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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

From the beginning of the month of Elul through the end of Sukkot both Ashkenazim and Sepharadim recite Tehillim Chapter 27 –'לדוד ה – twice each day. If we look carefully, we can see that this chapter is made up of three distinct sections:

1. The first six verses of the chapter express absolute trust in Hashem and an unequivocal feeling of closeness to Him. God is referred to in the third person and each verse optimistically describes that which He will do: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" "For He will hide me in His tabernacle on the day of evil .... And now my head shall be lifted over my enemies who surround me."

2. Man's relationship with God shifts dramatically in the next seven verses as the author of the psalm calls out to Him in distress. God is addressed directly as we ask him to save us: "Hear, O Lord, my voice as I cry out; be gracious to me and answer me." "Do not turn your servant away in anger.... Do not abandon me and do not forsake me.... “

 3. The final verse of the chapter is: "קוה אל ה', חזק ויאמץ לבך, וקוה אל ה" -- Hope in the Lord. Be strong and of good courage. And hope in the Lord." 

The Perek begins with overwhelming faith when God's presence seems clear but descends into inevitable doubt when one experiences the harsh realities of life which cause a sense of abandonment by God. As we look forward to a new year with a combination of optimism and fear, certainty and confusion, this Perek reflects the complexity of our religious feelings as we struggle to maintain a sublime faith in God despite the reality that He sometimes seems hidden from us in times of crisis. Perhaps the message is not only that doubt is inevitable in the human religious experience but that such uncertainty need not be consciously avoided but rather can be used to strengthen one's faith. 

Rav Soloveitchik argued that a mature faith develops out of doubt which is an inevitable feature of religious growth. The Rav rejected the idea that one could escape reality and find comfort in religion. The "pangs and torments" of doubt and disharmony, he wrote, "are inextricably connected with the development and refinement" of one's spiritual personality. "The religious consciousness... is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary it is exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous.... The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crisis...purify and sanctify" Doubt is not an impediment to faith, but rather a goad that stimulates us to deepen our faith.

This chapter, thus, depicts the religious tension of our relationship with God, as even the most confidently faithful experience uncertainty. With the concluding verse, "Hope in the Lord. Be strong and of good courage. And hope in the Lord," David HaMelekh teaches that doubt need not threaten faith. As Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote, "I begin by believing despite doubt; I end by believing all the more firmly because of doubt."

This insight is particularly important for those of us who work to foster religious commitment in our children. We should not, and the children themselves should not, be shaken by the religious doubts and confusion felt, suffered, and expressed by young people. Doubt and confusion are inevitable in the serious quest for God.

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