Tag Archives: alive

39 Days: I’m Alive and Doing Fine

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

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

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

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

Of course, Rabbi Pliskin also writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“Five Ways to Be Grateful”

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

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

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

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

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

But what about church, anyway?

Am I grateful to be there?

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

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

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

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

Gutfreund writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or thanksgiving?

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

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

When a parent loves a child,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waking Up Alive

In school, from an early age, Joe learned how stuff works. Joe learned how pulleys work, how electrical circuits work, how cells divide and how neurons process thoughts. He learned that the whole world is a big machine, and we are all little machines inside it.

Joe graduated college, got a job, got married, had kids.

Then Joe had a crisis. He needed help. He picked up books of today’s most popular genre—self-help. Lots of them. The books told him he has a soul, he has purpose, that’s there’s something beyond just being a pleasure-seeking machine.

Joe felt better. He was able to go back to work, keep his marriage and enjoy his kids.

There are many things the world needs. It needs nothing more than a soul.

Joe needed to know he has a soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why the World Needs a Soul”
from the “Chassidic Thought” series

Some people don’t know this. Some people will never learn this. Even for people who do know that they have a soul and that life has a broader purpose beyond the day-to-day grind, any pain that is strong enough or lasts long enough will knock that information right out of awareness.

And all that you’ll be about to think or feel is the pain.

Fortunately, Joe was able to overcome that, as were the equally fictional Julie and Sasha in Rabbi Freeman’s tale (which I highly encourage you to read in its entirety since it makes many good points).

Yesterday, I talked about how experiencing chronic emotional and spiritual pain can make it very difficult to connect to your purpose and to cling to the awareness of your soul in any meaningful way. Actually, that kind of pain makes it hard to even get up in the morning and care about whether you have a purpose or not. No matter how hard the soul strives to reach its Creator, the weight of a thousand, thousand failures, disappointments and criticisms presses the soul back into the dirt like the hand of a thoughtless child crushing a bug.

Yesterday, I also said this:

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?

Is God watching when we’re about to surrender to the final abyss and does He see how tiny and fragile the flicking spark of our soul is under the oppression of darkness and hopelessness? Is He waiting for our ascent after the descent as well? Is He waiting in vain?

It is said “that which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.” But that assumes whatever is trying to kill you will succeed. What if it just hurts instead?

“What is unique about a Jewish martyr,” wrote Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, “is that he would rather stay alive.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Martyrs for Life”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

You feel the Divine spark growing weaker within you. The light dims. Suddenly, you realize that you are in complete darkness. Your lungs labor for air and then there is none and your chest sucks in only dirt and dust and gravel. You close your eyes in anguish one last time welcoming a final oblivion.

But the next morning you wake up and realize you’re alive. On days like that, I still say:

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for restoring my soul to me with compassion.

Abundant is Your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

Somehow, the weight is still there but it’s lighter, just light enough to allow my chest to expand, let my lungs fill with air, let me exhale, and then inhale again. I open my eyes and I can see light. I sit up in bed, put my feet on the floor. And I can stand.

Why am I thanking God for being alive?

Because I have a soul and regardless of what the rest of me feels like, my soul is part of God and she (in Hebrew, words have gender and the Hebrew word for soul is feminine) thanks her maker for the restoration of life and the ability to continue in the service of the King.

Regardless of what the rest of me feels.

The need for meaning in our personal lives, the sense of responsibility for the ecology of our planet and the respect for the dignity of every human life—all these are sacrosanct today. Which is a good thing, because without them we would have destroyed ourselves in the century just past.

Yet they are entirely hollow. More than that: they are in utter conflict with the materialist concept of reality that we are taught in school and practice in the laboratory.

In short, we suffer an aching disconnect between our brains and our soul.

Our soul believes life has purpose and meaning, while our brains consider our bodies to be no more than a walking water-bottle of biochemical reactions. We teach small children to cry over the future of the elephants, the pandas and the blue whale, that they have a responsibility to save the planet and sustain it, and then we teach them that all this arrived due to a big bang and a series of accidents. We will not tolerate any voice that suggests the superiority of one family of human beings over another, all the while reducing this creature to a string of DNA in which serious differences have already been uncovered.

Nothing could be more precarious.

The world, existence, everything, is more than just how we feel at any given moment. No matter how much life can sometimes hurt, who we are and that we’re alive is more than just our circumstances, our history, our “excess baggage,” and how we perceive our lives. The world needs a soul because it needs a purpose. God built that into each and every human being, whether we choose to recognize that fact or not. Once we do, we’re “trapped” with that knowledge and we become aware of the Divine that lives within our secular, ordinary flesh. We are more and different than the sum of our wetware and our programming. The part of us that thanks God every morning for waking up alive means we can suffer what we think will kill us but still arise the next morning a living martyr.

