Tag Archives: answers

Answering God

Many of us believe we will have an opportunity after our stint upon this earth to stand before a great mahogany desk in the sky and demand of G‑d, “If You are so kind and omniscient, why were You silent?” And then G‑d will show us the view as He sees things, and all will be answered.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps at the end of all things, at the core of all wisdom, at the very essence of all being lies not an answer, but a question. Perhaps many questions. And who knows, perhaps this question is one of them.

Perhaps G‑d will simply counter our question with yet another and ask, “So what did you do to answer this question?”

And if we will say, “I did nothing, because I saw you did nothing,” then He will say, “So this that you asked, was it a question? Or was it just another answer?”

For that is the only bad question: the one that is not a question at all, but merely an inexpensive excuse to shrug our shoulders and scurry back to our holes, to do nothing.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Is There Such a Thing as a Bad Question?” (And when do you get to ask it?)
from “The Freeman Files”
Chabad.org

I probably write a pretty strange blog, especially in the “religious space.” Most religious blogs are all about giving answers to tough (or not so tough) questions on theology, doctrine, history, Bible translations, and so on.

I don’t do any of that. The idea of being the “Bible answer man” just repels me if, for no other reason, than because we aren’t so sure of our answers. Watching just the Christian religion and all the opinions, denominations, sects, and cults out there should be enough to convince even the most casual observer that we’re all madly dancing on the head of a pin anyway. What the heck to we know?

OK, it’s probably not that bad, but even I, a self-avowed Christian (albeit an unusual one), get disgusted with all the confusion and chaos within my own faith at times. What disgusts me even more than the chaos, is the amazing audacity of some folks out there who seem absolutely sure they have all of the answers all of the time. On top of that, they plan to build churches, schools, Jerusalem councils, and whatnot on the foundation of their opinions, and then they turn around and trash anyone who doesn’t agree with their set of arbitrary absolutes.

I sound like a very strange Christian right now, don’t I?

But as Rabbi Freeman points out, if we expect God to lay it all out for us before we can do anything about anything, all we’ll end up doing is “scurrying back to our holes” and hiding in the dark.

I must admit there are times when that sounds terrifically appealing.

But no, I can’t.

No, really. One of my favorite bloggers, Asher closed up his Lev Echad blog and walked away from it all. His motives are his own and I’m sure they aren’t the same as mine, (when I’m tempted to throw in the towel) but he seems to have ended his stint on the blogosphere as an act of faith.

Look through the history of the Jewish people (especially Israel) and there is a simple conclusion that can be drawn: God is orchestrating events. Even when it’s difficult to understand certain events, we can still control our reaction to them. In fact, Jewish tradition has it that the Final Redemption will occur when we realize that we can only rely on God. If we but take our incredible history to heart, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to come to that conclusion.

I admired Asher’s writing because he had no ax to grind, no agenda (hidden or otherwise), no theological complaint to harangue the rest of us with. He just wanted (and probably still wants) to promote unity between one Jew and another.

As for me, I’m still working on that whole “be at peace” thing.

Feel intense empowerment as you have the strength to remain silent when silence is the wisest course of action. Your silence will not be passive, but an active silence that comes from self-mastery. As you remain silent, hear an inner cheer. Your silence requires as much skill as any Olympic athlete. It is a victory that deserves a standing ovation. Hear an inner voice saying, “I’m proud of your self-mastery to remain silent.” Your silence is the mark of a champion!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Have the Strength to Remain Silent, Daily Lift #563”
Aish.com

I’ve been reviewing this past week’s “meditations” and even in my most benign missives, I find that I couldn’t help making a few comments on those people and movements (though, not by name) who I feel also “struggle” with walking out the path that Jesus meant for us to follow. Frankly, it’s tough not to want to push back when so much of what people are saying “out there” is designed to sting you.

But if I were to truly look at Asher as an example and to take Rabbi Pliskin’s advice, I’d delete this blog, my Facebook and twitter accounts, and shut down my online presence completely. I don’t doubt that a few people would be glad that I did.

Is there a point to these “morning meditations” or are they just the random ramblings of a mind that needs to be busy with other things? Am I saying anything unique or just parroting the quotes of people wiser than I am?

Yesterday, you were inspired. Today, that is all gone. And so, you are depressed.

