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The Tefillin and the Shoemaker

Praying with TefillinAnd they (Korach and his following) converged upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! Every one of the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G-d?”Numbers 16:3

There are those who maintain that they have no need of a mentor to guide them through life. They claim, as did Korach, that each and every individual can forge his relationship with G-d unaided. They argue that since the Jewish faith rejects the concept of an intermediary between man and G-d, they have no use for a rebbe or master.

They fail to understand that the entire Jewish people are a single entity, that every individual soul is, in truth, but a limb or organ of the soul of Israel. Just as each limb and organ of the human body has its function at which it excels, so, too, every soul has its role and mission, as well as its limitations. The ‘loftiest’ of souls is dependent upon the ‘lowliest’ for the attainment of the single, unified goal. And were any limb to strike out on its own, detaching itself from the ‘head’ which provides the entire body with vitality and direction – the results are self-understood.

Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch: “When an individual adapts the attitude that he can do it all on his own, he reminds me of the story told about the peasant and the tefillin. Once, a Jew noticed a pair of tefillin in the house of a gentile peasant. Upon seeing a holy object in such a place he began to inquire about the tefillin, wishing to purchase them from the goy. The peasant, who had looted the tefillin in a recent pogrom, grew agitated and defensive. “What do you mean, where did I get them?” he blurted out. “Why, I made them myself! I myself am a shoemaker!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Once Upon a Chasid
“Jack of all Trades”
Chabad.org commentary on Torah Portion Korach

Paul explained that he received the gospel through a revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). He claimed that the gospel message he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel. It was not the normal gospel message. He received a different gospel. This is an important point – a critical point – for understanding Paul. The message of the gospel that Paul proclaimed was not precisely the same message of the gospel that the rest of the apostolic community proclaimed. In other places, Paul specifically refers to this unique gospel as “my gospel” (see Romans 2:15-16, Romans 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8-9).

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Three: Paul’s Gospel (Galatians 1:11-24)”
pp 35-6

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:8 (NASB)

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary on the previous week’s Torah Portion Korach, I saw an inevitable collision with the above-quoted portion of Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. Although Korach and his co-conspirators claimed authority because all of Israel was holy to God, while Paul claimed authority based on his personal revelation from Jesus (see Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 26:15-18), they both set themselves (apparently) in opposition to the established authority representing God, Moses in the case of Korach, and the Jerusalem Council, in the case of Paul.

We know that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 who were with them came to a bad end (Numbers 16:28-35) and their story is sometimes told in congregations as a cautionary tale not to go against the established leadership, but what about Paul? Does Paul’s receiving a personal revelation and mission from Jesus exempt him from respecting and obeying properly established authority? Lancaster says, “no”:

Despite the dismissive air, Paul submitted to their authority. He had already conceded that, if they had rejected his gospel of Gentile inclusion, he would have been running his race in vain. They had the power to utterly discredit the gospel message he had been presenting. Therefore, he certainly did respect their authority. But he seems less than reverently respectful in Galatians 2:5.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Seven: Remember the Pour (Galatians 2:6-10)”
pg 71

While Paul could be opinionated and “outspoken”, he nevertheless realized that he was a man under not only the Master’s authority, but under the authorities established by God in Jerusalem, which included James, Peter, and John. But he had to approach these “pillars”, present his position based on the Master’s revelation to him, and hope they’d see things his way. Fortunately for Paul (and the Gentiles), they did. Otherwise Christianity, as we understand it, probably wouldn’t exist today. In that case, any person not born a Jew who wanted to enter into a full covenant relationship with God would have to convert to Judaism (for the sake of this blog, I will define Gentile Noahides -in contrast to Christians – as meriting a place in the world to come but not enjoying a full covenant relationship with God on par with the Jews).

The example of Paul presents a problem, though. His experience was entirely subjective. No one else saw or heard the details of his visions and so no one could verify independently, that he was telling the truth. In theory, he could have made the whole thing up in order to further some personal agenda he had in relation to Gentiles becoming “Messianic” disciples. If we accept the Biblical record on faith as well as reason, we accept that his visions were real and his authority was real.

But what about “authorities” today?

