Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is a time to review the past and look at where you’ve come in life. It’s a preparation for the upcoming “Days of Awe”—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—when we resolve to do better this year than last.
The theme of Elul is return to your essential self—a.k.a. teshuvah—helped along by prayer and charity. “The King is in the field,” they say, meaning that the G‑dly spark within you is much more accessible, as long as you search for it.
The month of Elul on the Jewish calendar begins this coming Sunday, September 4th. As the quote above testifies, it’s a month of preparation and personal reflection as the High Holy Days rapidly approach.
Two years ago, I wrote a rather lengthy blog post regarding the impact of Elul on both Judaism and (potentially) Christianity. Since then, things have changed a great deal.
I suppose if Christians have a “month of preparation” it occurs in the spring at the approach of Easter.
But I’ve always appreciated the formality of Judaism in endeavors of self-examination, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.
I suppose Catholicism has its rituals and ceremonies as well, but I’ve never found them particularly Biblical or attractive (though I know some will disagree with me on this).
As non-Jews, whether we call ourselves disciples of Yeshua or Christians, we don’t really have a lot of access to the Days of Awe unless we make that access for ourselves. That requires more from us as individuals, a greater personal dedication to approaching the Throne of God, abasing ourselves, praying for the strength to turn around, to turn back toward Him.
We don’t have a community (most of us, anyway) that embraces a specific praxis focusing on the path of returning to God or trying to find Him in the first place.
A few days ago, I wrote a fictional short story about a man struggling between discovering God and hiding from life. Ultimately, it’s God who finds him, and in a rather unusual venue, certainly not in a church.
I think that’s where many of us are much of the time. If we really make the effort to connect to God what will it say about who we are? Will we even like what we discover?
In observant Judaism, every day during the month of Elul, except for Shabbat, the shofar is sounded after morning services as a sort of “wake up call” to prepare for Rosh Hashanah or the New Year. Usually when writing a message such as an email or blog post, Jews will finish with the phrase “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”.
Psalm 27 is added to the morning and afternoon daily prayers.
There are other customs and the link I provided above to Chabad will render that information if you’re interested.
For a Jew, a relationship with God is personal, but it’s most often expressed in community. Christianity has community as well, but technically, it is represented by many people, by the nations, whereas Jews are a single people, a specific nation called out by God.
The Jewish religious calendar maps out the practice of a Jew and I suppose, depending on your denomination, your church has its own traditions and rituals as well. I’ve never found Christian traditions satisfying, though.
We don’t have the shofar blowing and it would probably seem strange to our friends and family if we started ending our missives to them with “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”.
If any of us choose to follow the prayers, we can acquire the siddur of our choice through any online Judaica store. There are probably some Messianic siddurim available. I imagine a Google search would yield appropriate results.
Thus we could follow the tradition of adding Psalm 27 to our personal prayer time. Just be mindful of context. After all, we are not Jews and we are not Israel.
According to the Chabad, selichot are prayers asking God for forgiveness. Christians believe that once forgiven, always forgiven, so this isn’t always a common practice in many churches.
My wife, who is Jewish, says that rather than being depressing because of the emphasis on sins and judgment, the High Holidays are exhilarating. God is offering to hit the “reset button,” so to speak, to lay out a brand new, squeaky clean year for His people Israel. Jews have a unique opportunity annually, to live the next year better than they did the last.
But according to the Bible, forgiveness and redemption are available for the non-Jew as well, and from a Christian perspective, it’s our devotion to Yeshua (Jesus) that allows us to access those blessings. However for people like me, who are non-traditional and Hebraically oriented in our theology, if we choose to use the month of Elul in a manner similar to the Jews, we have to create the context and practices for ourselves.
Both Christians and Jews know they can ask for forgiveness at any time of year, however, for Jews, the month of Elul is a time to concentrate on what they’ve done for the past year, to right wrongs, ask for forgiveness from those people they have offended, and to ask for forgiveness from God.
We may not belong to Jewish community, but as private individuals, we could choose to adopt some of what the Jews do during Elul anyway, though more spiritually rather than too closely mimicking Jewish praxis.
In the past, I’ve written about community for the “Messianic Gentile,” but my experiences over the past few years have taught me it’s not really available for the vast majority of us either physically or emotionally. Sure, we can create our own groups, but anyone who’s tried to run a small congregation or even a regular home Bible fellowship can tell you how difficult it is to maintain over the long haul.
Besides, trying to figure out how to have a “Hebraic” praxis for non-Jews while avoiding treading too heavily on Jewish identity and particularity isn’t easy. I’ve fought in those wars in the past and have concluded for personal reasons that since I’m not Jewish, I shouldn’t walk that path. It’s too much like stealing another person’s clothes and then wearing them as your own.
And trying to do any of this in a traditional Christian setting in most cases won’t be practical, since the “Hebraic” praxis will be alien in that context. In fact, it might be received by Christian peers adversarially.
