Waiting for the Dawn

Waiting for the dawn“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:25-27

Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, provides an incisive explanation of a statement on today’s daf. “On Menachos 103 we find that the curse in the verse (Devarim 28:66) – ‘And you will not believe in your life’—refers to one who must purchase bread daily from a baker.

“On the surface this seems very difficult to understand. Surely during our sojourn in the desert when the manna came down each day we were not in this category. Yet wouldn’t a person who had children wonder about his livelihood for the next day, since he was relying on another miracle for his family’s food? How can we understand this? Is it plausible to say that God told us about a punishment which will happen in terrible times if it was a curse we suffered daily for forty years?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Daily Bread”
Menachos 103

Give us today our daily bread.Matthew 6:11

Despite the words quoted above, I still worry. Not all the time, but sometimes. To be fair, I don’t doubt that you worry, too.

Yesterday morning, I woke up with the realization that I now have no congregation with which to worship on Shabbat. For reasons too numerous to mention, I found it necessary to end my relationship with a congregation where I had fellowship and taught for many years (though I did mention something about it in the first post in this blog series). I do have a “plan” in mind for my future, but I am also acutely aware that my plans aren’t the deciding factor in what is going to actually happen:

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” –Luke 12:16-20

I find it somewhat ironic that after Jesus told this parable, he delivered a message to his audience saying not to worry (Luke 12:22-32, also related in Matthew 6:25-34). I suppose the irony goes away when you consider the overall message is that we should not trust in our own abilities and plans to take care of our needs but rather, we should rely on God. That said, I still invest in a 401K and other, similar plans with an eye on retiring someday.

For the past two years, and very specifically during the past year, I have been considering and pondering the decision I’ve just recently made. If you’ve been reading the other posts on this blog or any of my “essays” on my previous personal blog, you’ll realize that I don’t think “the church” would be a good fit for my worship and faith needs. My viewpoint on God, Jesus, the Bible, and Judaism is too out-of-step with Christianity’s perspective on such things. I don’t believe the Law is dead (for Jews, that is). I don’t believe God undid or took back all of the covenent promises He made to the Children of Israel and transferred them to “the church” (non-Jewish Christians). I certainly don’t believe that God now requires that all Jewish people who want to worship the Jewish Messiah and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must renounce their religious, ethnic, and cultural Jewish heritage.

I’m an oddball.

But where does that leave me?

I have not be able to worship with my wife for many years due to the gulf that exists between her faith context and mine. Part of the reason I recently left my former congregation was in an effort to reduce that gulf and hopefully even to fully bridge the gap. While I’m not giving up my faith, I would be content to worship with her in the same “house of study” since after all, God is One.

But that’s not entirely up to me.

WorryingIn turning myself over to God’s mercy in part, I am also turning myself over to my wife’s. In the latter case, “mercy” is probably not the right word, but she will have to want to worship with me in the same way I desire to share worship and prayer with her.

If she makes the decision not to, or just never considers the possibility that we can share time in worship as a married couple, then I will remain a man adrift at sea without motive power or even a rudder by which to steer. I can hardly believe that God would allow this to continue perpetually, but I’ve been wrong before.

Should I be worried?

“The answer is that it all depends on one’s attitude. As our sages say, one who has sustenance for today yet worries about tomorrow is a person of little faith. For such a person, lacking food for the future is surely a terrible curse since he spends his time worrying. But for one who has faith, this is not a curse at all. Since he trusts in God he does not worry. Instead of being a curse, this situation will be a blessing since it forces him to turn his heart to God.” -Rav Yisrael Salanter

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. –Matthew 6:28-34

It’s easy to feel insignificant in God’s vast universe and to wonder how or even if God hears our prayers, but as Rav Salanter says, it all depends on one’s attitude and how we have prepared and nurtured faith and trust in our hearts.

That’s where I am right now. I’m looking down the road at a future, looking for a light in the darkness, turning my heart to God, and waiting for the dawn.

We are said to be studying Mussar when we delve into the descriptions of the human condition as they appear in the blueprint for the world, the Torah -Rabbi Ephraim Becker

The important thing is not to stop questioning. -Albert Einstein

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How Can We Pray?

PrayerThe mind will always find the answer most convenient for the mind.

