Tag Archives: failure

The Lessons of Failure

Few of us like tests. However, what if your child comes home from school and tells you that he has the greatest science teacher this year — he’s too busy to grade tests, so there won’t be any tests the whole year! Likely, you’d be heading for the phone to call the principal. Why? Tests ensure that your child pays attention to the material, does the assignments and achieves the ultimate that he can achieve in the subject. No tests, the child will likely slack off and learn little.

However, when WE get a test in life — be it health, economic, interpersonal — we ask “Why is this happening to me?” Why does the Almighty send us a test? Because He loves us and He wants us to get the most out of life, to develop ourselves and our character, to have the greatest life possible and to achieve our potential. The Talmud tells us that the Almighty does not send us a test that we cannot handle.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from the Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary on Torah Portion Ve’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Aish.com

So the Talmud says that the Almighty does not send a test the person being tested cannot handle. I’ve heard something similar in Christian circles and I’m not sure I agree with either source. I think there are plenty of Christians and Jews (and lots of others) who have encountered horrifying experiences that completely overwhelmed them.

How many Jews didn’t survive the Holocaust, and even of those who lived, how many did not survive with their emotional and physical health intact?

While I don’t believe Christians are persecuted in the United States, there are plenty in other countries run by oppressive and anti-Christian regimes where Christians are beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered for their faith. Sure, just like in examples of Holocaust survivors, we hear miraculous testimonies from Christians who have been terrifically brutalized, but who endured nonetheless with their faith and other facilities remaining whole.

But what about the stories we’ll never hear because they’re unpopular, of Jews and Christians who were totally broken by these tests and trials, those who never recovered, those who lost faith?

What about things that we don’t see as persecution? What of the Christian father who loses his five-year old little girl in a car accident and turns to alcohol instead of God? What about the Jewish mother whose baby boy dies of SIDS and she responds by ceasing to ever again speak to Hashem in prayer?

God provides the tests, but their’s no guarantee we’ll pass.

failureWhat happens when we fail? I don’t think Rabbi Packouz’s commentary is very helpful here:

How do you know it’s a test? If it’s hard. Test are tailored made for each individual. It may be hard for one person, but not for another. Know that the choice you make will determine whether you get closer to reaching your potential or further away. Think back to a difficult situation. Beforehand you might have thought that you couldn’t handle it, yet you did — and you grew tremendously from it. We only grow from that which is difficult and challenging. We draw upon something inside of us that we didn’t know we had.

That’s assuming we have whatever it takes inside in the first place. But then there’s this:

People think that they are being punished with bad things. The Torah teaches us that ultimate reward and punishment are not in this world, but in the next world, the World to Come (Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, ch.1). In this world, it is not punishment; He’s teaching you a lesson, giving you a message. If you gave tzedakah (charity) and your stocks went up — it’s not a reward, but a message that you are using your money properly and here’s more to use wisely. Likewise, if you misused your wealth and your stocks declined.

It is important to understand that what happens to you may be bitter, painful, but it is not necessarily bad. It depends on how you view what happens and how you respond to it. Bad is what takes you away from a connection with the Almighty.

The flip side is what happens when something good happens to us, something really good? Imagine you win the lottery and win big. Suddenly, you’re set for life. You now can devote much more time and resources to charity, prayer, and Bible study because you don’t have to work, you can hire others to clean your house and take care of your yard, and free you from all the “ordinary” tasks in life.

Just like “bad” tests, “good” tests don’t always have the desired result.

“But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You are grown fat, thick, and sleek—
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation.

“They made Him jealous with strange gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.

“They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.

“You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Deuteronomy 32:15-18 (NASB)

moses mount neboJust as in difficult tests, there’s no promise we will respond as God desires when He makes life easier for us, there’s no guarantee we’ll come closer to Him either.

I hate tests. I’m not very good at them, at least the ones Hashem provides. It’s disappointing. I sometimes wish for things that would make my life easier, at least from my point of view, rather than having to endure all of God’s “tests.” All this occurred to me again as I was pouring a cup of coffee this morning in an effort to wake up my brain.

It also occurred to me that, just like the test a young student has to take in school, what I receive or don’t receive from God is for my own (ultimate) good, even if I don’t see it that way. If I don’t win the lottery, for example, while that means I still have to work and struggle to save for an eventual retirement, there is something “good” about that. I don’t know what it is, but God must.

And of all the tests Hashem puts in my path that I find uncomfortable or even downright painful, even though I don’t see the “good” in them, it must be there. I have to believe that if I have faith and trust in God. Otherwise, life is just random and meaningless and we have no support from God when we suffer…we simply suffer.

How empty and vain a life is that?

But it’s not easy. Rabbi Packouz teaches us what we learn when we pass a test, but what do we learn when we fail?

Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.

-Napoleon Hill

Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.

-Henry Ward Beecher

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

You can Google “failure quotes” and find a seemingly endless supply of inspirational statements about learning from failure. Of course, the quotes of famous people don’t necessarily reflect the viewpoint of God on the matter.

