The Power of Faith | Congregation Beth Am

The Power of Faith

By Aleda Longwell on
January 25, 2019

In our Confirmation Class—much as in life—we learned about some fundamental Jewish concepts, and then would wrestle to better understand the complexities inherent in each of them.  What I especially appreciated about each of our sessions together, was that no single concept had a single truth or understanding.  Judaism gives us a wide spectrum of possible beliefs.

The spiritual path of faith  -- in Hebrew, Emunah -- was one which deeply touched me. I have lived a good deal of my life trying to better understand this concept and how it applies to life in general, to relationships with other people, and to God. What really does it mean, to have faith—in God, or in another person, or in anything?  We discussed this in great detail in our class; and what we learned together is that there is never just one definition or belief system that applies to everyone. Our understanding of faith is truly a journey, or a lifelong path, and it changes as we go through the different stages of life. It may change especially when we face challenges in life.

Faith – and the struggle with faith – has always been a big part of my life. I can recall growing up as a young girl in the Ukranian Orthodox Church with my Mom’s side of the family, alternating weekends with the Catholic teachings of my Dad’s upbringing.  While different, the two religions espoused many of the same teachings about God and faith. I was taught to believe that if one did something wrong, it would be followed by God’s judgement—with guilt and shame—and that there would be some punishment if one would commit a “sin.” 

As a kid this was a bit chilling, as what 6 year old commits an act of “true sin”, and should ever be condemned? Aren’t we after all, each flawed? Isn’t life supposed to be about making wrong moves and mistakes, and learning from them? About bettering ourselves through missteps and failures?  I can remember fearing God almost the way I was scared of Santa Claus, who somehow was “always watching,”  and would somehow mysteriously know if I was bad or good.

These beliefs propagated in me fear and anxiety, not safety or comfort.  I knew even as a little girl that this couldn’t be right.  I remember “changing” some of the religion that I was taught in my own mind, knowing in my heart, that God was not there condemning me or judging.

I believed, even then, that if I was a good person and was honest and did right by other people, that God would be pleased.  As a young girl I developed my own belief system about what God would mean for me—and had faith that if I strived each day to be the best person I could be, even if I fell short, that God would protect me and be on my side.

Later in life, my faith –both in people and in God--would be greatly tested again.  I would have to face the death of both of my parents, at much too young an age.  These deaths left me full of painful questions and doubts. How was I supposed to go on without a Mom in my life?  Who would I talk to about boys or dating, or share stories with about other girls, or cry to when life got hard?  Who would hold me and just listen to me? Who would teach me how to parent and help me learn to become a mother myself one day? Without my Dad any longer in my life, who would I turn to for loving counsel about all of life’s big decisions? Who would walk me down the aisle if one day I was lucky enough to fall in love and get married? 

I can remember losing faith in God during this time, and for years struggling to regain some belief in Him, yearning for a greater understanding of WHY any of these things had to happen to me.  None of it made any sense: I was a good and honest person.  I had become a medical doctor and had given up much of my own life and self-care, to help and care for others.  I was tested with these challenges and questions for years, and had to find a way to see that there was a greater force working behind the scenes, that perhaps I just didn’t understand yet. 

Years would pass before I would find healing through the comfort of friends and family, ultimately falling in love, and getting married.  Here too was another test of faith, for I wound up marrying three people: my now-husband, who was a widower, and his 5 year old twins, who had lost their beloved first mother.  I went instantly from zero roommates to three; from single woman, to wife and Mom overnight.  How was I going to handle all this, I wondered?  As it turns out, both my husband and I had been severely tested by God throughout our lives, and then ended up finding a true soul mate in one another and in making our family.  I remember loving the story of Job for this reason—my husband and I had both survived horrible hardships in our lives, but both of us kept pressing forward with the faith that somehow, there would eventually be a brighter and better day.  We were both gifted with the chance of a new beginning—and I believe that only God could have made that happen. 

In our marriage and in the ensuing years we were tested as well, and faith had to play a role quite often.  Neither of us really had the blueprint of how to be good parents, and certainly I, who had lost my mom at such a young age, had no example from which to draw. 