Life means more than getting our way or winning or losing the endless arguments we find in the blogosphere and in social networking venues. It’s important to step away from the monitor and the keyboard and to realise that life doesn’t primarily occur in the Internet. It occurs in the connection between man and God, even if we only cry out to Him that it hurts, oh my does it hurt.

I recently read an article written by a fellow named Dr. Harlan Weisman called My 11 Months of Kaddish. It’s too long to quote the whole thing here, but it’s the story of a man who, in saying Kaddish for his deceased father everyday for 11 months, discovered himself, who he is as a Jew, and ultimately the relationship between his soul and God.

But he couldn’t do it until his father died and he began his bitter grief. However, Dr. Weisman didn’t really start to live again until the eleven months of saying Kaddish were over:

Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.

I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions.

I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.

In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.

Sadness, grief, regret, self-loathing, depression…something’s trying to kill us, but our soul won’t let us die. We’ll just continue to suffer under the weight of a life we never wanted and cannot control. But something has to die for us to live again. Something must be extinguished, and we must let go of it before we realize that it is time for it to end.

Someday, we’ll pray to God, not just because we need Him, but because we want Him, too. Because being with God is the most natural and normal thing for us to do…like waking up in the morning, like breathing.

Our soul will never stop needing God. But we must realize that the rest of us needs and wants Him, too. Then we can stop simply existing in our suffering silence. Then we can begin to wake up alive.

A Creative Life

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, teaches how we should relate to a new baby. “The astounding miracles of matrimony, birth and raising a child open a person’s heart and eyes and his ears to see that nothing ‘just happens.’ This experience should awaken any thinking person’s ability to be emotionally moved.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash Tanchuma on the verse וילדה זכר And she birthed a male.’ The Midrash applies the verse, ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ to this. It explains there that the word צורcan be understood to refer to צייר which means one who fashions. In this context the verse is saying that there is none who can fashion like God does. A human makes a picture on the wall. Can it move? Can it breathe? Can it speak? God creates man who moves, breathes and speaks. An expert painter has many types of paint to create a picture. God can create a human from one drop.

“We see from here that one who sees a child should be filled with wonder. Studying a child should bring one to contemplate the works of God. Giving this any thought should lead one to the same conclusion as the Midrash: ‘There is צייר , no artist like God.”

Rav Yechiel Michel Stern pointed out the obvious question on this midrash: “It seems strange that our sages took the verse ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ out of the simple meaning. Usually the word צור literally rock, means forceful or powerful, and does not refer to an artist or fashioner.

“The Maharsha in Berachos answers this question. Since the verse tells us that there is no צור like God it implies that there are others which should be referred to as צור , but they cannot be compared to God. Clearly, here we are speaking not of the one and only Rock, but of a different meaning related to the root צור!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Ultimate Artist”
Niddah 41

In Rabbi Yaakov Menken’s commentary on last week’s Torah Portion Chukat, he addresses the mystery behind the sin that resulted in the death of Aaron and Moses being denied entry into the Land of Promise. For many, trying to comprehend what sin Aaron and Moses committed that was worth so terrible a price is extremely difficult. But we must remember that not only were Aaron and Moses born to accomplish a very high purpose, but we see that the more exalted a person’s holiness, the more is required of them. In other words, the higher you fly, the further you have to fall.

Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a major sin such as murder, adultery or idolatry — and thus the Prophets use severe language, similar to HaShem’s own words that Moshe and Aharon “did not believe” in Him. Just like the anthropomorphic references to HaShem Himself, these passages use language which we can understand, so that we can learn from them, but are not intended to be taken literally at all.

Every human being is just that — human — and no one is perfect. Even as we are humbled by recognition of the heights reached by prophets and great scholars, we should never lose hope, or imagine that those who came close to G-d were truly angels, without inner struggles or difficulties. This is the lesson the Torah brings home to us when attributing unimaginable ‘sins’ to our forebears. And yet it is also incumbent upon us to realize that we could be, ourselves, so close to HaShem that our ‘sins’ would be something we could not even recognize today.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this event in the Bible is nearly impossible for most of us to understand is that the majority of us are not tzaddikim; exceptionally righteous ones. Our worldview does not operate at such an exalted level. In the same manner, this is most likely what made it difficult for Christ’s own disciples to understand him at times and, what continues to contribute to what we often refer to as “the difficult sayings of Jesus” as seen from the perspective of the 21st century believer.

I know most Christians like to think of Jesus as ultimately approachable, friendly, kind, and understandable, but in spite of 1 Corinthians 2:16, we may be forced to admit that the mind of the Messiah is beyond most of us. Even the sins of those lesser than the Messiah but still exalted Holy ones are difficult to comprehend. Hence the following from Rabbi Menken:

On Rosh HaShanah, there is a tradition to go to a body of water and “cast off” one’s sins, as it were, and ask that they be covered over like water covers and hides the fish who swim within it. Many Chassidim have a custom to take bread crumbs along and throw them in, to give physical expression to this idea.

