The relationship between the Human Being and God turns around the axis which at one extreme there is the Divine Providence, while at the other we find the faith. Faith, ‘emunah‘ in Hebrew, refers to trust. Lack of faith, even temporary, not trusting devotedly in God, has been regarded along the history as a spiritual flaw.
But in human daily reality we cannot believe all the time at the same intensity. We do not always feel that Divine Providence… sometimes it is even not actually active. At least not as active as we expect it to be. And then our faith is strongly shaken, undermined. We ask ourselves: Have I stopped believing? Can I have faith at all?
We tend to understand the faith in God as a concept requiring full engagement. Either all or nothing. There is no room for questions, no room for doubts. Those who ask or hesitate are not true believers.
Is it possible to think differently about belief and the person of faith? Maybe true belief results from the permanent internal struggle between the desire that nothing bad happens and the not always agreeable reality? Maybe faith is exactly that challenge rocking us between hope and reality?
Abraham is an example of this spiritual struggle. In parshat Lekh-lekha there are many expressions of faith in human proportions: a faith that goes from absolute trust to doubts and back to trust; one that asks God, gets appeased by a supporting answer and gets worried because of an obscure response. Abraham goes into the unknown with complete faith, following God’s call: go forth… to the land I will show you… I will bless you… you will become a blessing. He arrives, indeed, to the land – where reality is different from faith: there is abundance and famine, there are friends and enemies, there is serenity and discord, certainty and doubt.
“There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt” (Gen. 12:10). “They will say, ‘this is his wife’, and will kill me… Please say you are my sister, so that it will go well with me for your sake” (idem 12-13). Abraham fears, worries, wonders: he does not stay in the land God had shown him, neither relies he on the blessing God promised him. He goes down to Egypt because of the famine, is anxious about his life without thinking “God will protect me”. He prefers to lie and to ask his wife to do likewise.
Our Sages counted these actions as tests of God unto Abraham (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan recension A, Ch. 33 and recension B, Ch. 36)
Nahmanides, on the contrary, says that Abraham sinned here, since he did not believe:
“You must know that our father Abraham did unintentionally a big sin, bringing his righteous wife into the obstacle of transgression… but he must have believed that God will save him” (Nahmanides, exegesis to Gen. 12:10)
Most of the exegetes, however, defend Abraham in different ways, possibly because it is difficult to think of our father Abraham as lacking of faith. In my humble opinion, there is no spiritual weakness in what Abraham did, but a true human uncertainty. Moreover, the big test Abraham went through is renewing his faith, his trust, his confidence in God after the challenges he had to cope with. And he passed the test.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century) presents us Abraham’s high virtue as that of a sincere and brave man of faith, who copes with spirituality and worldliness:
“Abraham did not trust God, Who feeds and supports even in the desert (…) he put in danger his wife’s moral welfare so he could survive. (…) The Torah does not present us the great personalities of the People of Israel as perfect ideals… it does not say about any person: “here there is the ideal person that makes the Divine into human” (…) Knowing the sins of the great personalities does not diminish them. On the contrary, their personalities become greater. Were they shinning in absolute purity, we would have thought their nature is different from ours and impossible to imitate. Without craving and inner struggle, their virtues would have been the result of a superior nature“. (R. S.R. Hirsch commentary to Gen. 12:10-13)
Abraham’s greatness lies in his coping with faith, with hope and with fear, just as we, ourselves, cope with them. He reinforced his trust in God even though he did not receive from Him all what he wanted, as he wanted it and when he wanted it. Abraham feared and believed, hoped and worried, trusted, had disappointments and renewed his trust.
Just as we do.
May Abraham be blessed, and may we, his followers in questioning and in meeting God again and again, be blessed, too.