But this is the way the system works: Everything begins with inspiration. Then the inspirations steps aside—to make room for you to do something with it. For fire to become deeds.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Runaway Inspiration”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

As I continue to wrestle with these questions and find no absolute conclusions, the only answer I can come up with is temporary. We were each given an individual voice with which to speak. How we view the world we live in and our place in it is different for each of us. No two of us walks quite the same path and all individuals have their own special vision. Those of us who blog, express that vision in words and the occasional picture. Others paint, or pray, or teach, or give to charity, or build houses for the homeless, or serve food to the hungry, or realize it’s more important to be kind than clever, or…

You get the idea.

Many paths, many people, One God.

But remember, One God means He is Lord of all. We aren’t. With over 181 million blogs in existence around the world, how can any one blogger claim to be so important? Many voices and each one is unique, but none of us is special.

Humility eliminates many of life’s problems. A humble person will not be bothered by life’s circumstances and will not envy what anyone else has. He will not become angry nor quarrel with others.

It is very pleasant to be in the presence of a humble person, therefore people will invariably like him. All of his interactions with other people will be serene and tranquil. Fortunate is the person who has acquired this attribute.

Today, imagine that a miracle has occurred and you suddenly have total humility. In what way does this enable you to free yourself from any anxiety you frequently experience?

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Humility Eliminates Many Problems, Daily Lift #564”
Aish.com

Many voices, One God. Many questions, no answers. But it’s not the answers that drive me but the questions. It’s not certainty of purpose that compels me to write the next blog and then the next one, it’s the puzzle of humanity and the mystery of God.

It’s Friday. Shabbat will arrive at the end of a tiny march of hours. If total humility is a miracle, then so is total peace. But for a small span of time, I will still my voice and cease my questions. Then I will listen. May it be His will to speak.

But if He asks me a question, how will I answer God? How would you?

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Why Do We Fall Down?

FallingFor after I fell, I have arisen… –Michah 7:8

The Midrash comments: “Had I not fallen, I would not have arisen,” and so indicates that some heights are not attainable without an antecedent fall.

Obviously, no one designs a fall in the hope that it may lead to a greater elevation. Michah’s message, however, is that if a person should suffer a reversal, he or she should not despair, because it may be a necessary prelude to achieving a higher level than would have been possible otherwise.

We can find many analogies to this concept. When we swing a pickaxe, we first lower it behind ourselves in order to deliver a blow with maximum force. Runners often back up behind the starting line to get a “running start.” In many things, starting from a “minus” position provides a momentum that would otherwise not be attainable.

When things are going well, most people let well enough alone. The result? Mediocrity has become acceptable. Changing might involve some risk, and even if we could achieve greater things, we might not wish to take a chance when things are proceeding quite satisfactorily. However, when we are in an intolerable situation, we are compelled to do something, and this impetus may bring about creativity and progress.

We even see this concept in the account of creation in Genesis. First there was darkness, then came light.

Today I shall…

realize that a reversal may be the seed of future growth, and I must never despair.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 24”
Aish.com

If you’re a movie goer, this piece of advice may sound very close to another slice of “conventional wisdom.” uttered by actor Michael Caine:

Why do we fall sir? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.

Batman Begins (2005)

In yesterday’s meditation, I talked about the value of prayer as a conversation with a very special “traveling companion.” Our relationship with God, once we become aware that there is a God and that He wants us to relate to him, is no simple matter. But then, what do you expect from having daily interactions with the infinite, unknowable, radical One God?

But relationships with other people and even with ourselves aren’t particularly easy, either. A life of faith can be a struggle. We take on board beliefs and a trust in our Creator that not only does the world fail to comprehend, but that we ourselves often puzzle over.

It can be very disheartening, hence the need to continually relate to God.

But like I said, it’s not just about “me and Jesus.” It’s much more than that.

Spend time thinking about the virtues of other people. Not merely as a passing thought – but try to feel pleasure in thinking of their virtues.

-Rabbi Reuven Dov Dessler
Tnuas Hamussar, vol.5, p.180;
see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness,” p.103
Aish.com

What does considering and celebrating the virtues of others have to do with learning to get up again once we’ve fallen down?

Plenty.

A tradition handed down from Rebbe to Rebbe: During the well-known conflict (between chassidim and their opponents) the chassidim told the Alter Rebbe about the terrible abuse they suffered from the plain misnagdic folk. The Rebbe said: Grandfather (as he called the Baal Shem Tov) deeply loved simple folk. In my first days in Mezritch, the Rebbe, (the Maggid) said: “It was a frequent customary remark of the Rebbe (Baal Shem Tov) that love of Israel is love of G-d. “You are children of Hashem your G-d”; when one loves the father one loves the children.

“Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Menachem Av 24, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

I’ve said before that not only is it impossible to truly love God without loving people, but that loving God, loving others, and taking care of yourself are all wrapped up into one big package. It comes full circle in helping us to realize that God intensely, completely loves us…all of us. Our deep responsibility to help others is only a reflection of God’s desire to care for and to love us.

Whenever we fall, whether due to disease, injury, or most commonly, emotional and spiritual discouragement, we depend on God to help lift us up again. Often, that help comes in the form of another human being. So it stands to reason that when we see someone else who has fallen, we should unreservedly strive to help that person stand back up again.

You may believe that God doesn’t answer your prayers when you need Him to the most. On the other hand, maybe God’s “agent” for that answer simply hasn’t arrived yet. The other side of the coin is that when you have the opportunity to help someone out, please be timely, because God sent you to be the answer to their prayers.

Why do other people fall down? So that we can do God’s will in helping them back up.

Asking the Right Questions: A Brief Review of Messiah Journal 110

Gateway to Eden“A river went out from Eden to water the garden.”

There is Eden, and there is the garden.

Eden is a place of delight, far beyond the garden, beyond all created things. Yet its river nurtures all that grows in that garden.

The garden is wisdom, understanding, knowing—where all of creation begins.

Adam is placed in the garden, to work with his mind, and to discover the transcendent Eden flowing within.

The objective of all man’s toil in this world is to work to reach beyond his own mind, higher than mind at all. Not to a place where the mind is ignored, but rather, to its essence, to the inner sense of beauty and wonder that guides it. To Eden.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The River from Eden”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I get tired.

Yes, I know. We all get tired, but I don’t mean just that. For the past several days, my “meditations” have been anything but peaceful, reflective missives. They’ve been firestorms of controversy which have inspired debates on hotly contested subjects, such as the nature of Christian obligation to Judaism and whether or not the Jews will ever be “saved.”

I’m reminded that at the end of all things, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4).

I’m kind of looking forward to that.

I’ve been reading over the latest issue (110) of Messiah Journal (MJ) published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). Normally, I select a few articles from any given issue and review them one at a time. This issue hit me differently.

It’s probably because I was at FFOZ’s recent Shavuot conference which was hosted at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. As I was reading a number of the various articles in the magazine, I was reminded of similar content that was presented in different teachings at the conference.

For instance, Aaron Eby’s article “Exile and Redemption in Genesis” seems to be closely related to a number of things I heard Boaz Michael discuss and which I chronicled in Redeeming the Heart of Israel, Part 1 and Part 2. Aaron references the article he wrote for MJ issue 109 called “The Writing on the Wall” in which he discussed the sins that traditional Judaism believes contributed to the destruction of the Second Temple. He alludes to the idea that Christ’s teachings may have specifically been targeting the sins in Israel that resulted in the Temple’s destruction and the exile of the Jewish people, but “Exile and Redemption in Genesis” doesn’t actually go that far. This is obviously a “part 2” of a larger series and I suspect that Aaron will revisit Yeshua’s teachings in the next edition of MJ which will come out in late August or early September. Too bad, because I’d like to see this concept fleshed out a little more right now, particularly with related scriptural verses.

Toby Janicki wrote an article for MJ 110 called Rebbe Nachman on The Suffering Tzaddik.” He tells us that the concept of the death of a tzaddik (righteous one) being able to bring atonement for others, goes back to D. Thomas Lancaster’s article “Suffering Tzaddik” which came out in MJ 107. Toby focuses on the specific experiences and stories related to Rebbe Nachman as they apply to the wider Jewish concept and of course, as they apply to our own great tzaddik, Moshiach Yeshua, and how his death atoned for the sins, not just of his generation, but of all humanity.

(Last September, I wrote my own humble missive on this topic called The Death of the Tzaddik, but my limited research couldn’t possibly be compared to the scholarship of Lancaster or Janicki. Still, you might want to give it a read.)

At the end of reading Toby’s article, I wrote myself a note that said:

Can any of these writings reach Christians who will rely solely on the Bible for evidence?

I was thinking of an email I’d received from a very kind and knowledgable gentleman that morning in response to my “meditation” A Few Thoughts on a General Soul. In part, he wrote:

As you know, the “general soul” business is found in Chassidic thought. It is an extravagant claim and cries out for asmachta (scriptural support). You offer none because, IMHO, there is none to be found.

