Vayetzei: The Mosaic of God

Jacobs_LadderJacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely, God is present in this place and I did not know!”

Genesis 28:16

What was the source of Jacob’s surprise? Jacob realized that he can relate to God even during sleep.

The Talmud (Berachos 63a) says that there is a brief passage upon which the entire body of Torah is dependent: “In all your ways know God” (Proverbs 3:6). Rambam and countless other commentaries refer to this statement, saying that one should serve God not only with the actual performance of mitzvos, but with all of one’s daily activities.

Dvar Torah for Vayetzei
based on Twerski on Chumash by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish.com

Yesterday, I quoted another Aish source, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who suggests we should act the way we want to be. This was in part, to support how in serving God, we need to bring both a sense of justice and mercy to the table, so to speak. We need not to be severely biased in one direction or the other, though according to some areas of Jewish thinking, even God created the world with a very slight leaning toward mercy.

In his commentary on Torah Portion Vayetzei, Rabbi Packouz presents an interesting and related challenge.

What is true spirituality? My beloved friend, Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, who has a revolutionary approach to helping kids get better grades with less study time in both secular and Jewish studies, came up with the following paradigm of attributes to clarify the definition of spirituality.

  1. Emotion — Intellect
  2. Kindness — Justice
  3. Community — Solitude
  4. God — Nature
  5. Serenity — Challenge

Put a check mark by one attribute from each pair that you think is more spiritual.

Now, if you want to try something interesting, put an “x” mark by each attribute that you associate with the Jewish people.

Here’s the point Rabbi Packouz is making, a point that dovetails nicely with what I was saying in yesterday’s morning meditation:

What is fascinating is that most people associate spirituality with emotion, kindness, solitude, nature and serenity … and the Jewish people with intellect, justice, community, God and challenge. The reason is that we have an Eastern notion of spirituality — an all encompassing emotional bliss connecting with the universe. The Jewish approach to spirituality is based on fulfilling a purpose, to fix the world (tikun olom)– which requires intellect, justice, community, God and challenge.

For the Jew, intellect is to be channeled into emotion — emotions can’t rule you; you must do the right thing. Justice provides for a world of kindness. A society has to be willing to identify rights and wrongs and stand up to evil. If not, one can attempt to do kindness, but end up enabling evil. Community provides you with an understanding of who you are – a member of a people – even when you are alone, you are still part of something more. Realizing that there is a Creator and having a relationship with the Creator makes the natural much more profound. This world is a veiled reality with the Creator behind it. People can only receive serenity when they live up to their challenges; otherwise, they are tormented in their pursuit of serenity by not living up to their potential.

mosaicYou cannot lead with any one side of the equation, so to speak. You can’t even lead with just a few different but specific attributes. And yet people in religion do this all the time, usually to the detriment of the faith. In reading Rabbi Packouz, I get the impression, at least in the ideal, that Judaism strikes the desirable balance between emotion and intellect, between mercy and justice. Of course, the idea that the universe was created by God with these two elements is also a Jewish idea.

Don’t get me wrong, this probably isn’t literal and factual in terms of the process of Creation, but as a metaphor, it tells an important tale, one that we need to learn in order to truly serve God.

Rabbi Twerski ends his Dvar Torah like this:

A person should eat and sleep with the intent that food and rest are essential to have a healthy body, which enables one to do the mitzvos properly. Someone who is weak and exhausted cannot concentrate on Torah study or do mitzvos properly.

One engages in work and business to provide the needs for one’s family, and to acquire the means to do the mitzvos. Money is necessary to give tzedakah, to purchase tefillin and tzitzis, to build a succah, to pay for an esrog and for matzoh, to pay tuition and fulfill all of the mitzvos. If one partakes of world goods for the purpose of being able to serve God properly, then all of one’s actions become part and parcel of Torah and mitzvos.

If I may take a few liberties here, I’ll add that we should use every aspect of who we are in the service of God, not just a few. It is true that each of us has talents or areas where we excel. For some, it’s compassion, and so they serve God by being compassionate helpers. For some it’s intellect, and so they serve God as teachers and as students, always learning and passing on what they’ve learned.

And now you see why we need to work in a body. No one of us has the capacity to serve God in all areas. If we imagine that we do, then everyone around us will get a limited and probably inaccurate image of who God is, what God does, and what God expects of human beings. If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally merciful, we may think of God as loving and permissive in the extreme, but having few behavioral expectations, limits, or discipline, like some sort of “cosmic teddy bear.” If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally just, we may think of God as harsh, cruel, rule-bound, inflexible, and blind.

Look back at the numbered list I posted above. God possesses all of those qualities. He exists along all points of all continuums, from emotion to intellect, from kindness to justice, from community to solitude. There is no place where God does not exist, and there is no person God cannot comprehend.

But no human being lives with the same infinite set of perceptions and qualities as God. We are limited. We are finite. We have biases. We lean in one direction or another. No one of us gives anyone else an accurate picture of the attributes of God. That’s why we need to operate in a body. That’s why we need community, either physical or (if an approprite physical community of faith is not accessible) virtual. Because only together, as a body, can we balance and guide each other. It takes all of us, like the bits and pieces that make up a mosaic, to be the image of God.

alone-desertSometimes you’ll encounter someone, a person of faith, perhaps a leader, Pastor, teacher, or writer, and they gather a great deal of attention to themselves. When you encounter this person, remember that he or she is only one person. If that person is not tempered, guided, and corrected by a balanced community (plenty of “religious leaders” exist in an unbalanced community, made up of only people who think and feel just like they do), and I don’t care how powerful they are or believe themselves to be, then that person, all by himself or herself, cannot possibly represent God in all that God is.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that he or she can be such a “holistic” representative, even if that person thinks of themselves that way. Alone, a person is just one, and only God is complete as One. It takes a “village,” not only to raise a child, but to be a community in the image of God.

I shall praise God among a multitude.

Psalms 26:12

While the prayer and performance of a mitzvah are always praiseworthy, it is especially meritorious when an entire community participates in it, as the Sages teach, “The prayer of a multitude is never turned away.”

-from Devarim Rabbah 2

Good Shabbos.

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