Tag Archives: Chabad

Restructuring Meaning

Praying with tefillinIf you ever hire an architect to design a synagogue, you will need to inform him of the two-door rule: The worshipper must first enter into a vestibule that precedes the sanctuary before walking through the doors of the sanctuary itself, as verse in Proverbs goes, “Fortunate is the man who listens to me to watch by my doors day by day, to watch the doorposts of my entrances.” (Talmud Berachot 8a. Tur, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, Levush 90:2. Magen Avraham ibid. Shulchan Aruch Harav 90:19.)

The first door, explains Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch in his “Booklet on Tefillah,” (Kuntres Hatefillah, siman 11) is the door in from the street. You first need to leave the confusion of the world outside and empty your mind of all worldly concerns, power down your cellphone, spend a few moments to gain calm and focus. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would say (Avot 1:17), “All my life, I grew up among the sages and I did not find anything better for a person than quietness.” That is the point of that first door, something particularly necessary in our modern, cacophonous world: You want your mind to settle down, like a bubbling brook might settle into a still pond. There, reflected in that still water, it may be possible to behold a clearer image of the universe.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
from “A Guide to Jewish Prayer” series

I wrote Choosing a Storyteller for yesterday’s “morning mediation” and then realized that I have more control over this whole process than I previously thought.

Here’s part of the quote I pulled yesterday from Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking from the “prayer” chapter:

An illustration of a scientific use of prayer is the experience of two famous industrialists, whose names would be known to many readers were I permitted to mention them, who had a conference about a business and technical matter. One might think that these men would approach such a problem on a purely technical basis, and they did that and more; they also prayed about it. But they did not get a successful result. Therefore they called in a country preacher, an old friend of one of them, because, as they explained, the Bible prayer formula is, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) They also pointed to a further formula, namely, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Now, let me back up in Rabbi’s Freeman’s Guide to Jewish Prayer series and quote from the first article, Is Prayer Normal:

With this passage and other similar such statements, Maimonides makes it clear that G-d could run the universe perfectly well without our prayers. The implication is that we are the ones who need prayer—in order to connect Him to our lives.

In fact, we may be using the wrong word altogether. The English word, prayer, means to beseech, to implore, to plead for something.

There is another word, bakashah, that certainly does mean all those things. But that’s not the word we use. We use tefillah. Does tefillah really mean “prayer”?

Tefillah is etymologically related to the root word tofel—meaning reconnect or bond.

While I’m not trying to appropriate any sort of “Jewish identity marker” or make myself a pain in the neck to Jewish people, on a fundamental level, prayer is prayer, regardless of who is doing the praying. If “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” then certainly He desires both the Jew and the non-Jew to pray and to “bond” or “reconnect” with Him. If the first century Roman centurion Cornelius (see Acts 10) learned to pray from his Jewish mentors, I don’t think it’s so out of line for me to take what I find valuable about the Jewish prayer and adapt it for my own use.

Chapter 4 in Peale’s book is called “Try Prayer Power.” I’m willing to admit that I’ve been looking for something I’ve had access to all along. Perhaps it just needs a bit of refreshing. I am not going to “pray as a Jew” as such, but since the Jewish people have been “bonding” to God a lot longer than we Christians, on the order of thousands of years longer, maybe they have a few ideas on the subject.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, then Attorney General Robert Kennedy ignored a threat made by Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and proceeded with negotiations to defuse the crisis as if he had never heard Dobrynin’s original. It was Kennedy’s setting aside of Dobrynin’s statement that allowed the Soviet Ambassador to safe face and continue to proceed to a peaceful conclusion that prevented a nuclear war (I know this is a strange metaphor, but please bear with me).

If I can somewhat apply the same principle and temporarily set aside the fact that Freeman’s series on Jewish prayer is intended only for Jews, I can imagine that it can apply to me too. Then maybe this particular series can be a story that I can use in seeking my own connection to God as a means of “cognitive restructuring.” A sort of “refactoring” of Peale’s ‘Chapter 4″ in a way that uses better metaphors.

It’s a matter of learning how to walk again.

WalkingLearning to walk involves taking the first step, and then another, and then another. I’ll probably never find the “perfect” inspirational book (excepting the Bible) out there, so I’ll have to construct one of my own. I guess that’s part of the reason I created this blog series in the first place. They’re “morning mediations” that are supposed to start a person’s day. I can start out by letting each one be a meditation for me again, and then, as Meditation’s Hallway suggests, move from my morning meditation, into prayer.

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Morning Meditation”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I have always known the storyteller I have ears to listen to. I just need to restructure the meaning for a wider focus; one that includes me. I hope nobody minds.

