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Emunah - A Personal Journey (Va’eirah 5778)

by in Vaera .

Parshat Va’eirah, 5778

Emunah- the challenge

Emunah, a natural and deep awareness of Hashem, has not always come easily to me. Yes, I have always believed in Hashem, but Emunah is so much more than a “belief.” I have always known Hashem, but Emunah is more than cognitive, mind-based knowledge. Emunah is even more than the intuitive knowledge that you know in your heart. Emunah as defined by the Chazon Ish[1], is a unique form knowledge that resides at the deepest levels of your soul.  It is this deep soul-level Emunah that I have spent a lifetime building. Emunah is neither just a form of knowledge nor is it just a religious experience. Emunah is an axiomatic mitzvah (commandment) foundational to our engagement with Torah. It is a central theme of the opening parshiot of Sefer Shemot[2] that deal with Israel’s evolving belief in G-d and trust in Moshe.

The mitzvah of Emunah can be so hard. How can the Torah legislate a form of knowledge that does not appear to be a choice and which not everyone has? What if I just don’t believe? What if I am not sure? What if I just don’t have or cannot access this feeling of certainty deep in my soul? Can I develop it? What does it look like? How do I find it? If Emunah is foundational to our engagement with Torah, can I engage if I lack Emunah?

Emunah clearly cannot be based on cognitive information or on subjective experience. If Emunah were cognitive knowledge, we would need empirical evidence for it which is hard, or impossible to find. If Emunah were intuitive knowledge, it couldn’t be legislated as a mitzvah. Emunah resides neither in head nor in heart, in resides in the flow between head and heart. It is in this head-heart flow that we access our souls.


Emunah - Synchronizing head and heart

There is now a scientific understanding of this idea. Heart-mind coherence is the oscillatory synchronization of the heart and brain rhythm. For the past twenty-seven years, the HeartMath Institute and others have researched the method and positive physical and emotional results of heart-mind coherence. The implications of heart-mind coherence are significant. Since it is easy to direct your thoughts, once you can synchronize your heart with your mind, you can also influence what you feel. Using this mechanism of starting with a cognitive thought and then synchronizing your heart to that thought, is the method for developing Emunah described in the Torah:[3]

וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱ‑לֹהִים בַּשָּמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוֹד

“And you shall know (cognitive) this day, and settle it into your heart (intuitive), that Hashem is the force in the heavens above and on the earth apart from which there is nothing.”


Belief vs. Knowledge

The Rambam[4] uses two different words to describe the mitzvah of emunah: In his Sefer Hamitzvot[5] he uses the term להאמין – which is an intuitive, heart-based term, to believe. In his Mishneh Torah[6] it is לידע – a cognitive, mind-based term, to know[7]. This is because, unlike Sefer Hamitzvot, the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam’s fourteen volume magnum opus, is a legal text that sets the behavioral standards required of us. It tells us how to perform the mitzvot, it is a user’s manual for Torah observance. As such it only prescribes actions, it does not prescribe intuitive experiences such as belief. The Mishneh Torah, assumes that knowledge is an action that we can direct and that can therefore be prescribed. It opens with the instruction “to know that there is an initial existence… upon which all other existence is dependent.” Later[8] the Rambam tells us how to convert this cognitive knowledge into emotions.

יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון... שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו; והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם... והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו[9]"... וידיעת דבר זה מצות עשה, שנאמר "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך[10]" (רמב"ם פ"א מהל' יסודי התורה)   

The foundation of all foundations is to know that there is an initial force of existence… upon which all other existence is dependent and that He, the Blessed One, is not dependent on them. This is the meaning of statement in the Torah “There is none other than He[11].” …And knowledge of this idea is a positive mitzvah as it says, “I am the Lord your G-d.[12]

The Rambam in his opening statement does not legislate belief, he legislates knowledge. Not the knowledge of G-d as defined by any particular religion, rather just knowledge of an initial force. (Only later[13] does he name this initial force as God.)  What the Rambam does not tell us though, is how to acquire this knowledge? There is no satisfying, rational proof that there is an initial force of independent, creative, existence. How do we get started with the first principle, the foundation of foundations, if we neither know it to be true nor believe it?


Getting started: Making assumptions

To get started it is important to unpack the idea of knowledge. There are two forms of knowledge: Either you know something is true because you have seen it, or you assume something to be true even though you have not actually seen it. If your knowledge is just an assumption, it could stem either from information that has been proven to be true, or from information you received from a trustworthy source. Every assumption carries a measure of doubt with it. A proof that holds true today could be disproved in the future, and a trustworthy source may not be trustworthy on this occasion. The doubt with respect to every assumption ranges anywhere on a spectrum from near-zero doubt to near absolute certainty; but no assumption is absolutely true.

There is a third type of assumption that follows neither a proof nor a trustworthy source of information; this is a hypothetical assumption. Starting with a hypothesis, an initial assumption, we test for validity. If our hypothesis stands the test, we add it to our knowledge base; if it does not, we reject it. The knowledge that the Rambam legislates based on the first of the Ten Commandments[14] is a hypothetical assumption we can make even if we are not starting with a deep, natural, intuitive faith.

The Rambam asks us to assume an initial force of independent, creative, existence, and that this existence is Hashem. Then, through the lens of this assumption, to study His workings, the history of His engagement with the world, the way He thinks and the values He demands; in other words, to study the Torah. The Rambam asks that we try to live by this assumption, and evaluate its truth as we proceed. The Rambam teaches that deep intuitive faith is an output of living by a subjectively tested cognitive assumption that God exists.

I have found that if I use the assumption of the First Commandment, “I am Hashem your G-d etc.,” as the lens through which I look at my own life, at current events, at history, at science and nature, and at the lives of the people I know, it all makes elegant sense to me. Without this lens nothing makes sense to me and most everything appears to be random and lacking in meaning. The more I apply this lens to find meaning in my life, the more I feel the assumption of God’s existence settling deep into my heart. After a time it is no longer an assumption at all, it has becomes intuitive knowledge settled deep in my heart – or more even than that – deep in my soul where I am ever conscious of it.


[1] Emunah Uvitachon 1.

[2] The Book of Exodus

[3] Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:39

[4] Maimonides (1135-1204)

[5] Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment #1. This work was written in Arabic and translated by different scholars through the ages.

[6] His codification of all the laws of the Bible and Talmud,

[7] Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1

[8] ibid. 2:1

[9] Devarim 4:35

[10] Shemot 20:2 and Devarim 5:6

[11] Deuteronomy, 4:35

[12] Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6

[13] Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:3

[14] Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6

Latest update: January 11, 2018

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