Having arrested Him, they led Him away and brought Him to the house of the high priest; but Peter was following at a distance. After they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter was sitting among them. And a servant-girl, seeing him as he sat in the firelight and looking intently at him, said, “This man was with Him too.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.” A little later, another saw him and said, “You are one of them too!” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” After about an hour had passed, another man began to insist, saying, “Certainly this man also was with Him, for he is a Galilean too.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:54-62

peters-denialPeter’s failure. But it wasn’t the end, even though the failure was great.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”  He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.

John 21:15-17

Rav Yeshua gave Peter (Kefa) another chance to show how he loved his Master. Peter recovered from his failure and recovered well.

But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!” And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God; and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Acts 3:4-10

This is just one small example of Peter the empowered Apostle and the result of his recovery from failure. He’d never be perfect and sometimes he’d make mistakes, but he never denied his Master again.

But what about us? We could attribute Peter’s boldness to his having received the Holy Spirit in the Acts 2 as opposed to his deliberately choosing to pass God’s tests rather than fail them. He was an Apostle full of the Holy Spirit of God. What about us? What about we poor, dim, ordinary human beings?

As Acts 10 attests, we Gentile Yeshua Talmidei are also supposed to possess the Spirit of the Almighty. Where is our greatness? Why aren’t we like the Apostles? What’s the difference between them and us?

Why do we continue to fail, what does that mean, and what do we learn, if anything at all?

The Torah states:

“And Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moses and Aaron. He said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Almighty is righteous. I and my people are wicked! … I will let you leave. You will not be delayed again.’ ”

Shortly thereafter, Pharaoh refused to let them leave.

Why did Pharaoh change his mind once the pressure of the plague was removed? Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of the Mir Yeshiva explained that Pharaoh viewed suffering as a punishment. That is why he said, “The Almighty is a righteous judge and His punishment is fair because I have done evil.”

The reality is that there is a strong element of kindness in the suffering that the Almighty sends to us. In part, it is a divine message that we have something to improve. The goal of suffering is to motivate a person to improve his behavior. Pharaoh viewed suffering only as a punishment. Therefore, as soon as the punishment was over, he changed his mind and refused to let them leave.

Our lesson: View suffering as a means to elevate yourself and you will find meaning in your suffering. Try to accept it with love and appreciation. Even though there is still pain involved, it is much easier to cope. Whenever you find yourself suffering, ask yourself, “How can I use this as a tool for self-improvement?”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’eira
from Growth Through Torah

runI think that’s what we learn from failure. If we see our failures as a punishment from God or some sort of inherent quality in ourselves we can never overcome, we will continue to fail. If, however, we choose to consider our failures as tests, they point to the areas in our lives where we need to improve. They show us a target to aim at, a goal to achieve, they illuminate a sort of “finish line” in a race.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

We fail, but as long as we persevere and do not give up, we will never be defeated.

I know, easier said than done, but as people of faith, every time we are knocked down, we must either get up again, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward, or we surrender our faith, give up on God, and go off in our own direction, becoming truly lost.

Passing God’s tests strengthens us, brings us closer to God, and shows us that God has built within us more persistence and empowerment than we realized we had. In fact, without tests, we’d never know just who God has made us to be. Even if we fail and fail often, as long as we keep trying, we never lose our way or step off the path God has placed before us.

Even in abject failure, abandoned by everyone we ever thought loved us, we are never alone.

When you have nothing left but God, you become aware that God is enough.

―A. Maude Royden

May this always be true of each of us.

Advertisements

Lessons in Christian Repentance on Yom Kippur

Adam trudged past the gates of Eden, his head low, his feet heavy with remorse and pain.

Then he stopped, spun around and exclaimed, “Wait a minute! You had this all planned! You put that fruit there knowing I would eat from it! This is all a plot!”

There was no reply.

Without failure, we can never truly reach into the depths of our souls. Only once we have failed can we return and reach higher and higher without end.

Beyond Eden.

“Failure”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I previously said that in examining what the Bible says about how we non-Jews are to relate to God, I’d be staying mainly in the Apostolic Scriptures, since righteous Gentiles in the Tanakh (Old Testament) aren’t specifically oriented to Yeshua (Jesus).

However, since I’m writing this just before the start of Yom Kippur, and given that Adam, the first man, could not be considered Jewish but had a direct relationship with Hashem, I thought I’d write a little about how we Gentiles can fail and then return to God.

According to the above-quoted statement from Rabbi Freeman, God planned for Adam and Havah (Eve) to fail. Well, maybe He did and maybe He didn’t. However, if we believe God knows everything and is not bound by time or causality, then certainly before He “laid the foundations of the Earth,” He knew Adam and Havah would partake of the one thing in Eden that was forbidden to them.

So from Adam’s point of view, maybe it’s true that God “planned” for them to fail.

exileI can only imagine that, since they had nothing else to compare it to, Adam and Havah rather took their relationship and intimacy with God for granted…that is until it was severely damaged by their fall.

Is God as concerned about the sins of the Gentiles and their potential for repentance as He is for the Jews? A traditional Christian would automatically answer “yes,” but what would a Jew think? My opinion, based on a lot of years of study, tells me that most observant Jews would believe that God is more concerned about the spiritual state of the Jewish people than of Gentiles (and particularly Christians).

But is this true?

In an absolute sense, unless we can read God’s mind, so to speak, we can’t know.

However, we can take an educated guess and Yom Kippur sets the stage for this.