That certainly strikes home and as fond as I am of the midrashim and Chassidic writings, it is very unlikely that they can be mapped directly back to specific scriptures in the Bible. Near the climax of his article, Toby even says:

So what, if anything, can Rebbe Nachman’s teachings on tikkun and the Master of the Field teach us about the Gospels? It’s important before we answer that question that we realize that the Master and Rebbe Nachman were separated by almost 1,800 years. Much in Judaism changed during those years, and theologies that did not yet exist in the first century had had centuries to develop. Rebbe Nachman based much of his teachings on texts and ideas that were completely foreign to Yeshua.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely delighted with this issue of MJ and the scholarly papers presented within, but given recent experiences, I was also reminded of the limitations of said-information, particularly when presented to a crowd of  traditional Christians. It’s like facing an audience of “Joe Fridays” from the old TV show Dragnet (1951-59) with Sgt. Friday interviewing a witness and insisting, “The facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.” In the case of a Christian audience, the phrase might be something like, “The Scriptures, Jim. Just the Scriptures.”

My perspective on my faith allows me to include extra-Biblical sources into my database and I don’t believe you can wholly separate the Judaism of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, from the subsequent Judaisms that have developed across the centuries between the time of Christ and now. That sort of goes along with something else Toby wrote about in his article:

With that said, as my colleague D. Thomas Lancaster likes to point out, “even the work of a Chasidic teacher from a century ago is closer to the world of Yeshua and the disciples than church literature of the second century CE.”

I suppose I’m going to be criticized for including that quote, too.

Russ Resnik in his Messiah Journal article “‘Shema’ Living the Great Commandment: Part 2: ‘Listen’ – The First Imperative” said in part:

Note Yeshua’s emphasis again on hearing, which leads to understanding and bearing fruit. To obey the second line of the Shema and love HaShem wholeheartedly, we must obey the first line and truly “hear.”

The response I wrote in a note to myself says:

And yet, despite the fact that we all want to hear and to obey, what many of us hear seems radically different from all of the others in the body of faith in Messiah, as the comments section of my different blog posts can attest.

Conversations can get very passionate and even unfriendly at times, and yet as we push each other around in the virtual world of the religious blogosphere, we are all striving to achieve essentially the same goal: to uphold and honor God. It’s just that our understanding of what that’s supposed to mean differs greatly from one person to the next and one tradition to the next, and we are all convinced that our tradition is the best and must be defended against all others.

At the Shavuot conference, Boaz mentioned to me that groups often define themselves by their opposition to other groups and that can’t be more clearly illustrated than on the Internet. Even as I’m writing this blog post on Tuesday night, the comments in my blog are continuing to accrue and some part of me isn’t looking forward to reading them. It’s one thing to inspire spirited debate and another thing entirely to be nearly branded “public enemy number one” because I make statements that disagree with someone else’s theology and philosophy.

But in all of these arguments on topics which I really love exploring, I must admit that a number of the points I’ve addressed lately need to be researched much more thoroughly and to be examined through the lens of scripture, before we hitch our wagon to them and start driving them down the road.

On the other hand, if reading articles written by Russ Resnik, Aaron Eby, and Toby Janicki can inspire this much of a response in me, imagine what they might inspire in you. Faith isn’t just about having the answers, it’s about knowing how to ask the right questions. Joe Friday wanted answers that were facts. Another fictional police officer was rewarded for how he asked questions.

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “Good to see you again, son.”

Detective Del Spooner: “Hello, doctor.”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.”

Detective Del Spooner: “Is there something you want to tell me?”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.”

Detective Del Spooner: “Why did you call me?”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “I trust your judgement.”

Detective Del Spooner: “Normally, these circumstances wouldn’t require a homicide detective.”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “But then our interactions have never been entirely normal. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Detective Del Spooner: “You got that right… Is there something you want to say to me?”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.”

Detective Del Spooner: “Why would you kill yourself?”

Dr. Alfred Lanning: “That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.”

from I, Robot (2004)

Understanding God and the mystery He’s presented us with in the Bible is not just a matter of having the right answers, but of asking the right questions. These can be questions as startling as, “Why would you kill yourself?” We can’t afraid…I can’t be afraid to raise startling questions or to broach sensitive topics of discussion. As tiring as it can be to continually respond to my critics, I have to keep asking those questions.

