Recently, I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook after a 20-year hiatus. With our renewed “friendship”, I realized that his wife, whom I had known as a devout young lady, left Jewish observance along the way. 

These life changes happen over time. Seeing it suddenly shook me. A person’s faith is like the ground they live on. How do we stay grounded when world events challenge our belief in a benevolent G-d? What should we do when there are deep questions about the Torah that trouble us? How do we navigate a faith crisis? 

On the road to Shavuot, there are two major texts that mark our journey: Sefer VaYikra and Pirkei Avot. The “codes” of VaYikra (such as Leviticus 19) contain numerous principles of Judaism. The range of these principals seem far flung, from ethical principles (caring for the destitute) to religious observances (Shabbat or Shatnez). 

All these principles flow from a single Mitzvah: Kedoshim, to be holy and dedicated to G-d. The overall sense of VaYikra is that our lives are guided by immutable laws. On the 10th day of Tishrei, for example, from sundown to sundown, we are meant to afflict our souls. 

Avot

In these very same weeks, we read a different kind of ethical code, Pirkei Avot. In contrast with “eternal statutes”, Avot is made up of axioms like, “love Shalom and pursue Shalom” or “establish many students.” 

The Maharal of Prague classifies the words of Pirkei Avot as “wisdom” in contrast with the “prophecy” of Torah. Pirkei Avot is punctuated by the presence of sages with a wise message for their times. 

Roots & Branches 

In this time of year, we thus encounter two parts of our tradition. The immutable laws of VaYikra, and the wisdom of Avot. What is the relationship between the eternal laws and the wisdom? In the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Mishna addresses the connection between “wisdom” and “deeds”: 

Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; the wind comes and uproots it… 

But one whose deeds exceed one’s wisdom, what is that person like? Like a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are many; even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow upon it, they will not uproot it…” 

—Pirkei Avot 3, 22 

This Mishna builds upon the idea that a human being is like a tree. Sometimes, we may feel like a fragile tree blown across the landscape. At other times, we are like the well rooted tree that “gives fruit in its time, and whose leaf does not wither.” (Tehillim 1) 

Deeds & Wisdom 

The Mishna suggests that much like a tree, a human being has roots and branches. While our actions make up the roots, our wisdom forms the branches. How are actions like roots, and wisdom like branches? 

A basic reality of our life is that we are physical. If we want to connect to G-d, we need to express that connection in the physical actions of our body. 

While our mind can contemplate “belief” in G-d, actions express that idea and “root” us in G-d. Consider the physical experience of Shabbos. When we make Kiddush over a cup of wine on Friday night and forsake our phones, our body becomes “rooted” in the Mitzvot as our convictions come to life. 

On the other hand, what is a tree without branches? In the human context, our wisdom are the branches that reach for a higher realm. Wisdom entails a process of discovery and introspection through which we come to appreciate G-d and the holiness of Torah on a deeper level. 

Three Steps 

How do we apply these ideas in our personal, religious struggles? There are three critical steps we must take in times we question our path. First, ask yourself: what are your core beliefs and why? This is a deep question that requires time and introspection. Go for a long walk in nature and ponder your inner core beliefs. 

Along our journey, our travails do not contradict our belief in G-d. But they have the power to knock us over and uproot us. In those times, only you can determine from within yourself what your true convictions are. If you find, as I have, that belief in the goodness of G-d and Torah is a core conviction, take the next two steps! 

The second thing that we need to do after defining our core Jewish beliefs is to check on our “roots”. If we are seeking a long term Jewish spiritual experience, we need the actions of Judaism. 

Ask yourself: what are your next steps in Mitzvah observance? It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing; you simply need to identify your own next step, be it making Kiddush on Friday night or making sure that you give Tzedaka

Still, deeds alone do not suffice. Are you bothered by deep questions? Unsure exactly what Jewish beliefs are? Struggling to find G-d? Do academic approaches to the Bible shake your faith? 

Thinking people ponder these questions. It’s GOOD to have questions and to continue moving forward in your path even when you don’t have all the answers. We are not supposed to be born with all the answers. We are supposed to engage in Jewish wisdom. 

And here is some good news: Judaism is a repository of wisdom, so the third step is to engage with the amazing wisdom of Torah. 

Delve Into It! 

A couple of years ago, riding on the subway, I noticed an advertisement for an atheist website. I was intrigued so I checked it out. Reading the “complaints” on the website about belief in a benevolent G-d (namely human suffering) I thought to myself, how little do they know of the Torah! 

From Iyov to the Rambam to the writings of Ramchal, Torah literature is a fountain of answers for the deepest of questions: 

Ben Bag Bag says, delve into it (the Torah) and delve into it, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old in it… 

—Pirkei Avot 5, 26 

When we probe and delve into the wisdom of Judaism, we are clinging to the Almighty. Over the months and years, the wisdom develops inside of us. We find new answers and perspectives for our most important questions. Your strong questions are a healthy sign that you are a thinking person—don’t hide from your questions, embrace them! 

So in moments of question and doubt, ask yourself—in the deepest way—what you believe. If your conviction is that G-d and the Torah are good, find the next step in your observance. Then, delve into the wisdom of Torah; turn it over and over. 

As you engage with the Torah, new understanding will well up from the deepest part of you. 

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