I had to trust and believe that with God’s help I would be guided and would do just fine,  mistakes and all.  I had to have faith in the unknown, and believe that I would somehow grow into becoming a good mother, and would be able to handle the challenges of parenting my children. 

I encountered another challenge to my faith in my professional life. In my medical practice at the time, I discovered that the job I had worked so hard for and thought I had always wanted, wasn’t what it was supposed to be. I learned of other doctors in the practice who were performing unnecessary procedures and committing insurance fraud.  As the newest addition to the group this came as a great shock and surprise.  To add insult to injury, when I closely examined the financials, I discovered they were skimming money off of my earnings and were using it to pad their own paychecks and end of year bonuses.  I knew that to be true to myself, that I had to leave this job: I could not compromise my morals or ethics once I had learned of this, not even for another day.  Ultimately, I elected to leave: But I had no other job lined up prior to these discoveries.  I had to trust and believe and have faith that I would be okay and land on my feet, without knowing when or from where my next paycheck would come. 

Later, my husband would be laid off from his position, and we would restructure our household to make it work no-matter-what.  And ultimately YES, it did all work out for the greater good, I am very happy to say. Throughout this time, we had to have ultimate faith in each other, trusting that we would have each other’s backs, and that God would also have OURS. 

Through the years, I gradually have returned to a place of faith, and to a belief that God is exactly what he was to me, when I struggled with what I was taught as a young child.  I came to see that God was not passing judgment, not there to condemn me for a sin or failure, not lurking around every corner ready to deliver some harsh punishment, but a force that motivates me to become my best self.  This early understanding has been enriched by my study of Judaism.

In our Confirmation class, I discovered that the Hebrew word “emunah,” often translated as “faith,” probably means, in the Bible, something closer to “trust, loyalty or faithfulness.”  I understand Jewish faith as a basic trust that somehow or other (and with the help of loving family, devoted friends, and a supportive congregation), we can meet life’s challenges.  It means believing that we will make it through the tough times and not just the easy ones.  That we can come through difficult situations without letting them destroy us. 

As Rabbi Marder writes: “this idea—that faith is far from certainty, but means… a kind of confidence in our ability to withstand disappointment—is a very Jewish idea, and is the very definition of resilience.   It is perfectly summed up in the Exodus story—a story about facing pain and struggle, being tested in the wilderness, and eventually finding one’s way to a new and better place.”

As a Jew, I learned to develop a trust in God, and for the greater good that He might have planned for me, for my family and loved ones, knowing that it may not always make sense to me at that moment.  I learned to believe and trust that God had to be much bigger than my own small perspective, understanding that of course there was a bigger picture, to which I was not privy. 

Rabbi Marder has said: “we know that faith is the capacity to act with constancy and devotion; it is persistence and perseverance; it is the ability to withstand the challenges of the present because of one’s devotion to a greater good.”  I am working to develop those qualities in my life. That is how I understand the work of strengthening my faith.

I know that we can choose to live life without having faith, but I believe that it is a much better and richer life if we can learn to stretch and exercise this “faith muscle.”   To have the courage to conquer our own fears, and live fully, with the trust that things will be okay.  To Let Go and Let God, as it were; to step back and relinquish control of every outcome in life, to trust that things are the way they are and that they will ultimately coalesce to be for our greater good.  I know that finding a way to open up my heart to practice and refine this kind of faith is a lifelong journey  -- one which will surely change and evolve along the way.

But from what I’ve seen, life was not ever meant to be perfect or easy.  God likely never intended for it to be that way.  That is exactly what is so beautiful about living and loving and taking chances and believing – trusting that in the end, no matter what happens, you will find yourself exactly where you are supposed to be.  In both our Confirmation class and in Torah Study, we’ve discussed the assertion that: ‘God made each of us in his own image’.  If that doesn’t put the pressure on, I don’t know what does!!  In each of our own life’s journeys, may we learn to trust and have faith in that—to aim and strive to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, and to live as God would have wanted us to--and to believe that what is meant to be, is.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

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