Mistreating People

A few years ago, in a hilarious episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the comedian Larry David bought scalpers’ tickets to his congregation’s High Holy Day services, and was kicked out when his subterfuge was discovered. Nothing that dramatic happened to a friend of mine who wished to attend services last year, but he also had an unpleasant experience with a large congregation.

My friend, who moved to Westchester several years ago, is not a regular shul-goer, but had always gone to High Holy Day services in the city. In his first year in the suburbs, he called a large local Conservative congregation — his denominational preference — and was told that he could have tickets that year at a nominal fee, but if he wished to attend the following year he would have to join the congregation. He was out of the country the following year, so when he returned the year after that, he phoned to ask if he might pay a more substantial fee for his seats this time but not yet become a congregation member. He had not made up his mind about membership. The response he received was a snappish, “You cannot come here again without joining,” and a loud click of the receiver. One or two other large synagogues in his area also informed him in no uncertain terms that he had to be a member to get tickets.

-Francine Klagsbrun
Special to the Jewish Week
“Synagogues Should Be More Welcoming”
The Jewish Week

That sounds terrible. In fact, the whole process of buying tickets to the High Holy Days services probably seems strange and alien to most Christians. After all, it’s not like we have to buy tickets to get seats at Christmas or Easter services in a church (although I must admit, I haven’t commemorated either event or worshiped in a church setting for many years). And yet, the synagogue model raises funds in a very different manner than the church and purchasing an annual membership to a synagogue as well as buying tickets for special events like Passover or the High Holy Days is perfectly normal and reasonable.

But what about the situation described by Klagsbrun? Is this what God really intended? Is this how a synagogue welcomes a Jew into its midst for worship and to honor God? If the person in question had held a membership to the synagogue, it wouldn’t be a problem. But just as some Christians only attend church on Easter, some Jews only go to shul for the High Holidays. No one bars the door to the “annual Christian” but why should a “three day a year Jew” not be able to worship because of lack of “membership?”

Of course, there are always options.

Put off by those responses he called the local Chabad office, ordinarily a sect foreign to his liberal religious and social outlooks. The rabbi who answered the phone greeted him cordially and invited him to attend all the holiday services with no payment. When he did, he received a warm welcome from the rabbi and his assistant. And when he became ill and did not show up for Yom Kippur, the rabbi later called his home to inquire after him. Although my friend missed the more intellectual atmosphere of a Conservative synagogue, he enjoyed the enthusiasm and inclusiveness of the Chabad service. Needlessly to say, he sent an unsolicited check to Chabad after the holidays. It was the money he had offered to pay for tickets to the large suburban synagogue.

No, this isn’t my advertisement for the Chabad and that also was not Klagbrun’s intent when writing her article. For many Reform and Conservative Jews, entering the world of the Chabad is about as comfortable as a visit to the surface of the Moon without the benefit of a spacesuit. A large number of Jews consider the Chabad “cult-like, with its mysticism, messianism, and adulation of the Rebbe” (so if you as a Christian have issues with the Chabad, you’re not alone). But they are doing one thing right. They are welcoming the so-called “three days a year” Jew into their midst the way (forgive me if this next part offends you) that a church would welcome an errant Christian, seeker, or wandering atheist through their doors.

Klagsbrun suggests that it is time for “synagogues to rethink some of their policies, add flexibility, reach out to the unaffiliated, and then take more pride than ever in what a religious New Year really means.” I don’t often go out of my way to be critical of Judaism, but I am also aware that no people group and no religious faith is perfect or has the corner market on righteousness. To my way of thinking, the “welcomeness” of the church (whatever faults it may possess) is generally more aligned with the will and wisdom of God and the spirit of the Messiah than the examples of the synagogue Klagsbrun brings forth. And yet, even during some of Judaism’s darkest hours, God’s response to His “straying sheep” is not condemnation, but compassion.

By the time Moses returned to the scene, his people had hit an all-time low. They worshipped idols, spoke slanderously of each other, and had wandered very far from the path of their forefathers. Perhaps he should have told them off, saying, “Repent, sinners, lest you perish altogether!”

But he didn’t. Instead, he told them how G-d cared for them and felt their suffering, how He would bring about miracles, freedom and a wondrous future out of His love for them.

As for rebuke, Moses saved that for G-d. “Why have you mistreated your people?!” he demanded.

