Acquiring Emunah

The purpose of the preceding pages on this site was to identify the most common challenges to emunah and present strategies to respond to them. We hope that we’ve been successful (and if we haven’t, we expect to be hearing from you). Now, however, the real work begins. Because just removing roadblocks won’t get you to where you’re going. You’ve still got to get back in your car and drive.

How does one go about acquiring emunah?

This web site was designed with the assumption that one-size-fits-all just doesn’t work. Human history, human society and especially the human mind are vastly complex studies. Our particular relationships with each of those shape our overall emotional and intellectual profiles. In other words, the kinds of people we are and the kinds of things that will either inspire or repel us are products of our particular backgrounds.

So, how does one go about acquiring emunah? A good first step might be to explore your options. Here are some. I’m sure there are many more I haven’t thought of. Feel free to add to the collection.

Either way, here goes.

Think About God

Think about His magnificent world. Here’s how the Rambam (Yesodai HaTorah 2:2) put it:

“And what is the way to (come to) love and fear Him? When a man thinks about His works and (His) astounding and great creations and sees from them His wisdom that has no measure and no end, he will immediately love and praise and glorify (Him) and develop a great desire to know the Great Name as David said: ‘My soul thirsts for God, the Living God.’ And when (a man will) think about these things he will immediately fall backwards and (experience) fear and realize that he is a tiny and lowly creature existing with poor and weak understanding before the Perfect Knowledge. As David said ‘I see Your heavens, the works of Your fingers, what is man that he should be remembered.'”

Get a sense of the incredible complexity and power of both the micro-universe (the biological world, for instance) and the macro-universe (the cosmos). “Raise your eyes to the heights and see, Who created this? The One Who brings out the heavenly hosts each by their number…” (Yeshaya 40:26).

Not only think about Him. Talk to Him too (just make sure there’s no one around listening in). Thank Him regularly for the things that go well in your life: healthy, happy families, financial stability, life itself. Humbly beg Him for the things you need; even small things.

Think About the Totality of Torah

Rabbi Aharon Feldman once wrote about the moment in his youth when he formally decided to remain frum (many of his generation didn’t) and to embark on a lifelong pursuit of Torah. He was reading the Vilna Gaon’s introduction to Shir HaShirim and was overwhelmed by the labyrinthine connections. The Gaon had skillfully mapped so many seemingly unrelated Torah sources into his explanation…something this complex simply had to be true.

Years later, while speaking with the renowned baal teshuva, Uri Zohar, he asked what it had been, during the long year in which he reassessed his religious position, that made the difference. Rabbi Zohar replied: the Gaon’s introduction to Shir HaShirim!

I’m not sure that the Gaon’s introduction would have done it for me. But I am familiar with that feeling of majestic awe that accompanies contemplation of the enormity of Torah. For me it’s sometimes the sheer scope of the Talmud that comes briefly into focus after having worked for hours to uncover the meaning buried in even a tiny fragment of a phrase: if that is what’s needed to figure out these few words, how could I possibly even visualize the entire wisdom that the whole recorded Talmud must contain? And that’s not even all there is to the Oral Torah! How could these laws and principles possibly have been created by human hands?

Many people sense something similar in the works of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch. Here is a clear and coherent system that intelligently draws together absolutely everything in God’s Torah and builds a comprehensive and practical system for Jewish life in the real world. It’s accessible, but you don’t feel that you’re getting a watered down version. Nothing’s left out. Here too, it’s all too big and internally consistent to be human (I don’t mean R’ Hirsch – he’s quite human…but the Torah he is describing is Divine).

Mesilas Yesharim, in his powerful description of the Torah’s responsibilities, can also inspire the awe of standing before something great and ethereal.

Another path to the same goal: Sefer Niflaos M’Toras HaShem was described by Rabbi Aharon Kotler as a gateway to emunah in his generation. Written in the late Nineteenth Century by a Warsaw businessman (ok, he was also a graduate of the Volozhiner yeshiva), it demonstrates how countless predictions and subtly suggestive textual nuances were dramatically actualized by events recorded later in the Tanach. You have to see it to believe it. And that, fortunately, won’t be at all difficult, as good scans of both volumes are available for free download at, here and here.

