Tag Archives: ego

Korach: Learning How to Dance

korach-buried-aliveThere are two rebellions this week. First, Korach, a Levite, was passed over for the leadership of his tribe and then challenges Moshe over the position of High Priest. No good rebellion can be “sold” as a means for personal gain, so Korach convinces 250 men of renown that they must stand up for a matter of principle — that each and every one of them has the right to the office of High Priest (which Moshe had announced that God had already designated his brother, Aharon, to serve).

Fascinatingly, all 250 followers of Korach accept Moshe’s challenge to bring an offering of incense to see who God will choose to fill the one position. This meant that every man figured he would be the one out of 250 to not only be chosen, but to survive the ordeal. Moshe announces that if the earth splits and swallows up the rebels it is a sign that he (Moshe) is acting on God’s authority. And thus it happened!

The next day the entire Israelite community rises in a second rebellion and complains to Moshe, “You have killed God’s people!” The Almighty brings a plague which kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aharon offers an incense offering.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Korach

A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.

-George Santayana

You’d think after seeing the deaths of Korach and the 250 rebels that the rest of the Children of Israel would have been frightened enough to back away from speaking against Moses, Aaron, and ultimately God. Unfortunately, they seemed to have panicked and panic has no reason. Neither does fanaticism which is defined as “a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal, particularly for a religious or political cause or with an obsessive enthusiasm…the fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.”

Since I blog in the world of religion, I suppose that someone could come along and accuse me of being a fanatic when I defend a particular point of view and don’t acquiesce to another’s contrary viewpoint. But then I hope there is a difference between steadfast determination and being a fanatic.

Korach and the 250 didn’t back down and neither did the Israelite community until after over 14,000 people died. What does it take for the rest of us to look at a situation, know when to press ahead with our point, and know when to back away?

In describing in his commentary how not to argue, Rabbi Packouz lists nine points. One of them is:

Turn the argument into a discussion. Don’t defend a position; set forth an idea or problem to be clarified. People of good will who reason together can come to a common conclusion. Listen with an open mind. Be a judge, not a lawyer!

calvinism-vs-arminianismIn the blogosphere, it’s difficult to keep a discussion into spilling over the threshold of civility into an argument. A lot of religious people take a “my way or the highway” stance with the theologies and doctrines to which they adhere. My exploration into Calvinism vs. Arminianism is a good example of such a dialog. So far, no one has come along on my blog to take me to task for my viewpoint in that debate, but if I found the right venue for the discussion, I’m sure a “passionate” exchange would occur. There have indeed been such debates in the comments section of my blog in the past.

So how do we know when we are defending a position for our faith and for the sake of God as opposed to our own ego and bullheadedness?

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Korach’s dispute with Moshe. The mishna (a teaching) in Pirke Avot 5:20, states that “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will be of lasting worth and one not for the sake of Heaven will not be of lasting worth. Which dispute was for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shamai. Which was not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his company.”

That’s part of the Dvar Torah presented in Rabbi Packouz’s commentary. Here’s something similar.

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Acts 5:33-39 (NRSV)

I suppose this isn’t the first time this passage from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has been compared to the Korach rebellion. The trick is to know our own motivation, which is harder than you may think. A good many people have been utterly convinced that they were arguing and even fighting for what is good and right, only to ultimately discover that their motives were totally selfish. Human beings are very good at self-delusion, sometimes with disastrous results.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

Woman in the darkThat’s a terrifying thought. I don’t doubt that those of whom the Master speaks sincerely believed (some of them, anyway) that they were “fighting the good fight,” speaking prophesies in his name, casting out demons in his name, and doing many other powerful things in the name of Christ. What bitter disappointment will they suffer when they find they are completely rejected and in fact have been following the wrong path all along.

And how do I know for sure that the path I am following is the right one? How do I know if I will be among those accepted in the Kingdom or tossed out in the dark?

Remember, self-delusion is incredibly common with people.

The mishna should have said that the dispute not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and Moshe, not between Korach and his fellow conspirators! Why didn’t the mishna mention Moshe as the antagonist? Korach started the dispute for his own personal gain (not for the sake of Heaven) while Moshe was upholding the Almighty’s word and the Almighty’s honor (you can’t get more “for the sake of Heaven” than this!)

Why then does the mishna mention that a dispute not for the sake of Heaven is the one between “Korach and his company”? We might think that Korach and his company were united in their argument with Moshe. The mishna is telling us that each of the 250 was challenging Moshe for his own gain (remember, each one brought incense to see if he himself would be chosen as the Cohen Gadol, High Priest.) In truth, Korach and his congregation were in dispute amongst themselves as to who should be the High Priest.

The mishna points us in a direction, but the effort to maintain an understanding of our motives belongs to us. Every time we take a strong position, we must ask ourselves, “am I doing this for the Master’s glory or for my own?” When my opinion is challenged and I strongly defend my point of view, I must ask if it is for the sake of Heaven that I do this or only because I want to be “right?”

If confronted with the knowledge that I’m acting for my own interests, would I be willing to admit I am wrong? In such a discussion is it very wise to make such an admission. Rabbi Packouz comments.

No one is ever totally right. Find something to apologize for, to take responsibility for. The other person will feel better and may even own up to some mistakes of his/her own.

I spent nearly a year writing about my journey of discovery and ultimately had to admit I was wrong about my original “one law” assumptions that I had made years before and never questioned.

I don’t think that I made my assumptions solely out of self-interest or ego, but once my assumptions were confronted by others, my ego and the need to be “right” was definitely engaged. I can tell you that it is a difficult and painful thing to realize many of the attitudes and beliefs I held were incorrect, and letting them go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

But if I didn’t let them go, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence and with the realization of the damage I was doing, especially in my home, the price to be paid would have been much, much more dear.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:8-11 (NRSV)

Waiting to danceThis is a good test for fanaticism, because a fanatic cannot be humble. It feels too “dangerous” to back down, too vulnerable to be silent about something that’s important. Rabbi Packouz suggests that being silent and, when talking, speaking with a soft voice are two ways to avoid arguing. If you can maintain your composure, agree with the points being made by the other person you feel are correct, and admit it when you know you are wrong (letting yourself even consider that you could be wrong is a step in the right direction), then it is very likely that you are not being fanatical about what you’re trying to communicate.

Then your mind and heart are most likely clear enough to determine when you are tempted to argue for the sake of your own ego or sense of vulnerability, and when you are standing up and being a voice for the sake of Heaven.

But you have to be sure to constantly be your own critic, questioning what you’re doing and why.

Leslie (Diana Muldaur – voice): “You seem quieter than usual tonight.”
Batman (Kevin Conroy – voice): “Every time I come here, I wonder if it should be the last time. . . Put the past behind me. . . Try to lead a normal life.”
Leslie: “Santayana says that ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it’.”
Batman: “He also said ‘a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.'”

-from the episode “I Am the Night”
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

-Troy Mitchell

I often question why I write this blog at all. What good does it do? Am I doing it to help build the Kingdom of Heaven or just because I like to see my words posted on the web? Blind certitude is something I can’t afford. I don’t think it’s something any of us can afford. This isn’t a matter of fighting to see who wins and who loses, but the pursuit of interaction and cooperation so that we can mutually seek out an encounter with God.

Our work involves trying to dance when others only know how to wrestle.

-Rabbi Carl Kinbar

The lesson of Korach is that we need to learn not how to wrestle, but how to dance.

Good Shabbos.

110 days.

Finding My Exit

no-exitWhen you and the path you have chosen get along just great, it’s hard to know whether your motives are sincere.

But when you come across a path to do good, and this path goes against every sinew of your flesh and every cell in your brain, when you want only to flee and hide from it —do this.

Then you shall know your motives are sincere.

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

I hit what seemed to be a pretty significant wall this past weekend. Hopefully not too many people noticed, but I was turning myself into knots inside and very seriously doubting my current path for a day or two.

The first event that contributed to this mess was from divisiveness in the blogosphere. I should have known better, but a miscommunication between a friend and I and then another in a long series of online “nastygrams” caused me to question whether or not my friend was pulling away from me and pulling much of my current world view along with him (long story).

As personal as the first event was, the second event was far more intimate. On Sunday morning, my wife and I were having a small chat before I left for church. I happened to mention that Pastor Randy gave me a paper on the different arguments between Arminianism and Calvinism and my difficulties in they way the author of the article was expressing his viewpoint.

I didn’t think much of it, but my wife, who is Jewish, started touting how Judaism has received the Torah in an unbroken line between Sinai and the present and that in any response to changes of circumstances across time, the Rabbis always consult the core text and all applications are based on strict adherence to the Torah, thus avoiding the problems I was having with a Christian commentary.

I think it was her attempt to show me that Judaism has a better handle on the Bible and thus on God than Christianity, which I don’t mind, but in our conversation, she brought up how, if the Christian view of the Bible were true, then it totally invalidates Jews and Judaism.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that her perception of Christianity is not what I believe at all. And yet I was confronted with a dilemma. I could explain, thanks to all of the information I’ve captured within this blog, why I believe she’s wrong and why a Messianic interpretation of “Christianity” is wholly Jewish, but my being a “prophet without honor in my own land” (and needless to say, in my own family), how would she take it?

The worst that would happen if I were talking to any other Jewish person was that they’d tell me I was “full of it” and walk away (not that I desire to insult anyone). But what would be the worst that would happen if that transaction were to occur between me and my wife?

I didn’t want to find out so I let the conversation die.

But as I went to church, I was confronted with two highly significant relationships in my life being (apparently) damaged, all because of who I am and my faith in Christ.

I remembered part of a conversation I had with my Pastor. I told him I left the Hebrew Roots movement in part because I knew my participation was very embarrassing to my wife. He asked me, somewhat incredulously, if my being a Christian and going to church were any less embarrassing to a Jewish wife. I absolutely didn’t consider that before, but at that moment and again last Sunday morning, it hit me like a punch in the teeth from Mike Tyson.

I also couldn’t help but consider a few verses.

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”

Ezra 10:10-11 (NRSV)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 10:34-38 (NRSV)

leavingThe Master doesn’t address husband and wife specifically, but it wasn’t hard for me to read between the lines. And in relation to Ezra, I guess I would be the “foreign wife.”

I wasn’t afraid this would dissolve my marriage, but I could see my friendship receding into the distance and, as damage control, what would be my only option to contain this conflict? If my wife was saying that my being a Christian made me “anti-Semitic” by definition, then how could I prove otherwise except to stop going to church? But how could I stop going to church and maintain my faith in Christ?

The conflict between my faith and my marriage came abruptly into sharp focus.

So last Sunday at church was miserable, not because of church, but because of me.

It’s actually pretty painful to see all of the other couples at church because they’re couples. There’s no conflict that I can see between husband and wife because of their faith. They sit together at church, they bring their children, they go to Sunday school together, they support each other’s views.

That’s also true of most people (but not all) I know in the Messianic movement. I sometimes feel like the only oddball.

So with a nudnik (and I know something about nudniks) trying to drive a wedge between my friend and me on the one side, and my most recent “religious conversation” with my wife on the other, who I am supposed to be at Christ was stuck soundly in the middle. All I could see were “no option options.” I was in a box with no way out, a room with no exit.

So what happened?

I did what I always try to do under similar circumstances…I didn’t do anything about it. The temptation was to act impulsively to reduce the discomfort, but that’s usually the wrong thing to do.

After church, there was plenty of gardening to do and that’s relatively mindless work, so I had a lot of time to think. After that, I was given the annual task of cleaning out my book closet (if left to my own devices, I’d keep everything I’ve ever owned). My wife and daughter tackled the equally daunting job of cleaning out and arranging the food pantry.

My son Michael came over by the by and cooked dinner for us while we were working. By the by, my wife and I interacted and I noticed that she was behaving, not as if I were an anti-Semite in the camp, but like I’m her husband and we’re doing typical Sunday evening family stuff together in our home.

The bubbling pot began to cool.

I got an email later that night allaying my other concern and reminding me that just because “bad attitude” people try to interfere with friendships doesn’t mean those friendships are any less established. The message couldn’t have come at a better time.

when-the-forest-beckonsThis whole episode reminded me that I have a duty to my wife to share the Good News of Messiah with her. The problem is, she’s already heard it, accepted it within the church, re-accepted it within a Hebrew Roots context, and, when transitioning first to the Reform-Conservative synagogue in town and then the Chabad, chosen to reject the Gospel of Jesus “because that’s not what Jews believe.”

I wish I could convince her otherwise, but that “Good News” might not be easy for her to hear coming from me, especially when I’m competing with the Chabad Rabbi, a lot of anti-missionary rhetoric, and two-thousand years of post-Jesus Jewish history.

That particular “adventure” is to be continued, but I do have a message for blogging nudniks who deliberately try to mess up friendships in order to further their own agendas:

There are people who believe they are doing good by swallowing others’ egos alive. The egos of those they cannot help, and of those who cannot help them, are inedible to them—and therefore intolerable. They cannot work with others—because their egos leave no space for “others”—only for those extensions of their own inflated selves that show they need them, or for those whom they need.

You don’t love your neighbor to glorify your own ego. When you come to your sister’s or brother’s aid, leave your own self behind. Love with self-sacrifice.

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

If you come to realize that what you do is not for the sake of Heaven but for the requirements of your own ego or emotions, then the need for you to attend to your own affairs is far, far greater than whatever temporary issues I may be experiencing.

I found the exit from my no-exit room and am continuing down the path that God has set before me.

47 Days: Learning Humility

Dear Rabbi:

I have a problem. It’s my ego.

I have been duly chiding myself and ever reminding myself that my accomplishments are only possible by G‑d’s good grace, so I should not feel any more accomplished than the guy next door.

But then I start wondering: am I never allowed to feel good about myself? How can you accomplish anything in this world if you never take credit for anything you do?


You are not alone in this struggle. This balance between letting go of ego and maintaining a healthy sense of self-confidence is an issue for all of us, simply because we are human.

We have G‑d given talents for a reason: So we can refine them, develop them and use them in our daily lives to serve our Maker. G‑d gives us the tools, but utilizing them to their full potential is up to us.

So we should be thankful and happy that G‑d has given us our unique talents, for it means that He thinks we can develop them and do good things with them. He believes in us. And as we develop an understanding about G‑d and who He is, we can deepen our appreciation for His belief in us.

G‑d’s belief in us is even more apparent when we look at our weaknesses, for that’s where the real challenge lies. G‑d gave us these major challenges because He knows we have the ability to overcome them and succeed. Contemplating this fact will certainly result in a happy and self-confident attitude about oneself.

-Rabbi Avi Davis
“Without Ego, How Can I Feel Good About Myself?”
from “Questions and Answers”

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

All this sounds a lot like what I wrote about yesterday in relation to God’s sovereignty vs. our own over the world. Humanity went from being taken care of in creation to be the caretakers of creation because we desired it. We desired it more than we desired obeying God. Now, on the other side of the equation, we (well, those of us who are aware of God and His nature) realize that we really do need God and that the world is often too big for us to manage alone.

Well, anyway that’s how I feel. The world is too big for me to manage alone. Heck, even my life sometimes is to big and too messy for me to manage on my own. When don’t I plead to God to lend a hand (or two or five) in sustaining me and my family?

And yet amazingly, there are those, even in the community of faith, who don’t seem (at least in public) to have any concerns about their personal abilities whatsoever.

Even if the entire world considers you a tzaddik (pious and righteous), you should nevertheless think of yourself as if you were sinful.

-Niddah 30b

In 1965, I visited the Steipler Gaon, a sage whom people often consulted for medical advice. Since he had heard that I was a psychiatrist, he wanted to find out new developments in medications for mental illnesses. I related to the Gaon whatever I knew about the most recent advances.

“Is anything available that can cure someone from delusions?” he asked. I told the Gaon that delusions were very resistant to treatment, and that while antipsychotic medications could subdue overt psychotic behavior, the delusional thinking itself was difficult to eradicate.

“But what if someone has the delusion that he is the greatest tzaddik in the generation?” the Gaon asked. I could not restrain myself and laughingly replied, “No medication can cure that.”

The Gaon shook his head sadly. “Too bad,” he said. “That malady is so widespread.”

Delusions of any kind are a sign of mental illness. How sick a person must be to consider oneself a tzaddik, and how wise the Talmud was to caution us against developing such delusions!

Today I shall…

try to be honest with myself, and even if my behavior is such that people may think I am a tzaddik, I must not allow myself to be deluded.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 28”

This is certainly one delusion I don’t harbor within myself. I have great admiration for the tzaddikim who I encounter in both the Jewish and Christian communities (although I suppose truly righteous Christians would be referred to as “saints”). And yet there are some people, who are fortunately few in number in my corner of the blogosphere (at least since I’ve decided to respond to them differently) who seem to behave as if they were the most righteous people in our generation, apart from anything resembling humility.

There’s an irony here. I have found that those who have achieved great things and who are truly righteous before God are often quite humble. We see in Rabbi Twerski’s story that a man who may well have been one of the most righteous in his generation, did not desire to experience that awareness (I suspect he was speaking of himself and not others) and wanted to be “cured” of his “delusion.” Even Moses, the greatest of the Prophets, who lead millions of people through the wilderness for forty years and spoke “face-to-face” with God, was called the most humble man on the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Most of the time, truly accomplished individuals don’t have to go around telling everyone they are truly accomplished individuals, at least if they are secure in who they are (and secure in God). As we saw from the “Ask the Rabbi” question I quoted at the beginning of this missive, most of us (I include myself in this group) struggle to achieve a balance between humility and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. And whenever one is in danger of becoming a little too arrogant as a tzaddik, as we see in Paul’s example, God provides a “thorn” or other reminder that he is (and we are) constantly dependent on the Providence of Hashem.

When we are aware of God and we become aware that we have a definite part in His plans for the world around us, sometimes there’s a temptation to take pride in that. It’s difficult for most of us to separate what God is doing through us and what we are doing ourselves. How are we to take pride and boast of God while not boasting of our own achievements?

For a true tzaddik, this doesn’t present much of a problem because they have reached such a spiritual level that their eyes are constantly on God and they can see it is His power and His will that is working in the world. The tzaddik is the instrument of that will, and it is the tzaddik’s job to take the talents God has provided him and refine them in the world for the sake of Heaven.

For the rest of us, we continually strive to realize what the tzaddik has learned. We must bend our will, submit to God, and refine our gifts without succumbing to self-pity, or out of a sense of victimhood, depression, because we feel we aren’t good enough as just who we are. On some occasions, it is exactly those individuals who have succumbed to their identity of “victimization” who appear, on the surface, to be the most arrogant and confident in who they are. In reality, they struggle a great deal (but in a futile way) to achieve a type of signficance from external situations which can only truly be achieved internally, between the person and God. Like Paul, we can only achieve significance in humility.

I have found a new sense of humility in my recent return to church and the challenges it has presented. I am in no sense the conductor of my own destiny within the church’s walls or within its community of souls. I am the recipient of acts of kindness and friendliness among hundreds of strangers who are also my brothers and sisters in Christ.

And yet, I haven’t “talked Christian” as such in many years, so each encounter is like visiting a foreign country for three hours a week and wondering how I can accomplish the “immigration” process to become a “citizen,” not of the Kingdom of Heaven, but of this particular body of believers.

In writing these words, I realize that one of the reasons God has put me where I am right now is to learn this very lesson. Whenever you encounter feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, isolation, and even embarrassment, stop for a minute or two and look at where you are and why you are there. Maybe it isn’t just a tough social situation or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maybe you are in the right place in God’s time. For me, I believe, at least for now, church is where God put me to listen, not just to Him, but to everyone else.

We learn humility and even some modicum of righteousness like we learn anything else…by the doing.

The Broken Starfish

Do good with all your ego. Say, “I need to make this happen.” Say, “I have to see this done.”

Not only is this “I” permissible, it is crucial to getting things done.

So what is forbidden? To believe the “I” belongs to you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Kosher Ego”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

“If your contribution has been vital there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.”

-Walter Gropius, German architect

On the surface, the quote from Walter Gropius I posted above sounds great. But then, you have to ask yourself if every single human being who ever lived and who ever will live actually ends up making a vital contribution to something. I mean after all, some of us are pretty ordinary. I mean, I know I contribute something, but can I really consider anything I do as vital?

I guess that depends on who you ask. I certainly haven’t cured cancer or accomplished world peace. I haven’t developed safe nuclear fusion power or even built the better mousetrap. I haven’t done anything that would significantly contribute to improving the world as a whole.

In fact, depending on who you ask, my life has taken away from the well-being world. Certainly being male, religious, and conservative automatically makes me a villain in some people’s eyes. If you value youth, diversity of ethnicity (non-caucasian), and “flexible” sexual orientation (anything but straight), then I’m a failure there as well. In fact, as far as the mainstream western culture is concerned, I’m pretty much a flop.

So I haven’t contributed to the betterment of the world as a whole, nor do I belong to any of the groups or “types” of people who are considered positive contributors in the progressive social and cultural values system.

If my culture were my ultimate judge, I’d be in big trouble right now.

Of course, my life hasn’t been a complete waste of time and resources, but you have to look on a very local scale. My family has depended on me bringing in an income to support them for decades.

Oh, but sometimes I’ve been unemployed, so I failed that one.

My wife and children have depended on me to be a sane, calm, organized, and supportive husband and father for thirty years.

Oh, but sometimes I’ve failed at that, too (more often then I’d care to admit).

Gee, what else?

Sorry, it’s hard to get past those first two, but I’m sure there’s a lot more.

Thankfully, I’m gainfully employed at the moment and manage to do some “side work” writing (no, not blogs, alas), so we aren’t starving. My kids are all grown and whatever contribution I’ve made as a father, for good or for ill, is set in cement. As the saying goes, “you can’t unring a bell.”

So what’s left?

According to Yerachmiel Tilles, you can actually learn how to be in exile, but only if it’s absolutely necessary.

“I live in the city of Pest, near which I own several villages, fields and vineyards. Once a large sum of money was stolen from me, and I did not know who the thief was. We had a maid—an orphan—and since we suspected that this was her doing, we took her along to the local authorities. The police there beat her in order to induce her to confess, but she insisted she had stolen nothing, so they sent her home to us. But the harsh treatment that she had endured left its mark. For some days she languished in bed, and then died.

“Two weeks later the thief was found. I was stricken by terror. I had suspected an innocent person, and through my doing, this orphan had met her death!

According to Christianity, Jesus atoned for everyone’s sins, so there should be no guilt among Christians. The blood has been washed from our hands. We are clean; pure and unsullied, white as driven snow.

For the Jewish man from the city of Pest, it wasn’t so simple. Through an act of injustice, he had caused, however inadvertently, the death of an innocent person, an orphan and a servant. He couldn’t just walk away from that and Rabbi Meir of Premishlan felt the same way.

‘Choose one of these three,’ he said. ‘Either you die, though you will be granted a place in the World to Come; or you will be ill and bedridden for three years, while the suffering you undergo will cleanse you of your sins; or for three years you will wander about as a vagabond, as the law prescribes for an unwitting manslaughterer.’

After initially refusing to choose, the man became ill and was near to death. Apparently Rabbi Meir had made the choice for him. Only by pleading for the Rabbi’s prayers was he spared, along with agreeing to walk away from his home, his family, his wealth, everything, for a span of three years.

“If you are hungry, ask no man for money or for food. But if people offer you something out of compassion, you may accept it.”

I suppose Christianity would consider this a fool’s errand and a misguided attempt to atone for a debt that can never be repaid. You can’t return a life, and even living like a homeless person for three years won’t bring that life back.

But let’s for a moment assume this story isn’t literally true. Let’s take a look at it from the point of view of a parable. What does it teach us?

“But then I heard that in Sanz, not too far from here, there lives a tzaddik known as the Divrei Chaim. In fact, I’m heading in that direction now, in the hope that he will guide me. And that is why I will not accept your donation, thank you, because at the moment I am not setting out on another leg of my trek as an exile; I am on my way to visit Rabbi Chaim of Sanz.”

The innkeeper was so curious to know what the end of the story would be that he set out with his ragged guest and escorted him directly to the rebbe’s house in Sanz. The vagabond did not even manage to put his question to Reb Chaim, when the tzaddik said: “Return to your home, traveling by way of Premishlan. Find the grave of Reb Meir, and tell him that the rebbe of Sanz says that two years of exile are enough for you, for you observed them with true self-sacrifice.”

Maybe all this was just an attempt on the now deceased Rabbi’s part to assuage the guilt of this wealthy merchant and maybe it worked. On the other hand, what did he learn about being helpless, weak, poor, homeless, and defenseless? Maybe his wandering didn’t atone for a thing, but it could have taught him a much greater sense of mercy and justice. After this experience, will he ever carelessly be cruel to someone who is in his power again?

Who knows? I hope not.

I once heard it said that, “If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” If the Rebbe of Premishlan did not provide for this man’s “penitence,” the merchant surely would have created one of his own. In fact, the illness he suffered soon after the servant’s death may have been of his own (unconscious) doing. It’s funny what guilt and shame will do to you…and what you’ll do to yourself.

That takes care of the merchant from Pest. But what about other failures? Where do I go from here?

Do I accept the gift of Jesus Christ and blow off all of the disappointments I have committed in my lifetime as well as the consequences they created (some of which continue to wield power today), or do I, in my own way, “wander in exile?”

Here’s one possible answer, according to Rabbi Freeman:

In every hardship, search for the spark of good and cling to it. The greater the hardship, the more wondrous the good it bears.

If you cannot find that spark, rejoice that wonder beyond your comprehension has befallen you.

Once you have unveiled and liberated the spark of good, it will rise to overcome its guise of darkness. It may perhaps even transform the darkness fully to light.

I once heard a story about a starfish. Supposedly, if you cut off the arm of a starfish, it will eventually grow back. There was a man who was very cruel. He lived by the seashore and everyday, as he went about his business, he passed an area near the beach with shallow pools of water. In one of those pools, there lived a starfish.

The starfish was very beautiful, illuminating its environment with subtle reds and oranges. The cruel man did not like beauty and hurt the starfish by using a knife he carried with him to cut off one of the starfish’s arms.

By the by the arm grew back, just as it was before. This made the cruel man angry and he cut off the same arm again.

And it grew back.

And he cut it off.

And it grew back.

And this happened over and over again. Eventually, the man noticed something. Each time the arm grew back, it was a little different, a little shorter, a little more twisted and withered. The more he cut it off and the more it grew back, the more deformed and hideous the arm became.

Finally, the man didn’t need to cut the arm off the starfish anymore. It was now as injured and crippled as he was.

Rabbi Freeman says that even in the darkest circumstances, there is some spark of divine goodness. Even if you cannot find the spark, that too is a miracle, for you have a wonderful mystery laid at your feet.

But if I cannot find the spark, then it cannot “rise to overcome its guise of darkness.”

I cannot wander the world for three years as a beggar and it wouldn’t do any good if I could. Assuming God has indeed forgiven me and that the life of the Messiah has atoned for my wrong deeds, then in God’s eyes I may appear clean, but what do you do when your soul, like the arm of the starfish, is malformed and crippled?

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” My hands work reasonably well, but what about the “twisted” spirit? There is no art. The sparks remain dark. But in spite of everything I’ve just said, I still can’t stop trying. It’s not like I’m even refusing to give up. I wish I could. I wish I could lay down and rest. But I just can’t.

I just read something Michoel Ogince said:

Imagine: How would the world look if we could see the Divine sparks that animate every physical creation?

Those sparks are supposed to be there (if you are willing to accept a bit of Kabbalah for a moment) in all things, including people. They’re just hidden in the mundane, waiting to be set free and to return to their divine source, that eternal flame; waiting to return to God.

If Walter Gropius is right, everyone who has made a vital contribution to something will have someone to come after them and to pick up the work when their time is done. If not, then whatever you did ends with you.

If the various motivational writers, speakers, and bloggers are right, everything everyone does at some point or another is significant and that on some level, all people are worthy, whether they believe so or not. The trick then, is actually learning to believe it, not so much about other people, but about yourself.

I once wrote something, probably inspired by Rabbi Freeman or another Chabad Rabbi, that said if you treat someone as if they are the person they are supposed to be, as if they have already done great things, as if they are already close to God and have peace and kindness in their hearts, and you keep at it long enough, eventually they will become that person. I suppose it’s the starfish story in reverse. You can injure someone long enough until they become distorted and their spirit mirrors their long torture, or you can treat someone with kindness, mercy, respect, and even honor long enough, and their injuries will heal, if not in body, then certainly in spirit.

But for all the wonderful storytelling, parables, and tales of the Chasidim, how does that ever cross over from the realm of fantasy and mystical wishful thinking into a real and practical life?

That’s my secret…I’m always angry.

Bruce Banner (played by Mark Ruffalo)
The Avengers (2012)