Tag Archives: devotion

Vayikra: Drawing Closer

eph-2-10-potter-clayThe Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.

Leviticus 1:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)

The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) primarily deals with what are commonly called “sacrifices” or “offerings.” According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: a “sacrifice” implies giving up something that is of value to oneself for the benefit of another. An “offering” implies a gift which satisfies the receiver. The Almighty does not need our gifts. He has no needs or desires. The Hebrew word is korban, which is best translated as a means of bringing oneself into a closer relationship with the Almighty. The offering of korbanot was only for our benefit to come close to the Almighty.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayikra
Aish.com

Leviticus is one of the books of the Bible that many Christians can’t stand. It’s so boring. “Anyway,” we say to ourselves, “aren’t we done with all of those icky, bloody sacrifices?”

According to blogger and author Derek Leman, the sacrifices teach us a good many things about Jesus or Yeshua Our Atonement, as he titles his new book. No, I’ve not laid eyes on it yet but at some point, I’ll probably need to get a hold of a copy so I can review it. In the meantime, I’ll just have to offer what meager insights I have on this week’s Torah Portion and what it means for Christians.

The clue is in what Rabbi Packouz says about the nature of sacrifices or “korbanot” which has the meaning not so much of slaying an animal to appease God, but to bring an offering to God in order to draw closer to Him. Where else do we see this imagery?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5 (ESV)

Paul calls us to be living sacrifices and Peter says to offer God spiritual sacrifices. Obviously, in neither case are they suggesting that we bring animal sacrifices to the Temple or to offer (gulp) our own bodies as physical sacrifices on the pyre, though as I once mentioned, every soul can be considered to be on the altar of God.

Peasants-Carrying-Straw-MontfoucaultWhen we connect our lives to making a “sacrifice for God,” we usually think of depriving ourselves of something, doing without, even suffering pain and torture. I can’t say that’s not what God will ask of us. After all, in China and elsewhere in the world, Brother Yun and many others like him have suffered greatly and sacrificed much for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But regardless of what God may ask of you or me, whatever it is, it’s not a matter of what we are doing without but what immeasurable treasures we gain, the greatest of which is the drawing closer to God.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of waiting around to see what God will ask. Sometimes it’s a matter of looking around and seeing what needs to be done.

Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov once came to the marketplace in Yaroslav. He was passing among the vendors, checking the quality of the straw and hay for sale, when he met his friend Rabbi Shimon of Yaroslav.

“Rebbe, what are you doing here?” R. Shimon asked in surprise.

“Leave out my ‘rebbe’ and your ‘rebbe,’ and come with me to carry a bale of hay to a poor widow who had no hay or straw upon which to lay her broken body,” the Sassover replied pungently.

The two holy leaders went together, hauling a bale of hay on their shoulders. Astonished bystanders stared in wonder and moved aside to make room for them to pass.

As they went, Rabbi Moshe Leib remarked, “Were the Holy Temple standing today, we would be bringing sacrifices and libations. Now we bring straw, and it is as though we have all the kavanot (spiritual intentions) that come with offering the minchah sacrifice.”

Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov’s father, R. Yaakov, would take a job before Passover grinding wheat at the mill—not for himself, though he was also a poor man, but for a widow and orphan who lived in his neighborhood. And he did this despite his great and abiding love for the Torah, which he learned constantly.

Moshe Leib, his son, followed in his father’s footsteps. Despite his greatness in Torah, he did not worry about his honor when it came to performing acts of kindness for his fellow Jew with his own hands, even if they were beneath his status in the eyes of others.

-Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles
“In Place of a Temple Offering”
from Stories My Grandfather Told Me
quoted from Chabad.org

practicing_loveWe are the closest to God when we are the closest to other human beings, especially those who have needs far greater than our own. Here we see that two men, two Rebbes who normally did not carry their own straw much less carry straw for a poor widow drew closer to God by looking around, seeing a need, and responding unreservedly. Or as the Master taught:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23:11-12 (ESV)

Drawing closer to God is inconsistent with claiming self-righteousness, self-exaltation, and self-privilege. Servitude, humility, kindness, and a spirit willing to help with no expectation of return draws Creator and creation into close proximity. Seeking who we are in God brings us closer to God. Seeking who and what somebody else is in God as if it were our own will only bring trouble.

