Tag Archives: charity

The Simplicity of a Life of Holiness

On the heels of writing yesterday afternoon’s meditation, I realized this whole “Judaicly aware Gentile on a deserted island in search of God” thing is really quite overblown.

That I have a relationship with God as an individual non-Jew is hardwired into every human being including me. It’s a matter of making teshuvah continually, repeatedly or constantly turning back to God, and then pursuing that relationship in whatever flawed and imperfect way I can, day by day, for the rest of my life.

There’s no complex praxis or ritual involved. We know that the Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) prayed at the set times of prayer, which likely means he prayed three times a day. He also gave much charity to the Jewish people. His prayers and acts of charity were recognized by God, much as Abraham’s faith in Hashem was considered to him as righteousness.

Having a relationship with God, for anyone, is a matter of allowing your day-to-day life to reflect righteousness and holiness. How? It’s not that complicated. Do good things to other people.

Pick up a piece of litter. Hold a door open for someone trying to enter a building behind you. Be kind to everyone you meet. Give to charity. Volunteer to help others in some capacity, such as at a food bank.

Give thanks to God for all you have, whether in plenty or poverty. Be content with everything that comes to you, for it’s all from the hand of God.

As far as it’s up to you, live at peace with everyone.

kindnessReally, if you can’t figure out what you can do to be a good person and a good servant to people in your family, people in your community, and a good servant to God, you haven’t been paying attention to your faith.

This is what I mean about the practices of Messianic Judaism sometimes being a distraction to those non-Jews involved. Admittedly, Hebrew prayers spoken and sung by people who are fluent (and musical) sound incredibly beautiful to me…and are far beyond my linguistic and tonal abilities.

But will God not hear my prayers if they aren’t in Hebrew or if I can’t carry a tune in a paper sack?

Admittedly, many parts of the prayer service and Torah service on Shabbat appeal to me, but let’s face it. I’m not Jewish. As far as I know, there’s no commandment for the goyim to daven in a minyan. If I pray alone, in English, is God going to ignore me? He didn’t ignore Cornelius.

So many “Judaicly aware” Gentiles are worried about how to perform this mitzvah or that, but they are (and I have in the past) making their lives so much more complicated than they have to be.

If you don’t have your hands full just resisting your evil inclination and striving to follow your good inclination, then either you are a bonafide saint or you’re delusional.

But I’ve been casting myself as outside of community, just me, a Bible, and God. What if I should find myself in a church or synagogue (or where ever) on occasion?

No problem. Do what the locals do. Stand up when the congregation stands up, sing when they sing (or sing softly if you have a voice like mine), if some part of the service is in Hebrew and you don’t know Hebrew, don’t say or do anything.

loveIn Sunday school or some other social gathering, be polite and friendly, but don’t offer any opinions or otherwise shoot your big mouth off (this is one of the reasons I don’t belong in community, because I can’t keep my mouth shut).

The principles behind living a life of holiness before God as a Gentile aren’t particularly hard. The only really hard thing is actually living up to that life of holiness. That takes a lifetime of practice, and no one gets to be perfect at it…

…least of all, me.

Advertisements

Premeditated Acts of Kindness

One winter Friday evening after services, I happened to walk home in the company of a talkative Seminary student. As we made our way down Broadway, we passed a weary and emaciated man whispering for some spare change. On Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me. Neither did my young companion. Yet he politely interrupted our animated conversation and asked the man whether he would like a sandwich. When he responded with evident joy that he would, the student pulled out a neatly wrapped sandwich from his plastic bag and gave it to him. Obviously, unlike me, the student did not allow Shabbat to prevent him from aiding the homeless who crowd the sidewalks of Broadway in the midst of the academic acropolis known as Morningside Heights. Though we met no more homeless before we parted company, for all I knew my companion still had another sandwich or two left in his bag to feed the hungry. His unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion stirred me deeply, as it filled me with pride.

-Ismar Schorsch
“A Stitch in Time” (pg 441, May 20, 1995)
Commentary on Torah Portion Behar
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I read Schorsch’s commentaries on the weekly Parashat as a matter of devotion each Shabbat morning, but this time I was almost startled at the parallel between the incident he reported and the Gospel reading for Behar as recommended by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) (Each year near the beginning of the Torah cycle, FFOZ provides a list of the parashat readings for the coming year on PDF for anyone who cares to download it).

Here’s what I had read just minutes before:

On that day of Shabbat, he was teaching in a certain synagogue. A woman in whom there was a spirit of disease for eighteen years was bent over and unable to stand with a straight posture. Yeshua saw and called to her. He said to her, “Woman, be freed from your disease.” He placed his hands upon her, and instantly she arose and stood upright and praised God. The leader of the synagogue became upset that Yeshua had healed her on Shabbat, so he responded and said to the people, “There are six days on which you may do labor. Come and be healed on them, but not on the day of Shabbat!”

