It was my third funeral of the week, and I wastired of death. I thought this one would be easier than the others,since it was an elderly woman who suffered terribly and truly wantedto die. Her name was Sarah; her only relatives left were her nephew,Harry, and his son, Joel.
So I gathered with Harry, Joel and a few others atSarah’s grave to talk about her life, to pray and then to lower herbody into the silent earth. Joel showed up with an armful of books.Recognizing just what books they were, I was betting on trouble. Icould tell that Joel was a recent devotee of the ba’al teshuvahmovement — a group of formerly nonobservant Jews suddenly, orslowly, adopting Orthodox-like views and behaviors.
It’s not that I have anything against peopletaking their Judaism seriously; it’s just that, in the past, I’ve hada few book-toting people challenge me in the middle of a funeral inthe most inappropriate way, substituting zeal for knowledge andrespect. But Joel was cool — he liked the way things werehandled.
After the funeral, still standing near Sarah’sgrave, Joel asked if he could read something from one of his books. Inodded. Joel had brought along a friend of his, a young woman whosehusband had died just a month before. Although all of us listened, itwas clear that Joel was reading to her. His text? Ezekiel’s vision inthe Valley of Dry Bones — a miraculous passage in the Bible thatdemonstrates God’s ability to resurrect the dead.
After he finished, Joel turned to me and said:”This idea of the dead being reborn was the hardest thing for me toaccept about Judaism. But then one of the rabbis I study with showedme a lemon seed and said, ‘If Hashem can make an orchard grow fromthis seed, then He can do anything.'”
I was impressed with Joel’s fervor, but not hislogic. “Why,” I wanted to ask him, “if Hashem can do anything, whydidn’t Hashem prevent the Holocaust, or my friend’s liver cancer?”But I didn’t mess with Joel; it wasn’t the time or the place.Besides, his friend was comforted by the thought of seeing herhusband again in some messianically resurrected state. I suppose, formany, that’s enough. During the car ride back to temple, I enviedJoel’s faith, but I also knew it wasn’t in me to ignore all of theevil in the world that contradicts it. For most of us, faith comesless easily and sure.
Take our ancestors described in this week’s Torahportion. There they were, after witnessing God’s powerful plaguesagainst the evil Pharaoh, fleeing through the parted sea, manna fromheaven, a cloud to lead them by day and a pillar of fire by night,miracle after miracle, and, now, Moses is just one-half a day latecoming back from Mount Sinai with the Ten Command-ments, and what dothey do? They panic, lose faith and start to worship a goldencalf.
In a lot of ways, this theme is repeated again andagain in the Torah — faith comes and goes for our ancestors. I thinkit’s the Torah’s way of telling us that we don’t have to be like Joelto be part of the Jewish people. Not that there’s anything wrong withthat kind of faith; it’s just not the only kind of faith.
An Orthodox rabbi, Irving Greenberg, said it best:”After Auschwitz, faith means that there are times when faith isovercome…. We now have to speak of ‘moment faiths’…interspersedwith times when flames and smoke of the burning children blot outfaith, although it flickers again…. The difference between theskeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, and not certitude ofposition.”
Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, Godpunishes but ultimately forgives and sends Moses back up the mountainto give the people a second chance. How wise of our tradition to makeroom not only for those with Joel’s faith but for the rest of us too.
Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at WilshireBoulevard Temple.