As a rabbi, I have the honor to work closely with people experiencing homelessness. One of the advocates that I know, let’s call her Tanya, tells me that the worst part of her time being homeless was her alienation and loneliness. She was ashamed of her situation and felt she let down others in her life. When she sat day-after-day on the streets, she felt she lived with an invisible wall between her and the rest of the world. It was like she was in solitary confinement right there on the street corner. No one would look at her or speak to her. said she would go weeks without ever hearing someone call her name.
I once asked her what kept her going, what made her get up in the morning and she simply said, “I just don’t know how I made it, but I do know that I did.”
Many philosophers call the idea of having faith “living in the absurd” because we can never know life’s true meaning. These thinkers teach us that we have facts that are discovered by science but to have faith is to move away from fact. Faith , to them, is something different. The philosophers teach us that to have faith is to go on an adventure that gives rise to our individualism. To have faith, they tell us, is to move, from comfort to discomfort and from the known to the unknown.
The Absurdists (what these philosophers call themselves) look at Tanya as example of life’s meaninglessness because there she is, alone and afraid – imprisoned on the street – with nothing but faith to carry her forward. They would say that this is the truest faith in face of uncertainty. Alone. Afraid. Hopeful.
Judaism has a different understanding of faith. To me, Tanya’s story is not proof of an individual’s heroic faith, but what happens when a society fails to have faith in each other.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, we see the Jewish form of faith. The Israelites have built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert. It is a home for God and a place where divinity meets humanity. The people bring all the various parts of the Tabernacle to Moses and he blesses them. (Ex. 39:43) At the very end of the Torah portion, when Moses has assembled all that the people had made, God shows up and God’s Presence fills the Mishkan. (Exodus 40:34). The Book of Exodus closes.
Until that very moment at the end of the book, there was no actual guarantee that God would show up. Even though God says to Moses “Build me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among you.” (Ex. 25), we just do not know what will happen when the Tabernacle is assembled and the work is finished. When God makes the command of Moses, God is taking a risk that human beings will listen and cooperate to build a home for the Divine on earth.
A human being is not the same as human capital. You are not an object to be recognized, used and discarded the way Tanya was. The greatest risk, the godly risk, we take is believing in other people and to pour our lives into other people. You are a living, breathing soul-filled creature and you deserve the faith of others, just as they deserve to have yours. It is a risk to believe in others, but the higher the risk, the higher the reward.
The rabbis do something extraordinary with this moment. They ask, “What does it take to bring God’s Presence?” Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that it is the righteous who bring God to earth, for they create the merit among the people for God’s presence to dwell.” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:2) In the rabbinic mind, it is our godliness that brings God. It is our faith in each other that gives God faith in us. God becomes close to us in faith, because we become close to each other in faith.
Faith is not to go from the known to to the unknown.
To have faith is to go from the unknown to being known.
To have faith is to take the risk of vulnerability and reach across the anonymous space that separates us from our neighbor. To let them see us in all our brokenness and vulnerability. Faith is relational. Faith is covenantal.
Tanya told me of the first time she heard her name. She was shocked. Hearing her name she suddenly realized she was a person. She was no longer just an object or a moral tax on society. When she heard her name, she found her humanity again.
Someone reached out to her to help her get off the streets. She’s been sober and clean and housed now for fifteen years and all it took was one person to know her name. To have an outstretched arm and a mighty hand to pull her up and bring her home. Someone took a risk on her, and she was redeemed.
Faith in modern times is tough to have but as the Book of Exodus comes to a close, both God and the people take a risk on each other. What would it be like if we built a world on this sort of risk-taking? What kind of world would it be if we poured our life into other people, and were vulnerable to each other? Perhaps we can build a just world and a peaceful world. A world where we can make a home for God.