Waiting for Hope in the Abyss

AbyssRav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, zt”l, taught great inspiration from a statement on today’s daf.

“A person who has sinned and fallen to the lowest place, banished from God’s presence, should also never despair. A sacrifice that was fitting but then lost its status is no longer accepted even if afterward it regained its original status. But Rav holds that if the animal is still alive, it is not rejected absolutely. This fallen soul is no different. As long as he has some chiyus, some vitality, it is always possible to start again and attain forgiveness. This is the deeper meaning of the words, ‘Forgive our sins for they are many.’ This can be also be read, ‘Forgive our sins, because the halachah follows Rav—that ba’alei chaim are not rejected.'”

The Lechivitcher, zt”l, offered a parable to help understand this better. “A Jew is like a valuable coin. Even if it rusts and has mud crusted over it, it still retains its original value. The owner must clean the coin by removing the rust and the caked mud, but once he does so it shines just the same as it did when it was new.”

Rav Moshe of Kovrin, zt”l, was once encouraging some young chassidim who were struggling in spiritual matters. “Even if one falls again and again—even one hundred times—he must strengthen himself again and again. It is incumbent upon us to always find a way to encourage ourselves again and again, until we climb out of our spiritual rut!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Ba’alei Chaim”
Temurah 23

I always have to be careful when I generalize a Jewish commentary and try to apply it to Christianity. After all, the Rabbis didn’t produce these Dafs with Christians in mind and sometimes, the judgments and insights they generate are specifically not to be applied to non-Jews. However, when reading Derek Leman’s book review of Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, I found something interesting.

So, it might surprise you to know that Boyarin thinks Judaism and Christianity are compatible. His goal, stated on pages 6-7 is to help Christians and Jews to stop vilifying each other. He doesn’t follow Jesus and isn’t asking fellow Jews to do so. But he demolishes all ideas that Christian devotion to Jesus is contrary to Judaism or that Christianity is anything other than a Judaism to which mostly non-Jews have been drawn. Jews in the time of Jesus were looking, he says, for a divine messiah. And Jesus’ earliest followers were kosher Jews. The sad separation and enmity of Judaism and Christianity is something to get beyond, not something to perpetuate.

According to how I’m reading Leman (I haven’t read Boyarin’s book yet), Boyarin doesn’t see a severe “disconnect” between first century Jewish and Gentile worship of God through the “path” of “the Way”. But, as Boyarin declares, if Christianity is not directly contrary to Judaism, can I say the reverse, that Judaism is not directly contrary to Christianity? Further, can I stretch my metaphor to say that Jewish teachings are not directly contrary to Christianity?

You probably think I’m grasping at straws. On the other hand, let’s look at our “story off the Daf” again. What is the theme? That even the person who is most distanced from God because of their sin should not dispair and give up all hope of reconciliation. Doesn’t that sound like it could be a Christian theme as well?

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. –Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:6-8 (ESV)

I believe we who are Christians can take the same hope that, no matter how far we have fallen away from God, we can rise back up to Him, even as Rav Simcha Bunim teaches.

Yesterday, the Jewish world celebrated Purim, the commemoration of the victory of the Jewish people in ancient Persia over Haman’s plan of genocide. If you read the Book of Esther on Purim, you realized how desperate it was for the Jews and how hopeless everything seemed. Even after Esther revealed the evil Haman’s plot to King Achashverosh, it was not in his power to reverse his decree. The destruction of the Jews seemed inevitable. And yet, through the courage of Esther and Mordechai and the love of God for His people, the King granted the Jews the ability to fight back and to defend themselves.

Hopelessness was turned into hope and defeat was transformed into victory; a victory that is still commemorated many thousands of years later, for with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Although God is not explicitly mentioned in Esther, we know that He was there with Israel, defending them and encouraging them. It was a miracle that the Jews survived the enormous threat against them. It is always a miracle when the Jews survive, since often it is only God who is for them, and an entire world who desires that they perish. Remember this too, as you study the sin of the Golden Calf for this Shabbat’s Torah Reading. There is no failing or sin so great that you become irredeemable.

Yet most of God’s miracles are not in the realm of the supernatural. It was (seemingly) through very natural processes that the Jews were saved from the plan of Haman. Seas did not part. The earth did not stop rotating on its axis, Fire and destruction did not rain down from heaven upon the enemies of the Jews. So it is in our lives today, even in the most dire and hopeless of circumstances. You may not feel the hand of God touching you or see His finger writing in the dust, but He is there and while you live, there is hope, but only if you hope in Him.

The philosopher, when he sees a miracle, looks for a natural explanation. The Jew, when he sees nature, looks for the miracle.

-Rabbi Tsvi Freeman
“Unnatural Response”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Blessings and hope.

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