Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.



ReachingNo longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” –Jeremiah 31:34

If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:7

Just as wisdom is not something you can touch with your hands,
so G-dliness is not something you can grasp with your mind.
The mind cannot experience G-d.
G-d is not an idea.
G-d is real.
G-d is better found in inspired deeds than in inspiring thoughts.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Mental Limits”

How do we “know” God? A Christian might answer that we know the Father through the revelation of His Son, and Jesus said this about himself. Yet, there’s a danger in “anthropomorphizing” the infinite, ever-present, all-powerful, ultimately creative God of the Cosmos, and reducing Him to an old man with long white hair, a bushy beard, and a comfortable lap. It’s like taking God and turning Him into your kindly grandfather who used to give you little treats when you were a child and let you stay up past your bedtime.

This isn’t to say I dispute the words of the Master, I only understand them as illustrating both what we can know about God from Jesus when he walked among men, and what we can’t know. We can’t know the infinite, but we can know how our lives intersect with the Holy through the teachings and example of the Master. Our duty then, is to spend the rest of our lives living out that understanding with “inspired deeds”, as Rabbi Freeman says, as our understanding grows and as it sometimes twists, bends, and warps.

Excuse me, what did I just say?

Isn’t God eternal? Isn’t God’s truth unchangeable? Well, “yes” and “no”.

OK, in an absolute sense, yes, God is God and God is unchangeable. Nothing we can do can alter the nature, character, and qualities of the Creator of the Universe (not that we can perceive the vast, vast majority of those qualities). But while God may be unchanging, human beings change all the time. What we understand changes all the time. If not, if we couldn’t go beyond the Sun circling the Earth and the Moon being made of green cheese, then modern Astronomy would be a lost cause.

I know, it’s not a surprise to understand that as children grow and as people age, they learn new information to replace old data, but it’s also true (at least potentially) of humanity over time. Believe it or not, at one point in history, things like microwave ovens, DVDs, iPads, and the Internet didn’t exist. Even bound books haven’t been available forever (never mind eBooks on Kindle). Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press until around 1440 and the vacuum tube, which was used in early 20th century technologies such as radios, the first generation commercial computers, and televisions, first saw the light of day in 1904.

Why am I telling you all this? Because what we understand about a concept or a technology may be one thing at a certain point in time but later on, we may amend or change what we believe to accommodate new information, discoveries, and inventions.

This is also true of the Bible and thus what we know about God.

I’m currently reading the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians by D. Thomas Lancaster. This isn’t another typical Christian commentary on what most believers consider Paul’s “anti-Torah”, “anti-Judaism” rant. Rather, it’s a fresh perspective on how to understand Paul as a Jewish man, declared the “Apostle to the Gentiles” by Jesus in a vision, and who through that incredible and unprecedented role, had to make some hard decisions about how to bring non-Jewish God-fearers and former pagans into the community of faith. One principle decision was the controversial choice of not demanding Gentile believers convert to Judaism in order to become disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

Much of what Lancaster states in his book (and I haven’t finished reading it yet) won’t be universally accepted by the church and perhaps just a decade or two ago, such a book might not have been published. However, it’s important to understand there’s a difference between God’s eternal, unchangeable knowledge and how human beings acquire new data and adjust our understanding based on that information.

About a month ago, I reviewed a scholarly article called Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll written by Steven P. Lancaster (D. T. Lancaster’s brother) and James M. Monson. Based on new information acquired through a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, how we understand the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah has been significantly changed (and please feel free to read that review by clicking on the link I just provided…it’s fascinating stuff). The information Lancaster and Monson provide in their conclusions almost literally re-writes the “suffering servant” Messiah to “the appointed one”. Who could have known about this, even five years ago?

AnointingI’m not trying to undo the ties of Christian faith and the scriptures upon which that faith is based, but I would like to suggest that those ties can be untangled. We labor, without realizing it, under the yoke of centuries-old assumptions, bad translations, and misinformation founded on prejudice. Some of that misinformation, as recently presented by Derek Leman on his blog, is how the church declares rather boldly, that a Jewish person who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, must surrender their entire Jewish identity. Galatians, and other sections of the New Testament, seem to give this impression, but we can also be courageous enough to go back to our time-honored texts and read them with a fresh eye, consider them in the original Greek language and “refactor” them in the Jewish/Hebraic mindset of the people who wrote them. We can challenge what we think we know and see if our knowledge stands up to the test.

I’ll leave you with a tangible example of how knowledge changing over time affects not only our day-to-day life, but how we comprehend God, our duties to Him, and our obligations to each other:

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, explains, “Rashi records when he is unsure, to teach that admission of uncertainty is also Torah. One should always be clear of what he knows and what he does not know.”