If you don’t like the other guy’s lifestyle, do him a favor, lend him a hand. Once you’ve brought a few miracles into his life, then you can urge him to chuck his bad habits.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I am sometimes treated to a view of our local Reform and Chabad synagogues, their members, and their Rabbis, as seen through my wife’s eyes and experiences. No one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. Some of the events that occur within the Chabad are less than attractive or appealing. And yet to read words of wisdom and beauty that are inspired by the Rebbe are a joy that reminds me of the grace of Jesus. As I mentioned in yesterday’s “morning meditation”, God is writing on all our hearts and there is something of the Divine in each of us. Rather than rebuking our neighbor for his shortcomings, we should show our love and grace, even as God has shown love, grace, and mercy to us.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16 (ESV)

The Finger of God is Writing

Once, Rav Elchonon Wasserman explained the greatness of those who learn Torah which touched upon a famous statement of Rava: “How foolish are those who stand for a sefer Torah but not for people great in Torah!”

Rav Elchonon related a story to illustrate the point: “Once, the Netziv of Volozhin, was carrying a sefer Torah to the bimah when he slammed into a bench and fell down, and the sefer fell with him. As the bnei yeshivah rushed to pick them up, the Netziv’s son-in-law, Rav Itzel Volozhiner, gave an astounding order, “First pick up the Rosh Yeshiva, then the sefer Torah!”

Rav Elchonon explained, “This is what Rava means in Makkos 22. It is only people’s foolishness that causes them to respect a sefer Torah more than a true Torah scholar. After all, why should one respect a sefer Torah inscribed on parchment more than a sefer Torah housed in living flesh and bone?”

The Divrei Shmuel explains this statement similarly, “Tzaddikim are themselves holy like a sefer Torah. A sefer Torah is merely the Torah written on parchment; how much more is it incumbent upon us to honor a sefer Torah inscribed on one’s heart! As the verse states: ‘Write them on the tablet of your heart.’”

`But Rav Reuven Margolios points out that this distinction does not apply to just any scholar. “The gemara uses the expression ‘gavra rabbah’—‘a great man’—rather than the more common ‘tzurba d’rabanan,’ which implies an ordinary scholar. This teaches that this halachah only applies if the scholar in question is one of the gedolei hador. It is only in such a case that it should be obvious to any thinking person that it is fitting to treat him with more honor than a sefer Torah. But if one is a regular talmid chacham, he is not to be more respected than a sefer Torah.”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“A Living Sefer Torah”
Simin 136, Seif 1

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 (ESV)

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…Deuteronomy 11:18 (ESV)

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…Romans 2:14-15 (ESV)

Sorry for the lengthy list of quotes, but they were all necessary to create the foundation for today’s “morning meditation”. If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know that I’ve written a four-part series on Exploring Messianic Divinity which investigates the idea that Jesus is God. As part of that investigation, I took a look at the various mystical and metaphorical writings that point to the Messiah as The Living Word of God. In my quote from the commentary on Simin 136, Seif 1, we see that such a concept is applied, not necessarily to the Messiah, but to a Torah scholar who is “gavra rabbah” or “a great man”. And yet, can we find any greater tzaddik in all the world than the Master and redeemer of our souls? Who else but the most exalted Messiah could redeem the world with his blood?

The murder of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, the “Baba Elazar,” on Thursday night saved the people of Israel from other tragedies, leading rabbis said Friday.

“Harsh punishments were decreed on the people of Israel, and he wanted to nullify them,” said the slain rabbi’s brother, Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, also known as the Baba Baruch, speaking at Rabbi Abuhatzeira’s funeral.

by Maayana Miskin
“Rabbi Abuhatzeira Bore the Burden of Evil Decrees”

I’ve quoted this article before to establish that in traditional Judaism, it is conceivable that the death of a great tzaddik can atone for the sins of Israel. If the holiness of the tzaddik were great enough, could his death not atone for a world?

…so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. –Hebrews 9:28

In Judaism, as we saw in my aforementioned quote, a scholar becomes great, very great, through intense Torah study such that he imbues his heart with the same holiness attributed to the Sefer Torah, because Torah is written on the tablet of his heart. We also see in Deuteronomy, that the Children of Israel have been commanded to write words of Torah on their hearts. From Paul, we see that though the Gentiles did not (and do not) have the commandments of Torah given to them (us) at Sinai, nevertheless, our actions show that the Torah is written on our hearts when we “do what the law requires”. In other words, when we do what our “living Sefer Torah” does, like any good disciples, we are imitating the works of our Master and living out his lessons. Having the Torah “written on our hearts” is like a spiritual overlay of righteousness upon the physical nature of our lives; a “Tree of Life” superimposed on a living tree with its grafted in branches.