Even in its search for spiritual enlightenment, the mind will only rest where there is enough room to remain a mind. Therefore, on its own, the mind can never grasp G-d.

To reach G-d takes a sense that is beyond the need to exist; the essential knowledge of the inner soul. Only once the mind has drunk from that fountain can it be trusted to see beyond itself. Only then can it see the place where mind ceases to exist.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Convenient Mind”
Chabad.org

You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.James 4:2-3

We struggle all our lives to find our connection to God. Both Rabbi Freeman and James, brother of the Master, illustrate how we can get in our own way and inhibit that connection. We “settle” for a connection that we can understand and that fits with our “worldview”. We pray, but only to satisfy our desires and lusts and not to do His will. What do we know about God’s will for prayer?

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’” –Matthew 6:9-13

If prayer seems difficult, it is only because we pray with the wrong motives and the wrong expectations. We pray to serve ourselves and not God, yet Jesus made it clear that, from His grace and mercy, God would take care of our needs too, if only we would pray:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. –John 14:12-14

If we know that God will meet our needs in the name of the Son, what else prevents us from “talking” to God? Certainly not God Himself, as we discover in this teaching from Chabad.org.

Once upon a busy life–maybe even two, three times or more–some of us are struck with a sense of being so small within something much larger and wouldn’t it be good for the two of us to have a chat. In other words, we would like to speak with G-d.

It’s not as outlandish as it seems; people do it all the time. Most never stop to think what is really going on, for if they did, they wouldn’t be able to open their mouths. But it is so essential to human life, so we continue on nonetheless.

We call it prayer, and we believe the second party of this dialogue is just as eager to join–if not yet more eager than ourselves.

To this lesson, Rabbi Naftali Silberberg adds:

Prayer comes naturally when a person, G-d forbid, experiences hardships. But passionate prayer when all is (relatively) well is, in a certain sense, a far more meaningful experience. Because our conversations with G-d serve a dual purpose: they are an opportunity to beseech our Provider for health, prosperity and nachas from our children; but more importantly, they are also moments when we connect with our beloved Father in Heaven. Indeed, to a certain extent, the content of our prayers is less significant than the experience itself–an opportunity to connect with G-d.

You have His attention; speak as long as you wish! The great sage Rabbi Yochanan summed it up with these words: “If only a person could pray all day long!”

Praying with TefillinGod is listening to you. He is always listening to you, waiting for you to make the connection. All you have to do is start talking. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. No quality you possess or lack will prevent God from hearing your prayers. Even if you’ve turned away from Him, you can always turn back to Him, as illustrated by how Rabbi Freeman answered this question:

Question: “I don’t feel that that I have any right to pray to G-d. I’m not religious at all. Over the years, I’ve committed many sins. Since I’ve turned against G-d and transgressed His commandments, how can I approach Him in prayer?”

Answer: “Each morning, when we wake up, we say in our prayers, ‘My G-d, the soul You gave me is pure…’

No matter what you do with your life, your soul remains pure. Even at the time you are committing the worst crime, your soul screams inside like a captive woman, remaining faithful to her Beloved Above.

And now you want to take away from her that last opportunity to scream out loud for help?”

If God only heard the prayers of the righteous, God would hear no prayers at all. You do not have to be righteous. You do not have to be perfect. You do not have to say “magic” words or pray by a formula. All you have to do is start talking. God is waiting…and listening.

Gardening

GardeningThat same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”Matthew 13:1-9

A creative mind is a fertile field. But that may simply mean that the weeds are taller and grow faster.

First, soften your mind’s soil, plough its furrows. Open it to the wisdom that rains down from the heavens; let the dew of Torah sink into your soul, the seeds laid by tzaddikim enter your heart. Learn to lie still as they awaken and take root. Quietly await the spring.

In the place of thorns and a tangle of weeds will grow a bountiful garden. Where once wild and brazen delusions sprang forth, a tightly focused beam of light will shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Field of Your Mind”
Chabad.org

The parable of the sower being related by Jesus is interpreted as the different reactions people have when hearing the “message of the kingdom” (see Matthew 13:18-23), but this story of the Master is more than a little related to Rabbi Freeman’s commentary about how to prepare our minds for Torah study and spiritual learning. You may think that because you read the Bible, go to Sunday school, go to a Talmud study, or frequent online religious forums, that you are “studying the Word” and are well prepared to receive it. However, that’s not always the case.