Rav Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, shlita, contacted Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, regarding a correction the latter had added to the “Lev Avraham.” In this work, Professor Avraham Avraham, shlita, brought the opinion of Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, zt”l, and Rav Sherirah Gaon, zt”l, as conclusive. Both luminaries hold that Chazal’s teachings regarding medicine are not Torah; they merely reflect medicine as understood in their time. If contemporary science disagrees the halacha follows the medical experts. Rav Shlomo Zalman maintained that since other authorities disagree, this opinion should be prefixed with “some say.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Admitted Ignorance”
Menachos 105

Some of the rulings of the honored sages were based on the best medical knowledge available to them in their day, but as we see, modern medicine has rendered many of their judgments out-of-date. Being open to new information about the Bible and how to read it, can help us understand that some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible need to be updated as well. I read and review articles like Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll and books such as Lancaster’s Galatians for exactly that reason. Knowledge and faith is a garden which yields only the fruits of our labors. Like prayer, meeting God and understanding more about Him requires our time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn.

Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them –Pirkei Avot 3:6

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Matthew 18:19-20

Soul on the Altar

Meal offeringWhen a person presents an offering of meal to the Lord, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on itLeviticus 2:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The word “soul” is not used in reference to any voluntary offerings except for the meal-offering. Yet, here, the verse (Vayikra 2:1) begins, “And when a soul will bring a meal-offering…” Whose practice is it to dedicate a meal-offering? It is the poor person. The Holy One, blessed is He, said: “Although the poor man’s offering is modest, I consider it as if he offered his soul.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“The precious offering of the poor”
Menachos 104

Who are you? What do you have to offer God? What is your worth to other human beings? Why does what you do matter?

We tend to judge ourselves in comparison to others. When we see that our accomplishments are better or more abundant than someone else’s we feel better about who we are. When another person has more money, more prestige, lives a more righteous life than we do, we tend to feel bad about ourselves.

That’s not a universal response among people, but it’s common and all too human. Yet, we’re not the same. How are we to understand this? Continuing the “Gemara Gem” commentary, we discover:

Two students sat in the same class. They heard the same lectures from their rebbe, and they each tried to record notes to summarize the lessons. After a week, the rebbe announced that an exam on the material would be given.

One student, who was quite bright, relied upon his memory and he exerted minimal effort in studying, but he managed to score a relatively high grade. The other student had a weaker ability. Despite great efforts in preparing, he scored quite low.

Surprisingly, the rebbe called the stronger student to his classroom after grading the tests, and he rebuked him. The rebbe expressed his disappointment in the score that he had earned, even though it was a relatively high grade, and he pointed out how that with a consistent effort, the student was certainly capable of achieving much more. The boy defended himself and pointed out that the weaker boy had scored even lower. The rebbe refused to accept his excuses, and he demanded that the strong student produce an effort commensurate with his abilities.

It is obvious that the excuse of the more capable student was without merit. It is clear that each person has his own talents and abilities, and, at least in spiritual matters, every individual must work and produce to meet his own potential. Some people are blessed with greater intellect, while others are emotionally charged and motivated to action. Every person is expected to achieve the maximum that he is capable of attaining.

We see that we don’t all come equipped with the same passions and identical skills, yet we’re expected to utilize what we have been given to the best of our efforts. This works well for the rich and the richly gifted if they apply themselves, but the poor cannot offer Rising Incensethe same abundance to other people and to God as the rich. How can a poor man dare to hold a banquet for a King? How can a person deep in sin ever hope to entertain the Righteous One?

The Ben Ish Chai, zt”l, explains…”A certain great king visited a large city in his kingdom. In the city were many noblemen and wealthy people, all of whom hoped to host the king for his first meal in their city. Obviously such wealthy people offered to prepare a banquet that would literally be fit for a king. But the king wished to go to his friend who was a poor shepherd and could never afford a repast approaching what is fitting for the king. If the king refuses the noblemen and wealthy to go to his poor friend, they can protest that eating such simple food is not honorable for the king.

“When it comes time for a meal and the greatest citizens are vying for his company – each with a feast prepared in case the king acquiesces to him – the king explains that he cannot eat any heavy food at all. ‘I am not feeling so well and must have a repast composed solely of light foods. I need sheep’s milk, yogurt, light cheese, butter and similar fare. Since the place where I will find these foods freshest is at a shepherd’s abode, I will take my meal with my poor friend.’”

Daf Digest Yomi
Stories off the Daf
“The King’s Special Meal”
Menachos 104

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” –Mark 2:13-17

Rich man or poor, righteous tzadik or a person heavy with sin, we each are not called to offer God everything in the world but only our very best, even though our best may be the meal offering of the poor. While you may envy what the rich and the righteous can offer God in their abundance, out of the depths of despair and poverty, what you offer, though it seems small, is the most splendorous gift of all…your very soul on the altar of God.

