Tag Archives: lashon hara

Vayigash: Are You Willing to Save Someone’s Life?

joseph-and-pharaoh“Now when the news was heard in Pharaoh’s house that Joseph’s brothers had come, it pleased Pharaoh and his servants.”

-Genesis 45:16

Pharaoh was delighted when he heard that Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt. He immediately made provision to bring the entire family to Egypt so they could survive the famine in safety and comfort. He provided wagons for the move. He promised them the best of the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s warm welcome of Joseph’s brothers reveals an important detail about Joseph’s time in Egypt.

“What Pharaoh Heard”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This commentary from FFOZ comes with the following “Thought for the Week:”

When we are wronged by someone, it is natural to tell others about it. We want to tell others about how it happened to garner their sympathy and support. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that others are aware of the injustice committed against us. We seek out sympathy and commit a small act of retaliation.

It’s very human that when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone, to want to get even in some way. Usually, we get even by doing the same to them as we believe they’ve done to us (whether the damage the other person has done to us is real of just perceived makes no difference apparently).

I write periodically on something called Lashon Hara or the Jewish concept of wronging someone in speech (which can be spoken, written, or any other form of communication). I’ve even based the Comments Policy for this blog on that principle.

As the FFOZ commentator writes, what we say and how it is perceived can have hurtful and even dire consequences:

Joseph loved his brothers and his family so much that he could not bear the thought of having them defamed. He did not want Egyptians saying to one another, “Did you hear about the nasty thing that Joseph’s lowlife brothers did to him?” Joseph kept the entire episode to himself. The only thing he ever said about his past was the vague explanation, “I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). His love for his brothers compelled him to protect their reputation.

Instead of emulating Joseph, who was concerned about protecting the dignity of his loved ones, it seems we do just the opposite. A husband and wife are eating out at a restaurant when the husband drops his cup, spilling his beverage on the table. Embarrassed, the wife rolls her eyes and says to the stranger sitting at the next table, “He is such a klutz.” A man is out with his friends when they begin discussing the foils of marriage. All in good fun, the man complains to the guys about his wife’s bad habits. Everyone laughs. Why would we sell out the people we love like this? The wife shows more concern for the opinion of a stranger in a restaurant than she does for the dignity of her husband. The husband has higher regard for a few laughs from his buddies than he does for the reputation of his wife.

It’s one thing to read about a “Bible principle” and another thing entirely to behave out of that principle with unerring consistency. Reading about Joseph and his brothers makes a nice story, but most of the time, we don’t think to apply what we’ve learned to our day-to-day living. Reading the story of the wife casually defaming her husband in public brings the principle home. If anyone you’ve loved has embarrassed you in front of your friends, family, or strangers, even if what they said is true about you, then you know what I mean.

Here’s another example:

“The Torah ideal is to greet each and every person with a pleasant facial expression.” (Tomar Devorah, ch.2) When you greet someone in a friendly way, you never know what a positive effect you will have. A certain individual who greeted everyone with a smile and kind words was approached by someone and told, “You saved my life.” The person went on to tell how he’d suffered a number of serious setbacks and was contemplating suicide. He felt totally alone and depressed and felt that no one cared about him. Then this fellow greeted him with a sincere smile and a cheerful voice. This immediately lifted up his spirits and he was resolved to continue living.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Quoted from Gateway to Happiness, pg 26
Found at Aish.com

whispererI don’t know what Joseph felt about his brothers or why he didn’t “spill the beans” about their attempt to kill him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, or anyone else in his sphere of Egyptian companions. Maybe he really did continue to have love for them in his heart, in spite of how they felt about him. Perhaps he just didn’t want the Egyptians to harbor any more disdain for the Hebrews than they already did. Regardless of the reason, even though Joseph would have been telling the truth if he revealed the terrible acts of his brothers to Pharaoh, he chose not to do it, keeping the matter to himself, and even forgiving his brothers, though they hardly deserved it.

When a spouse says something to revealing about his or her “other half,” depending on what it is, the person being spoken of can at least feel embarrassed if not ashamed or humiliated. As we see from Rabbi Pliskin’s example, how we treat another person, even if it’s simply greeting a stranger with a smile, can make a tremendous impact.

There are more than enough “moral police officers” on the web and particularly in the blogosphere who choose to point accusing fingers at others rather than greeting them (virtually speaking) with a “smile.” Especially since we cannot actually face the people we address on the Internet, we have no idea what good or evil we are doing to them and how they will respond. Most of the time, all we know is that they remain silent or they “bark back” at us if we have insulted or embarrassed them in some way.

But like the man in Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary, we don’t know how far we can push someone, especially if they are already on an emotional brink. We can knock someone over or we can pull them back, just by how we speak to them or about them.

James, the brother of the Master, said (James 3:8) that the tongue is “a restless evil and full of deadly poison'” We have been given the gift of speech (and writing, and other forms of communication) to bless and not to curse. Paul said (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that believers should “encourage one another and build up one another”, and New Testament scholar and author Mark Nanos, in his book The Mystery of Romans said Paul expressed his heartfelt desire that believing Gentiles should support and encourage even the non-believing Jews in the synagogue, rather than denigrate them for being “weak” and “stumbling” in faith.

If it is true that we have a duty to support even unbelievers so that they should come to faith, then what we say and what we do becomes incredibly important. We can not only save someone’s life in this world by how we greet them, we can be an instrument to bless or curse their souls.