You’ve heard the expression, “you can lead a horse to water…” and it’s true. You can take a person who has certain attitudes about the Bible, Jesus, God, and so forth, and introduce them to your scripture, your church, your synagogue, or another favorite religious context, but that doesn’t mean they’ll receive it in the way you are hoping. It’s not just the material, it’s the person and how they see the situation. Here’s a perfect example:

Rabbi Eliezer Silver zt”l was a leader and activist who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. After the liberation of the Nazi death camps, he tried to revive the spirit of Judaism among the survivors.

One of his many activities was organizing prayer services. A certain refugee refused to participate, explaining that he’d been turned off to Judaism forever. He said that there had been a religious Jew in this refugee’s camp who had smuggled in a Siddur (prayer book), and he would charge people half their bread ration to use his Siddur for ten minutes. After witnessing such cruelty, the refugee refused to have anything to do with Siddurim, prayer services, or anything Jewish.

Rabbi Silver approached him with great compassion and understanding, but offered him a new perspective. “You only see the Jew who was so cruel,” he said. “What about the holy Jews who were willing to give up half their meager rations for just 10 minutes with a Siddur?”

No one can blame the refugee for his feelings. After living through his hellish experience, who could say they would react any differently? Nonetheless, says Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l, two people can hear the same story and one notices the cruelty, while the other notices the holiness and dignity.

The Sages say that what the eye sees depends on what the heart feels (Talmud Avoda Zara 28b), and in this week’s Torah Portion (Num. 15:39) we’re told “Don’t stray after your heart and after your eyes.” Our eyes will only see negativity and impurity if our hearts have already been corrupted. If we make the effort to turn our hearts towards positivity, giving to others, appreciating, then the world will transform before our eyes into a panorama of pleasures and joy, the constant gifts that G-d wishes upon us.

Commentary on Torah Portion Shlach
by Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

WateringIn my previous morning meditation, I was pretty discouraged. It passed, but sometimes the enormity of a life of faith, continually reaching out to God, trying to understand even the most elementary lesson of holiness, and trying to share my (what I hope are) unique perspectives with other people, can be really wearing. Yet, as we just saw in the story related by Rabbi Dixler, even the most difficult and excruciating circumstances can be viewed in more than one way. Or, to quote Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta (Buddha), “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

Simply put, you are (I am) what you think about habitually. If you think life is terrible, it is, more or less regardless of circumstances. I’m sure you can create some extraordinary situation that would be perceived as horrible (such as living in the camps during the Holocaust) beyond any ability to endure, but even here, Rabbi Dixler points out there is a difference between seeing the selfishness of a man who would exploit his fellow Jew to feed his own stomach vs. the Jew who would give up even his last morsel of bread to pray from a Siddur for just ten minutes. If we want a relationship with God, we must work to prepare for it:

Here is Paul’s interpretation:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:8-9

This is why we must study the Bible and study it regularly. This is why we attend the house of prayer regularly and frequently. This is why we spend time in prayer daily and associate with our companions in faith at every opportunity. Although it is easy to feel alone and misunderstood in a world that, above all else, worships pleasures and morals built on shifting sands, we are never alone unless we want to be. It takes discipline to feel God’s presence. If we can say that God sets appointments each day for us to meet with Him, it is up to us to keep those appointments and to become accustomed to His voice.

For as he thinks within himself, so he is. –Proverbs 23:7

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. –John 10:27

Take a moment or two to review the state of your mind and your “garden”. What can you do better to make it grow?

The Panoramic Garden

I had said in my panic, “I am cut off from before Your eyes!” But in truth, You heard the sound of my supplications when I cried to You. Love Hashem, all His devout ones! Hashem safeguards the faithful, but He repays the haughtiness on one who acts with arrogance. Be strong, and let your hearts take courage, all who wait longingly for Hashem. –Psalm 31:23-25

You are a shelter for me, from distress You preserve me; with glad song of rescue You envelop me, Selah! I will educate you and enlighten you in which path to go, I will advise you with [what] my eye [has seen]. –Psalm 32:7-8

Significance in the Vortex of God

The VortexThere we saw giants… and we were in our own eyes as locustsNumbers 11:33

Someone once asked Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch: “What is true learning?”

