Life Under Repair

Question: I’ve been enjoying the philosophy articles on The approach to life resonates with me much more than the Western style of consumerism and media hype. Regarding the obligatory nature of mitzvot, however, I think sometimes humans have to disregard the boundary and be disobedient against the command. It might be painful, but I believe you come away with a higher appreciation that God and His commands are ultimately correct. Do you agree with this thinking?

The Aish Rabbi Replies: You have touched on a deep truth, but ultimately your principle is mistaken. The Talmud states: “In a place where a reformed sinner stands, even a righteous tzaddik does not stand.” The idea is that after having erred, you can analyze your negative acts, learn from them, and use that knowledge as a foundation to motivate you further.

While all this seems to imply that it is better to make mistakes and then correct them, rather than never have made the mistake in the first place, that is not true.

Let’s take the mundane example of the rule: “Always look both ways before crossing the street.” There are two ways to learn this lesson: 1) Listen to the advice of teachers and parents to look both ways before crossing, or 2) cross recklessly, get hit by a car, and then while lying in the hospital acknowledge a lesson well-learned.

The problem in choosing the second path is that there is always a residual effect from our mistakes. A teenager who experiments with drugs may grow up to realize the dangers, but a lot of brain cells have been killed in the meantime.

“Intentional Mistakes”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

(I almost didn’t post the first picture that appears in today’s “meditation” because of its provocative elements, but of all the similar images I found, this one came closest to communicating what I wanted to say.)

In a comment on Gene Shlomovich’s recent blog post How Jesus may have viewed conversion to Judaism, I mentioned how I corrected one of my mistakes:

To be fair, many non-Jewish “Messianics” were taught for years or even decades that there was “One Law for the native-born and the alien” and that information is well ingrained into their psyche and identity. Now that “the movement” has evolved and more accurate information is available relative to how the Bible defines the roles of “Messianic” Gentiles and Jews, it is very hard for some to surrender a status or role that they’ve become quite used to.

I remember when FFOZ (First Fruits of Zion) first announced that they had been wrong in supporting the One Law position and that they were correcting their teachings and organizational stance. I felt angry and betrayed and shot off a very pointed comment or two on Facebook in response. It was like being given an important and valuable gift and becoming comfortable with it, then having it suddenly ripped away.

I suppose I could have become one of those angry “deniers” and continued to “demand my right” to “Torah obligation,” but I started to think. FFOZ had financially just shot themselves in the foot. A large number of their constituents simply abandoned them, abruptly and significantly reducing their income. Why would they do that when in any practical sense, even if privately they’d come to the conclusion that One Law was unsustainable Biblically and theologically, they should have publicly maintained their OL position in order to make sure they survived as a ministry? Their decision only made sense if moral and spiritual honesty were more important to them than an income.

I became curious and started investigating. At about the same time, I started looking at my wife’s pursuit of her Jewish identity as an individual and as a member of the Jewish community through different eyes. Long story short, I realized that I had been wrong in my One Law assumptions and shifted my perceptual and theological paradigm accordingly.

But to say that it was difficult is a gross understatement. A lot of people aren’t capable of that kind of change. I even recently wrote about how difficult it is to “share Abraham” so to speak, and accept that only certain blessings are passed down to the nations (Christians) through Israel. Exchanging self-entitlement for a more mature reality is very hard and not everyone is going to accept it.

Frankly, and not to necessarily contradict the Aish rabbi from whom I quoted above, I don’t see how some mistakes can be avoided. I mean, we all make mistakes. Some are actually part of the human developmental learning process. Take walking for example. When a small child is first learning how to stand and walk, the child falls a lot. Falling isn’t a mistake at this stage of development, it’s a requirement and it’s perfectly normal and expected. No small child has ever (to the best of my knowledge) spontaneously stood and walked with absolute precision on the very first try, and never fell back to the floor. Everybody falls the first time, or the first dozen times, or the first few hundred times.

I think trying to understand God and trying to understand who we are in God is like learning how to stand and walk. We get a lot of things wrong at first, but that’s to be expected. Just conceptualizing the existence of God is tremendously difficult, and integrating faith, trust, hope, and spirituality into a daily lifestyle can escape even some of the best of us. I would hardly expect anyone to become “good at it” right off the bat. In fact, most of us never get really “good at it.” We continue to struggle, to learn, and we periodically fall flat on our faces.

