “…ubachanuni na bezot”, (“and test me on this thing”, the test being if HKB”H will fulfill the rest of the verse, which speaks of a person’s income being increased as a result of his act of giving ma’aser, a tenth of his produce), that is an act of emunah. [A Rav should be consulted, however, as to whom the monies should be given as it changes based on each and every person’s personal circumstances]. These are “active” examples of emunah, those with measurable “rewards”. However in keeping any of the mitzvos (commandments) of the Torah, even those for which there is no measurable “reward” mentioned, is an act of emunah. Why do I keep the Torah? Because HKB”H told me to. I trust that He has my best interests in mind and that He instructed me to keep these mitzvos because they are the very best thing for me to do with my life. Therefore in keeping any of the mitzvos, those explicit in either the written Torah or in the oral Torah, I am utilizing my emunah, internalizing it, strengthening my trust in HKB”H and adding qualitative life to my life. [As an aside: see the post that I made on parshas Mattos “Am I too busy living life to stop and learn about life”]

“Everything will be well” – is not emunah. “G-d will provide”, in many instances, also is not. Unless you are a prophet and received direct instruction from HKB”H, (don’t worry, you’re not), then to live your life in this manner is what is called “emunah tefeilah”, meaning bland, tasteless emunah.

You wouldn’t eat a bland steak, why would you live a bland life?

What is REALLY important to me in life?

In this week’s parsha, Mattos (2nd to last in sefer Bamidbar (Numbers)), we find that the children of Gad and Reuven approach Moshe with a request. They take note that the land in which they are presently sitting, (that of Og, king of the Bashan, and Sichon, king of the Ammorites), was a very good grazing land “and your servants have flocks”.

Like all good Jews they were always on the lookout to find that which was good for business!

All joking aside it’s not a bad request. We all know that we need parnassah, (Hebrew for “a livelihood”), and therefore looking out for the needs of our parnassah is not a bad thing! That’s just what the children of Gad and Reuven were doing!

However, I’m sure that if we had asked them “What are you doing all of this work for?” they would certainly answer “I’m doing it for my family”. If we are truly willing to take a good look at ourselves I’m sure that we would all agree. What am I working so hard for? For my family, of course!

But the truth tends to be stranger than fiction. I would, therefore, like to forward the following platitude:

Ask yourself the following:

Am I so busy living my life that I don’t have time to stop and learn/think how it should be lived?

We find, upon scrutiny, that the children of Gad and Reuven, despite their aforementioned priorities, tell Moses that “We’ll build fences for our livestock and houses for our children”. I’m sure they didn’t put all that much thought into how they said it, but the Torah and our sages, ob”m, point out that their subconscious was speaking to them through their words.

When we set out to do something we are supposed to put that which is most important first, no?

Of course!

However, the reality of life is such that many times, because we are so involved in doing — we forget why we were doing it in the first place! So, too, with the children of Gad and Reuven. So Moses tells them “Get your priorities straight! First build homes for your families and children then you can build fences for your flocks.

How many of us, despite protestations that that isn’t the case, are so involved in the work that we do for the sake of our families that we, also, forget to spend time with them? How many of us, despite declarations as to the importance of Torah and Torah learning, are too busy living our lives to actually sit down and do some serious learning?

How many of us are too busy living life to learn how it SHOULD be lived?

It’s something to stop and think about.

Core Emunah – Book 1

With HaShem’s (G-d’s) help, I will be publishing the first volume of the Core Emunah series shortly. I am still looking to get some haskomos before releasing the book to the public. Enclosed is a picture of the front cover. Let me know if you think it is need of improvement.

Core Emmuna 1 - front cover - final3
Coming soon to Createspace! (I’m still getting haskamos)

Initial reaction from Dr. Gerald Scheroder, (to whom I gave the book to check out the validity of the science involved). “I figured that I would give it about 20 minutes. Two hours later I picked my head up and only then realized how much time had gone by!”

(He also suggested that I use a little less humor)

Anyway. I LIKE the initial reaction! With HaShem’s help be patient. It’s coming soon.