It is said that after a particular Chassidic Rebbe threw crumbs into the water in accordance with this custom, one of his Chassidim bounded into the lake and began to retrieve them. When questioned, the Chassid explained: “what the Rebbe considers his ‘sins’ are Mitzvos where I’m concerned!”

For years, I couldn’t understand this story or its intended lesson. A transgression is a transgression! But then, I heard that the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohein Kagan (perhaps the greatest known Torah scholar of the last century) once repented on Yom Kippur for having wasted eight minutes from Torah study during the previous year.

Can we imagine wasting merely eight minutes in an entire year? I would be extremely happy to say that I had managed to waste no more than eight minutes on a given afternoon! Maybe, maybe I’ve spent a few hours without wasting eight minutes once in my life. Maybe.

It’s impossible to imagine being able to account for every moment of every day, save eight minutes (I would almost be relieved to be told that I had heard this story incorrectly). And this is what the Chassid was saying: for us, it would be a great Mitzvah! The sins of great people occur at such a level of precision, that _reaching_ that level, to be worthy of being judged at that level, would be a phenomenal achievement.

Previously, I momentarily seemed to disregard a passage from 1 Corinthians 2, but I’d like to revisit those words in the context of Paul’s epistle:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. –1 Corinthians 2:12-16 (ESV)

This part of Paul’s letter makes it seem like, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all believers and disciples of the Jewish Messiah should have an equal ability to comprehend the Word of God, as if we were Jesus Christ himself. But do we? If we did, you’d think that the endless myriad of questions I post on this blog wouldn’t exist or would just be rather moot. You’d think instead of the 35,000+ Christian denominations (and counting) that exist in the world, we’d have only one. You’d think that we would all have the identical understanding of God and the very same template for organizing the community of faith.

You’d think God would have finished writing the Word upon our hearts by now. But apparently, He hasn’t.

As we saw in the “Story Off the Daf” from which I quoted earlier, God can be considered a magnificent artist. He fashions each and every one of us miraculously and He has repeated His artistry in an endless progression from the beginning of Genesis until now. He is creating His “paintings” still, and will continue to do so until a point in time we cannot yet even begin to grasp.

And He has created us for many purposes, all of which serve His will. But all that being true, He gave us the gift of self-determination to the point where only a human being may actively and purposefully defy the will of God. In other words, we can take the incredibly wonderful work of art that was created by the hand of God and turn it into the moral equivalent of a velvet painting of Elvis (and I apologize to all of the fans of Elvis Presley and those of you who enjoy velvet paintings).

I can hardly accuse Aaron and Moses of such a sin against God. It is God who held them both responsible for how they chose to treat His “artwork”. And while you and I (or at least I) are not tzaddikim and we do not operate at the level of Aaron or Moses (and certainly not at the level of Christ), we have been created as God’s handiwork to serve a purpose and a goal. We are responsible for what we do with our lives. There are consequences for choosing not to live as we were designed to live.

The end of the lives of Aaron and Moses give us an idea of those consequences. We also have examples such as Nadab and Abihu.

Who are we and where do we come from? Do we have a purpose in life, or is everything we do random and meaningless? Is this all there is or is there something more?

We spend all our lives trying to answer questions like these. Even those of us who adhere to a specific religious tradition encounter great difficulties in answering what should be the simplest questions about our faith. Now we see that these questions and their answers aren’t just meaningless exercises in philosophy. They are what define us, not just as individuals, but as a species. If we are simply the most evolved animals on the planet, then it pretty much doesn’t matter what we do. Go ahead and destroy the physical environment and contribute to our extinction. It doesn’t matter. The planet will eventually recover and even if it doesn’t, so what? We will have exterminated ourselves, but the Universe goes on.

But what if we have been created by the “Master Artist” for a higher purpose? If there are consequences, for good or for bad, for the manner in which we live out our lives, then our every action does matter, our every decision does have an impact beyond that of the moment. Our words, behavior, and feelings are all part of a greater design that contributes to the infinite tapestry of Creation. Each individual life is personally important as an artistic act of God and it matters to Him how things are going for us each and every day.

Just recently, I compared a life of faith to a bird in endless flight. Given the example of Aaron and Moses, we can see how “dangerous” it is to fly as high as they did, because with one subtle failure, they lost their wings and fell back to earth in disgrace. And yet the wonder and majesty that they beheld, especially Moses who spoke to our infinite “Artist” as one might speak to a dear and close friend…isn’t that worth even so great a risk? Isn’t soaring through space, nearing the court of the Mighty One, tasting the excitement, the freedom, the glory of approaching even the tiniest thread of the hem of the living God worth our time, our effort, even our very lives?