The FFOZ commentary for this week’s Torah portion ends this way:

A woman was having a hard time at the Messianic synagogue she attended in the southern United States. She was involved in a heated conflict with some other members. This went on for some time. Frustrated with her congregation, she told her unbelieving friend about the problems she was having. Eventually the leadership arbitrated the situation. She made peace with the people. Some time later, she invited her unbelieving friend to attend a service. Her friend said, “Are you crazy? After the way you talked about those people and that place, I wouldn’t set foot in there.”

Joseph never told the Egyptians about the incident with his brothers because it was none of their business. By maintaining discretion, he was protecting the name and reputation of God in Egypt. Had he told his sad story to everyone, the Egyptians would have had cause to say, “If that’s how the followers of your God behave, I want nothing to do with Him or your religion.”

FallingI’ve heard it said that “you can’t unring a bell.” Once you have said or done something harsh or hurtful to another human being, you can never take it back. Just imagine all of the regret buried within you for all of the things you’ve said and done to sin against other people and against God over the years.

Fortunately, God is in the business of forgiving, but it’s not certain that all of the people you and I have hurt in our lifetimes will be willing or able to forgive us. But while we can’t change the past, we can make a new future starting right now. Have a care what you say and what you do. Greet others with a smile. Withhold a harsh criticism, even if what you could say is factual. Consider that God loves even the sinner and the apostate.

You may never know whose life you may save by either speaking a good word or withholding one that is evil. One day we will all have to give an accounting for how we’ve lived our lives and every action we have committed. What will you say to the King when it’s your turn? Will you attempt to justify hurting others, or be blessed by him for your kindness and compassion?

The Didache in Retrospect, Part 2

SpeakThe fifth sequence might appear as puzzling since it associates grumbling as “leading to blasphemy” (3:6). The Greek term “blasphemia” derives from “blapto” + “theme” (“to injure” + “speech”) and so could be rendered as “slander.” In the Septuagint, however, this term is almost entirely used to denote injurious speech against the Lord, hence what is communal called “blasphemy.” Since the verb “gonguzein” (“to murmur”) is used repeatedly to describe the grumbling of the Israelite people in the desert (Exod. 16:2, 7(2x), 8(2x), 9, 12), some scholars believe this is the implied case history that stands behind the warning against murmuring (Ross 218).

-Aaron Milavec
“A Brief Commentary,” pp 58-9
The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary

I’m picking things up pretty much where I left off in yesterday’s morning meditation. You may wonder about the above-quoted text, but while Milavec associates it with “grumbling” or blaspheming against the Lord, the phrases “to injure” and “speech” remind me of something else.

Leviticus 25:17 says, “You shall not wrong one another.” This has traditionally been interpreted as wronging a person with speech. It includes any statement that will embarrass, insult or deceive a person, or cause a person emotional pain or distress.

-from the article “Speech and Lashon Ha-Ra”
Judaism 101

I don’t question Milavec’s interpretation of this portion of the Didache, the document apparently used to train newly minted Gentile disciples in “the Way,” possibly in the late first century to late second century in the common era, but it also seems reasonable that if the novice Gentile disciples were warned against “injuring” God in speech, they would also be warned against injuring other people in speech.

This is training that many believers in the various religious streams that claim Jesus as Lord and Messiah would benefit from today.

I mentioned some things about Gentiles and food issues in my original pass through on the Didache, but Milavec speaks further on this topic on pages 61-2 of his commentary:

The absolute prohibition against eating “the food sacrificed to idols” (6:3) occurs after the conclusion of the training program and just prior to baptism.

Milavec debates whether this prohibition was placed outside the “Way of Life” instruction as an awkward addition or the injunction was developed and added to a later iteration of the oral instructions/written Didache as a necessity to cement this restriction as an absolute “no-no.” This was probably easier said than done for Gentiles just coming out of paganism and with family and friends still involved in the Roman/Greek worship framework:

Of necessity, therefore, most candidates would have been constrained to take part in family meals wherein, either regularly or periodically, some offering was made to the household gods as part of the meal or some portion of the meats served had been previously offered at a public altar.

-Milavec, pg 62

kosher eatingWhile the prohibition against eating meat sacrificed to idols was one of the absolute commandments in the Didache, reflecting a portion of the Jerusalem letter (Acts 15:28-29), Neither the text of the Didache nor Milavec’s commentary mention applying kosher food restrictions to Gentile disciples in any sense. It also doesn’t mention how Jewish and Gentile table fellowship was to be managed, but then, the perspective of Jews who would be eating with Gentiles was outside the scope of the Didache’s mission, which was as a training manual for a specifically Gentile audience.

In speaking to Baptism (pp 62-4), Milavec cautions against turning “Immerse in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (7:1) into a “baptismal formula”:

Furthermore, the Hebraic expression of acting “in the name of X” has to do with the way a disciple or servant was authorized to act because of the training or mandate received from the master.

-ibid pp 62-3

This is a reflection of how a Rabbi would teach in the name of or in the merit of his master. We find this in the apostolic scriptures:

According to the Christian Scriptures, for example, the Twelve heralded the reign of God and apprenticed disciples “in the name of “Jesus” (Acts 4:18; 5:28; 9:27, 29).

-ibid, pg 63

Milavec’s commentary continues to reveal that this document, though a set of instructions for Gentiles, has a very Jewish source.

The closing line, “This is the Way of Life!” (4:14b), probably served as a liturgical refrain and, quite possibly, following Jewish parallels, was sung (#5a).


