5756 - #9

The Meaning of Emunah

The movement of growth is generally methodical, incremental, effected over large periods of time; to grow demands effort and work. Yet, in our paths of growth, we can, many times, identify a specific point of change, a second within our own existence when our perceptions transformed, and growth, change, movement and understanding - within their fullest sense - became possible. Archimedes' eureka and Newton's apple were such points in the development of Mankind's understanding of the scientific world. Rosa Park's desire to sit on the bus was this seminal point in the development of American civil rights. And for the Jewish people this point was Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea.

The destruction of the Egyptian army in the Sea was the final act of freeing the Jewish nation. "And G-d saved Israel on this day from the hand of Egypt..."[1] It was only at the conclusion of this act, as the Jewish people saw the power of G-d unleashed against Egypt in the final act of redemption, that Israel responded in song. Az yashir Moshe[2], only then, at the completion of the redemption could, and did, the Jewish nation break into a song of thanksgiving. Yet, we are told that there was an intermediate step; full redemption did not lead directly into song. Vayaminu b'Hashem u'Moshe avdo, "and they believed in G-d and Moshe His servant."[3] What the Jewish people saw at Yam Suf led to emunah, generally translated as belief, which in turn led to the shira, the song of Az yashir. It was that understanding of emunah, that recognition of reality, that transformed our nation.

To translate emunah as "believe in" does not truly reflect the essence of this word. The Oxford Dictionary defines "believe in" as "to have faith in the existence of; to feel sure of the value or worth of". Are we thus informed, by the verse, that, at this seminal point in Jewish history, the Jewish people now "had faith in the existence of G-d and Moshe His servant" or now "felt sure of the value or worth of G-d and Moshe His servant"? Both these approaches would seem to be problematic. Did they previously doubt the existence of Moshe? Are we to "believe in" Moshe? Are we to understand emunah as an evaluative word explaining that the Jewish people now were sure of G-d's value or worth? Emunah does not mean simply "believe in". What, though, does it mean?

One approach within the commentators is to view this verse as informing us that, only subsequent to the splitting of the Sea, did the Jewish people understand and accept a specific concept. Ibn Ezra, for example, explains the emunah in Moshe as the recognition that Moshe was indeed the servant of Hashem and did only that which he was commanded. In a similar vein, the Ntziv explains that it was only at this point in time that the Jewish people fully accepted that everything that occurred was from G-d and not through some extra-ordinary magical power of Moshe.[4] Yet the verse does not state that the Jewish people now accepted some idea but rather that they had emunah in Hashem and Moshe avdo.

Other commentators, such as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Rashbam, perceive emunah as indicating trust. The Jewish nation now fully trusted in Hashem and Moshe His servant. Yet, what was the nature and significance of this trust in that the shira was later followed by the nation's attack and challenge: Were we brought to the desert to die of hunger?[5]

During my tenure teaching High School, I asked one of my classes how we received the Torah. The hands flew up in response to this most simple of questions. The class, in fact, consisted mostly of non-observant students who had attended traditional day schools. I chose one of thesestudents who immediately responded that we received the Torah from Hashem at Sinai. I verified that the student accepted this fact as correct. I then asked the student - not as a point of attack but for clarification - why he does not listen to Hashem. The student was perplexed. I informed him that the Torah clearly states that one should not eat pork, yet I knew that the student eats it. The student answered with a question of how did he know that this prohibition came from G-d. I responded with the fact that the student himself told me this fact. I informed the class that there are really two types of knowledge - one that we really bear external to our being and one that is internal. We may know something, accept this idea as true, but it does not necessarily change us. There is, though, another type of knowledge that when it is confronted necessarily must affect us, change us. This does not arise from the knowledge itself but from our response to the knowledge. This internal level of knowledge is not simply a function of perception but demands from us the ability to allow knowledge to affect us, to see that how we look at the world will necessarily cause us to behave differently. This is the level of emunah.

The Jews knew Who G-d and who Moshe were before the Reed Sea. They demonstrated the acceptance of this truth when they prepared the first Pesach. Yet it was only at the Yam that they fully understood the significance of this truth, how their entire perception of life was to now change. The midrash informs us of this transformation in stating that it was at this point that Klal Yisrael received ru'ach hakodesh.[6] Emunah is not just a statement of what we believe but in belief's affect upon us.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] Shemot 14:30.

[2] Shemot 15:1.

[3] Shemot 14:31.

[4] HaEmek Davar, Shemot 14:31. It is most interesting that the Ntziv refers to the midrash that each Egyptian died in a way the befitted their sin - the more evil the individual, the more terrible the death - and not the miraculous power of the event, as the final indication that this was the "Hand of G-d".

[5] See Shemot 16:3.

[6] See Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot, 240. See also Or HaChaim, Shemot 14:31 which presents that this level of emunah incorporated yirat haromemut, the highest level of awe of Heaven.

Return to top