So more and more, this is a blogspot about the individual non-Jew who is neither fish nor fowl, who doesn’t fit in either world, and yet can’t adjust his or her perspectives on the Bible to “get along” with a more traditional congregation, whether Christian or Jewish.
From that perspective, while the month of Elul and all that it holds is communal for the religious Jews, for the rest of us, well, those few who are like us, it remains individual, at least until the Messiah returns.
Question: I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I’m swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I’m not sure any of this is for me!
The Aish Rabbi Replies: There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call “the all or nothing” syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there’s no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what’s the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!
That’s not the Jewish way!
“Judaism: All Or Nothing?”
-from the “Ask the Rabbi” column Aish.com
Really? Not the Jewish way? Most Christians would disagree based on this:
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
–James 2:8-13 (NASB)
I suspect we’ve traditionally misunderstood what James is trying to say to his readers, since he doesn’t seem to be saying that you have to keep the Torah perfectly. He seems to be saying that if you expect your observance to justify you before God, only then would you have to keep the Torah perfectly. However, if you observe the “royal law”, that is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:30-31), and do not show partiality, you are not sinning and not counted among transgressors if you are not perfectly observant. Even if you are not perfect but you show mercy, then God will show mercy to you (see Matthew 5:21-22, Matthew 6:12).
So it would seem the Aish Rabbi is correct in that being an observant Jew doesn’t mean being a perfectly observant Jew:
Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what’s the matter? He says, I’m in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that’s going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
You say, that’s fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What’s the problem?
He says, you just don’t get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what’s out there?
You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven’t found yet? What you’ve got now is a gold mine!
That’s the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you’re not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you’ve still struck eternal gold.
The best advice: Relax.
What if when you first became a Christian (if you are a Christian), you believed you had to live a perfect Christian life (however you define such a life)? What if you believed you had to go to church every Sunday, had to attend every Sunday school class, had to be at church every Wednesday for whatever class or event was being offered? What if you thought you had to instantly understand terms like “justification” or “propitiation” or “agape” and if you didn’t know and do all you believed was expected of you, it would be the same for you as a Jewish person who didn’t literally observe the 613 commandments of the Torah?
Sounds pretty horrible, huh? Instant perfection or instant failure.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But we’re under grace, not the Law. We Christians don’t have to be perfect.” Ironically, that’s pretty much what the Aish Rabbi is saying, too. Except in Judaism God’s grace and His behavioral expectations for Covenant members aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s all part of the same package. It’s all God’s providence and love.
The love between God and Israel is unconditional. Even when Israel behaves in a manner that results in estrangement, that love is not diminished. Israel does not have to restore God’s love, because it is eternal, and His longing for Israel to return to Him is so intense that at the first sign that Israel is ready to abandon its errant ways that led to the estrangement, God will promptly embrace it.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 1” Aish.com
In Judaism (as I understand it and I realize I’m making an overly generalized statement), God loves not because a Jew is perfect but simply because God loves and because He chose the Jewish people and the nation of Israel to be His own.
One of the things the Aish Rabbi says is:
The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either “observant,” or “non-observant.” But that’s not true. In fact, here’s a secret:
Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.
Pretty shocking, huh? But that’s not all.
That’s because certain mitzvot only women usually do – like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill – like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the “fast of the first born” on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.
So when we talk about the totality of mitzvot, we’ll never do them all anyway! So rather than get overwhelmed with the vastness of it all, better to be realistic about what we can do, and move forward in a positive way.
But that just means some people don’t do all of the mitzvot because not all of the mitzvot are intended for everyone, like the laws for the Kohen or the laws pertaining only to women (and as you probably already know, there are laws that apply only to Jews and not to Gentiles, Christian or not).
But that could still mean a Jew is supposed to be perfect in all the laws that do apply to him or her.
Let’s say, for example, that a person wants to try the mitzvah of prayer. We may go to synagogue and see someone immersed in intensive prayer for one hour. We cannot conceive of how we could possibly get to that point ourselves. That’s understandable, especially for one who is not fluent in Hebrew. So it’s a matter of knowing which prayer gets top priority – for example, the Amidah prayer.
The Amidah has 19 blessings, and it’s very difficult to concentrate for that entire time without being distracted, or one’s mind wandering to other things like shopping and checking your email. So the key is to take on a small goal: “I am committing that for the first prayer of the 19, I will not rush nor allow anything to interfere between me and these few words.” That goal is realistic and attainable, and one can begin to approach a high degree of intensity and concentration on that one prayer.
What this does is give a taste of the higher goal. All that’s needed is to extrapolate to all 19. This is much more effective than starting off by saying, “Today I’m going to pray the entire 19 with great concentration!” – and then after three words, you’re thinking about what’s for breakfast.
