Sunday, February 08, 2009

Responding to Crises with Emunah

How we react to difficult situations helps define who we are as people and what our ultimate priorities are. As we face now one of the worst financial crises in two generations, it is worth pausing to think about the best ways to respond.

I. Defeating Amalek

During the battle with Amalek, Moshe was on a mountain, raising his hands while the battle took place. After a while, his hands grew tired. The Torah tells us (Ex. 17:12):

וידי משה כבדים ויקחו אבן וישימו תחתיו וישב עליה ואהרן וחור תמכו בידיו מזה אחד ומזה אחד ויהי ידיו אמונה עד בא השמש.
But Moses' hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aharon and Chur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were emunah until the going down of the sun.
The word "emunah" is unclear. We are used to it meaning "faith" or "belief" but that does not make sense in the current context. Commentators generally have four ways of understanding it, and, if I am permitted some broad homiletical license, I see these four as being guides to useful responses to crises.

Click here to read moreII. Pray In Times Of Need

Targum Onkelos and Rashi explain that Moshe had his hands raised in faithful prayer. This is certainly an appropriate way to respond to a crisis, financial or otherwise. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ta'aniyos 1:1) writes that whenever there is a trouble that comes upon the community, there is a special mitzvah to cry out in prayer to God. He is the source of our salvation and our comfort, and prayer is our way of communicating with Him. While this explanation of the verse is somewhat difficult from a peshat perspective, the lesson can still be applied to those facing difficult situations: pray.

III. Do Not Waver

Ibn Ezra offers two explanations. The first is that "emunah" here means strong and steady, as it does in a number of places in the Bible. This is the most widely accepted explanation, adopted by the Ramban and Rashbam in their commentaries, Radak and R. Yonah ibn Janach in their respective Sefer Ha-Shorashim, and most modern commentators and English translations. The lesson I see here is that in response to crisis we should not waver. We cannot afford to give in to depression or otherwise slip in our practices and attitudes. It is easy to have faith when times are good. It's when times are tough that you need your faith most but it is the hardest to find. You can't waver; you can't let it slip.

IV. Growth Through Overcoming Difficulty

The Ibn Ezra's second explanation is that "emunah" is related to "omen" in Esther 2:7: "ויהי אמן את הדסה - And Mordechai had brought up (omen) Hadassah". Ibn Ezra continues to explain this, and the footnote in the Mossad Ha-Rav Kook edition expands upon it, that in our context the word means that Moshe's arms learned how to hold themselves up. In other words, they became self-sustaining. While Moshe initially needed help from Aharon and Chur, his arms became self-sustaining. The lesson I see here for dealing with a crisis is that it is even possible to grow from challenges and to become stronger.

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Al Ha-Teshuvah, pp. 169-187) discusses two approaches to repenting from a sinful past. One is to essentially erase the sinful times from your memory. For some people, this means that they revert back to the way they were decades earlier, before they started sinning. The other way is to take your sins and build upon them to become stronger; to recognize the distance you once had from God and how spiritually alone you were, and to use that as an inspiration to become closer to God.

Just like you can use a sinful past to become closer to God, you can also use other types of crises to become closer to God. You can see how, in the past, you did not rely on God enough and now you can realize how you always need to rely on Him. Or you can see better how blessed you have been and how much God has given to you. There are many ways to take your personal trials and turn them into opportunities for growth, to become more self-sustaining.

V. Reach Out To Others In Need

Abarbanel suggests an explanation that was later adopted by the Malbim and Netziv. According to this approach, Moshe's hands were a source of emunah (faith) to the people on the battlefield who looked up and saw them. In times of communal crisis, we have to look beyond our own pain and recognize that the people around us are also hurting. Even if we can't solve our own problems, we can comfort others and strengthen their resolves. Your own misfortune might even give you an added ability to do a chesed to others through commiseration.

This past Shabbos, there was an appeal to establish local funds for unemployed workers, sponsored by the OU, RCA, NCYI and Agugath Israel (link). This is an important effort, especially since the local needy should take a high priority in your charity giving. However, we should add to that financial support the (appropriate and tasteful) giving of emotional support.

Just some thoughts on ways to positively react to difficult circumstances.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More