Knocking On Heaven’s Door

One of the hardest chinuch matters to deal with is what to do when faced with a student who is in a decline, whose presence in the yeshiva can be harmful to the other bochurim. Sometimes, the only option a rosh yeshiva may feel he has is to ask the student to leave.

When Rav Boruch Ber Lebovitz, zt”l, needed to send a student out of the yeshiva, he literally wept, expressing his love for his wayward student. When a student who had taken a negative path recounted how Rav Boruch Ber had told him he had to leave the yeshiva, he was overcome with emotion. “It was obvious that he didn’t want me to leave, that he would have done anything to allow me to stay. One felt as though he was compelled from on high to expel me, even though this was the furthest thing from his desire. Believe me he was more upset about the matter than I was at the time.”

The Beis Yisrael of Gur, zt”l, was known to be very sharp—and to be a leader of similarly sharp chassidim—yet he could also be extremely gentle. When one of his chassidim had a fall, some members of the community wished to banish him. But the rebbe would never allow them to do so as long as the young man continued to pray with them at the shteibel.

He would explain, “In Temurah 11 we find that if a person declares the foot of an animal an olah, the holiness spreads out to the entire animal. This hints to the fact that even if a person only sanctifies his foot by going to a kosher beis midrash, in the end he will change directions and ascend again in teshuvah. The holiness in his feet will spread out to his entire self.”

He would often quote an inspiring vort of Rav Zusia of Anapoli, zt”l, “The verse states… ‘They are a topsy-turvy generation.’ Rav Zusia explained that we never know where a Jew will end up. He is constantly in an upheaval; one day he may be very far, yet the next he can do a complete about-face and become a truly good Jew. Who can delve into the deepest places of the Jewish soul, which is a portion of Godliness from above?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“About Face”
Temurah 11

My past two meditations have been discussing the general and personal implications of a video I recently saw, recording the lament of Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, Rector at St. Marys Episcopal Church St. Paul, Minnesota, and the decision made by the church’s ministry to stop all of their adult educational programs. When reading the above-quoted Daf this morning (it’s Sunday as I’m writing this), I couldn’t help but think that this is what Rev. Watkins and the other shepherds at St Marys have done…to most of the people attending their church. No, they didn’t literally kick these folks out, but they did give up on them, and on themselves as ministers. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I can certainly understand the temptation to give up, which in my case, is giving up on me, but the consequences are enormous. Consider what the Master had to say on this topic:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” –Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV)

The first part of this scripture details the specific process by which a sinner among the congregation is confronted and addressed at each step of his or her refusal to acknowledge their sin, first to the offended party, then to a small group, and finally in front of the entire congregation. If the person still refuses to repent (which also closely mirrors the quote from the Daf I posted), then the sinful person is told to leave. I can only imagine there would be quite a bit of angst in this final part, but there’s more to it. In the last few verses of the quote from Matthew 18, there appears to be more than natural consequences to such an act of rejection. Whatever the congregation does, as an authority and representative of the Master, is also permitted by the Heavenly authority as well. This tells me that we should be extremely careful who we discard, since we are evicting them, not just from our local church or faith community, but perhaps out of the Kingdom of Heaven as well.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. –1 Corinthians 5:4-5 (ESV)

That sounds very serious…and very final. But Paul also said this:

By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. –1 Timothy 1:19-20 (ESV)

That sounds a tad more temporary. To me, it sounds like Hymenaeus and Alexander were handed over to the adversary until they learned not to blaspheme. Does that mean they’d be able to re-enter the congregation and the Kingdom if they repented? I hope so. No one should be condemned forever unless they choose to be irredeemable. Some people do make that permanent choice, but not everyone. Let’s review part of the commentary from the Daf again:

Rav Zusia explained that we never know where a Jew will end up. He is constantly in an upheaval; one day he may be very far, yet the next he can do a complete about-face and become a truly good Jew. Who can delve into the deepest places of the Jewish soul, which is a portion of Godliness from above?”

Couldn’t that also be applied to an errant disciple of the Master? Didn’t the Master himself teach that return is always possible with repentance?

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. –Luke 15:17-24 (ESV)

I’ve heard it said that the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. It has learned the first part of what to do with an unproductive tree that is not fruitful, but it sometimes forgets that Jesus also taught that the prodigal son should be allowed to return. I’m not condemning Rev. Watkins and, as I said, I can very much understand what she’s saying and even agree with her on various levels, but I also hope that St Marys will be open to shepherding their flock at whatever point the sheep decide to return to the fold. This gets a little confusing when we remember that Jesus also taught that a good shepherd would leave ninety-nine sheep in the flock to retrieve even one lost sheep (Luke 15:4). Maybe giving up on all of the adult ed programs at St Mary’s is an effort to “go after” the lost sheep. Or maybe it’s like the old joke that asks, “Why did the farmer hit the mule in the head with a stick?” The answer is, “to get its attention.”

I’m not just talking about the church giving up on its sheep but on us giving up on ourselves. It isn’t just the church’s fault if their programs and their activities aren’t attracting people, it’s our fault for not participating in the community of faith. Each of us, as individuals, have to decide the direction of our walk of faith. If we give up on that walk or tarry too slowly along the path, why should we be surprised when we find that the community has decided to leave us behind? Indeed, why should we be surprised and even astonished, when we discover that God has left us behind, and given us into the company of a far less savory fellow?

But we can still come back, both to the community and to God.

The words and the stories of Torah are but its clothing; the guidance within them is its body.

And, as with a body, within that guidance breathes a soul that gives life to whoever follows it.

And within that soul breathes a deeper, transcendental soul, the soul of the soul: G-d Himself within His Torah.

Grasp the clothes alone and you have an empty shell. Grasp straight for the soul—or even the body—and you will come up with nothing. They are not graspable; they are G-dly wisdom and you are a created being.

Instead, examine those words and those stories, turn them again and again. As fine clothes and jewelry can bring out the beauty of the one who wears them, so these words and stories can lead you to the G-dliness that dwells within the Torah.

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

I’m encouraged when I can see that the Bible I hold in my hands is not a mere book, but an interface imbued with the Holiness and Presence of God. Although God, as the Rabbi teaches, is not to be accessed directly in any sense, by reading and studying and responding to the Word, and the Word made flesh, even in our darkest moments, we are allowed to return in repentance, just by touching the hem of His garment, or perhaps in the Master’s case, just by touching the merest threads of his tzitzit.

But then, a woman with a flow of blood for twelve years approached from behind him and touched the corner of his garment, for she said in her heart, “If only I touch his garment, I will be saved (from her ailment).” Yeshua turned and saw her and said, “Be strong, my daughter. Your faith has saved you.” The woman was saved from that time on. –Matthew 9:20-22 (DHE Gospels)

We can choose to go back, no matter how long we’ve been gone and we will be accepted by God in the Kingdom, as the angels sing His praises. May the church that has sent away those who have failed, also open their doors and their hearts to everyone who has tried and failed, and to those who sincerely seek to return home. We’re all knocking on heaven’s door.

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