If it’s too lofty a goal, then at least taste it once. Break down a huge goal into bite-size steps that are realistic to achieve, and will give a taste of the full goal.
That’s a lot of text to say something simple. Start with just one, small mitzvah and work up from there.
But what does this have to do with Christians?
One point of relevancy, and I alluded to this above, is that we Christians need to have a better understanding of how Torah observance relates to Jewish life, since we tend to give observant Jews a hard time for not being perfectly observant. We also tend to view “grace” and “the Law” as polar opposites (like “Christianity” and “Judaism”) which, as I also mentioned, is not true.
But if, as most Christians believe, the Law has nothing to do with us, why do we care beyond those straightforward statements?
If you listened to the rather uncomfortable debate between Dr. Michael Brown and Tim Hegg on this topic, you discovered that Mr. Hegg believes the answer is an unequivocal “yes” for everyone, while Dr. Brown thinks that no believer, Jewish or Gentile, has to observe any of the commandments (grace replaced the Law).
Frankly, I disagree with them both, but then the question is, what should Gentile Christians do?
Now that I have addressed the notion of “Torah on the heart” as a covenantal anticipation and partial fulfillment as promised to Jews, how may we envision it having an impact also on non-Jews who attach themselves to the Jewish Messiah? They do not become members of Israel or participants in the covenant per se, and they are not legally obligated by the Torah covenant. Therefore, something must become available to them because of their increasingly close proximity to the knowledge of Torah and its impact on those who actually are members of the covenant. In one other recent post, I invoked the analogy of gentiles entering the Temple’s “court of the gentiles” in order to offer sacrifices in accordance with Torah stipulations for gentiles doing so. I compared the symbolic sacrifice of Rav Yeshua to such sacrifices, but offered in the heavenly sanctuary by Rav Yeshua as a mediating Melchitzedekian priest. Such symbolism reflects the ratification of continual repentance, after which the forgiven offerer learns to walk in newness of life in accordance with HaShem’s guidance (e.g., the aspects of Torah that apply to him or her). In another recent post I addressed the notion of a gentile ‘Hasid and the appropriate reflections of Torah that may be applicable — in which a gentile might become thoroughly immersed in order to experience the same sort of spiritual intimacy with HaShem, and enter into the perceptive environment of the kingdom of heaven in its metaphorical sense in anticipation of its future physical realization. Thus non-Jews would experience spirituality from outside and alongside the covenant in the same manner as intended for Jews inside the covenant.
In such an environment the Shema may take on additional meaning, as a gentile reply and response to its pronouncement by Jews. As Jews say: “Shm’a Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” (“Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our G-d, solely the One-and-Only HaShem”), followed by “Baruch shem k’vod, malchuto l’olam va’ed” (“Blessed is His glorious purpose — an eternal kingdom”), then gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua may reply: “Hear, O Israel, HaShem your G-d has become our G-d also, the One-and-Only HaShem” (“Shm’a Israel, v’hayah Adonai Eloheichem gam Hu ‘aleinu, Adonai Echad”), perhaps followed by Zech.14:9 “V-hayah Adonai l-melech ‘al col ha-aretz — ba-yom ha-hu, yihiyei Adonai Echad u’shmo echad” (HaShem shall be King over all the earth — in that day HaShem shall be [recognized as] One, and His purpose [as] unified).
But maybe I’m already looking a little too far ahead ….
-comment made by ProclaimLiberty
on one of my blog posts
That’s probably a lot to absorb and it’s likely not all of you will relate let alone agree.
A reader with the name Metzengerstein, which sounds like it might actually be a real name for once, writes and comments:
“It is an interesting fix we Christians find ourselves in. On the one hand we should like to argue that Capitalism is a better system than any other by virtue of its results and its preference towards voluntary action and organization over government coercion for arranging society.
“On the other hand, we are anti-materialists who would like to proclaim there are more important things in life than money, and that wealth can lead you astray. Even technological improvement and scientific advancement can lead us into a mindset of creating a heaven on Earth, rather than passing through a transitory phase in a strange land.”
I confess I do not see the paradox.
Click the link I provided above to read the rest, which outlines why there isn’t a contradiction between the Biblical expectations for Christian behavior and living in the world.
Learning what God expects of us is simple enough to grasp in a few moments and yet complex enough to take an entire lifetime to comprehend.
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?
–Micah 6:8 (NASB)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
–Matthew 22:36-40 (NASB)
Seems pretty straightforward but within those simple statements is a world of meaning and learning.
In Christianity, we tend to expect that we are to understand everything in the Bible perfectly and live it out unerringly (which sounds very “legalistic,” the way most Christians see Jewish people). There are no mysteries or contradictions and that with the right interpretation (and solid doctrine), the meaning of God’s Word just unfolds right in front of you with little or not effort at all.
Except that’s not how most Christians experience the Bible if they’re at all honest in admitting it.
