Tag Archives: depression

Repentance and Negativity

The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.

Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.

How do people become interested in self-improvement?

People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.

How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?

There are four steps of teshuva.

-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”

Leaving Negativity Behind

This is the second step in making teshuva (we covered the first step, regret last week).

Here’s Rabbi Rottman’s description of this step.

Imagine a drug addict who arrives at a rehab center for detox treatment. His parents leave him at the entrance and wish him luck after a tearful but hopeful goodbye. Little do they know that their addict son’s suitcase is lined with enough cocaine to send a hippo to heaven.

It’s not that our addict does not want to change. He really does! He just has not “let go” of the very things that have brought him to the negative state he is now in.

Did you ever learn bad habits from a particular roommate and decide that you want to stop being like that? Did you ever try doing it without changing roommates? It’s nearly impossible.

“Leaving the negativity behind” means staying away from all of the paths that lead to that negativity. This includes crafting your environment to prevent temptation. And it means staying away from even mere thoughts, which can lead to the obvious next step — action.

That’s not really what I expected. I expected what he wrote as a much shorter definition on the Aish.com page:

Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.

To me, leaving negativity behind means to stop beating yourself up over your sins and struggles with temptation. It’s pretty easy to keep clobbering yourself, especially when trying to break a long-term cycle of sin. It’s probably an all too familiar pattern to “throw the book at yourself,” so to speak, to say how no good you are, how hopeless the situation is, and if you’ve gone this far down in sinning, you might as well go the whole way.

Following that line of thought only leads to self-destruction and totally abandoning any relationship with God.

In reading the longer explanation, it seems to me that the Rabbi is saying to make a complete break with anything that connects back to the sin or sins in question. It’s like you are a smoker and so is your spouse. You decide to stop smoking but (s)he continues with the habit. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep your resolve as long as your spouse continues to smoke?

flightSo leaving negativity behind means completely changing your flight pattern as it relates to your sin. If your sin is associated with specific places, you have to avoid those places. If your sin is associated with certain people, then you have to avoid those people.

But the one person you can’t get away from is yourself and your own thoughts and feelings. If you keep telling yourself that you are a person who does this sin, then you’ll identify with that definition. That’s who you are. In this case, you are what you think. Even if you soar away, leaving all other negative people and circumstances behind you, you always have to take yourself on the journey.

Unfortunately, many people are not yet committed to the idea of refraining from negative speech. If you are in the presence of someone as they malign or slander someone, come to the rescue. Have the courage to speak up in defense of the person being spoken against.

This isn’t always easy. Build up the strength of character and courage to stop negative speech.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Stop Negative Speech”

Rabbi Pliskin is referring to a person who is witnessing another individual verbally insult someone. The recommendation from the Rabbi is for you to come to the victim’s rescue by stopping the offending party from making further negative comments. But what if the person making the negative comments is you and what if you are making them about yourself?

You have to come to your own rescue. You have to see what you are doing, recognize it for what it is, and then stop your behavior. That’s going to be tough because it’s tied to your habitual sin. It’s a habit, both the sin and what you tell yourself about the sin. It’s a habit to tell yourself that you are worthy of being condemned and unable to pull yourself out of the mud.

To leave negativity behind, you have to repeatedly rescue yourself from your own negative speech. Rescuing yourself, and finding a new way to talk to and identify yourself has to be the new habit that replaces the old habit of sinning and then slamming yourself (metaphorically) against a brick wall because of the sin.

But what about God?

My own worst enemyIt’s not just what we tell ourselves about our sin and our character defects, it’s what we believe God thinks of us, too. The Bible is full of God hating sin, smiting sinners, exiling whole populations, exterminating whole populations, all because of their sin. God isn’t soft on sinners and we have to believe that He punishes sin, if not in this world, then in the next one.

Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire And the rocks are broken up by Him.

Nahum 1:6 (NASB)

But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure His indignation.

Jeremiah 10:10 (NASB)

So if you tell yourself that you are a hopeless, low life, scum ball sinner and that God hates your guts and can’t wait to send you to hell without and electric fan and pitcher of ice water, then that takes away any hope of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If God hates you, you might as well hate yourself.

But while the Westboro Baptist Church may think God is a “hater,” there are other opinions:

To the prophets, sin is not an ultimate, irreducible or independent condition, but rather a disturbance in the relationship between God and man; it is an adverb not a noun, a condition that can be surmounted by man’s return and God’s forgiveness.

The divine pathos is like a bridge over the abyss that separates man from God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The Theology of Pathos” (The Prophets II), pg 9
The Prophets

Man in covenant with God is in relationship with God. Heschel believed that what we do affects God and that God deeply, personally cares not only about humanity in general, but about each and every individual human being. For Rabbi Heschel, being Jewish and observing the mitzvot wasn’t being part of a “religion of dead works,” but rather, participating in a loving and intimate interaction between himself and His Creator, as a wife might dance with her husband.

chuppahChristianity calls itself “a relationship, not a religion,” but when God embraced Israel under the Sinai covenant, they entered that intimate relationship together just as a Jewish man and women enter marriage under the Chuppah. I say all this to illustrate that even if you denigrate yourself in every conceivable manner, God does not and will not.

“For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Isaiah 54:7-8 (NASB)

Of course this is God addressing Israel through the prophet Isaiah, so I have to be careful in taking a statement out of one context and pasting it in another, but I’m confident that God not only turns away from Israel for just the briefest of moments, but He also is just as brief when (it seems) He turns away from us as well.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (NASB)

Sin is a barrier that inhibits a close relationship between you and God. Even in sin, the relationship exists, but it’s strained and distant. Even when the Israelites were exiled by God, He was still with them. He was with them in Egypt, He was with them in Babylonia, and He was with the Jewish people, even in their deepest suffering and despair.

I believe that even when we “fall off the wagon,” so to speak, and we lead a life that takes us away from God, He is still there waiting “anxiously” for us to repent and turn back to Him. Luke 15:11-32 chronicles the parable of the Prodigal Son which is a wonderful example of how sin takes us away from our Father but when we’re ready and return in repentance, the Father does not shun us or shame us for our mistakes and willful sins, but joyously welcomes us back home, in great celebration.

So the only one “badmouthing” you is you.

Well, that’s not quite true. If others are aware of your sins, especially family, it’s very possible that the pain of enduring your sins is affecting them and their response could be anger.

That’s a tough one. Instead of living with a spouse who is smoking while you’re trying to quit smoking, you are living with a spouse who constantly nags you for smoking while you’re trying to quit. Your loved one may be the person saying how lousy you are and how you’ll never change, and what a hopeless jerk you are.

Hopefully that doesn’t describe your situation, but if it does, you’re not alone.

separationAs unpleasant as it is to endure, it’s a consequence of your sinful behavior and how it has hurt others. That kind of negativity is difficult to escape and in the case of a marriage, something like couples counseling might be necessary to support you in leaving negativity behind and to make teshuva, and by helping both you and your spouse to find alternatives to “negative talk.”

I know I mentioned this last time, but as you can see, making teshuva is incredibly involved. Even a single step in the process may require weeks or months. Even if you are convinced that God loves you and wants a closer relationship, and even if you can remake your negative comments and thoughts about yourself into positives, you may never be able to contain literally every single environmental factor (especially other people) in your life.

In that case, when you encounter someone or something you can’t avoid and that threatens to drag your soul into the darkness again, returning to God through the Bible and prayer may help balance the scales. If you know for certain that God loves you and you can read that in the Bible and meditate on those words, making them your new habit to replace negativity can be your shield against what you otherwise must endure.

Successfully eliminating negativity leads to the next step in teshuva. Continuing to live with negativity in thought and word leads to negativity in action: back to sin.

This isn’t an easy choice, but it is a choice that you can and must make.

Overcoming Life

Malala-YousafzaiThe scene took place last week at the United Nations. In attendance were nearly 1000 young students from around the world at a specially convened Youth Assembly in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Gordon Brown, Britain’s former Prime Minister.

The guest of honor was a young girl celebrating her 16th birthday. It was a day that the Taliban, many months ago, cruelly sought to prevent her from living to see. Her name is Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani whose crime was that she wanted to go to school to get an education. So, last October, when she was on a school bus in Pakistan, a man with a gun got on and said, “Where is Malala?” He shot her in the face at point-blank range. The bullet entered near an eye and ended up near her left shoulder, but miraculously she survived.

The Taliban proudly claimed responsibility. They called her efforts pro-Western. They feared she might set an example to other women. Education is their enemy. They desperately wanted Malala dead. But Malala refused to be intimidated.

-Rabbi Benjamin Blech
“Malala at the United Nations”

A great percentage of many people’s suffering is based on illusion. People feel they have problems and difficulties, when in reality the problem exists solely in their minds.

When you have a problem, ask yourself, “How would I view this problem if someone else were in this situation? Would I consider this a valid problem or not?” This can help you gain a more objective perspective.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #892 – Put Troubles in Perspective”

We’re used to thinking that our problems are the worst problems to have. We tend to believe that no one could really understand what we’re going through and how bad we can feel sometimes. Of course, when we actually try to explain to someone else what’s going on with us, we’re likely to get a response that others have it a lot worse. That usually doesn’t help, because then, on top of whatever emotional pain we’re experiencing, we also feel guilty for hurting our own hurts when other people are suffering so much more. Further, we’re liable to also feel shame when we realize that people with greater hurts are handling (at least in public) their problems so much more gracefully and courageously than we are.

There’s no way to win.

Well, that’s not true. Sometimes the trap is to compare who we are and where we are with others and naturally, we can’t ever measure up. Rabbi Pliskin has sage advice in that area, too. Don’t compare situations.

Waitaminute. What about all those motivational books and blogs pointing to people who suffer with grace and humility and keep on cranking along? Aren’t we supposed to be inspired by them? Why do those stories seem so depressing instead? Because we are violating Rabbi Pliskin’s advice not to compare our current situation with others?

It is said that you are what you think (no, I haven’t read that book) and that attitude is everything (no, I haven’t read that book, either). But I think it may be possible to stress if not overwhelm a “positive attitude.”

In 2001, an Arab terrorist detonated a guitar case filled with explosives in Sbarro’s pizzeria at the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road, the busiest area of downtown Jerusalem. The heinous attack killed 16 people and wounded 100. Among the dead were five members of the Schijveschuurder family, and Shoshana Greenbaum, an American who was pregnant with her first child. A few months later, Al-Najah University in Nablus opened a public exhibition, a gruesome reenactment of the Sbarro bombing, strewn with fake blood and body parts.

Day in Jewish History, Av 20

kerry-netanyahu-israelThere has been much ado about the so-called Israel-Palestine Peace Process lately, and for those of us who are Biblical, conservative, and pro-Israel, seems like just another round in a long list of futile and frustrating efforts to pander to the “two-state solution.”

Human beings struggle against injustice and many are willing to fight and even to die for our beliefs, and yet the soul that God created within us also desires peace. Watching the world around me, and especially Israel, it is difficult to imagine the Messiah’s return and his redemption and restoration of the Jewish homeland. There is so many people and nations against Israel and against what I consider to be justice.

Tishah B’av has passed, and we have now entered the seven weeks of consolation, seven weeks in which God is viewed as comforting us for our losses, both on the personal and the collective levels. People have different reactions and different ways to relate with calamity. Following the Torah’s inner dimension, we can identify four such ways, which in turn correspond to the four letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah (yud, hei, vav, and hei). We will consider them in reverse order (from the final hei, to the vav, to the higher hei, to the yud). Contemplating these will also give us deeper insight into the suffering that the Jewish people have endured throughout their history, up to and even including the Holocaust.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“The true meaning behind our sorrows”
Wonders from Your Torah

Rabbi Ginsburgh goes on in his article to describe the four different levels of how we can perceive difficult and even horrific events in our lives and in the world. We can get angry at God. We can believe that bad things happen because we sin. We can see God’s compassion in times of trouble.

And then there’s this:

The fourth and highest level (corresponding to the yud of Havayah) is to understand that God sends us woes in order to bring us to a higher level of consciousness. To better understand what it means that God seems to be absent for our own benefit, Rebbe Hillel of Paritsch offers an insightful parable involving a Rabbi and his beloved student. In the course of teaching his student Torah, the Rabbi suddenly falls silent. From the student’s point of view, it appears that his teacher is angry with him because of something he did wrong. The student’s point of view is reinforced when suddenly his teacher walks out of the room and does not return. However, Rebbe Hillel explains that the truth is that the teacher is not angry with his student but is preoccupied with a sudden spark of new insight he has received. Since the nature of such sparks of insight is to fade away back into the super-conscious and disappear altogether if they are not captured immediately and meditated upon, the teacher is forced to ignore his student for a time, forsake the current lesson, all in order to capture the insight. Actually, the Rabbi has his student in mind when doing so, since his ultimate intent is to pass the new teaching on to his beloved student. God too has acted in this way, says Rebbe Hillel. In those times when He seems to be absent from our lives, in truth, He is actually preparing a new light for us to enjoy.

sbarro_bombingYou say something to your spouse or loved one and he or she is silent in response. Are they angry? Did you say or do something wrong? If you respond from those assumptions by becoming defensive, angry, or sad, you may miss the point. Perhaps he or she didn’t hear you or was contemplating something else entirely. As the saying goes, “it’s not all about you.”

In 2001, a terrorist explodes a bomb in a popular pizza store and kills and maims innocent people. Later, the terrible scene is re-enacted as a tribute in a Palestinian controlled part of Israel.

One young, defiant, teenage girl is shot in the face by Taliban terrorists just because she wants what we take for granted in the United States: an education. She goes on to speak courageously in front of the United Nations about how education and not warfare, is our most powerful weapon.

One who is full of himself fills all the space around him. There is no room left for anyone else. Therefore, he despises another person by virtue of the space that other person consumes. He may give reasons for his disdain, but the reasons are secondary.

This is called wanton hatred. It is the reason given for our exile. It is the core of all evil. It is balanced and cured by wanton acts of love and kindness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Wanton Love”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

How do we combat our personal struggles when contrasted against the world-wide stage of tragedy? How do we fight our own small battles that always seem to beat us down, when even young girls rise with amazing courage after horrible trauma and injury?

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:12-13 (NASB)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

Psalm 23:1-3 (NASB)

looking-at-heavenThere is a place we can go. There is someone who loves our very soul. Even the strongest among us sometimes feels defeated. Look at a powerful warrior such as King David. Look at the immense sufferings of Paul the Apostle. Yes, they were extraordinary human beings, but they were human nonetheless. You and I may not be extraordinary, but we have the same source of strength. Even when depressed, injured, beaten down, crippled, wounded, dying, He is there. He comforts us. Surely goodness and kindness will follow us all the days of our lives.

And we can immerse ourselves in goodness and kindness, letting God restore our souls. Then we can share goodness in an evil world.

“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21 (NASB)

You can sit in sorrow or you can make a difference in the world. You can become Partners in Kindness.

“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt


Love Loses: The Aftermath of Terrorism and Humanity

starfish“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

―Mahatma Gandhi

Two bombs exploded near the crowded finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 140 others in a terrifying scene of broken glass, smoke and severed limbs, authorities said.

CBS Boston station WBZ-TV reports one of the three who died from the attack was an 8-year-old boy.

“Deadly bombs rock Boston marathon”

Normally I can bounce back from the impact of events like this one but not this time. I wrote about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings more than once, and managed to recover my balance, my relationship with God and humanity, and keep on going, but somehow, this time is different. I don’t think that the specifics of the Boston Marathon horror are different, I just think all these events are cumulative. They’re piling up inside of me and crowding out my soul.

In every human being there is only so large a supply of love. It’s like the limbs of a starfish, to some extent: if you chew off a chunk, it will grow back. But if you chew off too much, the starfish dies. Valerie B. chewed off a chunk of love from my dwindling reserve … a reserve already nibbled by Charlotte and Lory and Sherri and Cindy and others down through the years. There’s still enough there to make the saleable appearance of a whole creature, but nobody gets gnawed on that way without becoming a little dead. So, if Cupid (that perverted little motherf**ker) decides his lightning ought to strike this gnarly tree trunk again, whoever or whatever gets me is going to get a handy second, damaged goods, something a little dead and a little crippled.

-Harlan Ellison
from “Valerie: A True Memoir” (1972)

Ellison doesn’t leave his commentary on personal tragedy and untimely death like that and continues by saying, “Don’t close yourself off, but jeezus, be careful of monsters with teeth.”

Harlan Ellison used to be one of my favorite authors about thirty to thirty-five years ago or so, but eventually, the anger, abrasiveness, and lawsuits that characterized his life began to take their toll on mine and I had to move on. However in moving on, I failed to take into consideration that Ellison just writes as a reflection of our human environment, and the cynicism, dissatisfaction, and out-and-out rage at life he expresses is merely the sea we’re all swimming in. That sea is full of hungry sharks and they smell blood.

Oh, these thoughts and feelings aren’t new to me and in fact, I wrote my own starfish story not too long ago.

Since this latest act of terror, two predictable messages have dominated the news and the social media outlets: encouragement and blame. Gandhi is only one example of the encouragement type message that you can find on Facebook lately. In fact, after Newtown, I based one of my meditations on something attributed to Fred Rogers:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I’m sure that’s true, but there seems to be only a few helpers left. The rest of us are just “helping ourselves,” usually to things that don’t belong to us.

defeated-boxerI actually wrote on this theme, disappointment in the human race, days ago, and that “meditation” will appear on Friday morning as my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion. But the sinking feeling that we are all sinking won’t leave me and I’m not going to wait until Friday to complain about it. I slept pretty well last night, but the night before was consumed with dreams of death, blood, kidnapping, and violence. I finally woke up at 3 a.m. and was glad to do so. Sometimes sleep is the only escape I can find from the battering life dishes out, but not always.

Sometimes living is a battle and the only thing you can do is fight back, maybe hoping to win, or maybe hoping just to survive the defeat.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

-Paul Simon (recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel)
from the song “The Boxer” (1968)

In answering a question about “why bad things happen to good people” related to natural disasters, the Aish Rabbi replied:

Thank you for your thoughtful question. It is really a formulation of the classic: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Let me try to explain:

The story is told of the king who commissioned a tapestry to be woven. In the middle of the work, someone came upon the weaver and saw a mish-mash of different colored threads, loose threads and, in general, a very messy piece of work. A complaint was issued to the king who then confronted the artist. The artist pleaded with the king for a few days to prepare his defense. After those few days he came before the king with a wrapped package and told the king, “Here is my defense.” Inside the package was the completed tapestry.

The moral is that we cannot judge the work until it is completed. Moses asked to see God’s face. That request was denied, but he was allowed to “see” God’s “back.” It is explained that Moses wanted to understand how God runs the world. The response was that it is beyond human comprehension until you see the “back.” That is, until we can see the whole picture; then in hindsight it will all make sense.

While this answer may seem a “cop-out,” it prevents us from trying to understand God’s actions from our very limited perspective. In order for us to be able to “judge God,” we need to consider God’s “ground rules” for existence. Using this premise, it becomes very difficult to judge God. Why? Because we are stuck in a finite perspective of time and space, and we can therefore never be sure which rules God is employing at any given moment.

In order to begin to make sense of this, one thing we must understand is that God is in control, and there are no accidents. There has to be intrinsic meaning in our lives; otherwise we are just a random collection of molecules whizzing through space, with no real direction or purpose.

We are living in a very complex world, and in such a world, God doesn’t only deal with individuals, he also deals with nations.

nicholas-kristofOK, I get it. God is a “big picture” kind of guy and I can’t see the forest for the trees, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor.

But when is enough enough? When do the encouraging messages and the happy platitudes become tiresome and ineffective? Is that why New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof blamed the GOP for the Boston Marathon explosions or why the Westboro Baptist (so called) Church is threatening to picket the funerals of the three people killed as a protest against the LGBT community?