That’s how I’d characterize my own spiritual development, anyway. I suspect that if we were all honest with ourselves and everyone else, every person of faith would admit to the same thing. Only pride keeps us from doing so. We’re afraid of looking foolish. We’re afraid of what other people will say. We’re afraid of just letting go of all that and, like a little child, accepting what God has given us from His abundant store of gifts.

For seven days of Sukkot, Jews walk around in circles, carrying an assortment of green and yellow flora. Then, on Simchat Torah, they dance in circles carrying Hebrew scrolls, working up to a frenzy.

Did I say dance? Well, it’s more like marching, your hands over the next guy’s shoulders, singing and stomping as you march to . . . the same place you started from. Repeat until you plotz. (Yiddish: collapse)

Now for my confession…

When I was first invited, cajoled and nudniked to join the circular festivities, I was more than hesitant. I attempted to explain that I didn’t see the point of walking in such a way that you don’t get any further than where you started. Needless to say, the argument was ignored, and I was swept into the circle whether I liked it or not.

And I felt stupid. For about the first 40,000 circuits. After that, I forgot about myself and how I felt and what I was doing and why I was doing it and whether I was stupid and that I was there at all. And that’s when the circle became good. Very good.

It was good exactly due to that which I had subliminally feared. Because as I stand here, I am I. In the circle, that I dissolves into we. And in that very act of transcendence, that loss of self, there is unbounded joy.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Jews Dance in Circles”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

While being embarrassed and feeling foolish (and avoiding joy) aren’t exactly mistakes, these are experiences that, if we allow them to, will prevent us from correcting mistakes and lead us into a lifestyle based on error and fear. In fact, many people try so hard to avoid embarrassment, foolishness, and the tremendous effort that change requires once it’s discovered, that they live in self-denial, never even permitting themselves to realize that what they are living is a mistake. That is why so many people (and I know atheists must think this about religious people) can “stand their ground” and “stand up for their rights” with total conviction of purpose, and still be dead wrong.

But remember, even in the lesson we learned from the Aish Rabbi, it’s only a mitzvah if we realize we made a mistake and corrected it. And, remember as well that it would have been better to never have made the mistake in the first place.

We can’t avoid making a mistake. We fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves up. Although mistakes are regrettable, they are also part and parcel of the human experience. Falling down is an obvious mistake when our intention was to walk. Many human mistakes are far more subtle and even when we want to be honest, it can be difficult to see past our own assumptions, prejudices, and pride.

To conquer even our unintentional and unconscious errors, we must learn to question everything about ourselves. Why do I believe in such-and-thus? Is it because I grew up believing this? Did someone teach me this belief when I was cognitively or spiritually immature? Examining the same information now that I am more educated, more mature, and more stable, will I reach the same conclusions that I did before?

These are all very dangerous questions and they can make us feel extremely insecure in areas that are absolutely the foundation of our existence. You don’t have to question your faith in God, but you do have to question what that faith means and how it is to be expressed. While people can change, most people don’t once they arrive at a certain comfortable plateau. The trick is never to completely rest on that plateau. It’s not your destination. Keep climbing, even if you feel uncomfortable, even if you feel nervous or foolish. The truth is always one level higher than you’ve ascended so far.

Or like Rabbi Freeman, after dancing in pointless circles the first 40,000 times or so, eventually, you’ll see that pursuing the joy of God is more important than how you feel or what you look like to others. Fixing mistakes and repairing your life is a mitzvah. So is longing for God. The two go hand in hand.

Climb. Dance.


13 thoughts on “Life Under Repair”

  1. I have come to realize that I can’t live perfectly because I have no clue what perfection means in my life. The best I can do is live in the Spirit day by day. Looking to my Father and depending on Him to show me the way stumbling step by stumbling step. And I have no measure that says
    “this is the way walk in it” outside of His voice. It’s difficult, but very freeing. Instead of getting to the end of the day trying to figure out if I lived it rightly or wrongly, or where the mistakes were (because there are always mistakes), I get to the end of the day filled with joy that grace has already covered all my mistakes, and tomorrow is a new day, a new adventure of living the spirit filled life.

    Thanks for your thoughts Jim. I think that sometimes you get discouraged, but whenever I have a few minutes, I try to absorb your blog for the day. I find it to be encouraging.

