Tag Archives: Chasidim

Light and the Lucid Crystal

Inner lightWhen a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints – for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are.

-Thomas Merton
Part Two, Chapter One, “With a Great Price,” pg 186
The Seven Storey Mountain

This explains a lot. It explains how people who have no faith in God in any manner and no apparent external moral compass (at least from a religious person’s point of view) can still do good and great things for others and uphold noble causes. It also explains how some “religious people,” even though they seem to have faith in God and to uphold the teachings of His prophets and apostles, can harbor evil thoughts and feelings for others and say and do heinous things, all supposedly in the name of God.

Merton further illustrates that a person who is perfect in his or her nature because he or she was made in God’s image and who allows themselves to accept and reflect and refract the light of God as does a crystal, can be perfected beyond human standards and be elevated in a relationship with God and man. This is what it is to be holy.

I was struck with these passages in Merton’s book and remembering this was written when he was a young Trappist monk, I was astonished at how closely some of his ideas and images paralleled those of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, as I often quote them from the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. These quotes, of course, are an extension of Chasidic and even Kabbalistic thought and belief, which seems an even stranger comparison for me to make to the observations and reflections of a Catholic monk writing his autobiography in the 1940s.

I wonder if men from such different cultural and religious backgrounds aren’t on some level joined together by the light of God?

But if this unlikely and wonderful parallel between two men of such divergent faiths exists, how much more tragic that there are so many others in the religious and spiritual arena (and particularly in the blogosphere) who claim the title “saint” or “prophet” but who Merton would definitely classify as “devil?”

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling of lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands.

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book – the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine – is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation.

-Merton, pg 187

I’m not a big fan of censorship and I’m probably one of those people who would be driven out of my mind with indignation if someone should hand me a book that was declared “safe” by the Catholic church. But in reading these sentences and the ones that followed, I began to draw a comparison to what Merton could not possibly have anticipated – the proliferation of information on the world wide web.

The Internet isn’t filtered and in my humble opinion, it never should be, but the danger in this is that anyone who can create a website or blog (and this includes everyone nowadays) will create a website or blog, and they’ll spew their opinions all over the Internet so that anyone with web access can find them and read them.

If you are reasonably well educated from other sources, (such as books and reliable teachers) you can probably make your way through the maze of good content and bad, but there are so many would-be “saints” in the world who unknowingly fall into the teachings of a “devil” out of sheer ignorance.

I was once teaching a class at a congregation and was confronted with a strange thought by one of the students. In the course of the conversation, she said the oddest thing. I believe we were talking about the Tetragrammaton; the most holy and unpronounceable name of God, which many people express as “YHWH,” and she said that the reason the Jewish people were exiled was that they refused to reveal the pronunciation of “the Name” to the world and thus, lost all knowledge of the pronunciation as an additional punishment.

What?

Yes, that sounds crazy to me, too.

I don’t remember all of the details and I probably wouldn’t publish them if I did, but apparently, there was some sort of “teacher” on the Internet who was spreading this kind of information. She gave me the URL to his site and I looked him up.

Oh my!

There were years and years and years worth of articles on his site (I really don’t remember his name) and it would have been impossible to go through all of his stuff. I searched for the information on the “Sacred Name” but didn’t find it. I looked through some random web articles and some of it was relatively sane and a lot of it wasn’t. The guy seemed like he was intelligent and even educated, but his conclusions were highly suspect.

With that memory fully recalled and in reading Merton’s book, I’m beginning to develop a new respect for the “imprimatur” concept. Not in terms of consuming data that is only acceptable to the Catholic church, but with the idea of separating the “wheat from the chafe” relative to sound versus unsound religious “research”. If I want to buy a book, I can always go to Amazon and read the reviews to get some sort of idea if the book is any good or not (although sometimes even that litmus test fails). For random craziness on the web, there often is not litmus test except keeping yourself educated with valid sources and knowing when something looks suspicious.

Even with that, some otherwise reliable and well-educated blog authors can become overly-enamored with their own self-importance, just because they get a lot of attention and some local notoriety. The curse of even marginally “famous” believers is that the temptation to forget that God is the focus can be really strong.

I occasionally get “spammed” by folks who tell me that they’ve got a direct line to the Holy Spirit of God who whispers in their ears and helps them not rely on their own intellectual prowess. That kind of makes it hard for me to say that God should be our final litmus test on information when any sort of supernatural revelation is, by its very nature, totally subjective. We can say that revelations of the Spirit should only be considered on the up and up if they jive with Scripture, but interpretation of Scripture is also extremely variable, depending on who you read, who you talk to, and who you believe. Seems like a vicious circle.

Ultimately, we each take some sort of stand and say that “this religion” or “this denomination” or “this sect” or “this viewpoint” is what we consider foundational, and we proceed from that point. None of us have it completely “right” but then perhaps none of us have it completely “wrong” either. In the intellectual “holy wars” on the web, regardless of our differing opinions, we can still rely on the words of the Master that are not ambiguous:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I am also reminded of the Prophet Micah:

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

And although not a prophet as we understand the term, Thomas Merton managed to crystallize something important:

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

If we open ourselves to Him, we are the breath of God. When we love others, then we are breathing, then we are alive.

Develop your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land
Chabad.org

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A Storm is Coming

Facing the stormThat day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”Mark 4:35-41

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.” -Unknown

I remember reading a story about a Jewish Chasid who went to his Rebbe and complained of terrible problems. He had various difficulties in his life, including matters of finance and was distracted all of the time. He begged the Rebbe to help him find peace of mind, so he could return to his Yeshiva studies.

The Rebbe instead became angry and said something like, “All you have been doing is telling me about your problems and how you want peace of mind. What about all you could be doing to help others?”

I can’t recall the source of the parable, so I’m reconstructing it from memory, but I think I’ve captured its essence. The Chasid wanted what we all want at times; peace of mind and relief from the struggles of day-to-day life. He wanted to return to a state where he could calmly, quietly contemplate the things of God and allow his spirit to ascend the heights of the courts of Heaven. Instead his Rebbe, the man who he felt was close enough to God to understand his concerns, completely sidestepped his worries, turned him around, pointed him at the problems of other people, and told him to go out there and be a solution.

Wasn’t that kind of heartless?

Not really.

For the past couple of mornings, I’ve been chronicling the personal struggles we all face in confronting sins, desiring to repent, the roadblocks of despair, depression, and discouragement, and how it seems that hitting the reset button on life during the Jewish High Holidays is more fantasy and wishful thinking than practical reality. After all, how is it possible to rid ourselves of our human frailties and grow closer to God when life will not stop long enough to give us a break? How can we enjoy the sunshine and the gentle breezes of an early fall when the raging storms of winter will absolutely not let up for a second?

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.” -Unknown

Easier said than done.

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Was Jesus being unreasonable with his disciples? Who wouldn’t have been terrified? Where was his compassion?

We are not passive observers of this universe, but rather partners in its creation. We are the ones who assign each thing its meaning, who bring definition and resolution to an otherwise ambiguous world.

In fact, we are legal witnesses who determine a matter of life or death: For each thing we hold, each event that enters our life, our word declares whether it breathes with G-dly life or simply idles itself into oblivion.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Defining Your World”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

LionBut where is God amid the storm? Does God hear the screams of the countless victims of the rape gangs in the Congo? Where is God when the persecuted Christians in China and Afghanistan cry out? Where is God six months after the Japan earthquake and tsunami when the victims still face the long struggle to rebuild their nation and their lives (and now one million Japanese must flee a typhoon)?

While the storm in your life and mine may not be so devastating, where is God when we struggle and sometimes fail? Where is He in the storm?

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. –1 Kings 19:11-13

I don’t have the answers. I can’t tell you why people suffer horribly. I can’t tell you why some people suffer horribly and yet retain an almost mystical trust in God.

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
I will surely defend my ways to his face. –Job 13:15

Most of us aren’t Job. But what choice do we have? If we give up and abandon our faith in the face of our sins and as the storm clouds approach, how are we better off? But how can God give us serenity in the midst of the storm? Paul knew:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:11-13

Most of us aren’t Paul. But what choice do we have? The answer is there somewhere, beyond the simplistic platitudes of “you just need to have more faith”. Somehow it’s possible. Somehow, it’s even practical to be able to trust God to the degree that it defies all reasonable expectations. God won’t send away the storm. We must learn how to rely on Him strongly enough to be able to endure the wind and the rain and the chaos.

Somehow.

Devarim: One Man’s Story

MosesThis week’s Torah reading begins: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people.” Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”

Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff
Chabad.org

For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

Author and New Testament Scholar
Bart D. Ehrman in his book
Jesus, Interrupted

Today’s “extra” meditation and my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Devarim.

Occasionally people ask why most of the book of Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, “Devarim”) even exists. It seems to do little more than repeat and summarize the events in the first four books of the Torah. The answer can be a little disturbing to some Christians and even to some Jews. Our understanding is that the first four books of the Bible were the words of God as dictated to Moses and Deuteronomy is in Moses’ own words.

Does that mean Deuteronomy is completely human in origin and without the influence of God? Let’s return to Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

This does not…mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”

Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.

For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”

The origin of the Bible and exactly how it was written and codified is complex and more than a little mysterious. The simple belief among many Christians is that each author wrote under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and what they wrote originally is exactly what we have in our Bibles today (translated into the language we prefer to read). I included the quote from Bart Ehrman’s book to illustrate that even among modern Bible scholars, there is some doubt as to whether or not we can read the Bible as if it were a history book, newspaper, and court reporter’s record all rolled into one. In fact, we can’t.

The Bible is as much a human document as a document of the Divine. It’s a series of “stories” that illustrate something about God and His interactions with humanity. That it contains internal inconsistencies and historic flaws in no way disqualifies its moral and mystic significance among the community of faith. The stories tell us what we need to know, not as a history lesson, but as a guide to righteous living and as a doorway into domains that leave our mortal plane and allow us to glimpse the Throne of God.

In referring to Midrash Tehillim to 90:4; Bereishis Rabbah 8:2, we see that the Sages believe that “The Torah preceded the world” and when we read John 1:1, we see that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From this, we understand that only part of the Bible’s function is to act as a record and a document. Beyond the scroll in the Ark or the book on our hand, it exists in transition between our world and the next.

Rabbi Touger continues:

Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity (see Tanya, ch. 4).

The Amazon.com product description for Ehrman’s book states that “the New Testament is riddled with contradictory views about who Jesus was and the significance of his life”, yet from a mystic point of view, this doesn’t present a problem.

The Ba'al Shem TovWhen I was reading The Hasidic Tale by Gedaliah Nigal, I wrote several commentaries about what I gained from the text including The Messianic Tale and Stories are Miracles. From these, we see that the stories of the Chasidim are less a series of historical facts and more a collection of mystic and allegorical tales designed to reveal something about ourselves, about holiness, and about God. How much of each story is factually accurate isn’t particularly relevant, because one does not approach the tales of the Chasidim that way. What we are looking for is something that will peel away the covers from the world of the supernatural and give us a peek at what lies around the next bend on our path of faith.

We can apply that commentary back to the Bible thus.

Jorge Quinonez, in his book “Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader” Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34 (quoted in Love and the Messianic Age) describes Levertoff, a Chasidic Jew and devoted disciple of Jesus, this way:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

This perhaps, is what scholars like Bart Ehrman miss when they study and criticize the Bible for not reading like a story posted at CNN. Divinity and humanity collide, meld, mesh, and blend within the pages of the Bible and we are not always meant to be able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…or if that division is even possible.

Rabbi Touger states:

But why is the Book of Deuteronomy necessary? Enclothing the Torah in human intellect seemingly does nothing but lower its spiritual content. What purpose is served?

Nevertheless, this is G-d’s intent in giving the Torah: that it permeate mortal thought and thus elevate man’s understanding. Whenever a person studies Torah, regardless of his spiritual level, he is making its infinite truth part of his personal nature.

