39 Days: I’m Alive and Doing Fine

If you feel discouraged about lack of progress in Torah study or spiritual growth, look back a few years and see how much you have grown from when you began. (Pachad Yitzchok, Igros Uksovim, p.218)

This experiential proof will supply you with an indisputable refutation to the premise that you cannot grow. Since you already have progressed, you have a good basis for believing that you can continue to improve.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #644, Experiential Proof of Progress”
Aish.com

On the other hand, I just got done quoting Yoda when he said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I’m still trying to decide whether or not what I already know is a good or bad thing relative to reconciling with church and traditional Christianity. If I, as Rabbi Pliskin suggests, review my history in order to see my growth in response to my current discouragement and frustration, will that necessarily lead to the correct path for me?

Of course, Rabbi Pliskin also writes:

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz used to say that studying mussar (ethical writings) properly does not prevent one from being happy. Just the opposite, the proper study of mussar speaks to the soul. A person begins to identify with his soul and acquires a greater awareness of his Creator. He becomes enlightened, which brings true joy.

Sadness comes from not being satisfied with your present level of behavior, but still not wanting to work on improving. When someone sincerely strives to improve himself, he will feel joy.

“Sadness comes from not being satisfied with your present level of behavior, but still not wanting to work on improving.” So I don’t want to change. That goes without saying. No one wants to change. I suppose only my presumptive arrogance made me believe that church would change for me rather than the other way around. But Rabbi Pliskin is talking about joy and happiness as if they are the goals of a relationship with God. Are they? For that matter, is the goal to have a relationship with God the same or even necessarily compatible with the goal of having a relationship with other Christians?

I go to services, try to sing the Christian hymns (I sing like a frog), put money in the little plate when it is passed around, listen to uplifting Christian music, listen to a scripture reading, listen to a sermon. It’s pretty typical Christian fare but it’s not particularly “me.” But I wonder if being in community is all about being who you are but rather who the community needs you to be?

This thing is too new for me to have any idea what the community needs that would be uniquely within my skill sets to provide. I keep getting the feeling that everyone is waiting for me to do something before the ice breaks and I can get “in,” but I have no idea what that something is. I feel like I’m waiting too, but I don’t know what for.

Although I’m writing this ahead of time, I plan to press the “Publish” button on Thanksgiving morning (my parents will be here for the holiday and so I won’t have much time to write while they’re here). I’ve been thinking if I should somehow include a “thanks” component to this missive. Given that a lot of what I create could be interpreted as complaining, maybe cultivating a bit of gratitude wouldn’t hurt.

Last year we were at a hotel next to the Ramon crater in Israel. I was standing at the edge of the crater at sunset, watching the light bathe the red rocks with an ethereal glow. It looked like the world must have looked like at the beginning of time; just the Creator and the space to create a crater. The horizon melted into the earth as the night began to fall.

Then someone a few steps away from me said loudly into her phone, “There’s nothing to do here! I am bored out of my mind.”

How do we break free from the ‘there’s-nothing-to-see-here’ syndrome?

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“Five Ways to Be Grateful”
Aish.com

Modeh AniYou can click the link I just provided to read all of Gutfreund’s article, but I’ll include just one of her five ways to be grateful:

“I have what I need.” This is a blessing we say every morning: Thank You for providing me with everything that I need. But how many of us really mean it? On the days that I think about the words carefully, I am astounded by their truth. God provides me with my every need, with each part of my life designed to enable me to grow and give and fulfill my purpose in this world. I may want a hundred other things. But those are wants, not needs. Don’t make your wants into needs.

This one particularly struck me because my very first meditation for this blog was based on the modeh ani blessing, which I still recite every morning when I first wake up:

“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”

Like most blessings, you only get out of it what you put into it, and as I’m still quite groggy when I first wake up, often having been jolted awake by the sound of the alarm, I’m not sure how much gratitude I am really feeling or expressing.

But what about church, anyway?

Am I grateful to be there?

Well, they haven’t thrown me out yet, so I’m grateful for that. Sometimes I’m grateful when I get back to my car after services and Sunday school are over, because I tend to find social events among a group of people I don’t know to require a lot of energy. Often, I need to go off, have lunch, and recharge my emotional batteries afterward.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Gutfreund writes another “thanksgiving” related article called 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, and although her focus is on marriage, I think her list of dysfunctions could apply to my approach to church as well. Here’s the list without the accompanying commentary:

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

Actually, Gutfreund is applying principles from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable to marriage, so I’m applying a metaphor of a metaphor onto my relationship with church. It should be interesting.

Gutfreund writes:

“You know that you two are complete opposites, right?” my rabbi said to us two weeks before our wedding. My future husband and I looked at each other. We hadn’t really thought about it. But now that he’d pointed it out, I could see there were some minor differences between us. My fiance was laid back. I was intense. He was a logical and concrete thinker. I was the abstract, creative type. I loved the city. He loved the country. But so what?

“And the two of you will make a great team – not despite, but because of your differences. The Torah is made of black letters against a white page. Without the white, you can’t see the black letters. And without the letters, the white has no content. Do you see what I mean?” We nodded, but I’m not sure either one of us completely understood.

“As long as you appreciate each other’s personalities, you’ll be okay. Focus on how each of your unique personalities contributes toward your shared goals. Don’t tolerate. Appreciate.”

