The Transcendent Path

Tree of LifeIf you find yourself affixed to a single path to truth—the path of prayer and praise, or the path of kindness and love,or the path of wisdom and meditation,or any other path of a singular mode—you are on the wrong path. Truth is not at the end of a path. Truth transcends all paths. Choose a path. But when you must, take the opposite path as well.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Two at Once”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

As human beings, we have a tendency to compartmentalize and specialize our lives. This comes as no surprise to me, since organization of the different elements of life into “categories” is how we understand ourselves. We have an order and a set of habits to what we do. We also have an awareness of what we’re good at and what we aren’t; a set of “gifts” to which we lean upon and if we are kind, offer to others. Organizing our lives by categorization is necessary so we can conceptualize events, circumstances, and objects and make sense of the world around us.

But it can also be a limitation if we believe we are only defined be these categories. Saying, “I’m only good at this, so I won’t try that,” may rob someone who needs you to do “that” for them rather than “this.”

I’m as guilty of this sort of thinking and behaving as anyone. I’m a writer, both professionally and “for fun.” I find that I can clarify my own thinking and understand better what some people are saying to me if I write about those experiences. My Wednesday night meetings with Pastor Randy are a perfect example. He might say a few sentences to me on Wednesday that will fuel my blog posts for an entire week, because I use writing to continually process what he has been teaching.

But I cannot allow writing to be the totality of my identity and my activity. Someone who needs me to give them a lift to a doctor’s appointment because their car broke down won’t be helped if I only write about their need. I should offer them a ride to and from the appointment in my car. I should do something that I’m not accustomed to considering as an “expertise” of mine in order to meet another human being’s need.

Earlier today, I was writing about giving chesed to the stranger, showing someone who needs you a kindness, not because they are your friend or neighbor, but just because they need you.

In the world of “religious blogging,” most of us have a tendency to write about what we’re interested in, and again, I’m no exception. We often write about the theological or doctrinal specifics with which we identify. Jews write about Judaism and Christians write about Christianity. Nothing strange about that. Even within a particular religious structure, we tend to write about those areas of which we are particularly fond or in which we are interested.

I’ve written lately on Divine Election because I was processing that information. For another person, that might be a rather meaningless topic. I’ve read blogs recently about the Leviticus 11 kosher laws, Bibles limited to the New Testament and the Psalms, Shomer Negiah, Good Friday, and other religious subjects. Nothing wrong with writing about any of those religious topics…

…unless they limit what else we should be doing.

We tend to choose a path and then walk it, but then we only walk that path and no other. According to what Rabbi Freeman said above, that’s not the right path. If we are on the path of prayer and praising God but a homeless person on the street needs us to give them something to eat, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment. If we are busy donating our time at a shelter or food kitchen, but God needs us to read and meditate upon His Word, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment.

The individual’s avoda must be commensurate with his character and innate qualities. There may be one who can drill pearls or polish gems but works at baking bread (the analogy in the realm of avoda may be easily understood). Though baking bread is a most necessary craft and occupation, this person is considered to have committed a “sin.”

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Nissan 25, 10t day of the omer, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

white-pigeon-kotelAvoda is a Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “work,” but among the Chassidim, it “generally refers to Divine service (or worship). For example, it’s part of the Divine service to serve God with joy.” Is who we are as servants of God limited to our theology or our religious identity, or is there something that transcends all that information, and unites us as living, human creations of the Most High God?

We often drone on and on and on about our insights into the Bible, our own theological pet peeves, or about how people with different theological pet peeves annoy us and are guilty of “false teaching,” but do we take the time to transcend our categories, our pigeon-holed lives, and realize that truth is much, much larger than the box we’ve put ourselves in?

And if your brother is not close to you and you do not know him.

Deuteronomy 22:2

Perhaps the reason that other people are not close to you is because you do not know them.

The Chassidic master of Apt said: “As a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I matured, I narrowed my goals to changing my community. Still later, I decided to change only my family. Now I realize that it is all I can do to change myself.”

Some things in the world are givens, and others are modifiable. The only thing we can really modify is ourselves. All other people are givens. Unfortunately, many people assume the reverse to be true. They accept themselves as givens and expect everyone else to change to accommodate them.

(There is one limited exception. When our children are small, we can teach and guide them. When they mature, however, we can no longer mold them.)

Trying to change others is both futile and frustrating. Furthermore, we cannot see other people the way they truly are, as long as we are preoccupied with trying to change them to the way we would like them to be.

The people we should know the most intimately are those who are closest to us. Yet it is precisely these people whom we wish to mold into the image we have developed for them. As long as this attitude prevails, we cannot see them for what they are. How ironic and tragic that those we care for the most may be those we know the least!

Today I shall…

…try to focus any desires to change on myself and let other people determine for themselves who and what they wish to be.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nissan 20”

light-of-the-worldTo extend Rabbi Twerski’s metaphor, we can only change the world by changing ourselves. We can only serve God and change the world, by accepting that others will always be different from us and then realize that’s not always a bad thing. We, in the end, are only responsible for who we are. God will not judge us on what other people have done but only on what we have done with our lives. If we have treated others kindly, our theology, doctrine, dogma, or any of the other boxes and pigeon holes we’ve used to categorize and identify ourselves in this world will be worth less than who we are in Christ.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Philippians 3:4-8

Paul isn’t saying that his being Jewish is literally worthless, and I’m not suggesting that how we study and understand the Word of God is meaningless, either. What I am saying is that, like Paul, there is something much, much greater. The Master taught us that loving God to our fullest extent and loving other human beings as ourselves are the essence of everything in the Bible. He also taught that we would be known as his disciples specifically by our love of one another, a love that goes so far that we would be willing to give up our lives for another if required.

If anything can be said to transcend all of our paths, our categories, our religious posturing, it is love…even love for the unlovable and the unlikable ..especially love for those who otherwise make us feel hurt and angry and aggravated. If we can authentically show them love, then we are better than all of the sermons and blog posts about theology that we could ever produce. Then, we are written in His Book of Life because we have loved.

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

We must be more.


2 thoughts on “The Transcendent Path”

  1. ““As a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I matured, I narrowed my goals to changing my community. Still later, I decided to change only my family. Now I realize that it is all I can do to change myself”

    Realization of this is such freedom, and yet it is also when the real work begins!

    Thanks James.

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