The reason I study the Bible through a somewhat Jewish lens is not to learn how to practice Judaism, but to learn to live with a certain amount of dynamic tension involving those little things that don’t seem to add up or that even contradict each other in the Bible.
I recently heard (read) a joke about Jewish people (I think it was in one of ProclaimLiberty’s comments) about “him being right, and the other guy being right, and you’re right, too.” From a Christian point of view, that all seems impossible. How can three different people hold three different opinions and yet all of them are right?
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
-attributed to Yogi Berra
Rav Yosef Cologne, the Maharik, wrote against a group of Rabbis who imposed their authority on their students and claimed that once someone studied under the authority of a rebbi he must behave submissively to that rebbi forever and may not disagree with his ruling. Maharik responded that even if one wants to claim that the former student remains submissive to his rebbi forever, that would only apply to halachos related to honoring a rebbi, e.g., to stand when the rebbi enters the room or to tear kriah if the rebbi passed away. If, however, the former rebbi is making a mistake in halacha the former students must raise the issue rather than silently accept the rebbi’s position.
-from Halachah Highlights
“Disagreeing with one’s Rebbi”
Commentary on Moed Katan 16
Daf Yomi Digest for Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Most Christians and even some Jews tend to see observant Judaism and particularly Orthodox Judaism as a straight jacket made out of lead. Once you’re in, you can never escape and there’s no such thing as “wiggle room”. Here we see (again) that Christian presumptions about Judaism don’t always hold water.
The lived experience of a Christian is actually more complicated and nuanced than one would imagine. Just reading John Wright’s brief essay reveals details that aren’t obvious to either the secular or Christian Gentile. The same can be said for observant Jewish life. Neither lifestyle exists as a single package that one acquires immediately like a birthday present, but rather represents a lifetime of experience, painstakingly gained bit by bit with each passing day.
We’ve just entered the month of Elul in the Jewish religious calendar, which is the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Derek Leman made some suggestions that could apply to both the Gentile and Jewish believer, but while there seems to be some overlap here for those of us to consider ourselves “Messianic,” it’s critical for us to grasp that we also have very individual duties and responsibilities to God that we are constantly seeking to master.
Frankly, my plate is full just in keeping up with all I need to learn on my journey of spiritual growth. I don’t have a lot of time to worry about what other Christians or what Jews are or aren’t doing.
If I’m to borrow anything useful from Elul, let me adopt a discipline of repentance, increased prayer, introspection, and seeking to draw nearer to God.
Well, I’m not young but I guess I’m guilty of being foolish. I’ve been accused of being too “thin-skinned” before, but I seriously don’t believe that God intended our primary means of communication to be arguing and bickering. Recently, I was (again) told that I don’t understand the educational value of discussing disagreements. In fact, I do. I just don’t understand personalizing conflicts. I’ve recently dismissed the idea that we can engage in any sort of Chavruta debate on the web, and fortunately, since I wrote that blog post, no one has tried to challenge me on it…exactly.
I know that in the controversial world of religion, and particularly the variants of Christianity that we find in Hebrew Roots, there is a lot of disagreement. That’s not really a problem as such, but when people are called out by name in the title of blog posts, or “Anonymous” commenters feel free to use profanity in referring to a fellow brother in Christ, then there is a problem. The problem gets worse when blog owners are confronted and yet deny that there is any sort of difficulty with the management of their blog or with their own ideas about what constitutes treating a fellow believer (let alone, any human being) in a respectful and loving way.
Telling me, “I’m saying it all in love,” doesn’t really cut it, since anyone can scream, and carry on, and spout the most disagreeable accusations and assumptions about another’s character and then say, “but I’m saying it (sometimes “it” is in ALL CAPS, which is really screaming “it”) all in love.”
My calendar says it’s day 28 (out of 40) of repentance. Elul ends at sundown on Sunday, and I feel in no way ready to encounter God, Tishei, or Rosh Hashanah (and certainly not Yom Kippur). Not that I really have to I suppose, since of everything I just mentioned, only God appears on the typical Christian landscape, and the concepts of confession, repentance, and renewal aren’t (for the most part) tied to a particular time of year.
Nevertheless, the habit of considering the High Holidays and living with a Jewish wife make the days of repentance impossible to ignore, and if I feel the need to write a third “meditation” in one day, then obviously I’ve got some last-minute house cleaning to do.
I’m a really big fan of forgiveness, but I seem to have forgotten recently that one can forgive a difficult and unrepentant person and still not reconcile with them. I’ve been trying engage such a person, not with the idea of ever-changing what we disagree over, but with the hope of improving the process of our communication.
It didn’t work.
How can I maintain even a tenuous fellowship with someone who, although nowhere near perfect, continues to behave as if every conflict and disagreement they encounter is caused outside of themselves, and without recognizing that they too contribute to disagreement and discord?
I can’t. More to the point, I really don’t have the time or inclination to, in essence, beat my head against a stone wall. For the most part, I’ve already given up going to specific websites or blogs that I know will just raise my blood pressure and yield no positive fruit. I had hopes for one, but now I realize that seeking peace with God and with my fellow human being isn’t going to be accomplished by continuing to pursue what is, by definition, an individual with an adversarial (at least online) personality.
I’m not saying that people can’t post a comment on my blog and disagree with me. Far from it. I welcome differing points of view. I do draw the line at personalizing disagreements and certainly “name calling” is way over the line. However that doesn’t mean I have to go “looking for trouble” either. In Matthew 6:34, Jesus said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I think I’m going to take the Master’s advice and let trouble take care of itself. It doesn’t need my help.
I’ll certainly continue to visit and comment on blogs that I find uplifting and informative, but there’s enough craziness that happens in life just because it happens without me pursuing it and letting it aggravate me over what one of my instructors in Graduate school used to call “OPPs” (other people’s priorities).
If the High Holidays are for repairing and renewing relationships with God and other people, one of those relationships has to be with me. I think I’ll feel better about living in my own skin and be a better companion with everyone I connect with, if I follow a couple of pieces of advice from a sage advisor:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. –Ephesians 4:29-32 (ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV)
The phrase “Charity begins at home” originated with Sir Thomas Browne but has been echoed by many others, including John Wycliff and Charles Dickens. In the same vein, I think peace, and particularly peace of mind begins “at home.” Sorry if this sounds a tad self-serving, but I’m going to focus on my peace of mind by thinking about things and associating with people who are honorable, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.” I think I’ll be a nicer person and more like the person God wants me to be if I pursue that course.
As DovBear might say, “when I was young (though not actually young) and foolish, I used to argue with people who argued for its own sake.” By God’s grace, I’m not going to do that anymore.
Please feel free to visit my blog and if you disagree with me (and I don’t really mind), it’s OK to talk about it with me. Just keep personalities out of it. However, I’m no longer going to visit places in the blogosphere that forsake the ways of peace because they absolutely need to answer the clarion call, someone is wrong on the Internet.
Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, and do not cleave to a wicked person.
Personally, I am a big fan of forgiveness. I believe that there is no such thing as a transgression so great that it cannot be forgiven. In fact, it’s Elul, the month in the Hebrew calendar not only known to lovers of crossword puzzles, but the month leading up to both Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — and Yom Kippur — a day which promises that whatever we have done, forgiveness and atonement are always possible.
That same tradition, however, also teaches that while anything can be forgiven, we don’t always equate forgiveness with forgetfulness, recognizing that forgiveness is not always the same as atonement. The former reflects a letting go of the hurt and anger caused by a bad act, while the latter implies a reunified or reconciled relationship as seen in the word: at-one-ment.
Everyone’s terrified. No one knows what they want to work on. Everyone has something that they find hard. Because this stuff IS really hard. If they aren’t anxious or nervous, they are compensating, and pretending. Never walk into a room and expect that you are the smartest person in it, because you probably aren’t. Don’t let that scare you, let it feed you.
The month of Elul is all about repentance and forgiveness. I recently read a statement on Facebook made by a Jewish gentlemen who said, “If I have hurt anyone, or said anything that was offensive to any of my friends, I ask your forgiveness before Yom Kippur just as I forgive all who have offended me.” That pretty much captures the heart of Elul and the hearts of anyone who desires to forgive and be forgiven.
But it’s not that easy. I read the article about Todd Akin a day or so ago and am presenting it as an example of how difficult it can be to forgive someone, even if you believe they are sincere in their repentance.
Just in case you don’t know who Todd Akin is or why he is asking for forgiveness, here’s another portion of Mr. Hirschfield’s opinion piece:
Missouri Rep. Todd Akin has vowed to stay in his race for the Senate despite calls from leaders in every wing of his party that he abandon the campaign, and despite comments from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who found Akin’s ideas about “legitimate rape” and the “fact” that “forcibly raped” women are biologically protected from getting pregnant, to be indefensible.
Mr. Akin has inspired more than a little outrage from people in general and women in specific. The idea that a woman can be raped and if it is “really” rape, that her body will shut down certain processes so she cannot become pregnant is just plain crazy. It’s a deep insult to any rape victim and particularly any rape victim who has become pregnant by her assailant. I can’t even begin to imagine what Mr. Akin was thinking when he made that astonishing statement.
I don’t know if this is true in Mr. Akin’s case, but I have encountered more than a few people who behaved in an abrasive, hostile, bullying, condescending, or otherwise unpleasant manner, not because they ever wanted to victimize other people, but because they felt they were defending themselves.
Let me explain.
At some point or another, we’ve all been hurt. Almost invariably, we’ve experienced hurt in childhood. It’s almost impossible for a child to avoid pain all of the time. They’re so dependent on the adults around them; their parents, other close relatives, their teachers, and if raised in a religious home, their clergy. Any one of these adults, in a thoughtless or careless moment, could scare or otherwise traumatize a small child.
Of course, if it is a single, random event and otherwise, you are a child being raised in a supportive, protective home, having one uncle or teacher yell at you isn’t’ going to scar you for life. But if the trauma is repeated or chronic, and if the child is raised in an insecure environment, it’s not so easy to overcome. There are also acute traumatic events like a severe illness or injury that can result in a child feeling insecure and victimized, even if no one is at fault. A child may perceive a long hospital stay with many invasive medical procedures as punishing, even when it’s absolutely necessary. The child can blame his parents for leaving him there, forcing him to be “hurt” by needles, being alone in the dark in a strange place.
There are a lot of things that can feel hurtful to a child.
Children have no power in their lives. They depend almost entirely on the adults around them for protection. However, as those children become adults, it becomes different. The parents have less and less of a role in protecting the child and helping him to cope, and the person who is now an adult must take personal responsibility for how they react and manage their victimization (which can be a real or a perceived betrayal).
Many people find ways to adapt and overcome a childhood trauma or victimization. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m certainly not minimizing the pain and anguish people have gone through. I am saying there is hope, but each of us must realize that we can’t place all the responsibility to overcome on our environment or even on the people and events that have hurt us. We must take charge of the process ourselves; we must make ourselves responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
But what happens when someone is still struggling with their sense of victimization? What happens when your first impression of a person is their hostility, their abrasive attitude, how they bully other people? You probably don’t think they’re a victim. You’re more likely to think they’re an aggressor or even a perpetrator who victimizes others.
It’s one thing when someone approaches us in a humble and sorrowful way, explains to us why they behaved in a hurtful manner, resolves to correct their error, and asks for our forgiveness. It becomes very easy and compelling to forgive them. We want to forgive them. All their barriers are down. They’re vulnerable. If we have a shred of pity within us, we’ll forgive them without hesitation.
It’s another thing entirely to know a person is probably a victim but they do not accept any responsibility for their abusive behaviors and they definitely don’t ask for forgiveness. It’s very hard to get past their barriers when they continue to blame others, not just those who really victimized them, but entire people groups or institutions for how they feel. It would be like blaming all Christians everywhere and calling the church evil because one Christian person or even one rather sketchy Christian church hurt you, even if they hurt you very badly.
If you’re a Christian and you’re continually being blamed by a person who was hurt by “religion” or “Christianity” and you know their aggressive actions are just the mask they use to conceal a very hurt and vulnerable person, can you still forgive them?
Remember, when you tell them you forgive them, they will likely say they’ve done nothing requiring forgiveness and blame you for the whole thing.
Forgiveness is one thing. Reconciliation is something else. But then, Mr. Hirschfield has more to say on the subject.
The desire to be forgiven is only the beginning of the lengthy process of atonement, and it takes much more than an ad campaign, however sincere it may be, to get there.
I am all for forgiving those who genuinely seek forgiveness, but part of that search must include a clear understanding by the wrongdoer of the nature of the misdeed.
I don’t believe that anybody should be judged by their worst deeds or dumbest words alone. Who among us could pass that test? And I do believe in second chances, even hundreds of them…
Confusing forgiveness with forgetfulness and trying to short circuit the process of genuine atonement demeans a sacred concept. So by all means, people should open themselves to forgiving Todd Akin, but that has little or nothing to do with supporting his candidacy for the Senate.
We can and should learn to forgive people who have insulted, hurt, and victimized us, but that doesn’t mean continuing to allow them to hurt us because it’s what they think they need to do to make their own pain feel better. A battered wife may learn to forgive her abusive husband in time, but that doesn’t mean she still shouldn’t divorce him and gain sole custody of their children for her protection and her children’s. You can forgive and still protect yourself from further abuse. You can realize that your abuser is a victim too, but it may never be safe to attempt any form of reconciliation with them, to allow yourself to be around them, to even talk, email, text, or communicate with them in any way.
Once the victim becomes the victimizer in any form whatsoever, while we can forgive them, it will still be difficult or impossible to be around them. Unless they seek help and accept personal responsibility for their actions and for repairing the damage within them, even though they never caused the pain in the first place, how can we say that our forgiving them means we should let them keep hurting us, even in very “minor” ways like name-calling or blaming?
Also, as Mr. Hirschfield said, forgiveness and atonement are a long process. Sometimes it can take years. Just saying, “I forgive you” doesn’t mean you really did. You may have to learn to see past the hurt he did to you before you’re ready to accept that your abuser is a victim, too.
Joe Hanson essentially said that you can let your insecurities control you or you can learn to control them. He wasn’t talking about being a victim, but I think his advice is sound and applies here. Part of what’s supposed to go on during Elul is that we’re supposed to examine our behavior and see where it’s fallen short of God’s standards. This must include our “righteous” behavior when we felt we were “confronting evil” or “protecting ourselves by being proactive.” Were we being unfair? Were we blaming people who never hurt us? Are we projecting our own pain, anger, and suppressed rage onto others?
Are we perpetuating our own victimization and feeling self-righteous by continuing to attack and blame people who had nothing to do with the original cause of our pain?
What if our so-called “righteousness” is just a disguise and we’ve really become the monster we are still afraid of in the dark?
We can never go back in time and prevent the damage that was done to us. We can however, take responsibility for who we are today, seek God, seek help through various therapeutic means, and rise up out of the ashes of our yesterday to become a better, more truly righteous, and forgiving person tomorrow.
The world of Moshiach is a world free of hate, jealousy and suffering, a world suffused with wisdom, a world in harmony with itself and its Creator. And what model of leadership does the Torah envision for this perfect world? Moshiach, the world leader who will herald and preside over this climatic era, is described as both teacher and king, a paragon of spiritual and material leadership in one.
So the example of Moses represents the Torah’s concept of the perfect leader. For Moses embodied the ultimate criterion for leadership: an utter self-effacement and a complete absence of self-interest. As the Torah attests: “And the man, Moses, was the most humble man on the face of the earth.” In such a man, absolute authority only ensures the optimum integration and harmony between all areas of communal life. For it is not power that corrupts, but the ego of the powerful. Only in lesser generations, whose leaders’ selflessness is not on the level exemplified by Moses, is it necessary for authority to be fragmented and shared.
But the halving of life into “spiritual” and “material” spheres, its compartmentalization into “moral” and “political” domains, is an artificial one. Life, in its entirety, is a single endeavor: the development of the perfect world that G-d envisioned at creation and outlined in the Torah. The many “areas” of life are but the many facets to its singular essence.
Ethics of Our Fathers
Commentary on Chapter 6
“Torah and State”
Elul 4, 5772 * August 22, 2012 Chabad.org
I’m going to talk a lot more about the “compartmentalization” of the secular and spiritual in our lives in tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” but in reviewing this commentary, I thought we could take a moment to look at a Jewish perspective about life now vs. life in the Messianic Age. I don’t think it’s all that different from how Christians see life now as opposed to how things are going to be when Jesus returns.
Religious Jews tend to draw a much closer comparison between Moses and the Messiah than we Christians do, probably because much of the church has been taught that the Law is done away with, thus Moses becomes superseded by Jesus. In some sense, it’s almost like modern religious Jews see Moses the way we Christians see Jesus. He is the model and the “king” they look up to. He set the standard for Jewish leadership and the Messiah will be a “perfected” version of Moses.
OK, I’m oversimplifying all this, but I think it’s important for us to consider Jesus as the Jewish Messiah King. When Jesus returns (and I’ve said this before), he will look, talk, walk, eat, pray, worship, and be a Jewish man, the Messiah, the King of Israel. He will definitely be “too Jewish” for many Christians and I think it would help if we got used to the idea that he won’t be the “Jesus” we see in the movies before he actually arrives.
One of the reasons I like Jewish commentaries on the Messiah is because it compels me to conceptualize Jesus as Jewish and not as the sort of “gentilized” person that we’ve turned him into as the centuries have passed. This is also why I sometimes encourage Christians to at least try on some Jewish practices for size. Turning our thoughts and hearts toward God during the month of Elul for example, isn’t such a bad idea. It encourages us to conform our lives more toward holiness and God at a time of year when we probably aren’t thinking that hard about our lives of faith (Christians don’t have religious events in or around August typically).
Why not consider and practice self-purification and making who we are just a little bit better than we were yesterday? Maybe we can even do something to make the world a little bit of a better place. Maybe God put us here to actually accomplish something special; something that is uniquely our purpose.
Whoever has faith in individual Divine Providence knows that “Man’s steps are established by G-d,” (Psalm 37:23) that this particular soul must purify and improve something specific in a particular place. For centuries, or even since the world’s creation, that which needs purification or improvement waits for this soul to come and purify or improve it. The soul too, has been waiting – ever since it came into being – for its time to descend, so that it can discharge the tasks of purification and improvement assigned to it.
Shabbat, Elul 4, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan Chabad.org
Tomorrow, I’m going to ask some important questions on my “morning meditation.” I’m going to ask if Jesus still matters in our lives. I’m going to ask why he’s so important to us and to the world. I think at least some of us are beginning to lose track of the vital nature of the Messiah. It’s not just what he’ll do when he returns and ascends his throne on Earth. It’s what he’s already done for each and every person who calls themselves “Christian” or “Messianic.” It’s what he’s done for us that could never have been done without him.
If you are separating the secular and the spiritual in your life, you may be shutting Jesus out of times and areas of your existence where he needs to be and where you need him to be. Does Jesus matter? Is he important in every part of your life?