I suppose we could be tempted to say that if the Law is written on the hearts of Gentiles who follow the teachings of Jesus, that we are obligated to “do what the law requires” in the same manner and fashion as the Jewish people, but that would be taking Paul out of context. We do see a bridge of sorts between Deuteronomy 11:18 and Romans 2:14-15 in terms of the law being upon our hearts, but does that really mean that any Gentile disciple of Jesus must respond to the mitzvot in precisely the same manner as the Jews who inherited Sinai?

I believe I’ve already answered that question, at least to my own satisfaction. The Word, but not the Jewish identity, is what is being actively written on our hearts. Jews and Christians are united under the Messianic covenant as “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) in our ability to approach the Throne of God as adopted sons, with the Jews being adopted at Sinai and we Christians being adopted at the foot of the cross. However, while the “Covenant of the Cross” accepts the Jew as an extension of Sinai because of the promise of the Moshiach, it does not link the Gentile back to what was already given to Israel through the tablets of Moses. We non-Jews, like Abraham, access God by faith alone, through Jesus, without the requirement of Moses.

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” –Romans 4:1-3

One of the things (and I’ve mentioned this earlier) about being a disciple, is that we learn from our Master by imitating him. Traditionally, Jewish disciples studying under a great Rabbi and tzaddik, will imitate everything about him, including how he dresses, his vocal inflections, his physical mannerisms, even how he eats; every little detail. All this is in addition to memorizing his teachings, learning his teaching style, and living out his understanding of Torah. I’m not suggesting we try to imitate Jesus down to such a specific level, if for no other reason than most of that kind of information is unavailable.

However, I am suggesting we imitate him in the most important aspects of his life and learning.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

I believe that it is this teaching more than any other, that is written on our hearts if we are his true disciples and followers of “the Way”. If the Torah were written perfectly on the heart of Jesus Christ, should we not imitate him and continually allow the “finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, Luke 11:20) to write the Word on our hearts? Is this not what it means to be Holy? But how is this done?

We never got used to Egypt. We never felt we belonged there. We never said, “They are the masters and we are the slaves and that’s the way it is.” So when Moses came and told us we were going to leave, we believed him.

Everyone has their Egypt. You’ve got to know who you are and what are your limitations. But heaven forbid to make peace with them. The soul within you knows no limits.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“No Limits”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The biblical slavery of Egypt represents bondage to your own self. Every day, every moment, must be an exodus from the self. If you’re not leaving Egypt, you’re already back there.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Leaving Egypt”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’ve heard it taught in certain circles, that Egypt represents the realm of sin. This isn’t traditionally taught in Judaism and we see from the Chassidic perspective, that whatever bondage Egypt represents spiritually and emotionally, is our bondage not to sin, but to our egos, and whatever suffering we may have brought upon ourselves. This can include our sins and shortcomings, but Egypt represents less of an external force for evil and more of our internal capacity for pain, suffering and harm. In order to imitate our Master, we must learn to erase whatever “script” that is currently scribbled within us and replace it with Words of true holiness.

These are Words that can only be written with the power of the “finger of God” and we cannot do it alone. We must open our hearts and be willing “tablets” so that the finger can write. Though the final Words of Torah (which means “teaching” as I’m using it here) will never be completely written before the Messiah returns to us, we can allow the ongoing transforming of our minds and our hearts and our spirits so that we become more and more like the one we follow. In this, we continue to travel the path and draw ever nearer to God who is our goal.

The finger continues to write. There’s still time. Open your hearts.

Waiting for Spring: Messianic Divinity Part 4

According to Torah sources, Moshiach undertakes the most intense suffering in the world on the condition that every Jew that has ever lived should have a portion in the ultimate redemption, including even aborted fetuses, the stillborn, and those souls that only arose in G-d’s thought, (Sicha of Chayei Sarah 5752-1991, Ch.1) The Sages state, (Ya/kut Shimoni, Psalms 2) “G-d divided the world’s suffering into three portions. One of those portions is the lot of King Moshiach. ‘He is wounded because of our sins… He suffers that we should merit peace.’ (Isaiah 53:5) When his time will come, G-d says, (Psalms 2:7) ‘Today I have given birth to him … It is his time and he will be healed.”’

from “Moshiach: The Greatest Challenge”

The prophet Zechariah describes Moshiach as “a pauper, riding on a donkey.” The simple meaning of the verse is that Moshiach — whom the Midrash describes as “greater than Abraham, higher than Moses, and loftier than the supernal angels” (Yalkut Shimoni after Isaiah 52:13) — is the epitome of self-effacement. Indeed, humility is the hallmark of the righteous: they recognize that their tremendous talents and achievements, and the power vested in them as leaders, are not theirs but their Creator’s. They live not to realize and fulfill themselves, but to serve the divine purpose of creation.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Moshiach’s Donkey”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

This is the fourth (and probably final) article in my “Messianic Divinity series. To read this series from the beginning, go to part 1 Exploring Messianic Divinity, continue to part 2 The Living Word of God, and then part 3 The Mystic Mirror Darkly.

