Tag Archives: encouragement

Vayigash: Are You Willing to Save Someone’s Life?

joseph-and-pharaoh“Now when the news was heard in Pharaoh’s house that Joseph’s brothers had come, it pleased Pharaoh and his servants.”

Genesis 45:16

Pharaoh was delighted when he heard that Joseph’s brothers had come to Egypt. He immediately made provision to bring the entire family to Egypt so they could survive the famine in safety and comfort. He provided wagons for the move. He promised them the best of the land of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s warm welcome of Joseph’s brothers reveals an important detail about Joseph’s time in Egypt.

“What Pharaoh Heard”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This commentary from FFOZ comes with the following “Thought for the Week:”

When we are wronged by someone, it is natural to tell others about it. We want to tell others about how it happened to garner their sympathy and support. Somehow it makes us feel better to know that others are aware of the injustice committed against us. We seek out sympathy and commit a small act of retaliation.

It’s very human that when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone, to want to get even in some way. Usually, we get even by doing the same to them as we believe they’ve done to us (whether the damage the other person has done to us is real of just perceived makes no difference apparently).

I write periodically on something called Lashon Hara or the Jewish concept of wronging someone in speech (which can be spoken, written, or any other form of communication). I’ve even based the Comments Policy for this blog on that principle.

As the FFOZ commentator writes, what we say and how it is perceived can have hurtful and even dire consequences:

Joseph loved his brothers and his family so much that he could not bear the thought of having them defamed. He did not want Egyptians saying to one another, “Did you hear about the nasty thing that Joseph’s lowlife brothers did to him?” Joseph kept the entire episode to himself. The only thing he ever said about his past was the vague explanation, “I was in fact kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). His love for his brothers compelled him to protect their reputation.

Instead of emulating Joseph, who was concerned about protecting the dignity of his loved ones, it seems we do just the opposite. A husband and wife are eating out at a restaurant when the husband drops his cup, spilling his beverage on the table. Embarrassed, the wife rolls her eyes and says to the stranger sitting at the next table, “He is such a klutz.” A man is out with his friends when they begin discussing the foils of marriage. All in good fun, the man complains to the guys about his wife’s bad habits. Everyone laughs. Why would we sell out the people we love like this? The wife shows more concern for the opinion of a stranger in a restaurant than she does for the dignity of her husband. The husband has higher regard for a few laughs from his buddies than he does for the reputation of his wife.

It’s one thing to read about a “Bible principle” and another thing entirely to behave out of that principle with unerring consistency. Reading about Joseph and his brothers makes a nice story, but most of the time, we don’t think to apply what we’ve learned to our day-to-day living. Reading the story of the wife casually defaming her husband in public brings the principle home. If anyone you’ve loved has embarrassed you in front of your friends, family, or strangers, even if what they said is true about you, then you know what I mean.

Here’s another example:

“The Torah ideal is to greet each and every person with a pleasant facial expression.” (Tomar Devorah, ch.2) When you greet someone in a friendly way, you never know what a positive effect you will have. A certain individual who greeted everyone with a smile and kind words was approached by someone and told, “You saved my life.” The person went on to tell how he’d suffered a number of serious setbacks and was contemplating suicide. He felt totally alone and depressed and felt that no one cared about him. Then this fellow greeted him with a sincere smile and a cheerful voice. This immediately lifted up his spirits and he was resolved to continue living.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Quoted from Gateway to Happiness, pg 26
Found at Aish.com

whispererI don’t know what Joseph felt about his brothers or why he didn’t “spill the beans” about their attempt to kill him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, or anyone else in his sphere of Egyptian companions. Maybe he really did continue to have love for them in his heart, in spite of how they felt about him. Perhaps he just didn’t want the Egyptians to harbor any more disdain for the Hebrews than they already did. Regardless of the reason, even though Joseph would have been telling the truth if he revealed the terrible acts of his brothers to Pharaoh, he chose not to do it, keeping the matter to himself, and even forgiving his brothers, though they hardly deserved it.

When a spouse says something to revealing about his or her “other half,” depending on what it is, the person being spoken of can at least feel embarrassed if not ashamed or humiliated. As we see from Rabbi Pliskin’s example, how we treat another person, even if it’s simply greeting a stranger with a smile, can make a tremendous impact.