My Journey to emunah

Having grown up in a family of highly educated secular Jews, (my father, shlit”a, is an MD and my mother, shlit”a, a Masters in social work) one would think that the last thing that we would need in our lives was emunah, Jewish faith. We had already cast off the contrivances of faith (or rather that was done for us), we had the secular education that, supposedly, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that religion is only “the opium of the masses” – what did we need it for? We had all that we needed!

Except we didn’t. We lacked a purpose.

My parents understood this and began their journey to religious Jewish adherence when I was quite young, but me? I was a kid! How much thought did I give to life and purpose? None whatsoever! I had my friends, I was having fun – what did I need religion for?

It was then that my world got turned upside down. My parents decided that it was time for the family to leave the US and move to Israel, the Holy Land. So a little while after my bar-mitzvah (not bark-mitzvah! In those days we only did them for humans!), we packed our worldly belongings and flew across the world to a foreign land. Boy, was I mad! This was before the time of emancipated teens. Otherwise I probably would have been one of them.

I went through high-school in a yeshiva high school where they didn’t know how to teach me, (I was among the first “olim chadashim”, new immigrants, to arrive), was forced to learn topics for which I had no background at all in a foreign language (Hebrew) that was even more foreign as it was also in Aramaic (the Talmud). It was the pits. I think that they graduated me out of pity for the first several years. In any case I finished high school and decided that, despite having been accepted into pilots training in the Israeli air force, (these were the years right after the movie “Top Gun”, by the way), it was finally time to face the question that had been gnawing at me for years: “Why?”

Why did my parents decide to change our comfortable, easy American existence for this difficult and demanding Israeli one? Why did they give up our easy, fun and available secular lifestyle for the rigid, detailed and oppressing religious one? If it isn’t broken— why fix it? Why not lobster? Why not pepperoni pizza? (They are delicious, by the way)

So I pushed off the army and joined a yeshiva for American boys, Ohr David, (the yeshiva I teach in today), to give those Rabbis a chance to explain it to me before I go and become the next Tom Cruise, (the awesome, Israeli version).

I went to yeshiva and I met some awesome people. It wasn’t specifically the learning, unfortunately, that affected me. It was the people who were devoted to keeping the Torah alive and spreading it to other people. It touched me.

Ok. I wouldn’t go to the air-force. To many issues. But if I can’t FLY a plane – at least I’ll jump from one! So I went to a hesder yeshiva, yeshivat Sha’alvim. I was there for a few months and then I joined the IDF. If I wasn’t going to be Tom — I would be Sylvester Stalone! I decided to be the maggist, (the guy who carried the heavy machine gun). But G-d, in His infinite wisdom, had other plans. I developed knee problems to the extent that I couldn’t carry the gun and eventually I was sent to a different unit to finish my service there.

As a more mature soldier I had more time on my hands and I tried my best to fill it as I understood. I was proactive on base, I volunteered a lot, but I always felt that my time was slipping through my hands. I felt wasted. I wasn’t being productive. I didn’t have a purpose.

So I tried learning some Torah. But I didn’t have the faculties to really learn in depth.

Thank G-d, (Baruch HaShem), I had the technological marvel of my day: the Walkman! I also had taken a bunch of tapes from Aish HaTorah to listen to. And I did. I listened to the shiurim (classes) of HaRav Noach Wienberg, zt”l, the Rosh haYeshiva. He talked about all sorts of topics. But the one that spoke to me the most were those that eventually became the Discovery program at Aish.

I avidly listened to those classes and they became the basis from which my emunah began to grow.

It was what I was missing all along – to know that I wasn’t just doing something of imagined purpose. I wasn’t giving up those things that I enjoyed in my youth based on some fiction. There was/is a G-d and He gave us these instructions for living. I had finally begun to strengthen my core emunah!

It was then that I decided that when I finished my army service I would really begin to take the Torah seriously. It was then that I began to learn. That was the beginning of the journey that I made that led me to where I am today.

But it all began with the core. We have to have core emunah.

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