Faith without a sense of duty becomes shallow

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

Recently this newspaper brought to our attention the sad problem of our alienated youth who would not be attending Holy Day services.

Lech Lecha teaches us a doctrine that I believe has much to say on the subject. It offers a sharp rebuke against a particularly negative religious inclination that certainly underlies the problem.

“And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go for yourself from your land and your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.'” (Genesis 12:1)

The belief in one G-d came to Abraham sometime before this command did. Before this, he had been distinguished from his family members only by an idea locked in his heart. Then came this message that belief in G-d must be far more than an idea; it involves the complete transfiguration of life.

Faith demands duty that must be adhered to at any cost. Abraham was commanded to give up the ease and comfort to which he was accustomed in order to take on the dangers and challenges of travel. He could certainly have said to himself, “I have given up the worship of wood and stone. I have determined that there is one G-d and that is enough. I am not prepared to sacrifice everything and inconvenience my whole existence by obeying such a command. Why can’t I continue to lead my ordinary life and still persist in my faith?”

If Abraham had responded that way, religion as the term is understood would probably be unknown. But Abraham did obey the extraordinary command and in so doing taught the world that faith, if it is worth anything at all, must be accompanied by a strong sense of duty. A religion of convenience is worthless and cannot be genuine. The call of G-d to Abraham, the founder of our religion, meant a tremendous sacrifice and enormous inconvenience. The call of G-d has meant that ever since, and it means that even now.

The negative religious inclination I referred to earlier does not come from a lack of faith or belief, but from the absence of a sense of duty, which alone gives value to faith. People want a religion that is not exacting, that doesn’t interfere with the routine of their lives, one that allows them to do very much as they please. They are prepared to believe in G-d, but He must not expect too much from them. He mustn’t impose restrictions or demands upon them that would create inconvenience. The religion that they seek is the religion of an idea, not the religion of practice.

But religion, if it means anything, means the suppression of the individual to the Divine Will. To say we believe in G-d means little if it isn’t followed by a declaration of willingness to follow wherever and whatever He bids.

Judaism does not say, “Believe this and live.” It rightly says, in the words of the prophet Amos, “Do this and live.” Obedience to duty, not faith, is the criterion. The Jew has been loaded with commandments that are admittedly difficult to carry out because they involve trouble and inconvenience. Judaism never has been and never can be an easy religion. As soon as you try to make it so, you injure its vitality.

Abraham did not become the first Jew when he professed a belief in the oneness of G-d, and we are not Jews in the religious sense as the result of mere lip service or spiritual sentiment. Abraham became the first Jew when he obeyed a call from the external, when he submitted to a power that would control his whole life.

Until relatively recently, the restrictions and inconveniences of our religion were considered quite normal and were certainly not resented. Today, instead, we just have indifference. The spirit of indifference develops rapidly, and indifference to practice leads inevitably to indifference to the “idea,” and eventually in kids who are unable to find a compelling reason to attend High Holy Day services or any other services.

There is only one effective solution, and that is to reawaken our sense of duty. We must be law-obeyers, not lawmakers, and we must once again respond to the Divine call as Abraham did thousands of years ago, saying, “Hineni,” “Behold, here I am.”

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.