The Rebbe replied: “When one studies a section of Talmud or an idea in chassidus, one is there, together with its illustrious author. He is building upon the sage’s wisdom like a midget perched upon a giant – he is riding on the giant’s shoulders. “One must be grateful to the giant that he doesn’t fling the nuisance from his shoulders.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Irksome Burden”
Commentary on Parshah Shelach

Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole.

Attuned in perfect consonance, they dance a pas de deux of exquisite form, each responding to every subtle nuance of the other, mirroring and magnifying the most subliminal inner thought, until it is impossible to distinguish them as two.

Within the human being is the consciousness of G-d looking back upon Himself from within the world He has made.

We sit upon the vortex of Creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Heaven Above, Man Below”
Chabad.org

We have this idea that we are connected to God. I wrote yesterday that part of the function of God’s commandments is to connect people with the Almighty. Yet, the two commentaries I quoted above seem to paint different pictures about the relationship between created being and Creator. Are we annoying gnats sitting on the shoulders of giants, or are we fully integrated into the very fabric of God’s eternity?

I have a hard time judging my relative position to God. Oh, I realize that in absolute terms, God is infinite and I am beyond insignificant by comparison. It is only through God’s mercy and grace that He’s even aware of me at all:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? –Psalm 8:1-4

Yet without human beings, what is the point of Creation?

As much as I try, there are days when I wonder how or why God would attend to any single individual. Yes, I know that “God so loved the world” and all of that (John 3:16), but does every single, specific person who is alive or who has ever lived really have a critical, irreplaceable part in God’s majestic, eternal, infinite plan?

Do I?

Someone once posed the following question to Rav Yechezkel Landau, the author of Teshuvas Noda B’Yehudah. He wanted to know whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah that are invalid and incapable of repair into the Aron Kodesh that was made to store valid Sifrei Torah. The questioner initially cited our Gemara as proof that it should be permitted. The Gemara relates that the broken set of Tablets was placed in the Aron Kodesh together with the second set of Tablets that was complete. Even though the Aron Kodesh was made for the second set of tablets, nevertheless, the broken Tablets were stored inside indicating that as long as an item had sanctity before it became broken or invalid it may continue to be stored in the place designated for intact and valid sacred items.

The questioner then rejected this parallel since it is possible that the broken Tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh because they were made by God and that added sanctity allowed them to be stored in the Aron Kodesh even though they were broken. This would not allow for the storage of an invalid Sefer Torah to be stored in an Aron Kodesh since the Sefer Torah was not made by God. Noda B’Yehudah rejected this distinction and cited our Gemara to prove his point. After the Gemara teaches that the broken Tablets were stored in the Aron Kodesh the Gemara comments that this teaches that one must continue to treat a Torah scholar who forgot his learning with respect since he is similar to the broken Tablets. The Torah scholar was not the creation of God and yet the Gemara finds it to be a valid parallel to the broken Tablets and as such an invalid Sefer Torah could also be equated with the broken Tablets.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Storing an invalid Sefer Torah in an Aron Kodesh”
Menachos 99

I’ve felt like an invalid Sefer Torah “incapable of repair”. My life has been like a “broken set of Tablets”. Am I worthy of being contained in a holy place just because I was made by God? Am I like a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning? Once having been made holy, can my holiness be diminished?

Menachos 99 answers the latter question, “No”:

The Mishnah tells us that the lechem hapanim loaves were placed upon a marble stand as they were being brought to be placed upon the Shulchan in the Sanctuary. The set of loaves which were removed were placed upon a golden table after being taken out of the Sanctuary. This was a fulfillment of the adage, “we rise in holiness, and we do not descend.”

I admit to taking liberties with the interpretation and applying what is being said here to human beings , but I think this is a valid perspective (considering the Torah scholar with memory problems). If we are each made by God in His image, then individual people are sacred because we are His creations. If, as Rabbi Freeman states, “Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole”, then people enjoy a special unity with God that nothing else in Creation can possess. If this is true, then how can we dare to feel broken, or lost, or alone, or afraid?

And yet, we do. I know I do.