Most mainstream churches and synagogues are lead by a Pastor or Rabbi (respectively) who has received the education required to be ordained by their branch of faith and they have been appointed to a specific congregation upon the approval of that congregation’s board of directors. The board, and its various committees, have the authority to set the specific duties of the clergy, approve and renew their contractual relationship, and even fire the clergyperson if necessary. While the Pastor or Rabbi is the “face” and “voice” of the congregation in many ways, he or she can hardly act with total autonomy or impunity and are held accountable to the standards and authority of the congregation and their overseeing denomination or sect.

Sadly, not all religious groups and leaders operate on this principle. Paul’s “example” of receiving a personal revelation can be and has been terribly misused and misappropriated by many so-called “leaders” and “prophets” to set themselves up as the sole and individual authority over their congregations. If anyone complains about the “leader” and his or her lack of accountability to others, Paul’s example is cited and then the dissenters are accused of being like Korach and his band (implying that the dissenters will suffer a similar fate if they don’t withdraw their objections).

I know such a ploy may sound improbable and even silly to some of you reading this blog post, but the power of cult leaders over large groups of “believers” can be formidable to those who have made a commitment and who believe their “leader” is the “real meal deal”; the one and only person anointed by God to spread a special “message” to the “remnant” of the faithful.

I’m sure you are thinking about some of the infamous and extreme examples of what I’m describing, such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, but there are probably thousands of other religious groups out there that operate below our radar, so to speak. Certainly a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement, function under the sole authority of the “Rabbi” in charge, acknowledging only his (in the vast majority of these cases, the leader is male) “right” to make decisions and pronouncements for the congregation, based on the leader’s self-described “anointing” from God.

(I want to make it clear at this point, that there are many MJ congregations that do operate on a board of directors model and that do receive authority from a central, overseeing organization which does provide a series of checks and balances for congregational leadership – I’m not painting “Messianic Judaism” as such with a single, broad brush – however, because “the movement” is largely unregulated, some people -usually not Jewish- just put on a kippah and a tallit, declare themselves a “Messianic Rabbi”, and proceed to gather a “flock”. Then they go about sharpening whatever theological ax they have to grind, which much of the time, has only a faint resemblance to anything Jewish).

Everything I’ve said up to this point certainly could make you doubtful or concerned if you find yourself in a “one-man show” type of congregation or even one where you might suspect (correctly or not) that the the congregation’s board is pretty much “rubber-stamping” the clergy’s decisions. On the other hand, we are taught to respect authority:

Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. -Pirkei Avot 3:12

It’s confusing. However, anyone, leader or otherwise, should recall this:

Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. -Pirkei Avot 3:1

There is a Heavenly authority who holds us all accountable for what we say and do. Examples like Paul’s vision are extremely rare. They were extremely rare in Paul’s day and perhaps they may not even occur in the common era. Judaism has a long tradition of centralized authority but generally, that authority is not held by a single individual. The great sages often disagreed and it was through those debates and dialogues that justice and mercy was distilled throughout the centuries and applied to the devout in response to the unique needs of their communities and the time in which they lived.

Some respond to religious leadership concerns by refusing to affiliate with any faith group, but we all come under some sort of authority, including our employers, and local and national governments. Meeting with our congregations is how we prevent ourselves from entering into individual error (though I’m hardly one to talk at this point):

Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, “Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.” But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d’s table, as is stated, “And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.’ ”

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life. -Pirkei Avot 3:3-4

We are charged to test the validity of a leader as the Bereans tested the validity of Paul’s teachings (see Acts 17:10-12). We also know that valid and righteous leaders are established by God for the good of the world:

It was for this reason that actual peace in the world was brought about through Aharon, who descended to all creatures and elevated them to Torah.

-From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 103-107

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. –Psalm 29:11

Faith and history have established the relative authority of Korach and Paul and God’s justice and mercy was enacted in both lives in accordance with the actions of these men. Our lives are the same. We serve the same God. We all benefit from His providence. We are all accountable to His justice and we all rely on His mercy. We should not take the Name of God or His authority lightly. In the end, God prevails:

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

Rabbi Akivah would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, `”For in the image of G-d, He made man.” -Pirkei Avot 3:14

A man’s soul is the light of God. –Proverbs 20:27

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Gardening

GardeningThat same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”Matthew 13:1-9

A creative mind is a fertile field. But that may simply mean that the weeds are taller and grow faster.

First, soften your mind’s soil, plough its furrows. Open it to the wisdom that rains down from the heavens; let the dew of Torah sink into your soul, the seeds laid by tzaddikim enter your heart. Learn to lie still as they awaken and take root. Quietly await the spring.

In the place of thorns and a tangle of weeds will grow a bountiful garden. Where once wild and brazen delusions sprang forth, a tightly focused beam of light will shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Field of Your Mind”
Chabad.org

The parable of the sower being related by Jesus is interpreted as the different reactions people have when hearing the “message of the kingdom” (see Matthew 13:18-23), but this story of the Master is more than a little related to Rabbi Freeman’s commentary about how to prepare our minds for Torah study and spiritual learning. You may think that because you read the Bible, go to Sunday school, go to a Talmud study, or frequent online religious forums, that you are “studying the Word” and are well prepared to receive it. However, that’s not always the case.

You’ve heard the expression, “you can lead a horse to water…” and it’s true. You can take a person who has certain attitudes about the Bible, Jesus, God, and so forth, and introduce them to your scripture, your church, your synagogue, or another favorite religious context, but that doesn’t mean they’ll receive it in the way you are hoping. It’s not just the material, it’s the person and how they see the situation. Here’s a perfect example:

Rabbi Eliezer Silver zt”l was a leader and activist who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. After the liberation of the Nazi death camps, he tried to revive the spirit of Judaism among the survivors.

One of his many activities was organizing prayer services. A certain refugee refused to participate, explaining that he’d been turned off to Judaism forever. He said that there had been a religious Jew in this refugee’s camp who had smuggled in a Siddur (prayer book), and he would charge people half their bread ration to use his Siddur for ten minutes. After witnessing such cruelty, the refugee refused to have anything to do with Siddurim, prayer services, or anything Jewish.

Rabbi Silver approached him with great compassion and understanding, but offered him a new perspective. “You only see the Jew who was so cruel,” he said. “What about the holy Jews who were willing to give up half their meager rations for just 10 minutes with a Siddur?”

No one can blame the refugee for his feelings. After living through his hellish experience, who could say they would react any differently? Nonetheless, says Rabbi Shimshon Pincus zt”l, two people can hear the same story and one notices the cruelty, while the other notices the holiness and dignity.

The Sages say that what the eye sees depends on what the heart feels (Talmud Avoda Zara 28b), and in this week’s Torah Portion (Num. 15:39) we’re told “Don’t stray after your heart and after your eyes.” Our eyes will only see negativity and impurity if our hearts have already been corrupted. If we make the effort to turn our hearts towards positivity, giving to others, appreciating, then the world will transform before our eyes into a panorama of pleasures and joy, the constant gifts that G-d wishes upon us.

Commentary on Torah Portion Shlach
by Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

WateringIn my previous morning meditation, I was pretty discouraged. It passed, but sometimes the enormity of a life of faith, continually reaching out to God, trying to understand even the most elementary lesson of holiness, and trying to share my (what I hope are) unique perspectives with other people, can be really wearing. Yet, as we just saw in the story related by Rabbi Dixler, even the most difficult and excruciating circumstances can be viewed in more than one way. Or, to quote Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta (Buddha), “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

Simply put, you are (I am) what you think about habitually. If you think life is terrible, it is, more or less regardless of circumstances. I’m sure you can create some extraordinary situation that would be perceived as horrible (such as living in the camps during the Holocaust) beyond any ability to endure, but even here, Rabbi Dixler points out there is a difference between seeing the selfishness of a man who would exploit his fellow Jew to feed his own stomach vs. the Jew who would give up even his last morsel of bread to pray from a Siddur for just ten minutes. If we want a relationship with God, we must work to prepare for it:

Here is Paul’s interpretation:

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

This is why we must study the Bible and study it regularly. This is why we attend the house of prayer regularly and frequently. This is why we spend time in prayer daily and associate with our companions in faith at every opportunity. Although it is easy to feel alone and misunderstood in a world that, above all else, worships pleasures and morals built on shifting sands, we are never alone unless we want to be. It takes discipline to feel God’s presence. If we can say that God sets appointments each day for us to meet with Him, it is up to us to keep those appointments and to become accustomed to His voice.

For as he thinks within himself, so he is. –Proverbs 23:7

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. –John 10:27

Take a moment or two to review the state of your mind and your “garden”. What can you do better to make it grow?

The Panoramic Garden

I had said in my panic, “I am cut off from before Your eyes!” But in truth, You heard the sound of my supplications when I cried to You. Love Hashem, all His devout ones! Hashem safeguards the faithful, but He repays the haughtiness on one who acts with arrogance. Be strong, and let your hearts take courage, all who wait longingly for Hashem. –Psalm 31:23-25

You are a shelter for me, from distress You preserve me; with glad song of rescue You envelop me, Selah! I will educate you and enlighten you in which path to go, I will advise you with [what] my eye [has seen]. –Psalm 32:7-8

Stories are Miracles

R. Jacob Kaidaner heard from R. Pinhas Reises of Shklov that “once he was on the way with the holy rebbe [R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady], when the skies suddenly grew dark and a pouring rain began to fall. His honoured holiness said that once the Ba’al Shem Tov had been travelling, and a pouring rain began, and he recited a single verse and the rain stopped. He told us the verse that he [the Ba’al Shem Tov] had recited, and he also expounded for us the mystical intent of the verse. And before he finished the exposition, we saw a true wonder, namely, a torrent on both sides of the wagon, while the wagon itself was completely dry, indescribably so, not a single drop..and when we came to the inn and his holiness took his feet out of the wagon, it immediately was filled from the rain.

Kaidaner, Sipurim nora’im
as told in Gedaliah Nigal’s book
The Hasidic Tale

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”-Luke 8:22-25

Besides the fact that both of these stories have to do with storms and involve miracles, you may be wondering what they have in common. If we look outside their immediate context and theme though, we find that they are linked by how they affect the audience and how they reveal God.

Yesterday, I spent some time in my “morning mediation” describing and comparing the tales of the Chasidim to the tales of the Messiah’s “Chasidim”. However, from a traditional Christian point of view, the two types of “storytelling” I just quoted seem as different as apples and canaries. But remembering that Jesus has a great deal in common with Rabbis and tzadikim (holy or righteous “saints”), the connection to me seems to be more than clear.

I’ve been reading Nigal’s book, but I don’t seem to be able to get more than a few pages when the way Nigal tells his own story of the Chasidic tales inspires one of my own. Here’s what started me off today:

A fourth characteristic of the hasidic story is its intrinsic ability to perform miracles and wonders. The Ba’al Shem Tov was asked by R. David Forkes how one could pray for a sick person through stories, and indeed, tsadikim succeeded in healing the ill in this manner: R. Berisch of Oshpetzin healed a sick woman through stories, and a young man who suffered from melancholy was cured in the same way. Problems of many other kinds, too, were solved by the power of the tsadik’s storytelling.

Christians are accustomed to how Jesus and his disciples performed miracles, but we don’t see them doing so by telling stories. Often, we see the disciples invoking the name of Jesus, in the same manner as any disciple of any Jewish Rabbi or Maggid does when acting in his Master’s name, and then performing the miraculous act. The Chasidim use stories the way I sometimes think of the therapeutic metaphors of Milton Erickson, but perhaps therapy, healing, and the hand of God are not really different things.

There are ways of making the connection between who we are and who our Master is by using stories, and these stories let us work in mystic ways or bring the Divine within our awareness and perhaps within our grasp:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” –Psalm 77:7-15

I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Answer me quickly, LORD;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit. –Psalm 143:5-7

True, these are songs and prayers, but they are also meditations, recollections, and indeed, even stories about the mighty deeds of God and how He has rescued His people time and again. In telling the stories of God and putting our trust in Him as we hear these tales, what wonders and miracles can we receive? Maybe the answer to prayer is contained in a story.

What about when you read the Bible? What do you experience? Hopefully, a feeling of encouragement and maybe even a touch of wonder, but is that it? What if you were to recite some of the stories of Jesus? The time he healed the woman of the issue of blood, perhaps. How about when he spoke to the woman at the well? You could even recall some of the stories Jesus himself told. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, or the parable of the talents, or the one about the sower.