There are more than enough “moral police officers” on the web and particularly in the blogosphere who choose to point accusing fingers at others rather than greeting them (virtually speaking) with a “smile.” Especially since we cannot actually face the people we address on the Internet, we have no idea what good or evil we are doing to them and how they will respond. Most of the time, all we know is that they remain silent or they “bark back” at us if we have insulted or embarrassed them in some way.

But like the man in Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary, we don’t know how far we can push someone, especially if they are already on an emotional brink. We can knock someone over or we can pull them back, just by how we speak to them or about them.

James, the brother of the Master, said (James 3:8) that the tongue is “a restless evil and full of deadly poison'” We have been given the gift of speech (and writing, and other forms of communication) to bless and not to curse. Paul said (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that believers should “encourage one another and build up one another”, and New Testament scholar and author Mark Nanos, in his book The Mystery of Romans said Paul expressed his heartfelt desire that believing Gentiles should support and encourage even the non-believing Jews in the synagogue, rather than denigrate them for being “weak” and “stumbling” in faith.

If it is true that we have a duty to support even unbelievers so that they should come to faith, then what we say and what we do becomes incredibly important. We can not only save someone’s life in this world by how we greet them, we can be an instrument to bless or curse their souls.

The FFOZ commentary for this week’s Torah portion ends this way:

A woman was having a hard time at the Messianic synagogue she attended in the southern United States. She was involved in a heated conflict with some other members. This went on for some time. Frustrated with her congregation, she told her unbelieving friend about the problems she was having. Eventually the leadership arbitrated the situation. She made peace with the people. Some time later, she invited her unbelieving friend to attend a service. Her friend said, “Are you crazy? After the way you talked about those people and that place, I wouldn’t set foot in there.”

Joseph never told the Egyptians about the incident with his brothers because it was none of their business. By maintaining discretion, he was protecting the name and reputation of God in Egypt. Had he told his sad story to everyone, the Egyptians would have had cause to say, “If that’s how the followers of your God behave, I want nothing to do with Him or your religion.”

FallingI’ve heard it said that “you can’t unring a bell.” Once you have said or done something harsh or hurtful to another human being, you can never take it back. Just imagine all of the regret buried within you for all of the things you’ve said and done to sin against other people and against God over the years.

Fortunately, God is in the business of forgiving, but it’s not certain that all of the people you and I have hurt in our lifetimes will be willing or able to forgive us. But while we can’t change the past, we can make a new future starting right now. Have a care what you say and what you do. Greet others with a smile. Withhold a harsh criticism, even if what you could say is factual. Consider that God loves even the sinner and the apostate.

You may never know whose life you may save by either speaking a good word or withholding one that is evil. One day we will all have to give an accounting for how we’ve lived our lives and every action we have committed. What will you say to the King when it’s your turn? Will you attempt to justify hurting others, or be blessed by him for your kindness and compassion?

Vayeishev: Understanding, Living, and Courage

walking-side-by-side Recognize, please, to whom these belong…

Genesis 38:25

The arrival of a letter, adorned with official-looking stamps and seals, was quite an event at the small wayside tavern somewhere in the backwoods of White Russia. The simple tavern-keeper, who had never quite mastered the written word, ran to find the melamed he kept to teach his children.

As the teacher read the letter, the tavern-keeper turned white, uttered a small cry, and collapsed in a dead faint. For the letter contained most shocking and tragic news for this simple, good-hearted Jew: his beloved father had passed away.

Said the mashpiah Reb Michael of Aptask:

An outside observer witnessing the events described above may wonder: why does the tavern-keeper react so dramatically to the letter while the teacher is relatively unmoved? Who among the two better grasps and comprehends its contents if not the learned teacher? The other cannot even read and write!

Obviously, this is a ridiculous question. What if the teacher has a better appreciation of the vocabulary, sentence structure, and artful calligraphy with which the letter is composed? What if he better understands the background, the circumstances, the nuances of the event described? It is not his father who died!

True, Reb Michael would concluded, it is important to learn, to study, to comprehend. And the more one understands, the deeper one delves into the nature of his own existence, the world about him, and his relationship with his Creator, the better equipped he is to fulfill his mission in life. But objective knowledge alone is worthless. Unless one sees himself in the picture, the most profound of theories will yield no meaningful results. Unless one sees the subject matter as ‘his father’, a lifetime of study and discovery will have little bearing on life itself.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Theory and the Father”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Chabad.org

Apparently, I’m a hypocrite. I don’t believe that I’m a hypocrite, but two individuals have called me one in the past few days. Here are a couple of examples from recent comments on my blog. The first one I present is pretty benign:

…since you are a gentile, dabbling in Messianic Judaism, “which is for Jews”, is a bit of a contradiction, technically you are muddying the waters, so to speak. Would you not agree?