Were there to have been only four books in the Torah, it would have been impossible for our powers of understanding to unite completely with the Torah. It was only by having the Book of Deuteronomy pass through Moshe’s intellect that this goal accomplished. Moreover, Moshe’s review of the Torah in he Book of Deuteronomy gives us the capacity to understand the previous four books in a similar fashion.

Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.

TranscendentWho we are and who God is in us requires that we leave behind some of our attachment to what we call “reality” and allow ourselves to stand transcendent at the uncomfortable and mystic threshold between Heaven and Earth. We don’t have to rely on the Bible to be a book of facts but rather a book of truth.

Consider this:

These are the words which Moses spoke to the children of Israel, across the Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiroth, and Di-Zahav –Devarim 1:1

All these “places” are allusions to sins committed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as not to embarrass them.

-Rashi’s commentary

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch once delivered a scathing critique of a certain type of outlook and behavior. Later, one of those present complained to him: “Rebbe, why did you rebuke me in public? Could you not have privately made me aware of my negative traits, without embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Did I mean you? Obviously, I did. You see, I am a hat-maker. The hat-maker fashions a hat and places it in his window. People come in and try it on, until someone finds that it suits his head perfectly. Whom did he have in mind when he made this hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that it fits him!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary of Torah Portion Devarim
“The Discreet Hatter”
Chabad.org

The Bible serves many purposes in our lives, not the least of which is to reveal the nature of who we are, for good or for ill. It is a book that condemns but also encourages. It shows us the goodness of God and where we fall short of that goodness (Romans 3:10). Let the Bible be what God intended it to be and let God be who He is. Listen to the words of Moses and his “Chasidic” tale of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, of his own journey with God, of the approach to the end of his life, and in listening to him, learn something about yourself.

Good Shabbos.

The Side of Merit

Judge NotJudge every man to the side of merit.

Ethics of our Fathers 1:6

On the most elementary level, this means that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see him commit a negative act, do not judge him guilty in your heart. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior.

However, this only explains why you should not judge your fellow guilty. Yet our Mishnah goes further than this, enjoining us to “judge every man to the side of merit.” This implies that we should see our fellow’s deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person’s shortcomings and misdeeds?

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers
“Double Standard”
Tammuz 18, 5771 * July 20, 2011
Chabad.org

The character traits of strength and firmness evoke mixed responses. On one hand, everyone admires personal fortitude, and respects an individual who has the courage to persevere in his convictions despite challenges. And yet a strong person can also be thought of as rigid and insensitive, clinging stubbornly to his own views without bending in consideration of others. Counseling against this tendency, our Sages commented, (Taanis 20a) “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.”

Commentary on Torah Portion Matot
“True Strength”
-Rabbi Eli Touger

The world of religion is terribly judgmental. To be fair, this is a human trait and not just one seen among people of faith. While secular people tend to blame religion for all the world’s ills (war, racism, poverty, and so forth) is it rather our human nature and our tendency toward selfishness and evil that lets us corrupt the values of God into something that harms people.

In Christianity we are taught, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1 [KJV]), but that certainly hasn’t stopped many in the church from judging others, both within the congregation and in the non-believing world. Is this any way to show the world the love of Jesus Christ?

Despite what I’ve quoted above, Judaism is also populated by human beings and thus, Jewish people aren’t perfect. They have a capacity equal to any Christian to judge others and to assign unfair blame and ridicule. Asher at the Lev Echad blog is on something of a mission to try and turn the hearts of Jews toward each other and to heal the differences between them. Recently, he published a plea asking Jews to not judge each other for their differences in religious practices and lifestyle but rather to guide “others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality”.

Asher’s words can easily be applied to the rest of us, both in their practicality and in their need.

Returning to the example of the Ethics of Our Fathers from which I quoted above, we see in the commentary that we must not only treat our fellows fairly and as we want to be treated, but we should extend ourselves to give others the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time, looking at our own deeds without compromise:

So judge every man to the side of merit—every man, that is, except yourself. For the attitude detailed above, while appropriate to adopt towards other human beings, would be nothing less than disastrous if applied to oneself.

“True, I have done nothing with my life,” the potential-looking individual will argue. “But look at what I am capable of! Look at the quality of my mind, the sensitivity of my feelings, the tremendous talents I possess. It’s all there within me, regardless of the fact that I have never bothered to realize any of it. This is the real me. The extent to which I actualize it is only of secondary importance.”

In our judgement of human life and achievement, we must adapt a double standard. Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within. On the other hand, we must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.

FriendsChristianity has parallel teachings to these Talmudic gems:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. –Matthew 7:3-5

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22

At the core of all these lessons is the Torah itself and the Master’s commentary on the “Torah” that both Jews and Christians can embrace:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:28-31

I specifically say this is a “Torah”, because Jesus is quoting from both Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, so the heart of Christianity was born in Judaism and if we are wise, we will not separate the branches from the vine (see John 15:5 and Romans 11:11-24).

Rabbi Touger’s commentary on Matos describes two symbols of leadership over the twelve tribes of Israel. The authority of a tribal head is symbolized by both a staff and a rod. They sound the same but are wholly different from one another:

What is the difference between these two terms? A rod is supple, able to be bent, while a staff is firm and unyielding. For a rod is freshly cut or still connected to the tree from which it grew and is therefore pliant. A staff, by contrast, has been detached from its tree long ago, and over time has become dry, hard, and firm.

Both terms serve as analogies for different levels in the expression of our souls’ potential. (See Sefer Maamarei Admur HaZakein 5562, Vol. I, p. 237ff.) The term “rod” refers to the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms, where its connection to G-dliness is palpably appreciated. It shares an active bond with the lifegiving, spiritual nurture it receives. “Staff,” by contrast, refers to the soul as it exists in our material world, enclothed in a physical body. On the conscious level, it has been severed from its spiritual source, and its connection to G-dliness is no longer felt.

In this setting, there is the possibility for both the positive and the negative types of strength and hardness. There is a tendency towards spiritual insensitivity, a brittle lack of responsiveness to the G-dliness invested within creation.

Tree of LifeTying this back to the analysis of Pirkei Avot 1:6, we see that we should be a “rod” when dealing with others but a “staff” when judging ourselves.

A rod and a staff have a common source and the difference is how long each one has been separated from the tree. It is said that the Torah is a “tree of life for those who hold fast to her” (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:7). Given the Torah source of both Jewish and Christian commentaries on compassion toward others, not the least of which is the teaching of the Master, how can we not take hold of that tree and cling fast to her in our relationships with others and with God?

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.” –Makot, 3:16

Awaiting Dawn

Waiting for DawnPeople ask, “But how could you see so much good in the future when so much evil predominates now —-and it grows day by day?”

But such is the order of things: Darkness was only placed in the world to challenge light. As the light intensifies, the darkness thickens to defy it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Defiant Darkness”
Chabad.org

Kletzky’s parents marked the end of their seven-day grieving period Wednesday morning with a religious tradition of walking outside their Brooklyn home. Nachman and Esty Kletzky, surrounded by relatives, walked around their block at 15th Ave. in Borough Park at about 6 a.m. “It’s a sign that your escorting the soul to its resting place,” said Jack Meyer, of Misaskim, an organization that provides services to grieving families.

Story from NYDailyNews.com

“In the midst of cruelty and horror, human beings can respond in such a warm and caring way it restores our faith in the world and mankind. That is the atmosphere I feel here right now,” said Rabbi Alvin Kass, describing public support for the Kletzy family.

Story from CBS New York News

This is the third “morning mediation” that has been prompted by the death of 8-year old Leiby Kletzky. Perhaps I’ve got this matter too much on my mind, but when something so horrible happens in the world, we should not disregard it after it has been discussed for only a week or so. Certainly Leiby’s parents will not be free of their mourning in so short a time, if at all. Yet the questions I pose here must also be at the forefront of their thoughts and feelings, only with far greater intensity and sharpness. I continue to search for answers within their own context and from the Rebbe, who knew their Brooklyn community and every soul in it so well.

They say the most profound darkness comes just before the dawn. The harshest oppression of our forefathers in Egypt came just before their liberation.

That was a coarse darkness of slavery of the body. Today it is a darkness of the soul, a deep slumber of the spirit of Man. There are sparks of light, glimmerings of a sun that never shone before —-but the darkness of night overwhelms all.

Prepare for dawn.

I woke up much earlier than I expected to this morning. It was still dark outside with no hint of dawn on the horizon. When you are the only one awake in your household, it can feel especially empty, no matter how many people are asleep in their beds. The first subtle bands of light in the east may be only minutes away, but they might as well be on the other side of midnight. Yet we wait for the light, not just out of expectation, but with enduring faith.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. –Isaiah 60:1-3

Tree of LifeThe Jewish people today exist in an unbroken line between the present and the ancient days when the words of the Prophet Isaiah were first spoken, so it is no surprise that in their darkest hours, they would turn to the light. Through Jesus Christ, the rest of the world can become attached; grafted in to these words and promises and become sharers of the light and indeed, disciples of the light of the world, who we all long to see come.

After 33 centuries, all that’s needed has been done. The table is set, the feast of Moshiach is being served with the Ancient Wine, the Leviathan and the Wild Ox —-and we are sitting at it. All that’s left is to open our eyes and see.

[Adapter’s Note: These words I write, but I do not understand. But then, if I understood them, I suppose I would not need to be told to open my eyes.] -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 8:11

Rabbi Freeman quotes from a letter written by the Rebbe:

Before I had even started school, a picture of liberation was already forming in my mind.
Such a liberation, and in such a way, that it would truly make sense of all the suffering, all the oppression and persecution we have undergone.

It is not that there will be no more darkness, no more suffering, that those things shall cease to exist.
It will be such an essence-light that darkness itself will become light
—even the darkness and suffering of the past.

While the Rebbe wouldn’t have considered the following, we who are the disciples of the Master cannot help but recall these words of prophecy and hope as we continue to wait for him to come:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. –Revelation 21:3-4

In the midst of pain, all we can do is cry and call out, “Abba! Father!”, endure the suffering, and look forward to the days when there indeed will be no more tears, pain, and death. When sorrow will be abolished from the earth and the King will reign in justice, mercy, and bringing joy and peace to the subjects of the Kingdom. May the Moshiach come soon and in our days. Amen.

“They (Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky) have had thousands of people who came to show them moral support,” he said. “Now the trying time starts. They’re all alone. … Now they’ve got to cope with it on their own.” -Jack Meyer of Misaskim

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever. –Micah 4:4-5

Brilliant Light

BrillianceDescribing the joy of the Rebbe is something like describing the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to a prairie dweller. We think of happiness as all the outer trappings of smiley faces and the “having-a-good-time” look. But what we saw on the Rebbe was an inner joy – the sort you feel when a sudden, brilliant light bulb flashes inside – except continual and constant. Not a joy that dissipates and burns itself out, but a tightly contained joy of endless optimism, power and life, waiting the special moment when it would burst forth like an unexpected tsunami, sweeping up every soul in its path.

The Rebbe once confided that he himself was by nature a somber and introspective person. With hard work, he said, he was able to affect his spirit to be full of joy.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Last March I wrote about Failing Joy 101, mainly because I don’t go around all smiley and happy all the time. I have my moods. I can be “down”. People who are perpetually perky and “up” kind of annoy me. But that’s not what joy is all about.

Yesterday’s “morning meditation” was in part, about the murder of 8-year old Leiby Kletzky and how his death affected his parents, his Borough Park (Brooklyn) community, and ultimately, everyone with a conscience. I lamented at one point that it will be a long time or never, before Leiby’s parents, an Orthodox Jewish couple, will ever experience joy again. After all, how can they?

The words I quoted from Rabbi Freeman’s book at the beginning of this blog post are from a chapter called “From Despair to Joy”. It’s easy, under the circumstances, to imagine the despair being experienced by Nachman and Itta Kletzky, but how can any reasonable and compassionate person expect them to go from “despair to joy”? Certainly it won’t happen very quickly and only a cad would suggest that people who are in severe emotional and spiritual pain should just “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “get on with life”.

But what can you do when soul-numbing grief steals your last crumb of joy and all you’re left with is a life in the emotional shadows of depression and loss?

Depression is not a crime. But it plummets a person into an abyss deeper than any crime could reach. -The Rebbe

If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

The Rebbe could easily have been talking about little Leiby’s murder and Nietzsche could have well been describing the consequences of the crime, or at least, the consequences if we allow ourselves to stare too long into that deep, dark place. The Rebbe “responded” to Nietzsche thus:

Fight depression as a blood sworn enemy. Run from it as you would run from death itself.

I don’t think the Kletzkys can run from death just yet. Death is what surrounds them as they sit shiva for their son. And yet, they can’t sit there forever staring into the darkness, and neither can we, unless we want to be consumed.

The Rebbe anticipated our question, “how can I be happy if I am not?” and suggests an answer:

True, you can’t control the way you feel, but you do have control over your conscious thought, speech, and actions. Do something simple: Think good thoughts, speak good things, behave the way a joyful person behaves – even if you don’t fully feel it inside. Eventually, the inner joy of the soul will break through.

Sounds a lot like some of the things the Apostle Paul taught:

…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. –2 Corinthians 10:5

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:8-9

Paul suggested thinking of wholesome things and putting them into practice and the Rebbe asks that we start with our thoughts, if necessarily, set our feelings to one side temporarily, and then behave as if we are experiencing joy. The antidote of both Paul and the Rebbe to despair is to do joy.

To be healthy, a person needs to be affecting his surroundings, uplifting those about him and bringing more light.

InfiniteI’ve heard this teaching of the Rebbe more than once. Even when everything has been taken from us and we feel completely empty inside, unable to fill the void in our very being, we still have something we can offer someone else. In bringing another person light, we may discover some of that light is being nurtured within us, dispelling the darkness of the abyss.

The Rebbe tells us that God created the natural state of human beings to be one of joy. That is hardly apparent as we look around us, watch the news, drive through traffic, and otherwise co-mingle with other people, but as his proof, he says, “look at children and you will see”. He also offers us this:

People imagine a place of G-dliness as serious, awesome and intrepidating. That fact is, where G-d is, there is joy. -The Rebbe

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore. –Psalm 133 (A song of ascents)

There are times when we feel very small, and afraid, and alone, even in the midst of our loved ones. You’ve probably felt this way in the middle of the night, when it’s quiet and dark and when everyone else is asleep, but your private pain and anguish will not give you up to rest. You may feel tormented by a world far larger than you are and you feel yourself shrinking into the night, into the abyss, and you fear in your tininess, that you will be swallowed alive and disappear altogether.

But even at that moment, when you feel as if you are about to vanish from God’s universe, there is something you own that no one can ever take away from you. It will anchor you and safeguard you. Here’s the secret:

A person is happy when he knows something worthwhile belongs to him. A person is very happy when he feels he is small and yet he owns something very great.

We are all finite owners of the Infinite.

We could argue with the Rebbe that we belong to the Infinite and not the other way around, but that’s the secret. He also belongs to us and as long as He does, we can never disappear. It’s not just that we are small and He is large. If God were only big, He would have limits, He could be eclipsed by something even bigger, God could be measured, God could be quantified. God wouldn’t be God.

But God is not big, He is Infinite. He has no limits. He cannot be measured. He does the eclipsing. In fact, being Infinite means God is not like anything or anyone we have experienced or can experience. That’s the secret. That’s the miracle. In our tininess, in our smallness, in our minuscule existence, we own something more than worthwhile, something very great, something Infinite! And belonging to Him and having Him belong to us, we can never truly be lost. Our breadcrumbs can never be consumed. We always know the way home, even in the darkest night.

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” –John 10:25-30