This is the way of Torah: eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, and sleep on the earth.

-Ethics of the Fathers 6:4

Does observance of Torah require living a life of poverty and depriving ourselves of all the niceties of the world.

Certainly not. The Talmud is elaborating upon another Talmudic statement: “Who is wealthy? One who is content with his portion” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

People who can be happy with the basics of life – food, clothing, and shelter – can truly enjoy the luxuries of life, because they can be happy even without them. Those whose happiness depends upon having luxuries are likely to be perennially dissatisfied, in constant need of more, and consequently unhappy, even if they have everything they desire.

A wise man once observed a display of various items in a store window. “I never knew there were so many things I can get along without,” he said.

If bread and water can satisfy us, then we can enjoy a steak. If we are not satisfied unless we have caviar, we will discover that even caviar is not enough.

Today I shall…

…try to be content with the essentials of life and consider everything else as optional.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nisan 2”
Aish.com

open-your-handAs Rabbi Twerski says, this isn’t an invitation to pursue self-deprivation, to give all our belongings to the poor, and then move to India to work with lepers. It’s not even an invitation to abandon motivation and striving to better ourselves, our incomes, and our positions in life. It is, however, an invitation to consider that after we’ve done all we can in taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, to look around, take stock of our environment, and to realize that we should be satisfied with the gifts of God’s providence. It is from those gifts that we give back to others and give back to God, for everything belongs to Him anyway, and who we are and what we have only exists so that we may serve Him.

And by serving God and serving others, we serve ourselves, for what we then achieve is union and belonging and closeness to who and where we came from in the first place.

Good Shabbos.

Getting Ready

TeshuvahRav used to say, “There is no eating or drinking in the World-to-Come…tzaddilkim sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the glow of the Shechina.” -17a

Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch illustrated the lesson of this Gemara with the following parable. A man planned to move to America. In those days, the only way to go from Israel to America was by boat. The trip was too long for one excursion, so the boat first stopped in France for two weeks, as the crew prepared the ship for the longer leg of the journey across the Atlantic. The traveler did not know English nor French, and he wanted to prepare himself for the journey, so he began by teaching himself French. When he arrived in France for the two week stay, he began to enjoy conversing with the natives. After the two weeks elapsed, he once again joined the other passengers and crew for the rest of the trip. When the finally arrived in America, the man tried to use his new skill of speaking French, but no one understood him, and he also did not understand the English speakers. Upon observing this, one of the French travelers who was with him on the boat smirked and commented, “It seems quite foolish for you to have spent your time learning French, which you knew you would only use for a total of two weeks, instead of learning English which you knew you would need for the rest of your life!”

This pearl of wisdom in our Gemara which Rav was used to say taught this lesson. A person is in this world for seventy or so years. His permanent abode will be in the eternal world to come. There, the language spoken does not include mundane matters such as jealousy and hatred. Nor is the topic discussed involve eating or drinking. Yet, what do people spend their time doing in this world? They busy themselves becoming inundated with concerns which are of this world, which is only temporary. The language spoken in the World-to-Come is simply where “the tzaddikim sit with their crowns upon their heads, and they radiate in the glow of the Shechina.” When a person comes to the עולם האמת , he will have to explain the language he studied, and whether he is prepared to communicate as is done in the World-to-Come.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Preparing for the World-to-Come”
Berachos 17

Even though I may not comment or otherwise indicate my presence, I visit a fair number of “religious” blogs on a daily basis and sample their content. A significant number of them indulge in various controversies (think Titus 3:9) and debates that are almost always swept into virtual “black holes;” like immense gravity wells in space that swallow all light and life but return nothing.

It’s like the Jewish gentleman in the above-quoted parable who learned a “language” that would serve him for only two weeks and ignored the greater requirement of learning the “language” he would need for a lifetime. Now imagine learning that the debates and discussions we deem so important in the here and now aren’t what’s really important to God and to our fellow human beings in the long run.