  2. “These are all very dangerous questions and they can make us feel extremely insecure in areas that are absolutely the foundation of our existence. You don’t have to question your faith in God, but you do have to question what that faith means and how it is to be expressed.”

    Don’t even want to go there ….. questioning what my faith means and how it is expressed is such a slippery slope for me, personally. As the hymn writer said, “Lord, let me never, EVER, outlive my love for Thee.” Some days I wish I were a pre-Trib Calvinist; then I would never be in danger of walking away, and would get out of here before really bad things might tempt me to walk away. Hmmmm … wonder if Dilbert could make something of THAT?

    I need to re-listen to “To Whom Shall We Go?” — a fine activity for the last day of Sukkot.

  3. Yes, questioning our core values and beliefs is dangerous, but if we don’t, at what point do we stop behaving based on free will and actively “choose God” vs. respond to religion as a sort of habit?

    1. I would respectfully submit that the example of your wife …. and my son ….. and others we know who were sincere believers who left the fold …. is reason enough. I HAVE chosen God and Yeshua. I walked away once in my late teens/early 20s. My son hopes I will again and wants to watch Carl Sagen “Cosmos” episodes with me, hoping I’ll fall away when confronted/confounded by the “truth.” Even Peter denied Christ. I do NOT want to go there or even dance close to the edge, because it’s a crumbly precipice.

  4. OK, let’s change the premise slightly. In the body of the blog post, I actually didn’t suggest questioning our belief in God or even our basic Christian framework as such. I did use myself as an example by citing my paradigm shift from One Law to a more “bilateral” (we need a better way to refer to whatever I am) perspective on the relationship between Gentile and Jewish believers.

    I firmly believe that my shift was the correct one to make, but if I didn’t question my One Law assumptions, it never might have occurred to me that there was another proper way to look at my faith. Along the way, I made some unanticipated discoveries (the Bible really does contain internal inconsistencies) that challenged my faith as a whole. My faith survived, but not without a few dings and dents.

    I’m not suggesting that you challenge anything about yourself, Michele. I’m only saying that in my case, it was beneficial to do so. Actually, beyond that, it was absolutely necessary. Perhaps for other people out there, it will become necessary, too.

    1. I do understand, James. Along with you, I also switched from One Law, and I’ve found those internal inconsistencies (many of them). My faith gets challenged all the time, and the way I picture it, my faith is like a bucking bronco that is always trying to throw me off, while I hang onto the saddle horn and the reins for dear life. The scary thing is when sincere, faith-walking, worshiping Believers walk away and abandon Yeshua …. I’ve seen it enough to know that I am not invulnerable to the enemy’s lies, so I’ve adopted a sort of Scarlett O’Hara attitude: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” That’s one reason why I went to Hudson, looking for a faith infusion.

  5. …the way I picture it, my faith is like a bucking bronco that is always trying to throw me off, while I hang onto the saddle horn and the reins for dear life.

    That’s a terrific image, Michele. Yes, riding a bucking bronco is incredibly scary (though I’ve never actually ridden one) but it’s also a very dynamic, living experience. It requires that we be aware of what is happening every single second, shifting and adjusting ourselves in order to “stay on board” so to speak. We can’t take our faith for granted or ignore the demands of a faith-based life. We must constantly be engaged with God, Jesus, the Bible, and the Spirit within us as we negotiate each step we (or the horse) takes every single day.

    That’s actually a pretty accurate description of a living faith. I think instead of broncos, some folks out their are riding the “placid zombie of faith” that simply shuffles along at a slow, steady pace, and upon which its riders can easily doze off without a particular care, knowing they are in no danger of falling away. Of course, they may not get anywhere very quickly (or at all) either.

    That’s one reason why I went to Hudson, looking for a faith infusion.

    I think we all need those and it’s one of the reasons why having a faith community is better than going it alone (though I should talk). We need the support.

  6. Michelle,
    I hope you don’t mind me commenting on your remarks, but I’m just moved by your thoughts.

    Not sure of your background, but mine was in a non-religious home (I’m gentile) and God pulled me in early in life. Due to lots of circumstances I never knew much past Jn 3:16 which I learned at 5 or so. I clung to that verse as a child, and veered off several times but always felt God had me by a leash and he would pull (sometimes yank!) me back when I went too far down the wrong road. As an adult I began to investigate “Truth” and look for it without caring where I ended up, as long as it was true! Long story short, I landed at His feet again, and from that point on I realized that faith was a choice we make.

