In the middle of the night last night, I awoke to a story. I’m not sure if it was my subconscious saying, “You need a good story for your sermon” or perhaps it was my mother speaking to me. This is the kind of story she would have loved. It isn’t a true story. It didn’t actually happen in our household. It could have. But I had to tell it today, because it is the perfect introduction to a sermon about Faith, Trust, Skepticism and Doubt.
How many people here have at least two siblings? How many have at least three children? Everyone else, look at the nodding as I tell the story.
Sibling #2 would really like a big cup of hot chocolate but knows that there are only three packets and that mom and her siblings might want some.
“Mom, can I make hot chocolate? There are only three packets!”
Sib #1, “I’d like some too!” Sib #3, “Don’t forget me!”
Mom, giving up any hope for a share, responds by telling sib #2, “Make one for you and your brother and sister.”
Sib #2 complies. She takes up her own cup and places two steaming cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows pleasantly floating on their surface onto the table in her sibling’s traditional spots.
Sib #3 comes into the room, grabs his cup, and immediately starts drinking.
Sib #2, holding her own cup, picks up the cat and says, “Stay away from the hot chocolate!” just as Sib #1 enters the room.
“What happened?” Sib #1 says.
Sib #2 replies, “Well, our beloved cat just went to the bathroom and then jumped up on the table. I thought I saw him pawing at your hot chocolate. Maybe he was playing with the marshmallows or something.”
Sib #1 walks over and looks at the hot chocolate. “Really? There’s dark stuff on the marshmallow. Eeeewww! Well, so much for that.” Then she leaves the room.
Sib #2 puts the cat down, finishes the cup she’s holding, and puts it in the sink. Then she walks over and picks up the cup she made for Sib #1 and starts drinking it.
Sib #3 says, “Wait, I thought you said the cat messed with that right after going to the bathroom!”
Sib #2’s reply, “I don’t know about her, but I’m certain that I was just imagining things.”
There you have it; faith, trust, skepticism and doubt, all wrapped up in one story.
Why do we believe what we believe? This morning, I would like to talk a bit about faith and trust. I will speak about our Torah portion as well as about what Maimonides and the Rabbinic Tradition say about faith, about how our changing understanding of the world in which we live has impacted faith and trust in the modern world, and about the importance of questioning our assumptions.
“And after these things, Haelohim nisa et Avraham, the Divine tested Abraham.” With those words one of the most troubling texts in our tradition begins. I have spoken before on Rosh Hashanah about my own interpretation of the story; of how Abraham was doing what he believed was expected of him, while Adonai interceded and stopped the test by sending an angel and a ram. I would argue that this story, interpreted in this manner, is perhaps the very foundation of our people’s worship of Adonai apart from the divinities in which other people in ancient times believed.
I believe that in very ancient times, people understood that Abraham once had faith in those divine beings, or at least trusted this particular tradition connected with them, but he came have faith and trust primarily and then only in Adonai, the God who did not seek the death of his beloved son as a test. You won’t find that interpretation of the Akeidah explained anywhere else, because the Jewish tradition came to have faith in the ideal that Abraham was a monotheist long before the story of the Binding of Isaac. I contend, on the other hand, that what we see instead in the stories of Abraham’s life is the development of his faith in Adonai.
Maimonides says essentially that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you keep all of the mitzvot. Judaism for him was about practice, not belief. Yet even that practice depends on having faith in the revelation that has come down to us, primarily as expressed through the Torah and the Prophets. Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith include that we must have faith that the Torah, the Law of Moses, is of divine origin and is immutable, unchanging over time. This belief lies at the heart of Orthodox Judaism.
For most of our people’s history, people had two choices, have faith or doubt. Most of the time, they could not investigate. People couldn’t simply “Google” the history of their ancestors, look at maps, or even better, telephone, Facetime or Skype with someone across the world. Neither could they access scientific inquiry, archaeology, and a plethora of historical texts all of which could help in the decision. Add that deciding to deny what you were taught in times not too distant could have led to persecution, excommunication, or worse, and even asking questions could have been considered a matter of life and death.