Today is 1 Elul on the Jewish religious calendar. It is, as I previously mentioned, a month in which observant Jews (and perhaps the occasional Christian) all over the world prepare themselves for their most important annual encounter with God.

You can think of the month of Elul in terms of the life you lead. Jews use this entire month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but our lives, from birth to death, are also a time of preparation.

During Elul, Jews take a frank spiritual assessment of themselves, dedicate themselves to turning away from willful sin, give generously to charity, make increased efforts at Torah study, perform more frequent acts of lovingkindness, and diligently repair relationships that have been damaged. Imagine if all of us did that all of the time? Imagine if doing so was our highest priority?

If you return, O Israel … you shall return unto Me. –Jeremiah 4:1

Today is the first day of Elul, a period of time which is particularly propitious for teshuvah, for it precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

Elul and ShofarThe Sages say that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul, form an acrostic for the verse in Song of Songs: I am devoted to my Lover and He is devoted to me (6:3). Song of Songs utilizes the relationship between a bridegroom and his betrothed to depict the relationship between God and Israel. Any separation between the two causes an intense longing for one another, an actual “lovesickness” (ibid. 2:5).

The love between God and Israel is unconditional. Even when Israel behaves in a manner that results in estrangement, that love is not diminished. Israel does not have to restore God’s love, because it is eternal, and His longing for Israel to return to Him is so intense that at the first sign that Israel is ready to abandon its errant ways that led to the estrangement, God will promptly embrace it.

Song of Songs depicts the suffering of Israel sustained at the hands of its enemies, and we can conclude that the Divine distress at this suffering of His beloved Israel is great. Teshuvah is a long process, but all that is needed for the restoration of the ultimate relationship is a beginning: a sincere regret for having deviated from His will, and a resolve to return.

Today I shall…

seek to restore my personal relationship with God by dedicating myself to teshuvah.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 1”
Aish.com

Imagine taking the time during the month of Elul, but ultimately with the rest of your life, to restore your relationship with God and with all of the people around you. Now take that imagination and put it into action, turning thoughts and wishes into a tangible reality.

Considering Meditation

The cruel facts are that to do what a Jew has got to do, you must think. Not just think as in “If apples are $2/lb., then two pounds are gonna cost me $4.” I mean think as in contemplate, cogitate, ponder, fire up your cerebral cortex into high gear.

That was Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda’s point. Rabbi Bachya was a Jewish sage of 11th century Spain. He noted that many authors write about what a Jew is supposed to do and speak—what he calls “duties of the external limbs”—but none write about the “duties of the heart.” He penned a classic work by that name that is still studied to this day. In his introduction, he provides his list of some of the Torah obligations that involve mind and heart. Among them, those that are relevant to deep, contemplation—which he recommends throughout the book…

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Is Meditation Kosher?”
from the Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series
Chabad.org

With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Psalm 119:13-16

Meditation can seem like it’s some sort of far out contemplative state associated with a far eastern religious practice, but both Judaism and Christianity have a history of associating meditation and prayer. I Googled “should a Christian meditate” and got a ton of search results, too numerous for me to review, especially within the context of a single “morning meditation” (Gee, there’s that word, again). I picked the first one available which is from BibleStudyGuide.org:

At first thought, meditation is something that we may believe is reserved for strange, far-out cult members. But, Christians are to spend time in meditation. The meditation of Christians is much different than cult meditation which may use a mantra. Webster defines meditate as “1: to focus ones thoughts on: reflection or ponder over 2: to plan or project in the mind … : to engage in contemplation or reflection.” The greek word logizomai is translated various ways, but is translated meditate (NKJ) and think (KJ) in Phil. 4:8. Vines says of logizomai in Phil. 4:8 “it signifies ‘make those things the subject of your thoughtful consideration,’ or ‘carefully reflect on them.'”

