Written & Animated by Hanan Harchol

Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series was created with generous funding by The Covenant Foundation.

Study Guide by Rabbi Leora Kaye

How is faith an active experience? What do you have to do in order to have faith? Does faith have to be about God? How does what happens in your life affect your faith? And, really, what makes you think that the next time you reach out your hand to someone, they will shake it back?

Faith, while often used to describe religious belief, goes far beyond theology. At its core, faith is the ability to trust life while actively taking the next step. As opposed to sitting back and waiting for life to happen, we can choose to trust that life will educate us if we engage with it. Through this active engagement, faith allows us to connect to the present moment, and become a participant in creation itself.

1. Ability to Trust Life While Taking the Next Step

People often define faith as believing in something even if you have no “proof.” Hanan’s father points him in a different direction, telling him that faith is really about trusting in life and taking active steps, an idea which echoes thousands of years of Jewish thought.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935, Latvia), a prominent 20th century rabbi commonly known as Rav Kook, comments on the ability to trust life:

A man must trust in his life, must believe in his physical materialistic abilities and his moral ethical strengths together…. When a man believes in his spiritual life, he finds satisfaction with the labors of his soul, and he continually grows and ascends.

—Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot HaEmuna, Introduction

Hanan’s father speaks about the same idea:

DADDY: I never said that faith is about making sense. Faith is about trust. Faith is our ability to trust life.

  1. What does it mean when Rav Kook and Daddy say you have to “trust life?” When has that been easy for you? When has it been challenging?
  2. Like Rav Kook’s encouragement to believe in a person’s physical materialistic abilities, Daddy talks with Hanan about how believing in logic and science are not incompatible with faith. Is it easier for you to trust in concrete experiences, or more spiritual metaphysical experiences? Why do you think one feels more comfortable than the other?
  3. Does trusting in life feel unpredictable? If so, does it hold you back from being able to do so wholeheartedly? Do you feel you have grown more when you have been able to trust in life the way Daddy suggests?

Hanan asks Daddy if “trusting life” means we’re supposed to simply “let whatever happens, happen.” Daddy counters:

DADDY: No! I never said faith was passive. On the contrary! Faith is active! That’s the point! Faith is experienced through life. It’s about delving into the experience of life….Faith is our ability to trust life while taking the next step.

Judaism is an experiential religion which requires active “doing,” as opposed to simply “believing.” In order to identify as a Jew, one must engage with the mitzvot (מצבות, “commandments”), and while there are numerous ways to do so, a mitzvah is ultimately only fulfilled through action. Jewish concepts and ideas come to life through behavior. Similarly, Hanan’s father tells him that faith cannot be passive.

  1. Do you find it is more exciting or more frightening to take next steps when you have no way of knowing what the outcome will be? How often do you do so? How does taking those steps feel like faith to you?
  2. When have you “waited for something to happen,” and when have you “trusted life and taken the next step?” Which feels more comfortable to you?

2.Letting Life Educate Us

When Daddy summarizes faith as the ability to trust life while taking the next step, Hanan becomes concerned:

HANAN: But what if things don’t work out the way I want in life? How am I supposed to have faith then?

DADDY: Faith is about letting life educate US, instead of trying to solve life in terms of what we expect life should be.

Judaism is rich with teachings about embracing what life throws at you. Life experiences, whether perceived as good or bad, are all opportunities to receive, grow, and learn.

וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם מֵרָחֹק, וּמֹשֶׁה נִגַּשׁ אֶל הָעֲרָפֶל אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הָאֱלֹֹקִים (שמות כ): כִּי מִי שֶׁהוּא... וְרוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בְּדַרְכֵי הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ, אֲזַי מִדַּת הַדִּין מְקַטְרֵג עָלָיו, וְאֵינוֹ מַנִּיחַ אוֹתוֹ לֵילֵךְ בְּדַרְכֵי הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ, וּמַזְמִין לוֹ מְנִיעָה. וְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ חָפֵץ חֶסֶד הוּא, וּמַסְתִּיר אֶת עַצְמוֹ כִּבְיָכוֹל בְּהַמְּנִיעָה הַזֹּאת (עַיֵּן לְמַטָּה). וּמִי שֶׁהוּא בַּר דַּעַת, הוּא מִסְתַּכֵּל בְּהַמְּנִיעָה, וּמוֹצֵא שָׁם הַבּוֹרֵא בָּרוּךְ הוּא... וְזֶה פֵּרוּשׁ הַפָּסוּק: וַיַּעֲמֹד הָעָם מֵרָחֹק – כִּי כְּשֶׁרוֹאִין הָעֲרָפֶל, הַיְנוּ הַמְּנִיעָה כַּנַּ"ל, עוֹמְדִין מֵרָחֹק. וּמֹשֶׁה, שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינוֹת דַּעַת כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, נִגַּשׁ אֶל הָעֲרָפֶל אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הָאֱלֹקִים – הַיְנוּ אֶל הַמְּנִיעָה, שֶׁבָּהּ בְּעַצְמָהּ נִסְתָּר הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ:

Vaya’amod Ha’am Meirachok (The people kept their distance) and Moshe entered the mist where God was.” (Exodus 20:18) When a person... wants to go in the ways of God, the attribute of judgment then denounces him and prevents him from going in God’s ways. It also arranges obstacles for him. Yet, God “is one who desires kindness” (Micah 7:18) and He hides Himself, as it were, in this obstacle {see below}. Thus, someone who is wise will look at the obstacle and discover the Creator there... This is the explanation of the verse: The people kept their distance—For when they see the mist, the obstacle, they keep their distance. and Moshe—He corresponds to the daat (holy knowledge) of all Israel. entered the mist where God was—In other words, into the obstacle, which is precisely where God is hidden.

ואמאי קרו ליה נחום איש גם זו דכל מילתא דהוה סלקא ליה אמר גם זו לטובה

The Gemara inquires: And why did they call him Naḥum of Gam Zu? The reason is that with regard to any matter that occurred to him, he would say: This too is for the good [gam zu letova].

Note: Gamzu (גמזו) means “this too” in Hebrew.

  1. What happens when you try to solve life? Do you think people are more or less successful when they try to direct what happens in their lives? How does seeing something sacred in an obstacle feel different than trying to direct your life?
  2. How frustrating is it when you think you will be able to change an outcome but can’t? How does that differ from when you just “experience life,” as Daddy says?
  3. Sometimes life isn’t so easy. What do you think about Nahum of Gamzu’s way of living? How realistic is it to say that a person should see the good and the bad as equally beneficial? Can you learn from everything?
  4. What are the best things you have learned through life? How have they strengthened your ability to experience faith? What is the difference between the hard and the easy experiences?
  5. When obstacles come up in your life, how do they create opportunities to learn?

3. Faith is NOW. Connecting to and Creating the Present Moment

Ironically, while Hanan teaches Daddy about being present and the “reality of expectations” when it comes to being grateful (go watch You Can Dance, on the theme of Gratitude if you haven’t!), it is hard for Hanan to understand a similar idea when it comes to faith. He needs Daddy to clearly explain that faith is not about what happens the “next time” or what has happened in the past, it is about connecting to (and participating in creating) the present moment.

Jewish teaching is filled with the idea that the ultimate spiritual experience can only come through connection to the present moment.

אזל לגביה אמר ליה שלום עליך רבי ומורי אמר ליה שלום עליך בר ליואי א"ל לאימת אתי מר א"ל היום אתא לגבי אליהו א"ל מאי אמר לך א"ל שלום עליך בר ליואי א"ל אבטחך לך ולאבוך לעלמא דאתי א"ל שקורי קא שקר בי דאמר לי היום אתינא ולא אתא א"ל הכי אמר לך (תהלים צה, ז) היום אם בקולו תשמעו
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah. He said to the Messiah: Greetings to you, my rabbi and my teacher. The Messiah said to him: Greetings to you, bar Leva’i. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: When will the Master come? The Messiah said to him: Today. Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah. Elijah said to him: What did the Messiah say to you? He said to Elijah that the Messiah said: Greetings [shalom] to you, bar Leva’i. Elijah said to him: He thereby guaranteed that you and your father will enter the World-to-Come, as he greeted you with shalom. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: I am coming today, and he did not come. Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7).

But doesn’t religion usually teach that it is all about what happens in the future? Where I will go when I die, based on what I did while I was here? Not Judaism. Judaism doesn’t just say today is important, Judaism says it is the most important. Don’t worry about the future. Connect with the present.

וְגַם שֶׁלֹּא יִדְחֶה אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם, לֵאמֹר: מָחָר אַתְחִיל, מָחָר אֶתְפַּלֵּל בְּכַוָּנָה וּבְכֹחַ כָּרָאוּי, וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּזֶה בִּשְׁאָר הָעֲבוֹדוֹת, כִּי אֵין לְאָדָם בְּעוֹלָמוֹ כִּי אִם אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם וְאוֹתוֹ הַשָּׁעָה שֶׁעוֹמֵד בּוֹ, כִּי יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת הוּא עוֹלָם אַחֵר לְגַמְרֵי.
In addition, a person should not procrastinate from one day to the next, saying, “I’ll start tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll pray more attentively, and with the right enthusiasm”; and likewise for the other devotions. For a person’s world consists only of the present day and moment—tomorrow is a different world entirely.
  1. Why do you think Judaism places such importance on the present moment? Do you agree that faith is about being in the present moment?
  2. When do you find yourself losing the ability to stay rooted in the present? What kinds of things pull you away from being in the “now?”

Daddy also talks about how connecting to the present moment, through faith, allows us to become participants in creation itself:

DADDY: When we make a choice with faith, it’s an internal choice, a creative choice - we are actually creating the present moment, WITHOUT fear of the future or regrets about the past.

The application of this teaching is elucidated in Sichot HaRan, a compilation of texts from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772 – 1810, Ukraine), in which Rabbi Nachman illustrates how obsessing over mistakes in the past can prevent a person from creating a new life in the present:

הָרְשָׁעִים הֵם מְלֵאִים חֲרָטוֹת וְהֵם אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל מַהוּ חֲרָטָה כִּי זֶהוּ בְּעַצְמוֹ שֶׁהֵם מִתְגַּבְּרִים בְּעִנְיַן רִשְׁעָתָם, זֶהוּ בְּעַצְמוֹ חֲרָטָה כִּי מֵחֲמַת שֶׁבָּא בְּדַעְתָּם חֲרָטוֹת

...“The wicked are filled with regrets” (based on Nedarim 9b). Man’s obsession with his past errors prevents him from being free and open to the changes and his ability to correct in the present. The mistake focuses us on who we once were; and as such, it exists in our lives as a substitute for responsibility and a rejection of renewal and freedom [in our lives].

Adapted interpretation of Sichot HaRan 10 by Tali Kahana

  1. How often do past successes or failures affect your present choices? And, how often do your present choices change depending on what you think might happen in the future? Do you see any benefits to focusing on the past or future?
  2. What do you think Daddy means when he talks about “creating the present moment?” How does Rabbi Nachman’s quote strengthen the concept of “creating the present moment?”
  3. How much of what happens in your life do you think is happening “to you,” and how much are you “creating?” How does your personal concept of God fit into this balance, and how does this relate to faith?

Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series was created with generous funding by The Covenant Foundation.