There is a version of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles that is part of the traditionally daily liturgy called “Ani Ma’amim” which begins, “Ani Ma’amim, b’emunah shleimah,” “I believe with a perfect faith…” and then lists Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The song Yigdal Elohim Chai, which is part of our High Holiday liturgy, is a poetic version.
Yet, doubt and skepticism were always present. We are the people whose own texts describe how, having seen miracles, we were skeptical, doubting, and rebellious. I say, we, and not them, because if you’ll remember your Passover lessons, we are to always act as if we ourselves were there as slaves in Egypt, freed by wonders and miracles.
Most of us don’t have perfect faith and trust in much of anything that anyone might want us to believe or do, especially not if they claim to be speaking in the name of a higher power. In our age of technology, if someone claiming to be a modern day Moses came down a mountain with tablets he claimed to be inscribed by the finger of God, someone would ask why he didn’t just use email. Someone else would snap pictures or post a video showing Moses shattering the first set in anger at the people who protested against Aaron and built the golden calf.
Doubt and skepticism, we have aplenty. Reform Judaism originated among those who were skeptical of the origins of the traditions that been handed down to us, including those in our sacred texts. The founders of Reform sought meaning and relevance and eschewed those traditions that required faith and trust without the support of reason and modern understanding. They believed that in the modern world, we were beyond simply trusting what we are told by a source claiming to know the truth.
In this, they were wrong.
While we may question truths shared by people in the name of a higher power, we are the people who, in modern times, too often believe that because something is on the internet and people are sharing it, therefore it must be true. Maybe not the whole internet, maybe just on Facebook or Twitter.
And while we may question the words attributed to Moses, we tend to imbue other fictional characters with trust and then act as if the actors who play them should be so trusted.
Many of us remember the “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on tv?” commercial. “So why then are we hearing your opinion on a medical issue?” We ask rhetorically. The answer is that we develop a sort of trust from watching characters on television and in movies. That ad campaign, for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup played upon the trust that we have for doctors, even fictional doctors.
How many products do we see advertised with someone claiming to be a doctor endorsing them? There is a massive industry of supplements and remedies. But that is not new. Coca Cola was introduced in 1886 as medicinal remedy containing cocaine, alcohol, and caffeine. It was originally called Pemberton’s French Wine Cocoa, but because of prohibition in many places, the alcohol was removed and a new formula introduced. Pemberton claimed that the formula cured many diseases including morphine addition, dyspepsia, headache and-you guessed it- impotence.
Woody Allen, in the movie Sleeper from 1973, made fun of our faith in health products. The doctors in the movie, Dr. Melik and Dr. Aragon, make fun of his character who wakes from cryostasis many years in the future.
Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."
Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.
Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
In this regard, I recently read an article about salads in the Washington Post. This quote caught me a bit off-guard. I expect it will impact many of you in the same way. After noting that lettuce is almost all water and has little nutritional content, the author stated that, “A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious.”
He added that:
Collard greens are 90 percent water, which still sounds like a lot. But it means that, compared with lettuce, every pound of collard greens contains about twice as much stuff that isn’t water, which, of course, is where the nutrition lives.
Meanwhile the author noted that:
Lots of what passes for salad in restaurants is just the same as the rest of the calorie-dense diabolically palatable food that’s making us fat, but with a few lettuce leaves tossed in. Next time you order a salad, engage in a little thought experiment: Picture the salad without the lettuce, cucumber and radish, which are nutritionally and calorically irrelevant. Is it a little pile of croutons and cheese, with a few carrot shavings and lots of ranch dressing? …Items labeled “salad” at chain restaurants are often as bad, if not worse, than pastas or sandwiches or burgers when it comes to calories. Take Applebee’s, where the Oriental Chicken Salad clocks in at 1,400 calories!