It is also apparent that the character of the Didache recognized no separation between the “Jewishness” of its sources and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, declaring that Jesus and the apostles were completely representative of the normative Judaisms of that day:

The Didache declares that members should pray “as the Lord commanded” (8:2). The “Lord,” in this case, is not Jesus, for he is regarded as “the servant” who reveals “the life and understanding” of the Father (9:3). For early Christians, Jesus proclaimed “the good news of God” (Mark 1:14; Rom 1:1, 15:16; 2 Cor 2:7; 1 Thess 2:2, 9; 1 Pet 4:17) — never the good news of Jesus.

-ibid, pg 65

This is bound to make many modern Christian readers a little nervous or concerned, because the Didache is elevating God the Father higher than Jesus the Son. At the risk of offending almost everyone, it also potentially raises questions about the modern conceptualization of the trinity, since trinitarian theology considers the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-equals in the Godhead or the “Echad” of God. Of course, Jesus considered himself a servant in his early incarnation, but post-ascension, we cannot say that continued to be so, at least in standard Christian thought.

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I recently quoted John MacArthur on the topic of being “obsessed” with Jesus:

The charismatic movement fails this test of exalting Christ above all. MacArthur said, Show me a person obsessed with the Holy Spirit and I’ll show you a person not filled by the Spirit. Show me a person obsessed with Jesus Christ and I’ll show you a Spirit-filled person.

The Didache seems to take another viewpoint on this matter, at least relative to God the Father.

PaulOne of the values of examining ancient Christian texts such as the Didache, are that they are closer to their Jewish source and pre-date the overwhelming majority of Gentile Christian teachings. The Didache may give us a snapshot of how the Jewish and Gentile believers viewed certain concepts that we take for granted in the Church today. I don’t say this to upset anyone, but to bring into focus that what we understand about being a Christian now could be seen as entirely foreign by the very first Christians in the ekklesia communities established by Paul.

What would the apostle Paul say if he were to walk into a 21st century church and listen to what was being taught?

Milavec confirms that the Didache fully anticipated Gentile believers encountering prophets and seems to cast such occurrences in “charismatic” terms:

When the Spirit was active each inspired prophet gave thanks “as much as” he or she wished — a hint that when the prophets got rolling their combined ecstatic prayers might well run on over an hour. Lest this be considered preposterous, consider the case of the second-century “Martyrium Polycarpi,” where one discovers that Polycarp “stood up and prayed, being so full of the grace of God, that for two hours he could not hold his peace.”

-ibid, pg 70

Polycarp is considered the last disciple of John, the last apostle, and when Polycarp died, the direct line of discipleship leading back to the original apostolic tradition was destroyed. I mourn Polycarp as the last link to a body of wisdom and experience we understand only incompletely today.

I find it a little anachronistic for Milavec to insert “charismatic” concepts into ancient times, since the modern Charismatic movement is extremely young. This could represent a bias on Milavec’s part which may include his belief (I’m guessing here) that the “gifts of the Spirit” extended beyond the closure of Biblical canon. But how would the actual, lived experience of a man like Polycarp testify in relation to modern Christian doctrine?

When discussing “First Fruits Offered to the Prophets,” Milavec says something unanticipated, at least by me:

The anti-temple stance of the Didache (#10q, 14b) and the decided preference for the Spirit-led prayers of the prophets helps explain why the first fruits were to be given to “the prophets,” who were regarded as the most fitting substitutes for the priests of the Temple.

-ibid, pg 75

My interpretation of the so-called “anti-temple stance” of the Didache is different. It is likely that the Didache was an oral tradition in the last days of the Temple and for most of the “lifetime” of this document’s utility, the Temple probably no longer existed. Judaism underwent a remarkable and traumatic transition with the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the majority of the Jewish people from their beloved Israel. That transition ultimately evolved into the Jewish tradition that considers prayers and good deeds (mitzvot) taking the place of the sacrifices. The tithe once offered at the Temple for a firstborn is still, in some corners of Judaism, given to one known to be a Cohen in modern Israel and in some Jewish communities in today’s diaspora.

Solomons-TempleIt is possible the sections of the Didache that address giving first fruits to prophets mirror this practice of substitution, so, in effect, the new Gentile disciples were being encouraged to follow Jewish practices mapping to Temple sacrifices that were no longer possible.

It has been said that in the future Kingdom of Israel, when Messiah reigns on the Throne of David, the sacrifices of Gentiles will once again be accepted in the Temple in Jerusalem as they were in the days of the First and Second Temples.

The Rabbis say (Hullin 13b): ‘Sacrifices are to be accepted from Gentiles as they are from Jews’ …

-from My Jewish Learning

Gentiles were welcomed to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and they will participate even more at the Third Temple – especially during the festival of Sukkot (Zech. 14:16).

When the First Temple was inaugurated by King Solomon, he beseeched G-d with an eloquent prayer that included the following words (Kings I, 8:41-43)…

Torah Law holds that Gentiles are allowed to bring burnt offerings to G-d in the Temple when it is standing in Jerusalem. There is a specific commandment to let us know that an animal (sheep, goat or bullock) offered in the Temple by a Gentile must be unblemished, to the same degree as the offering of a Jew. (Leviticus 22:25)

The Prophet Isaiah foretold us about the even greater participation of Gentiles that will take place at the Third Temple (Isaiah 2:2-3):

“And it will come to pass at the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established, even higher than the peaks, and all the peoples will flow toward it as a river. And many nations will go and will cry, ‘Let us go up toward the mountain of G-d’s House, to the House of the L-rd of Jacob, and we will learn from His ways and walk in His paths, for out of Zion goes forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.’ “

-from “Will Gentiles worship at the Third Temple during Sukkot?”

With all that said, I must disagree with Milavec that the Didache is “anti-Temple,” but rather, it was encouraging Gentile disciples to offer “first fruits” in a manner acceptable within the early post-Temple era in Judaism, and perhaps with an eye on the future Kingdom of Messiah, when the sacrifices of Gentiles would be as acceptable as those of a Jewish person.

The last significant section in Milavec’s commentary on the Didache references the End Times, but I think I’ll save that for my third and final blog post in this series.

Lost Beyond Eden

Inner light“Do not despise any person and do not disdain anything for there is no person who does not have his hour and there is no thing without its place”

-Ben Azzai
from Pirkei Avot 4:3

Just as the soul fills the body, so does G‑d fill the world.” Our bodies are vitalized by our souls, but our souls themselves are invisible. Yet, through seeing the life in the body, one can appreciate the soul within. G‑d enlivens and creates the worlds, yet He is invisible. But He is evident in every creation.

-Talmud, Berachot 10a.

I don’t know what to write about for today. I know that’s pretty strange for me, since it seems that most of the time I can’t “shut up” in the blogosphere, but as I reviewed my “resources” for today (as I started to write this) and looked for inspiration, I didn’t find any.

Well, that’s not exactly true, hence the quotes above. But what do they mean and how can we apply them to our lives as people of faith (or as people in general)?

A few days ago, I related another problem I have with religious people. I lamented how hard-hearted we can be, some of us at least. How can anyone call themselves a disciple of Christ, and yet deliberately and with malice, kick a father when he’s down over the recent suicide of his son?

Yet in reviewing the comments on Dr. Michael Brown’s article Enough With the Mean-Spirited Words Against Rick Warren (And Others)!, I found both the good and the bad.

The good:

Thank you Michael Brown, thats maturity talking. I dont understand why people cannot have compassion. When Jesus saw the people he was moved with compassion. We can agree to disagree but personal attacks especially in an emotional time like this is horrible.

The bad:

While I agree with most of your article, I suppose that vitrolic “bashers” are thinking it is pay back time for Warren; not that I support this idea or their behaviour. Rick Warren has assumed the limelight and as any celebrity is exposed to the dangers of that. While the behaviour is indeed unmerciful, Rev. Warren must have expected it and must know how to insulate himself. He is after all a professional.

Well, the bad wasn’t horrible, but the comment writer still assumes that Pastor Warren should “suck it up” so to speak, since he’s a professional.

He’s also a father, a fellow Christian, and a human being, and he, like the rest of us, was created in God’s image. When we desecrate another human being, we desecrate the image of God.

Lakanta (played by Tom Jackson): What do you think is sacred to us here?
Wesley Crusher (played by Wil Wheaton): Maybe the necklace you’re wearing? The designs on the walls?
Lakanta: Everything is sacred to us – the buildings, the food, the sky, the dirt beneath your feet – and you. Whether you believe in your spirit or not, we believe in it. You are a sacred person here, Wesley.
Wesley: I think that’s the first time anyone’s used that particular word to describe me.
Lakanta: You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.

-Star Trek: The Next Generation
from the episode Journey’s End (broadcast date 26 Mar. 1994)

That’s probably one of my favorite quotes from any Star Trek TV show, both because it expresses a rare spirituality for modern television, and because it speaks a rare truth. Each of us is sacred to God and we should be sacred to each other (most of the time, we’re not). If we could see all other human beings, including ourselves, from God’s point of view, we would see a planet populated by sacred, holy people; all of us being in God’s own image.

The statement that we are created in the image of G‑d means that we were formed as a reflection of our Creator’s attributes and characteristics. This cannot be taken to mean that we literally look, feel or think like G‑d does, because He has no form and is not limited in any way. Rather, we are like a one-dimensional reflection of a real object. From the reflection we can have an inkling of the original, but the reflection is literally nothing in comparison to the original.

-Rabbi Menachem Posner
“What is the ‘Divine Image’ in Man?”

This week’s double Torah Portion Tazria-Metzora relates an important lesson about how we treat God’s image.

“He (the person afflicted with tzora’as) shall be brought to Aharon the priest or unto one of his sons the priests.”

-Leviticus 13:2

The Dubno Magid said that many people speak loshon hora because they are not fully aware of the power of the spoken word. How often people rationalize, “I didn’t do anything to him, I only said a few words.” The metzora, who has been afflicted with tzora’as because of his speaking loshon hora, is taught a lesson about the power of a single word. He must go to a priest who will decide if he is a metzora or not. Just one word by the priest (“Unclean!”) will completely isolate him from society. No more will the metzora minimize the destructive capability of words.

Words can destroy. They can destroy someone’s reputation. They can destroy friendships. They can destroy someone’s successful business or someone’s marriage. Therefore, we must be careful with them as we would be with explosive material.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Tazria-Metzora

Adam-and-Even-Expelled-from-ParadiseYou must go no further than the religious blogosphere or Christian discussion boards to find the worst examples of loshon hora (the “evil tongue”) among us. Periodically, most of us who write religion-based blogs are victims of such behavior, almost always from our fellow believers. I’m rarely “picked on” by atheists or people from other religious disciples. It’s always from the people with whom I share a nearly identical view of God, Jesus, and the Bible.

More’s the pity.

Adam trudged past the gates of Eden, his head low, his feet heavy with remorse and pain.

Then he stopped, spun around and exclaimed, “Wait a minute! You had this all planned! You put that fruit there knowing I would eat from it! This is all a plot!”

There was no reply.