The Noda B’Yehudah is at odds with the parallel between the broken Tablets and the invalid Sefer Torah because:

…he maintains that the Aron Kodesh was built to store the broken Tablets and since that was the original intent it is permitted for them to be stored therein. An Aron Kodesh in a Beis HaKnesses was designed to store valid Sifrei Torah and as such one that is invalid and irreparable should not be stored in the Aron Kodesh. He observes, however, that common custom allows for the storage of invalid Sifrei Torah in an Aron Kodesh…

This seems to match up with Rabbi Tauber’s interpretation that we exist like insects riding the shoulders of giants every time we even learn one small section of Talmud or other holy lesson, building on the insights of those people much wiser and more righteous than we. We exist as a “convention” in the sense that broken pieces of the Tablet are stored in the holy ark simply because the ark was designed for that purpose and not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

It’s more than a little puzzling. Are we important to God (or for that matter, other people) as individuals or not? Sometimes the answer seems to be “Yes” and at other times, “No”. Perhaps it’s the difference between allowing the full experience of connection between ourselves and God vs. the realization that God is amazingly, awesomely, vast, and my own presence on earth, by comparison, is like a hardly visible bit of flotsam barely staying above the waves of some expansive, turbulent, unfeeling sea.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

I could use some of that “lightness of burden” right now. Contemplating the unimaginable intensity of God and sitting upon the vortex of Creation has become too much for me.

Good Shabbos.

The Inescapable God

MitzvahBe as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos.Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

On the surface, the mishnah’s point is simple enough: do not weigh and categorize G-d’s commandments. But upon closer examination, its words seem fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.

Are there or are there not differences between mitzvos? The mishnah seems to saying that there aren’t, but it itself uses the terms “minor” and “major” (kaloh and chamurah) – terms which are used to categorize mitzvos in the Talmud and its commentaries and in the various codes of Torah law.

On the Essence of the Mitzvah:
Commanding Connection and Refining Deed
Sivan 13, 5771 * June 15, 2011
Chabad.org

What does it mean to obey God? What does it mean to sin? Are their big sins and little sins? Can one form of obedience be better than another?

The commentary from which I quoted above struggles with this question and the meaning of what obeying the commandments does for us and for others. And while it is true, this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, I think there is more than ample reason for Christians to take it seriously as well.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.-Mark 12:28-44

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

This isn’t to suggest that the commands issued by Jesus and applied to his non-Jewish disciples were identical to the 613 commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai, but it is clear that the grace of God did not wipe away the law of God in the world and that each of us has a responsibility to obey our Creator and to avoid rebellion against Him.

But putting aside the specific content of the commandments for a moment, why do we have those that Jesus gave to the nations and those that Moses related to Israel?  Why do we have commandments at all? It’s not as if obeying or disobeying God can add to or take away from His Holiness and perfection. Continuing with the “On the Essence of the Mitzvah” commentary, we find:

In other words, there are two dimensions to the mitzvos. On the most basic level, a mitzvah, by virtue of its being commanded by the Almighty, binds its performer (as well as the resources which he utilizes in its performance) to its Commander. In this, all mitzvos are indeed equal. A mitzvah that takes tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual development to fulfill connects us to G-d no more than one which is observed with a single, effortless act.

But G-d did more. He not only opened a channel into our lives by which we may connect to Him, He also made this path a “perfect way”, a way of life which improves and perfects those who travel it. His word not only conveys His will and command, it is also a “refined” word—a word that refines those who heed it. This is the second, “specific” dimension of the mitzvah. When we give charity, we not only fulfill a Divine command, we also develop in ourselves a sensitivity to the needs of others and learn the proper perspective on the material resources which have been entrusted to us.

This reads very much like the “two greatest commandment” I quoted above from Mark. While in one sense, commandments are equal in that they all serve God (though we cannot know their true, relative merit from a Heavenly perspective), they also differ in that some of them connect us to God exclusively while others serve this purpose, plus they make us sensitive to those around us. In other words, what we do for God, though He has no needs at all that we can satisfy, is inexorably intertwined with what we do for people (and we have a great ability to perform acts that benefit other human beings), the act of which benefits others and refines our nature.

