Rabbi Yair Robinson
Erev Yom Kippur 5783
So the story goes like this. Once there was a very learned person, you know the type, the kind that like to boast about how enlightened they are. This person was in the habit of debating folks, refuting what they thought were old fashioned proofs for the truth. On time, this person decided to debate the rabbi. They looked them up, made an appointment, and showed up, full of confidence, ready to do battle. They walked in and saw the rabbi walking around their study, a book in hand. At first seeming to pay no attention to the guest, the rabbi finally looked up and said, “but perhaps.”
“Perhaps?” repeated the enlightened person, not sure of what was being said.
“Yes. Perhaps. Perhaps it is true after all.”
And with that, all the self-confidence and bravado seeped out of the learned person.
Perhaps. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps there is a reason for us to believe. You know, our ancestors, for generations upon generations, would recite the words, “Ani Ma’amin b’emunah sheleimah”, I believe with perfect faith. They sang these words in moments of crisis, moments of hopelessness as hope burned to ash along with the reciters. And they sang these words in happier moments as well. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messianic age, a better time, that there is a future out there waiting for us, for me. I believe with perfect faith.
Many of us, of course, are like the learned person in our story, and find these words quaint, amusing, or perhaps they choke in our throats. How can we say such a thing? How can we express such an idea in a world full of torment and terror, of sickness, of pain, of unfairness? Instead, the words of the psalmist and the prophet come more easily to our voices: Ad Matai, How long? How long must we deal with what feels like body blow after body blow, as we watch friends and strangers, nearby and distant, and even our world suffer? How long will it feel like our efforts are wasted, as the line of hungry never diminishes no matter how much food we bring, the phone calls to elected officials get met with the same response, and the most vulnerable in our midst suffer from hate, no matter our efforts to combat it?
I believe with perfect faith? In what?
I first heard these words when I was in high school, predictably enough, at a youth group event. At the time I found the words to be powerful. But it wasn’t about belief in God. That I knew was there, but this was something else, something additional? As a teenager it was hard for me to put my finger on it at the time, but even long after that event was done and the program wrapped up, I found myself thinking about that teaching, about that phrase, “I believe with perfect faith”. In what? What do I believe in that answers all of those questions, all of the pain and sorrow we just discussed?
The poet Yehudah Amichai helps answer the question, or rather, subverts it, in one of his last poems. He writes:
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head: There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.
Amichai’s poem, of course, subverts the idea. It’s not a passive hope for a miracle to be wrought, a longing for something out there, but rather a faith one’s fellow human being—a faith in one another. That this is a new religion, this faith in each other.
But it is not new. It has been with us since days of old. Again and again, our Torah reminds us that the word Emunah, the word used for ‘faith’, actually means ‘trust’, and is best expressed not in ritual acts but in our devotion to one another, our willingness to care for our fellow travelers in this world. Indeed, we could say that so much of our suffering in these days stems from our lack of trust in each other, and our sense that trustworthiness has been diminished, as social media and narratives about ‘them’ and ‘us’ turn neighbors into caricatures, straw people to bat down or hold up as examples of why this one or that one are ruining our world.
I believe with perfect faith. Trust, belief in others. It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s hard because it’s not cognitive, it’s not intellectual—it’s existential. We have to feel that trust down to our bones; we need that trust. We need to believe. We need that faith in one another. But after everything that has happened, and continues to happen in our world—the acts of hate, the misinformation, the delusion, the politicization of speech and identity, the insistence by some to hoodwink or cause pain, how do we return to believing in one another, in trusting our fellow standing at the crossroads? How do we get back to that place of Emunah, of trust, in one another? How do we get there?
We can’t of course. Not fully. We can’t know for sure whether our fellow is trustworthy. And sometimes our trust will be violated. Sometimes the person looking for help will turn out to be more interested in doing us harm. Sometimes the person standing at the crossroads doesn’t actually know the right way, through no fault of their own, but they are so sure, so convinced of their own right-ness, that they can’t see any other way to go. We cannot know for sure, but perfect faith has never meant absence of doubt, or questions. If anything, it means being open to the question: Perhaps. It’s a powerful word, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s all true, after all. Perhaps we won’t go from bad to worse. Perhaps the person who asks for our help really needs it, and the person asking if we’re okay is actually concerned for our well being. Perhaps it is true after all? Perhaps it is true that we can, in fact, trust one another, be open to one another, seek peace from one another. That when the chips are down, when we most need someone else, people—friends, neighbors, family, even strangers, will step into the breach and act as God’s messenger, and guide us along our way.
And perhaps, we may be trustworthy ourselves, to be good stewards and guides as we stand in those crossroads, pointing the right way for people. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, it doesn’t mean we won’t let folks down from time to time, and it doesn’t mean folks won’t take advantage. But perhaps, perhaps it is true after all. Perhaps we are each, all, standing at crossroads guiding people to where they need to go, to who they need to be. Perhaps.
And that, my friends, is as good a start to a new religion as any other. Let’s be willing to ask ourselves that question, perhaps. Let’s take a chance on one another, despite all that has happened, despite the pain we have seen in the world, despite our own mistakes and failings, perhaps it might be true after all, to believe in one another, to trust in each other, to guide and support one another. It will not be easy, but perhaps there will be others helping guide the way. Ani ma’amin. I believe, I trust, with perfect faith, in one another.