That isn’t fighting back against injustice, that’s insane cruelty. It’s insane to hope that the bomber turns out to be an Arab Muslim or an ultra-conservative white American. The only person to blame for the explosions is the person to planted the bombs, just like the only person to blame for the Newtown School shootings is the person who pulled the trigger.

But if I truly believed that, then I could be like Gandhi, seeing these horrific acts as aberrations among a much larger humanity I can be proud to be a part of, and I could dismiss a few drops of dirty moisture as insignificant amid a sea of refreshing, life-giving water.

But it’s not just a few drops, it’s an endless flood, not of water but of gushing blood, ripped and torn flesh, and the screams and cries of the wounded and dying.

Reddit hosts specialty pages including one on Atheism which is used to make fun of religion and religious people. I guess that sort of thing floats their boat.

Anyway, I saw a photo a “redditer” posted the day after the Boston Marathon explosions of a person donating blood. The story that went along with the image said that the blood donor had been reading a lot of messages (presumably on Facebook and twitter) from Christians saying how they were praying for the victims of the explosions. He decided to do something a little more helpful by donating blood.

I couldn’t help but agree with him, not that I believe prayer ineffective, but the answer to prayer is to actually do something about it, like giving blood. Those type of people, Christians, Atheists, or otherwise, are the “helpers” Fred Rogers’ mother was talking about.

But, to recall Gandhi, are the helpers the ocean or the few drops of “clean” water that are left amid a sea of blood, mud, and fecal matter?

Jesus once lamented, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8 NASB). Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote, “One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.” I am more than aware that I am currently feeding the darkness but I’m hardly alone. For every ten people who are willing to donate blood for people who need it, the world summons ten-thousand who will be glad to shed more blood. If a hundred people hold candles in the night to defy the darkness, a million will extinguish the light, and then rape and murder the terrified victims trying to hide in the shadows.

drowningThere’s no one left to blame except ourselves, so we might as well stop pointing fingers at everyone else besides us. Our group, our political party, our religion, our gender identity, our race, our ethnic type is no more pure than anyone else’s and the one equalizing factor is that we are part of the grubby, trashy, filthy ocean of the human race. We all planted the bombs. We all pulled the trigger. We all spilled blood. We are all drowning in the pain and the death, submerged, begging for air, begging for mercy, begging for life.

Encouraging messages such those uttered by Mahatma Gandhi and Fred Rogers are meant to lift us up out of that ocean so that we can, by resisting discouragement and depression, rise above and lead others to be agents of change and optimism.

But Gandhi and Mr. Rogers are both dead. All of the heroes are dead. The world we live in now looks up to people like Honey Boo Boo, Snooki, and Kim Kardashian. Welcome to the “progressive” age of humanity. The Prophet Isaiah was correct when he said that in the last days good would be called evil and evil would be called good. The apostle Paul expanded on this:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.

2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)

Paul wisely advised those reading his letter to avoid such people, but how is that possible when they are the only people in the world (or so it seems)? In Arkansas, groups are suing the state for the “right” to abort babies up until birth rather than banning abortions after twelve weeks gestation (as if killing a baby at any time could be considered a “good” thing to do). People are obsessed with American Idol and couldn’t care less about any suffering that CNN and the New York Times doesn’t deem worthy of attention. We greave now for the eight-year old boy who was killed in the Boston explosions, but next week, he’ll be replaced by the latest “reality TV show.” And this piece of obvious bigotry didn’t help.

The Joker, played by Heath Ledger is the film The Dark Knight (2008) was right: “When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

And we will. Rob Bell (infamously) wrote a book called Love Wins. He was wrong.

161 days.

The Problem with Religious People, Part 2

rick-warrenIn the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew, another tragedy is occurring: So-called followers of Jesus are using Matthew’s death as an occasion to attack Pastor Warren. This is sick, ugly, and sadly, indicative of the state of the body today.

It’s one thing for non-believers to make ridiculous statements like, “your son died due to your anti-gay hate toward gay people including your son” (as if there was even evidence that Matthew was gay, or as if he was not greatly loved by his mother and father, which he clearly was). It’s another thing when believers take this occasion to bash Rick Warren’s supposed theological errors, as if this was some kind of divine payback for his alleged sins. What kind of garbage is this?

-Dr. Michael L. Brown
“Enough with the Mean-Spirited Words Against Rick Warren (And Others)!”

Yesterday, I read about the tragic suicide of well-known author and Pastor Rick Warren’s son Matthew. I have three adult children about the same age as Matthew and I can’t imagine any pain worse than facing the death of any of my children. Words cannot express the agony that Rick and Kay Warren must be enduring at this time, especially because they are people who are in the public eye. Whatever they experience, including heartrending grief, the world media watches them.

Imagine my surprise at reading Michael Brown’s article (I don’t usually read the source website, but I followed the link from Facebook), from which I quoted above, about how not only secular people are mistreating the Warren’s over the death of their son, but other Christians as well.


I know that Pastor Warren is a target for a number of reasons. Sometimes all it takes is just saying “I’m a Christian” in public. Some people, including many Christians, are critical of MegaChurches. Others, mainly secular folks, are critical of Warren for what they perceive as his “anti-gay” stance. Some of his critics have gone so far as to claim that Pastor Warren’s son Matthew was gay (which has not been substantiated to the best of my knowledge) and that it was Rick Warren’s disapproval of that “fact” which resulted in Matthew’s suicide.

To give you some context, I followed a link from Brown’s article to twitchy.com, which collected a number of “tweets” people made on twitter regarding Matthew Warren’s suicide:

@GayPatriot: I would imagine. But if you’re gay and your dad is the biggest preacher in the country it could lead to mental health problems.

@boymv18: your son died due to your anti-gay hate toward gay people including your son..

@TheReallyRick: Son of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has committed suicide. Place your bets on when its discovered he was gay. #ReligionKills

@BlazePhoenix_: Trust me, I AM being as charitable as I can be about hateful bigoted Pastor Rick Warren’s obvious failure with his own son!

The beat goes on and you can visit the “twitchy” website to read the rest of the “commentary.” It’s not pretty. I periodically encounter atheists on the web and their usual stance is to accuse me of moral failings because I “need religion to be a good person.” The assumption is that it’s better to be a good person based on who you are rather than who you serve.

Uh huh. Color me unconvinced.

michael-brownAnyway, what about Christians criticizing Warren? Brown’s article didn’t quote any Christian criticism nor provide links to websites or blogs taking Pastor Warren to task, so I (briefly) tried to find a few. I didn’t do well at all. The two primary Christian sites I found writing on the topic were Christianity Today and Christian News. Both sites presented straightforward news articles without editorializing excessively, especially in any negative light. I looked at the comments on each site in response, and found that they were universally kind and compassionate.

From the Christianity Today blog:

Loretta: I am so very sad for this family and their great loss. The enemy of God’s people attacks us where he can hurt us the worst, in our families. I will pray for your family’s healing from the Lord. I trust that this young man knew the Lord as his personal Savior and that knowing that will bring the Warren family hope and comfort.

Barbara: I am so sorry, I know the battle, my daughter suffers from depression for many years and she has just turned 27yrs old. I pray everyday for her and others. why do they have to go through this, I am so sorry, I belive Jesus has him now and now he can work on him and bring him to the promise land, May Jesus bless you all .Barbara a mom.

Paul: This is very sad indeed. May the Warrens at this time experience abundant comfort and peace from our God and Father. And may the young man’s soul rest in peace. Amen!

The comments at Christian News were similar:

I am so sorry for your loss. My father committed suicide when I was 3 years old, I will spend my life wanting to help the broken hearted and show them our heavenly fathers love! My prayers are with the Warren family and friends. I pray the do not “what if” but say “what now God!” I love the Warrens for all that they as a pastor and family have given to us. I pray all of our words spoken to this family are filled with love and grace. We all mean well, listen and pray for them! Praying now!!
Mary Ann Moore, Sebastopol, CA

Linda Long: We are so sorry for the loss of your son. We also lost our son to suicide. It’s a Pain that never goes away, but we have an amazing God that will give you all the strength you need to get through this difficult time. Our prayers and thoughts are with you and family. God bless you!

If there is Christian criticism against the Warrens in relation to the death of their son, I can’t find any. That’s probably good, because I periodically have problems with religious people and even sometimes lose my faith in religious people ever having the ability to truly follow the will of God.

Atheists are expected to be mean-spirited and cruel (not that all of them are) but Christians are to aspire to a higher standard. More’s the pity when we don’t.

However, Brown’s focus wasn’t on Rick Warren who, as I said before, is an easy target for a variety of reasons. His focus was on mean-spirited Christians and how we are exceptionally poor witnesses to the world around us when we are unkind and inconsiderate.

Interestingly enough, in Bible study last Sunday, we studied 1 Peter 2 which includes instructions on how to be good examples and good witnesses for Christ in a pagan world:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12

failureIf there are Christians who are publicly criticizing Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay for any reason at this difficult time in their lives, you should be ashamed of yourselves. If there are Christians specifically criticizing the Warrens for somehow participating or causing their son’s suicide, again, you should be ashamed. Whatever differences you may think you have with the Warrens or however you may feel about Pastor Warren’s theology, doctrine, or the nature and character of his church, does any of that really matter right now? If someone is grieving…if anyone is grieving, isn’t it our responsibility to show comfort and compassion in the name of Christ?

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

John 13:34

The implication is that we should love each other, not just in a “warm and fuzzy feeling” way, but with the same sort of love that Messiah loves us…love that’s self-sacrificing…loving someone enough that you would die for them if you had to.

Brown finishes his article with this:

Sadly, it is not just active Christians who frequent Christian websites. There are plenty of former-believers and outright non-believers who visit them too, and all too often, our inability to be civil in the midst of our disagreements, our extreme willingness to identify fellow-believers as false prophets and false teachers, our self-assumed right to judge the motivation of people’s hearts, and our utter violation of Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us simply demonstrates to the world that our gospel is not true.