Yet, one of the “dangers” of serving other people is that we can let that “feel good” experience when we perform kindness and charity distract us from the One who we are serving as well:

However, warns the Ethics, never lose sight of the deeper import of the mitzvos. Employ the Divine commandments to build a better self and world, thus experiencing them as an entire array of major and minor influences on your life, but remember that they all share a deeper, unified truth. Be equally careful of them all, for their true reward is beyond knowledge and experience.

Studying TorahWhat we do to connect to God, to refine our own character, and to serve the needs of others, must remain balanced within us. To bias our viewpoint in one direction or the other could mean we continue to do mercy and justice while losing sight of the unifying “why”. But even losing sight of God does not mean He loses sight of us. His Hand is still upon us, regardless of who we are or how we are behaving or thinking. How many people have lost sight of God or have never experienced Him in a deliberate and conscious manner, and yet still yearn for Him, His Justice, and His mitzvot?

I do not accept your assertion that you do not believe.

For if you truly had no concept of a Supernal Being Who created the world with purpose, then what is all this outrage of yours against the injustice of life?

The substance of the universe is not moral, nor are plants and animals. Why should it surprise you that whoever is bigger and more powerful swallows his fellow alive?

It is only due to an inner conviction in our hearts, shared by every human being, that there is a Judge, that there is right and there is wrong. And so, when we see a wrong, we demand an explanation: Why is this not the way it is supposed to be?

That itself is belief in G-d.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“True Belief”
Chabad.org

We cannot escape God. We are made in His image. Atheists cannot escape God, for even in crying out against the real and perceived injustices in the world, they unknowingly appeal to the One True Judge. We, as believers, cannot escape God either. You might imagine that, being “religious people” we only want to draw closer to Him, but we must realize that we do so only on His terms, and not on ours.

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. –Ethics of the Fathers 2:4

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. –Luke 22:42

Know the Master you serve and then seek to do His will with all your heart.

Stories are Miracles

R. Jacob Kaidaner heard from R. Pinhas Reises of Shklov that “once he was on the way with the holy rebbe [R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady], when the skies suddenly grew dark and a pouring rain began to fall. His honoured holiness said that once the Ba’al Shem Tov had been travelling, and a pouring rain began, and he recited a single verse and the rain stopped. He told us the verse that he [the Ba’al Shem Tov] had recited, and he also expounded for us the mystical intent of the verse. And before he finished the exposition, we saw a true wonder, namely, a torrent on both sides of the wagon, while the wagon itself was completely dry, indescribably so, not a single drop..and when we came to the inn and his holiness took his feet out of the wagon, it immediately was filled from the rain.

Kaidaner, Sipurim nora’im
as told in Gedaliah Nigal’s book
The Hasidic Tale

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”-Luke 8:22-25

Besides the fact that both of these stories have to do with storms and involve miracles, you may be wondering what they have in common. If we look outside their immediate context and theme though, we find that they are linked by how they affect the audience and how they reveal God.

Yesterday, I spent some time in my “morning mediation” describing and comparing the tales of the Chasidim to the tales of the Messiah’s “Chasidim”. However, from a traditional Christian point of view, the two types of “storytelling” I just quoted seem as different as apples and canaries. But remembering that Jesus has a great deal in common with Rabbis and tzadikim (holy or righteous “saints”), the connection to me seems to be more than clear.

I’ve been reading Nigal’s book, but I don’t seem to be able to get more than a few pages when the way Nigal tells his own story of the Chasidic tales inspires one of my own. Here’s what started me off today:

A fourth characteristic of the hasidic story is its intrinsic ability to perform miracles and wonders. The Ba’al Shem Tov was asked by R. David Forkes how one could pray for a sick person through stories, and indeed, tsadikim succeeded in healing the ill in this manner: R. Berisch of Oshpetzin healed a sick woman through stories, and a young man who suffered from melancholy was cured in the same way. Problems of many other kinds, too, were solved by the power of the tsadik’s storytelling.

Christians are accustomed to how Jesus and his disciples performed miracles, but we don’t see them doing so by telling stories. Often, we see the disciples invoking the name of Jesus, in the same manner as any disciple of any Jewish Rabbi or Maggid does when acting in his Master’s name, and then performing the miraculous act. The Chasidim use stories the way I sometimes think of the therapeutic metaphors of Milton Erickson, but perhaps therapy, healing, and the hand of God are not really different things.