Without failure, Man can never truly reach into the depths of his soul. Only once he has failed can he return and reach higher and higher without end. Beyond Eden.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The irony is that the minute we lower ourselves to claim superiority over a brother or sister of Christ, we have failed. Participating in gossip and “badmouthing” others drags us down…it never lifts us up. While, according to midrash, Adam “trudged past the gates of Eden, his head low, his feet heavy with remorse and pain,” most people committing loshon hora hold their heads up high and feel superior in “bringing down” a “false teacher” or some Christian who they perceive (within their own imaginations sometimes) has “fallen from grace.”

News flash: blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make your burn any brighter and in fact, the very light you are extinguishing is your own.

We all fail. By even in pointing out how Christians fail, in some sense, I’m failing. I’m being critical of my fellow believers. I am speaking ill of them. I should be trudging past the gates of Eden, my head low, my feet heavy with remorse and pain.

And I do. I do, even if I’m not personally guilty of misusing my tongue or, in this case, my fingers, because I am a Christian. I am a member of the body of believers. One of the other parts in the body I share has failed. That means the body I inhabit is tainted and since the outside world can’t tell the difference between one body part and the next, that means we’re all tainted. Christianity (or whatever you call your version of the disciples of the Messiah) is disgraced whenever even one of us behaves poorly. God’s Holy and Sacred Name is dragged through the foul mud and muck. In trying to bring down “false teachers” by criticizing them over the untimely death of their children, we actually bring down God and bring down ourselves.

The Image of God is sullied and soiled, all thanks to us.

walking-home-to-edenBut as Rabbi Freeman also says, “Without failure, Man can never truly reach into the depths of his soul. Only once he has failed can he return and reach higher and higher without end. Beyond Eden.” Like the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-32, we too must fail completely before the path of repentance and return is open to us.

Rabbi Freeman also speaks of this:

Return is the ultimate act of self-expression.

Nobody returns because he is commanded to do so. The ability to return comes from you alone.

And that itself is the evidence that you were never truly torn away: The outer garments of the soul may have been severed, but the core remained at every moment in intimate union with its Source. And from there came the message to return.

It is possible to redeem the Name and Image of God, but we must be willing to admit when we fail. We must be willing to return to God humbled and even humiliated. If men like Pastor Rick Warren have faults, they are completely beside the point right now. The Christians who have truly failed are those who took advantage of the suicide of his son Matthew to attack Pastor Warren and his family. They (we) are the prodigal sons. If we are wise, we will return to God in submissiveness. There is a way back.

Or we can continue to walk away from Eden and away from God forever, even as we operate under the illusion that we are His and He is ours through Messiah.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

-Matthew 7:21-23

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

-Proverbs 16:18

We can remain arrogant and lose ourselves in the darkness beyond Eden, or return and walk back home in humility and to the service of the King. Which choice will we make?

“Saints are sinners who kept on going.”

-Robert Louis Stevenson
Scottish novelist, poet and essayist

Beckoning the God of Peace

in-the-face-of-the-stormPrepare yourself with this meditation, and when you feel anger overcoming you, run through it in your mind:

Know that all that befalls you comes from a single Source, that there is nothing outside of that Oneness to be blamed for any event in the universe.

And although this person who insulted you, or hurt you, or damaged your property, is granted free choice and is held culpable for his decision to do wrong — that is his problem. That it had to happen to you — that is between you and the One Above.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Advice on Anger”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’ve spent the past several days monitoring some disturbing and less than “Godly” attitudes on the Internet (No Judah, your not one of them). I suppose it’s obvious that hostile and critical people and organizations should express themselves in an environment as open as the World Wide Web, but it’s always disappointing when the sources of such poor behavior are those who claim the cause of Christ (though they may not call him by that title). I won’t give honor to either of the two specific sites/blogs to which I’m referring by linking to them on my blog, but suffice it to say that they both (apparently) desire to denigrate Jews and Judaism in general, and specific individuals in the Messianic Jewish movement in particular.

There’s more than a little irony happening here. First off, both of the sources I am speaking of advertise themselves as being educated and scholarly, in addition to being holy and honorable. And yet, how can what they say about themselves be true when the results of their “scholarship” and “reviews” are a widespread (relative to the scope of the Internet but perhaps not their readership) reiteration of classic hatred of Jews, a further expression Christian supersessionism, and a great outpouring of comments about individuals bordering on character assassination?

After Shabbat had ended on Saturday night, in a fit of pique, I wrote this on Facebook:

There’s so much injustice masquerading as scholarship and that reduces the history of Jewish people to a subject that’s examined under a microscope. How far do I go to challenge people who think they are defending the cause of Christ but who actually are walking in the footsteps of everyone who has authored a pogrom and constructed a holocaust?

I found myself sorely tempted to respond to the sources of my frustration via email, blog comments, and twitter, basically to (proverbially) give them a piece of my mind. Fortunately, I stopped myself. It’s hardly taking the moral high road when another can provoke you to descend to their level. On the other hand, is this blog post any better?

In all my days I have never had to look behind me before saying anything.

-Shabbos 118b

Lashon hara (gossip or slander) is not necessarily untruthful. The Torah forbids saying something derogatory about a person even if it is completely true.

One of the best guidelines to decide what you should or should not say is to ask: “Does it make a difference who might overhear it?” If it is something that you would rather someone not overhear, it is best left unsaid.

Sometimes the information need not be derogatory. A secret may not be saying anything bad about anyone, but if someone has entrusted you with confidential information, and you have this tremendous urge to share the privileged communication with someone else, you should ask yourself: “Would I reveal this if the person who trusted me with this information were present?”

Sometimes people want to boast. They may even fabricate their story to those who have no way of knowing that it may not be true. Still, they would be ashamed to boast in the presence of someone who knew that their statement was false.

Volumes have been written about what is proper speech and about what constitutes an abuse of this unique capacity to verbalize with which man was endowed. But even if one does not have time to master all of the scholarly works on the subject, a reliable rule of thumb is to ask, “Do I need to look behind me before I say it?” If the answer is yes, do not say it.

Today I shall…

…monitor my speech carefully, and not say anything that I would not wish someone to overhear.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevat 30″

Let’s look at the first two sentences of Rabbi Twerski’s commentary on “lashon hara” again:

Lashon hara (gossip or slander) is not necessarily untruthful. The Torah forbids saying something derogatory about a person even if it is completely true.

That’s very difficult for most of us to do, especially when we have free access to the Internet and the ability to create and edit websites and blogs we have created or to make comments on the blogs and discussion boards of others. The web is full of harsh criticisms aimed at others and yes, some of those criticisms are true. And yet, and this is especially focused at those folks who claim to observe the Torah of Moses whoever they may be…to publish comments regarding specific individuals for the express purpose of destroying their reputation or causing them personal and emotional harm, cannot be construed in any manner as actually serving God.

peace-of-mind1I’m not unmindful that such individuals are responding in anger, and that they even feel justified due to the belief that they are fighting against what they see as some sort of “injustice” they think was perpetrated against them or their own cause or tradition, but is such a response really the right thing to do? I know that I’m struggling with my own anger at such behavior, but in doing so and in writing this blog post, I’m walking the edge of the very abyss I believe they have already fallen into.

But what is Rabbi Freeman’s advice on anger? If anyone has insulted you or done you wrong, it is a problem that they possess. It’s only the problem of the person insulted (in this case, me) if they (I) allow the insult to affect them (me). Thus, the individuals who are behaving rather poorly on the web are only a problem to me if I let them affect me. That I’m even writing this “meditation” means I must confess that I have allowed this to happen. In that case, my conversation must not engage those who have behaved in an insulting matter, but to the degree that they have entered my life with their discordant behavior, I must take the matter to God. How I feel and how I must respond is between Him and me alone.

To apply Rabbi Twerski’s commentary on what I’ve been saying, in addition, I must monitor my own “speech,” which includes anything I post online. I’m glad I didn’t give in to temptation last Saturday, otherwise I would have failed in that area as well.

(Unfortunately, I did give in to temptation on Google+ Monday morning and I am now living with that regret. The resulting comments on my recent Return to Jerusalem blog post were actually stimulating, but the “comments storm” that occurred on my Why I Go to Church missive were troubling and disappointing for the most part..though thankfully only from a single individual.)

Where do I go from here?

We cannot think two thoughts at the same time. Consequently, when negative thoughts arise, you do not need to fight them. Make an effort to think positive thoughts, and the negative thoughts will disappear.

(see Rabbi Nachman of Breslov; Likutai Aitzos: machshovos, no.11)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #727
“Fill Your Mind with Positive Thoughts”

There is a much older “midrash” on this topic in which I can also take comfort.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

-Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV)

Not only think of what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable, but practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

candleIt is not unexpected that we in the body of faith at one time or another, will turn to God in our anguish and ask Him to quiet our minds and our lives, to shield us from the turmoil that comes from the world and from inside of ourselves. And yet, if we want the “God of peace” to reside with us, Paul says that we must choose to focus our thoughts on peace and then to practice peace.

As Rabbi Twerski might say:

Today I shall…

…strive to practice peace by embracing peace within my thoughts, so that the God of peace will be with me and guide me in His ways, and so that no other person may suffer for anything I say or do.

“The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. … The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”

-George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

The Divine Path to Taking Out the Garbage

shhhhOne who degrades another person is a fool, and a man of understanding will make himself deaf to his words.

-Proverbs 11:12

When people feel good about themselves, they have no need to enhance their self-evaluation by berating others. Those who do so are exposing their own poor self-worth and to what extremes they will go in order to achieve any feeling of worth.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevet 13″

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but it’s when they do so behind my back that I take a certain amount of offense. When I read Rabbi Twerski’s commentary from which I just quoted, I had an ugly feeling I’d need it in a day or so. Although he is giving a lesson on gossip (lashon hara), I find that it applies to those who choose to call others out by name and denigrate them just because they can.

Rabbi Twerski is correct in saying that when someone employs such tactics, it reveals more about them than the person they’re attempting to malign. Nevertheless, I feel we are not to respond by using the same tactics (and so my critic will remain anonymous) and we must even do our best to forgive the victim.

In another article, Rabbi Twersky quotes Ecclesiastes 7:9 in support of his dedication to…

…try to avoid erupting in anger when I feel offended and at least delay an angry response until I have more thoroughly evaluated the situation.

That’s not easy, since we are all human and, when slapped in the face, our first response is to want to slap back. I can understand that my critic may take this particular blog post as my taking a “shot at him,” but consider this.

May no person be made to suffer on my account.

-Siddur, Prayer on Retiring

Although the Torah does not require people to love their enemies, it does demand restraint, in the sense of not seeking revenge (Leviticus 19:18). The Talmud extends this concept to forbid not only the act of revenge, but even a prayer that God should punish our enemies. “If someone is punished on account of another person, the latter is not admitted to the Divine Presence, for as Solomon says in Proverbs (17:16), ‘For the righteous, too, punishment is not good’ “(Shabbos 149b).

When Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev’s adversaries expelled his family from town during his absence, his colleagues asked Rabbi Wolf of Zhitomir to invoke the Divine wrath upon them for their heinous deed. “I cannot do anything,” Rabbi Wolf said, “because Rabbi Levi Yitzchok has anticipated us and is now standing before the open Ark, praying fervently that no harm come to them.”

Actions like this incident may appear to be the ultimate of magnanimity, but it is not necessarily so. To the contrary, they can also be understood as helping one’s own interests. If we pray that another person be punished for his or her misdeeds, we become vulnerable ourselves (see 3 Kislev), for the Divine sense of justice may then bring our own actions under greater scrutiny. After all, is it not reasonable to expect a high standard of personal conduct in someone who invokes harsh treatment of his neighbors?

Consequently, it is wiser to seek forgiveness for others and thereby merit forgiveness for ourselves than to pray for absolute justice and stern punishment for others’ misdeeds and thereby expose ourselves to be similarly judged.

Today I shall…

…try to avoid wishing harm to anyone, even to those who have greviously offended me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevet 17″

Kind of reminds me of some lessons taught by other wise Jewish sages.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

-Luke 23:34 (ESV)

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

-Romans 12:19-21 (ESV)

ForgivenessI suppose Paul, in quoting from Proverbs 25:22, might be the more appropriate scripture, since Jesus is asking God to forgive his executioners, and not just a few people (who in this case are a blogger and a few of his friends who cheer him on) who have “badmouthed” him. Nevertheless, we have a clear principle to not retaliate against someone, whether they’re another believer or not (though it’s sad when a believer should actually create such a situation in the first place).

I just read a blog post written by Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann called Stumbling Towards Shalom. In part, this article says:

I remember years ago helping at a wedding of a friend. This bride, at her rehearsal, was standing on the platform when her bad knee (with an untended to bad ligament) went out of its socket. I still remember seeing that. It meant she had to hobble in order to meet her bridegroom.

Will the same be true for all of us, as we prepare to meet our Bridegroom? Will we be stumbling and falling because of matters untended to?

How are we doing? And what are the prospects for our movement if we do not do better than we are? The author of the letter to the Hebrews leaves us with a final word about our ligament of peace and how we are walking. . . or not walking well together:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:12-14).

While Rabbi Dr. Dauermann is specifically addressing division and unity within the Messianic Jewish movement, I believe it is appropriate to apply his words to the wider context of Christianity and the body of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

The body of Messiah will never achieve its goals while we continue to take pot shots and cheap shots at each other in an attempt to add supports to our own flagging egos. The cause of Christ is not our cause or something we invented out of our own righteousness, it’s God’s. We can either choose to sanctify the Name or desecrate it with our words and deeds.

I used to think that all forgiveness first required repentance, and in terms of our relationship with God, I believe that’s true. And yet I want you to notice something.

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

-Acts 9:3-9 (ESV)

In his conversation with Ananias (see Acts 9:15), the Lord calls Saul “a chosen instrument of mine,” and yet in the encounter between Messiah and Saul, at no time do we see that Saul ever repented or asked for forgiveness. Of course Luke may have simply omitted these overt statements assuming his readers would understand that such actions are implied. After all, Saul’s life does dramatically change almost immediately as he turns away from his former persecution of the Master and his servants and turns toward God. But there’s still a lesson here for me to learn.

clean-upI have no choice but to respond with a forgiving heart, even though it’s not in my human desire to do so. I have prayed for my adversary when he has asked it (in a general request on his blog and not to me specifically). I will continue to do so, for I desire no harm should come to any critic of mine or to their families. I recently said that we will all have to give an accounting to God as to how we lived our lives. I’m not suggesting that I am focused on my critic’s encounter with God but rather my own. If I don’t forgive, if I allow anger or the desire for retribution to rule me, when I am facing my God, what will I have to say about it?

Everyone has his share of “not good.” It’s impossible that a physical being should be devoid of faults. The point is not to flee or hide from them. Nor is it to resign yourself to it all. It is to face up to the fact that they are there, and to systematically chase them away.

Recognizing who you are and gradually cleaning up your act—it may look ugly, but it is a divine path.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Cleaning Up”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

It is better to forgive others, to let go of grudges and hurts and allow God to take care of such matters, than to have to explain to God why you bore a vengeful heart and intent toward someone He loves as much as He does you…and me. I admit by even writing this blog post that it still “smarts” to be taken to task, particularly when I am being honest, forthright, and transparent, but as Rabbi Freeman says, I’m striving to recognize the “ugly” in me and to take the “divine path” toward cleaning up my garbage.

I hope to meet the others I have contended with on that path as well someday.

“In youth we learn; in age we understand.”

-Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Austrian writer

Slandering the Image of God

The Sages tell us, “What is the remedy for one who has spoken leshon hara (slanderous speech)? If he is a Torah scholar, let him engage in Torah study.” (Arachin 15b). Leshon hara defaces man’s “image of God”, and Torah study restores it.

According to the Midrash (Tanchuma, Kedoshim #13, and Nedarim 32a), Avraham was punished for his reaction to God’s promise in the Bris bein Habesarim that He would grant him possession of the land of Canaan. God told him, as it were, “You want to know? Here is something you can know (Bereshis 15:13): ‘Know with certainty that your offspring will be strangers.’”

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“The power of word”
Arachin 15

There is one who speaks [harshly] like piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise heals. True speech is established forever, but a false tongue is only for a moment. -Proverbs 12:18-19 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

I suppose I’ve been on something of a mission lately to try and emphasize that, among people of faith and disciples of the Master, we have an obligation to treat each other with the same love and respect that Jesus has for his people, both the “lost sheep of Israel” and we non-Jews sheep who are “other sheep…not of this fold” (John 10:16). I know I’ve said this before, and blogs and sermons on the topic of “lashon hara” (the evil or slanderous tongue) are plentiful, but it is a lesson that we can’t seem to get enough of. I say this because, if we were taking this teaching to heart and incorporating it into our lives (and our speech), then there wouldn’t be so much harmful speech, insults, and character assassinations in the religious blogosphere.

And I would be writing about something else this morning.

It’s interesting what the Daf has to say about the “cure” for “evil speech”. “What is the remedy for one who has spoken leshon hara (slanderous speech)? If he is a Torah scholar, let him engage in Torah study.” Is the same remedy available for those of us who are not Torah scholars? I hope so (though I can’t speak from Jewish halacha on the matter). Where else can we find a cure for the evil that resides inside us than within the Word of God?

The commentary on the Daf tells us why speech is so important and how it can be so potentially lethal:

Rav Shach once explained that the uniqueness of man in creation — the “image of God” that was bestowed upon him—lies in the fact that he is a “living soul”, which Onkelos renders as “a speaking spirit.” It is the ability to speak that sets man apart from the beasts. The power of speech is indeed a reflection of “God’s image.” Just as God’s very word is capable of accomplishing the same as an actual deed, as it says (Tehillim 33:6): “By the word of God the Heavens were created,” so too is man’s power of speech capable of “establishing the heavens and settling a foundation for the earth” (Yeshaya 51:16). We must therefore ensure that our speech is pure and exact, in order not to corrupt the “image of God” within us.

This is why Avraham was punished for his expression, “How can I know,” although this was seemingly only a minor impropriety of speech. Similarly, Moshe was taken to task for asking God (Shemos 5:22; see Rashi ibid., 6:1), “Why have You treated this people badly?” There are many other examples of improper expressions and harsh penalties for them — all because of the fact that to misuse the gift of speech is to tarnish man’s image of God.

One way I choose to read this is that the “power” of speech comes from our being made in the “image of God” and that it defiles something about our Creator when we misuse this unique gift that he has provided only to humanity. Also, when we use this unique gift to harm another, we are injuring something of that “image” in the other person. Harmful speech damages not only that aspect of God in which we were made, but the same aspect in the other human. It is as if we are using “the power of the word” to damage or destroy “the power of His Word.” So we are hurting ourselves, hurting someone else, and “hurting” God when we commit “lashon hara”. Why is it so easy (I say this, because such speech is exceptionally common in the blog comments I read in the religious blogosphere) for us to spew our insults and harsh words on other brothers and sisters in the faith?

Haven’t we read what the Master said about this?

It is not what enters the mouth that contaminates the person, but what comes out from the mouth – that contaminates the person. -Matthew 15:11 (DHE Gospel)

Even the brother of the Master teaches this lesson.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. -James 3:1-12 (ESV)

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you already know these lessons and you know what they mean. If you then continue to deliberately use your speech (or what you write in blog comments or discussion threads on the Internet) to hurt someone else, you must realize that you are also deliberately disobeying the teachings of Jesus and spitting on the will of God. Please keep that in mind.

I am sometimes questioned about how I can use Jewish teachings to help me better focus on the lessons of Jesus (and no, I am not a “mere imitator of Judaism” in my faith or practice), but I find many seemingly associated themes. I don’t know that they are directly connected in any manner, but I find them comforting nonetheless.

Today’s daf discusses the negative consequences of speaking leshon hara.

Once a certain father heard that a child of the rebbe of Toldos Aharon, zt”l, wished to make a match with his daughter. He was overjoyed…until someone told him that the young man was not in his right mind. Obviously, the father was distressed. He was also worried about how to ascertain the truth; surely a maggid shiur or other person within the Toldos Aharon system wouldn’t say anything negative about the rebbe’s grandson.

He finally decided to ask the rebbe himself, since he was certain that the tzaddik would not deceive him. When this question was put to the rebbe he denied the claim against his grandson. “I know that child since he was born. No one has ever thought there was anything wrong with him.”

The father was very glad to hear this, but also furious at the one who had slandered the innocent bochur, and immediately blurted out, “Do you know who told me? It was…”

“Just a moment,” the rebbe firmly interrupted, “It is a question of leshon hara. Perhaps you are forbidden to tell me. Working out whether this is permitted is no simple matter. I am going on a fundraising trip for two weeks in the next few days. When I return you are welcome to come back and I will tell you the halachah.” When the rebbe was away, he learned the entire Sefer Chofetz Chaim through twice with great care. When he returned, the father of the girl—now engaged to the rebbe’s grandson—came to ask whether he was permitted to tell the rebbe who had slandered the bochur.

The Rebbe of Toldos Aharon said, “I learned the sugya very carefully while I was away and I concluded that if you don’t derive any pleasure in the telling, you are permitted to tell me who slandered the young man.”

Before the man could say a word, however, the rebbe stopped him with a motion. He astounded the man with his concluding words, “It may be permitted, but nevertheless, I do not wish to hear about it!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Question of Leshon Hara”
Arachin 15

We may not be able to prevent our brother from using harmful speech or trying to “stir the pot,” but we can certainly control our own tongues (or fingers on the keyboard). And like the Rebbe of Toldos Aharon, when someone is about to speak in such a manner, even if it is “permitted,” we can refuse to listen and refuse to respond.