    Faith does seem fuzzy tho, and so I began to study and I realized that what G-d wants from us, in fact what changed EVERYTHING (via Abraham) is TRUST! I had to think about what that meant. For instance, do I fret while I’m at work, wondering if there will be food in the fridge when I get home? Or if my car will start when I get in and turn the key? Am I biting my nails worrying if the water will come on when I turn the handle to take a shower? (silly stuff, I know, but this was the mental exercise I needed to begin with) The answer was (thankfully) no to all. So, I began to think in terms of God, and how, as a mother, I realized I wanted my children to trust me, and in fact there is no higher honor you can bestow on another than when you state, and display, trust in them. When my kids do this to me, I’m filled inside with so many amazing emotions. Well, I figured it must be pretty important to God too so I began to try it in the biggest ways I could (which are pretty small now that I look back.) But it was like beginning a weightlifting routine and before long I was able to trust Him with bigger things because of His tender faithfulness.

    While I cannot speak for those who walk away from Him I know that there will be those who do, He says as much and many in this movement (my experience only) motivation seems to boil down to insecurity, the opposite of Trust. They seem to either be gentiles who go into crises when they see how special the Jewish people are to God–when that has been neglected in their Christian education, or Jews who want to be accepted into “the fold” and buy into the idea that they cannot believe in Yeshua if they are going to be authentic. But, as I read my bible, we are to be Trusting Him and worried about what He thinks of us, not “men.”

    Anyway, for me I sold out to Him when I saw and witnessed how reliable He was, and how amazing things that would happen if I chose to trust Him in areas of my life (and my kids life) and now, it would be impossible to walk away because I can’t forget those times, and I’m too busy on a quest to trust Him with even greater things!

    I’ll be praying for you…

  7. Thank you so much, LRW! You have a very tender heart. It’s not that I don’t trust God — I absolutely do, even though, as a child, I had a father who was totally untrustworthy in the worst way. But my Abba is different.
    What I don’t trust is my own mind … I have a son who was trying to walk as a Believer. In college, some LDS started “witnessing” to him, so he borrowed all my anti-cult books to find ways to refute them …. and ended up feeling that the apologetics books had weak and facile arguments that even he could shoot down, and so he walked away from his faith. I myself have been able to see logical fallacies in some apologetics books, and what I really hate is when I see internal inconsistencies in Scripture, although admittedly not large ones nor on points of doctrine (Eph. 4:8 vs Ps. 66:18, for example).
    But I was re-listening to “To Whom Shall We Go?” CDs today, and Toby makes a great point for delving deeply … sigh …. James is right, this absolutely MUST be done in community — and a community who will hold my feet to the fire — and hold my hand when I’m feeling lost ….

  8. …and what I really hate is when I see internal inconsistencies in Scripture…

    That one threw me for a loop when I first discovered it. Internal inconsistencies in inspired scripture? How could we base our faith on a document that isn’t 100% perfectly consistent?

    It was another one of those “paradigm shift” things that made the difference. I started looking at the Bible, or at least the New Testament, as a collection of Chasidic tales and things began to make more sense.

    I’ll be praying for you…

    Beyond all the arguments and hassling over theological details, it’s our compassion for one another that speaks the loudest about God.

  9. “what I really hate is when I see internal inconsistencies in Scripture”

    Hi Michelle, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with your dad, but I can totally relate to you in that I too have looked to my Heavenly Father to fill that void left in my life as well.

    Regarding your son and the above quote: I too went down the apologetics route (with the real Bible Answerman, Walter Martin 😉 and the motivation was also a LDS! Anyway, when one considers the age of these texts, and that they are written in a foreign tongue (to us) by many authors, it’s remarkable how coherent they are and the utter lack of more inconsistencies. He’s not a database after all, He is a living God, and gave the privilege to a few to write down His revelation, but I do believe He kept their individual personalities and quirks too.

    Also, when one considers the “problems” of faith, they seem to pale in comparison to the alternatives. Like the push by some scientists to promote the idea that we’ve been “seeded” here by aliens. That’s a fun one! :-0

    Thanks for sharing Michelle.

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