Tag Archives: avoda

Dimming the Divine Light

Our teacher the Baal Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.

-Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
Translation by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

If only we could keep this in mind throughout our days and nights, in the midst of our conversations, and particularly when we “talk” to each other on the Web. But it seems that each disagreement, each challenge, is an excuse to forget about how all experiences are instructions for how to serve God, even as we believe we are serving God.

I suppose I could cite the Baltimore riots since it’s all over the news and social media just now, but a sense of powerlessness, fear, rage, and violence is what has fueled this latest conflagration.

And that has little or nothing to do with us as a community and how we are to serve God.

I know that we people of faith are also just people and we often use that as an excuse for our own outbursts (though thankfully, they’re not on the same order or scale as the aforementioned-rioting). Still, when we argue and particularly, when we go out of our way to tear down a fellow disciple, then we have borne witness to how far the ekklesia of Messiah has fallen in an already fallen world.

I don’t hold myself as some sterling example. I have failed God and my comrades in the Messiah’s “body” in many ways. I simply am astonished that, on the one hand, we have such wonderful words and sentiments to use as examples, such as the quote I begin this blog post with, and on the other hand, who we are and how we actually behave as flesh and blood people attempting, however poorly, to live the life we were born to live.

Show a mighty emperor the world and ask him where he most desires to conquer. He will spin the globe to the furthest peninsula of the most far-flung land, stab his finger upon it and declare, “This! When I have this, then I shall have greatness!”

So too, the Infinite Light. In those places most finite, where the light of day barely trickles in, there is found His greatest glory.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Conquest”
Chabad.org

As little pieces of the Divine Light, we are to conquer the world by shining our light into every corner of it, replacing darkness with illumination.

But how are we supposed to do that when we can’t even conquer the yetzer hara within ourselves?

The Transcendent Path

Tree of LifeIf you find yourself affixed to a single path to truth—the path of prayer and praise, or the path of kindness and love,or the path of wisdom and meditation,or any other path of a singular mode—you are on the wrong path. Truth is not at the end of a path. Truth transcends all paths. Choose a path. But when you must, take the opposite path as well.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Two at Once”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

As human beings, we have a tendency to compartmentalize and specialize our lives. This comes as no surprise to me, since organization of the different elements of life into “categories” is how we understand ourselves. We have an order and a set of habits to what we do. We also have an awareness of what we’re good at and what we aren’t; a set of “gifts” to which we lean upon and if we are kind, offer to others. Organizing our lives by categorization is necessary so we can conceptualize events, circumstances, and objects and make sense of the world around us.

But it can also be a limitation if we believe we are only defined be these categories. Saying, “I’m only good at this, so I won’t try that,” may rob someone who needs you to do “that” for them rather than “this.”

I’m as guilty of this sort of thinking and behaving as anyone. I’m a writer, both professionally and “for fun.” I find that I can clarify my own thinking and understand better what some people are saying to me if I write about those experiences. My Wednesday night meetings with Pastor Randy are a perfect example. He might say a few sentences to me on Wednesday that will fuel my blog posts for an entire week, because I use writing to continually process what he has been teaching.

But I cannot allow writing to be the totality of my identity and my activity. Someone who needs me to give them a lift to a doctor’s appointment because their car broke down won’t be helped if I only write about their need. I should offer them a ride to and from the appointment in my car. I should do something that I’m not accustomed to considering as an “expertise” of mine in order to meet another human being’s need.

Earlier today, I was writing about giving chesed to the stranger, showing someone who needs you a kindness, not because they are your friend or neighbor, but just because they need you.

In the world of “religious blogging,” most of us have a tendency to write about what we’re interested in, and again, I’m no exception. We often write about the theological or doctrinal specifics with which we identify. Jews write about Judaism and Christians write about Christianity. Nothing strange about that. Even within a particular religious structure, we tend to write about those areas of which we are particularly fond or in which we are interested.

I’ve written lately on Divine Election because I was processing that information. For another person, that might be a rather meaningless topic. I’ve read blogs recently about the Leviticus 11 kosher laws, Bibles limited to the New Testament and the Psalms, Shomer Negiah, Good Friday, and other religious subjects. Nothing wrong with writing about any of those religious topics…

…unless they limit what else we should be doing.

We tend to choose a path and then walk it, but then we only walk that path and no other. According to what Rabbi Freeman said above, that’s not the right path. If we are on the path of prayer and praising God but a homeless person on the street needs us to give them something to eat, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment. If we are busy donating our time at a shelter or food kitchen, but God needs us to read and meditate upon His Word, then we are on the wrong path, at least for that moment.

The individual’s avoda must be commensurate with his character and innate qualities. There may be one who can drill pearls or polish gems but works at baking bread (the analogy in the realm of avoda may be easily understood). Though baking bread is a most necessary craft and occupation, this person is considered to have committed a “sin.”

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Nissan 25, 10t day of the omer, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

white-pigeon-kotelAvoda is a Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “work,” but among the Chassidim, it “generally refers to Divine service (or worship). For example, it’s part of the Divine service to serve God with joy.” Is who we are as servants of God limited to our theology or our religious identity, or is there something that transcends all that information, and unites us as living, human creations of the Most High God?