The Artist with His brush, puts the finishing touches on His latest painting and looks upon it with satisfaction. The painting, moments away from birth, stares back at the Creator and smiles with gratitude and love.

Then, as a child might send a paper airplane aloft with a single flick of the wrist, we are sent up into the Heavens and born into our lives. May we fly with the wings of an angel and live with the soul of His Image.

Why can’t He provide simple, clear directions and let us just follow His Divine plan? Why does He place these challenges before us, forcing us to make our own decisions, to chisel out our own paths?

Because He desires a home in our world
—not a home manufactured in heaven and transported downward to earth,
but a home made in our world
out of worldly materials,
chosen, designed and constructed
by citizens of our world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Made On Earth”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’m Alive!

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” -Dr. Seuss

I admit, thank, surrender before You, to Your essential being, O King, He who speaks the world into being and who is the source of all being, who is alive and the source of life, and who is enduring, sustaining, and unchanging. Because You have returned within me and You are recharging me with my breath of life by and with Your gracious compassion. Great and magnificent is Your faithfulness.

Modeh anee lifanecha melech chai vikayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.

-Modeh Ani

You just woke up. I just woke up. It’s a new day and we’re alive!

I’m continuing to follow the path of preparing a day before God. I’ve written about the activities that ideally lead up to this moment including An Introduction to a Prayer, Dream Not of Today, and Morning Rebirth, to mention just a few of the most recent blog posts in this series. In preparing for this moment, you have allowed yourself (again, ideally) to  dedicate your evening to reading, and studying, and meditating on God and His eternal Word, and praying the Bedtime Shema. Then, within the confines of His arms and blessing, you have fallen asleep.

And now it’s morning. And now you’re awake. What are the first thoughts that come to you? According to Rabbi Freeman, those thoughts should be of God, which is what you’d expect, and how grateful you are for returning you to this life, since sleep is where you approach the realm of death. You are reborn for another day. The breath of life has been restored to you, much in the same way God breathed life into the first man (Genesis 2:7). I can’t imagine what Adam must have thought in those first few moments of his existence, and if he really understood that prior to that moment, he did not exist at all, and then he was alive and the first living man. If he could possibly have comprehended all that God had done, how God had created the entire Universe for the sake of a man, how grateful would Adam have been?

There’s no way for us to understand the experience of the first man, but we can understand our own experience upon awakening, when we realize we are alive and we have lived to see another day.

I realize that most of you take that for granted. When you go to sleep, you expect to wake up the next morning. You expect to get up, use the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, check your email, take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, and so on, and so forth, just like you have a thousand mornings before.

Just like the sun is supposed to rise in the east every morning like clockwork. You don’t even worry that it won’t.

But what if you were severely ill? What if your living from day to day wasn’t such a sure thing? What if you had a medical condition that might result in you dying in your sleep. Even trying to go to sleep might make you anxious or even terrified, if you thought you might not wake up again…ever. If you expected that you could die in your sleep and then found yourself awake the following morning alive and feeling well, wouldn’t you be grateful to God for returning your life?

It is said that each beat of our heart requires the will of God, and should God withdraw His will, our heart would stop in an instant. We really take our beating heart for granted because it’s never let us down yet, has it? If it had, we would be dead. So we assume that if it’s worked all of this time without a problem, then it will just keep on going and going and going, like the Energizer Bunny.

Frankly, if we worried second by second all day long about whether or not God was going to extend our life into the next minute or the next hour, we probably would be a nervous wreck and would never be able to just get on with our day to day routine.

So, for the most part, we don’t worry. But then, are we grateful?

If you do so at no other time, the moment when you first wake up is a terrific time to express your gratitude to God for who you are and the fact that you made it to the start of another day. And just as you pondered the ancient texts and the oft-repeated tales of the greatness of God and all that He has done while you were getting ready for sleep, you can allow the awareness of Him to enter into you, and to fill you with His light as you wake up.

In today’s study, Rabbi Freeman presented a detailed, step-by-step breakdown of Modeh Ani, from which I took my rather literal translation of the Hebrew at the beginning of today’s meditation. While we won’t always be aware of the full weight and import of this deceptively short and easy morning blessing each time we say it to ourselves and to God, we should at least be aware of what we are saying before we commit to using these words to express our gratitude.

Depending on who you are, and how you conceive of God and your relationship to Him, you may never choose to adopt this particular blessing as part of your process of waking up each morning and re-entering the world that God has made.

But I hope and pray you choose (if you haven’t already done so) something similar. It’s not only because God deserves our gratitude and praise, but because we need to make the effort to integrate who we are into who He is. Otherwise, what is our life without His love?

“While there’s life, there’s hope.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero