The Meaning of Faith

At nearly every funeral at which I officiate, I recite these words, composed by Rabbi Alvin Fine, a rabbi in San Francisco who died in 1999:

“Birth is a beginning and death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity and youth to age;
From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion and then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and, often, back again;
From health to sickness and back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion and grief to understanding,
From fear to faith. From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead: We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination;
But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage, made stage by stage…
To life everlasting.”

The poem captures for me the idea that life is a journey and that the obstacles we face can be overcome. Each pairing seems to resonate, but I’ve always been puzzled by the line that says that life is a journey “from fear to faith.” How does one journey from fear to a place of confidence, toward faith?

Faith is often elusive and hard to come by. When asked if we believe in God, we may have a ready answer but may find it hard to articulate what those beliefs are. And our faith is often challenged by events in the world that leave us bewildered and confused. We want to believe that the world is a good and decent place, that good people are rewarded with a good and honored life and that evil is either thwarted or punished. But what we see happening around us does not support that conclusion. We Jews may especially find it hard to believe in a world in which goodness triumphs, given what we’ve experienced in our history, especially in the middle of the 20th century.

The answer that Judaism offers us, I believe, is that our faith need be neither perfect nor complete. The door is open to us to question, to have doubts, to wonder, openly or privately, about how the world works and even whether or not God is watching over us and protecting us. We are encouraged to journey from fear of chaos, of the unknown, of terror and evil, toward an inclination to believe in the potential goodness of the world. Some have called such faith “mature,” a faith based not on fairy tale images of a God who rescues us whenever we are in trouble, but a faith based on a realistic view of the world and secured by an unshakable hope that it can be better.

We just marked the 13th anniversary of 9/11, a day of painful memory and solemn reflection for those who lost loved ones on that tragic day, and for our nation as well. Many are left wondering whether we have made progress since the day that terrorists expressed their hatred for America and western values by killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. Is faith in a world of goodness justified?

A well-known expression of faith is captured by the words of Ani Ma’amin, which we often sing when we commemorate Yom HaShoah: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he should tarry, I will still believe.” Perfect faith? Is there such a thing? Can any of us justify having perfect faith that all will be well, that our good intentions and actions will be worthwhile and honored? Instead, I prefer to understand the phrase “perfect faith”—emunah sheleyma—as “wholehearted faith” (the word “sheleyma” is related to shalom, meaning whole). I believe with wholehearted faith in the goodness of the world. I hold this belief not because I have solid evidence that all evil acts will be punished, but because faith that the world can be a place of goodness keeps me focused on helping to build such a world. I believe, with wholehearted faith, that good people can triumph and create a world that pleases God.

May the victims of 9/11 rest in peace, and may we all have faith in the potential goodness of the world.

One thought on “The Meaning of Faith

  1. Heartfelt thoughts. However, but if the objective is a “wholehearted” faith “based on a realistic view of the world and secured by an unshakable hope that it can be better”, where is the supernatural element that underlies religion?

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