The Empty Room

The author of the Likutei Yehudah, zt”l, recounted an inspiring Torah he heard from his grandfather, the illustrious Chidushei Harim, zt”l, “Every person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes. In the merit of this singular aspect we are afforded life and vitality from the Source of all life. But what we naturally believe gives God pleasure is often not the correct attribute. With our limited understanding, how can we possibly know what is truly important on high?

“Tzaddikim expand on their positive attributes by working to give God pleasure in their every endeavor. In this manner they are compared to fertile ground which harbors growth. But the actions of the wicked are compared to barren land. Since they only obey their base nature, their actions do not bear positive fruit. Like desolate land, the deeds of the wicked are inconsequential on high.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash on the verse, ‘Whoever offers a todah offering honors Me.’ …This teaches that one who brings a todah sacrifice honors God both in this world and the next.

“The special aspect of a todah offering is that one must bring forty breads along with it, unlike other sacrifices. Ten of the breads brought are chametz, which alludes to the negative aspects of a person. Nevertheless, the majority of these breads are matzah. The forty breads correspond to the forty days of formation of the human fetus. This teaches that feeling and expressing appreciation to God—for both the good and the bad—is the main way to rectify every Jew.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Importance of Appreciation”
Bechoros 21

When I read this “story off the Daf”, I immediately thought of Jesus and his parable of the sower (see Mark 4:1-20) when contrasting “they are compared to fertile ground which harbors growth” to “like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop”, but I wonder if the similarity is only superficial? Chidushei Harim is describing relative impact of the deeds of the righteous and the wicked in the Heavenly realm, while Jesus is specifically discussing how different people receive the Word and respond in both the short and long run. I suppose you can say there’s a relationship, but if it even exists, it’s extremely tenuous. Also, the Daf is specifically directed to Jewish people, while the teachings of Jesus can be applied to both Jewish and Gentile disciples (even though at the time he was delivering his parable, Jesus was speaking to an exclusively Jewish audience).

Yesterday’s “meditation” was called Living Out Loud which is (I hope) an encouragement to persevere in the faith against the pressures of a secular world that seems to want us to completely disappear. Today’s “mediation” is the “anti” of yesterday’s.

Let me explain.

It occurs to me that part of what allows us as people of faith to carry on and to stand firmly on the foundation of our principles against the adversity of the world around us is that we are not alone. We always have a safe haven to return to for support and encouragement, be it our church, our synagogue, or some group of like-minded folks who hold the same religious values as we do. It’s a lot harder to face the world around us and express who we are and what we believe if we have to always do it alone. Even with a supportive community, it’s still possible to feel isolated most of the time.

I’m over six months into my “experiment” and I find myself in a rather odd developmental circumstance. I realized that as I was driving to the gym on Sunday morning, I was eying the parking lot of a church I pass along the way and wondering what it would be like to turn in and spend Sunday morning worshiping. I was really surprised at this. Part of the reason I left my previous congregation was to make myself available, should my wife decide to invite me to share her faith life. Carrying the mantle “Messianic” isn’t exactly compatible with entering a traditional Jewish synagogue. But, if I were to even occasionally worship at a church, how damaging would that be to my goal of sharing a faith life with my family?

I have to admit, my wife hasn’t been to shul or participated in any classes or activities at our local synagogues in quite some time. She’s been pretty busy with other pursuits and probably won’t have space in her schedule until after the (Christian/secular) holidays. Still, after six months, I’m beginning to wonder if my goal to share a life of faith with her is even remotely realistic. I don’t think it was a mistake to leave my former congregation because, as supportive and warm as that environment was, it also limited me in terms or other, more personal options. Still, perhaps my journey will lead me in a direction that will never again include a sense of community. How much “spiritual horsepower” do I have in me and how long will it take for my supply to run empty?

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:13

Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but I’m not Paul, not by a long shot. Sure, he faced extraordinary hardships and trials with little or no help and managed to endure to the end of his days, but how many of us could do the same? I know I couldn’t. I have a tough enough time with the challenges operating within the confines of my very ordinary life and frankly, I can feel myself running down. I keep thinking about where I could go to recharge my batteries. No options present themselves as viable. I doubt my wife would object if I chose to visit a church, but there are just tons of problems involved in even a semi-formal re-entry into Christianity, not the least of which would be the upcoming Christmas holidays. Also, getting back to my original issue, one of the goals of my experiment was to be able to worship with my wife. Going to any faith community is hollow if I have to go alone. Going to a church or other house of worship by myself means admitting that I’ll never share a faith life with my wife. Is that what’s going to happen?

I keep turning the options over and over in my mind but nothing new comes up. No fresh path presents itself. The soil is shallow, the land is desolate, there are thorns growing everywhere. I am maintaining my faith, but almost everywhere I go (virtually), it is thrown back in my face. The world has no desire to hear truth. It only wants to hear the socially and politically correct “doctrine” of the “church of secular humanism”, and the message that human beings continually evolve on their own, to become more progressively perfect.

Today’s Daf says that each “person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes”, but I find myself wondering what that is for me. I am beginning to see why some religious hermits find the idea of living in a cave or in some other isolated area appealing.

But being in isolation doesn’t serve God.

God never said that a life of faith would be comfortable or even safe. I’m not being persecuted, and my life and safety isn’t at risk, but I am a “stranger in a strange land”, sometimes even in my own home. I’m certainly an oddball everywhere else I go, including in all of my online “personas”. Yesterday, I talked about living a life of faith “out loud” and today I’m wondering if in my own case, it is even worth it? Maybe I should spend more time in quiet and solitary study and prayer and less time shooting off my big mouth on the Internet and in real life.

But when you experience that which you do not yet understand, there is surprise and there is wonder. For that moment, you are swept away and lifted out of your little world. You taste firsthand that, yes, there is truly a reality that exists beyond my own mind and heart.

This is the path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world. It is a path that takes an open mind, one ready for truths beyond itself. As the people declared at Sinai, “We will do, and then we will understand.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Experience First”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“We will do, and then we will understand” sounds like a call to continue a life of faith without having to know the “why” of it. But when Rabbi Freeman says, “This is the path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world”, he isn’t saying anything that can be applied to a Gentile who, by definition, has no part in the Torah. In confronting my Jewish studies and trying to express who I am and what I believe, I find myself in a room with four blank walls but no door, alone in muffled silence, crying out in a voice that is speaking in vain.

The Ba’al Shem Tov once told his disciples a story about a beautiful bird that flew into the king’s garden and perched on the high branch of a tree. Every day the bird sang its song, and the melody so captivated the king that he vowed to capture it and bring it inside the castle to sing for him alone. The king drew his servants together and instructed them to create a human ladder via which he would reach the treetop. They did as he ordered, and all went well, until he reached out to snatch the bird. At that moment, the man at the bottom became tired and moved away. The human ladder collapsed.

What does this story tell us? On one level it is a parable that might point to the folly of trying to capture for one man’s personal pleasure the bounty that was meant for us all to enjoy. But we are told that the Ba’al Shem Tov had a deeper lesson in mind. He wanted us to understand that G-d’s love can descend to earth only when we support each other – the strong helping the weak and the weak aspiring to strength. When even one person gives in to weakness – to greed or cruelty – the entire structure collapses. Thus the universe is dependent upon each of our efforts.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“The Ten Sefirot” (pp 51-2)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

I’m writing this on Monday for the “meditation” on Tuesday, so maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow morning feeling differently. Maybe not. On the other hand, I’d hate to think that by walking away from hope, I’ll cause someone else to fall. Or is that arrogant presumption on my part?

2 thoughts on “The Empty Room”

  1. I hope you keep living ‘out loud’ and also hope the shared life of faith your experiment makes possible does happen.
    “working to give God pleasure” really struck me. Just grasping “God” is so hard for me to fathom, much less how I could possibly give such a Being any pleasure out of my brief existence.
    ““person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes”, but I find myself wondering what that is for me”

    me too.
    Thanks for this blog entry, James.

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