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Vayigash: Faith and Reason

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The Rent Garment

With all the recent talk about faith and reason, it seems wise to retrace the steps to the roots of this conflict. After all, problems are best solved at their origin. No one ever gets lost in a moment; we begin by slowly wandering off course, slightly veering off center, until, with time, we can no longer find our way.

A spate of recent books include titles like “The End of Faith,” “The Twilight of Atheism” and “Doubt: A History.” Since the November elections editorial pages and TV pundits have been consumed with the issue of religion and its role in politics and in our lives in general.

Self-proclaimed people of both faith and faithlessness have surfaced, all pontificating about the virtues of each viewpoint.

In truth, this conflict is nothing new. The role of faith and how to balance it with human logic has plagued people from the beginning of time. In our time this conflict has manifested most in the last two century-old battle between religion and science.

Some prefer the rather simplistic approach that faith and reason are mutually exclusive, two different domains that can never be reconciled.

According to this thinking faith is the domain of the ignorant. A relic of the past, that is slowly being phased out in the ever-growing shadow (or they may say the light) of science, reason and open-mindedness. How they can possibly dismiss millions of people of faith is beyond me. I understand that one can dismiss the masses who continuously show that they can buy into any rubbish, if indoctrinated long enough. But amongst the millions of faithful there must be at least one or two intelligent people, who have embraced faith after extensive inquiry and introspection.

On the other end of the spectrum, many people who claim to speak in the name of faith are dogmatic, intolerant and equally dismissive of their counterparts.

I for one feel that we all have two voices inside of us—the voice of faith and the voice of skepticism. Therefore both viewpoints can teach us much about our own inner struggles and the very nature of the human condition. True faith is not a passive state that lacks the discretion and balance of reason, and reason is not a force that denies faith. They actually complement each other.

A radio interviewer once asked me if I ever had a crisis of faith. Apparently he thought that I appeared like someone who was living in (ignorant?) bliss so often associated with the devout life. I laughed and told him, “yes I did and I do have a crisis of faith. Every moment of my life.”

“How can one not have a crisis,” I explained, “when we continuously witness so much senseless pain and suffering of the innocent. Faith does not mean blindness to life’s harsh realities. Every time we see a vulnerable, harmless child hurt, how one not have crisis of faith how a good G-d could allow such loss…”

“The people of deepest faith were always the ones that posed the greatest challenge to G-d. ‘How can the Judge of the universe not do justice?’ Abraham implored. ‘Why do You do evil to these people?’ Moses demanded.”

I then asked him in return if he ever had a crisis of faith. He replied that he had no faith. So I followed up and wondered whether he had a crisis of unfaithfulness (a tongue-twister which means a question whether he ever doubted his lack of faith). “You probably think,” I suggested, “that to have faith is easier than having no faith.” “Absolutely,” he said. “Faith is a crutch, an escape that can comfort someone in times of crisis. When all else fails, and logic no longer works, a person of faith can fall back on his beliefs. While a person that lacks faith has no such crutch and must face the challenge head-on.”

“You are mistaken,” I told him. “For true faith means that you have to struggle every moment with the dilemma how a good G-d could allow suffering. The question doesn’t let you sleep. While a person not of faith should not be disturbed at life’s injustice—after all, who says that life has to be just? Survival of the fittest is the heartless law of the land, and it’s just a cold fact of life that the stronger ones will prevail over the weaker ones.”

“No, I can’t accept that,” the interviewer exclaimed. “I am bothered by innocent loss. Perhaps then I guess I do have a measure of faith in some form of justice,” he concluded.

*  *  *

Where do we find the first conflict between faith and reason?

We find it in this week’s Torah portion. The faith/reason battle lies at the heart of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, and frankly, this can help us understand the inside story of their dispute.

The big question is of course how could the tribes, devout and holy men, stoop to petty jealousy and plan to kill their brother Joseph and then sell him into slavery?! And all this due to two dreams that Joseph shared with them!

The mystery only deepens as Joseph and his brothers meet again (unbeknownst to them) 22 years later, when they come to Egypt to purchase grain. Joseph goes through an elaborate scheme, first imprisoning his brother Shimeon, then demanding that they return with their youngest brother Benjamin, only to then conspire to arrest Benjamin. Exasperated, Judah confronts Joseph. He defiantly approaches him in this week’s portion, as Benjamin’s guarantor, and demands that Benjamin be released, and Judah be taken in his place.

Finally, Joseph breaks down. He no longer could control himself and he reveals his identity to his brothers. Without a bit of anger—he actually pacifies his brothers that “it is not you who sent me here, but G-d,” in order “to save lives”—he welcomes them and implores of them to bring their father and together live in Egypt in the “best part of the land.”

Clearly there is something more going on than just brotherly politics. Especially when you turn the clock forward some 650 years, and the conflict between the Judah and Joseph takes on tragic proportions. After King Solomon’s death, the ten tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam (of the tribe of Joseph/Efraim), break away from Rechoboam, son of Solomon, grandson of David, of the house of Judah. From then on the (northern) Kingdom of Israel is split from the (southern) Kingdom of Judah, until they both would be destroyed, first the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians 200 years later, and then, 136 years later, the Kingdom of Judah and the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians.