A day or so ago, I read an article called Jonah and the Whale: Why the Book of Jonah is Read on Yom Kippur. The question is why is this particular book read on Yom Kippur, the most Holy Day of the Jewish year?

The Book of Jonah is read in the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the sacred Day of Atonement. Why, of all books in the Bible, this book this most holy day?

The answer is clear. The major themes of the book are singularly appropriate to the occasion—sin and divine judgment, repentance and divine forgiveness.

What is remarkable is that the work is not at all about Israel. The sinners and penitents and the sympathetic characters are all pagans, while the anti-hero, the one who misunderstands the true nature of the one God, is none other than the Hebrew prophet. He is the one whom God must teach a lesson in compassion.

JonahIt’s actually an astonishing revelation when you think about it. Almost without exception, only Jews observe Yom Kippur in any fashion at all, and yet, we see in the reading of the Book of Jonah, that the main objects of God’s concern for repentance, redemption, and reconciliation are a large group of pagan Gentiles. Further, the only Jew involved is reluctant to be an agent of redemption for these Gentiles, so much so that he literally “jumps ship” in attempting to get away from his responsibilities.

The brief article goes on to say:

It is precisely these aspects of this sublime prophetic allegory, and in particular the subthemes of the book, that inform Yom Kippur. These motifs attracted the ancient Jewish sages and led them to select Jonah as one of the day’s two prophetic lectionaries (The other is Isaiah 57:14–58:4). Its universalistic outlook; its definition of sin as predominantly moral sin (The “evil” of Jonah 1:2 is defined as injustice in Jonah 3:8); its teaching of human responsibility and accountability; its apprehension that true repentance is determined by deeds and established by transformation of character (Jonah 3:10), not by the recitation of formulas, however fervent; its emphasis on the infinite preciousness of all living things in the sight of God (Jonah 4:10–11); and, finally, its understanding of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness” (Jonah 4:2)—all these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur.

The “universalistic outlook” to how sin is defined as primarily moral, human responsibility and accountability to God, and how repentance is accessible to everyone through deeds and established by transformation of character.

So for the Gentile as well as the Jew, God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness.”

While the essay’s author Nahum Sarna states that “these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur,” we also see (apparently) that these “noble ideas” are equally applied to Gentile repentance and reconciliation to God.

As I said some months ago, we aren’t so much chopped liver after all. Although God sent a Jewish prophet (yes, in the Bible, we do find a few non-Jewish prophets) to redeem Gentile Nineveh, God’s primary purpose was to redeem Gentile Nineveh.

And guess what? Everyone, from the King down to the lowliest commoner, mourned, fasted, and repented and were subsequently forgiven by God.

I was explaining to someone at work, a Christian (we were discussing Yom Kippur), how the process of repentance and forgiveness of willful sin was the same in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and in the days of the Temple as it is today. There was no sacrifice for willful sin. Psalm 51 teaches us that how we are to repent hasn’t changed over time.

praying aloneThe Book of Jonah teaches us that a Gentile is of just as much concern to God as a Jew and that He seeks repentance from all.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NASB)

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

So non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah can take heart and realize we too have our hope in the God of Israel, because, no matter how special Israel is to God, all people, even the lowliest from the nations, are special to Him (though probably not in the same way as Israel) as well.

One of the unintentional messages I think some non-Jews think they hear from Messianic Judaism is that in Israel’s specialness to God, we non-Jews who are “Judaically aware” are pretty non-special as well. I think that’s why some Gentiles have chosen to leave Messianic Judaism and either transition to Hebrew Roots, which they may see as more egalitarian, or return to Church, which is very much a “pro-Gentile” environment.

It’s also probably one of the reasons some Gentiles who have been involved in Messianic Judaism, have rejected Messiah and converted to (usually) Orthodox Judaism.

Jonah's KikayonHowever, the non-Jewish believer, whether they are Judaically aware or not (although such awareness gives we Gentiles, in my opinion, a better and more accurate understanding of the Bible), even isolated from community on some metaphorical deserted island, can be comforted by the fact that God wants us to return to Him, too.

In creating the whole of existence, G‑d made forces that reveal Him and forces that oppose Him—He made light and He made darkness.

One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.

But the one who fails and then returns transcends that entire scheme. He reaches out directly to the Essential Creator. Beyond darkness and light.

And so, his darkness becomes light.

“Returning Light”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Failure Is Always An Option

Failure is not an option.

attributed to Gene Kranz,
retired NASA Flight Director

I really wasn’t going to mention Derek’s latest blog post. What I had to say, I said there in my comments. But then something happened.

I am very encouraged by the overwhelming amount of support people are expressing toward Derek, with just a few, minor detractors chiming in.

We all have our problems, our failures, and our sins. They become much more public and more powerful when you happen to be a teacher and an organizational leader, especially in a movement as “intimate” as Messianic Judaism, where most folks involved have at least heard of each other if not personally know one another.

I suppose it’s one of the reasons why many of us should not be teachers (James 3:1).  Who wants that kind of pressure, especially if we should sin (and who doesn’t sin)?

I was reading the latest installment at the lyfta på jobbet blog this morning when I came across a link to the article Failure Is Always An Option.

That certainly flies in the face of American particularism, independence, and a “get-er-done” attitude, and it probably wouldn’t have sat very well with the above-quoted Gene Kranz as he dedicated his efforts to rescuing the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13.