May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. –Psalm 141:2

Building Fellowship

Galatians by D.T. Lancaster“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that [whether Jewish nor Gentile] a person is not justified by the works of the law [i.e., conversion, circumcision, etc.] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we [the Jewish believers] also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavour to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners [by eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles], is Christ then a servant of sin? [In other words, does becoming a believer mean we forsake Torah? Is eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles really a sin against Torah?] Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. –Galatians 2:15-18

That is to say to Peter, “If you of all people, Peter, rebuild a sharp division between Jew and Gentile by removing yourself from table fellowship with Gentiles, you are rebuilding the barrier that you originally tore down. If you refuse to eat and worship with them, you rebuild the barrier that you originally tore down. You yourself were the first of the apostles to tear that separation down. If now you are putting it back up, then you are admitting that you were wrong in the first place, and you are proving yourself to have been living in sin and transgression.”

-from D. Thomas Lancaster’s book

The Holy Epistle to the Galatians

I received an advance copy of Lancaster’s book from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) yesterday and have since been eagerly devouring it. I’m not ready to write my full review, but Sermon 8: The Antioch Incident (the book is a compilation of 26 sermons, with each sermon organized as a chapter, given by Lancaster at Beth Immanuel Fellowship in 2008) brought up some interesting questions, and perhaps even a few answers.

For those of you who may not know, FFOZ is an educational ministry which produces informational materials, including books, audio lectures, and such, to both Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua) in Messianic Judaism (MJ), although they have a wider audience in more traditional Christian (and perhaps more traditional Jewish) circles. One of the ongoing discussions in different branches of MJ is the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish believers and the relationship those two groups have to the commandments of the Torah.

Without going into a lot of detail, some advocate for Gentiles in MJ to be obligated to the same 613 commandments that observant Jews are taught to obey, while others believe that Gentiles are only obligated to a small subset of those commandments (see Acts 15). The latter group believes that Gentiles who state that they are obligated to the full “yoke of Torah” obliterate Jewish covenant distinctiveness and “blend” Jews and Gentiles in Jesus into one, featureless mass. How Jewish and Gentile believers are supposed to interact given “distinctiveness boundaries”, including in matters of table fellowship, common observance of the Shabbat and the Festivals, has at times become hotly debated.

In reading Lancaster’s “Galatians”, we find this is not a new issue.

Lancaster (and FFOZ) support maintaining distinctions between Jewish Messianics and the Gentiles in MJ and Lancaster states:

We are one body, many parts. The foot is not the eye; the eye is not the foot. Oneness is not sameness. We can be one in the body but not have the same function or calling. Oneness is not sameness. There is one faith, one baptism, and one body, but that body has many parts.

D.T. LancasterLancaster is obviously referencing 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, but what is typically interpreted as a commentary on the struggles between different members of the Christian body sorting out the diversity of their spiritual gifts, Lancaster applies to the distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. I think his application is valid since it holds water in the Galatians context as Paul presents his argument, but that may come as a bit of a surprise if you do not believe that Jewish observance to the covenant of Moses was upheld by the early Jewish apostles for Jews and not for non-Jewish Christians. In other words, you may have a problem with Lancaster’s conclusions if you were taught that the law was done away with for Jews as well as for non-Jewish believers.

My primary interest in this subject, and in Lancaster’s book as a whole, is not from the perspective of Messianic Judaism. At this stage of my spiritual journey, I see myself as a Christian,married to a (non-believing) Jewish wife, who in immersing myself in Jewish Talmudic, mystic, and storytelling sources and traditions in order to better understand Christ who lived, died, and was resurrected a Jew and who taught, spoke, lived, and breathed in a completely Jewish manner and lifestyle. I don’t think you can understand who Jesus is unless you understand not only the Judaism of his day, but Judaism and Torah as they wind their way back to the beginning of Creation and forward to the current age.

This is the lens by which I look at the book and the pen by which I chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and the cries of my spirit.

I have friends who are Jewish believers in Christ and who are fully observant Jews, while I am a Gentile Christian. How are we to interact? Can we eat together? Can we pray together? In what manner may I observe the Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot? How may I fast and pray on Yom Kippur (and does this offend Jesus who died to remove my sins once and for all)?

These are the questions that underlie “The Antioch Incident” and the entire “Galatians” book. These are the questions that, if you don’t consider them important to you now as a Christian or believing Jew, you definitely will when the Messiah comes.

So what are the answers? I believe I know them and I try to live them out as best I can. Paul worked with great effort as the apostle to the Gentiles to create and support communities where believing Jews and non-Jews freely interacted. Here is how Peter responded to Paul:

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? –Acts 15:7-10

Paul struggled with James, the Jerusalem Council, and other believing Jews as to whether or not Gentiles, once they came to faith in the Jewish Messiah, should be circumcised and convert to Judaism. Indeed, history records that some did, but Paul, who received his “Gospel” from the Messiah and Heaven and not from men, understood that it wasn’t necessary. Jesus is the gateway for the people of the world to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and yet remain non-Jewish. All who are in the Messiah are One and God’s Name is One, but the members of the Messiah’s body, though one in baptism and spirit, are diverse in type and function. Just as my wife and I are different (being female and male, Jew and Christian) and yet “one flesh”, Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah are two and yet one.

I look forward to continuing this book and will post my full review when I finish.


Addendum: The full book review is now available.

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

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”

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.

"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