The second example, on the other hand…

I will tell you that you are a hypocrite in your face. I don’t play nicely nicely with the truth. I have to chastise one who does not play with a full deck…You fell for false teaching and with your blog you are causing people to stumble…Go home……

Supposedly, because I advocate for the Jews having a unique covenant relationship with God and that they have a special role beyond any other people or religious group, including Gentile Christians, I have a problem. Actually, the problem is supposed to stem from the fact that I advocate for the above and yet I also involve myself, as a Christian, in the affairs of Messianic Judaism by writing commentaries on the movement. I suppose the fact that I very often quote from Jewish religious and educational sources just adds to my “problem.”

But does that make me a hypocrite?

Just a few days ago I said:

We serve One God and we have one Messiah King who will return to rule over all of Creation. As servants and sons, we each have our roles and duties. We can’t afford to let our limitations, biases, and human ambitions restrict who we are and who God created us to be…both the Jew and the Gentile. Christian support of Israel does not mean taking control of the process of defining Israel. It’s allowing the Jewish people and nation the space to define themselves, and supporting them in this effort through whatever means are at our disposal. That is a Christian’s unique role and purpose in life. It’s time we start living it.

jewish-christianI tried to the best of my ability in the paragraph above to synthesize Christian and Jewish interactions and roles relative to mutual discipleship under the Messiah. Apparently, I failed, at least with the two people who objected to my blog post. I know most of you must be wondering why I’m even writing this. After all, only a few people (publicly) object to me while a much larger number seem to be more encouraging. Why express angst over just a couple of people who question my motives?

I’ve said time and again on this blog that I want to be fair. I want to consider other people’s viewpoints. If someone has a grudge or a beef with me, I have to ask myself if there is anything I’ve done to contribute to it. If there is, then there’s something within me that I need to change. If not, then at least I’ve looked in the mirror and asked myself a few hard questions before moving on.

It’s not that I expect everyone to agree with me all of the time, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend how even my critics can miss what I’m trying to say. It’s one thing to understand my message and to say, “I disagree,” and another thing entirely to misunderstand me to the point what I’m considered to be advocating one position while living out the opposite. Saying that I support Jewish covenant and identity uniqueness is not the same as saying that Jews must be walled up inside their compounds and have nothing to do with the Christians, particularly those of us who are involved with Jews and Jewish community. In my case, I’m married to a Jew. Are we supposed to divorce and live separately? Does my involvement with my Jewish spouse make me a hypocrite? The criticism doesn’t make sense.

I quoted Rabbi Tauber’s story above because it illustrates the relationship and the differences between knowing and understanding; between information and lived experience. The teacher understood the letters, words, and sentences contained in the message but the tavern-keeper experienced the true meaning and impact of what the letter actually said, including the importance of relationship and context. The teacher “knew” the letter while the tavern-keeper “lived” out the meaning and consequences.

I can “know” the “letters, words, and sentences” of the Torah, the mitzvot, and something of the Jewish writings to the limits of my education, but I can never “live” out the experiences, the meaning, the fabric of what it is to be Jewish, whether it is within the context of Messianic discipleship or otherwise. In saying, Recognize, please, to whom these belong, Tamar was calling Judah to acknowledge his unique identity as the father of her children (she was pregnant with twins) and (without realizing it) as the forefather of the Messiah.

I don’t believe that we Christians who stand alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Messiah are hypocrites, either for actually standing by them or by discussing our relationship with each other. If such were the case, a great many writers and teachers, far more knowledgable and talented than I, would have to suffer the same accusation of “hypocrite” and, to serve the honor of Messiah, adjust our behavior accordingly.

contemplating-jumpingBut that would be psychotic.

Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master are still united by one Messiah and one God. While Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman may say that Messianic Judaism and Christianity are two different and separate religions, he also said this:

I also believe Yeshua will bless those gentiles who truly love him. We acknowledge that the gentiles in Yeshua have a place in God’s heart. It makes them our brethren, just as our fellow Jews are our brethren. We are related to other Yeshua followers, just as we are related to other Jews. Nevertheless, Messianic Judaism and Christianity remain two separate religions, yet we have the same Messiah, Yeshua. That being the case, rather than beating each other up with statements of faith we require each other to affirm, it would be good if we just began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another. I have always been more happy affirming people than doctrinal statements.

That certainly doesn’t sound like he’s requiring isolation between Christians and Messianic Jews. How could he advocate for a complete separatist philosophy and still say that Christians and Jews should “began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another?” That seems to go along with a “Daily Lift” of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin:

When you build up your own courage, you will be able to serve as a coach to others. Some of the best courage coaches are those who had to struggle to attain the courage they now have. Since it didn’t come easy to them, they know what it’s like to lack the courage to do what others consider easy.

If you don’t yet have the courage you would like, let the knowledge that you will inevitably be able to help others serve as a further motivation to increase your own courage.

Recently, I’ve been encouraged and reminded that in writing this series of “morning meditations,” I’m encouraging others. These are words and actions we are supposed to live by.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (ESV)

Good Shabbos.

68 Days: Encouragement

I really, really needed this post today. Sent it to my husband and daughters. The story about Rabbi Schneur Zalman was wonderful. Thank you for writing. You are indeed a benefit to the body.

Blessings!

-Linda in a comment on
one of my blog posts

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-11 (ESV)

Sometimes when I’m physically tired and haven’t had enough sleep, I irrationally become discouraged and “bluesy.” I was feeling that way last night, especially after reading some of the more recent and “cranky” responses on Gene Shlomovich’s blog. (Gene’s blog is fine and most of the respondents are too, but not all of them, alas.) This goes along very well with my “Days” series and my countdown to renewal or (virtual) oblivion.

But I’ve been receiving some encouragement. A lot of it is “behind the scenes” but some of it comes in the form of blog comments, such as the one I quoted above. I suppose it’s sort of ironic that I should be encouraged by someone telling me that I’m encouraging them. But isn’t that the point? One of the things I find greatly discouraging is all this bickering on the web between (supposed) brothers in Christ Jesus over who is right and who is wrong, as if this is some sort of twisted form of the recent Presidential debates, and God is the moderator who will decide who wins and who loses.

Really, if God is going to judge us on our actions, I seriously don’t think it will have much to do with our “debates” on all our blogs:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)

I know in the church, we believe that we are saved, not through what we do, but by our faith in Jesus Christ. However, we see that self-same Jesus Christ judging by what we do or fail to do for our fellow human being (and ultimately, for him). I suppose there’s no contradiction here, since if our faith and trust is true and we are actual and authentic disciples of our Master, then our actions following that faith and trust should be almost automatic. We should naturally be found feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving, extending hospitality to the homeless and lost, and much, much more.

I don’t think we’ll win the race (2 Timothy 4:7) by “winning” a blogosphere argument (and let’s face it, nobody ever changed their minds on the web because of someone else’s devastating argument or piercing witticisms).

So, in writing about what I always write about, that is, whatever’s on my mind and heart at the time, I managed, through God’s grace, to encourage another believer traveling her own path of faith. Fingers pressing keys on a keyboard, and electrons zipping across the Internet managed to communicate the will and kindness of God from one human being to another. How could I not feel honored that my small “service” has been accepted as it was intended?

But I truly believe that those who really have “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith” probably don’t even know how to create a blog, let alone have the time to write on one. They’re too busy feeding the poor, clothing the naked, making sure the homeless have shelter, opening their homes to the needy, and doing a thousand other things that serve God and provide His generosity to the very least of His servants.

I’m glad, in the middle of my own meager efforts, that I was able to encourage one human being. Thank you Linda, and everyone else who has commented kindly to me, for continuing to encourage me as well. For that’s what our Master, and Paul, his Apostle to the nations, have commanded us to do.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35 (ESV)

76 Days: The Encouraging Shepherd

Realize that if you ever feel discouraged, your attitude of discouragement is a greater problem than any external hardship.

You can change your attitude.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #607, At Least Don’t Be Discouraged”
Aish.com

A kind word can last forever. An encouraging word can be the foundation upon which many constructive years will be established. Enhancing the self-image of a child with a brief but powerful comment can create a magnificent human being. Words that inspire function like the fuel that enables the rocket to fly high and far.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #608, An Encouraging Word”
Aish.com

Thanks for that, Rabbi. Maybe I ought to buy your book and read that every day rather than some of the more discouraging content found on the web. But on the other hand, even in the midst of contention and chaos can come a small thread of hope.

drschiffman: Dan that’s your opinion but you state it as a fact. I wouldn’t deny you your right to your opinion but I must ask your forgiveness that I can’t continue the discussion at this time. I’m dealing with very serious health issues and am just not up to it right now. I respect you and am sorry but this is how it’s got to be for now. Be well.

Dan: Praying for you Dr.

drschiffman: Thanks Dan, I appreciate it

-from comments on Drschiffman’s Blog post
Messianic Judaism and Christianity: Two Religions With The Same Messiah

If you take the time to read the content of the blog post and the entire discussion in the comments section below, you’ll see that Dr. Schiffman and Dan are not exactly in agreement on the topic in question. On the other hand, the second that it became clear Dr. Schiffman was dealing with a serious health problem, the disagreement was set aside and Dan’s compassion became immediately evident. In fact, looking at the quote of their conversation, both of these men, even in disagreement, remained courteous and respectful toward each other.

That’s sort of the model I have been hoping to follow in my “blogosphere” transactions with the folks who disagree with me. I’ve had similar conversations with Dan in the past, and as much of a “firebrand” as he can be at times, his ability to put that all to one side and express warmth toward others including me, seems rare in our little part of the world of religious blogging. He’s not the only one, and to be fair, I’ll assume that most of the people I disagree with are good people who only desire to do the will of God, but those few voices that don’t seem to give a rip about anything except “winning” (in a Charlie Sheen sort of way) speak (or yell) so much louder.

That’s why it was important for me to quote from the brief exchange between Dr Schiffman and Dan this morning. That’s why their words are linked back to Rabbi Pliskin’s brief commentaries on encouragement. That’s why the encouragement of others is so important and why we must encourage, rather than discourage, each other:

Hi James. Don’t let a small number of people sour you on blogging and transparency. That, my friend, would be awarding them a very undeserved victory.

-Rabbi Carl Kinbar
from a recent comment on my blog

I have keep reminding myself that as loud as discouraging voices can be, there really are just a few of them. It’s not disagreement that’s the problem, it’s the joy killers and the attack dogs who are the real adversaries, not necessarily to me, but to the purposes and plan of God.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (ESV)

Admittedly, it’s difficult to have a conversation where you’re building someone up while also disagreeing with them on the purpose and mission of believing Jews and non-Jews in God’s plan, but as we’ve seen in the transaction between Dr. Schiffman and Dan above, when something immediate and important comes up, the disagreement can be easily set aside and the “building up” instantly comes to the forefront.

It’s such a pity that not everyone in the body of believers can see that this is how it should be. It’s why I’m looking at the next 76 days and wondering what will happen next.

Actually, I feel more refreshed as I write this than when I pounded out the previous entry in this series, so there is hope. I’ve received a fair amount of encouragement, not just in blog comments, but also in emails and on Facebook, so I know that there are many more voices supporting me than tearing me down. I think that’s the important part to remember and it’s what I keep returning to. Only a few people see me as making “wrongful criticisms,” as if my motivation were one of malice. I’m not above admitting that I’m wrong, and I’ve done so in the past, but there’s a difference between that, and accusing me of bad motives and desiring to hurt others.

Really, in all that I’ve written to date, my desire has been to preserve, restore, and uplift others, not just believing Jews, but we non-Jewish Christians as well, illuminating the path we each must take, and showing how we all have a glorious mission and future in the plan of God. It just doesn’t have to be an identical path for the different parts of the body.

The goal is the same though, as is the Messiah, and as is God.

Behold, He stands behind our walls, looking through the windows, and peering through the lattices.

Song of Songs 2:9

“Whether God watches through the windows or through the lattices,” said Rabbi Yisrael of Salant, “God watches over us. The difference is that sometimes it is through a window, and then we can see Him just as He sees us. At other times, it is through a crack in the partition, where He can see us, but we do not see Him.”

Both in the history of the nation and in our personal lives, there have been times when Divine intervention was manifest. There have also been times when we were in great distress and felt abandoned, but even then, though God seemed to be absent, He was watching over us. The Torah foretold that there would be times of anguish when we would feel that God is not among us. At such times we must strengthen our faith and declare, “Behold, the Keeper of Israel does not sleep nor slumber.”

Commenting on the verse, He does great marvels alone (Psalms 136:4), our Sages tell us that “alone” means that only God is aware of some of the miracles He performs for us, because we are unable to recognize them as such. Those who failed to see the protective hand of God when the Iraqis rained scuds on Israel were morally and psychologically blind; anyone should have been aware of God’s protection. But even when His intervention is less evident, we must know that He watches over us, albeit “through cracks in the lattices.”

Today I shall…

try to reinforce my faith in the everpresent watchfulness of God over Israel as a whole, and over me as an individual.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 28”
Aish.com

To adapt Rabbi Twerski’s lesson just slightly, I’ll say that God watches over not just Israel, although this is certainly important, but He also watches over us all, as a mother hen might watch over her precious chicks. He never slumbers or sleeps, and it is the Good Shepherd who guards his flock, all of us, and though we are from our different sheep pens, we are all his.

If we truly know his voice, we will follow him in peace.

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
Chabad.org

“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)

Climb!

It is well known that we live in a time when there is terrible hester panim -God’s presence is not easily perceived. The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, uses this concept to explain why we have so many amenities in our times. “God saw that people were very weak spiritually due to the obscuring of God’s presence and could not survive dealing with the hardships of living without conveniences to make life easier. He afforded access to electricity and all of the appliances that use it, and subsequent generations find such things essential to their survival.”

We sometimes find Talmudic statements that don’t seem to apply today. On today’s daf, for example, we find that if a pregnant woman walks on cut fingernails she will miscarry. Yet this seems a bit farfetched to us here in the twenty-first century. When someone asked the Chazon Ish, zt”l, about whether this principle is still in effect, he replied with characteristic clarity. “In our generation, with such great hester panim, I would not be surprised if a woman who is expecting treads on fingernails and nothing happens to her fetus at all.”

The Shelah HaKadosh, zt”l, gives a similar explanation for why we no longer find that people are struck with tzora’as for sins like leshon hara and the like – although the Gemara explicitly states that certain sins cause the ailment. “The matter of tzora’as is only applicable when we had a Beis HaMikdash and God’s providence was clearly seen. After the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, God’s providence was hidden. During such hester panim, we are no longer sent tzora’as as a clear message from heaven that one must rectify his sins.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Cloaking of Providence”
Niddah 17

Don’t panic. I have a hard time believing that a pregnant woman would miscarry just because she walked on cut fingernails, too. Nevertheless, this story tells us an important lesson about the nature of the church today.

As you may know if you’ve been reading my “morning meditations” (or any religious blog) lately, there is no more contentious an environment than the religious blogosphere. We may treat each other pretty much politely or with (sometimes feigned) respect when we meet face-to-face in our churches and our synagogues, but once you get us on a web and we have access to a “submit” button on a discussion board or blogger’s comment form, all bets are off. When I wrote Will a Soul Cry Out Against You several days ago (even though I only posted it this morning), I didn’t really have this specific topic in mind. Today, I can’t get the topic out of my head (you’ll see it appear again in tomorrow’s “meditation” on this week’s Torah Portion).

A friend of mine has been communicating something similar recently (no, it’s not the friend some of you may think). The Christian church, our faith and our community, is having “issues”.

Pick up and open any popular book on Christianity and you’ll read about problems. The church has problems. Christianity has problems. We aren’t functioning correctly. In some way, we’re broken; we’re sick. People are leaving churches, youth aren’t keeping their faith into their college years, pastors are suffering from burnout and doors are closing all over the country.

The New Testament church wasn’t this way. It grew exponentially. It rocked its world. It set in motion a movement that now compasses the globe. Why don’t we see that kind of movement in the church down the street?

Why doesn’t our church look like Acts 2, or 1 Corinthians 13, or Philippians 4? Why aren’t converts becoming devoted disciples? Why do people in church seem to complain so much? What’s with the backbiting and shallowness? Where’s the depth? Where’s the passion? Where’s the love?

Good questions. Really good questions. I wish I had the answers but, as you know, questions are my primary message. Sometimes they’re only the breadcrumbs available to guide us along the path.

We in the church are a pretty disappointing lot, but maybe we have an excuse. God doesn’t seem to be very present in the world today. His Face seems to be truly hidden and the Messiah’s light is very much concealed under a bowl. But then again, maybe God’s “absence” is caused by the dismal performance of the church and the members of her body, particularly in the areas of graciousness, respect, and compassion. If God treated us the way we treat each other, the Earth would be a slowly cooling cinder in space, devoid of life and light.

The weight of graceless Christianity (I include myself among the crowd) presses heavily upon my shoulders and like a weak and aged Atlas, I can no longer hold it up. When the Divine Presence filled the Tabernacle in the desert for the first time, Moses wasn’t able to enter the tent of meeting because the glory; the weight of God’s Presence was too heavy (Exodus 40:35). I only wish the weight that keeps me from standing, let alone rising, were from the same Source.

But as much as collective Christianity sometimes makes me want to throw in the towel, there are some out there who are also encouraging. That’s what I need, that’s what we need. We need to be encouraging one another all the time (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13) and to love one another (John 13:34-35) so that people will know that our faith is not in vain. We need to do this in a world where we cannot easily see the face or feel the weight of God so that we can be reassured that our faith is not in vain.

At times like these, it’s easy to imagine myself as a spacecraft in a decaying orbit, about to burn up in the atmosphere, or a plane that is spinning out of control into a nose dive toward the unyielding ground beneath me. Small wonder that so many people crash, burn, burnout, and leave the faith. Small wonder that the secular world around us seems to have so many more people in it capable of compassion, kindness, and love.

One of the commentaries on this week’s Torah portion reminds me of a very special quality Moses needed in order to do the job God gave him to do.

One of the greatest attributes possessed by Moshe was his humility, as the Torah attests in the portion Beha’alosecha : “Moshe was extremely humble, more so than any other person on the face of the earth.”

Of all the Jewish people, G-d selected Moshe to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Then G-d chose him, and him alone, to receive the Torah, and learned with him for 40 days and nights.

Moreover, in the portion Beha’alosecha the Torah states that Moshe was able to converse with G-d whenever he wished; that he shared his spirit with the 70 elders and lacked not because of it; and that his relationship with the Jewish people was that of a nurse carrying an infant.

How was it possible for an individual who was so great to be so utterly humble. Was Moshe not aware of his stature? Especially so, since knowing one’s true station is a prerequisite to proper service of G-d. For a person must serve G-d according to his rank, and in order to do so one must be aware of both his virtues and his faults.

The Master taught a lesson that could have come right out of Moshe’s play book.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV)

I’m no Moses and certainly neither are any of the other folks who comment in religious blogs such as mine (though the vast majority of them are very fine and worthy servants of God), but humility in leading can also transfer to humility in speaking and humility in writing. It’s a challenge when you’re “semi-anonymous” on the web and you don’t have to look anyone in the eye. So many people out there feel they have a message to transmit that others need to hear. I guess I’m as guilty of that thought and feeling as anyone. But I implore you (as I implore myself) to consider how much you want or even need a “ministry” that puts you in the public eye, even if it’s only on the Internet. Really wise people avoid the spotlight if they can.

After the passing of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the elder chassidim gathered and decided to confer the mantle of leadership on his middle son Rabbi Sholom DovBer. A delegation visited Rabbi Sholom DovBer and requested that he assume his father’s place as Rebbe. Rabbi Sholom DovBer heard them out in silence, playing with the chain of his pocket watch, and did not respond in any way.

Soon after they left, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Chein, an intimate friend of Rabbi Sholom DovBer, entered the room. As soon as the door closed behind him, the new Rebbe burst into tears. “If you are truly a friend of mine,” he wept, “you would tie a rope around my neck, secure it to a heavy stone, and throw me in the river…”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Agony of Leadership”
Based on Numbers 11:28
Chabad.org

Rashi’s commentary on the above referenced verse from Numbers was, “Annihilate them” – Appoint them to a position of leadership, and they will deteriorate of their own accord… These days, all it takes to erode a person once strong in the faith is to “promote” them to “blogger.”

OK, that’s really cynical and my original motivation in writing this “extra meditation” was to try and be encouraging and uplifting, as much for me as for anyone who is reading this.

These days, my son David and I go to the gym together at about five every weekday morning to work out. This morning, I was on one of the aerobic machines. The last five minutes of a workout, I go into a cooldown mode trying to get my heartrate back down to something more or less reasonable. Often, I’ll close my eyes and imagine that I’m running alone on a path that’s climbing to the crest of a hill. It’s dark, but I can see the light of a new sunrise beckoning ahead of me. The light gets brighter as I near the top. It’s almost as if I can see the breath of God intermingling with my own as we approach each other. I jog toward the crest of the hill but never quite reach it before the timer on my machine gets to zero.

But in the last seconds of my fatal descent from the heavens, I manage to pull back up, avoiding a fiery disaster, and with my wings fully extended and my engines roaring with new life, I begin to climb.