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Shavuos

By: Rav Jonathan Morgenstern

I recently saw a movie entitled “Doubt.” It was a good movie but very disturbing. The basic plot of a clergyman having possibly molested a child is upsetting and scary enough. The added fact that throughout the entire movie you are left with this lingering sense of “doubt” regarding did he do it or not, was it a fabrication by his female colleagues or was he truly guilty of this horrific and tragic crime, made it difficult to watch.

The movie ends with this unsettling sense of uncertainty. He moves on to another Parish – perhaps to another victim, or perhaps to a clean slate and a better environment where he won’t be maligned and innocently accused of wrongdoing. While the recent track-record of the Catholic Church leads me to believe that he likely did what he was accused of doing, there is still that doubt that gnawed at me throughout the night after watching the movie.

What bothered me so much?

I think it’s the fact that, as humans, we want certainty. We like things to be clearly black or white and right or wrong. That could be why people turn to religion. There is a need for answers and solutions. We crave clear-cut, definitive guidance on where to go and what to do. This is very much in concert with Karl Marx’s description of religion as “The opiate of the masses”.

This is precisely what makes Judaism so appealing. And, this is what makes Shavuot, the Day that commemorates Matan Torah and the revelation at Sinai so important. After all, Shavuot is the day which resolves all our doubts. Shavuot is the day that God came to the Jewish People and told them who and what He is. It is the day that Hashem revealed all of His glory to mankind…or is it?


The revelation at Sinai begins with the inimitable proclamation "Anochi Hashem Elokecha Asher Hotzaiticha MeiEretz Mitzrayim” – Presumably, God tells us in this utterance “This is Who I Am.” Period! End of Story! You seemingly can’t be any more direct than “I am Hashem Your God that brought out of your Egyptian bondage”.

However, have you ever thought about why it doesn’t say “Ani Hashem?” Why does Hashem use the term “Anochi” instead?

The Mei HaShiloach (Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner) asks this question and suggests the following answer: “The letter ‘chaf’ of ‘Anochi’ is the ‘chaf of comparison’ (Chaf HaDimyon). ‘Anochi’ really means to say: ‘C’ani’ – ‘This is like Me, but this is not all me. This is not totally who I am….’" He continues to explain that the Aseret Hadibrot specifically begin with this message to tell us something very important and fundamental about our religion. Hashem is telling us from the very outset that Judaism does not and cannot claim to have all the answers.

He teaches that the prohibition against idolatry speaks to this concept as well. God warns us, “Lo Taaseh Lecha Pesel – Do not make a graven image for yourself.” The word “Pesel” means to engrave something according to perfect and specific dimensions. Rav Leiner posits that God is telling us, unequivocally, that “nothing is revealed to man completely”. We have to understand that part of the process of developing a faith relationship with God and part and parcel of the religious experience, by definition, comes with a certain measure of gray and ambiguity.

With this idea in mind, we now must conclude that not only did God not come to us on Sinai and eliminate all of our doubts but He actually came to us and created doubt! He created uncertainty. Think about how God began the Aseret HaDibrot: “Anochi Hashem – This is ME! - Well, sort of...not really...Lo Taaseh Lecha Pesel – Don’t try to simplify your lives with certainty and exactitude through idol-worship, since that is antithetical to what I want from you since I want you to be uncertain. I want you to know that not everything is as it seems.” Rabbi Herzl Hefter of Yeshivat HaMivtar, in an article in Tradition magazine explaining Rav Leiner’s teaching eloquently writes that “uncertainty is essential for religious development, allowing us to have space to grow and expand in our understanding of God”.

Even Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, asked for the full picture and the resolution of all doubts, when he begs “Show me Your Face.” Yet, God turns him down, saying, “You can only see My back and not My face.”

Why doesn’t God grant Moshe’s request? Because life is about not knowing all the answers. Life’s most intense and profound feelings emerge from a sense of the unknown.

I think that one of the most trying and difficult times of a person’s life can be when one is about to get engaged and during engagement. People often find themselves in this limbo - Is she the one, or not? Did I make the right choice? I can still back out, can’t I? Then comes the next question - “Is this the way it’s going to be the rest of my life”? Then, you put that ring on her finger underneath the Chuppah and that’s it! It’s done! The Safek is over. You finally did it! You are overwhelmed with a surge of unbridled happiness and excitement.

What is the source of this joy? What is the source of this exultation? It is largely that world of doubt that you were living in before that pivotal, defining moment under the Chuppah. It was the never-ending questions and reservations that were swirling through your head. Then, from within that abyss of confusion, you were moved to take a leap and to stop trying to exactly figure everything out. You act on your love and just believe that everything will work out okay. You accept to have faith in your relationship regardless of the squabbles and the differences that you can’t stop worrying about. Then and there, underneath that canopy, you finally decided that worry will not build a home and a family. Love will do it, faith will build it, and commitment will sustain it. That is a great source of happiness that a Chatan and Kallah experience at their wedding.

It is this kind of doubt that God wants us to feel and experience in our relationship with Him and His Torah. He wants us to have the courage to love Him and to believe in Him even when we have so many reasons not to believe in Him when things seem so cloudy and muddled with ambiguity and misgivings. This is truly what life is and was always meant to be - a series of ambiguous questions and gnawing doubts.

The entire History of the Jewish people can be characterized by this paradox: from expulsion to expulsion, from Pogrom to Pogrom, from massacre to massacre, from threats from Hamas and Hizbullah to threats from a nuclear Iran. One has to wonder: Are we really His treasured people? His “Segulah?” His “Firstborn son?” What kind of a father would treat his children this way?

There is a beautiful excerpt from a book that I recently read called “Boychiks in the Hood”. It is written by a skeptical Jew named Robert Eisenberg, who traveled around documenting life in Chassidic and Chareidi communities around the world in the 1990's. At one point in the book, he chronicles his experience in Uman (Ukraine) on Rosh HaShana, surrounded by thousands of Jewish pilgrims visiting the grave of Reb Nachman of Breslov. He writes the following account as he is standing with the assembly in prayer:

“I turn to the beginning of the book and begin to pray. During a lull, I contemplate the eighteenth-century Haidenack massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Jews in the Uman area. Then I think about the Klausenberger Rebbe, still alive in Israel, who lost all eleven of his children in the war, then promptly picked himself up and began leading services in DP camps using the beaver hat of a German soldier as shtreimel. I think about my uncle, a fourteen year-old boy who was forced to dig his own grave and then shot to death. Then I survey the scene and conclude that if I need proof of a divine presence I need look no further, and if the scene around me is insufficient, then nothing will suffice.

There are many paths to belief. The Lubavitchers will posit to secular Jews that if the sun were a few million more miles away, or if the world didn’t rotate on its axis, human life would be all but impossible. Their conclusion is that all of this is a miracle, and the existence of a divine presence therefore undeniable. This argument might give the skeptic a nudge away from agnosticism, but it is the seeming inextinguishability of the Jewish people that gives me a firm shove.”

Doubt is good for faith. Faith has the ability to transcend doubt and transform us into better Jews and better human beings.

I must say that in my time at Reishit Yerushalayim, I was taught to learn and understand and I was challenged to question, never taking any aspect of Torah, or Judaism, for that matter, for granted. I have tremendous Hakarat HaTov to all of my Rebbeim, who taught me to think for myself and develop a unique, personal relationship with Hashem and Jewish Life.

This Shavuot, may we all merit to jump into the chasm of doubt and embrace Hashem and His Holy Torah with a renewed sense of dedication, commitment, and faith. Chag Sameach.