The Master answered and said to him, “Hypocrite! Will not any one of you untie his ox or donkey from the stable on Shabbat and lead him to get a drink? But here we have a daughter of Avraham whom the satan has bound for these eighteen years. Will she not be released from what binds her on the day of Shabbat?

When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed, and all of the people rejoiced about all of the wonders there were performed by him.

Luke 13:10-17 (DHE Gospels)

I suppose you can’t compare the supernatural miracle of healing a woman who had suffered an affliction for eighteen years with simply giving a starving, homeless man a sandwich you are carrying with you, but they both speak of a willingness not only to feel compassion but to actively express it for the benefit of another, even (apparently) flying in the face of devoted Shabbat observance.

Teaching of the TzadikimYeshua (Jesus) was accused by the local synagogue leader of violating the prohibition of working on the Shabbat by healing the disabled woman. From the point of view of the leader of the synagogue, his interpretation of the laws of Shabbos was correct and obviously, based on the reaction of the rest of the people present, that opinion was the majority viewpoint in that stream (and probably all streams) of Judaism in that day.

Even today, while it is permissible in Orthodox Judaism to render medical treatment in the cause of saving a life, routine medical matters (this woman had survived her ailment for eighteen years, so Yeshua could have waited another day before healing her) are attended to on the other six days of the week.

For many Bible readers, this distinction may be too obscure, but if missed, the reader also misses the message of all the Sabbath stories in the Gospels. The essential message is not that Jesus has cancelled the Sabbath or that the rabbinic interpretation of Sabbath is illegitimate. The Sabbath-conflict stories instead communicate that acts of compassion and mercy performed to alleviate human suffering take precedence over the ritual taboo. The miraculous power by which Jesus performs the healings only serves to add God’s endorsement to Jesus’ halachic, legal rationale.

Did Jesus’ disciples break the Sabbath in the grain fields? Yes. But they were justified in doing so because their need took precedence over the Temple service, and the Temple service took precedence over the Sabbath. Therefore Jesus declared them guiltless and told the Pharisees, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

Did the Master break the Sabbath when he healed on the Sabbath day? Yes. Would fixing a car break the Sabbath? Of course it would, and by the same standard so does fixing a human body. Nevertheless, the Master justified doing so because compassion for his fellow man took precedence over the Sabbath.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Chapter Seven: At Dinner with the Sages,” pg 61
The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and The Gospels’ Sabbath Conflicts

It is Lancaster’s opinion that Yeshua did indeed “break the Shabbat” as it is literally understood, and performed one of the types of work or melachah (plural: “melachot”) that is forbidden to do on the Sabbath. But Lancaster believes that the needs and dignity of human beings who are created in the image of God have a higher priority than mechanically performing a list of “dos” and “don’ts”.

I don’t mean to cast Shabbat observance or any performance of the other mitzvot in a negative light, far from it. I do want to point out something about human nature, though.

Ismar SchorschIsmar Schorsch, whose writings I greatly admire and who was the sixth Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for nineteen years (he retired on June 30, 2006), wrote, on “Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me.” It wasn’t that Schorsch lacked compassion or didn’t care about the dire needs of other people, but the traditional practice on Shabbat is not to handle any form of currency or to engage in any type of commerce. Naturally, he didn’t have any money on him, and neither did his sandwich-carrying companion.

But get this:

The Mishnah divides the landscape into “domains”: the private domains of individual houses, the public domains of streets and markets, and shared areas like alleys and courtyards that are not quite public and not quite private. The prohibition of carrying is violated when one removes an object from one domain to another [M. Shabbat 1:1, 2:1; M. Eruvin passim]. The Mishnah goes even further in eliminating the notion of “burden” from this prohibition. It declares that the prohibition is violated only if the object that has been carried is an object that people in general, or at least its carrier, value or use or keep; if it has no value or if it is too small to be used or if it is not worth keeping, then it does not qualify as an “object” for the purposes of this prohibition. A Torah-fearing Jew would not remove even such a nonobject from one domain to another on Sabbath, but incurs no liability for having done so [M. Shabbat 7:3-8:6, 9:5-10:1].

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
“Chapter 6: Judaean Legal Tradition and Halakhah of the Mishnah,” pg 136
The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature
Edited by Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee

Since it appears a sandwich has value (especially to a hungry man) and is definitely big enough to use (eat), Schorsch’s companion could not be excused for carrying food items from one domain (presumably he made this sandwich before Shabbat and at his home, which is a different domain than the street) to another. Of course, the Mishnah may be more strictly observed by Orthodox Jews than Conservative Jews (Schorsch is affiliated with Conservative Judaism and presumably so are the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, including the student in question), but I have to wonder.

shabbat walkI have to wonder if both Schorsch and the Seminary student were aware of the prohibition of “carrying,” which was another reason that they both had no money in their possession, since money obviously has value, but they saw a higher value requiring attention. The statement made by Schorsch from which I quoted above, indicates that it was quite common on Broadway to encounter homeless people who would typically ask for spare change or some other form of charity, even on Friday evening. Schorsch saw no way to assist them while observing the Shabbat but the student didn’t let that stop him.

Did the student violate Shabbat by carrying sandwiches from one domain to the next, even for the purpose of committing “a premeditated act of kindness” (Schorsch, pg 443)? Schorsch’s own reaction of pride, not even questioning the apparent violation of performing “work”, seems to answer from his point of view.

We can compare this to the reaction of the synagogue leader and the others attending Shabbat services after hearing Yeshua’s response to their criticism of his healing a non-life threatening disability on Shabbat:

When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed…

Luke 13:17

The people who had initially criticized Yeshua’s act of kindness and compassion on Shabbat felt ashamed when they understood that it is common and permitted to relieve the suffering of another living being on Shabbat, whether a thirsty farm animal or a woman under a debilitating disability. Schorsch felt pride at recalling his student’s “unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion.”

I don’t believe that either Yeshua or the anonymous student violated the Shabbat. I believe they acted in the highest principle of Sabbath observance, even if it seems they “broke” the observance of the literal meaning of the melechot involved in each incident.

“The Sabbath does not ‘do away’ with sadness and sorrow,” writes Pinchas H. Peli in The Jewish Sabbath, “it merely requires that all sadness be ‘tabled’ for one day so that we may not forget that there is also joy and happiness in the world and acquire a more balanced and hopeful picture of life.”

-from “Keeping Sabbath – Ways to Practice”
Practicing Our Faith

“Oneg,” or the traditional meal eaten at the end of Shabbat services at synagogue, literally means “joy”. Regardless of the trials and difficulties we may encounter during the rest of the week, or no matter what else may be troubling us, Shabbat is a time to set all that aside and to live as if the Kingdom of God had already arrived, as if Messiah were already enthroned in Jerusalem, and as if he already reigns over a world filled with peace and the glory of God.

So to alleviate the suffering of even one person or any other living thing is to assist them in some small manner in entering Shabbat and a foretaste of the Kingdom.

MessiahIn any way we think we are obeying the will of God, let’s not forget that there is a higher principle involved that summons the future Messianic Age. What we say, think, and do now, on one level, is temporary and will not last, so we sometimes tend to dismiss this life in anticipating the next. But we must never forget for a single instant, and especially on Shabbat, that kindness, compassion, charity, and raising the level of the dignity of another person, even for a moment, are eternal principles and the loftier and weightier matters of Torah, and they speak more of loving God and loving others (for the two are inseparable) than the matter of committing a “forbidden” act of melachah here or there as the situation arises.

Yeshua rejects all those who do not give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked of even “the least” of his “brothers,” but welcomes those who are “blessed of his Father.”

Then the king will say to those standing on his right, “Come, those who are blessed of my Father, and possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was traveling, and you took me in; naked, and you covered me; sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.”

The righteous will answer and say, “Our master, when did we see you hungry and sustain you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you traveling and take you in, or naked and cover you? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?”

Then the king will answer and say to them, “Amen, I say to you, what you have done for one of these young brothers of mine, you have done for me.”

Matthew 25:34-40

FFOZ TV Review: Treasure in Heaven

FFOZ TV episode 24Episode 24: What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples to store up treasures in Heaven? Episode twenty-four will take a look at the phrase “treasures in Heaven” through a Jewish lens. “In Heaven” in this phrase does not mean “in the sky” but rather “with God.” Jesus tells us that God rewards his children openly for what they do in secret. Viewers will learn that being disciples of Jesus means being a generous person, giving to the needy, doing the work of the kingdom, and not focusing on earthly gain.

-from the Introduction to FFOZ TV: The Promise of What is to Come
Episode 24: Treasure in Heaven (click this link to watch video, not the image above)

The Lesson: The Mystery of Treasure in Heaven

This episode went pretty much the way I expected with just a few small question marks. First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) educators and authors Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby based today’s teaching on the following verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rottenness consume them, and thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rottenness do not consume them, and thieves do not break in and steal. For in the place where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21 (DHE Gospels)

Toby asked about how one can actually store a treasure in Heaven? Is there some sort of cosmic retirement plan in the Afterlife? Is it possible to do something to store treasure in Heaven now so we’ll have it to spend after we die?

These seem like silly questions but throughout much of the episode, Toby kept returning to these points. I started to wonder what the traditional Christian teaching must be about this passage? Does the Church or some part of it believe that there is a literal treasure in Heaven that we get when we die?

For viewers who have been regularly watching this show, it should be apparent that the reference to “Heaven” doesn’t have to literally be the place where God lives. The Hebrew word for “Heaven” can also mean “sky”. However, given the general theme of this first season of the FFOZ TV show, “Heaven” is more likely being used as a circumlocution to avoid saying the most personal Name of God. For instance, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” actually means “Kingdom of God” as in the coming Messianic Era.

That would mean storing up “treasure in heaven” means something like storing up “treasure in the Messianic Kingdom.” But that’s still mysterious if you don’t understand certain Rabbinic concepts and idioms.

“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”

Matthew 6:2-4 (NASB)

Toby JanickiThis should help provide clarity. Toby links “storing up treasure in heaven” to these earlier verses in the chapter. Jesus teaches a direct link between giving to charity in secret and being openly rewarded by God. This is also a Rabbinic concept, but one where Christianity treads lightly, since we are taught that salvation is a free gift and not tied to anything we can do, such as give to charity. Also, Isaiah 64:6 defines “righteous acts” as “filthy rags” so it would seem as if this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching contradicts not only older scripture but Christian doctrine as well.

We aren’t talking about “buying our way into Heaven” with our “filthy” righteous deeds, though. We are however, talking about a relationship between our giving to charity and some sort of reward from God. More specifically, we are talking about giving in secret, without using our “generosity” to draw attention to ourselves, and that is what God rewards openly.

As a side note, this makes me wonder why some churches today have listings on their walls or in some public document of the names of their larger contributors if Jesus taught to give in secret?

If you say, “See, we did not know this,”
Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts?
And does He not know it who keeps your soul?
And will He not render to man according to his work?

Proverbs 24:12 (NASB)

It looks like Jesus isn’t contradicting this older portion of scripture and in fact, he seems to be teaching the same lesson. “And will He not render to man according to his work?” So what we do here in this life does seem to matter to God and God responds to our actions by giving back to us in the manner we’ve given (or not given) to others.

This brings us to the first clue for this episode:

Clue 1: When Jesus tells us to “store up treasures in heaven,” he is not telling us to store up treasures in the Afterlife, but to store up credit with God.

Storing up “credit with God” still makes it sound like we’re opening up a credit line at the Bank of Heaven and then drawing against it, but that makes no sense at all. There’s got to be more to this lesson.

As it turns out, there is:

The lamp of the body is the eye, and if your eye is whole, your entire body will be illuminated. But if your eye is evil, your entire body will be darkened — and if the light within you is darkened, how great is the darkness.

A man is not able to serve two masters. For he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cling to one and despise the other. You are not able to serve both God and mamon.

Matthew 6:22-24 (DHE Gospels)

OK, maybe that didn’t clear everything up. To get a better handle on what Jesus is saying, the scene shifts to Aaron Eby in Israel for a Hebrew lesson on the term “the evil eye.”

So what is the “evil eye” and the “whole” or “good eye”? Aaron tells his audience that one interpretation of an “evil eye” is a description of what happens to a believer who looks at forbidden things. Another tells of a believer who is not spiritually perceptive. But in the overall context of these verses, which seem to be addressing money, that doesn’t make sense.

Aaron EbyAs it turns out, having an “evil eye” in Jewish idiom means being stingy. Also, the words translated as “whole eye” or “good eye,” given the idiomatic meaning being referenced, are better translated as “beautiful eye,” meaning generous. But how does it make sense that your “eye” can indicate stinginess or generosity? According to Aaron, it has to do with how you look at or perceive others. If you look at someone with good intent or in order to see the good in them, you are looking at them with a “beautiful” eye and are inclined to be generous toward them. However, if you look at people with poor intent or in a negative manner, you are inclined to be withholding from the needy and thus have an “evil” eye.

Returning to Toby in the studio, we come to the next clue:

Clue 2: Jesus’ words about storing up treasures with God are directly linked to “beautiful eye” and “evil eye.”

Now we seem to be zeroing in on the solution to today’s mystery. But if God rewards believers for giving generously and in secret to charity, what sort of reward is provided? Toby said that it is not along the lines of prosperity theology. It’s not a matter of giving large amounts of money to certain charities or churches in order to get back a boatload of cash in this world.

So what is the answer?

“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?

Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-26, 31-34 (NASB)

In a nutshell, this means that we shouldn’t worry about the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter, because God knows we need these things and will provide. Instead of devoting our resources to accumulating material possessions, we should seek first the Messianic Kingdom, and “the basics” will take care of themselves.

By being generous, we come closer to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Conversely, a stingy person is removed or retreating from entering the Messianic Kingdom.

This sort of reminds me of what I wrote about the FFOZ TV episode on The Golden Rule. How we treat others brings us closer or places us further away from entering the Messianic Kingdom. But as I said before, although we’re not talking about buying our way into Heaven, how can being generous or stingy admit or inhibit living in the Era of the Messiah?

Unless it’s somehow related to the lesson of the “sheep and goats” we find in Matthew 25:31-46, which is also talking about generosity and stinginess. Even a believer who is stingy or has exhibited the “evil eye” may be rejected by the King upon his return. What we do does matter. This reading of the Bible makes that inescapable, although it’s not always easy to understand.

The final clue is:

Clue 3: Storing treasure in heaven is the same as seeking the Kingdom of God.

It doesn’t mean that God will provide a one-to-one system of giving vs reward whereby if you give a certain amount to your church or to charity, that you’ll automatically get back the same or more than you “invested.” In fact, that sort of theology goes against what Jesus taught, since he commanded giving in secret, which at least implies the idea of giving generously with no thought of reward.

What Did I Learn?

I actually knew the vast majority of what was taught today, but some of what was said got me to thinking. As I see it (and this is just my opinion), by being generous in the here and now, we are somewhat foreshadowing the coming Messianic Kingdom, which will be characterized by kindness, generosity to all, and peace. Just as each weekly Shabbat is a foreshadow and a preview of the lasting Shabbat of Messiah, so too every mitzvah of giving we commit, each act of tzedakah, is a momentary snapshot of how all humanity will behave toward each other one day.

tzedakah-to-lifeI have a better “feeling” about this being part of the “reward” rather than necessarily admittance into or rejection from the Messianic Era, but as the passage from Matthew 25 indicates, there will be those believers who get in and those who are given the boot.

Also, as I said above, I don’t see any sort of formula being developed out of these scriptures and this lesson whereby the more you give, the more you get in cash or material goods. There have been far too many saints or tzaddikim who have lived and died in poverty, even though they were abundantly generous with whatever they had, to make me believe that giving to charity is some sort of insurance against poverty or some other bad things happening to me. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes. Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). God does as He wills. Sometimes, even the most devout servants of God don’t have access to even the basics of food, water, clothing, or shelter, even though this seems to contradict the words of the Master.

But we don’t see this so much in the West because most of us can at least make ends meet if not live rather well, especially when compared to the kind of abject poverty we see in what we call “third-world countries.”

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4 (NASB)

I thought this deserved an honorable mention, since we are talking about giving generously. OK, so it’s not giving in secret if Jesus and his disciples can see how much everyone is giving, but we do see a woman living in great poverty, probably a state of lacking most of us have never experienced, giving all she had to live on for the sake of God and the Temple. I don’t think I could advise a person to do that, holding nothing back for themselves, but then again, maybe she was not worrying about her next meal, what clothes she was going to wear, or the place she was going to rest her head, just as Messiah taught.

It’s a hard lesson in this world of 401Ks, Medical Savings Accounts, and saving up to send the kids to college.

I seem to remember, probably from something Dave Ramsey said, that families should include charitable giving in their budgets in the same way as we budget for car repairs, groceries, clothing, and so on. This isn’t giving all we’ve got, but it is giving what we can if we are so inclined.

Only two more episodes in season one left to review.

The Sukkot Season of Joy

have-sukkah-will-travelSeven days shall you dwell in booths (Leviticus 23:42) … and you shall only be rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:15).

Succos is the festival designated as the season of our gladness. Yet the commentaries state that one of the symbolisms of the succah, a temporary hut, is that we dwell in it for seven days to symbolize man’s temporary sojourn on earth for his average life span of seven decades (Psalms 90:10).

Human mortality is a rather sobering thought; it is hardly conducive to rejoicing. Most often we do not think about our mortality, and when circumstances force us to face it, we quickly dismiss it from our minds and go on acting as though we will live forever.

How different Torah values are from secular values! The Torah teaches us that there is an eternal life, a wholly spiritual life, whose bliss is far greater than the human mind can imagine. We are placed on this planet for our ephemeral earthly existence only to give us an opportunity to prepare for the eternal life.

The Torah teaches us to enjoy life, and if it restricts some pleasures, it is because we should enjoy life in a manner that befits a human being. Furthermore, our joy of living should not be diminished by the awareness of our mortality, nor need we deny it. The succah – the symbol of our temporary stay on earth – is beautifully decorated, and we enjoy our festive meals therein. Even our temporary existence can be beautiful and happy, and our faith in the eternal life should enhance that happiness.

Today I shall …

… try to enjoy life as befits a spiritual person, knowing that the true life of man is not the fleeting one, but that of eternity.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 15”
Aish.com

I have to admit that at this time of year, sometimes I envy Jewish people. The traditions surrounding the celebration of Sukkot are so rich and full of life. Sure, I can build a sukkah and I can observe, to some degree, the same traditions, but I wonder what it must be like to have a life-long experience of such celebrations. What memories do Jewish people have of childhood, eating in a sukkah each year, “partying” with relatives and friends, singing, dancing, rejoicing?

I’ve come to the party far too late and worse, I was too late to bring my children. If I had been more timely, perhaps, my son would build a sukkah for his wife and child each year. Face it, in terms of traditions and spiritual depth, Sukkot has got Christmas beat all hollow.

I recently came across a Facebook page called Jewish People Around the World. The stories and photos of Sukkot observance are just fabulous. Certainly if, as Rabbi Twerski says, the Torah teaches us to enjoy life, then Sukkot is one of the crowning jewels of that Torah sentiment.

Rabbi Twerski also said this:

God wants us to enjoy worldly goods, but to do so in a manner that befits a spiritual people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Sukkot_Priestly_BlessingSukkot, for all its focus on being a “season of joy” does not focus on just the individual seeking his or her own joy as another of Rabbi Twerski’s commentaries notes:

Rabbi Mordechai of Nesh’chiz looked forward all year to the mitzvah of the Four Species on Succos. Since a fine esrog was costly and Rabbi Mordechai was hardly a man of means, he would accumulate small coins all year round, even depriving himself of food, in order to be able to afford an esrog.

A few days before Succos, Rabbi Mordechai joyfully took the money he had saved, and in high spirits, went off to buy the coveted esrog. On the way, he encountered a man sitting at the side of the road, weeping bitterly. He inquired as to the reason for the man’s grief, and the latter told him, “Woe is to me! I earn my living with my horse and wagon, and this morning my nag died. How am I to feed my wife and children?”

“How much do you need to buy another horse?” Rabbi Mordechai asked.

The sum that the man specified was exactly the amount that Rabbi Mordechai had laboriously saved all year long for the esrog. Without giving it another thought, he gave his purse to the man. “Here, my dear man. Go buy yourself a horse’

After the man joyfully left with the money, Rabbi Mordechai said, “Oh well. All of Israel will be fulfilling the mitzvah of the Four Species with an esrog, but I will do so with a horse.”

Rabbi Mordechai’s sacrifice of his personal comfort all year round teaches us how precious is the mitzvah of the Four Species, but his final act teaches us that the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) is even greater.

Today I shall…

… try to realize the greatness of the commandment of charity, to make certain that another person has the means to survive.

I mentioned Christmas before, which I suppose is the closest thing in Christian tradition to Sukkot (apart from Thanksgiving, which strictly speaking, isn’t a “Christian” holiday). I think for some Christians, teaching charity and giving is the focus of that holiday, but for most people, including most Christians, all attention is drawn on buying and consuming material goods for their own sake and for ours, not for the sake of other people.

Also, as we read in the first quote from Rabbi Twerski, Sukkot teaches us the difference between temporal, material values and those for the sake of Heaven, and yet even eternal values are celebrated with the joys of our material world. Our mortal life is much like living in a sukkah, while what is beyond can be compared to basking in the glory of God on His Throne.

If it comes down to experiencing our own joy and providing joy to others in material ways that summon the eternal, I say, is it too much to ask for both?

Getting Dressed One Mitzvah at a Time

helping-with-tefillinSo I walk into a random office and ask a guy to put on tefillin. Perhaps just to get rid of me, he agrees. I strap him up, help him read Shema, shake his hand and leave. In and out in 3 minutes.

I’m at a circumcision. During the inevitable ten-minute delay waiting for the baby to be sent down to the ceremony, I persuade the nervous father to put on tefillin. I explain to him the connection between circumcision and tefillin, which are both referred to in the Torah as a sign of our connection to G‑d, and he confides to me that this is the first time he’s worn tefillin since his bar mitzvah.

But what have we gained from guilt-tripping a guy into tefillin? It’s just a one off, with no guarantee of any followup. Is he any more religious, committed or switched on than before I started nudging him?

-Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum
“What’s the Point of a One-Time Mitzvah?”
Chabad.org

This sort of article makes a lot more sense to Jews than to Christians since we in the church focus more on faith than activity. This isn’t universally true, but it’s all too common.

I’ve been following the conversation over at Judah Himango’s blog and he has a point in echoing James the Just in saying “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

But can you approach a “lukewarm” Christian and inspire him or her by “guilting” them into a single act of Christian compassion? Even Rabbi Greenbaum asks if “guilting” a Jewish person into a “one-off mitzvah” is worth it. Would it do any good to twist a believer’s arm to donate a can of soup to the food bank or give ten dollars to help a kid go to summer camp? Once the “motivation” is gone, won’t any further “good deeds” go with it?

This question was once posed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe by a not-yet-religious individual. The Rebbe had compared adding extra mitzvahs into one’s daily routine to wearing a tie, which adds beauty and splendor to one’s whole ensemble. In response, the man asked what seems to be an ingenious question. He pointed out that the Rebbe’s analogy would hold true only for someone already wearing clothing; however, were a naked person to don a tie, rather than looking better, he’d look completely ridiculous.

The Rebbe agreed that a naked man wearing a tie might indeed look silly, but contended the very act of putting a tie would probably wake him up to the fact that he’s naked in the first place. Sometimes the incongruity of being simultaneously underdressed but over-accessorized can lead you to rush off to cover yourself up.

I can’t help but be reminded of this:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?

Genesis 3:6-11 (NASB)

tie-no-shirtWhat shows us that we are naked? We might never notice except when we put on an article of clothing, an accessory of some sort perhaps, and realize the rest of the outfit is missing. I think it’s that way for a lot of people who profess a sort of faith, both Christian and Jewish. We show up at our houses of worship, socialize, go to the obligatory classes, give charity, eat and drink together, but all that can be accomplished without the slightest awareness of God. Even if we are doing good deeds, are we performing such actions just because it’s expected in our social context? Are we doing so only because it makes us look like good people?

I agree that a life of faith as merely an internal state isn’t going to do much good to anyone, even ourselves. But faith and deeds must go together. Sometimes deeds happen without faith, even among religious people because we treat religion like a social club.

No, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the company of others, but in the end, if that’s the only reason you go to church or synagogue, and if the only reason you give to charity is to impress your friends, then you’re doing everything in vain. The primary reason to congregate among our fellows is to experience an encounter with God. Then out of that encounter, everything else we do including charity and good deeds makes a great deal more sense.

If we’re religious for poor reasons, then being compelled into a “one-off mitzvah,” even as a Christian, can expose our nakedness. We’re forced to look in the mirror and realize that all we are wearing are the Emperor’s New Clothes, which is to say, nothing at all.

Making this illustration may be somewhat easier for a Jewish population than a Christian one since the mitzvot that define Jewish identity are more documented and apparent. Christianity does not have a “Law” as such, since most church-goers have been taught by tradition that grace has replaced behavioral expectations.

But it can still be done because most of Torah actually applies to the church, too. Christians are all too familiar with Torah, we just don’t call it that.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Carry ten dollars in ones in your wallet. Give one dollar each to the next ten homeless people you see on the street (I’ve actually seen this done). If you don’t encounter many homeless people throughout the course of your week, it’s OK. Just keep giving until the money’s gone. Then repeat periodically.
  2. Go to your local supermarket and buy some canned goods, then drive to your local foodbank or where food is being collected for the poor (your church may even have a donation site). Deposit canned goods in donation bin. Then repeat periodically.
  3. Carry jumper cables in your car and, when you encounter someone who has a dead car battery, volunteer to help out. (if you pay attention to your environment, this opportunity happens more often than you might imagine).
  4. Google a phrase such as “how to do good deeds.” Click on one of the links returned such as 21 ways to do a good deed. Read and follow the instructions.

helping-the-poorAre you feeling more dressed yet?

Of course, as I said, none of this is as effective as it could be if you’re doing it for the right reasons. I don’t recommend that you tell anyone about your project. That way, you can avoid the temptation to brag about yourself. I do recommend that you tell God about it (not that He doesn’t know) by praying for your heart to be softened by your performance of these mitzvot. Although doing good deeds helps those you are helping, the person who really benefits is you, the good deed doer. For in giving to others, you are not only learning how to love your fellow human beings, but God as well, which is another mitzvah.

Aside for the intrinsic standalone value that each mitzvah has, mitzvah observance can also be contagious. Agreeing to opt in, even just once, can have far-reaching effects. There have been untold thousands of Jews who have made permanent changes in their lives for the better, just because they agreed to try it once.

Now that you’ve put on the tie, you might want to follow up with a pair of pants and a shirt.

From my father’s sichot: When Mashiach will come (speedily in our time, amein), then we shall really long for the days of the exile. Then we will truly feel distress at our having neglected working at avoda; then will we indeed feel the deep pain caused by our lack of avoda. These days of exile are the days of avoda, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our time, amein.

“Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Menachem Av 3, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Acting for the Messiah

acts_isaac_maryThe Torah of Moses and the instructions of our Master Yeshua instruct us to open our hands to the poor and not hold back from providing for the needy. As disciples of the Master, it is our duty to fulfill these obligations to the best of our ability and to meet the need where it is greatest. Tororo, Uganda, like many other locations around the world, is subject to harsh poverty, low quality of life, and often a dangerous environment to live in, especially for the young.

-from the A.C.T.S. for Messiah website.