We often drone on and on and on about our insights into the Bible, our own theological pet peeves, or about how people with different theological pet peeves annoy us and are guilty of “false teaching,” but do we take the time to transcend our categories, our pigeon-holed lives, and realize that truth is much, much larger than the box we’ve put ourselves in?

And if your brother is not close to you and you do not know him.

Deuteronomy 22:2

Perhaps the reason that other people are not close to you is because you do not know them.

The Chassidic master of Apt said: “As a young man, I was determined to change the world. As I matured, I narrowed my goals to changing my community. Still later, I decided to change only my family. Now I realize that it is all I can do to change myself.”

Some things in the world are givens, and others are modifiable. The only thing we can really modify is ourselves. All other people are givens. Unfortunately, many people assume the reverse to be true. They accept themselves as givens and expect everyone else to change to accommodate them.

(There is one limited exception. When our children are small, we can teach and guide them. When they mature, however, we can no longer mold them.)

Trying to change others is both futile and frustrating. Furthermore, we cannot see other people the way they truly are, as long as we are preoccupied with trying to change them to the way we would like them to be.

The people we should know the most intimately are those who are closest to us. Yet it is precisely these people whom we wish to mold into the image we have developed for them. As long as this attitude prevails, we cannot see them for what they are. How ironic and tragic that those we care for the most may be those we know the least!

Today I shall…

…try to focus any desires to change on myself and let other people determine for themselves who and what they wish to be.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nissan 20”
Aish.com

light-of-the-worldTo extend Rabbi Twerski’s metaphor, we can only change the world by changing ourselves. We can only serve God and change the world, by accepting that others will always be different from us and then realize that’s not always a bad thing. We, in the end, are only responsible for who we are. God will not judge us on what other people have done but only on what we have done with our lives. If we have treated others kindly, our theology, doctrine, dogma, or any of the other boxes and pigeon holes we’ve used to categorize and identify ourselves in this world will be worth less than who we are in Christ.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Philippians 3:4-8

Paul isn’t saying that his being Jewish is literally worthless, and I’m not suggesting that how we study and understand the Word of God is meaningless, either. What I am saying is that, like Paul, there is something much, much greater. The Master taught us that loving God to our fullest extent and loving other human beings as ourselves are the essence of everything in the Bible. He also taught that we would be known as his disciples specifically by our love of one another, a love that goes so far that we would be willing to give up our lives for another if required.

If anything can be said to transcend all of our paths, our categories, our religious posturing, it is love…even love for the unlovable and the unlikable ..especially love for those who otherwise make us feel hurt and angry and aggravated. If we can authentically show them love, then we are better than all of the sermons and blog posts about theology that we could ever produce. Then, we are written in His Book of Life because we have loved.

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel

We must be more.

Inspiring Hope

moshiach-ben-yosefThe Jewish people believe in what’s called the End of Days. This isn’t the final end of the world – but merely the end of history as we know it. After the End of Days the world will continue as usual, with the big exception that there will be world peace.

As the End of the Days approach, there are two paths that the world could take. The first is filled with kindness and miracles, with the Messiah “given dominion, honor and kinship so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him; his dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass, and his kingship would never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14) This scenario could be brought at any moment, if we’d just get our act together!

The other path is described as Messiah coming “humble and riding upon a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). In this scenario, nature will take its course, and society will undergo a slow painful deterioration, with much suffering. God’s presence will be hidden, and his guidance will not be perceivable.

According to this second path, there will be a valueless society in which religion will not only be chided, it will be used to promote immorality. Young people will not respect the old, and governments will become godless. This is why the Midrash says, “One third of the world’s woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah.” (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Handbook of Jewish Thought”)

“End of Days”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series
Aish.com

This probably sounds a little different than how Christians understand the “end times,” particularly the interpretation of Zechariah 9:9, but if you click the link I provided and continue to read, you’ll see there are a lot of similarities between the Jewish and Christian “end times scenario.” One thing I’m particularly interested in is that, from the Jewish perspective, the “End of Days” isn’t the end of the world. Some Christians I’ve talked to believe that when Jesus comes, and after all of the stuff that happens in the Book of Revelation, the Earth will be destroyed, all the Christians will go to Heaven, and everyone else will burn eternally in Hell.

But the Jewish point of view reads more like how I understand John’s revelation. The people of God don’t go to Heaven, “Heaven” comes down to them (us).

Another interesting thing (for me, anyway) is how we seem to have a choice as to which road to take. A world filled with kind and just people who give Messiah “dominion, honor, and kinship” and with “all peoples, nations and languages” serving him, will merit a world of everlasting dominion by the Messiah, but only “if we’d just get our act together!”

That doesn’t seem very likely. The alternate choice seems to be the one we see unfolding before us at the moment:

According to this second path, there will be a valueless society in which religion will not only be chided, it will be used to promote immorality. Young people will not respect the old, and governments will become godless. This is why the Midrash says, “One third of the world’s woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah.”

That is a very good description of the world we live in today…and it is also the world that we merit by our action or rather, our lack of action. However, the Aish Rabbi also provides a message of hope.

Despite the gloom, the world does seem headed toward redemption. One apparent sign is that the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel and made it bloom again. Additionally, a major movement is afoot of young Jews returning to Torah tradition.

By the way, Maimonides states that the popularity of Christianity and Islam is part of God’s plan to spread the ideals of Torah throughout the world. This moves society closer to a perfected state of morality and toward a greater understanding of God. All this is in preparation for the Messianic age.

The Messiah can come at any moment, and it all depends on our actions. God is ready when we are. For as King David says: “Redemption will come today – if you hearken to His voice.”

We have hope for the redemption yes, but what will rouse us out of our world of darkness and despair into that light and hope?

Just as when the world was created — it was first dark, followed by light.

-Shabbos 77b

Reb Tzadok HaKohen (.‫ (צדקת הצדיק – קע‬elaborates upon the theme of this Gemara. When Hashem wants to shower a person with goodness and blessings, He waits for the person to daven and to ask for this benefit. In order to motivate the person to call out in prayer, Hashem will direct a certain element of distress or some sort of fear in his direction in order for the person to call out to Him.

light-ohrDaf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
Commentary on Shabbos 77b

It would certainly seem as if Hashem, as if God were directing elements of distress or fear into our world and waiting for us to daven, to pray, to call out to Him. How can we, as people of faith, conclude otherwise?

But a word of caution.

what does pres mean Gd has called the children home. their place is w/ their parents not at the heavenly throne. we must object 2 suffering

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
on twitter

Some Christians have given in to the temptation to use tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to say some hurtful things. They say these children were murdered to punish our nation for various sins, including some states allowing gay people to marry, that God “isn’t allowed in our schools,” and because abortion is legal in our country.

On the other hand, Rabbi Boteach is telling us that the death of innocent children makes no sense, is not desired by God, and must be resisted and objected to with every last bit of our strength, will, and compassion.

Frankly, given the choice, I’d rather go with Rabbi Boteach’s interpretation than what some of these Christians have said (including our President).

I was thrilled yesterday to get an email from my reclusive friend, Daniel Lancaster. Many of you know him from his books and especially as the author of the massively popular Torah Club volumes. He is a great writer and leader. His congregation, Beth Immanuel in Hudson, Wisconsin, has launched a new initiative acting with tangible love for Messiah to repair one broken place and assist in the lives of some people whose world is splintered and needs mending.

Beth Immanuel has adopted a worker, a Messianic Jewish woman who is putting her life on the line and her love into action in Uganda: Emily Dwyer.

They have launched a website and a plan to raise support to sustain Emily’s work in Uganda. They are baking challah bread, with Emily’s own recipe, as an ongoing fundraiser.

Recently, Emily spoke at Beth Immanuel and two of her messages are posted online. You can hear Emily Dwyer speak at this link (and be inspired — she is a speaker worth listening to).

You can see more about “Acts for Messiah,” the partnership between Beth Immanuel, some other affiliate congregations, and Emily Dwyer’s community in Uganda at ActsForMessiah.org.

-Derek Leman
“An MJ Congregation Acts for Messiah”
Messianic Jewish Musings

We can resist. We can fight back. We can strive for goodness in our world and promote hope in the people around us, regardless of where we may find ourselves. This message is also reflected in the commentary of the Aish Rabbi.

In many ways, the world is a depressing place. But life is like medicine. Imagine a person with a serious internal disease. Taking the right medication will detoxify the body by pushing all the impurities to the surface of the skin. The patient may look deathly ill – all covered in sores. But in truth, those surface sores are a positive sign of deeper healing.

The key is to maintain the hope of redemption.

How can we hasten the coming of the Messiah? The best way is to love all humanity generously, to keep the mitzvot of the Torah (as best we can), and to encourage others to do so as well.

HopeTo promote hope, we must have hope. To inspire the will to do good, we must possess that will and we must do good. This is the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. God has allowed a world of darkness and we are responsible for lighting it up.

“Know the G-d of your fathers and serve Him with a whole heart.” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9) Every sort of Torah knowledge and comprehension, even the most profound, must be expressed in avoda. I.e. the intellectual attainment must bring about an actual refinement and improvement of character traits, and must be translated into a deep-rooted inward attachment (to G-d) – all of which is what the Chassidic lexicon calls”avoda”.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Tevet 6, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

I can’t tell you why bad things happen. Sure, sometimes God may be trying to get our attention, but my radar into God’s motivations isn’t particularly accurate or insightful. I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful to point fingers and place blame upon political parties, advocacy groups, or any other folks. Yes, I’ll probably still complain about politics and people from time to time, but when I actually want to do the will of my Father who is in Heaven, then I must actually do for other people.

James, the brother of the Master, famously said that faith without works is dead. If that’s true, then complaining about the inequities, hardships, and tragedies of life, with or without faith, is also deader than a doornail.

Choose doing. Choose life. Inspire hope. If we continue to help repair the world, the “end of days” and coming of Messiah will take care of themselves.