Paul exhorts brethren to carefully consider, reflect, ponder, meditate on those things which are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy. He says: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, what ever things are lovely, what ever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8). In other words, Christians are to immerse their thoughts in everything that is good and spiritual in the Lord.

I have no idea how accurate all that is relative to mainstream Christian thought, but it seems to be enough, on the surface, to justify Christian meditation, even as Rabbi Freeman supports Jewish meditation associated with prayer. We also see, from my quote of David in Psalm 119, that meditation upon the acts of God pre-dates the first Temple in Jerusalem, so it enjoys a very long tradition among the chosen people of God.

But what exactly is meditation, how do we employ it in terms of prayer, and how are we to consider God and ourselves through this process? In Jewish thought, it has to do with the concept of “knowing.”

Note, both in Maimonides’ language and in Bachya, the knowing. Not “to know,” but actively, perpetually going about knowing. There’s a difference between knowledge and knowing. You can stop knowing and still have knowledge. Knowledge is something you have. Knowing is something you do.

But what does that mean? How do we actively participate in the process of “knowing” God versus having “knowledge” of God. For a Jew, it has to do with meditation and obedience to the first five positive and the first five negative commandments of the Rambam’s 613 mitzvot.

Here’s an example from Rabbi Freeman’s article:

# Mitzvah Source Text Source
+1 Knowing that there is G‑d. I am G-d your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. Exodus 20:2; Deut. 5:6
-1 Knowing that there is no power other than G-d. You shall have no other gods besides me. Exodus 20:3; Deut. 20:4
+2 Affirming G-d’s oneness. Hear O Israel, the G-d is our G-d, the G-d is one. Deut. 6:4
+3 Loving G-d. You shall love G-d your G-d with all your heart… Deut. 6:5
+4 Revering G-d. You shall revere G-d Deut. 6:13
+5 Serving G-d with your heart (i.e. prayer) You shall serve G-d your G-d.…and to serve Him with all your heart” Exodus 23:25; Deut. 11:13

According to Rabbi Freeman, the process of “knowing” as well as “affirming,” “loving,” and “revering” God requires that we meditate upon Him. But that still doesn’t tell us what it means, only why a Jew must meditate; in order to obey the Torah of God. There’s also the problem of loving and revering. How can a person be commanded to love? You either love or you don’t. You can’t turn the process of loving on and off like a light switch. You can decide to meditate upon God, but can you decide upon command to also love Him?

What is the path to love and reverence of G-d? Meditate on His actions and on His wonderful and vast creations and you will become aware of His endless and unlimited wisdom. Immediately you will come to love, praise and glorify G‑d with great desire to know His great name.

—Rambam (Maimonides), Foundations of Torah 2:2

According to Rambam, you can learn to love God “on command” … by meditating. Think of it the way you think about someone you love romantically. Usually, in the early days of a relationship, you can’t keep your mind of the other person. If you are apart for any reason, you think about them, remember your last conversation, imagine the way the person looked the last time you saw them, and try to conjure up the sound of their voice. In a way, you “meditate” upon them and “all their works” (things that they did). Does this not contribute to our active “knowing” of the person and our progression of “loving” them? Is that so different than David meditating on all the works and wonders of God?

But the last positive commandment is to “serve” God. What does meditating upon God have to do with serving Him? In Judaism, “serving” God is traced back to the duties of the Priests in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, when performing various services, including the sacrifices. After the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans, much of the concept of the Temple service was translated into prayer. To serve God is to pray to God.

But prayer, in Judaism, isn’t just the act of “talking to God.” Especially in liturgical prayer, a Jew is to contemplate on, concentrate on, and meditate upon, the process of prayer, right down to the individual words involved in the act of praying. This sounds a lot like a sort of meditation during prayer, but meditation is also involved in the Jewish person preparing themselves for prayer, prior the act of Tefillah.

Don’t begin tefillah until you have achieved koved rosh. The fervent ones of old [“chassidim harishonim”] would pause for an hour before tefillah, so that they could focus their hearts on their Father in heaven.

—Talmud Berachot, 30b

Before tefillah, ponder matters of the majesty of the exalted G‑d and of the smallness of humankind. Remove all human pleasures from your heart.

