Tag Archives: Ba’al Shem Tov

God’s Shadow

love-in-lightsGod is your shadow at your right hand.

Psalms 121:5

The Baal Shem Tov taught that God acts toward individuals accordingly as they act toward other people. Thus, if people are willing to forgive those who have offended them, God will similarly overlook their misdeeds. If a person is very judgmental and reacts with anger to any offense, God will be equally strict. The meaning of, God is your shadow, is that a person’s shadow mimics his or her every action.

At a therapy session for family members of recovering alcoholics, one woman told the group that she had experienced frustration from many years of infertility and tremendous joy when she finally conceived. Her many expectations were shattered, however, when the child was born with Down’s syndrome.

“I came to love that child dearly,” she said, “but the greatest thing that child has done for me is to make me realize that if I can love him so in spite of his imperfections, then God can love me in spite of my many imperfections.”

If we wish to know how God will relate to us, the answer is simple: exactly in the same way we relate to others. If we demand perfection from others, He will demand it of us. If we can love others even though they do not measure up to our standards and expectations, then He will love us in spite of our shortcomings.

Today I shall…

…try to relate to people in the same manner I would wish God to relate to me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 3”
Aish.com

I just reviewed the First Fruits of Zion television program episode The Golden Rule, which illustrates that principle of “do unto others” from a first century Jewish perspective.

I’ve also been reviewing a series of blog posts written by Pastor Tim Challies recording his impressions of John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, which is MacArthur’s commentary and warning about Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.

In reading the concluding summary (yes, I read ahead), it wasn’t the information or the scriptures presented by MacArthur and company that bothered me. I didn’t feel the real argument was about whether Pentecostalism was better or Reformed theology was better. For me, the issue was whether or not God would have handled the situation the same way MacArthur did.

Who knows, maybe He would have (and you may also believe that MacArthur is God’s tool to do just that).

Then I read messages like the one I quoted from Rabbi Twerski. I guess I’m just a soft and “mushy” inspirational Christian as opposed to one who sees God as perpetually wielding a club and who is ready to bludgeon us the minute we get out of line.

God knows we’re imperfect. God knows we’re messed up. God knows that, all things being equal, we’d mess up a free lunch…which is what most of us have done with the blessings and gifts He’s provided us.

“I came to love that child dearly,” she said, “but the greatest thing that child has done for me is to make me realize that if I can love him so in spite of his imperfections, then God can love me in spite of my many imperfections.”

I know the hardcore “justice” fans on the blogosphere will say that’s no excuse for not standing up to error and proceeding forward with the sword of truth to smite everyone who has drifted from the “true” path…uh, but doing it in “love,” of course.

If all you are as a person of faith is someone who has to fix the mistakes or others, the errors in theology and doctrine (or at least those things you perceive as errors), then you’re basically a mechanic who is always using a wrench and a hammer to hunt down that funny noise the car’s engine makes periodically.

Or, like the woman Rabbi Twerski talks about, we can be like a mother of a child who will always be imperfect, but not beyond improving. We don’t beat such a child, we shouldn’t beat any child, just because they’re imperfect. We influence and promote change by loving, not condemning.

Before we relate to any other human being regardless of the experience, if we could imagine how we would want God to relate to us under similar circumstances, maybe we’d be better people of faith. If we want God’s love and forgiveness, we have to be loving and forgiving. If we are harsh and judgmental, even if we’re being technically and scripturally correct, how will God judge us? How will God treat us?

Forgive us as we forgive others.

Matthew 6:12 (God’s Word Translation)

By the standard we use to treat others…that is the standard God will use on us.

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The Evidence of Love

love-in-lightsThe Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G-d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G-d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G-d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G-d.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Menachem Av 12, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 (NASB)

I would hardly suggest that the commentary I found in an email I received from Chabad.org was intended to map back to the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus), but the comparison really stands out. Perhaps it is one of those lessons that is equally apparent from a Jewish and Christian point of view, except that Jesus was a Jewish teacher talking to a Jewish scribe within a wholly Jewish context. We non-Jews get that point (or should get it) somewhat after the fact, so it would be wise of us not to do away with the Jewish framework in which the Master was teaching. That’s what gives his lessons their full meaning.

The “Today’s Day” commentary is specifically addressing a Jewish audience as well, which is obvious since it discusses one Jew loving another Jew as being equal to loving God, rather than one human being loving another. The interesting question is, when Jesus was teaching the two greatest commandments, did he mean that loving your neighbor is loving your Jewish neighbor?

That could very well have been the case, if you look at who Jesus was addressing and where this conversation was taking place. I don’t mean that Jesus was unconscious of the larger application of his teaching, but it hadn’t gotten that far yet. He came for the lost sheep of Israel not the lost sheep of planet Earth…well, not at that time. He assigned that job (gathering the lost sheep from the nations) to Paul on the road to Damascus some time later.

As impossible as it sounds, as absurd as it may seem: The mandate of darkness is to become light; the mandate of a busy, messy world is to find oneness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Mandate of Darkness”
Chabad.org

It’s important to remember that Rabbi Freeman is also addressing a Jewish audience, so don’t go crazy and assume he believes that Jews and Gentiles (particularly Christians) should all be “one.” Except that in Judaism, it is believed that Messiah will unite humanity in peace, not as a homogeneous body of human beings, but as Jews and Gentiles who are all subject to the King, who will come (return) and rule with a rod of iron. We will all be “one” in the sense that we will all be subjects of the King.

Even in the Messianic age though, as I understand it, people will still have the choice as to whether or not to acknowledge and obey the King. On the other hand, it does say that every knee shall bow. But there will still be Israel that is blessed by God and the people of the nations who are blessed through Israel; the people of the nations who are called by His Name.

But what is to be learned from this? Not that those of us who put ourselves under the authority of the King will all be cookie-cutter, carbon copies of one another. What is to be learned is that we will love one another and in fact, all disciples of the Master are commanded to love one another right now.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

John 13:34 (NASB)

arguing-with-godWithin the context of being disciples of Jesus, both Jewish and non-Jewish followers are commanded to love each other, regardless of our differences. That’s a rather tall order. I once heard a retired Pastor say that he’s seen churches split over what color to paint the walls of the Fellowship Hall. We don’t get along easily, let alone love one another. But if the Baal Shem Tov is correct and loving your fellow human being (I’ll adapt his teaching to be more generalized) is equivalent to our inner essence loving God, then the reverse must be true. Hostility, envy, anger, and hatred toward our “neighbor” must also be the expression of those emotions toward God.

That’s a horrible thought.

I don’t know if it’s true or not but if we were to even pretend it is, our motivation to love should become a great deal more plain. If we say we love God with all our heart and with every fiber of our being (most people tend to exaggerate the extent of their ability to love, but let’s say we are capable of this), then the evidence of our statement is how we treat other people, particularly within the community of faith.

By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:35 (NASB)

See? Love (or lack thereof) of our fellow believer is evidence of whether or not we actually do love God. People will know us as disciples of the Master by how we love each other. God, of course, already knows.

Gifts of the Spirit: Don’t Change a Thing

baal-shem-tov2“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Matthew 6:31-34 (NRSV)

Where do I begin? As I write this it’s Sunday afternoon. I’ve been back home for a few hours having returned from the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) annual Shavuot conference. This year’s theme was Gifts of the Spirit and the event, which was held in Hudson, Wisconsin from last Tuesday through last Saturday, was emotionally, spiritually, and educationally dense with content and meaning.

I’ve got enough material in my notes to blog for the next week or two, but not having gotten a lot of sleep last night, where do I begin so there’s a “morning mediation” for Monday? How about beginning at the end?

The very last presentation on Saturday, which was given by Boaz Michael, included a summary of the entire conference including an extensive question and answer series. We were all rather tired by that point, and I think it helped to generate some recall of the main points that were presented by all of the esteemed speakers. Here are just a few of the things that I recall at the moment. My notes are kind of “scribbly” and my thoughts are rather “fuzzy” right now, so I can’t promise that my quotes are exactly word for word.

One who focuses on and romanticizes Judaism is focusing on the hammer and not the house it is intended to build.

-Troy Mitchell as related by Boaz Michael

I’ll revisit Troy’s “midrash” in subsequent blog posts because there are so many applications for this piece of wisdom that could be useful. This connects to something Boaz presented about our faith in general, whether we call it Christianity, Messianic Judaism, Hebrew Roots or anything else. Most believing communities tend to focus primarily on one of three things, usually at the cost of the other two:

  1. The Gospel Message/Gospel of the Kingdom
  2. The Torah/Bible
  3. The Holy Spirit/Spiritual Gifts

I know that many churches emphasize the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which isn’t such a bad thing, but they usually miss what the Gospel really means (I’ll get to that in a later blog post). I know that my own church tends to be Bible-based, which again, isn’t such a bad thing, but then we tend to not rely so much on the movement of the Spirit of God. Also, both Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots have focused heavily on the Torah, sometimes all but ignoring the Messiah and certainly the Gospel message of the Kingdom and the Holy Spirit. Charismatic/Pentecostal churches (which were discussed at length, and often in a complimentary fashion…I’ll get to that too in another blog post) have a main emphasis on “gifts of the Spirit,” often at the expense of the Bible and much of what Jesus actually taught.

Now imagine these three elements are each a leg on a three-legged stool and they are all that is holding up your faith and your congregation. If you have only one or at best two legs, you’re not going to be “on the level,” so to speak. If you try to rest your faith (or your tuchas) on it, you’ll fall to the floor.

My good friend Tom once told me, “Don’t seek Christianity and don’t seek Judaism, but seek an encounter with God.” He probably got the point of the conference long before the conference was ever held. We can all have our pet emphasis within the faith and be so involved in what we think is so important that we miss what God thinks is so important.

I want to tell a really long story. I’m doing this from memory and I don’t know the original source. This wasn’t even part of the “official” conference. It’s a story told by a guy named Yoshi one evening after one of the meals.

As it turns out, Shavuot is the yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov. There have been many “interesting” and inspiring Hasidic Tales about the Baal Shem Tov.

There was once a very simple but honorable and devout Jew who lived in a small town in central Europe. He desired to pray sincerely and fervently to God but did not know how to use his siddur. During prayers at his synagogue, he only knew how to pray starting at the front of the siddur and working his way, page by page, all the way to the back.

As you might imagine, this took a great deal of time.

He appealed to other Jews in his community but either they knew little more about the matter than he did or they didn’t seem to have the time to help him.

This left this devout Jewish man very frustrated.

Then one day, the Baal Shem Tov visited his community. The man thought to himself:

Surely the Baal Shem Tov can teach me to pray.

The man appealed to the Baal Shem Tov to help him understand how to pray using his siddur. Having pity on the man and seeing how sincere his desire to honor God was, the Baal Shem Tov placed many notes and bookmarks in the siddur, designed to guide the man on how to perform the different daily prayers as well as festival prayers and prayers for other occasions.

The man thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely and began to daven to God with all his heart, using the sequence of prayer marked out in his siddur by the Baal Shem Tov.

A few months passed by and the simple and devout Jew was so happy that he was honoring God by properly praying from his siddur in a manner correct for each of the daily prayers and prayers for special occasions.

During one prayer service, the man accidentally dropped his siddur and all of the loose bookmarks and notes fell out.

The poor man was devastated. He had no idea how to arrange the notes and bookmarks back into their proper order. Sad but determined, the man did the only thing he knew how to do…start praying from the beginning of his siddur, and work his way, page by page, to the end of the siddur.

baal-shem-tov3As he was davening, he noticed that the Baal Shem Tov was visiting his shul again. Everyone else had finished praying, but he was still in the middle of his prayers and in the middle of his siddur. The man thought that as soon as he finished his prayers…and the siddur…he could ask the Baal Shem Tov to put all of the notes and bookmarks back into his siddur again.

But before he was finished praying, the Baal Shem Tov left the synagogue. The man was frantic, but he couldn’t go after the Baal Shem Tov until he finished praying.

He prayed and prayed and prayed as fast as he could and finally finished.

He rushed out of the synagogue, but the Baal Shem Tov was nowhere to be seen. He asked different people he encountered if they’d seen which way the Baal Shem Tov went. One man had seen him take the south road out of the town on foot. The man thought if he ran fast enough, he could catch up and ask the Baal Shem Tov to replace the notes and bookmarks into his siddur.

He ran and ran and finally saw the Baal Shem Tov in the distance at the edge of a river. There was no bridge at that place, so the man thought he could surely catch up to the Baal Shem Tov. But before this could happen, he saw the Baal Shem Tov take a handkerchief out of his pocket and spread it out on the river. The handkerchief grew and grew and grew until it became big enough to make a bridge across the river. The Baal Shem Tov walked across, then picked up his handkerchief, which shrank back to normal size, and then proceeded on his way.

The man got to the river and was frantic. He just had to find the Baal Shem Tov. Then he remembered that he too had a handkerchief. Taking it from his pocket he thought:

If it worked for the Baal Shem Tov, it should work for me.

The man opened the handkerchief, which immediately expanded across the river, just as the Baal Shem Tov’s handkerchief had done. The man walked across, picked up his handkerchief, and then continued to run after the Baal Shem Tov.

As the man was catching up to him, in the distance, he saw that the Baal Shem Tov had come to the edge of a large canyon. There was no bridge across the canyon at that spot, so the man thought he could surely catch up to the Baal Shem Tov this time.

But this was not to be. Once again, the Baal Shem Tov took his handkerchief, spread it out across the canyon, and walked across.

By the time the man got to the edge of the canyon, the Baal Shem Tov was gone again. Remembering his own handkerchief and his experience at the river, the man thought:

If it worked for the Baal Shem Tov, it should work for me.

He spread out his handkerchief, just as the Baal Shem Tov had done, and it expanded to form a bridge across the canyon. The man ran across, retrieved his handkerchief, and ran after the Baal Shem Tov once again.

He finally saw that the Baal Shem Tov was climbing a steep mountain trail. The Baal Shem Tov was no longer a young man and was proceeding rather slowly. This gave the heroic young Jewish man the time he needed to catch up to him.

Out of breath and barely able to speak, the man gasped out his story to the Baal Shem Tov about how he had dropped his siddur causing all of the notes and bookmarks placed there by the Baal Shem Tov to fall out. The man went to his knees and begged the Baal Shem Tov to replace them.

But the Baal Shem Tov was puzzled:

When you were following me, did you not see me at the river?

The man replied:

Yes, Baal Shem Tov.

The Sage asked:

Then how did you cross the river to follow me?

The man answered:

I did what you did, placing my handkerchief over the river so I could walk across.

The Baal Shem Tov pondered for a moment and then asked:

Did you not see me at the edge of the canyon?

The man replied in the affirmative, and the Baal Shem Tov asked how he managed to cross the canyon.

The man said:

I did what you did, placing my handkerchief over the canyon so I could walk across.

The man again pleaded with the Baal Shem Tov to teach him how to pray by replacing all of the notes and bookmarks he had originally created.

The Baal Shem Tov placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and replied:

You do not need me to teach you how to pray. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll be fine.

The Ba'al Shem TovI know that was a very lengthy tale, but it speaks to what you read earlier, both from Matthew 6 and from Troy’s “midrash.”

It matters less how you pray or what sort of rituals you use than the state of your heart when you are seeking God. Even the simplest of men can do great miracles and draw close to God if he seeks first to build the Kingdom of God by the Spirit rather than just focusing on and romanticizing the hammer.

I’ll present a more organized series of reports about the FFOZ Shavuot conference after a good night’s sleep and further reflection.

128 days.

Being Filled

jewish-temple-messiahWe celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

-Susan Katz Miller
from “My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims”
On Being Both

There is even a Chassidic custom, instituted by the Baal Shem Tov and further developed by the Rebbes of Chabad, to conduct a “mirror-seder” in the closing hours of the last day of Passover, complete with matzah and four cups of wine. These are hours, say the Chassidic masters, when time relinquishes its last hold upon our lives; when the future, too, can be remembered, and the Era of Moshiach tasted and digested as the Exodus is on the seder night.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Third Seder”
Chabad.org

Ever since Easter Sunday services and particularly this morning, I’ve been feeling a profound sense of disconnection or maybe it’s just disappointment. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it.

I don’t know what I expected out of Easter or Resurrection Day, but whatever it was, I didn’t get it. Then I read Susan Katz Miller’s article, which I partially quoted from above, and I was captivated by the variety and “differentness” of her intermarriage, multicultural celebration of the resurrection. I’m sure a staunch Christian would be set back on his/her heels by even reading of, let alone participating in, such a “mash-up” of different religious practices and calling it “Easter,” but then I can see the meaning infused in this series of events, meant to speak to people from different religious backgrounds and to bring them all together in the service of the King.

I’m not setting aside the idea that God is an objective God and that His understanding of Himself is the understanding of God, but human beings are highly variable. Even within this thing we call “Christianity,” there are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of different and distinct expressions, theologies, doctrines, and dogmas. That’s why we have such a tough time getting along with each other.

meal-of-moshiachAnd yet, Katz Miller deftly merges these different traditions together within the span of a short blog post, and makes them live together, if not seamlessly, then at least in a complementary manner. I mean, how many different ways and different cultural and religious contexts can be applied to the resurrection and still have a proper celebration? Easter is a tradition, not a mitzvah (at least not one explicitly expressed in scripture), so how far can it be extended beyond Christian choirs, ham dinners, cries of “He has risen,” and still remain “kosher?”

In the seventeenth century the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) instituted a new custom for the last day of Passover. He called it the Meal of Messiah (Seudat Mashiach,סעודת משיח ). It consisted of a special, additional meal on the afternoon of the last day of Passover, paralleling the traditional third meal of Shabbat. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized that the main component of the meal was matzah. After all, it was the last meal on the last day of Chag HaMatzot, the feast of Unleavened Bread. A few generations later, the Rebbe Rashab (1860-1920) added the custom of four cups of wine, mirroring the seder of the first night. Some Chassidic Jews still celebrate this special Messiah seder on the last day of the festival. They gather together to end the festival with matzah, four cups of wine, and a special focus on the Messiah.

The entire theme of the meal focuses on the coming of Messiah and the final redemption. The meal is festive in spirit. Everyone wishes one another “L’chayim! (to life!)” while discussing their insights into Messiah and their dreams and hopes for the Messianic Era. The meal concludes with fervent singing and dancing in joyous elation over the promise of the Messianic redemption.

What is the connection between the last day of Passover and the coming of Messiah? The Tzemach Tzedek writes:

The last day of Pesach is the conclusion of that which began on the first night of Pesach. The first night of Pesach is our festival commemorating our redemption from Egypt by the Holy One, Blessed be He. It was the first redemption, carried out through Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the first redeemer; it was the beginning. The last day of Pesach is our festival commemorating the final redemption, when the Holy One, Blessed be He, will redeem us from the last exile through our righteous Moshiach, who is the final redeemer. The first day of Pesach is Moshe Rabbeinu’s festival; the last day of Pesach is Moshiach’s festival.

One is incomplete without the other: the first redemption is connected to the last. The sages say, “In Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come.” In fact the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the second exodus will be so great that it will overshadow the first.

-Boaz Michael
“What is the Meal of Messiah? Part 2 of 3”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I suppose there is a limit to how much diversity we can cram into Easter, and certainly the Baal Shem Tov’s creation of this meal probably exceeds the comfort zone of even the most liberal church, but if we consider the themes being introduced and recall that the Messiah is irrefutably, irreducibly Jewish, then we must allow the celebration of the resurrection of King Messiah to also be cast in a Jewish mold and produced as a Jewish rite and tradition.

And yet, as I said above, the Messiah also transcends Judaism and extends himself to all of the people groups and nations of the world.

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Luke 24:46-47

multicultural-celebrationWhat is Easter like for the Christians in Egypt, for the Christians in China, for the Christians in Norway, for the Christians in New Zealand? How many different peoples have how many different traditions to commemorate the risen King and the resurrected Jesus? What do they look like? What foods are eaten? What prayers are said? What songs are sung?

I imagine if you could gather representatives of the faith from each nation and province from the four corners of the earth, and have them join together to celebrate Resurrection Day, you’d get a set of observances something like what we see on Susan Katz Miller’s blog. Add the Meal of the Messiah on the last day of Matzot and it would be complete.

The Messiah is the hope of the Jewish nation and the King of the House of David, but although he first and foremost came for the lost sheep of Israel, we also see that he came for humanity. God so loved the world that He gave His only and unique son so that none should be lost but all who choose to come to faith should be saved.

What am I looking for? In my small corner of the world, perhaps it cannot be found. But if I can transcend my world, what I want to discover is this:

Some Chassidic sources say that participation in the Meal of Messiah causes the person to carry the light of Messiah within him throughout the rest of the year and thus it infuses every action of his day. It foreshadows the Messianic Era when all mankind will be saturated with Godliness. Through this feast, the Chassid hopes that he has connected with the very soul of Messiah.

Boaz Michael’s words express my desire for what I think we are all looking for…hope. Hope in the future, hope that there is a future, hope that our lives have meaning beyond the day-to-day routine and rut of existence, hope that there is a God and that He loves us, hope that we are more than we think we are, and that we can do more than the world around thinks we’re capable of.

Rabbi Tauber says of Passover:

The “first days” with its seders and its reliving of history, and the “final days” with its messianic themes — days that herald the divine goodness and perfection which, the prophets promise us, is the end-goal of creation and the fulfillment of our present-day lives.

What I was looking for, and what I’m still looking for is the encounter with the infinite, and to be filled full of the promises of the prophets, and the final promise, the Messiah, the end-goal of creation.

Someday, we are told that we will sit at the banquet table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of us from the north, south, east, and west who proclaims Messiah, and we will eat of that meal

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

John 6:35

…and be filled.

Vayechi: Being Strong Until the End

Lion of JudahThe scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from his descendants, until the Moshiach comes . . .

Genesis 49:10

Every soul possesses a spark of the soul of Moshiach

—Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

After the passing of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch in 1772, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok led a group of chassidim to settle in the Holy Land.

One day, a somewhat deluded individual climbed the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and sounded a shofar. Soon the rumor spread that Moshiach had arrived, setting off a great commotion in the street. Rabbi Mendel went to his window and sniffed the air. “No,” he said, “unfortunately, the redeemer has not yet arrived. On that day, ‘the world shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea,’ and ‘all flesh will perceive’ (Isaiah 11:9 and 40:5) the reality of the Creator. I do not sense the divine truth that will permeate the world in the era of Moshiach.”

Said the renowned mashpia, Rabbi Grunem Estherman: “Why did Rabbi Mendel need to go to the window to sniff for the presence of Moshiach? Because the all-pervading truth of G‑d was already a tangible reality within the walls of Rabbi Mendel’s room.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Moshiach in the Air”
Chabad.org

I know this commentary seems rather fanciful and not particularly realistic (can you smell Moshiach in the air?), but as I read it, I was reminded of how in certain corners of Christianity, the topic of the end times and the second coming are very prominent, almost to the point of obsession. It’s as if we haven’t read the Gospels in our own Bibles.

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Matthew 24:23-28 (ESV)

Why are we so worried about the coming Messiah? He gave us great advice about what worry is all about.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:30-34 (ESV)

But as I said before, it’s very difficult for us to change our thinking and to rise up out of the darkness as a light. It is very difficult to let the world be the world, to just do our best, and to have faith and trust that everything will work out according to God.

And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:7-8 (ESV)

Who is Moshiach?Is waiting and rumor a test of faith? It’s been nearly 2,000 years since the ascension and we’ve been waiting ever since. Jews cry out “Moshiach now” but Moshiach has yet to come. Rabbi Mendel said that the world will be filled with the knowledge of God before the Messiah’s coming (return) but that’s just one of many different thoughts about what must happen beforehand. We can’t be that sure of our facts. In many ways, the Bible is a mystery containing clues we struggle all our lives to interpret.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazak, “the Shabbos of reinforcement,” because of the custom of declaring, Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”) at the conclusion of the Torah reading, in acknowledgment of the completion of the Book of Genesis.

The awareness nurtured by the reading of Vayechi generates strength. When a Jew knows he has been granted a heritage of life expressed through a connection with the Torah, and that there will come a time when this connection will blossom, he will acquire the inner strength to confront the challenges presented by his environment.

By heightening the expression of this potential in our people as a whole, we hasten the coming of its fruition in the Era of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.

-Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
“True Life”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, p. 160ff; Vol. XV, p. 422ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Chabad.org

So Joseph and his father’s household remained in Egypt. Joseph lived one hundred and ten years. Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph’s knees. At length, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Genesis 50:22-26 (JPS Tanakh)

chanukah-josephs-tombThe final verses of this Torah Portion and the book of Genesis find Jacob and Joseph dead and Jacob’s descendants continuing to live in Egypt. This sets the stage for the birth of Moses and the centuries of slavery of the Jewish people under a “new king who arose over Egypt and who did not know Joseph.” If Jacob understood prophesy, he must have known what was going to come after his death, just as Joseph did. True, he was reassured by God that He would go down into Egypt with Jacob and his family, and that God would bring Jacob’s descendants back out of Egypt (Genesis 46:4), and yet what a bitter thing to go to your grave knowing your children and your children’s children will suffer.

As Rabbi Touger states, at the end of this Torah portion, it is customary to declare “Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”).”

Where ever you are in your life and whatever your experiences are, however you anticipate your future, whether it be long or brief, you…we…all of us must be strong.

But that can be so very hard. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

God be merciful, and may Moshiach come soon and in our days. Amen.

Good Shabbos.

Our Teacher Moshe the Shepherd

The Baal Shem Tov was once shown from heaven that a certain simple man called Moshe the Shepherd served G‑d, blessed be He, better than he did. He longed to meet this shepherd, so he ordered his horses harnessed to his coach, and traveled, with a few of his disciples, to the place where he was told the shepherd lived.

They stopped in a field at the foot of a hill, and saw, on the hillside above them, a shepherd who was blowing his horn to call his flock. After the sheep gathered to him, he led them to a nearby trough to water them. While they were drinking, he looked up to heaven and began to call out loudly, “Master of the world, You are so great! You created heaven and earth, and everything else! I’m a simple man; I’m ignorant and unlearned, and I don’t know how to serve You or praise You. I was orphaned as a child and raised among gentiles, so I never learned any Torah. But I can blow on my shepherd’s horn like a shofar, with all my strength, and call out, ‘The L-rd is G‑d!’” After blowing with all his might on the horn, he collapsed to the ground, without an ounce of energy, and lay there motionless until his strength returned.

Then he got up and said, “Master of the world, I’m just a simple shepherd; I don’t know any Torah, and I don’t know how to pray. What can I do for You? The only thing I know is to sing shepherds’ songs!” He then began to sing loudly and fervently with all his strength until, again, he fell to the earth, exhausted, without an ounce of energy.

-Yitzchak Buxbaum
“The Shepherd”
from his book, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov
quoted from Chabad.org

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Deuteronomy 6:5 (ESV)

Buxbaum goes on to describe the shepherd’s further efforts to love and please God, some which may sound almost ludicrous, such as standing on his head and waving his feet wildly in the air, but we can learn a lesson from this shepherd and this tale of the Baal Shem Tov.

In all likelihood, no such shepherd ever existed and God never showed the Baal Shem Tov how to find him, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn something about us and about God and about how we’re supposed to connect our lives to Him. That’s what Chassidic tales are all about.

In our tale, the shepherd, who God tells the Baal Shem Tov worships Him better than the venerated Chassidic sage, is a Jew who was raised among Gentiles and who has absolutely no grasp of Torah, Talmud, or even the most basic understanding of halachah. He has no formal education in any of the mitzvot and although the shepherd knows he is to honor, worship, and give glory to God, he doesn’t know the first thing about how a Jew is supposed accomplish this.

Interesting, isn’t it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t study and learn and strive to comprehend what God expects of us, but the information seems to be secondary to the desire, the will, and the intent of the person in worship. Moshe the Shepherd knew nothing but in a sense, he knew everything. He knew to take care of his sheep just as shepherds such as Moshe the Prophet, David the King, and our “good shepherd” Jesus the Rabbi knew how to take care of their sheep, even to the point of laying down their lives.

Moshe the Shepherd called to his sheep by blowing his horn which he compared to a shofar, and since the sheep responded by going to him, it shows he had certainly earned their trust. He gathered his sheep and watered them, and while watering them, cried out to God, blew his horn for Him, sang shepherd’s songs for Him, acknowledged God’s might and glory in the loudest voice he could muster, and he did all this with such zeal and energy that he collapsed, exhausted upon the ground.

And after seeing Moshe the Shepherd do this over and over again to the point of total collapse, we reach the dramatic conclusion of our tale:

What more can I do to serve You?” After pausing to reflect, he said, “Yesterday, the nobleman who owns the flock made a feast for his servants, and when it ended, he gave each of us a silver coin. I’m giving that coin to You as a gift, O G‑d, because You created everything and You feed all Your creatures, including me, Moshe the little shepherd!” Saying this, he threw the coin upward.

At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand reach out from heaven to receive the coin. He said to his disciples, “This shepherd has taught me how to fulfill the verse: ‘You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’”

What does God want from you? The answer is amazingly simple:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Without studying the Bible, Moshe the Shepherd knew what pleased God and he worshiped and pleased God with all his strength. How much more should we who study the Bible know and then do what pleases God. But do we try to please Him with all our might as did Moshe the Shepherd?

Torah is not about getting to the truth. When you are immersed in Torah, even while pondering the question, even while struggling to make sense of it all, you are at truth already.

Torah is about being truth.

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