The plot thickens. Though the split of kingdoms was a tragedy, it was meant to be, Divinely ordained:

“When Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him in the way. He was clad in a new garment… Ahijah grabbed the new garment that was on him, and rent it in twelve pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, ‘Take the ten pieces, for thus says G-d: Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to you. But he shall have one tribe for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.’” (Kings I 11:29-32)

The end of the story is even more tragic. Instead of using this Divine opportunity to create a just and sublime Kingdom, Jeroboam ends up creating an idolatrous nation, which would lead to its destruction just two centuries later.

The story is still not over. Ezekiel tells us, in this week’s Haftorah, that Judah and Joseph would one day reunite and be one:

“Thus says G-d: Behold, I am to take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says G-d: ‘Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel. One king shall be king over them all. My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all, and they shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes and perform them. They shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the habitations in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they shall be My people, and I will be their G-d. Thus the nations shall know that it is I, G-d, Who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary shall be set up among them forever.’” (Ezekiel 37:19-24)

There must be some profound significance in this conflict between Joseph and Judah (and the other brothers) that it spans all of history, and does not come to resolution until the end of days, which is yet to happen.

The psycho-spiritual mystics explain it this way:

Each of the 12 tribes is a unique archetype in the spectrum of human experience. They all are necessary components in our lives and they complement each other. (For a detailed breakdown, see The Twelve Tribes). Joseph and Judah represent the two pillars of scholarship and action (Talmud and Maaseh).

Leadership was given to Judah, because Judah (from the word ‘hodaah,’ “acknowledgment”) embodies faith and humility: the single most important ingredient in a true leader. He does not see himself as great, only as a transparent channel of a Higher Will completely dedicated to serving his people. His ego and personality do not stand in the way between the people and G-d. Without absolute faith, humility and selflessness, leadership and the power that it wields is just plain dangerous.

When Joseph’s brothers heard his dreams and sensed they would be fulfilled in Joseph becoming the leader over them all, they immediately recognized a formidable threat to the Divine plan. Judah was designated to be the leader. His descendants – the House of David – were given kingship. Joseph’s leadership was mutiny against the Divinely ordained leadership of Judah. They foresaw the split that the children of Joseph would create in their secession from the house of David, the Kingdom of Israel that would break away from the Kingdom of Judah. To preempt this tragedy they felt that Joseph’s mutiny deserved death.

In psychological terms, the tribes recognized the inherent danger in leadership driven by reason alone lacking the deep humility necessary in true leadership. For all of Joseph’s strength, scholarship without humility, knowledge without action, reason without faith, leads to arrogance and ultimately can become destructive. An absolute commitment to truth is built upon the unwavering foundation of faith. This faith and selflessness manifests in implementation and not just ideas.

The brothers however were mistaken in one critical regard: Timing. True, a perfect world would have Judah as its leader (Moshiach son of David), but while we still live in an imperfect world, where there is a dichotomy between matter and spirit, ignorant faith can be even more dangerous. Leadership needs to be informed and directed by knowledge. The passion of absolute faith without knowledge, humility without the direction of wisdom, action without first studying, can become misguided and misdirected, to the point of harming others in the name of ignorant faith. Thus, the need to first experience Joseph’s leadership, to temper and balance the passion of Judah – wisdom to direct and guide one’s actions, knowledge to channel the power of faith. Joseph’s leadership (Moshiach son of Joseph) prepares and refines the world for the ultimate leadership of Judah (as related in the Haftorah).

Though the split of the two Kingdoms was a tragedy, it reflected the reality of the dichotomy between faith and reason of an imperfect world. Separately both “kingdoms” would be destroyed. Reason and faith – scholarship and action – need to serve as two complementary forces.

Indeed, Ezekiel tells us that both “sticks” of reason and faith will ultimately be integrated as “one stick,” under one leader, David who will be their “prince forever.”

Now let’s turn the clock forward. Over 3500 years have passed since Joseph reunited with his brothers, and 3000 years since the “garment” was rent into pieces. During these years we have seen the tragic consequences of misplaced and distorted faith: Millions of people were killed in the name of Holy Crusades and Inquisitions. We have also seen the emergence of what has been coined the “age of reason.”

Yet, tensions between the two still simmer. We can’t seem to find a balance between the passions of faith and the reflections of reason.

However, by retracing the steps to the initial roots of the conflict we can come to understand the tragic consequences that result when these two forces are at each other’s throats. And we can also learn what the benefits of both forces, how the “two sticks” can complement and inform each other, and together create one stronger “branch.”

We also firmly believe that history is one continuum, continuously evolving to higher levels of consciousness and perfection. After all these years of conflict, and the accumulative wisdom about reason and faith that we have gained over these years, we can today stand as “midgets on the shoulders of giants,” and uncover a deeper maturity about these two critical forces in our lives.

Is it possible that we today can finally restore the garment that was rent so long ago?

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Yeruchem Levovitz

Nothing done by God can be undone. It is just a question of time and the Mercy of a father to his children to let them learn from the experience.