The questions are bread crumbs. This is where they’re supposed to lead to someday.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. –Revelation 22:1-5 (ESV)

Questions You Can Never Ask In Church

There is a Yiddish saying that is familiar to many: “One doesn’t die from asking a question.” This expression is a pithy way to explain to someone who has questions that having a question — or many — is no big deal.

As one gets older and wiser, he has a broader perspective and realizes that questions are a part of life and that we make choices despite questions all the time.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Missing Husband”
Kereisos 11-1

I had coffee after work with a couple of guys yesterday. That’s actually kind of unusual for me since I don’t socialize very often, but this was a somewhat unusual situation. Those of you who have been following my blog for awhile know that one of my “issues” is my lack of fellowship with like-minded believers. You have probably read my discussion about why I don’t go to church. These two fellows are more or less in the same boat as I am. We are all believers, but through one process or another, we find ourselves without a congregation to which we can belong. Maybe we’re too independent or idiosyncratic or something.

So over coffee at Moxie Java, we discussed why we were meeting in the first place. We hadn’t brought our Bibles and we didn’t have a specific plan or agenda for our meeting. The most we had settled on before getting together yesterday was that we wanted to have a meeting and talk. But what about?

We came up with a number of reasons why we were more alike than unalike, and why we don’t seem to fit into a traditional church setting. One of the reasons was that we ask a lot of questions.

You might not think this is a big deal, but I know from my own experience that it’s not a good idea to ask a lot of questions in church, or at least, you shouldn’t ask questions that don’t have canned, pre-programmed, Christian answers. But we were discussing things like the Deity (or lack thereof) of Jesus and whether or not there really is a Trinity, and whether the third Temple would be a real, physical structure built by men (I think so, but someone else didn’t) or something more “spiritual.” These are questions that would probably raise a few eyebrows if you discussed them in adult Sunday school after services. They might even get you quickly escorted to the door by a couple of ushers with a strong “suggestion” never to return.

That’s the difference between how I see Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is about always having the right answers and only asking questions that map to those answers. Judaism is about always asking all kinds of questions and then struggling with the answers, maybe coming up with half a dozen possible responses, and then arguing all of them around back and forth. There’s no sin in wondering exactly what makes Jesus divine and what his relationship is with “God the Father,” but you might not get that feeling if you asked those kind of questions in a church.

But if you don’t ask questions, then you don’t learn. And if you don’t learn, then your relationship with God drops into a deadend rut and never goes anywhere for years and years.

The rebellious child who questions everything sits in a place beyond the one who has nothing to ask.

If the rebellious child questions, it is because it touches him, it says something to him. Perhaps it even bothers him.

But a perfectly capable human being who has no questions about Torah and G-d — he is stuck in his place. Perhaps he is a good religious Jew who does good deeds and never sins. But there is no sense of the spirit, of the meaning of life, of transcendence.

He is stuck in Egypt and knows of nothing higher.

—at the second Seder, 1965

Chronicled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inquisitively Challenged”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I was discussing this matter with a Pastor on his blog the other day, and his response was that the issue wasn’t Christianity vs. Judaism, but west vs. east. He said that the eastern churches tended to very much encourage question asking and wrestling over difficult issues. The western church tends to be more “goal-oriented” and likes conclusions rather than conundrums. That may well be true. I don’t know. I do know that the traditional Yeshiva model of learning is to argue opposing positions and “posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes.” (from the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man)

broken-crossSo there we were, three guys sitting around drinking mediocre coffee and occasionally having our conversation being drowned out by the latte machine, asking questions, posing problems, and generally discussing matters that would “cross a Pastor’s eyes.”

But it felt good.

Part of getting close to God is meditating upon Him and His awesome, mighty works and wonders. Part of getting close to God is prayer. Part of getting close to God is reading the Bible and studying the Torah commentaries of the ancient Jewish sages.

And part of knowing God is getting together with a few other guys in a coffee shop in southwestern Idaho and talking about Him, asking all the questions we can’t ask other people, and hoping we get at a few answers, or better yet, a few more questions, that surprise and challenge us.

Because if we can’t find a way to get closer to Him, we’ll always be too far away.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. –Psalm 73:25-28 (ESV)

We’ll get together again next Thursday after work and see how it goes. Maybe, I’ll have a good question to ask. I hope no one comes up with just one answer.