There are ways of making the connection between who we are and who our Master is by using stories, and these stories let us work in mystic ways or bring the Divine within our awareness and perhaps within our grasp:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” –Psalm 77:7-15

I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Answer me quickly, LORD;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit. –Psalm 143:5-7

True, these are songs and prayers, but they are also meditations, recollections, and indeed, even stories about the mighty deeds of God and how He has rescued His people time and again. In telling the stories of God and putting our trust in Him as we hear these tales, what wonders and miracles can we receive? Maybe the answer to prayer is contained in a story.

What about when you read the Bible? What do you experience? Hopefully, a feeling of encouragement and maybe even a touch of wonder, but is that it? What if you were to recite some of the stories of Jesus? The time he healed the woman of the issue of blood, perhaps. How about when he spoke to the woman at the well? You could even recall some of the stories Jesus himself told. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, or the parable of the talents, or the one about the sower.

Why did Jesus tell these parables hidden in riddles? Just to describe the Kingdom of God in metaphor? Sure, at least that much. But what if the stories he told also performed their own miracles, winning the hearts of the sons of Israel for their Father? What do the stories about Jesus do for us? What do they do for someone who hears them for the first time?

When you turn your heart away from sin and to the Savior of the world, isn’t that a miraculous healing, just as miraculous as halting a storm? Isn’t it a wonder beyond the reason of our world when anyone turns to God?

Let me tell you one more story:

Rav Elchonon Halperin, shlit”a, explains this practice with a statement brought on today’s daf. “Our sages tell us in Menahcos 97 that one’s table atones for him (in the place of the altar in the Beis HaMikdash; the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). Rashi explains that one’s table atones in the merit of feeding poor people at the table. Yet imagine the embarrassment of destitute people who have no choice but to take their meals as charity at another’s table. Surely only a very rare person can give the poor food in a manner which will not be a huge embarrassment. Most people eating at the table of another out of necessity feel nothing less than bitter darkness.

“But at the table of tzaddikim, everyone eats for free. Both the poor and the wealthy join together and one who is hungry can obtain as much food as he wants in an honorable manner. No one feels above his friend, since everyone is there for the same reason and is treated the same way. All those who attend a tisch feel a sense of togetherness that emerges out of holy love and companionship. With such a pleasant atmosphere is it any wonder that we cannot imagine the great atonement of a chassidic tisch?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“The Atoning Table”
Menachos 97

While the vast majority of Christians might say that it is laudable to feed the poor from your own table, this act of charity and kindness has no power to atone for sins nor could it replace any of the sacrifices Jews once offered at the Temple. Only confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ atones for sins.

Of course, the vast majority of Jews don’t see it that way, and with the Temple gone these past 2000 years, acts of charity and prayer are believed to substitute for the Temple offerings.

But what is the story telling us?

Does the act of performing a kindness, feeding the poor at your own table and at the same time, treating the disadvantaged with respect and as equals to even the very wealthy eating beside them…does that mean something? Does it do something? What is burning in your heart? It’s one thing to repent of your sins and turn to God, but words don’t reveal that you have really changed as clearly and definitely as performing acts of kindness and righteousness.

I said a little while ago that the “Messianic Tales” can perform the miraculous act of turning a stone heart into one of flesh; of turning a heart of sin into one that accepts and performs righteousness. Yet do we turn to God only because of us? Well, yes…probably at first. People can be very self-centered. But here is another miracle.

StoriesBy hearing a story about a person feeding poor people at his own table and relieving them of the burdens of shame and embarrassment, not only are the poor fed but so are the poor in spirit…us. Hearing the story, having faith in the tales of the tzadikim, letting it turn our hearts, and causing us to perform acts of righteousness is a miracle and a wonder and who knows what else God may do because of our trust?

God is a storyteller. Why else did He leave us with such a marvelous book of sagas involving tragedy, wonder, courage, and despair? For it is the stories told by God that fill the world with miracles. When we retell those stories, we cause the miracles to be infused in the world around us, in the people that we meet, and within our very souls.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. –Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

And the word became a human being and walked among us. What a wonderful and miraculous story.

Let these commandments that I command you today be on your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:6-7

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman