Tag Archives: discipline

The Aftermath of Reviewing Michaelson’s “God vs. Gay”

And you shall love Hashem your God …

Deuteronomy 6:5

And you shall love your neighbor as yourself…

Leviticus 19:18

Both of these statements are positive commandments. We might ask: How can a commandment demand that we feel something? Since love is an emotion, it is either there or it is not there.

The Torah does not hold that love is something spontaneous. On the contrary, it teaches that we can and should cultivate love. No one has the liberty to say: “There are some people whom I just do not like,” nor even, “I cannot possibly like that person because he did this and that to me.”

We have within us innate attractions to God and to other people. If we do not feel love for either of them, it is because we have permitted barriers to develop that interfere with this natural attraction, much as insulation can block a magnet’s inherent attraction for iron. If we remove the barriers, the love will be forthcoming.

The barriers inside us come from defects in our character. When we improve ourselves, our bad character traits fall away, and as they fall away, we begin to sense that natural love which we have for others and for God.

Today I shall…

…try to improve my midos (character traits), so that I will be able to feel love for God and for my fellow man.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Cheshvan 7
Aish.com

The first thing that attracted me to this daily “devotional” of Rabbi Twerski’s is the obvious parallel to the teaching of the Master:

One of the scholars heard them arguing and drew near to them. He saw that he answered well, and he asked him, “What is the first of all of the mitzvot?”

Yeshua answered him, “The first of all the mitzvot is: ‘Hear O Yisra’el! HaShem is our God; HaShem is one. Love HaShem, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength.’ This is the first mitzvah. Now the second is similar to it: ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’ There is no mitzvah greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 (DHE Gospels)

Rabbi Abraham Twerski
Rabbi Abraham Twerski

I don’t know if R. Twerski is at all familiar with the Apostolic Scriptures (probably not, but who knows) or even the portion I quoted above, but it seems amazing that nearly two-thousand years after the Master uttered this teaching, the same source material from the Torah should be linked together in a very similar manner by an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi and Psychiatrist.

Then, as I was performing my Shabbat devotionals, I came across the following:

The orlah, “foreskin,” symbolizes a barrier to holiness. Adam HaRishon was born circumcised (see Avos D’Rabbi Nassan 2:5) because he was as close as a physical being can possibly be to Hashem. So great was Adam at the time of his creation, that the angels thought he was a Divine being to whom they should offer praise. Thus, he was born circumcised; there was no orlah intervening between him and Hashem. Even the organ that represents man’s worst animal-like urges was totally harnessed to the service of Hashem.

-from the Mussar Thought for the Day, p.151
for Shabbos: Parashas Lech Lecha
A Daily Dose of Torah

Now compare the above quote to the next one:

Episcopal lesbian theologian Carter Heyward, whose work we briefly noted in part I, has described her project this way: “I am attempting to give voice to an embodied — sensual — relational movement among women and men who experience our sexualities as a liberating resource and who, at least in part through this experience, have been strengthened in the struggle for justice for all.” Heyward and others…are attempting nothing less than a recovery of the physical, embodied, and erotic within Christian traditions that have traditionally suppressed them. Building a theology of relationality that is reminiscent of the work of Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, Heyward has proposed a spiritual valuation of eros — which she defines as “our embodied yearning for mutuality.” Openness to embodied love opens us to other people, the biological processes of the universe, and to God. Thus, Heyward writes, “my eroticism is my participation in the universe” and “we are the womb in which God is born.”

-Jay Michaelson
Chapter 17: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God…to devise subtle works in gold, silver, and brass,” p.156
God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality

I previously quoted that paragraph in my third and final review of Michaelson’s book, but I think it bears repeating.

When Rabbi Twerski, (unintentionally) echoing the teachings of the Master speaks of loving God and loving his neighbor, he isn’t talking about erotic love or eroticizing our relationship with God or our fellow human being. When he writes of our “innate attractions to God and to other people,” he isn’t saying that these are sexual or romantic attractions any more than Messiah was speaking of sex.

The Mussar thought from the Artscroll “Daily Dose” series speaks of the male sexual organ as representing “man’s worst animal-like urges.” Throughout his book, Michaelson favorably compared people to animals in that both expressed their sexuality with same-sex partners, and yet we see that the traditional Orthodox Jewish viewpoint is to separate man from the animal world.

Even setting the midrash aside, the Mussar teaches that man is to be considered unique and separate from animals and further, that the single worst urge a man must bring under control in the service of Hashem is his sexual urge.

Talmud Study by LamplightThis is why Bible study in general and Torah study in specific is so important, because it grounds us in the Word of God and thus in righteousness and holiness. It points to our flaws and urges us to self-discipline. It’s like reading a health and weight loss manual while sitting down in an “all-you-can-eat” buffet. You are immersed in temptation, and yet you hold a reminder in your hands to resist because giving in to the world around you leads (extending the metaphor) to poor health, suffering, and premature death.

The death I’m speaking of is a spiritual death if we attempt to conform our faith to the standards of the world around us rather than conforming ourselves to the standards of God.

None of this demands that we must fail to love the people around us, even those who are very different, such as gay people, and since I’m straight, gay people are different, at least as far as that one quality or trait is concerned. But as I saw by the time I reached the end of the Michaelson book, what he was driving at wasn’t just the equalization of the participation of straight and gay people in the church and synagogue, he was talking about the total transformation of the house of God. Reading Rabbi Twerski and the Mussar for Lech Lecha on Shabbos made it abundantly clear that what Michaelson was proposing, even with sincere intentions, was not at all consistent with how God defines love.

I’m sorry to keep dragging this out and as far as my current intentions go, this is the last blog I’ll dedicate to Michaelson in specific and the topic of gays in the community of faith in general. But having, by necessity, entered, to some small degree, the world of Jay Michaelson’s thoughts and feelings by reading his book, I needed to pull myself back out and re-establish myself in the presence of God through the study of His Word.

We are commanded to love other people including those we find in the LGBTQ community. R. Twerski is correct in that we need not construct barriers between them and us in terms of our compassion. That said, there is a barrier between a holy life and a profane one. In the ekklesia of Messiah, as mere human beings who are daily bombarded with the excesses of the world around us, we constantly struggle with those excesses and with our own natures to seek to remain on the path God has set before us. I know I don’t always succeed and by God’s standards I am a complete failure.

But I can’t give up and either abandon my faith or seek to morph it into something consistent with my external environment, society, and culture. Holiness must be protected and thus we maintain a barrier, not one that doesn’t permit the expression of love, but one that keeps us from getting lost in a highly liberal and distorted use of the term.

When a parent loves a child, it doesn’t mean that parent is ultimately permissive and allows the child to do whatever he or she wants simply because it makes them feel good. We say “no” a lot, and even if the child cries or yells at us and tells us we’re being “mean”, we know we are actually being loving and protective.

That’s what God does to us and those are the commandments we not only obey, but support, uphold, and teach. Even if people like Michaelson want to call me “mean” for doing so, this is how God teaches the community of faith to do love. It’s a loving thing to live inside the standards of God, and as tempting as it may be, it isn’t love to believe you can be right with God outside of the house built by those standards.

TrustTwo more paragraphs from the Mussar thought from which I quoted above will finish the picture (pp.151-2):

When Adam sinned, however, he caused his nature to change. Before his sin, godliness had been natural for him, and sin had been repulsive, bizarre, and foreign. Once he disobeyed Hashem, however, he fell into the traps of illicit desire and self-justification. Suddenly, temptation became natural to him, and Hashem became distant; and when Hashem reproached him for having sinned, Adam hastened to defend himself rather than admitting his sin and repenting. After his fall, the angels had no trouble recognizing his human vulnerability.

In several places, the Torah mentioned … “the foreskin of the heart” (see, for example, Devarim 10:16). This is the non-physical counterpart of the physical foreskin, man’s urges and desires that attempt to bar him from achieving true service to Hashem. We remove the physical foreskin as an indelible act of allegiance, demonstrating our resolve to do the same for the spiritual barriers. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us that ultimately it will be Hashem Who will complete the removal of this spiritual foreskin (see ibid. 30:6) after we have done our utmost, and this will take place at the time of the ultimate redemption.

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V’etchanan: What Comes From God

ancient_jerusalemFor what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?

Deuteronomy 4:7

Should one only call out for the “big things”? To think that prayer to God is only for the “big things” is a big mistake! We must turn to God for help and understanding in everything we do.

The Chazon Ish, a great rabbi, cited the Talmud which relates that Rav Huna had 400 barrels of wine that spoiled. His colleagues told him to do some soul-searching regarding the cause of this loss. Rav Huna asked, “Do you suspect me of having done anything improper?”

The Sages responded, “Do you suspect God of doing something without just cause?” They then told him that he was not giving his sharecropper the agreed upon portion of the crop.

“But, he is a thief!” Rav Huna protested. “He steals from me. I have a right to withhold from him.”

“Not so,” the Sages said. “Stealing from a thief is still theft” (Talmud Bavli, Berachos 5b).

“Suppose,” the Chazon Ish said, “that something like this would occur today. The search for the cause would be whether the temperature in the room was improper or the humidity too high or too low. Few people would search for the cause within themselves, in their ethical behavior. We should know that God regulates everything except for our free will in moral and ethical matters. As with Rav Huna, nothing happens without a cause.”

Dvar Torah for Parashat Va’ethannan
from Twerski on Chumash, by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz in “Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Aish.com

I agree that we should turn to God with all our matters, large or small, but I wonder if every single thing that happens to us was caused by God to teach us a lesson. What can we learn from the flat tire we get while driving to an important meeting and dressed in our best clothes? What should we gather from being caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, stubbing our toe, tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, catching a cold? Does every single event that happens, even down to the tiniest detail have to be ordained in Heaven?

I don’t know. I suppose it could. On the other hand, maybe sometimes things happen and they have no meaning. If I go down to a ridiculously small level, does it matter if I choose to wear black or white socks today? Is there going to be some consequence one way or the other? Is there a moral lesson I should learn if I get the flu or did I just get the flu? If I’m in business and should have a bad year, is that the result of some moral or ethical fault of which I’m guilty, or is it the consequence of the current economy and all businesses like mine are suffering?

Regardless of the cause of our fortunes or misfortunes (and believers are taught that everything we have comes from God), it certainly wouldn’t hurt to turn to God in good times and in bad, and call to Him for He is always near, even when we don’t feel as if He’s near.

…fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…

Romans 12:11-12 (NASB)

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

James 5:13-15 (NASB)

praying-apostleThe verses in the Bible exhorting the advantages of prayer are all but endless, so I offer only a few examples. But it doesn’t answer the question about the nature and cause of each and every circumstance we find ourselves in. When raising small children, we try to make the consequence of misbehavior happen immediately after the misbehavior, so they’ll connect the two and learn to avoid the misbehavior. It’s easy to get the idea that God does the same thing. But then again…

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 (NASB)

In fact I believe that God deliberately delays providing the consequence upon the sinner, giving him or her time to repent and to change their behavior.

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)

In some ways, it might be more merciful of God if He was to discipline and chastise us each and every time we mess up right when we mess up, kind of like swatting a dog on the nose with a rolled up newspaper when it does its business on the living room carpet. Then, like a dog or a small child, we’d see the obvious and inescapable pattern between certain of our actions and the painful things that happen right afterward.

But unlike the commentary I quoted above, God just doesn’t seem to arrange our lives that way, at least not all the time. We are left then, wondering which consequence is a moral lesson and which is only a random event.

We don’t know.

But what if we pretended that everything we experience is an immediate communication from God to us? This could be horribly misused and sometimes people blame themselves without reason because they were the victim of a tragic accident or a terrible crime. You can’t blame a five-year old boy because he was killed in a drive-by shooting while standing on a street corner with his Dad waiting for the light to change. You can’t blame a forty-four year old woman who has lived a life of impeccable health who is diagnosed with breast cancer.

But…

praying_at_masada…but what if regardless of whether we think an event has come from God or not, we turned to Him anyway? What if after having a productive day at work, you turned to God and thanked Him? What if after learning that the cost of repairing your car’s sudden breakdown will empty your savings account, you turned to God and begged for His help? What if, day in and day out, you turned to God, with praise and with petition, in happiness and in anguish?

What if?

Life happens. Sooner or later, something good will happen to you. Sooner or later something bad will happen to you. Sooner or later, nothing will happen to you and you’ll be really bored. You live, you laugh, you bleed, you breathe, you cry, you get angry, you get frustrated, you feel depressed, you are overjoyed, and everything else.

That’s your life. That’s from God. Talk to God about it. Ask Him Why? Ask Him How? Say “Thank you.” Say “I’m sorry.” You know your life. You know what’s happening. You know what to say. Just turn to God and say it.

And then listen.

Good Shabbos.

68 days.

As If Considering Angels

Broken AngelFor this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:5-8

Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated “A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.” And it says: “And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets” ; read not “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (chairut)—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, “And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.”Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

I know these two quotes may not seem to go together, but consider this. Peter says that we should add faith to goodness and then add goodness to knowledge. What knowledge? Where does this knowledge come from? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi implies that knowledge comes from Torah by expressing the inverse that one who does not occupy himself with Torah “is considered an outcast” and is like a “golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason”.

Sounds pretty harsh, but then, so does Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. –2 Peter 2:10-12

I’ve been involved in a series of online discussions lately that have been critical of Talmud study among Christians. Specifically, the allegation is that the sages who documented the Oral law and established a system of rulings for the Jewish people, were the inheritors of the tradition of the Pharisees and that Jesus had nothing good to say about the Pharisees, citing examples such as this:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. –Matthew 23:1-7

This is just one of the examples in the Gospels which cast all Pharisees everywhere in a particularly bad light, but as I commented recently, Jesus is upset with this group of Pharisees, not because they taught bad things, but because they didn’t practice what they taught! Keep that in mind. If the Pharisees had behaved consistently with their teachings, Jesus wouldn’t have had a problem with them at all. His only beef with the Pharisees is that they were hypocrites, not false teachers.

Think about it. If, as some have stated, the Talmudic scholars and sages have inherited the mantle of the Pharisees and they behaved consistently with their own teachings, then it is quite possible that the “Rebbe of Nazaret” wouldn’t have any problem with them either.

I know there are a lot of variables to consider and we won’t know for sure until Jesus returns to us, but based on this small bit of simple logic, we cannot reasonably discard or disdain anything in the Talmud based on the behavior of a collection of hypocritical religious authorities that operated in Roman-Judea in the time of Jesus. We can’t also reasonably apply the following to the Rabbis of the Talmud:

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” –Isaiah 29:13-14

I know it’s enormously tempting to apply the words of the Prophet not only to the Pharisees but to the Talmudic sages as well. Certainly, if we think of the Talmudic writings as only the rules of men with no Biblical source, then we might be justified in doing so, but taken out of context, we don’t know if Isaiah is even considering the Oral Law (which he would have seen as Torah) or the Rabbinic commentaries and rulings on said-Oral Law (and Written Law), which are recorded in the Talmud. The rulings of the Rabbis don’t overwrite and contradict Torah, but rather, are intended to interpret and make sense of the Written and Oral Law for each generation of Jews as they met new challenges in applying a Torah lifestyle in an ever-changing world.

Here’s something else to consider:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. –Matthew 11:25-26

Taken together with some portions of the quote from Isaiah 29:13-14, these words of the Master might suggest that it’s bad to be intelligent, well-read, and educated. Why bother to learn how to read at all if intelligence is not to be trusted and if it’s better to be ignorant and untaught? I don’t think this is what the Master means here, but rather, he’s saying you don’t have to be a scholar to have access to the grace of God. Of course, he’s not saying grace is denied the learned sage, either.

It’s been suggested that Rabbinic judgments and rulings are not to be trusted and that the wisdom of the average individual, as guided by the Spirit, reading the Bible in English and outside of its history, culture, and other contexts, is far preferable to trusting and learning from people who have spent all of their lives pouring over Scripture and striving to master the teachings of God.

And yet Peter was critical “of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority”. Further, he said that “First of all, understand this; no prophecy of Scripture is to be interpreted by an individual on his own, for never has prophecy come as a result of human willing – on the contrary, people moved by the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) spoke the message from God”. (2 Peter 1:20-21 [CJB]).

Cutting BranchesWe could be tempted to say Peter is confirming that all a person; any person, needs is the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible, but he’s also speaking of Prophets like Isaiah, not the average guy on the street. We read the prophecies of Isaiah because he was a prophet of God and we’re not. We read the teachings of Jesus because he’s the Messiah and we’re not. Also, lest we forget, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and the key to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the world, was a very well-educated man…in fact, far more educated than many of Christ’s inner circle who were what we would consider today as blue-collar workers and laborers.

There’s no problem with who Jesus chose to be close to him as being, relatively speaking, uneducated, because, as I’ve already mentioned, the love of Christ isn’t primarily accessed through “book-learning”. But on the other hand, the fact that Paul was chosen by Jesus says that education and authority isn’t a problem either. Certainly, being learned and possessing authority requires that such a position be used with justice, honor, and humility. The Ethics of the Fathers 6:5 speaks to this:

Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.

In fact, from the same chapter (Chapter 6:6), we find that study of Torah (which includes Talmud in this context) yields people who have qualities such as:

love of G-d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, fleeing from honor, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, participating in the burden of one’s fellow, judging him to the side of merit, correcting him, bringing him to a peaceful resolution [of his disputes], deliberation in study, asking and answering, listening and illuminating, learning in order to teach, learning in order to observe, wising one’s teacher, exactness in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker.

As long as the teacher behaves consistently with these, and the other teachings in the Torah and Talmud, what problem could this present? What problem could it present for any person of faith and good will who wishes to devote time to pondering this wisdom?

We see that taking Scripture out of context and applying an overly simple interpretation to what may turn out to be very complex matters of principle actually results in a disservice to the Prophets and Apostles, as well as to the later sages, and finally to Jesus and to God the Father.

We should all be very, very careful how we interpret and apply Scripture, especially if we use it to malign our teachers and scholars and, by inference, every religious Jew who has ever lived or will live, for they too revere the sages and attempt to live their lives by the principles of Torah, which have been established and interpreted across the ages.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” –Genesis 12:3

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” –Sanhedrin 11:1

for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. –Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

Do not denigrate the root, lest your branch be cut off from it.

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

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