Why did Jesus tell these parables hidden in riddles? Just to describe the Kingdom of God in metaphor? Sure, at least that much. But what if the stories he told also performed their own miracles, winning the hearts of the sons of Israel for their Father? What do the stories about Jesus do for us? What do they do for someone who hears them for the first time?

When you turn your heart away from sin and to the Savior of the world, isn’t that a miraculous healing, just as miraculous as halting a storm? Isn’t it a wonder beyond the reason of our world when anyone turns to God?

Let me tell you one more story:

Rav Elchonon Halperin, shlit”a, explains this practice with a statement brought on today’s daf. “Our sages tell us in Menahcos 97 that one’s table atones for him (in the place of the altar in the Beis HaMikdash; the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). Rashi explains that one’s table atones in the merit of feeding poor people at the table. Yet imagine the embarrassment of destitute people who have no choice but to take their meals as charity at another’s table. Surely only a very rare person can give the poor food in a manner which will not be a huge embarrassment. Most people eating at the table of another out of necessity feel nothing less than bitter darkness.

“But at the table of tzaddikim, everyone eats for free. Both the poor and the wealthy join together and one who is hungry can obtain as much food as he wants in an honorable manner. No one feels above his friend, since everyone is there for the same reason and is treated the same way. All those who attend a tisch feel a sense of togetherness that emerges out of holy love and companionship. With such a pleasant atmosphere is it any wonder that we cannot imagine the great atonement of a chassidic tisch?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“The Atoning Table”
Menachos 97

While the vast majority of Christians might say that it is laudable to feed the poor from your own table, this act of charity and kindness has no power to atone for sins nor could it replace any of the sacrifices Jews once offered at the Temple. Only confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ atones for sins.

Of course, the vast majority of Jews don’t see it that way, and with the Temple gone these past 2000 years, acts of charity and prayer are believed to substitute for the Temple offerings.

But what is the story telling us?

Does the act of performing a kindness, feeding the poor at your own table and at the same time, treating the disadvantaged with respect and as equals to even the very wealthy eating beside them…does that mean something? Does it do something? What is burning in your heart? It’s one thing to repent of your sins and turn to God, but words don’t reveal that you have really changed as clearly and definitely as performing acts of kindness and righteousness.

I said a little while ago that the “Messianic Tales” can perform the miraculous act of turning a stone heart into one of flesh; of turning a heart of sin into one that accepts and performs righteousness. Yet do we turn to God only because of us? Well, yes…probably at first. People can be very self-centered. But here is another miracle.

StoriesBy hearing a story about a person feeding poor people at his own table and relieving them of the burdens of shame and embarrassment, not only are the poor fed but so are the poor in spirit…us. Hearing the story, having faith in the tales of the tzadikim, letting it turn our hearts, and causing us to perform acts of righteousness is a miracle and a wonder and who knows what else God may do because of our trust?

God is a storyteller. Why else did He leave us with such a marvelous book of sagas involving tragedy, wonder, courage, and despair? For it is the stories told by God that fill the world with miracles. When we retell those stories, we cause the miracles to be infused in the world around us, in the people that we meet, and within our very souls.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. –Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

And the word became a human being and walked among us. What a wonderful and miraculous story.

Let these commandments that I command you today be on your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:6-7

The Messianic Tale

The Ba'al Shem TovThe third goal of the hasidic story was to rouse its hearers into action for the service of God. Several compilers of hasidic stories quoted the dictum by R. Elimelekh that ‘it is an auspicious sign for a person if, when he hears what is related regarding the virtues of the tsadikim and their faithful holy service of the Lord, may he be blessed, his heart beats at that time with the desire and very great fervour that he also merit faithfully to serve the Lord, may he be blessed; this is a good sign that the Lord is with him.’

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedaliah Nigal

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”Luke 24:28-32

Gedaliah Nigal relates to his audience the importance to the Chasidim of storytelling  about tzadikim (righteous ones), Chasidim (devoted disciples), and the deep and multi-layered influence these tales can have. As you’ve already seen, one of the purposes of Chasidic storytelling is to inspire the listeners to perform acts of righteousness and devotion for the sake of God. We also see in Luke’s Gospel, that the words of the risen Messiah did the same thing. That brings us to an interesting question: is one of the main purposes of the Bible to tell stories that inspire the reader?

I’m not really asking if the Bible is inspirational. I think most believers would say “yes”. What I’m asking is whether or not the Bible is a collection of stories designed to inspire its readers?

I’ve just implied that not everything in the Bible is literally true, a contention supported by many leading New Testament (NT) scholars, not the least of which is Bart D. Ehrman. You might be tempted to dismiss Ehrman based on the fact that he is a self-declared agnostic (though a former Christian), but other scholarly New Testament books address the question of how literally we can take the Bible, including whether or not the New Testament defines Jesus as God (see Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God as examples).

If you believe that the Bible is 100% literally true and should be read as a history, I’ve no doubt just shocked you by suggesting otherwise, yet modern NT scholars readily confirm that the Bible is less a history book and more a set of stories (based on eyewitness accounts, at least to some degree) about the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and what they mean to the nations of the world in terms of access to God, forgiveness of sins, and a life beyond the one we know. The New Testament speaks to the Jewish people but it also speaks to the non-Jewish nations about the God of Israel and the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah who brought the Good News of the Most High to all of mankind. These “stories” represent as much the perspectives and character of the  NT authors (who may not always be the people we attribute these stories to) as well as the nature of character of the Messiah.

That brings us to another purpose of these “stories”:

The very power of the hasidic tale wins adherents to hasidism. Many people, among them some outstanding individuals, have been drawn to hasidism by its stories. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, one of the leading hasidic tsadikim, said of himself that ‘he was made a hasid by an old man who told stories about the holy tasdikim’. The Ba’al Shem Tov excelled in his ability to attract new followers by this means.

Teaching of the TzadikimWhile Nigal is speaking of Jews who turn toward the teachings of Chasidic Judaism, I will admit to being attracted, as a Gentile, to these teachings when I read some of the tales of the Chasidim. It’s difficult to disregard the wisdom and compassion of the inspirational stories about the Chasidic tzadikim, but it doesn’t stop there. This, I think, is also what is so attractive about the tales of the “tzadik” Jesus. In fact, there is one Chasid who, after thoroughly investigating the Gospels, found the “stories” of John especially to be reminiscent of the tales of the Chasidim and as a result, became a lifelong disciple of the “Maggid of Nazeret”.

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

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

If a young Chasid named Feivel Levertoff (he later changed his name to “Paul Philip”) could discover the Messiah in Jesus in the late 19th century because John’s Gospel was so much like the powerful and mystic writings on which he was raised, is it so difficult to imagine that a passionate exploration of Jesus might lead a Christian to discover an extension of his faith in Chasidic tales?

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the novel:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

In the days prior to and even after Christ’s earthly existence, it was somewhat common for non-Jews to see the beauty and wisdom in the teachings of the God of Israel, so in those days, many Gentiles converted to Judaism as the only means by which they could live a life of righteousness (though through the revelation of Christ, all people may be reconciled to God). While Christianity begins with Judaism as its root, two millennium of separation between Judaism and Christianity have made them two almost completely unrelated faiths, with only the spectre of a connection between them (most Jews would say that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a misnomer). However, if Christianity truly accepts that we follow the Jewish Messiah, who first came for the lost sheep of Israel and only afterwards for the nations, who never abandoned his people, and as the Apostle Paul taught, all of Israel will one day all be saved (Romans 11:26), then we cannot be so arrogant as to brush aside the natural branch just because we, the wild and alien olive shoot, have been grafted into the root (Romans 11:17).

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts as related in the Ethics of the Fathers (Avot Pirkei). I won’t recount the entire story (you can click on the link I just provided and read it for yourself), but it does illustrate the drive and passion among some of the Gentiles to truly understand what it is to be a Jew and to have that special covenant relationship with God. While Hillel and Shammai died perhaps only within a few years of the birth of Christ, they each established great schools of Jewish learning and their disciples, native Jews and converts, carried on their teachings and traditions for generations and eventually, ensured that their stories would be recorded for all time so that we have them with us even today.

The “Chasidim” of Jesus also made sure the stories of their Master were passed on from generation to generation, eventually being recorded and passed on to the future…to us.

Paul Philip Levertoff thought that the teachings of Jesus read like a collection of Chasdic tales. Perhaps as Gentile Christians reading tales of the Chasidim, we can also find a connection to the Messiah, the Prophet, and the greatest Tzadik, whose own death atoned for not just a few, but for all.

Two Worlds

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the book:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

Steinberg’s classic is set at the beginning of the Talmudic age in Palestine during the Roman occupation, some fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The book’s protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah was born a Jew but raised by a Jewish father who disdained the traditional beliefs and who pursued pagan philosophies instead. Nicholaus was Elisha’s Greek tutor when he was a child but the tutor was dismissed when Abuyah died (Elisha’s mother died in childbirth). Abuyah’s brother then took charge of Elisha, providing him with a Jewish education rooted in Torah and tradition.

Elisha eventually abandons his Greek education and as a disciple of the sage Joshua, he not only becomes a Rabbi in his own right, but a member of the Sanhedrin as well.

Yet a series of personal and political conflicts throws Elisha into a crisis of faith and pulls his heart between the Jewish and Greek worlds. A chance meeting with his old tutor Nicholaus many years later in a bookstore in Caesarea, provides the stage for a confrontation between the spiritually tortured Elisha and his former teacher. But rather than support Elisha’s pursuit of “truth” by guiding him back into Greek beliefs, Nicholaus pushes Elisha toward the only path that seems sensible and right for a Jew; the path of Moses.

In some ways, I can relate to both Elisha and Nicholaus. Like Nicholaus, as a non-Jew, I can see great beauty, wisdom, and meaning in the fabric of Jewish ritual, learning, and understanding. Like Elisha, I feel as if I’m struggling to stand between two worlds; the Christian world which is the source of my faith, and the Jewish world which provides clarity and purpose to that faith. I too know what it’s like to be self-tormented, searching the path looking for divine sparks and not letting myself be satisfied with what I already possess.

Elisha’s anguish, and my own, reflects that of Job’s in our shared search for meaning and God, expressed here in Elisha’s own words:

“‘Wherefore,’ he demanded, ‘hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’
“I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is a stark inner compulsion, dire necessary. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven by a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way.”

Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
Will you chase after dry chaff? –Job 13:24-25

For the past year, I have also been enduring a crisis of faith and like Elisha, seeking answers in unusual places..well, “unusual” relative to modern Christianity which doesn’t typically see a great deal of validity in seeking the Christ within the pages of Talmud and Kabbalah. Yet I have seen the Messiah in the Chasidic writings and found his fingerprints on the pages of the Zohar. How can I relent, when Jewish sages from Hillel to Maimonides teach wisdom that so clearly points to the Master?

In his desperation, Elisha desires to seek out those who his Jewish disciples and peers would categorically reject as pagans and heretics:

“Two courses are before me. I wish first of all to make contact with the Christians and the Gnostics here in Caesarea.”

“What good will that do you?” Nicholaus inquired, wary now.

“It is not impossible that they can teach me some principle to give me direction.”

While a Christian might read these words and rejoice that a Jew is seeking out the grace and salvation of Jesus, for Elisha, this could very well turn out to be a disaster. It is not so much that he sees in Christianity what Judaism lacks, but that he has not allowed his faith to rest on the foundation of his fathers, and for that matter, on the rock of Torah, which the Jewish Messiah continually taught and lived when he walked among men.

Ironically, Elisha’s quest threatened to cost him the very thing he already possessed in Judaism:

“A man has happiness if he possesses three things – those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”

AbyssIn a sense, I am prepared to do what Elisha has done and leave my group and to some degree, the truth they follow, in order to seek out what I believe is right for me. Like Elisha, I’m taking a risk of falling completely away from my current expression of faith in order to seek out a greater closeness with God. Like Elisha, I am convinced in the existence of God but am uncertain as to how He may be understood and approached.

Unlike Elisha, I was not born into a people and a tradition built on the holy mount in Jerusalem and forged by the Shechinah at Sinai.

Here’s the danger:

“But look here,” Nicholaus cried, discerning a possibility he had not envisaged before. “Suppose the results of your experiment are not consistent with the Jewish religion?”

Elisha’s voice was strained, as though his throat had tightened, but he did not falter.

“I have considered that possibility, too. I hope it may never become an actuality. Yet, should that be my destiny, I am prepared to assume it.”

Here is what I face:

“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” –Luke 12:8-9

Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. –2 Timothy 2:11-13

I don’t say this is a great danger to me, but the challenge exists. Nicholaus called Elisha’s effort an “experiment” but for me, what I am doing is taking a journey and I expect that I will be traveling all of my life. I walk the path before me and risk losing my way. I travel in darkness while seeking the light. I pray that God travels with me and shows me who He is and who I am in Him. May my footsteps follow His as I climb a holy mountain.

As a Driven Leaf is a cautionary tale; it’s Steinberg’s warning that a Jew cannot live in two worlds without the danger of falling away from everything that gives meaning to being a Jew. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss gazes also into you.” Yet like Elisha, I am driven by forces I do not always understand and cannot control, to seek out God in the places where He may be found, even in the darkness of the abyss.

That’s why I write. That’s why I’m here. I am the leaf driven before the wind. Where will I finally alight and take rest?

Only time and God can answer me.

Rebuke of the Master

Master and disciplesAnd He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?Mark 9:19 (NAS)

A certain man once asked the Chavos Yair, zt”l, about a surprising comment found on today’s daf. “In many places we find various insults various lumineries hurled at each other. For example, in Menachos 80 we find that Rebbi tells Levi, ‘I don’t believe he has a brain in his head…’ How could he say such a sharp insult??

“Why do we find in Yevamos 9a that Rebbi says that Rav Levi has no brain in his head? Isn’t that a little harsh? What about the verse, the words of the wise, spoken gently, are heard?” And the Mishnah: The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Menachos 80
Stories off the Daf
“The Words of the Wise”

We are supposed to love each other. The words of the Prophets and the Savior Jesus tell us this (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31). So how can the Chavos Yair justify insults between the ancient sages in Judaism? How can you say you honor God, love your neighbor, and then still say that ‘I don’t believe he has a brain in his head…’ to a fellow teacher or to a student?

How could Jesus, a man who has been called “the Maggid of Nazeret” and who is acknowledged as a great Rebbe and who is lifted very high as Messiah, insult his own disciples?

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. –Matthew 16:8-12

If Jesus is supposed to be all “meek and mild” and so full of love and grace, couldn’t he have made his point a better way? Couldn’t he have addressed his disciples; his students, without making them feel two inches tall?

Maybe his insults were the point, however. Look at the rest of the commentary for Menachos 80:

The Chavos Yair responded, “It was from here that the Rambam learned that a rav must show anger with his disciple if he feels that the student’s failure to understand is due to a lack of diligence and care in his learning. Since Rebbi felt that his student was careless, showing anger was a means to goad him to be more diligent in the future.”

When Rav Eliezer Schlesinger, zt”l, was asked to explain this he made a strong point. “It is true that Rebbi insulted Rav Levi. Yet you must consider that this is the best way to develop his student. It is important to note that we also find Rebbi complimenting Levi, for example, in Zevachim 30. Surely this was done in a properly balanced manner to educate Rav Levi in the best possible way.”

It’s important to note that what’s being advocated here isn’t insulting a person for lack of capacity or ability. This teaching is illustrating that the student, or the Master being addressed in such a harsh fashion should have known better. When serving a great Master and when serving God, we don’t get to be lazy about it. We were given gifts and skills that we are expected to use to our fullest. After all, we have been taught to love God with everything we’ve got (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Mark 12:30), so shouldn’t we serve Him to the absolute limits of who we are and what we can do?

While it is pleasant to be taught by a sage or an instructor who addresses us only with kindness, gentleness, and patience, as human beings, we often take advantage of such a teacher and only produce enough effort to “get by”. This is not the way of a disciple of a true sage and certainly not what is expected by the God we serve.

Do not limit yourself. Love God with all your heart. Serve God with all your effort. If you choose not to, be prepared to be discipled and humbled by the One who knows your very soul.

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in. –Proverbs 3:11-12