A wise man once said that "Pain shrinks the world." One who is experiencing the acute pain of a toothache, for example, is not capable of relating to anything except the alleviation of that pain.
NASA could land a man on Mars and he could care less. For many, our lives are perceived as trying to avoid one adversity or pain one after another. Indeed, the opposite of pain would be pleasure, and, inasmuch as the species homo sapiens has a proclivity to pursue "paths of least resistance", experiencing bliss or nirvana is everybody's innate goal.
How, then, do we comprehend and reckon with tragedy and suffering? It is important to understand that the greatest challenge to a person's faith in God is when things are not going the way we expect them to. The historical course of national Jewish tragedies is enough to convince even the skeptic that our people have been dealt a hand disproportionate to that of the other peoples of the world. Nothing has gone the way we would have liked it. We have become agitated and perplexed in one way or the other. In fact, this phenomenon compelled one of our great prophets to proclaim about us, "Behold, his soul is defiant; it is unsettled in him…But a righteous person shall live through his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).
Tradition records a dramatic confrontation of sorts that occurred between the angels and the Almighty while one of the greatest sages of Israel was being gruesomely executed at the hands of the Romans 2000 years ago. The angels asked, "This is Torah and this is its reward?" In response, a voice was heard to say, "If I hear more, I will turn the entire world back into its original nothingness." What is the meaning of this enigmatic passage and how does it affect our understanding of faith?
One of the most famous Eastern European scholars of the 18th century The Vilna Gaon drew the following parable in explanation to this and other tragedies. There once was a wealthy man, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, wanted a suit custom made. He purchased the finest material and brought it to a fabulously talented tailor. After dictating to the tailor specific instructions, he went on his merry way leaving the tailor to his craft. When it was time to pick up the finished product, he found a stunning work of art in his new garment. "And where," he asked, "is the rest of the material?" The patient tailor merely smiled and said, "There is no more, it was all used to make the suit."
The man stared at the tailor incredulously. "So much material for such a small suit?" The tailor responded by taking the suit and slowly unraveling it stitch by stitch, thread by thread, until it was completely taken apart. When he had finished, it was clear to the wealthy, yet simple fellow, that the tailor was indeed correct. "But why," asked the confounded man, "did your have to unravel it?" "I had no choice," answered the tailor, "for otherwise you would not have been able to comprehend. You had to witness firsthand the entire undoing of your new suit in order to understand the procedure."
In a similar vein did the Almighty respond to the Angelic Beings. God, in essence was saying, "You cannot understand My thoughts." In order to perceive the master plan you would have to see the entire history of mankind unfold from the beginning of time. Such it is with faith. We cannot see the whole picture from our vantage point. As the aphorism attributed to the 10th century Rabbi Saadia Gaon states, "Were I to know Him, I would be Him." The ultimate essence of God, also known in Kabbalistic literature as the "Ain Sof" (lit. Without Limit), is totally incomprehensible to man. Expressing faith with the knowledge that no bit of suffering is without purpose, or is not duly noted On High, has sustained many through the tumultuous course of Jewish history.
Having outlined the "negative' expression of faith, we will now illustrate the other more "positive" facets of this attribute. The Hebrew equivalent of faith is "Emunah." In fact, the word has four meanings and they all form keys to spiritual health. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg, Director of the Gal Enai Institute in Israel and a noted Kabbalist explains their meaning and relevance to us today:
Four Dimensions of Faith
Emunah: Strength, Faith, Nurturing and Creativity
The force of Emunah, "faith" or "belief" plays an essential role in determining one's psychological well-being. In fact, when properly considered, it serves as a background against which all psychic striving can be understood. Just as the physical body returns to the earth from which it was formed, so too does the soul proceed toward ultimately re-uniting with the Divine source from which it was conceived. At any particular time, one's psychological state can be seen as a reflection of how that process is progressing.
In the Sefer Hashorashim of the Radak, a classic work on Biblical Hebrew grammar, the root of the word emunah is described as possessing four distinct, yet inter-related, meanings:
1. "Strength", as in Isaiah 25:1: 'Hashem, You are my Lord; I will exalt You, I will acknowledge Your Name; for You have wrought wonders - ancient counsels of exceeding strength'. The 'strength' referred to in this verse is meant to express God's steadfast faithfulness in carrying out His promises of old.
2. "Faith", as in Devarim 32:20: 'children who are un-possessed of faith'. Rashi expounds upon the verse thusly: 'The effort I invested in raising them is not recognizable' - indicating that faith should be a consequence of proper nurturing.
3. "Nurturing", as in The Book of Esther 2:7: 'And behold he (Mordechai)cared for and raised Haddasah'. The role of nurturer is predicated upon the use of one's own faith as a basis for providing consistent and reliable support for another.
4. "Creativity", as in Song of Songs 7:2: 'the handiwork of an artist.' The quality of one's creative output can be seen as an indication of one's state of emunah. This implies the usefulness of creative activity as a tool for the rehabilitation of damaged faith. This last dimension of faith, the creative aspect deduced from the verse "the handiwork of an artist", will help us understand the connection between emunah and the achievement of health… To wit, the best way to build our reserves of faith is to take tangible measures to develop it. As the famous Chassidic adage goes, "The external (action) arouses the inner (soul) being."
If we wish to engender greater faith in God we must strive to act in such a fashion. Utilizing our creative talent to demonstrate appreciation for the astounding beauty of nature is one of the best tools to bring a person to contemplate and to exclaim, "Wow, look Who created all this!" In other words, where there is great design there must be a great designer behind it.