Tag Archives: creation

Reflections on Romans 8

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

Romans 7:21-25 (NASB)

If you’ll recall from my previous Reflections on Romans 7, I said that Paul didn’t write his epistle with chapters and verses in mind, so at the end of chapter 7, he was still probably in the middle of a thought. Let’s continue with that thought.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:1-8

Paul, like the rest of us, is a man caught between his inclinations of the flesh and the righteousness of God. He doesn’t do what he wants to do which is the right thing, but finds himself doing what he doesn’t want to do, which is disobeying God. What can save him but only the blood sacrifice of Messiah, the Righteous Tzaddik whose death atoned for the sins of many; who inaugurates the New Covenant which is a time when the righteous Word of God will be written on hearts and all sins will be forgiven.

So Paul I think is justified (no pun intended) when he says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” not that we should continue sinning due to “hyper-grace” (see my forthcoming review of Rabbi Joshua Brumbach’s book Jude: Faith and the Destructive Influence of Heresy for more on this topic), but that in striving and often failing to meet God’s expectation, in contrite repentance, we are forgiven.

Paul continues to compare and contrast the “law of the Spirit of life” and the “law of sin and death”, but this time he says that the former has set us free from the latter, not that our human natures are changed yet, but they will be, and we can choose to live as if our hearts are changed now and as if the “law of the Spirit of life” is fully and permanently written on our hearts.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh…

Romans 8:3

On one of Pete Rambo’s blog posts, I commented that the Torah is a delight but that even though God fully expected the Israelites to always observe the mitzvot, it was also a burden because of human frailty and weakness. My sometimes “sparring partner” Zion criticized my opinion, but frankly, I believe there would be no need for a New Covenant if human beings could naturally obey God and never sin.

Here, in the above quoted verse from Romans 8, we see what I think is a clear reference to this process, God doing what people can’t do…making it possible (or creating a process in which it is slowly becoming possible) for people, specifically Israelites and their descendants, the modern-day Jewish people, to fully observe the mitzvot and obey the commandments through the New Covenant promises and that covenant’s mediator, the Messiah, the Christ.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh…

Romans 8:3

The Torah could outline all of God’s requirements for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel, but in and of itself, Torah cannot enable broken, imperfect human beings to attain God’s righteous perfection. That’s why a New Covenant is necessary, not to replace the requirements of the Torah so that the Israelites would have a much easier or watered down set of standards, but to “fix” people, so that their/our hearts and spirits would become (are becoming) so different that they would be enabled to naturally obey the statues of God, “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

walking_discipleSo for human beings who are walking in the flesh and attempting to observe the Torah, that observance is going to be imperfect. However, those walking in the (New Covenant) Spirit will be able to perfectly obey God and not sin, at least after the resurrection when the New Covenant is fully enacted and people really do have new hearts and spirits.

…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:7-8

People have a choice to make now where before, apparently, they (we) didn’t, or at least that choice was much more difficult. In Messiah through the Spirit, they (we) can choose to walk by that Spirit in obedience (to those Laws that apply to us depending on whether we are Jewish or Gentile disciples of the Master), or we can continue to set our minds on the flesh and continue to be hostile toward God in our natures, even as another part of us seeks to obey Him. We must, according to Paul, subject ourselves to the law of God, though those people who are still in the flesh, that is, their human natures, are unable to do so.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…

1 John 2:1

Paul goes on to assure his readers that they are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, that is, if the Spirit dwells in them at all. If it does, it is an indication that the New Covenant age has begun which allows Jews and Gentiles to receive the Spirit (Acts 2; Acts 10) impartially and with equal access. Spiritual man can override natural man, not that we don’t still have our human natures, but we can choose to overcome those natures by the Spirit’s power.

But we have to choose…it’s not automatic, and the battle goes on daily.

He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:11

Paul is continuing to present the New Covenant promises with this clear reference to the resurrection. So just as God raised Jesus (Yeshua) from the dead, so too will He raise us through the Holy Spirit.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Romans 8:14-17 

Those who receive the Spirit, which must be both Jews and Gentiles, are adopted as sons of God and entitled to cry out to Him “Abba! Father!” If we live the life of the Master, if we are obedient and are willing to suffer for his sake and not pursue the flesh for our own, then we prove that we are indeed sons and daughters of the Almighty through the Spirit and “fellow heirs” of God’s blessings of the resurrection and a life in the Kingdom with Messiah. If we suffer, we will also be glorified.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Romans 8:18-22

broken worldAnd yet, we aren’t the only ones suffering. Remember in Romans 5, Paul compared and contrasted Adam and Yeshua, the first man who brought sin into the world, and Messiah the redeemer who takes it away. But the fall of humanity through Adam didn’t just affect the nature and character of all subsequent human beings, but somehow, it altered the nature of all Creation. Creation itself “groans” in its present, imperfect state. The world is broken and is constantly in need of repair.

If Creation is “anxiously longing” and “waiting eagerly for the revealing of the Sons of God” and we believers, Jews and Gentiles alike, are the sons and daughters of God, what must we do to “reveal” ourselves and how does this help Creation?

This is only my opinion of course, but I think that we are expected to observe the principle of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. I heard a Jewish person once refer to Messiah as “the great fixer” because that’s what he’s supposed to do: fix everything broken about the world.

According to some opinions, “making the world a better place…brings us closer to the Messianic Age.” According to Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, the Jewish people will be redeemed when every Jew observes Shabbat (the Sabbath) twice in all its details (Kaplan, Aryeh. Chapter 2, “Sabbath Rest”, Sabbath: Day of Eternity, 1974). Shabbat 118b suggests that performing acts of tikkun olam will hasten the coming of Messiah and the emergence of the Messianic Age.

So, at least in my way of seeing things, the “Sons of God” reveal themselves to a waiting Creation by acts of repairing the damage to Creation.

But all that isn’t going to be easy:

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Romans 8:22

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

Matthew 24:6-8

If we’re supposed to help repair the world by pushing against human nature and sin, human nature and sin are going to push back. We, along with the world around us, will continue to suffer, even as we fight to establish the Kingdom, until Messiah’s return when he comes to finish the work that he started (and that we’ve been continuing) and brings the completion of the New Covenant with him by perfecting the world and by perfecting us through the resurrection.

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

Romans 8:23-25

We have the first fruits of the Spirit, the down-payment, so to speak, of what is yet to come (Ephesians 1:14-16; 2 Corinthians 1:22). Like Creation, we must suffer, but we must also patiently wait. For as Creation waits for us, we wait longingly for the return of the King.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.

Romans 8:28-30

This is one of those passages that some Christians say “proves” that Calvinism is correct and that God only chooses certain people to be saved. I’ve written more on this topic than I care to think about sometimes, including a four-part series called Taking the Fork in the Road (with apologies to Yogi Berra), but rest assured that God’s Sovereignty is not threatened in the least by allowing us free will to choose Him or to reject Him. That He has foreknowledge doesn’t affect what we choose to do down here “on the ground,” so to speak.

After all, it’s not the first time God set the choice between blessings and curses, between life and death in front of people:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.

Genesis 4:7

love-in-lightsWe have the same choice set before us as did the Israelites, life or death, in our case by accepting or rejecting the New Covenant and its mediator Jesus Christ.

The rest of the chapter is an encouragement from Paul to his readers that given everything he’s just said, we have a great promise and a tremendous assurance that in choosing our Master and obedience, we cannot be ultimately condemned. If God was willing to turn His own Son over to suffering and death so as to elevate him to His right hand, He will also not fail us in our suffering but will graciously give us all things and fulfill His covenant promises.

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

Human anguish and suffering in a broken and bleeding world juxtaposed against our conquest of that world through God and His love from which we cannot be separated by any imaginable entity or force. This is what we are longing for as adopted children who are being continually brought into His Presence through the blessings of the New Covenant promises as we enter the world that is here and still yet to come.

A Sense of Balance Between Justice and Mercy

lady-justiceThere is a basic principle found in the writings of the Rambam (Hilchos Daos) and other classic Torah sources: “Act the way you wish to be and you will become that way.”

We are influenced by our actions. Take, for example, someone who wants to become a kinder person. By doing many acts of kindness over time, the person actually becomes an authentically kinder person.

Each day write down at least ten positive actions that you did. Write down kind words and acts, blessings that you said mindfully, and positive things that you did even though they were hard to do. Write down when you felt grateful, and when you refrained from saying something that would cause another person distress. Write down an encouraging telephone call that you made.

What will happen when you are resolved to write down ten positive actions each day? You will go out of your way to do them. This will have a cumulative effect on your self-image.

Daily Lift #992
“Act The Way You Wish To Be”
Aish.com

Where have we gone wrong? Why is the world of religion a world of struggle between religions? Why is the world of religion a struggle between the religious and the secular, between the righteous and the unrighteous, between those who are “in” and those who are “out,” however we choose to define those terms?

This “daily lift,” is a quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Build Your Self-Image and the Self-Image of Others (Artscroll, Chapter 11)  and says that in order to become the person we want to be, we should start behaving like that person.

We often wait to change our behavior until something internal changes, but the exact opposite is being suggested here. I’ve heard it said that we are what we think, but Rabbi Pliskin is saying that we are what we do, even if it isn’t necessarily what we also think (or feel).

If you want to be a kinder person, perform more acts of kindness. If you want to be more loving, show more acts of love. If you want to acquire any quality, behave as if you already possess that quality. Make lists of things you can do. Ponder them. Imagine yourself doing such things. Then do them. As Gandhi is supposed to have said, be the change you want to see in the world.

What is unsaid but should be obvious, is that we already are what we do. If we act with kindness, then we are a kind person. If we treat others poorly and with disdain, then we are a disdaining person. Look at anyone around you. Watch what they do particularly when they don’t think anyone is looking (everyone can “fake it” for an audience, at least for a while).

Look in the mirror. Watch yourself. Be your mirror in your mind as you go through your day, as you drive to work, as you talk to different people, as you react to a homeless person asking for money, as you talk to your spouse. How do you behave? How do you treat others? How do you speak to them? What are you thinking about them? What do you tell yourself about them? What do you tell others about them, especially in private?

That is who you are.

Who am I?

Not a perfect person, certainly. I have faults. I see them in my mirror. I strive to be more. I want to be the person God sees in me, the person He created me to be. I wonder if I’ll ever get there?

No-MercyI desire mercy because I really need it. I desire justice in our world, but I want God to temper justice with mercy. That’s because justice without mercy is merciless. Justice without mercy may still be just, but it is also cruel and as we’ve seen in a million images, it is also blind. People who are overly zealous for justice at the cost of mercy believe the ends justify the means, no matter what those means may be.

I don’t want to be merciless, cruel, or blind, but sometimes, when I show mercy, I’m accused of abandoning justice. That’s not true, at least I think it’s not true. Mercy without justice carries its own problems. Mercy without justice is permissive, lawless, amorphous, undefined, and ultimately Godless. Mercy without justice allows every type of behavior, no matter how lawless, and calls it all good. It is also blind, but to any and all faults and even to sins. Mercy without justice may sound good, and there are even some religious groups that worship mercy, permissiveness, inclusion, and progressiveness, even before God, while leaving justice in the gutter.