But let’s face it, we’re all human. Failure is one of our defining qualities. Not that we should revel in failure, but it’s arrogant to presume that you or I will never sin.

Yet, some of our sins are rather spectacular and some of our sins are astonishing and shocking when they come into the public light. Some of our sins hurt not only us, but every one we have ever loved.

Even with confession, repentance, and undeserved forgiveness, the guilt can still be crushing.

I’m grateful for Derek’s sake, for everyone’s sake, particularly for my sake, that God is more forgiving than most human beings…more forgiving than I certainly am toward myself.

In the Future Buzz article I cited above, author Adam Singer wrote:

Failure is a beautiful thing, and if you organize your business around it you can gain a serious advantage over competitors who think they’re infallible and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be perfect versus trying lots of things, failing like crazy, and seeing what sticks. The truth is we all fail, every one of us, and when you really stop and remove the societal stigmas associated with it, you realize it’s not actually a negative.

Granted, this particular message is directed toward a business and marketing environment, and yet it has applications on the social, personal, and religious levels of our existence. If we allow our sin to crush us, to prevent us from repenting, to inhibit the idea that there can be a road back, not only to God, but to our family and friends, then we truly have been defeated.

Failure is not falling down, it is not getting up again.

―Mary Pickford

fallingThere’s a plethora of similar quotes available on the web. I just picked the first one that came up in a Google search.

No one, no sports hero, champion, competitor in any human endeavor, or any human being at all has failed until they allow their failure to result in giving up.

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 (NASB)

Easier said than done as I imagine the Apostle Paul can attest.

And yet, it’s not the depth of sin we have fallen into that defines us but how we recover afterward.

Failure is always an option. It happens to us every day. Sometimes it happens with brutal intensity and swiftness, and when our failure is revealed for all to see, it’s easy to wonder how we’re going to survive the shame and humiliation. It’s easy to imagine the bridges have been burned and that our only option is, like Icarus, to fall out of the light and into the darkness.

Failure is always an option, but failure does not have to be permanent.

I can only imagine that it took a tremendous amount of courage for Derek to publicly confess his transgressions on his blog. He could have gone silent and stayed silent, containing the impact to those people directly involved.

No one likes to air their dirty laundry.

I wouldn’t recommend this method, but sometimes it may be possible to lead by starting at the bottom. If you have fallen and fallen far, and can pick yourself back up, by Hashem’s strength and grace, and start the long ascent, the rest of us who witness this, can come to realize there’s hope for us too, as we sit at the bottom of our wells and our caves, buried by the darkness and dreaming of the light.

Great Teshuva

My friend and I are having a disagreement about degrees of righteousness in God’s eyes. Who is greater: One who is virtuous by inclination, or one who is virtuous by choice – i.e. one who must struggle with his passions and transform vice into virtue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud says: “In a place where a ba’al teshuva (spiritual returnee) stands, even a full tzaddik cannot stand” (Brachot 34b). The idea is that by having sunk to the lowest depths, and then genuinely turning one’s life around, the distance traveled in a positive direction is so great that it even exceeds those who have always been on the plus-side.

Shofar as sunrise(Of course, one would not want to deliberately get into a negative situation, because there is no guarantee of coming out. Further, it often leaves residual stains.)

-from the Ask the Rabbi column

That’s only part of the Aish Rabbi’s reply, but it’s the most relevant part. If a life of righteousness comes (relatively) easy to you, what have you really accomplished? However, if acts of righteousness, charity, and piety are difficult, if they go against your nature, if you have to struggle everyday to do good or to recover from some monumental failure, how much greater will your success be than your failure?

The Enemy Within Us

The truth is that the yetzer hara also uses both of these tactics, but it is more successful when it approaches as a friend. Chovos HaLevavos (Yichud HaMaaseh Ch. 5) describes at length the dangerous power the yetzer hara possesses: “A person must realize that his biggest enemy in this world is his yetzer hara, which is well-connected to his character and is mixed into his personality. It is a partner in all of a person’s spiritual and physical aspirations. It gives advice on all of one’s movements, the revealed ones and the concealed ones, and lies in ambush to persuade one to sin at all times. Even while sleeping, one is not safe: the yetzer hara is always wide awake, seeking to harm. A person may forget about it, but it never forgets. It masquerades as a friend and a close confidant; indeed, with its shrewdness it tries to be considered a most loyal and trusted friend. The yetzer hara is so convincing that a person might think that it is running to fulfill his every wish. But in truth, it is shooting dangerous, deadly arrows, to uproot the person from the World to Come.”

Mussar Thought for the Day
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.191
A Daily Dose of Torah

“If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NASB)

According to a midrash on the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, when Jacob is contemplating his upcoming encounter with Esau after many years, he fears two things: being killed by Esau and being befriended by Esau. Rabbinic commentary likens this to how the yetzer hara (evil inclination) operates inside of a human being. Our most basic nature or what a Christian might call our “sin nature” seeks to disobey God and lead us into ruin and exile from the World to Come, the ultimate physical and spiritual harm. In that, it’s easy to see the temptation to sin and resistance to repent as our enemy and something we must actively battle.

But the flip side of the coin is the deceptiveness of our own human natures, and this I think (and the commentary quoted above agrees) is the greater danger. People have a tremendous capacity for self-delusion and often choose to see and hear only what fits into their own dynamic or world view, regardless of the objective facts. We define good and evil by our own human standards and justify any harm we might be doing to ourselves and others in any number of creative ways. This is the yetzer hara as our friend, leading us down the peaceful and attractive path to destruction.

Other commentaries on this Torah portion say these are the twin dangers of the nations toward the Jewish people. History is replete with terrible acts done by non-Jews upon Jews including inquisitions, pogroms, torture, and murder. But the other danger, and this seems strange at first glance, is for the nations (that is, Gentiles) to extend friendship toward the Jews. Why is this a problem? Because it often leads Jewish people away from Torah, away from performing the mitzvot, and away from God. It waters down Jewish distinctiveness and we have a clear record of how Jews have assimilated into secular culture or even converted to other religions including Christianity (this is complicated when you add Messianic Judaism to the mix, but that’s a conversation for another time).

I haven’t come to talk about Jewish distinctiveness, but of a more personal danger:

In working with alcoholics and addicts, I have come to realize that the most absolute slavery does not come from enslavement by another person, but from enslavement by one’s own drives. No slavemaster has ever dominated anyone the way alcohol, heroin, and cocaine dominate the addict, who must lie, steal, and even kill to obey the demands of the addiction.

Such domination is not unique to addiction. We may not realize that passion of any kind may totally control us and ruthlessly terrorize us. We may rationalize and justify behavior that we would otherwise have considered as totally alien to us, but when our passion demands it, we are helpless to resist.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day” for Kislev 11
Aish.com

Infinite darknessLittle by little, we are guided away from the light with small, even tiny deviations off our original course and by the time we realize it, we are as Rabbi Twersky describes: slaves. When we finally realize the yetzer hara is not our friend, we are totally engulfed by this nature.

But in speaking of the yetzer hara as it if were something separate from the whole person, I’m denying the truth that our nature is who we are or at least part of who we are. That’s why it is so difficult to detach our temptations and our giving in to them, that is, our sin, from the rest of our identity and being.

So when we have fallen and fallen far, what are we to do?

This concept helps us better understand the true power of prayer. We know that, on the one hand, the Gemara says: “one cannot rely on a miracle,” and must do whatever we can to protect himself naturally. On the other hand, the Gemara (Berachos 10a) tells us that even when a sharp sword is placed upon the neck of a person, he should not give up hope, but rather he should pray for mercy from Hashem. How do we reconcile these mixed messages?

A Closer Look at the Siddur
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.193
A Daily Dose of Torah

I mentioned this Gemara in a previous blog post and it is a critical one, for as I also mentioned, repentance, particularly if we look at it as a set of stages or steps, is hardly linear. We may start out on the path to repentance with high hopes and set a straight course, only to find ourselves being pulled back into the darkness as if we were tethered to it by a large rubber band. We get so far only to snap back into our old habits and patterns.

Many people think they are free, yet they are really pawns in the hands of their drives. Like the addict, they are not at all in control, and do not have the fundamental feature of humanity: freedom.

-R. Twersky, ibid

This first step is to realize that the yetzer hara is not a friend and that we are not free. However, we must realize that we are exercising free will in our behavior, which is confusing when you consider yourself a slave. Does a slave stay with the slave master voluntarily? In our case, the answer is often “yes”.

Our only defense is to become masters over our desires rather than their slaves. We must direct our minds to rule over the passions of our hearts.

R. Twersky offers this as the answer to our slavery, but he’s only got so much room to write and article, and he can’t say everything that may need to be said.

For that matter, all the reading and writing in the world wouldn’t say enough or do enough because once a person recognizes they are a slave, they can only become the master through effort.

But one of those efforts is prayer.

sword on neckAbove, it was suggested that we shouldn’t depend on miracles to get us out of these messes but on the other hand, we should pray to God to help us out of our troubles. Is this a contradiction? The Rabbinic sages don’t think so, and resolve the apparent conflict by stating the power of prayer was built into the nature of Creation when God made the universe. No, that’s not in the Bible, but what it may mean is that when God made a perfect universe and human disobedience broke it, something in the essential nature of our world included a way to fix the world and to fix ourselves by invoking our relationship with God.

While God’s nature is incompatible with sin and human despair, it’s not like God can’t see or hear us when we are in the darkest corners of our own souls.

If at first you don’t succeed,: Try, try, try again.

-attributed to William Edward Hickson (1803-1870)

Just as the yetzer hara can attack us in two ways, we can be defeated in two ways. The first is to simply give up, to say to ourselves that we are weak and worthless and there is no hope. The enemy has won. The second is to never realize that we’re fighting an enemy at all and to believe that nothing is our fault. The yetzer hara is our friend and he/she would never lie to us. If we have problems in life or with other people, someone else is responsible, not us.

Either way is no good, but at least in the first situation, we realize there is an enemy and there is a sharp sword resting on our neck poised to execute us. Then we know to pray and to hope in God. In the second situation, we may never realize our danger and may fail fatally unless we are shocked out of apathy and delusion by the consequences of our folly and by a loving God. But at that point, the fight is just beginning.