—R’ Moshe Isserles, ibid.

Meditation then, is a state of preparation, wherein you make yourself ready to enter into the presence of God in His realm. You don’t just “drop in” on God (although there are times when we need Him in a very immediate sense). You treat God with awe, dignity, and respect. You prepare yourself as if you are preparing for an extremely important encounter, by making your mind and your emotions ready for the experience. All this is fine for Rabbi Freeman’s Jewish audience, but is anything he’s talking about applicable to the Christian?

I haven’t cited anything wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane (don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon). Just plain Judaism, the stuff that’s meant for every Jew—and wouldn’t hurt for all the rest of humanity as well.

That seems to be a pretty straightforward answer, though if any readers found some of the Jewish concepts in this blogpost challenging, it may be a bit daunting to discover that nothing “wild and kabbalistic, esoteric or arcane” was involved. Not only is a period of contemplation and preparation required for the Jew, but it’s recommended for anyone who is about to enter the Throne room of the King of the Universe.

But how do you do that? I’ll save the answer for next time.

It has to come from the core, but we are not masters over that place.

We can barely master our wardrobe—our conscious thought, our words to others, what our hands and feet are doing. Never mind the hidden things within.

But we can do this: We can wash our clothes and bathe our skin in pure waters. Meaning: we can focus our thoughts, guide our words and clean up our act.

Once scrubbed enough that light can pass through, we await the moment when the core awakens.

This is what Moses told his people on their last day together: “The hidden things belong to G‑d. But the obvious is for us and our children forever, to do what needs to be done.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Core”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Forgetting God

Praying with tefillinChumros are not a simple matter at all. Rav Pinchas of Koretz, zt”l, points out that a person can easily get so wrapped up in chumros that he forgets about Hashem. His hyper-focus on the minutiae makes him forget the goal.

As the Sichos HaRan, zt”l, pointed out two hundred years ago, there are those who spend inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom to ensure that they are clean for davening. Meanwhile, they are obsessively pursuing a goal that wastes a great deal of time and risk missing the zeman tefilah. Is this to the purpose when the only halachic requirement is that one check himself for a short time in the bathroom to ensure basic cleanliness before prayer?

Although chumros can propel someone on a high spiritual level even higher, they can be counterproductive for someone not really on the level. The entire idea of “levels” can be confusing, though, since sometimes a person chooses the path of chumrah not from genuine piety, but because he wants others to see him as such.

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, was known for his chumros, yet he did not advocate taking on extra chumros unless one is on the level. Interestingly, he once illustrated this rather common imbalance of priorities with a statement on today’s daf. “How can one who is not holding by them assume extra chumros? This can be compared to the statement in the Mishnah in Bechoros 40. There we find that having one eye bigger than the other is a halachic blemish. Similarly, one who acts like someone of great spiritual stature in certain regards but is not in others has a skewed view of reality. It would be better if he were to act in accordance with his real level!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Balanced Vision”
Bechoros 40

This sort of behavior may be difficult for many Christians to understand. I believe that the Catholic church has a tradition of taking on greater acts of penance to draw closer to Christ, but I don’t believe this is something common among mainstream Protestants except perhaps for fasting and offering additional prayers. However, as noted above, we can become so involved in our “religious practices” that we can forget all about actually serving God. This is a case when our actions take on a life of their own and become divorced from the underlying motivation. It would be as if you took it upon yourself to give to the needy, but your acts of charity became the driving force of your life, along with the thanks and praise of men, rather than the God who commands you to have compassion for the poor.

Of course, regardless of motivation or even if you consider God at all, the poor are fed and cared for by your charity, so it’s not a complete loss. But let’s look at something else for a moment that also isn’t clearly understood by many Christians.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; he shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall he drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout his term as nazirite, he may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.

Throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that he has set apart for the Lord, he shall not go in where there is a dead person. Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head: throughout his term as nazirite he is consecrated to the Lord. –Numbers 6:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)

This is the beginning of the conditions for an Israelite who has taken a Nazarite vow, the purpose of which was to bring the person closer to God. It’s an interesting condition at the end of the vow (which could last for several months) that the Nazir would bring a sin offering. One interpretation of this is that, since God had provided sufficient means in the Torah for any Jew to draw near to Him, there was an actual component of “sin” in becoming a Nazir, as if God’s Torah wasn’t good enough. And yet the Torah itself provides the conditions by which one may become a Nazir. Further, we know that both the Prophet Samuel and Samson the Judge were life-long Nazirs. We also know that the Apostle Paul took upon himself a Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18) and paid the price at the end of the Nazarite vows for four other Jews (Acts 21:20-26).

Today, it’s impossible for a Jew to take a Nazarite vow because there currently is no Temple in Jerusalem and no active Levitical priesthood. We see that taking such a vow has many benefits and perhaps a few liabilities, but one of the dangers of such a vow is that the conditions of the vow may become more important than God Himself. Again, Christianity doesn’t understand this, but maybe we can understand something else.

I remember being in Christian Bible studies. At some point during some of these studies at church, the teacher would ask the class to all close our eyes and to offer up prayers for one reason or another. Knowing that you’re going to speak your prayer to God out loud in front of a bunch of other Christians creates a strange situation. At least for me, I considered what sort of prayer would sound acceptable or even meritorious to the people around me. It was very hard to actually talk to God without worrying what my fellow believers might think. I can promise you that my public prayers were somewhat different and perhaps really different when spoken aloud in front of witnesses than they would have been if it were just God and me.

There are non-Jews who choose to take some of the Jewish mitzvot upon themselves and even a little halachah as they understand it. I’ve known many of these people and while most of them are sincere in their motivations and have hearts sincerely turned toward God, some of them have become diverted by their practice and have all but lost sight of why they are performing the various commandments. I’ve heard such people argue about the proper way to tie tzitzit, whether or not a blue cord should be included, the pronunciation of some of the Hebrew prayers, whether or not a minyan can include women, and on and on and on. The irony mixed in with this tragedy, is that these people who are so consumed with obeying what they see as their obligations to God, have no true understanding of how and why Jews perform these mitzvot. Further, they reject the Jewish traditions associated with the mitzvot and substitute their individual interpretations for the commandments. Somewhere in the shuffle, God becomes forgotten.

The Mishna Berura Yomi Digest for Siman 128 Seif 24 explains that drawing near to God doesn’t have to be all that complicated and that God desires both the scholar and the “simple” man of the earth to have the opportunity to come closer. Judaism provides a solution that might seem unusual to the Christian.

On today’s amud we find that even those simple people who are not present during birchas kohanim are also included in the blessing. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the Baal Shem Tov was to build up the downtrodden masses. The simple folk who couldn’t learn much are also an integral part of the chosen people. They, too, have a spiritual mission here on earth.

During one of the many times that Rav Meir Arak, zt”l, met with the Imrei Emes, zt”l, of Gur, he asked the rebbe a question that was troubling him. “I do not understand why our sages draw a distinction between the wine libations and other sacrifices. Regarding other sacrifices our sages teach that anyone who learns the laws of the sin or guilt offering is considered to have brought that sacrifice. Clearly the same is true regarding other sacrifices. And presumably, this is also the case regarding one who learns the laws of the libations.

“Strangely, when the sages mention a person who wishes to bring nesachim they do not recommend studying the halachos.

“Instead, they say that one who wishes to pour libations on the altar should fill the throats of Torah scholars with wine. Why is this second point necessary?”

The Imrei Emes replied in an inspiring manner. “Telling people that learning the laws of sacrifices is likened to bringing a sacrifice is only helpful to those who can learn. What about the simple folk who are unable to delve into the complexities of kodshim? It was for them that our sages said that one who supports Torah scholars by providing them with wine is considered to have poured libations on the altar. Doesn’t a simple person also need a way to draw near to Hashem while there is no beis hamikdash?”