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:1-4 (NASB)

You cannot follow God unless you pursue mercy and justice together.

It is said that when God created the world, he used both the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy. However, it is also said that He biased His creation with just slightly more mercy than justice.

If there was more justice and little mercy, the world would not survive. If there was more mercy and little justice, the world would be lawless and chaotic. If justice and mercy were equal, we would have no model to teach us how to make room in our own hearts so that even in being just, we could still show mercy to others, just as our just God shows us mercy that we don’t deserve.

But just the smallest amount of mercy must outweigh God’s vast justice for people to have law and an order of things, but to still be allowed to make mistakes and yet survive.

Justice is required to confront evil when it is popular among men to call evil things “good.” Mercy is required to allow people to make mistakes and yet to recover from God’s judgment as well as from human judgment (which is often less merciful than God’s).

We all make mistakes.

micah6-8Look at yourself in the mirror. Who are you? Are you more just than merciful? Are you more merciful than just? How are these two qualities balanced within you? Heaven help you if you are just one or the other. I’ve met both sorts of people. They can be very self-righteous and very scary.

If it is true about how God created the world, with generally a balance between justice and mercy, but with mercy edging out justice by just a tiny bit, then how should these qualities be distributed in us?

Do not take revenge nor bear grudge among your people, and you should love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.

Leviticus 19:18

This verse may well be the Torah’s most difficult demand. The Talmud gives an example of revenge: someone refuses to give you a loan; then, when he or she asks you for one, you say, “I will not lend you money because you turned me down when I was in need.” Bearing a grudge comes when you do give the person the loan, but say, “I want you to see that I am more decent than you. I am willing to lend you the money, even though you did not give me that consideration.” The Torah forbids both reactions; we must loan in silence.

R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato says that revenge is one of the sweetest sensations a person can have, and that the Torah’s demand that we suppress this impulse is asking us to virtually be akin to angels (Path of the Just, Chap. 11). Still, the fact that we are required to do so tells us that this level of control is within our grasp. The key to this is contained in the end of the verse cited above.

The Torah wishes us to consider the other person as we would ourselves. For example, if a person stubbed his toe and felt a sharp pain, he would hardly hit his foot as punishment for having hurt him. Just as we would neither take revenge nor bear a grudge on a part of our own body, we should not do so toward another person.

Today I shall…

…try to think of other people as extensions of myself, and avoid responding with hostility when I am offended.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 30”
Aish.com

Rabbi Pliskin says that we should behave as we want to be. Rabbi Twerski says we should treat others as an extension of ourselves. Even the Master quoted Leviticus 19:18 as did Rabbi Twerski, when rendering the two greatest mitzvot (Matthew 22:37-40).

We hang in the balance between justice and mercy, between loving God and loving our neighbor. If we swing too far over to either side, we are no longer balanced. We just fall.

For more on balance including the terrible consequences of a life out of balance, please read Rabbi Yanki Tauber’s short article The Jealous Neighbor.

Consider the Days of Old

New WorldOn the verse, “Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7),” the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward.” Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Evolution and the Bible”
Aish.com

I know I’m going to get “heck” for this, at least from conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Evolution and Creation are supposed to be incompatible in both religion and science, but the Aish Rabbi crafts a response to the question of Evolution that allows for both.

Up to a point.

I just finished re-reading Gerald L. Schroeder’s book Genesis and the Big Bang (and just started reading his more recent book The Hidden Face of God ) and Schroeder seems to believe something similar (also, see my previous blog post For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be for more).

One of the problems comes along with trying to reconcile the six days of Creation in the Bible with the 13.7 or so billion years science says the universe has been around. According to present scientific theory, the Earth has been in existence for about 4.5 billion years.

How do six days fit into billions of years and vice versa?

Schroeder suggests a rather complicated interplay involving time dilation and relativity to explain that, from the Earth’s point of view, billions of years passed, but from God’s perspective, it was only six days. Schroeder spent an entire chapter laying the foundation for his belief and I can’t find any way to compress it into a paragraph or two in this blog post and still have it make sense. Suffice it to say that both science and the Bible are right as Schroeder sees it.

But what about life and evolution? According to the Bible, God created all living things as they are known today, including human beings, in just a few days. There were no previous and less developed forms of life, that became more complicated over time as they adapted to environmental changes, resulting in the creatures we have on our planet right now.

The Aish Rabbi refers to the Talmud which states that “there were 974 generations prior to Adam” and that those generations describe the lives of those beings we refer to as “prehistoric man.” Presumably, during that time, other creatures were also created, existed, and faced extinction.

It all makes a sort of sense, but I’m still struggling with seeing Genesis as being able to wholly map to the observations and interpretations we have about our universe based on astronomy, geology, and paleontology.

ancient_skyI admit, that whether you believe the Earth is ten thousand years old or 4.5 billion years old, devotion to God and love and charity to human beings shouldn’t be impacted to any degree in the life of a Christian or observant Jew. Still, it’s a compelling issue because the extreme literal stance on Creation taken by conservative Christians is one of the barriers to evangelizing more educated secular atheists. Educated unbelievers can’t be past the “Christians are ignorant buffoons” factor and I myself feel embarrassed when I hear a Christian trying to convince someone that Earth is a mere ten thousand years of age.

Christians aren’t likely to take the Talmud as an authority but it’s telling that “the famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah” was written in 1842, prior to the publication of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” Darwin, like the stream of Judaism the Aish Rabbi represents, believes in some sort of evolutionary process but that it was not random. God was always the causal agent, the Master Designer.

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.”