I’ll try to answer those questions tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.
King Lear Act 1, scene 4
People react to different situations differently, based on their diverse personalities and experiences.
The obligation to love other people and do acts of kindness requires that we look at the specific individual we are dealing with. Try to understand what exactly will give this person pleasure. Be aware of his personality traits, in order to know what his needs are. Decide in which areas and to what degree to honor this specific person.
To do this properly requires much thought.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Please According to the Pleasure”
Daily Lift #553 Aish.com
Much of the time, it is impossible for us to know the outcome of an event as we commit it. The future remains shrouded in mystery until it becomes the present. At that point, it’s far too late to do anything to change what has happened. It’s like eating a cookie. Before you taste it, the cookie may look pleasing and delicious, but you can never really know until you eat it. Will it be sweet and satisfying or bitter, leaving you empty and ill? You can only find out by putting the cookie in your mouth, but once you do, it is too late.
Who we are, everything we do, the relationships we have with family and friends; they are all like that. You meet a girl, fall in love, get married, have children, time passes and what you imagined the “cookie” would taste like when you first looked at it, ultimately has no resemblance to your experience once you’ve bitten into it and swallowed.
Is life sweet for you? Is it bitter for someone else? Does it really matter and more importantly, is there anything you can do about it?
I don’t know. It’s one thing if the bitterness is just you. Then you are totally responsible for any outcome and totally in control of what happens. But we don’t live in isolation. We live in a world of people, their shifting moods, their hungers, their desires, their pain and poignancy.
As I’ve mentioned in a number of my blogs recently, the month of Elul on the Jewish religious calendar, is “a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” According to Judaism 101:
Tradition teaches that the month of Elul is a particularly propitious time for repentance. This mood of repentance builds through the month of Elul to the period of Selichot, to Rosh Hashanah, and finally to Yom Kippur.
With an awareness of willful sin and the need to repent and make amends comes deep feelings of regret and remorse. A rebuke from any source, but particularly from one you are close to, can be especially painful. And yet the world, and particularly the world of religious people, is full of rebukes, judgments, and harsh words. Why wait for a judgment from God when human beings are more than willing to dole out their opinions on what makes them superior and what makes you a fool?
God. In the middle of a hostile humanity, strangers, friends, loved ones, it’s easy to almost forget God. I can’t forget God. And if we can set aside a month of preparing to encounter our Creator in the most imposing, awesome, and terrifying manner, how does God prepare for us?
People imagine that since G‑d is not physical, therefore He must be in heaven. But the heavens—and all things spiritual—are just as much creations as the earth. Less dissonant, more harmonious, more lucid—but finite realms nonetheless.
G‑d is not found in a place because it is big enough to contain Him or so magnificent that He belongs there. G‑d is found in whatever place He desires. And where does He desire most to be found? In the work of our hands, repairing His world.
The heavens are filled with spiritual light. In the work of our hands dwells G‑d Himself, the Source of All Light.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Is G-d in Heaven?”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson Chabad.org
God may not be one of us, but according to Rabbi Freeman, He can be found among us, even in the work of the hands of His saints. When we pray, we may not have to pray in the “direction” of Heaven. God could be standing at our very shoulder as we talk to Him, revealing our inner core, breaking down in shame or sorrow or anger or fear. What have I done? Could I have reacted any differently? Is there hope that we can be closer again? Is there hope at all? Where is God?
“Women, slaves and children are obligated in prayer” – They are obligated in prayer because prayer is a request for Divine compassion, and everyone requires that. I may have thought that since it is written as regards prayer ‘evening and morning and afternoon’, possibly prayer has the status of a Mitzvah that is bound by time and thus they would be exempt. Therefore, the Mishnah comes to inform me that women are obligated.
I’m not sure if the traditional Jewish sages would agree that a Gentile also is obligated to pray to God, but as a Christian, I understand that it is unavoidable. God is merciful and slow to anger, but that doesn’t mean He’s not a righteous Judge, too. According to Paul, no one is righteous (Romans 3:10) and the sooner we all get off our high horses and face that fact, the better off we’ll probably be. But it’s an ugly thing to face; all your mistakes, the horror of the people you’ve hurt, the willful sins and the pure ignorance of life that have resulted in the mess you and I find ourselves in as we delve into our personalities and personal experiences.
Will God forgive?
As a Christian, I must believe that through Jesus Christ, my sins are forgiven. With sincere confession and repentance before the King of Kings and the man of many sufferings, my burdens are lightened and my soul is free to soar the Heavens.
Would that it were so easy to shed the chains that I wrap around my spirit and to disregard the wound inflicted upon me by myself and everyone who says they are being “honest” with me for my own good.
The wounds are deep and the pool of blood is gathering at my feet. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
Some wounds may never heal and even if they do, the painful scars will always be there.
Or am I being the thankless child?
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman