Something New

When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” Then they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, “We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?” He recognized it, and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!” Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. ALL his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to, my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. The Midianites, meanwhile, sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward.Genesis 37:29-36 (JPS Tanakh)

Beginnings are hard. For good reason. If they were easy, we would prowl into each new venture like a snug fat cat.

When you begin pent up in an iron cage, a tiger comes out. A tiger that breaks through the door of its cage and pounces with a vengeance.

Bless those cages, those impossible brick walls, those rivers of fire that lie at the outset of each worthwhile journey. Without them we would be only as powerful as we appear.

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

As we see in the example from this week’s Torah Portion Vayeishev, making a new beginning, even in something that will ultimately turn out to be very worthwhile, can be very hard. Of course, when Joseph was stripped and thrown into a pit by his brothers, then kidnapped and sold into slavery, he hardly thought this was a good “new beginning”. In fact, it was the lowest point of his life up until then. He had no idea of the grandeur he would eventually attain as Viceroy in Egypt and savior of the civilized world.

I can hardly compare myself to Joseph, but I know what it’s like to make a new beginning. We all do, really. Anyone who has gotten married, who has had a child, who has moved to a new city, who has taken a new job knows what it is like to make a new beginning. Even when what you are achieving is ultimately good and desirable, it can still be difficult and stressful. Change always is.

I also know what it’s like to make a new beginning spiritually. I’ve done this more than once. Of course there was the moment when I came to faith in Jesus. I like to “joke” that almost immediately afterward, my life fell apart. I went through some very difficult times after coming to faith which is the exact opposite of what I’d expected, but then, God had to step in and help me make some significant changes once I declared my faith and was baptized. He’s still doing that work and sometimes, it really hurts.

During the past couple of years, I put myself through another significant spiritual change. For a year, starting in the summer of 2010, I started challenging all of my long-held religious assumptions, began studying new materials, and ultimately, at the end of that year, took my religious worship life in a very different direction. It wasn’t easy. I had to leave a congregation where I had been a trusted leader and teacher and where I had many friends (they’re still my friends) because of the new convictions at which I had arrived. I started a journey that still has no definitive destination and where I encounter uncertainty often. I believe this is the right thing to do for me, but doing the right thing is often disturbing and disconcerting.

Sometimes, even when you know that a new beginning is required, you don’t know what to do first. In fact, right after I had come to faith, the first question I asked my Pastor was, “What do I do now?”

Today’s daf discusses teaching Torah. Rav Moshe Shapira, shlit”a, explains that today’s world of kiruv is a new chapter that needs to be understood in its own context. For example, although the Shulchan Aruch writes that a rebbe must instill fear in his students—for this purpose he may not eat with them or be overly familiar with them—today is very different. When dealing with young people who need to be drawn closer, following such halachos will only cause an unhealthy distance between student and rebbe.

Another example of a complex kiruv issue was faced by a certain maggid who would travel around Eretz Yisrael encouraging our estranged brothers to draw closer to God. He wondered what to do with those who are distant but could be persuaded to take on some new religious practice. Most would only be willing to take on a single mitzvah, and pushing for more would only serve to destroy any willingness to advance. The question was: which mitzvah comes first?

When he brought this question to Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashev, shlit”a, he replied concisely. “It doesn’t matter too much what they start with. But try to find a d’oraisa mitzvah that you think will make the greatest impact on them. Speak and encourage them to take on this mitzvah.”

The heads of Hidabrut, the famous Belzer kiruv organization in Eretz Yisrael, also had a kiruv conundrum. When a person is at the point where he will either take on wearing a kippah or tzitzis, which is more important?

Rav Eliyashev’s response will surprise many. “It is better to convince him to begin wearing a kippah. Although tzitzis is obviously a Torah commandment, wearing a yarmulke is superior since a man who wears a yarmulke feels especially Jewish since he publicly associates himself with religious Jews.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“New Students”
Bechoros 29

Truth be told, one of the reasons why some Christians are attracted to the “Messianic” movement is that worship and faith is demonstrated in so many physical ways. The wearing of a yarmulke and tzitzit is very compelling and even a little addictive. I tend to believe that non-Jews in the movement go through a set of developmental steps, not all of them beneficial, but all of them seem to be necessary. One of the first steps is to become enamored with all the “Jewish stuff”. Sometimes the “stuff” is so seductive, that the non-Jewish participants never get past the “physicality” of their worship and dig into the spiritual context and meaning. They also get “sucked into” the idea that their “stuff”, because much of it can be found in Bible commandments, is better than the “Christian stuff” (and Christians don’t have nearly as much symbolic physical paraphernalia so they don’t seem as “cool”). Fortunately most people get past this stage. Some sadly, don’t.

However, if you’re immature in your faith, often the very first step onto a path of maturity is a material object, such as giving a child their very first Bible or cross necklace. The object takes on a transitional value, if seen and used properly, to escort the newly spiritual person into a faith that doesn’t require material objects to validate their relationship with God.

For an observant Jew, a siddur, talit gadol, kippah, and tefillin all are a part of daily prayer and worship and only under unusual circumstances will a Jew pray without obeying the mitzvot attached to these holy artifacts. But for a Christian and especially for the Gentiles in the Messianic movement, sometimes it’s helpful to put all of the “stuff” away, go off someplace where you can be alone, and just let it be you and God.

Try something uncomfortable and new. See how it works out. When Joseph did it (although it wasn’t his idea), it turned out pretty well. But it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick.

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