If you’re a Christian, the quotes I placed at the top of this blogpost probably sound a little familiar. You’ll probably have to “filter out” the parts that sound “too Jewish” for the Christian consciousness and theological palate, but I’m sure you’ll get the references most believers would associate with Jesus. I chose these sources because of how they seem to parallel what we believe in Christianity. Of course, this isn’t the intent of the writers, particularly the quote from ChabadWorld.net, which is specifically speaking of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as the Moshiach, who had to suffer and die only to be resurrected and live again. This is a point that hasn’t escaped the author of that article:

One thing is demonstrable; the Rebbe has not left us. He still guides us, obtains G-d’s favor and campaigns on our behalf. He’s still here, still alive, somehow. He is still the gener­ational leader and he’s still Moshiach. The redemption is still on, and the world is still moving towards its ultimate fulfillment. The mira­cles haven’t slackened one bit. In fact there are more miracles now. You can access the Rebbe, too. The main point is that we will soon see him again, here, soul in a body, and he will be recog­nized by all to be Moshiach and he will finish the job he started ­leading mankind into the true and complete redemption.

One may ask, “But how can this all be true? It sounds too fantas­tic. And besides, now this really sounds like another religion.”

That other religion being mentioned is unquestionably Christianity and the writer is correct. This all really does remind me of Jesus. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but the parallels, though not intentional (by human beings, anyway), are just too close to ignore.

Rabbi Tauber writes something in his Moshiach’s Donkey story that also connects to how we think of Christ.

On a deeper level, Moshiach’s donkey represents the essence of the messianic process: a process that began with the beginning of time and which constitutes the very soul of history. In the beginning, the Torah tells us, when G-d created the heavens and the earth, when the universe was still empty, unformed, and shrouded in darkness, the spirit of G-d hovered above the emerging existence. Says the Midrash: “‘The spirit of G-d hovered’ — this is the spirit of Moshiach.” For Moshiach represents the divine spirit of creation — the vision of the perfected world that is G-d’s purpose in creating it and populating it with willful, thinking and achieving beings.

Let’s take a closer look at this reference, first from the Torah and then from a slightly more recent source.

When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water. –Genesis 1:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. –John 1:1-3

I should point out that the word translated as “wind” in Genesis 1:2 is the Hebrew word “ruach” which can be properly translated as either “wind” or “spirit”.

Why am I writing all this and why should you care? What does this have to do with the issue of the Messiah’s deity or lack thereof? To answer the second question first, not much. To answer the first question, because you want to know just as much as I do, who the Messiah really is (as much as we can understand, at least) so you can draw closer to God through him (John 14:6).

I’ve been bothered by the obvious disconnect between the Christian and Jewish views of the Messiah. Of course, it’s understandable why modern Judaism would want to create that disconnect, based on the rather bloody history of how Christians have harassed, tortured, and murdered Jews. It’s understandable why Christianity would also want to make that disconnect if you factor in the long history of supersessionism in the church (a theme of which I have a special interest). All of the Old Testament prophesies Christians say point to Jesus as the Messiah are interpreted to have other, non-Christian meanings by Judaism. Few Jews would want to even breathe a hint that their expectations of the Moshiach could have anything to do with oto ha’ish.

And yet there is a beauty and spiritual elegance in how Judaism renders the resurrection and the Moshiach that for me cannot fail to conjure up the perfect picture of Jesus Christ and his promises to a humanity desperately longing for hope and peace.

Resurrection involves both perfection in the state of man and a revelation of the Essence of G-d, an essence that transcends both the spiritual and the physical. In resurrection, there is a fusion of the Divine with the human through which is fulfilled the purpose of creation – to provide G-d with a dwelling in this lowly world.

How interesting. “…to provide G-d with a dwelling in this lowly world.” Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about for four blog articles now?

Rabbi Tauber uses the image of the Moshiach riding the donkey as a picture of how heaven and earth are joined together in the Messianic hope.

Conventional wisdom has it that the spiritual is greater than the physical, the ethereal more lofty than the material. Nevertheless, our sages have taught that G-d created the entirety of existence, including the most lofty spiritual worlds, because “He desired a dwelling in the lower world.” Our physical existence is the objective of everything He created, the environment within which His purpose in creation is to be realized.

So Moshiach, who represents the ultimate fulfillment of Torah, himself rides the donkey of the material. For he heralds a world in which the material is no longer the lower or secondary element, but an utterly refined resource, no less central and significant a force for good than the most spiritual creation.

Is the Messiah God? I can come to no absolute conclusions, especially since my “evidence” is based largely on mystical and metaphorical perceptions and interpretations. Any support for or against Jesus as God rests on foundations that are equally slippery to grasp and that transcend the logical, the rational, and the “real”, whatever “real” means. Whoever or whatever the Messiah is, he is no ordinary man. If man he is, then he has one foot on earth and another foot at the Heavenly Throne of God. He is the bridge between mankind and the Divine. Something of Him must have a Divine nature if he was the Word God used to speak the universe into being, if his spirit hovered over the antediluvian waters, and if the will and wisdom of God was “clothed” in flesh and “dwelt among us” in the person of Jesus.

The Death of the MasterDid the early Apostles worship Jesus as God or bow down to him as a serf bows to a (non-Deity) King? The Greek is not conclusive in my opinion but I’m hardly a linguistic expert. Judaism says that the Moshiach is a unique human being who will be raised very high and given great and extraordinary honor; that he is an elevated tzaddik whose death will atone for a nation and perhaps a world.

Whether we say “the Christ” or “Moshiach”, we’re all waiting for him. Some of us consider that he has been here once before (including the Lubavitchers who await the return of the Rebbe) while many others believe he has not yet come. Whoever he is, whatever he is, he is the promise and hope of Israel and the salvation and restoration of the earth.

Like a watchman on the walls of a besieged Jerusalem, we await the dawn. Like a frozen world isolated from life and light by the dark and endless winter, we long for spring.

All of us.

Cultivate the soul with hope; teach it to await the break of dawn with longing eyes.

Through its ordeals, the soul is softened to absorb the rains. Yet, nevertheless, Spring comes for those that long for it.

And so the sages say, “In the merit of hope, our parents were redeemed from Egypt.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’
“Longing for Spring”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Injustice and the Promises

Three years ago, Baby Moshe, one of the unforgettable faces of the Mumbai attacks, escaped the carnage clinging to his nanny not knowing that his parents- Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivika – were killed. Now a four-year-old, Moshe knows they had fallen victim to terrorists. Orphaned by the terrorists, Moshe is now a carefree child, though he remembers his parents whenever he sees their photographs, saying good morning or goodnight to ‘eema’ (mother) and ‘abba’ (father) each day.

from the news story “Moshe still says goodnight to parents”
The Times of India

As Jacob flees from the promised land, he stops at Bethel where God gives him the dream of the ladder and confirms the covenant promises to him. Though the oracle at Bethel is essentially a repetition of the covenant promises bestowed upon Abraham and Isaac, there is an important variation on the wording in 28:14. The seed of Jacob will not only multiply to be as numerous and uncountable as the dust of the earth, it will also “spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.” Not only will his seed inherit the land of Canaan, they will also be spread in every direction. This dispersion alludes again to the theme of exile. As Jacob descends into exile, he is warned that his seed will be spread in every direction as the result of such exile.

from “The Dispersion and Return”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayetze

I don’t know what to write about but I do know that I’m angry. Three years ago this month, little Moshe Holtzberg lost his parents in the most horrible way possible. Now four years old, it’s doubtful he fully comprehends what has happened to him or why. But I know what has happened and I’m furious about it. As much as I’m supposed to forgive others for their “transgressions”, remembering the details of the attack that took Moshe’s parents away does not bring thoughts and feelings of forgiveness to me. I’m not alone.

Have you forgiven the terrorists? “No, of course not,” replies Moshe’s grandmother Yudith. His nanny says, “It makes me angry because they could have escaped but they did not do it and I could have done something, which in my cowardness I did not do.”

I have a grandson who’s not quite three years old. If my son and his wife had been killed by monsters and I was raising my grandson under those conditions, I would probably feel just like Moshe’s grandmother. I know that doesn’t say anything good about me, but I cannot get past this kind of murderous injustice.

Welcome to the history of the Jewish people.

I hope you all remember these events from CNN three years ago. I hope you were all shocked and appalled, just as I was, and angry that innocent blood could be shed in such a ghastly manner. Moshe’s parents weren’t just killed, they were tortured and mutilated by their attackers. Now with all that in mind, apply those same images to what has been happening to the Jewish people throughout history, not just the past 2,000 years of inquisitions, persecutions, and pogroms, but during every trial and exile that has befallen the Jewish people since the days of Jacob.

Although the Jewish people have a modern state of Israel, in many ways, they are still in exile. The very legitimacy of Israel is constantly being brought into question by nations from around the world including the U.S. and there is a continual struggle over what is “Israel” and what (if anything) is “Palestine”.

Faith and composure are very difficult for me when considering such manners (I’m making an understatement). And yet there are promises.

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” –Genesis 28:15 (JPS Tanakh)

It is true that the plain meaning of the text suggests that God is speaking just to Jacob’s sojourn in Haran but, as the FFOZ commentary states, we can also apply this scripture both as prophesy and promise, that God will be with Jacob and his children in whatever exile they might find themselves and will remain with them until they return to their Land, to Israel.

This is not the only such promise to the Jewish people from God.

Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.” –Isaiah 43:5-7

And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. –Matthew 24:31 (ESV)

The quote from the Book of Matthew is probably interpreted by Christianity as applying exclusively to the church, but put back into the larger panorama of the entire Bible and refactored into its original context (Matthew was writing to a primarily Jewish audience), we can see it has more specific implications.

I periodically rant on the topic of Christian supersessionism and how it has been used as a platform to justify crimes by the church against the Jewish people. I hope that recalling God’s promises to the Jews will serve as a reminder that they have been and always will be God’s chosen people. That God was gracious enough to give “his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), does not mean that we Christian Gentiles have “bumped” the Jews from their seats on the flight, so to speak, in order to make room for us (read Romans 11:17-20 again if you don’t believe me).

In our nice, peaceful, reasonably safe American homes, we like to think that the persecution and murder of Jews are a thing of the past and that an ugly chapter in the history of the church has now been closed, but if you are tempted to be comforted by those thoughts, remember four-year old Moshe Holtzberg as he kisses the photos of his parents every morning and night. True, this isn’t a crime that can be laid at the feet of the church, but it’s a delusion to believe that men and women of the past who also called themselves “Christian” didn’t perform the same, horrible terrorist acts and worse. How many Jewish children have we orphaned in the name of Christ?

George Santayana made the often misquoted comment, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I could change that slightly to say, “Those who are not outraged by the atrocities of the past will continue to commit them in the present.” That includes committing atrocities by apathy, lack of concern, and the unwillingness to act.

We should mourn the loss of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivika along with Moshe and his grandparents. It’s tragic that Christianity doesn’t understand the significance of yahrzeit for we should all kindle of the yahrzeit candle for Gavriel and Rivika Holtzberg in solemn memory. By inference, we can also mourn all the Jewish victims of terrorism who came before them, particularly those who were murdered by the church, for in remembering and grieving, we can assure the Jewish people and ourselves that we will never participate in such a nightmare again. We cry out against the injustice of the Nazi Holocaust and the murder of six million but we must never forget that countless Jews have their blood spilled across the pages of thousands of years of history.

Jews believe that tikkun olam, acts of repairing the world, will hasten the coming of the Messiah. However, even in Jewish tradition it is understood that anyone, Jew or Gentile, can perform tikkun olam. Gandhi was once supposed to have said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the fact that Moshe Holtzberg will never again see his parents this side of Heaven makes you sad and angry, you can stand up and do something about it. You can make sure that through action or inaction, you are never a part of such an injustice. You don’t have to change the whole world. You only have to change yourself. Remember God’s promises to the Jewish people and to all people. If you are devoted to the God of Israel, perform one act of justice and mercy today. Perform another one tomorrow. Let your voice be heard. Light a candle in remembrance. Never let the light of mercy go dark in your heart.

The bridegroom is coming. The Prince is returning to his throne. Be ready every day and every night. Tremble at the thought that he will come and you will not be prepared.

Tremble, and sin not; reflect in your hearts while on your beds and be utterly silent. –Psalm 4:5

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! –Revelation 22:20 (ESV)

Toldot: The Servant and the Coachman

studying-talmudIt was a hot July day during the summer of 1866. The children of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, five-year-old Sholom DovBer and his brother Zalman Aharon, had just come home from cheder and were playing in the garden which adjoined their home.

In the garden stood a trellis overgrown with vines and greenery which offered protection from the heat of the sun. It was set up as a study, with a place for books etc., and Rabbi Shmuel would sit there on the hot summer days.

The children were debating the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. Zalman Aharon, the elder by a year and four months, argued that the Jews are a “wise and understanding people”who could, and do, study lots of Torah, both its ‘revealed part’ and its mystical secrets, and pray with devotion and ‘d’vaikus’, attachment to G-d.

Said the young Sholom DovBer: But this is true only of those Jews who learn and pray. What of Jews who are unable to study and who do not pray with d’vaikus? What is their specialness over a non-Jew?

Zalman Aharon did not know what to reply.