These aren’t things you can pick up at the supermarket and bring home for supper. They require quite an investment of time and effort. But they’re free and anxiously waiting for you. Get to it.

Think About One Specific Aspect of Torah

During a private conversation with a group of high-school-aged girls, I suggested that one could grow significantly in Torah by adopting a mitzvah. At the time, I didn’t have a well-developed example to demonstrate my point. Some time later, though, I wrote this to fill the gap:

We spoke about “adopting a mitzvah” – about choosing one mitzvah which you’ll first learn about, prepare for and (to the best of your ability) commit to trying very hard to keep it no matter what stands in the way and no matter how embarrassing it might get.

Let’s first look at mitzvos in general. The Mesilas Yesharim writes that we’re in this world to develop specific personality qualities. We’ll need these qualities to fully enjoy the warm closeness of the Divine Presence in the next world (because even without sins, an unrefined, coarse soul will simply be unable to enjoy God’s closeness just as the inability to read will prevent the enjoyment of a book). The tools for creating these qualities, writes Rabbi Luzzato, are the mitzvos of the Torah. Now, obviously, each mitzvah has to deeply affect us – change us – or else what difference will it make?

As an example, let’s try mezuza. How can mezuza make us different (besides changing the shape of your thumb upon being struck by the hammer while putting one up)?

I think it’s obvious that the real mitzvah of mezuza only begins with the last hammer blow (or application of two-sided tape). Of course it’s worthwhile ensuring that your mezuzos are kosher (and properly attached), but even that’s only an introduction, a means to an end. So what’s it really all about?

Every time you walk into or out of your house or room, you have an opportunity to think about what’s written there (the first two paragraphs of Shema, by the way) and how it can influence you deep inside: the message includes the ideas that there’s one God, He’s all powerful, we must love Him and serve him with all our hearts and soul, etc., etc., etc.

But isn’t all of that already included in the separate mitzvah of the Shema: what’s special about a mezuza? I think we should examine the way this message is delivered.

Here’s what R’ S.R. Hirsch (Devarim. 6:9) says. When we think about a mezuza (especially, from time to time, as we walk past one) we should think of the way it was created. It must be written l’shma, that is, while the scribe is fully conscious of the words’ meanings – his entire concentration is focused on nothing else. It must be written by someone who is personally obligated in the mitzvah (not as some theoretical exercise, but out of personal conviction). The production of the mezuza (as with all mitzvah objects) must be as attractive as possible. In addition to that, a mezuza requires “kesiva tama” – an added level of accuracy and perfection so that, for instance, all the letters are clearly formed and none overlaps its neighbor.

Why? What difference does it all make? Can’t it be read in any case (and who’s going to actually read a mezuza anyway)?

Here, in paraphrased form, is how R’ Hirsch answers. When we think about the high level of concentrated effort required to create a kosher mezuza, we should realize that we must similarly commit ourselves to intelligently absorbing its ideals. Not as a mindless automaton or with half a heart, but with minds and feelings fired by the same sense of intense devotion and precision with which the mezuza was first created.

Mezuza, then, is the manner by which we are to carry out those ideals taught by the Shema.

But isn’t the mezuza really there to protect our homes and health? Ok. Perhaps it does that too, but that’s not the main point.

If it were all about protection, we’d probably have been told to wear mezuzos on our bodies (as a kind of amulet). Instead, observes R’ Hirsch, they’re placed on our buildings. But not on all of our buildings: only on those within which we’re active (as opposed to empty, unused space) and which are fully usable as homes (as opposed to undersized or roofless rooms).

This suggests that it’s not the space – the property – that is to be the subject of this mitzvah, but the normal home and work activities taking place inside. From the moment we first approach the threshold of our homes, we are, therefore, to try to infuse full enthusiasm and loving devotion before God into our eating and sleeping, our working and playing, the way we interact with our families, indeed, into every conscious moment.

Pause and think this way upon passing a mezuza even once a day, and see if you don’t gradually change the way you think about God!

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