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: “…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down…”

The jury is still out regarding the sequencing of how life developed, over what time period, and the mechanics God employed. I believe God made human beings independently and as we are now without prior evolutionary forms, but what about animal life, which was never intended to have the unique position of man?

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology’s record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his “Origin of the Species,” repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

The Aish Rabbi’s opinion is certainly controversial when considered from a fundamentalist Christian position and likely when seen from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint (my wife says the local Chabad Rabbi believes the Earth is roughly 12,000 years old).

world-of-extinct-mammals

I’m writing all this, not to yank anyone’s chain (though I’m sure it will) but to explore my own thought processes on this matter. I didn’t become a believer until I was past forty years old, so all of my educational foundation is based on Earth being very old and that the basic process of scientific examination of our environment is sound and designed to produce more or less reasonable results (although history has shown that those results aren’t always correct upon subsequent examination).

Religion, for its part, has had to make up some rather fanciful stories to explain the fossil record, to explain our understanding of the size and therefore the age of the universe, to explain our understanding of the age of various geological formations on our own planet, and to explain a myriad of other findings from the world of science that seems to radically contradict an absolute literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account.

I really enjoy reading about the sciences, though I’m quite the amateur. I enjoy astronomy. I like hearing about the latest “adventures” of the various robotic probes on the surface of Mars. I have an interest in reading about the journey of Voyager 1 at the edge of interstellar space. I think God created us with an insatiable curiosity about the universe around us and a drive to explore it with the intelligence he created in us.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NASB)

It is said that there was no death before the Fall (which happens in Genesis 3) so how could there have been life on a long-term scale before Adam and Eve? How could life in some form or another have existed for hundreds of millions of years before Adam and there not be death?

When God describes the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how did Adam know what “die” meant? How could the serpent convince Eve she wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:1-5) from eating the fruit if dying was unknown to her? Why would she fear death and why would she have to overcome that fear in order to eat?

Reading the various consequences God visited upon Adam, Eve, and the rest of Creation as listed in Genesis 3, none of them say that all life was immortal before the Fall and suddenly became mortal afterward.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

Genesis 3:22 (NASB)

Gateway to EdenIt seems as if the two humans in the Garden were mortal (along with all other forms of life) and only by taking and eating from the tree of life would they become immortal! The presence of death wasn’t dependent upon the Fall. All life in the Garden was mortal.

Why couldn’t any life that may have existed as created within the span (as the Aish Rabbi suggests) described in Genesis 1:20-26 (the millions and millions of years prior to the creation of modern human beings) have been born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died?

Yeah, I expect to get some static over this blog post, but I’m writing it to explore my own thinking process in this area and also to (hopefully) inspire others to think as well. We need to take a look at the evidence presented by our environment, take a look at the Bible, take a look at our dogma, and struggle with what all that is supposed to mean.

I believe God created us to think, to explore, and to struggle with the meaning of everything we see. I think He wanted us to wonder and to experience wonder. I don’t think He wanted the Bible to be some sort of cosmic solution machine spitting out all the answers to all the questions in bite-sized chunks, like eating from a bowl of Christian-Jewish fortune cookies.

We don’t have to get all the answers from the Bible. God gave us other tools to use as well. Telescopes, microscopes, and the Large Hadron Collider aren’t the enemies of the Bible. They complement it. They are the lens through which we examine the world which reveals God, just as the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and human beings.

For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be

roll-the-dicePhysics cannot describe what happens inside a black hole. There, current theories break down, and general relativity collides with quantum mechanics, creating what’s called a singularity, or a point at which the equations spit out infinities.

But some advanced physics theories are trying to bridge the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics, to understand what’s truly going on inside the densest objects in the universe. Recently, scientists applied a theory called loop quantum gravity to the case of black holes, and found that inside these objects, space and time may be extremely curved, but that gravity there is not infinite, as general relativity predicts.

-by Clara Moskowitz
Space.com Assistant Managing Editor
“Space-Time Loops May Explain Black Holes”
Space.com

Clara had me at “space and time may be extremely curved, but that gravity there is not infinite.” About forty years or so ago, I took my first Astronomy class at UNLV. Yes, I know. That was back at the dawn of time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, or at least it may seem that way to some of you. It certainly makes my knowledge of Astronomy rather antique compared to the advances science has made since that time. But I still enjoy reading a few popular (that is, easy to digest for the average person) articles on such topics.

In those undergrad days (the first time I was an undergrad), I wrote a couple of papers about areas of Astronomy that particularly interested me. One was the end products of stars. What happens to a star when it runs out of fuel to burn? If the star has a mass of three times or more of our own sun, it collapses into a black hole. When I was going to school, general relativity said that a black hole was a singularity and that its mass was infinite. Today, the latest theories suggest otherwise.

Exciting stuff.

My other favorite topic was Cosmology or the theory of the origin of the universe. I found a small book written by a Swedish scientist that involved Matter and Anti-Matter as active components in the origin of the universe, but it was a minority theory then. Today, it’s non-existent.

But Space.com has a really cool and readable article on what we know to date about the “Big Bang” and what followed afterward.

Probably a lot of Christians coming across this blog post are going to raise an eyebrow or two. At the little church were I worship, both the Head Pastor and one of the Associate Pastors have both told me they don’t believe in an “old universe.” They seem to believe, like many conservative Christians and not a few religious Jewish people, that the Earth is anywhere between about ten to fifteen thousand years old.

All of this millions and billions of years stuff as described in the Big Bang article doesn’t work for them. Why? Because of how they read the beginning chapter of Genesis which is literal. God created the Earth and everything else in six (they believe) literal days. The Hebrew word used for “day” in chapter one of Genesis is almost universally translated “day” as in a twenty-four hour period.

Given an inconsistency between human scientific observation and theory and the record of the Bible, they choose the Bible every single time. Biblical sufficiency pretty much demands it.

Or does it?

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.

Psalm 19:1-7 (NRSV)

sky-above-you-god1Especially the first verse of the above-quoted Psalm tells us that God is revealed by the universe itself. We should be able to look at the stars, examine the heavens, and understand that there is a God. This is known as general revelation or the environment and everything we observe in it reveals the existence of God. The more specific revelation, which gives us lots of other details, declares God as well. It’s the Bible.

But should the two revelations conflict? I would think not. We should see them both fitting together like interlacing fingers of the left and right hand of man. Even if a person has never seen a Bible or heard of Christianity and Judaism, simply observing the universe, all of creation in all of its details, is intended to illustrate that there is a God. The Bible reveals many of the specific details of how God interacts with human beings, using principally the Jewish people and the nation of Israel as a model.

So what do we do when the Genesis story and our astronomical observations and theories conflict? What do we do when the Bible says that the Earth (and presumably all of the universe) was created in six literal twenty-four hour periods, and astronomical observations and theories conclude that our solar system wasn’t formed until the universe was already nine billion years old?

A Bible literalist will say that the Bible is always correct and human scientific observation and theory is wrong. A scientist (one who is not religious) will conclude that the Bible is full of hogwash and our best scientific observations and theories present the facts accurately to the best of our ability to interpret them.

But what if they’re both right?

If we believe God and David as he wrote the nineteenth psalm, then the universe is supposed to be a revelation of God even as the Bible is, so they must agree.

But how can they both be right when on the one hand, we have a matter of six days and on the other we have billions and billions of years?

I don’t know.

Ultimately, I don’t have to know, but like Albert Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Actually, all that means was Einstein believed the universe should be founded upon solid, deterministic laws. He was probably thumbing his nose at Quantum Mechanics (QM) which is much more dependent on probably and uncertainty in the universe. But he sells the point that the universe should make some sort of sense, at least as far as communicating to human beings that only God could have brought the universe into being. The “Big Bang” was a “spoken Word” (If you’ll read the Big Bang article, you’ll see that the initial tiny, tiny fraction of a second of the start of the universe wasn’t an explosion as we think of such a thing).

Actually, it’s not the awesome vastness of the universe that communicates God to me but the incredible weirdness that QM describes. The idea that “atoms exist in quantized, discrete states, loop quantum gravity posits that space-time itself is made of quantized, discrete bits, in the form of tiny, one-dimensional loops” inside a black hole is beyond bizarre and this, more than anything, tells me there is a God, one whose mind is incredibly and infinitely creative. His universe is shouting at us to pay attention. None of this happens by accident and no human being could have cooked this up.

The more we look, the more incredible and the more surprising the universe gets. We used to think that the universe was composed pretty much of ordinary atoms, the stuff we can see all around us every day. Now, we think that only about 4.3 percent of the universe is made up of atoms (75% hydrogen and 25% helium, with just an itsy, bitsy fraction of the rest being heavier elements, including the stuff that makes you and me), while the rest if full of much more exotic energy and matter.

According to an article by Stephen Hawking, God may well “play dice” with (or introduce uncertainty and some randomness into) the universe (there’s a notice at the beginning of the article that says I can’t reproduce any portion of the content, so I can’t include a quote…maybe Hawking’s cranky over his rather sad boycott of Israel…but I digress). It’s this uncertainly that, rather than suggest the universe came about through a random or unguided (uncreative, unintelligent) process, was built into the universe, and was the product of an infinitely creative mind and force…God.

I have no problem believing that the universe is more or less as we experience it; extremely old from the point of view of a human time scale. Why should God care? He exists outside of His creation, He’s timeless. Theories vary widely about how old modern human beings are, but I think the story of those early humans, our Adam and Eve, are the record of God’s creation of us and the creation of His relationship with us.

black-holeMaybe the only meaningful or reasonable historical record of God’s interaction with people is what we’ve experienced over the past ten or fifteen thousand years.

Everything I’m saying along these lines is highly speculative and I’m most certainly attempting to reconcile what human beings know about our environment and ourselves with my faith and trust in the God of Israel. If that’s being more than a little self-serving, so be it. It helps me sleep at night, and God knows I can use the rest.

I once heard an attorney use the phrase “hide the ball.” At the time, I thought she was referring to a children’s game, but I recently found out it’s a legal term. It means to withhold legal evidence. Legal teams sometimes “hide the ball” or withhold evidence from the court (a big “no-no” which could get an attorney disbarred) if that evidence could result in them losing their case.

Rather than refer to dice, I prefer to say that God doesn’t play hide the ball with the universe. That is, God doesn’t withhold evidence. What we see in our environment, from the tiniest particle to the largest galaxy (to the best that we can understand what we see), is what we get. Otherwise, God created the appearance of the universe to tell us a tremendous lie, and why would He do that?

He wouldn’t. But if God didn’t lie about the universe and He didn’t lie about the Bible, and if six literal days is different from 13.7 billion years or so (the estimated age of the universe), then God didn’t screw up, we did somewhere along the line. Biblical literalists assume scientists have screwed up, but I have to say, that’s pretty unlikely unless the entire scientific community devoted to cosmology for the last century or so are idiots or liars. I don’t think Biblical literalists are idiots or liars either, but I do believe that the beginning passages in our Bible cannot be interpreted with absolute literalism. Genesis One isn’t God’s “cookbook” containing the recipe for Creation.

Like Stephen Hawking suggests at the end of his article (although there’s no indication that Professor Hawking believes in a God of any sort), God may have a few tricks of His sleeve. Bible sufficiently just means that it contains enough information for us, not that it contains everything. The Bible fills in blanks in our knowledge of God that the universe doesn’t supply. I think the process works both ways.

For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Psalm 33:9 (NRSV)

One more thing. Please don’t imagine that I literally believe God rolled dice in order to create the universe. I just “warped” the above-quoted scripture to make the title. It sounded “creative.”

Squiggle

squiggly-lineAnd the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Then Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”

Job 40:1-5

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:13-24

Pastor Randy is back!

It’s only temporary as he’s leading a group on a two-week trip to Israel in the middle of this month (and alas, I won’t be going with them), but we renewed our conversation last Wednesday evening. We spent very little time in Lancaster’s Galatians book, but we did revisit Calvin and his five points, otherwise known as “TULIP:”

  • Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
  • Unconditional Election
  • Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
  • Irresistible Grace
  • Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)

Oy.

I have to admit, Romans 9:13-24 is a devastating argument and one that I can’t ignore. The last time this came up in our conversations, I blogged about it and came to the uneasy peace that God’s mercy outweighs His justice and He desires that none should die, but all live in Christ.

And even Jesus said that “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), which does not seem to mean for God so loved the elect… He loved…loves the world.

But what do I do with all this? I happen to agree that “He who makes the universe makes the rules” and that God is sovereign over all, even when we don’t like how He expresses His ultimate sovereignty over our existence.

If God “pre-chose” who would be saved and who wouldn’t be, who am I to argue?

But one of the things I really like about Judaism is that it’s OK to wrestle with God about the “hard stuff” and not be afraid (though I expect to get banged up in the process).

One theory of “election” is that God already knew before He created the universe who would accept Him in faith and who would not, so the “elect” are simply those who would have chosen God anyway and the “non-elect” are those who, no matter what, would never have accepted God.

eph-2-10-potter-clayBut that’s not how Romans 9:13-24 reads. It reads like God made His decision and, as his creations, as clay jars from the potter’s hands, we have nothing to say about how we are formed, if we are formed “saved” or “doomed.”

On the other hand (I actually argued this last Wednesday), we are all formed in God’s image, which means that everyone has something of the Divine in them/us. We are all searching for God, granted some in pretty malformed ways, but that’s why the very concept of “spirituality” exists in our world.

Pastor Randy didn’t buy it.

But I do remember reading a Rabbinic commentary (I can’t remember where anymore) that said part of being made in God’s image has to do with having a built-in desire to do good as God does good, which may account for both religious people and atheists trying to help our fellow human beings. Even the person who denies the existence of God still is made up of the essence of God, the Divine spark within man.

And free will is one of the effects of being made in God’s image according to the Aish.com Rabbis. But if we are “pre-chosen” since before the creation of the universe and we absolutely cannot lose our salvation as a “pre-chosen” group of people, then free will is an illusion.

Or is it?

I won’t give the details, but Pastor Randy did tell me a story that undercut his own argument. Apparently, he knew a man who was an exceptionally fine Pastor and Christian, a man who served God and man unswervingly for decades, a man who no one doubted was is in God’s hand and that doing the will of God was his only waking thought.

Then he suffered a terrible tragedy, but not one any more difficult than many other Christians. The effect through, was astounding. Again, I won’t paint you the full picture, but this man of God, who even Pastor Randy was convinced was a trustworthy servant of the Most High, did a terrible thing and sinned against not just a few, but ultimately against anyone who had ever believed in him.

Most of the time, if we take a Calvinist point of view, we can look at a “Christian” and realize that they are not really committed to Messiah as shown by their behaviors, their “fruits,” so to speak. Yes, even the best of us struggle with sin, but there’s a difference between that, and remaining captured by the ways of the present world and only paying lip service to God.

The falling of Pastor Randy’s friend was almost literally something that came out of left field, a totally unanticipated event. How could it have possibly happened? Even Pastor Randy is baffled. Either this guy was a world-class actor, or there is something wrong with Calvin’s theory. It could mean that God has allowed some small part of us to be completely outside of His control.

Free will.

fallingBut if God’s plan is absolute, cannot be defeated, and if God Himself can’t be surprised, what do we do with free will and what do we do with election?

We talked about another interesting thing that relates to all of the above: sequencing.

As human beings living in linear time, we understand the world in terms of sequencing. That is, something happens first, then second, then third, and so on.

But as far as I’m concerned, God isn’t subject to linear time. He doesn’t “see into the future” or “look into the past.” He exists outside of creation (although He can intersect it) and is not subject to the rules of our reality. For God, there is no before, during, and after…there is just is.

OK, this is all speculation, but what the heck, I can’t lose anything by giving it a shot.

God decides to create the universe but saying that, it really means that God has already created the universe, God is in the process of creating the universe, and God is about to create the universe, all at once. It also means some interesting things. God gives man free will to choose or not to choose Him but that happens at the same time (everything happens at the same time from God’s point of view) as us making all of the decisions we’re ever going to make from birth to death. Literally, the act of God creating the universe means that He is not just starting the universe and then letting it progress, He’s creating the universe from Big Bang to the last gasp of entropy and everything that occurs in-between in a single, unified act.

Try to get the implications of all this.

It doesn’t mean that God created the universe, and then the earth, and then the garden, and then Adam, and then Eve, and then all the animals, and then watched Adam and Eve sin, and then the fall happened, and then sin entered the world, and then….

It means that God created the universe, sun, moon, stars, earth, garden, humans (all of us), and at the same time, all we humans committed every single event every single living being would ever, ever commit from zero to infinity, all as the same creative act.

Yes, I can’t prove any of it so don’t ask me to try. This is just my imagination shooting off sparks and hoping that some illumination will occur.

But what if it’s true? What would it mean? It would mean that at the instant of creation, predetermination and free will, even seemingly minor and random actions (how dust motes float through the air), all happened in a single instant and as a single action.

It’s only from a human being’s point of view from inside the bubble of creation that concepts like election and free will have any “legs” so to speak. It’s not like God decided who was saved and who wasn’t before they were born, exactly. And it’s not like we have free will to defy God and His plan, exactly. Our decisions from birth to death were all part of the creation process. Yes, we will make, are making, and have made those decisions of our own “free will,” but since our entire lifetimes go “squiggling” across the nearly infinite panorama of cosmic history, we’re all part of the single creative act by God wherein He “created” that history.

It’s terrifically metaphysical and impossible to truly communicate in human language, since we (including me) are all designed to communicate accurately only about the environment contained in God’s creation. “Metacommunication” is practically a “mystic art” since it requires describing the indescribable.

creationThat’s the closest thing I can come up with to explain why God isn’t heartless and cruel (though, as Job 40 and Romans 9 seem to say, I don’t have the right to question…but as Genesis 32 seems to say, I do) and at the same time, feebly try to explain the co-existence of man’s free will and God’s total sovereignty. I know my theory’s got more holes than a golf course, but as I said, it’s the best I can do.

I think God created the universe exercising just slightly more mercy than He did justice, so we’d even have a fighting chance, but given that, at the moment of creation, our lives flashed across history like a hyper-energized photon, so even if creation took any time at all from God’s perspective, within that unimaginably fleeting instant, we made all of the free will decisions we would ever make, and when God declared creation a done deal, so were all our decisions…a lifetime’s worth.

It just seems as if we have future decisions to make from inside linear time.

So God has mercy on whomever He wills and hardens whomever He wills. Because His will was, is, and will be the will of Creation and we human beings willed (are willing, are about to will) inside of that creative act.

A lousy theory, I admit. If you’ve got a better one that explains all the facts and still accounts for God’s sovereign will and man’s free will, I’m all ears.

Oh, and if the hard and fast rule of Divine Election turns out to be true, what do we do about Luke 14:15-24?

142 days.

A Creative Life

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, teaches how we should relate to a new baby. “The astounding miracles of matrimony, birth and raising a child open a person’s heart and eyes and his ears to see that nothing ‘just happens.’ This experience should awaken any thinking person’s ability to be emotionally moved.

“This is the meaning of the Midrash Tanchuma on the verse וילדה זכר And she birthed a male.’ The Midrash applies the verse, ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ to this. It explains there that the word צורcan be understood to refer to צייר which means one who fashions. In this context the verse is saying that there is none who can fashion like God does. A human makes a picture on the wall. Can it move? Can it breathe? Can it speak? God creates man who moves, breathes and speaks. An expert painter has many types of paint to create a picture. God can create a human from one drop.

“We see from here that one who sees a child should be filled with wonder. Studying a child should bring one to contemplate the works of God. Giving this any thought should lead one to the same conclusion as the Midrash: ‘There is צייר , no artist like God.”

Rav Yechiel Michel Stern pointed out the obvious question on this midrash: “It seems strange that our sages took the verse ‘ ואין צור כאלוקינו ’ out of the simple meaning. Usually the word צור literally rock, means forceful or powerful, and does not refer to an artist or fashioner.

“The Maharsha in Berachos answers this question. Since the verse tells us that there is no צור like God it implies that there are others which should be referred to as צור , but they cannot be compared to God. Clearly, here we are speaking not of the one and only Rock, but of a different meaning related to the root צור!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Ultimate Artist”
Niddah 41

In Rabbi Yaakov Menken’s commentary on last week’s Torah Portion Chukat, he addresses the mystery behind the sin that resulted in the death of Aaron and Moses being denied entry into the Land of Promise. For many, trying to comprehend what sin Aaron and Moses committed that was worth so terrible a price is extremely difficult. But we must remember that not only were Aaron and Moses born to accomplish a very high purpose, but we see that the more exalted a person’s holiness, the more is required of them. In other words, the higher you fly, the further you have to fall.

Precisely because the Bible is dealing with individuals on an exalted spiritual level, if it were to tell us merely what they did, we would be unable to perceive anything wrong. For those people, their behavior was no less a transgression than if a more common individual had committed a major sin such as murder, adultery or idolatry — and thus the Prophets use severe language, similar to HaShem’s own words that Moshe and Aharon “did not believe” in Him. Just like the anthropomorphic references to HaShem Himself, these passages use language which we can understand, so that we can learn from them, but are not intended to be taken literally at all.

Every human being is just that — human — and no one is perfect. Even as we are humbled by recognition of the heights reached by prophets and great scholars, we should never lose hope, or imagine that those who came close to G-d were truly angels, without inner struggles or difficulties. This is the lesson the Torah brings home to us when attributing unimaginable ‘sins’ to our forebears. And yet it is also incumbent upon us to realize that we could be, ourselves, so close to HaShem that our ‘sins’ would be something we could not even recognize today.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this event in the Bible is nearly impossible for most of us to understand is that the majority of us are not tzaddikim; exceptionally righteous ones. Our worldview does not operate at such an exalted level. In the same manner, this is most likely what made it difficult for Christ’s own disciples to understand him at times and, what continues to contribute to what we often refer to as “the difficult sayings of Jesus” as seen from the perspective of the 21st century believer.

I know most Christians like to think of Jesus as ultimately approachable, friendly, kind, and understandable, but in spite of 1 Corinthians 2:16, we may be forced to admit that the mind of the Messiah is beyond most of us. Even the sins of those lesser than the Messiah but still exalted Holy ones are difficult to comprehend. Hence the following from Rabbi Menken:

On Rosh HaShanah, there is a tradition to go to a body of water and “cast off” one’s sins, as it were, and ask that they be covered over like water covers and hides the fish who swim within it. Many Chassidim have a custom to take bread crumbs along and throw them in, to give physical expression to this idea.

It is said that after a particular Chassidic Rebbe threw crumbs into the water in accordance with this custom, one of his Chassidim bounded into the lake and began to retrieve them. When questioned, the Chassid explained: “what the Rebbe considers his ‘sins’ are Mitzvos where I’m concerned!”

For years, I couldn’t understand this story or its intended lesson. A transgression is a transgression! But then, I heard that the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohein Kagan (perhaps the greatest known Torah scholar of the last century) once repented on Yom Kippur for having wasted eight minutes from Torah study during the previous year.

Can we imagine wasting merely eight minutes in an entire year? I would be extremely happy to say that I had managed to waste no more than eight minutes on a given afternoon! Maybe, maybe I’ve spent a few hours without wasting eight minutes once in my life. Maybe.

It’s impossible to imagine being able to account for every moment of every day, save eight minutes (I would almost be relieved to be told that I had heard this story incorrectly). And this is what the Chassid was saying: for us, it would be a great Mitzvah! The sins of great people occur at such a level of precision, that _reaching_ that level, to be worthy of being judged at that level, would be a phenomenal achievement.

Previously, I momentarily seemed to disregard a passage from 1 Corinthians 2, but I’d like to revisit those words in the context of Paul’s epistle:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. –1 Corinthians 2:12-16 (ESV)

This part of Paul’s letter makes it seem like, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all believers and disciples of the Jewish Messiah should have an equal ability to comprehend the Word of God, as if we were Jesus Christ himself. But do we? If we did, you’d think that the endless myriad of questions I post on this blog wouldn’t exist or would just be rather moot. You’d think instead of the 35,000+ Christian denominations (and counting) that exist in the world, we’d have only one. You’d think that we would all have the identical understanding of God and the very same template for organizing the community of faith.

You’d think God would have finished writing the Word upon our hearts by now. But apparently, He hasn’t.

As we saw in the “Story Off the Daf” from which I quoted earlier, God can be considered a magnificent artist. He fashions each and every one of us miraculously and He has repeated His artistry in an endless progression from the beginning of Genesis until now. He is creating His “paintings” still, and will continue to do so until a point in time we cannot yet even begin to grasp.

And He has created us for many purposes, all of which serve His will. But all that being true, He gave us the gift of self-determination to the point where only a human being may actively and purposefully defy the will of God. In other words, we can take the incredibly wonderful work of art that was created by the hand of God and turn it into the moral equivalent of a velvet painting of Elvis (and I apologize to all of the fans of Elvis Presley and those of you who enjoy velvet paintings).

I can hardly accuse Aaron and Moses of such a sin against God. It is God who held them both responsible for how they chose to treat His “artwork”. And while you and I (or at least I) are not tzaddikim and we do not operate at the level of Aaron or Moses (and certainly not at the level of Christ), we have been created as God’s handiwork to serve a purpose and a goal. We are responsible for what we do with our lives. There are consequences for choosing not to live as we were designed to live.

The end of the lives of Aaron and Moses give us an idea of those consequences. We also have examples such as Nadab and Abihu.

Who are we and where do we come from? Do we have a purpose in life, or is everything we do random and meaningless? Is this all there is or is there something more?

We spend all our lives trying to answer questions like these. Even those of us who adhere to a specific religious tradition encounter great difficulties in answering what should be the simplest questions about our faith. Now we see that these questions and their answers aren’t just meaningless exercises in philosophy. They are what define us, not just as individuals, but as a species. If we are simply the most evolved animals on the planet, then it pretty much doesn’t matter what we do. Go ahead and destroy the physical environment and contribute to our extinction. It doesn’t matter. The planet will eventually recover and even if it doesn’t, so what? We will have exterminated ourselves, but the Universe goes on.

But what if we have been created by the “Master Artist” for a higher purpose? If there are consequences, for good or for bad, for the manner in which we live out our lives, then our every action does matter, our every decision does have an impact beyond that of the moment. Our words, behavior, and feelings are all part of a greater design that contributes to the infinite tapestry of Creation. Each individual life is personally important as an artistic act of God and it matters to Him how things are going for us each and every day.

Just recently, I compared a life of faith to a bird in endless flight. Given the example of Aaron and Moses, we can see how “dangerous” it is to fly as high as they did, because with one subtle failure, they lost their wings and fell back to earth in disgrace. And yet the wonder and majesty that they beheld, especially Moses who spoke to our infinite “Artist” as one might speak to a dear and close friend…isn’t that worth even so great a risk? Isn’t soaring through space, nearing the court of the Mighty One, tasting the excitement, the freedom, the glory of approaching even the tiniest thread of the hem of the living God worth our time, our effort, even our very lives?

The Artist with His brush, puts the finishing touches on His latest painting and looks upon it with satisfaction. The painting, moments away from birth, stares back at the Creator and smiles with gratitude and love.

Then, as a child might send a paper airplane aloft with a single flick of the wrist, we are sent up into the Heavens and born into our lives. May we fly with the wings of an angel and live with the soul of His Image.

Why can’t He provide simple, clear directions and let us just follow His Divine plan? Why does He place these challenges before us, forcing us to make our own decisions, to chisel out our own paths?

Because He desires a home in our world
—not a home manufactured in heaven and transported downward to earth,
but a home made in our world
out of worldly materials,
chosen, designed and constructed
by citizens of our world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Made On Earth”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org