The children’s sister, Devorah Leah, ran to tell their father of their argument. Rabbi Shmuel called them to the trellis, and sent the young Sholom DovBer to summon Ben-Zion, a servant in the Rebbe’s home.

Ben-Zion was a simple Jew who read Hebrew with many mispronunciations and barely understood the easy words of the prayers. Every day he would recite the entire book of Psalms, pray with the congregation, and make sure to be present in the synagogue when Ein Yaakov was studied.

When the servant arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Ben-Zion, did you eat?”

Ben-Zion: “Yes”.

The Rebbe: “Did you eat well?”

Ben-Zion: “What’s well? Thank G-d, I was sated.”

The Rebbe: “And why do you eat?”

Ben-Zion: “So that I may live”

The Rebbe: “But why live?”

Ben-Zion: “To be a Jew and do what G-d wants.” The servant sighed.

The Rebbe: “You may go. Send me Ivan the coachman.”

Ivan was a gentile who had grown up among Jews from early childhood and spoke a perfect Yiddish.

When the coachman arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Did you eat today?”


“Did you eat well?”


“And why do you eat?”

“So that I may live”

“But why live?”

“To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat,” replied the coachman.

“You may go,” said the Rebbe.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Difference”
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot

Not a very flattering comparison between Jews and Gentiles, is it? Of course, the coachman, though he had “grown up among Jews from early childhood” obviously had not spent any time considering how the teachings of the Jewish people could apply to him. More’s the pity. He didn’t consider the example of Abraham and his household and how Abraham taught his non-Hebrew servants of the One God.

We know from last week’s Torah Portion that Abraham sent his most trusted servant to find a bride for Isaac from the land of Abraham’s father. We know that this non-Hebrew servant had learned the lessons of Abraham’s God well, as evidenced by his impassioned prayer.

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’-let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” –Genesis 24:12-14

The result of the servant’s life of faith depended on Abraham teaching him, and all of the non-Hebrew household, of the God who created us all in His image. Rabbi Eli Touger also speaks to this point in his Torah commentary for Toldot.

Our Sages relate (Shabbos 89b) that in the Era of the Redemption, Jews will praise Yitzchak, telling him: “You are our Patriarch.” For in that era, the inward thrust of Yitzchak will permeate all existence. “The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d. The Jews will be great sages and will know the hidden matters, attaining an understanding of their Creator to the [full] extent of mortal expression.”(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:5).

Although all Jews will then live in Eretz Yisrael, they will as their ancestor Yitzchak did influence mankind as a whole, motivating all to seek G-dly knowledge. “And it shall come to pass in the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s house will be established on the top of the mountains…. and all the nations shall flow unto it. Many people shall say: ‘Come let us ascend the mountain of G-d… and He will teach us of His ways.’ ” (Isaiah 2:2-3) May this take place in the immediate future.

So what happened to Ivan the coachman? Did the Rebbe fail to teach him the same lessons or to live out the same holy life as an example to Ivan as he did to Ben-Zion? Is Rabbi Tauber simply telling us that Jews “naturally” seek the things of God while Gentiles only seek the temporal pleasures of the world? I can’t speak to Rabbi Tauber’s intent, but let’s compare Ivan to Eliezer (assuming Eliezer is “the servant” in the tale of Rivkah). What is the difference between these two men? They both spent many years in the household of a man of God. Did the Rebbe fail where Abraham succeeded or did Eliezer see and hear something in Abraham and in what he taught that Ivan chose to ignore in the Rebbe’s household?

Regardless of opportunity, the path of faith is walked by the individual. We are not old-fashioned wind up toy soldiers that are primed, set on the floor, pointed in a direction, and then set off to march. We make choices. We cannot blame others if our faith is weak or even if it’s non-existent. Ivan chose to consider the purpose of life as taking a “swig of vodka and having a bite to eat” while Eliezer chose to drink deep from the wells of salvation (John 4:13-14).

The path has been set before us. All we need to do is choose to face it, set our foot upon it, and take the first step…or to turn away and follow another trail through the wilderness. Our choice. But like the Samaritan woman at the well, we have already been talking to the one we seek.

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” –John 4:21-26

Who are the sons of God? Israel is the obvious heir based on the promises of the Almighty to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then why were the Jewish people expected to teach the rest of the world about God? If we are not heirs, who are we and what do we matter except maybe as “slaves” or “dogs”? Paul offers us hope. Paul said that we can be grafted in (Romans 11) to “sonship” through faith such as what Abraham had (Romans 4). He also wrote something else encouraging.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. –Galatians 3:26-28

The Jews are the sons of the Mosaic promise yet we Gentiles, through faith in the Messianic promises, will also be sitting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 8:11). God be willing and merciful to us all.