Why do we allow this to happen? Bret Thorn, columnist at Nation’s Restaurant News and longtime observer of the restaurant industry, said about salads that:
Chefs are cognizant of what’s going on in the psychology of diners. They’re doing a kind of psychological health washing, not just with salads, but with labels like “fresh” and “natural,” and foods that are “local” and “seasonal.” “A chef is not a nutritionist, or public health advocate,” Thorn points out. They make food that customers want to buy.
And we want to buy things that are fried or creamy or salty or sweet, or all of those things. Which doesn’t mean that the right salad can’t be a good choice for a nutritious meal. It just means that it’s easy to get snookered.
The fried chicken finger salad covered in ranch dressing and cheese over lettuce and the giant taco salad, may be yummy, but they are not great dietary choices simply because they are called “salads” and have lettuce.
Meanwhile, with all of the options we have to get our news and analysis today, we often forget that a bit of skepticism is required there as well. Too often, we simply read the menu, order, and consume. Like our dietary choices, we tend to watch those stations that appeal to us. That may mean that we only access news sources that tell us what we want to hear and avoid the ones that make us question whether or not what we want to hear is correct. It is far too easy to be led astray, if we do that.
Let me suggest that the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is the time when we should take the time to listen to contrary voices, voices that make us question. The Hebrew term “Noraim” has within it the root for the verb “to look,” ra’eh. In fact, one could see “noraim” as a sort of causative reflexive, something that could make the term Yamim Noraim mean something like, “The days that cause us to look at ourselves.”
During these days, “Why do we believe the things that we believe?” is an important question to ask ourselves. Why do we trust? Why do we have faith? Why are we skeptical?
Do we doubt a source’s information and opinions simply because they differ from ours? Because they’re found on the wrong TV network or the in the wrong newspaper or webpage? Do we seek tonics to dull the pain of the criticism, perhaps applying labels or broad generalizations that help us negate challenging arguments?
Do we have faith in arguments supporting the positions we already hold because just as we like salty, creamy, goodness and having it be organic and on lettuce make us feel better about consuming it, we’re willing not to question arguments that make us feel good about what we want to believe?
Even more problematic, are will willing to follow expectations without question, even ones we don’t like, and climb the mountain walking alongside our loved one carrying a knife and wood.
Or instead, do we seek to respond to challenges without trying to brush them aside, looking at the ingredients of the argument without the lettuce that works to convince us that it is all okay?
It isn’t just our stomachs and our politics that work to convince us to agree. We are experts at convincing ourselves that our habits are acceptable, that we need not change. The Yamim Noraim, these days of looking within, challenge us. The shofar blast tells us to “Wake up! Open our eyes! Challenge ourselves!”
It is time to question our assumptions and expectations. Do our actions match our goals? Are we willing to question how we interact with others, how we perceive the world, how we defend our vices, how we support our causes or fail to do so, how we find excuses not to give, volunteer, or make sacrifices to help? Are we quick to excuse ourselves for our failures while swiftly convicting others? Are we pretending to diet while eating fried creamy fatty decadence over lettuce? Are we living and acting in ways opposite to what we truly know to be right?
When we look at Abraham ascending the mountain, our thoughts are not of praise for his faith. We ask instead, “How could he?” Yet, we too often act without question, following expectations, whether our own or those of others.
Let the coming days be ones in which we perform Heshbon Nefesh, taking an accounting of our souls, of our desires and actions, of how we go about our lives. Let us turn ourselves in the right direction, performing Teshuva.
Our tradition does indeed stress having faith in the traditions and beliefs that have come down to us, yet may we not simply rise early to meet expectations and to unquestioningly follow our assumptions.
The shofar reminds us that we need to listen to challenging voices, “Avraham! Avraham!” and that we need to consider possible alternatives to our direction, to question whether or not we or others to whom we listen are just “imagining things.” A new possibility and better understanding may be just beyond the thicket, if we but consider it.