The Non-existent Scar

Impeached witnesses are not considered guilty until they have impeached themselves.

-Makkos 5a, Rabbeinu Chananel

When someone says something uncomplimentary to us, we are of course displeased. The intensity of our reaction to an unkind remark, however, depends upon ourselves.

A former patient called me one day, sobbing hysterically because her husband had told her that she was a poor wife and a failure as a mother. When she finally calmed down, I asked her to listen carefully to me.

“I think that the scar on your face is very ugly,” I said. There was a moment of silence. “Pardon me?” she said.

“I spoke very distinctly, but I will repeat what I said. `The scar on your face is repulsive.’

“I don’t understand, doctor,” the woman said. “I don’t have a scar on my face.”

“Then what did you think of my remark?” I asked.

“I couldn’t understand what you were talking about,” she said.

“You see,” I pointed out, “when I say something insulting to you, and you know that it is not true, you do not become hysterical. You just wonder what in the world it is that I am talking about. That should also have been your reaction to your husband’s offensive remarks. Instead of losing your composure, you should have told him that he is delusional. The reason you reacted as extremely as you did is because you have doubts about yourself as to your adequacy as a wife and mother.”

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Sivan 30
Aish.com

Sorry to start of today’s “morning meditation” with such a long quote, but I think it was worth it. R. Twerski’s therapeutic intervention was absolutely brilliant (I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling and formerly was a family therapist and Child Protective Services social worker). It’s so simple and yet so profound, and it speaks not only to this one woman’s situation but I think to all of us in our lives.

I couldn’t help but relate this article to recent events in my online life. After all, I’m human and I have doubts just like any other man. When someone calls me on my issues, real or imagined, I have to pause and consider whether they could be right about me, and if so, to ask if this is a “call to action” for me to make changes.

despairMany times, especially online, but also in “real life,” we are insulted, accused, harassed, and maligned, often by the people we love and care about, the people we’re most vulnerable to. As we see in R. Twerski’s example above, a woman was insulted by her husband about her poor performance as a wife and mother. Nothing could cut deeper to her heart than those statements and the person making them.

How we react should depend on whether or not the allegations are true, but that’s not how most of us typically respond. It’s like driving down the road and having someone suddenly cut us off in traffic, honk their horn, and then give us “the finger.” They’re not only being aggressive but behaving as if we’ve done something wrong.

How do we react to that? Either we get scared or angry…or both. Incidents of road rage start this way.

But what if, assuming we’ve done nothing wrong, we were to respond with bewilderment? “What the heck set that guy off,” we might ask ourselves.

And if someone blows up at us on the web or in person, again, assuming what they’re saying isn’t true about us (we don’t have a scar on our face), what prevents us from also simply becoming confused but not experiencing anger or pain?

Because we fear that there really is something wrong with us. I think that’s the result of sin and guilt.

Face it. You’re not perfect. Neither am I. Far from it in fact. We have sinned. Chances are we will sin against God and other people today. It is very likely that we will sin again tomorrow…or we fear that we will.

feverIf a person goes around always worried about who they are, their past failures, their fear of future failures, and whether or not their shortcomings are obvious to everyone around them, then it’s easy to respond with anger or pain when insulted. We’ve already primed ourselves to go off half-cocked when someone gives us a reason.

But for most people, most of the time, the issues they worry about are more imagined than real.

It’s like the woman in Rabbi Twerski’s commentary. She didn’t have an ugly scar on her face, and R. Twerski at least implies that she’s not a bad mother and wife either. She only reacted as if she were because she feared that this was the truth of her existence, even when it wasn’t.

All the elaborate proofs, all the philosophical machinations, none of that will ever stand you firmly on your feet. There’s only one thing that can give you that, and that’s your own inherent conviction.

For even as your own mind flounders, you yourself know that this is so, and know that you believe it to be so. It is a conviction all the winds of the earth cannot uproot that has carried us to this point in time, that has rendered us indestructible and timeless.

For it comes from within and from the heritage of your ancestors who believed as well, back to the invincible conviction of our father, Abraham, a man who took on the entire world.

The doubts, the hesitations, the vacillations, all these come to you from the outside. Your challenge is but to allow your inner knowledge to shine through and be your guide.

Inside is boundless power.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Conviction”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

revenge-and-happinessKnowing yourself is very helpful for a number of reasons. If you know who you are and what you are about, then whenever someone accuses you of something that is untrue, you cannot be hurt. Even if the person who is upset with you is very dear to you, if they are wrong about you, it may injure you somewhat, but not in the same way as if what they said were the truth. If you are accused of being a failure, if you really aren’t, how does that affect you vs. how you react if you fear being a failure?

Also, knowing yourself helps you recognize when you have sinned and reveals to you your own faults. This is an opportunity to make corrections, to improve yourself, to repent, to return to God, to make right the wrongs you’ve committed against others, to make the person you will be tomorrow better than the person you were yesterday.

Stealing is abhorrent to most people. They would never think of taking something which does not belong to them. Still, they may not be bothered in the least by making an appointment and keeping the other person waiting for a few minutes. Rabbi Luzzato points out that this double standard is a fallacy, because stealing others’ time is no less a crime than stealing their possessions.

Moreover, stealing time is worse in one aspect: stolen objects can be returned, but stolen time can never be repaid.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Sivan 29
Aish.com

Worry, guilt, and self-recrimination are thieves. They steal your time and your peace of mind. If someone steals your money, that can always be returned, but once a moment in time has elapsed, you can never get it back. Also, even if you achieve peace of mind in the future, you have wasted time worrying in the past (and in the present) needlessly, when you could have been devoting that time to improving yourself, to helping others, to serving God.

Which is more important: five minutes or five cents? Everyone will say that “time” is more important. But still we throw it away more often than money. And in Jewish consciousness, killing time is suicide… on the installment plan.

“Relax”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
Aish.com

Rabbi Twerski also writes:

If someone has wrongfully infringed on our time, it is proper that we should call it to his or her attention. As with other offenses, we should try to sincerely forgive if the offender changes his or her ways. If we have infringed on someone else’s time, we must be sure to ask forgiveness and to remember that teshuvah consists of a sincere resolution not to repeat the same act again.

If someone points something out to you that needs correction, something you may have been unaware of or something you’ve been avoiding dealing with, they’re doing you a favor. Assuming their intent isn’t malicious and their attitude isn’t hostile or condescending, they are acting as an agent of change and providing you with the opportunity to improve.

soaring_hawkIf, however, a person’s intent is hostile or vindictive, and their desire is to injure you, perhaps because they feel you’ve injured them…if their allegations are wholly untrue, then you should ask yourself, “Why are they acting this way? What could have prompted this outburst?”

That’s certainly better than responding by feeling guilt or shame or by lashing out at the other person, perpetuating the cycle of “You hurt me, now I’ll hurt you.” Every time you give in to that temptation, you are stealing time from that other person and wasting your own. You’re also destroying your peace of mind and their’s and stealing our time and service from God.

“Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”

-Soren Kierkegaard

The Failing Light

Candle in ObsidianIn some naïve areas of Christian consensus people imagine that Jews obey Torah because they believe that this will save them. However, a simple conversation with the average religious Jew, or reading in books by religious Jews will demonstrate this to be a fantasy. And which of us has not heard the proposition that Judaism is a religion of law and Christianity a religion of grace, with Judaism being pictured as Mount Sinai covered in thunderbolts, and Christianity, the grace of Jesus dying on the cross. People forget, or never seem to get, that it was on that very same Mount Sinai that God revealed himself as “the LORD, the LORD, merciful and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

-Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann
“The Foundational Reason Jews, Including Messianic Jews, Should Obey Torah”
Interfaithfulness.org

There are times when I think I’m going crazy. No, not hallucinating, voice-hearing, I-need-my-meds crazy, but when the world of Messiah that I see being constructed around me is roundly and soundly contradicted in every detail by people I respect and admire, I feel crazy.

I had the “crazy” experience last night in my weekly meeting with my Pastor. I had several weeks to “get my ducks in a row,” so to speak, to present my side of the story about why Jews remain obligated to Torah, but there’s a difference between walking into your Pastor’s office with half a dozen books in hand plus a bunch of notes, and being a Pastor who has decades of experience interpreting scripture, a Master’s degree in the subject, and someone in a Doctoral program in religious studies.

I’d need about twenty years to catch up and he’d always have the same amount of time to stay ahead of me.

I used to be amazed that I seemed to be able to “hold my own” in our little debates, but last night was proof positive that I’ve definitely been “fighting out of my weight class” all along.

As a “Messianic apologist,” I’m terrible.

But when I read commentaries such as Dr. Dauermann’s or many of the resources produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), what they say seems to make so much sense, and they don’t require “retrofitting” the Tanakh (Old Testament) with later interpretations to make the Messianic prophesies work alongside what the Apostolic Scriptures say about Yeshua (Jesus).

They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Yeshua said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”

John 8:39

Deeds are a natural response to faith. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Messiah’s brother knew this all too well.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26 (NASB)

abraham-covenant-starsI see a completely clear line leading from Abraham to his physical son, the only son he had that was promised the inheritance, his son Isaac, and that line extends to Isaac’s son Jacob (but not Esau), and then to Jacob’s offspring, whose descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel, with that line extending out of Egypt, to Sinai, to the Torah, to the Mountain of God, to the Land of Israel, to the Messianic promises, to Messiah.

Unfortunately, I can’t verbally articulate that line and all of its details, at least not convincingly. Sure, I can write and write and write, but as you can see, over a thousand blog posts later, I’m still writing, I’m still exploring. I’m still trying to understand.

But I still can’t explain why it seems so simple and so reasonable and so Biblical that Jewish people, past, present, and future, and yes, Jewish people in Messiah, are obligated to observe the mitzvot, not as a condition of salvation, but because of the continual stream of ratified covenants God made with Israel and only Israel (name a covenant God made that wasn’t with Israel) and as a definition of the relationship Jewish people have with each other, with the Land of Israel, and with God.

The LORD appeared to Isaac just as He had appeared to Abraham. He told him, “I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham” (Genesis 26:3). He restated the promise to multiply his descendants, to give them the land and to bless all nations through them “because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). Isaac was inheriting the Abrahamic blessing because Abraham had merited God’s favor.

How did Abraham keep God’s charge, commandments, statutes and laws? The commandments of God’s Torah—His divine law—had not been given yet. Did Abraham know all the laws of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai? If not, how could he be said to have kept them?

Rashi claims that this means Abraham kept the entire Torah and the oral traditional law of Judaism. That seems like a stretch, but what does it really mean? What laws did Abraham keep?

-from “Abraham’s Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot
FFOZ.org

The Torah and the Prophets never really talk about salvation the way the New Testament does, so it’s hard to make comparisons. People like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua didn’t seem to worry or fret over their own salvation or the personal salvation of others. They worried about listening to God, and obeying God, and encouraging others to obey God, lest they become disobedient and as a consequence, die physically (their ultimate spiritual fate was never discussed).

So how can I compare the importance of obedience as we see in the case of Abraham above, when we have to deal with Paul?

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:21-30 (NASB)

practicing_faithFaith has to be the common currency for salvation, otherwise non-Jews could never be justified before God without converting to Judaism and observing the entire Torah. Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, and so it is with us, but then why does God commend Abraham, not for his faith, but for obeying God and keeping his “commandments, statutes, and laws?” (Genesis 26:5). In fact, in verse 3 of the same chapter, God says that it’s because of Abraham’s obedience that he re-established this promise with Isaac to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to give those descendants the Land of Israel, and “bless all nations through them.” It’s because of Abraham’s faith and obedience to God’s commandments, statues, and laws that we, the people of the nations, are blessed through Abraham’s seed, that is, Messiah.

I don’t want to quote from too much of Dr. Dauermann’s article, but commenting on the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 35, he says:

What point is the Holy One Blessed be He making here? Just this: that the Jewish people have failed to show to Him the honor and respect due him. While the Rechabites show honor to their father Jonadab by obeying his rulings, the people of Israel dishonor God by not obeying his Torah.

And THAT is the reason we as a people, and as a movement, should be far more concerned with Torah living—because we honor God when we do so, and we dishonor him when we do not.

This very closely mirrors something the Master said to his disciples and his critics among the Jewish people:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19 (NASB)

Jewish people, and especially Jewish teachers, who annul (fail to obey or disregard) the least of the commandments of God (Torah), will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Messianic Age. But those who keep and teach the commandments, statutes, and laws of the Torah will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. A Jew annulling the Torah is dishonoring God and as a result, will be least, but a Jew who keeps the Law and teaches other Jews to do so, is honoring God and as a result, will be great.

If this makes so much sense to me, why can’t I communicate that convincingly to someone else? Really, I’m not making all this up, it’s in the Bible. If the primary matrix with which you interact with God is your intellect, and your primary tool for doing so is the Bible, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that this explanation has merit, even if it conflicts with your current tradition of Biblical interpretation?

Sigh.

smallI’m ranting. It’s been a frustrating week. I have to keep reminding myself that no matter what happens to me, if I get tossed out on my ear into the street tomorrow, it won’t affect God or His promises to Jewish Israel in the slightest. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

In principle, the Bible seems to say so, but in the face of an infinite God, I always feel so terribly small and insignificant.

After reading some commentaries written by Christian blogger Tim Challies about MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, I posted this on Facebook and Google+:

I was just thinking of MacArthur and his “Strange Fire” conference again (reading a Fundamentalist blogger my Pastor recommended). It occurred to me that MacArthur would no doubt view the Messianic movement as “strange fire” as well. I got to thinking that if MacArthur were aware of my existence, he might “come after” me, too. Then I realized I’m just small potatoes and I would be totally beneath his notice. I also realized in the same moment that I am never beneath God’s notice. What an odd situation. I can be too small to be noticed by a big-time famous Christian Pastor but I’m never too small to escape the notice of God.

In the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the character Simon, played by Bill Paxton, delivers this line when he erroneously thinks he’s going to be killed by Schwarzenegger’s character:

Oh God, no, please don’t kill me. I’m not a spy. I’m nothing. I’m navel lint!

Compared to all the Christian Pastors, and Christian bloggers, and Christian theological instructors, a guy like me “on the ground,” just praying, and studying, and worshiping day by day is pretty much “navel lint.” Compared to an infinite and cosmic God, I absolutely am “navel lint,” and actually, far, far less.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

Why do I feel like God expects something out of me and that I have some sort of job to do…and if I fail, it won’t be a good thing…it will matter if I fail?

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

-Edith Wharton, American writer

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that Israel was called to be a light to the nations by God (Israel 42:6). I know that Jesus, as Messiah, the firstborn son of Israel said he was the light of the world (nations) (John 8:12), and he said that his disciples (presumably including all future disciples such as me) are the light of the world (nations) (Matthew 5:14). If all that is true and it filters down to the level of the individual, that is to say, me, then I’m supposed to be a light to the world around me.

As Edith Wharton rather aptly states, I can be a candle or a mirror. I guess either will do. The worst thing that can happen is that I can go dark, either because I’ve been blown out or I’ve been shattered into tiny pieces.

walking-into-churchFortunately, Messiah’s light can never go out, and his light isn’t dependent on me. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), five let their lamps go out, so I guess it’s not impossible for my light to fail as well, at least while it’s in my charge.

But if I have failed, then what use am I? Of the billions of “second chances” God has already given me, does He have one more, or is it all over?

I don’t know. I guess all I can do is keep showing up until I find out one way or another.