Again, the solution presented here probably seems unnecessarily complicated to most Christians, but in a religious world that’s driven by tradition and specific acts crafted to comply with what is believed to be the desires of God, this process works quite well. A man who is no scholar and whose Hebrew is just so-so can still fulfill the mitzvot equivalent to offering the sacrifices and learned study of Torah. Please keep in mind though that any religious activity that involves a sufficient amount of complexity can, if allowed to do so, become more important than the reason for performing it. The solution for the church is to do away with this danger by doing away with the Law. No Torah, no halachah, no complexity equals just you and God, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It all goes too far in the opposite direction if you believe God does not expect you to change anything in what you do and how you do it in daily and religious living. On the other hand, with the Law completely absent, Christians have found other ways to stray.

I’ve seen Christians focused intently on pleasing God who completely lost their path and who became enamoured with things such as how to teach the best Bible study, how to offer the best public prayers, how to dress with just the right amount of modesty for church services, and just how often to invite the Pastor over for dinner. The activities themselves aren’t bad, but when they take the place of a simple desire to connect to God through behavior, then these acts become almost meaningless. If God is not there in what you do, what’s the point?

The Mishna Berura Yomi Digest for Siman 128 Seif 26-29 provides a different point of view of drawing nearer to God, this time, not from the perspective of the less learned Jew, but from the position of exalted Torah scholars.

We find on today’s daf that sometimes it is preferable to refrain even from saying pesukim.

When the Imrei Emes of Ger, zt”l, returned from his first voyage to Eretz Yisroel, the Rav of Kalish, zt”l, tried to elicit some details about his journey. The Imrei Emes, however, did not seem to be willing to engage in conversation.

“Nu?” prodded the Kalisher Rav. “How does the rebbe feel after his visit to the holy land? Don’t chazal say that even the air of Eretz Yisroel makes one wise?”

The Imrei Emes nodded. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered. “And chazal also said: the protective fence for wisdom is…silence!”

This can also mean that silence is sometimes the best defense, because with it, one can avoid an argument altogether.

A delegation of sefardic rabbis once came to visit the Maharil Diskin, zt”l, the illustrious Rav of Brisk.

As soon as they arrived, the group of sages began to weave a number of intricate arguments about certain Torah subjects, while the Maharil simply sat quietly and did not participate.

Eventually they tired of this, and decided to take their leave. As they left, the members of the delegation shook their heads in dismay and lamented to one another, “What a pity—to see such a great scholar who has gotten old and forgotten his learning!”

What the group didn’t realize was that the gaon of Brisk was just as much a master of silence as he was a master of Torah!

Maybe your religious study and practice is devoted solely to the glory of God or maybe you have accidentally strayed into an area where you glorify yourself above your Master. It’s all too easy to wander away from the true path in the face of fulfilling the minutiae of the various commandments and obligations you believe are important to you. However, if you realize one day in the middle of your prayers, or while reading a Bible commentary, or in the process of delivering a devastating retort to someone’s argument on religious blog comment, that what you are doing is more important to you than to God, please stop. This is like driving your car down the freeway at 80 mph and suddenly realizing you’ve forgotten how to operate a motor vehicle. Under such circumstances, the safest thing to do is to slow down, pull over, come to a stop, and exit the vehicle.

Then wait for help, because you really need it.

It’s like a man who wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s forgotten how to read. He feels fine otherwise, but books, magazines, and newspapers now contain only these cryptic markings that yesterday were words, sentences, and paragraphs. What can be done? In this person’s case, he can go back to the basics of learning his ABCs, then learning to read from a simple primer, and then working up from there. What do we do when our religion has become more important than God? We can stop our religious practice temporarily, return to a simple reading of the Bible and extemporaneous prayer, and learn to love God all over again. I’ve heard many Christians in public prayer saying, “We give you all the glory, Jesus.” I don’t doubt that most of these people are sincere, but if they were to stop suddenly and listen to their own voice, would any of them realize that they were giving more glory to how they sounded in front of a group?

Take time occasionally to unplug from the way you try to connect to God and just connect to God.

If you play for your own glory and not for God’s you have no place here. -A Maggid