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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Avraham Avinu and the Concept of Emunah

The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei ha-Torah 1:1) opens his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, by articulating the obligation to know (leida) Hashem's existence. In his Sefer ha-Mitzvot (aseh 1) and in his enumeration of the thirteen tenets of faith (Perush ha-Mishnayot, Introduction to perek Cheilek), he apparently formulates this central principle somewhat differently, accenting belief (le-haamin) instead of knowledge. R. Hayyim Heller (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, aseh 1) posits that there is no discrepancy between the various sources, as the original arabic term employed in Sefer ha-Mitzvot may connote either knowledge or belief. While this may resolve the potential conflict between Mishneh Torah and Sefer ha-Mitzvot, it does not address the context of the thirteen principles of faith, which surely emphasizes belief.

We may suggest based on R. Hayyim Heller's insight that the Rambam in all contexts demands a particularly rigorous standard of emunah that transcends the conventional definition of either knowledge or belief. Emunah conveys both affirmation and deep-seated conviction - "amen" - as well as unshakeable loyalty, trust and reliance - "neemanut" (see Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad ha-Kemach, Emunah). Intellectual awareness or even reasoned demonstration of Divine existence is insufficient if it is unaccompanied by unswerving dedication and commitment to the Divine Will. Superficial or uncritical belief that is not rooted in inquiry and introspection and that does not inspire one to channel all of one's faculties to manifest Hashem's presence ("kol azmotai tomarnah Hashem mi chamocha") is also inadequate. In Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the Rambam utilizes an intentionally ambiguous term in order to convey both cognizance and belief in a maximal and integrated manner.  In fact, the Ramban (Shemot 20:2) explicitly requires both knowledge and belief ("sheyeideu ve-sheyaaminu"). The knowledge-belief implicit in this mitzvah must redefine man's purpose.

This intense and multifaceted notion of emunah stems from the earliest sources in Jewish history. The term emunah first surfaces in connection with the Avraham Avinu, the father of the Jewish nation. It is surely significant that Avraham's pivotal theoretical odyssey in which he discovers monotheism goes undocumented in the Torah. The term emunah appears only in the context of Avraham's perspective on belief in the face of serious challenges and only after he has already established himself as a quintessential oved Hashem. When Hashem reaffirms that Avraham's legacy will be secured by his progeny even as impending fatherhood seemed inconceivable, the Torah informs us that Avraham exhibited extraordinary emunah - "ve-he-emin ba-Hashem vayachsheveha le-tzedakah" (Bereishit 15:6).

Rashi and other mefarshim interpret that Hashem was impressed with Avraham's extraordinary emunah, considering it a tzedakah. What was so singular about this particular act of belief? Had not Avraham previously established his credentials as a man of faith and belief (see Radak 15:3,6)? The Ramban dismisses Rashi's reading because Avraham was already a recognized prophet. Moreover, if he was willing to sacrifice his only and beloved son as an act of faith, why does his acceptance of good tidings constitute his quintessential belief moment? Rashi seems to address this question when he comments that Avraham did not ask for a confirming sign. The Radak and Seforno add that Avraham's absolute conviction was unique. This sense of unwavering certainty was especially significant given the near impossibility of the task. Rav Hirsch (Bereishit 15:6) notes the difference between "emunah ba - belief in" which implies a depth of conviction and "emunah la" (see Shemot 4:1) which can be more limited and tentative. Perhaps this usage also accentuates that the faith exhibited relates not merely to a particular promise or aspiration but to the totality of the relationship with Hashem.

One might further explain that Avraham was commended in this case precisely for the depth and profundity of his belief, not merely his responsiveness. This particular achievement was one of pure emunah-belief rather than bitachon-reliance. In describing Avraham's performance in the akeidah, the Torah underscores his yirat Shamayim ("attah yadati ki yerei Elokim atah…"), not his belief or faith (although these were obviously a sine qua non, as well). In this respect, we may address the Ramban's critique. The fact that Avraham's absolute conviction was divorced from the need to motivate towards a course of action, that there was no test or need to rise to a particular challenge was singular. Absent any particular objective, Avraham simply accepted Hashem's remarkable vision of Klal Yisrael's destiny as a concrete reality. Moreover, Avraham recognized that he would never experience the total prophecy that his descendant's would proliferate, and yet he was permeated with unwavering emunah ba-Hashem that it would occur.

Avraham Avinu's special capacity for emunah was implanted in the nation. It is instructive to examine a parallel report of Klal Yisrael's emunah in the aftermath of keriat Yam Suf (Shemot 14:31). In this context, as well, the Torah reports the attainment of "vayaminu ba-Hashem". It is noteworthy that this level of emunah does not result directly from witnessing keriat ha-yam ("vayar Yisrael et ha-yad hagedolah asher asah Hashem be-Mitzrayim"), but only after the nation had fully absorbed the profound implications of this event ("vayeeriu ha-am et Hashem. Vayaameenu ba-Hashem…"). As in the case of Avraham, this emunah is not a necessary motivation for meeting a particular challenge, but stands independently as a shining moment and pivotal achievement of avodat Hashem.  Indeed, this attainment inspires the shirah that follows! Following the paradigm of Avraham, the themes of yirat Hashem and emunah ba-Hashem for Klal Yisrael are related, but also distinct.

Avraham Avinu's concept of emunah was foundational to his other accomplishments. Undoubtedly, his great stature in the realm of chesed-tzedakah was also shaped by his unique capacity for emunah ba-Hashem. This conclusion is supported by an alternative reading of the verse ("ve-heemin ba-Hashem va-yachshaveha le-tzedakah") according to which Avraham's emunah was consequential to his tzedakah.

Although the Torah does not document Avraham's initial discovery of Hashem's existence, the subsequent description of his character and actions proves that the experience was spiritually transforming. The overflowing love for Hashem that motivated Avraham to seek to inspire others to embrace a life of avodat Hashem (see Sefer ha-Mitzvot, aseh 3) evidently had its source in this intense emunah experience. When Avraham accepts Hashem's reassurance about the immediate and distant future with total conviction, perhaps his impressive specific act of belief-faith also triggers a retrospective appreciative acknowledgement of his initial and broader emunah quest, as well. "Ve-heemin ba-Hashem va-yachsheveha le-tzedakah" may then refer also to Avraham's original achievement. This approach to emunah that integrates knowledge and faith was exhibited by Klal Yisrael prior to the shirat ha-yam, is articulated in the first of the ten commandments, and is codified by the Rambam as the first and foundational mitzvah of the Torah.

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