However, in any romantic relationship, there is an attraction and a bond that has to be established before the relationship gets to the point of struggling with the differences and then learning to appreciate them. You usually have a young couple who, for whatever reason, find each other initially but superficially (how much can you know about someone just by looking at them) attractive. The attraction is enough to inspire some sort of “first contact.” There’s a conversation. Perhaps a few pleasant sparks fly. There are meetings, dates, encounters, all of which continue to strengthen the bond. Whatever differences that exist between the couple are temporarily beside the point as romantic love and the first stages of what you might call commitment begin to form.

Can I apply that to church? After all, so far I’ve noticed mostly differences and few similarities.

Really, I approached going back to church with the same emotional enthusiasm as a root canal: necessary, but to be avoided if at all possible. I went back to church as a perceived necessity and a duty, not because I was falling in love with church.

Have you ever fulfilled a mitzvot (I guess this question can only apply to Jews by definition) that you performed out of a sense of duty but not love?

Surprisingly, over 10% of the 271 mitzvot that are applicable in our times require consciously choosing our thoughts and feelings. For example, the mitzvah not to harbor hatred in one’s heart toward another person [Lev. 19:18] means that even if you were treated shabbily by your erstwhile friend, you are not supposed to nurse any grievance in your heart. But how is the aggrieved party able to accomplish this feat when his iPod shuffle mind is blaring the “She Hurt Me Blues”? He can drown out that destructive tune with the oldie-but-goodies “She’s Doing the Best She Can With What She Has,” “I Can Rise Above This” and “I Forgave Her, God, So Please Forgive Me.”

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“The iPod Shuffle: The Zen of Judaism”
Aish.com

Is engaging in religious community a mitzvot; a commandment of God?

Apparently not, at least not in so many words. That is, a quick Google search doesn’t seem to yield a specific scripture that says, “Thou shalt meet with thy brethren weekly,” or something like that. I did find the usual, “Don’t go to church, be the church,” but that’s a platitude or principle, not something that God specifically said to us. Also, and I’ve mentioned this before, I can hardly take a commandment directed specifically at the Jews and somehow magically apply it to Christianity, unless there’s a very clear trail of connections leading from Torah to the commandments of Messiah to the Gentile disciples.

I’m not saying that community is a bad idea, I’m just asking if it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, an act of kindness and charity in the service of God? Does anybody know?

If it is, should I approach a mitzvah with reluctance (and remember, Christians can’t actually fulfill the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews)?

Or thanksgiving?

My general belief system tells me I should believe the latter. That any opportunity to serve God, assuming going to church is serving God, should be done with joy and gratitude. After all, it’s a tremendous honor to serve the Creator of the Universe, the King of all existence. Don’t even the angels sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty?”

Beyond all of my internal debates and struggles (which are almost always externalized here), this is what I’m looking for:

When a parent loves a child,

he stoops down to the child, with such love,
he leaves his language to speak the language of the child,
he leaves his place to play the games of the child,
he leaves his entire world and all the maturity he has gained in thirty, forty years or more to become excited, sincerely excited, by those things that excite the child, to react as the child reacts, to live with the child in the child’s world with all his being…

So too, G‑d feels our pain and our joy. He lives intimately with us in our world. Yet He is infinite, beyond all things—even as He is here with us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“G-d Involved”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Being grateful doesn’t require a perfect life, or a perfect world, or a perfect gift. It doesn’t even require a perfect church or a perfect synagogue. While the writings of the Chabad bring me great comfort and even occasionally joy, I am abundantly aware, at least based on Shmarya Rosenberg’s record of experiences with the Chabad and Orthodox Judaism, that they aren’t a perfect community, either.

Gratitude doesn’t require perfection, it doesn’t even require satisfaction of wants and needs. It just requires an awareness of God and what He has done, including His allowing us to be alive. There’s a blessing that is said by observant Jews at certain special occasions:

O Lord our God, King of the universe
who has kept us in life, sustained us and brought us to this season.

Interestingly enough, a man named Les Emmerson wrote a song over forty years ago called Signs that says something quite similar:

And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all,
I didn’t have a penny to pay,
so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine

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4 thoughts on “39 Days: I’m Alive and Doing Fine”

  1. I don’t know if you would reckon this as a mitzvah, but its advice is sound:
    Heb.10:23-25
    23 Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)
    24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
    25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

    Of course, it’s another instruction issued to Jews, but I think we may reasonably generalize its application.

  2. “Of course, it’s another instruction issued to Jews, but I think we may reasonably generalize its application.”
    In my community Jews ‘gather together’ just like Christians only on a different day. They too discuss Biblical issues, Issues Of The Day, family and all things important. Many of them will be sitting down to a Thanksgiving meal celebrating freedom from persecution..they will pray for enduring peace in the Middle East for ALL peoples and they will wish you a happy and wonderful Thanksgiving with your family and friends.

  3. Since you often quote from other sources, I wonder if you’ve heard of or would be interested in a site that I enjoy listening to: http://www.truth2u.org/ The host offers a number of interesting programs where he and guests delve into the Torah, prophets, etc., analyzing the original Hebrew terminology and various interpretations. They are from various Christian and Jewish backgrounds, and present the information in a highly engaging manner.

  4. Thanks for commenting in my absence, folks. Up in the middle of the night with “thanksgiving heartburn.” Decided to try and catch up on a few things while everyone else is asleep. Blessings.

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