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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Ha’azinu: The Faithful God

This week’s parsha records the words of the song, or poem, that Moses recited on the very last day of his life. Moses has been commanded directly by God, at the end of last week’s parsha to write this poem, and to teach it to the people.

The language of Ha’azinu is beautiful, but it can be very difficult to penetrate. Briefly put: the poem tells a truncated history of the Jewish people; it foresees a time in which Israel will forget its mission, as it becomes blinded by its own affluence; it foresees the calamities that will befall this wayward people, but it also foresees a final reconciliation between God and Israel.

In this post, I want to focus on one verse of this poem, as it refracts through the prism of Midrash into a number of messages that are especially pertinent to the beginning of the Jewish year (which is when this parsha is always read).

The verse is extremely well known:

The Rock! — perfect is His work, for all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false, righteous and just is He.

One of my favourite Midrashim offers two very different readings of this verse. The hinge upon which the two readings turn is the phrase “a faithful God” – in Hebrew אל אמונה. The English word, “faithful” carries exactly the same ambiguity that the Midrash seizes upon in the Hebrew.

A person could be described as faithful because she has faith. For example, the community of the faithful are the community of believers (although, as I’ll argue later on, that’s not quite right because faith and belief aren’t exactly the same thing; but still, the idea is that you can be called faithful because you have faith). On the other hand, a person could be described as faithful because she is trustworthy. In other words, she is worthy of our having faith in her.

It would be less surprising to find the Rabbis reading our verse in terms of God’s being worthy of faith. God is trustworthy. God is just. God is reliable. It would perhaps be more surprising to find the Rabbis reading our verse in terms of God’s having faith in others.

Is it possible for God to have faith? You might think that faith, unlike belief, requires uncertainty, or doubt. You might think that faith falls short of knowledge. An all-knowing being, like God, would have no room for faith. Or so you might think. But our Midrash offers both readings.

The first reading begins with a play on words. The verse calls God “The rock” – the Hebrew word for rock, tzur, sounds like the Hebrew word for artist, tzayar; which is related to the verb used to describe God’s forming mankind in the book of Genesis. And so, where the verse says, “The rock”, the Midrash hears “The artist”:

The rock”: The artist (hatzayar). He formed (tzar) the world first, and then he formed (tzar) mankind, as it is said, “And the Lord God formed man” (Genesis 2:7). Perfect is His work”: His work is complete regarding all that come into the world, and there’s no room to question his attributes, even to change a minor detail [of His creative work]. And not one of them should look, and say, “If only I had three eyes, if only I had three hands, if only I had three legs, if only I could walk on my head, if only my face faced backwards, how nice it would be!”

Note what’s happening here. By relating to God as the creator, our reading of the verse hears the words, “perfect is His work” as a reference to God’s work as a creator; to His design plan. It’s also interesting to note the complaints that are dismissed. It is the general design plan for the species which is perfect. We have two arms, and we’re not to ask for three. But, implicitly, you might think, the Midrash is leaving room for the legitimate complaints of people whose bodies don’t live up to that plan. The Midrash doesn’t dismiss the complaint of a person with one arm, wishing she had two.

Having set the verse up as a verse about God the creator, the Midrash continues to relate to the later clauses of the verse, wherever possible, in the same terms, in terms of God the creator:

for all of His ways are justice”: He sits in judgment with everyone and gives each what he deserves. a faithful God”: He had faith in the world and created it. never false”: He did not create men to be wicked, but to be righteous, as it is written, “God made man just, but they sought many devices” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Righteous and just is He”: He deals justly with all who come into the world.

You’ll notice that “all His ways are justice” pushes us towards relating to God, not in His capacity as a creator, but in His capacity as a ruler and judge. But that clause is the one exception. God’s “never being false” is cashed out in terms of His design for the world containing no moral evil. He didn’t create humans to be wicked. To the extent that we are, that’s our fault!

This is just a truncated form of the free will defense according to which the evil that we find in the world (or at least, a good amount of it) is no indictment on God’s goodness or power; it’s there because God granted us free will, and the price of that gift is that we can misuse it.

Even God’s “righteousness and justice”, at the end of the verse, is channeled into His work as the creator. He created a world, and He manifests His moral perfection in how he treats those who come into it.

And, it’s in this context, taking the verse as a verse about God the creator, in which God’s faithfulness is read as His having faith. In a nutshell, the idea is that God’s very creation was an act of faith.

But what of our questions regarding God and faith? Can an all-knowing God have faith? Doesn’t faith require uncertainty?

One way to respond to these questions would be to circle back to the free will defense, which the Midrash already seems to have endorsed. A number of theologians have argued that if God was really serious about giving us free will then a direct consequence would be that the future would be left somewhat in the dark, even for God.

Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (otherwise known as the Ralbag or Gersonides), for example, argued that if we have free will, then the future isn’t written yet. It is up to us to write it. And, because it isn’t written yet, God can’t look into it to see what happens there. To be more specific, God can’t see those parts of the future that have been left either to chance or to our free will, but He can see those parts of the future which have already been settled, by either the laws of nature or logic. According to the Ralbag, this doesn’t undermine God’s omniscience. God knows all things that are. The future, by contrast, isn’t – or it isn’t yet.

On this theory, when God created the world, and decided to give human beings free will, He couldn’t know exactly how things would turn out. He has unlimited power; so, at any time that He wants to, He can interfere. He can guarantee, through His prophets, for example, that a messiah will come, because He can make it happen. But He can’t guarantee that any free person will ever act as she should. If He could guarantee that, then, according to the Ralbag, the person wouldn’t be free.

If the Midrash, with its talk of human freedom adopts this view, then it’s very clear in what sense the creation was an act of faith. God couldn’t know that humanity would make the most of their free will, but he created us anyway, and every day in which we’re still here; every day in which He renews His creation, He demonstrates a faith that we will one day be worthy of redemption.

But, as a matter of fact, I don’t think that faith requires uncertainty at all. This isn’t the place for a thorough examination of the relationship between faith and belief (a distinction which isn’t at all easy to draw in Hebrew because one would most naturally use the word אמונה for both belief and faith). But I’ll say this much about what I think faith is.

You can’t have faith in something if you think it couldn’t possibly be true. You can’t have faith that one day pigs will fly if you think it impossible. You can’t have faith in democracy if you think it could never bring about even minimally acceptable results. So, there’s something like a requirement for a minimal degree of confidence. You have to think, at the very least, that the object of your faith is possibly true (if you have faith that something is true) or that it will possibly come through (if you have faith that something will turn out for the best).

That minimal degree of confidence explains why faith is compatible with doubt. You don’t have to be certain that something is true in order to have faith that it is. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that you have to believe that something is true in order to have faith that it is. Instead, you need to think that it’s a possibility.

What’s really distinctive about faith, however, has nothing to do with truth and falsity. It has to do with value and with your emotional life. You can believe that something is true without thinking that it’s a good thing for the world, and without wanting it to be true for yourself. But it’s very odd to say that you have faith that something is true without thinking that it would be good for the world were it true, and without wanting it to be true for yourself.

Nothing we’ve said here rules out that a person can have faith and certainty at the same time. We’ve said that certainty isn’t required, but why should we think that certainty undermines faith? Surely, it would only strengthen it!

It would sound very odd to say that you faith that a certain mathematical theorem is true. I know. But think about it. What if you were the mathematician that had proven the theorem? At that point, its truth, even if you’re completely certain about it, becomes a very personal matter. If, per impossible, it were disproven, it would be hugely detrimental to your reputation. You might have to hand back millions of pounds worth of prize money. In that sort of case, I don’t think it odd at all to say that you don’t merely believe the theorem with certainty; you also have faith that its true.

Accordingly, God can have faith in us even if He knows our futures with certainty. All it really means for God to have faith in us is for Him to be invested in our flourishing; to be invested in our one day becoming worthy of redemption. And even if He is certain that we will, because He has seen the end of days with crystal clear clarity, His attitude is still an attitude of faith, because He is invested.

Now for the second reading of our verse, in the same Midrash:

Alternatively: The Rock”: the Resolute. Perfect is His work”: His work is complete regarding all that come into the world, and there is no room to question His attributes, even [regarding] the slightest change. No one of them should look and say, “What did the people of the generation of the flood see that brought the deluge upon them? What did the people of the Tower [of Babel] see that caused them to be scattered from one end of the world to the other? What did the men of Sodom and Amorah see to be swept away by fire and brimstone? What did Aaron see that accorded him the priesthood? What did David see that accorded him the crown? What did Koraḥ and his congregation see to be swallowed up by the earth?”

Once you refuse to enter into word games in order to link God’s being “the rock” to His being an artist, the entire verse receives a different focus. We’re no longer talking about God’s activity as a creator. We’re talking about His activity as a ruler of the word, and most prominently, as its Judge. When we’re told that His works are perfect, in this context, we’re being told about His execution of justice. It might not always seem fair to us, but we don’t see the full picture.

Indeed, a horrifying part of the same Midrash, recounts the following story:

They said to [R. Ḥanina son of Teradyon]: It was decreed upon you [by the Romans] to be burned together with your Torah scroll — whereupon he recited, “The Rock, perfect is His work.” They said to his wife: It was decreed upon your husband to be burned together with his Torah scroll, and upon you to be executed — whereupon she recited, “He is faithful God, without wrong.” They said to his daughter: It was decreed upon your father to be burned together with his Torah scroll, upon your mother to be executed, and upon you to serve them [as a slave] — whereupon she recited, “Great in counsel and mighty in deed, Your eyes are open to all the ways of men to give to a man according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 32:19).

We don’t always understand God’s ways. But those of faith have faith that God is faithful. We have faith that He is trustworthy. We have faith that in the world to come, all the apparent injustices of this world will be redressed. The Midrash continues its reading of our verse:

For all of His works are justice”: He sits in judgment with everyone and gives him what he deserves. a faithful G-d”: trustworthy with a deposit. without wrong”: claiming what is His in the end. For His character is not the character of flesh and blood. The character of flesh and blood [is as follows]. If one deposits two hundred [coins] with his neighbor, but owes him one hundred, when he comes to claim his deposit, the neighbor will say, “Deduct the one hundred that you owe me and here is the rest.” But He who spoke and brought the world into being is not so; but He is “a faithful G-d without wrong” — He claims what is His in the end. Righteous and just is He”: as it is written, “For the Lord is righteous and loves righteousness” (Psalms 11:7).

The difference between the character of God and the character of flesh and blood, here, is a little difficult to parse. I find it helpful to turn to a different Midrash, in order to unpick this one. Midrash Tehillim is a collection of Midrashim on the book of Psalms. It says:

Rabbi Alexandri said: a person of flesh and blood deposits brand new [coins] into the hands of another, and he returns decayed and worn out [coins]. But the holy One, blessed be He [is different]. We deposit worn out decaying [items] with him, and he returns them renewed. Know that this is so. For the worker works all day and his soul tires upon him and is worn out. He goes to sleep and he pays his soul to the holy One, blessed be He, and deposits it with Him. In the morning it is returned to his body healthy and renewed, as it is said “They are renewed each morning; great is you faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23).

We owe an infinite debt to God. But even so, we entrust our souls to Him each night, as we go to sleep. For His part, He doesn’t detract what we owe to Him, but gives our soul back each morning. And, in the end of days, He will resurrect the dead. He can be trusted with our souls; and He won’t deduct from them that which we owe to Him. On the contrary, He will return our souls, each morning, and in the end of days, in a better state than they were when we deposited them.

And so, the Jew says each morning, as she awakes:

I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; “great is your faithfulness”!

What we’ve seen, with our two readings of our verse from Ha’azinu is that God can be said to demonstrate two forms of faithfulness. He has faith in us, and He is worthy of our faith in Him. He demonstrates His faith in us by creating and sustaining the world in being. He demonstrates His trustworthiness in judging us fairly – and even if we don’t always see the equity of His judgements, we have faith that we will.

What’s noteworthy about this two-fold faithfulness is that it corresponds directly to the two most central notions of Rosh Hashana. The day is a day of judgement. It is also the anniversary of the creation of the universe. And thus we can recite the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with new found conviction when it says:

וְכֹל מַאֲמִינִים שֶׁהוּא אֵל אֱמוּנָה

It could be translated as “everyone believes that He is a faithful God”. Perhaps you don’t believe it. Perhaps you carry legitimate doubts and grievances. But you can at least have faith. You recognise that it’s possible that justice will somehow prevail. You see that it would be good for the world. You want it for yourself. Therefore, you have faith. And in fact, that’s the better translation: “everyone has faith that He is a faithful God” – and we do.

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