I know I said I wasn’t going to discuss the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference anymore, but there is one important aspect I forgot to mention. During the conference, there were two meals not covered by the conference registration. They were fundraisers for a missionary effort called A.C.T.S. for Messiah, which according to their About page:

…is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the orphaned, widows, poor and needy in Africa. This Messianic Jewish mission is based in the East African nation of Uganda where Emily Dwyer brings the Gospel of Yeshua to remote villages, teaches discipleship, feeds the hungry and cares for a group of orphaned children. Our ministry is based in the village of Tororo, Uganda.

One thing I know about the Christian church is that they’re very good at sending compassionate missions outside of their own walls, to destinations ranging from different cities in the U.S., to the towns, villages and refuge camps where ever they are found across far-flung corners of the Earth. Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, not so much. Traditionally, Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots have focused their attention and resources on establishing their movements and the primacy of the Torah. But Messianic Judaism, thanks in part to the aforementioned Shavuot Conference, First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) as an educational ministry, and other Messianic organizations, that viewpoint is becoming more balanced, resting upon (if I can “borrow” from the conference again) Torah, the Good News of Messiah, and the Holy Spirit.

I first encountered A.C.T.S. (the acronym means “Action, Compassion, Teaching and Service”) during last year’s conference. Fortunately this year, they accepted credit cards as well as cash, so I didn’t have to depend on the kindness of strangers (I don’t like traveling with cash) when I wanted to participate.

I’m incredibly pleased to see Messianic Judaism embrace this long-established function of the church in extending itself to uphold this principle of Torah and ancient Judaism. I think it means the movement is maturing beyond its “start-up” stage and is becoming a more holistically functioning expression of the Messiah’s love in the world.

And while you may think that such compassion is primarily Christian/Messianic, I just want to remind you that modern Judaism is an abundant source of love for others.

Dr. Rick Hodes concluded his May 19, 2013 commencement address at Brandeis University this way (the link above leads to the entire content of the article which includes many examples of Jewish compassion to the disadvantaged, the sick, and the dying):

You now start a lifelong link with a great name – Brandeis. What can we learn from Louis Brandeis? He was described as “the disturbing element in any gentleman’s club,” he owned a canoe, not a yacht, he angered clients by trying to be fair to both sides; the judge who succeeded him, called him “a militant crusader for social justice… dangerous because he was incorruptible.” Live up to his legacy.

Spread kindness. You are here because a lot of people helped you along the way. Maybe it was your 10th-grade math teacher who gave you a second chance, maybe it was someone who inspired you in a summer job.

This week, buy beautiful cards and send out four or five, to people who’ve helped you. Let them know you’ve just graduated from Brandeis and they were important to you. They’re going to feel great, and they’ll do it again for others.

Remember this: Run to do good. Create a momentum in the right direction. Get your hands dirty. Wear out your shoes. Don’t try to get too comfortable, please!

Now I imagine the start of a horse race and the bell rings. But you don’t need to race against each other. Whatever horse you choose, and whatever path you follow, I wish you great success and great happiness.

I wish you a lot more than luck, and may God bless you all.

syrian-refugeesThe Pastor of my church was raised by missionary parents and he became a missionary himself. The church I attend aggressively supports multiple missionary efforts around the globe. Many people who attend the church volunteer their time to travel to other countries to pray, encourage, support, build, teach, and do whatever else it takes to feed the hungry, heal the sick and injured, and show the love of Jesus Christ to whoever they may encounter.

A video news story was shown at the beginning of last Sunday’s worship service at my church (found online at CBN.com). It was a Skype interview of a missionary in Syria whose group is providing shelter, food, and support to anyone in need, Christian, Muslim, or anyone else. My words fail dismally to describe what this almost four-minute long video illustrates (I’ve posted the video from YouTube at the bottom of this blog post). The devastation of life is just ghastly, but one courageous group of Christians work to help just because God so loved the world, not just the Christian world, not just the white world, not just the American world, but every man, woman, and child who were created in the image of God.

In other words, everyone.

Part of why I’m writing this is to show that Messianic Judaism is indeed following the will of the Master and the teachings of the Torah, as is much of the traditional Christian church. Another part of why I’m writing this is to ask you to care. Yes, some of you really do care. Some of you give generously, work endlessly, pray fervently for those in need. But more of you…of us need to do the same. Love and worship is more than just showing up to the church on time for Sunday services and going to Sunday school afterwards, strolling through the Bible while drinking coffee and munching on muffins.

Love and caring means giving of whatever you have to give and sharing whatever God has given you to share.

Oh people, look around you
The signs are everywhere
You’ve left it for somebody other than you
To be the one to care
You’re lost inside your houses
There’s no time to find you now
Your walls are burning and your towers are turning
I’m going to leave you here and try to get down to the sea somehow

-Jackson Browne
Rock Me On The Water (1972)

Feed the hungry, take care of the widow and orphan, provide medical care for the sick, make a difference.

Act now.

111 days.