May this be the day we search our hearts, determining to watch our words, repent of our sins, and glorify the Lord with everything we write and say. Surely he deserves nothing less than this.

And remember: The world is watching.

The world is watching. We can choose to either sanctify the Name of God or desecrate it. Our choice, and by our choice, people will make decisions for or against God.

And also remember it’s not just people who are watching. God watches as well.

My Strength

Do you want to enhance your life? Keep repeating throughout the day, “I love you, Hashem, my strength.” As you repeat this a number of times each day, you will feel yourself being strengthened spiritually and emotionally. You will be able to remember that Hashem is your Rock, your Fortress, and your Rescuer (Psalms 18:2,3). Hashem is the source of your strength. Recognizing this, gives you an inner strength that will sustain you on a high level each and every day.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Sustaining Inner Strength, Daily Lift #581”

As I write this, it is the morning of the last day of Rosh Hashanah as it is traditionally celebrated. Yom Kippur is yet to come but it is fast approaching. Many Jews around the world are rapt in solemn awe of God and praying, repenting and seeking forgiveness and redemption for themselves, their loved ones, the state of world Jewry, and the state of the world.

I said not too long ago that it’s important to take care of yourself. Letting yourself get beaten up too much, even for the sake of Heaven, could inhibit you from performing those tasks that God set before you for the sake of Heaven. While it is important and sometimes even vital to “fight the good fight,” it is also said that you should “choose your battles.” Remember, especially in the blogosphere, there are many, many people who argue for the sake of arguing, though they will always tell you that they have a more noble point to make. I suppose it should be easy to pick out the toxic people who blog or worse, who are part of your face-to-face life, and then avoid them, but engaging such people and trying to “debate” them is like staring at the aftermath of a terrible auto accident. It’s horrible to watch, but you can’t turn away.

But that’s not the point of life nor is it the reason God caused each of us to come into existence.

As young boys, Abaye and Rava were sitting in front of Rabbah, when Rabbah asked them, “To whom do we speak when we are saying a brachah?”

-Berachos 48a

Abaye and Rava both said that it is to ‫ – רחמנא‬the Merciful One— that we daven. When Rabbah asked them where ‫ רחמנא‬is found, Rava pointed toward the beams of the roof, and Abaye walked outside and pointed to the sky. Rabbah declared, “You are both destined to be great Rabbis! This is what is meant when people say that large squash plants can be detected from when they are already just blossoming.”

We often find Hashem referred to as “‫ – רחמנא‬The Merciful One”. This is rooted in our belief that everything Hashem does is only for our benefit. Hashem is infinitely compassionate, and He is merciful and kind in all His ways. When we recite blessings before we eat, it is an expression of our belief in Hashem’s precise supervision and specific care of all aspects of the world. Our proclaiming a brachah inspires an influence of holiness upon the world, and all spiritual entities associated with this food and the process involved in its preparation are activated.

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“Making of a Gadol”
Berachos 48

That’s closer to the point. “This is rooted in our belief that everything Hashem does is only for our benefit. Hashem is infinitely compassionate, and He is merciful and kind in all His ways.”

For some people, the solemn, august ceremony of Yom Kippur may not particularly emphasize God’s compassion and mercy. Particularly for non-Jews or Jews who were not raised in a religious home, encountering Yom Kippur “abruptly” in the middle of your life may seem not just humbling, but humiliating. You have sinned. You have failed everyone who depends on you, and you have failed God. How is it possible to approach the Throne and beg for another chance, another year, another life? After all, you’ve failed so often and so severely. People don’t change. People can’t change (or can we?).

Last year at this time, I wrote a blog post called Dancing with God on Yom Kippur. Seems like a rather odd image, but actually, it’s more appropriate than you might imagine. God is all about second chances. God, of course, knows how frail and error-prone we human beings are, and how easily we are lead astray, most often by our own delusions and desires. We think God wants us to talk incessantly when He really wants us to be quiet. We think God wants us to be a warrior, battling everyone who has a different theological bent than we do, but He really just wants us to be lovers of peace.

All things being equal, human beings would mess up a free lunch. We are the only elements in all of God’s Creation who don’t understand how to fit in and live our lives purposefully.

It takes great strength to face the worst aspects of who you are. It takes enormous courage to say, “I’m wrong” and “Will you forgive me?” not just to God, but to other people you or I or anyone has hurt. Most people don’t have that kind of strength and courage without humbling themselves before God. Most people defend themselves by becoming defensive and never imagine that they have made mistakes. Well, perhaps in their heart of hearts they do, but they fear the sense of self-humiliation that they think will accompany apologizing and making amends. They think it will trap them in a downward spiral of depression but in fact, it is ultimately liberating.

Remember what Rabbi Pliskin advised: “Keep repeating throughout the day, ‘I love you, Hashem, my strength.’ As you repeat this a number of times each day, you will feel yourself being strengthened spiritually and emotionally.”

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27:1 (ESV)

It may seem like a strange paradox, but in order to gain the strength we need to serve God in the coming year, we must become the least of all people, humbling ourselves even though we are terrified of feeling humiliation. We must become the least of all creatures, smaller and more helpless than even an infant. In humility, as children of God, we have the right to ask for His mercy. It is in our weakness that we are strong.

And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 18:2-4 (ESV)

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)

I love you, Hashem, my strength.


The memory of a righteous person is a blessing.

Proverbs 10:7

At a family therapy session, one family member said something totally uncalled for, provocative, and insulting to another person. The remark was extremely irritating to me, even as an observer, and I anticipated an explosive outburst of outrage from the recipient. To my great surprise, the latter remained quiet and merely gestured to indicate that he was dismissing the comment as being unworthy of a response.

After the session, I complimented the man on his self-restraint. He explained, “A friend of mine once had a very angry outburst. During his rage he suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness.

“I am not afraid that if I become angry I would also suffer a stroke. However, what I and everyone else remember of my friend are the last words of his life, which were full of bitterness and hostility. That is not the way I wish to be remembered. Since no person can know exactly when one’s time is up, I made up my mind never to act in such a manner, so that if what I was doing was to be my last action on earth, I would not be remembered that way.”

The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Eliezer told his disciples that a person should do teshuvah one day before his death, they asked, “How is a person to know when one will die?” Rabbi Eliezer answered, “Precisely! Therefore one should do teshuvah every day, since tomorrow may be one’s last day.”

The verse cited above may be explained in the same way. People should behave in a way that they would wish others to remember them, for that can indeed be a blessing.

Today I shall…

behave as though this day is the one by which I shall be remembered.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 10”

There’s more than a little anger flowing around on the Internet. Anyone with the ability to create a website or a blog potentially has access to a vast audience (though in reality, how many people really read all these messages), and whatever ax they have to grind, the website owner or blog writer freely grinds. I can’t exempt myself from such company since, given a good enough reason, I can go off half-cocked, just like the next guy.

But as we can see from the story told by Rabbi Twerski, if we allow hurt and anger to rule our lives, hostile words may be the last thing anyone remembers about us. Is that the sort of legacy you want to leave behind?

Many years ago, a psychologist friend of mine told me that anger is a “secondary emotion.” People don’t feel anger without some other emotion happening first. Usually it’s some sort of hurt or anxiety, like when you accidentally hit your finger with a hammer. First you feel pain, then you get mad at the hammer.

But there’s another kind of pain that people can suffer from, often for years or even decades. It’s the pain of unresolved fear or anxiety or loss. When we see a person fly off into a rage, all we are aware of is the rage, the unpleasantness of hearing such angry words and seeing someone screaming red-faced at us. We typically aren’t able to see behind the face at the sad, lost, and frightened person who is hiding beneath the anger and hostility.

Believe me, that “rager” isn’t half as angry at you or me as he or she is at themselves.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said this?

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:39-40 (ESV)

Why love your neighbor as yourself? What if you don’t even like yourself? What if you detest and loathe the person you are? How could those feelings in any way translate into loving another person and how in the world could Jesus make “love” a command? Emotionally, some people are just barely able to get by from day-to-day. Love would be an enormous stretch for them.

Right now, feel a greater sense of self-respect and respect for others. This will be reflected in how you speak and how you act. Repeat the words “self-respect and respect for others.”

If you had a greater amount of self-respect, what is one special thing you would do differently today?

What can you do today that would be an expression of greater respect for others?

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #560”

AbyssLook at what Rabbi Pliskin is saying. He’s associating self-respect with respect for other people. I’ve said in the past that Jesus directly connects the commandment to love God with the mitzvot of loving your neighbor. You cannot say you love your neighbor unless you love God and you cannot truly love God if you do not love your neighbor. But to love your neighbor; to respect him or her, you must also love and respect yourself.

No, I’m not suggesting leaping into the depths of narcissism, but as I’ve said in the past, depression robs us of the purpose, the meaning, the joy that God has created for all of our lives. It is the thief that takes from us who we really are.

Depression is not a sin, but it can take you to places lower than any sin.

-Chassidic saying

When you’re sitting at the bottom of the abyss, buried up to your neck in darkness and held in place by the heaviness of your chains, it can be extremely difficult to imagine any other type of life. And yet God did not create you to live in darkness and to exist in the shadows. While there are circumstances that can be difficult or even impossible to overcome physically; slavery, imprisonment, chronic brutality by a spouse or parent, God has always intended more for us.

Even when the physical or emotional torture and abuse has passed and we are free from those chains, often times, we continue to forge bonds of our own and then place ourselves in their power. Unfortunately, the darkness and chains that some people live in are invisible to the rest of us. All we see is the anger, the outbursts, the bullying, and the ugly way we are being treated by this person. We never see how terribly they are treating themselves.

If only there were a way out of the abyss; a way to rise up and climb into the light.

Higher consciousness is more than a state of mind.

It is a way of eating, of sleeping, of loving, of speaking, of doing business—it is apparent in all your ways.

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

I know the climb seems insurmountable. I know you don’t even want to admit you are at the bottom of your well. It’s never too late. Not as long as you don’t give up hope. Not as long as you can still look up and see the light.

Look at the light. Begin your climb. Rise.