Tag Archives: faithfulness

Broken

Broken FaithA certain man was profoundly depressed. He perceived his many flaws and failings and they pained him, but he did not feel confident that he could atone for them. How could he possibly rectify such serious wrongs?

When Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz, zt”l, was asked what someone in this state of mind should do, he offered powerful words of encouragement. “You must understand that God never rejects the Jewish community, as we find in Chullin 29. The halachah is that if an individual is defiled within the community, he can bring his korban Pesach along with them. His personal sacrifice is not rejected because he is part of the community.

“By the same token, someone who takes stock of himself and finds himself riddled with faults should not give up. Although his feelings of inadequacy push him to abandon his efforts to serve God altogether, God forbid, he must take heart and do what he can. It is true that he is defiled, but if he becomes one with the Jewish community, God will enable him to rectify his many transgressions.”

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, zt”l, offered different advice to help fight feelings of spiritual inadequacy, however. “A person may contemplate the many mitzvos in the Torah and say, ‘How can I possibly fulfill them as required?’ Similarly, someone who has transgressed many sins should beware of what his yetzer haram (evil inclination) will surely claim: ‘How can you rectify so many evil deeds?’

“It is for this person that Moshe warns us, ‘And you should know today.’ He was alluding to Shabbos, regarding which the verse states, ‘Today is Shabbos.’ Moshe was telling us to how to answer such discouraging claims. We must say in our hearts: ‘Our sages explain that keeping Shabbos is likened to fulfilling the entire Torah. Through learning the laws of Shabbos and keeping them carefully, week after week, God will help me rectify my spiritual failings.’”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Joining the Community”
Chullin 29

If you’re a Christian, you may find several things about this commentary that trouble you. For one, it’s addressed to the Jewish people, so how can it apply to you? It also talks about a Jewish person’s difficulty in fulfilling all of the Torah commandments, which doubtlessly, you believe don’t apply to you. Also, the vast majority of Christians either don’t see the relevance of keeping the Shabbat as Jews do, or they believe that going to church on Sunday and then doing “whatever” afterward, fulfills this requirement.

Take a closer look.

While I agree that the commentary was written specifically to apply to Jews and that the 613 commandments Jews believe they are obligated to fulfill do not apply to non-Jewish Christians (or the vast majority of them, anyway), there is a lesson to be learned here. Despite being “saved” by Jesus Christ, a Christian still can feel as if he or she is spiritually deficient. It’s not like it’s impossible for a Christian to sin or even impossible for a Christian to suffer under multiple, habitual sins. It’s hardly impossible or a Christian to feel terrible guilt over having committed many sins and to experience a profound distance from God.

Some Christians in this situation simply give up their faith and surrender to their sins and the values of a fallen world.

The message of the esteemed Ravs we see quoted above is a message of hope that we Christians can look to as well. We are grafted in to the “cultivated olive tree” and “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16). But while Rav Yissachar Dov suggests that a Jew can draw strength from the larger Jewish community, and the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh states that when a Jew observes the mitzvot applying to the Shabbat, it’s as if he fulfilled all of the Torah commandments, where does that leave us? How can a Christian overcome a profound sense of guilt over committing not just a few, but many sins across a long time period while professing faith in Christ?

The answer really isn’t that different. One of the reasons we gather in groups and worship communally is to gather strength and encouragement from each other:

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. –1 Thessalonians 5:11

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. –Hebrews 3:13

SorrowYou may not want to open up and expose the full truth of your being to your entire congregation or Sunday school class, but you can find someone on the Pastoral staff whom you feel you can trust, a compassionate Bible teacher, or a close Christian friend, and ask them for help. Yes, turn to God in prayer, repent in the name of Jesus, ask for forgiveness and the strength to stand tall under temptation, but don’t forget the kindness, grace, and support you can receive from a believing neighbor or friend. God provides us human comforters for a reason.

The other point also applies, though it may be more difficult to see.

In yesterday’s morning meditation, I suggested that it is appropriate and even beneficial for Christians to observe and keep the Shabbat in a manner similar to the Jewish people. That is, to keep an entire 24-hour period of time devoted to drawing nearer to God and to separating from the routine and stress of day-to-day life. Christians tend to see keeping a Sabbath in this manner as a list of what they can’t do (can’t go shopping, can’t go out to lunch, can’t mow the lawn), but it’s more about freedom than about restriction. It’s the freedom to put down the load you carry the other six-days of the week and to spend time focusing who you are; putting all of your attention on God, on prayer, on Bible study, on discussing the teachings of Jesus with others.

Christianity doesn’t have a tradition that says fulfilling one set of holy acts somehow fulfills all of them, but we don’t generally look at things that way. We know that Jesus atoned for our sins, so we don’t concern ourselves with all of the separate actions we would have to take to atone for all of the different sins we committed. We aren’t responsible for making the atonement ourselves, only for accepting the fact that Jesus is our atonement.

Still, as Christians, we can be overwhelmed by the amount and the depth of our sins and how we can ever manage to break the cycle of our disobedience. How can we remove all of the darkness from our souls and know that we are clean after leading sinful lives for months or even years? Wouldn’t a lifetime of sin and hypocrisy as a Christian take a lifetime to undo? How can we be forgiven if we still sin? Rather than trying to see the end result, we can take the “a journey of a thousand miles” point of view on the matter. We can start by focusing on just the first step.

Here’s the deal. Your life is a mess. You’ve really screwed up and you’ve been screwing up for a long time. Maybe your married life is worse than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or you’ve severely “abused” Google’s image search feature on your computer to view women “inappropriately”. Perhaps your business dealings have been less than “open and above board” or you’ve been putting your hand in the boss’s till rather than helping your employer earn a profit.

Maybe you’ve been calling yourself a “Christian” and going to church on Sunday, but behaving no differently than the atheists and agnostics that populate your community, your workplace, and your neighborhood.

There’s hope. There’s always hope. You can turn it around. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. I know you’d like it to be. I know it might seem easier to just give up, but that only puts more distance between you and God and trust me, you’ll regret it in the long run. God said, “”Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22) and please notice that He is addressing “all you ends of the earth” and not the Children of Israel exclusively.

Faith and belief in Jesus isn’t enough to help you. Knowing God exists and leaving it at that isn’t the answer. James, the brother of the Master, said that we must have faith and deeds (James 2:14-24). We must trust that when we turn from sin to God and desire return, that God will be there with open arms waiting for us, like the Father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). We must not only believe God will accept our repentance, we must actually take the “risk” of returning and abandoning the sins that keep us from Him.

The only mistake you can make that is absolutely fatal is to walk away from God and never look back. Short of that, while you’re alive, you have hope. The world may be broken, but God can heal your brokenness.

There’s no such thing as defeat. There’s always another chance. To believe in defeat is to believe that there is something, a certain point in time that did not come from Above.

Know that G-d doesn’t have failures. If things appear to worsen, it is only as part of them getting better. We only fall down in order to bounce back even higher.

From the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schneerson
as compiled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman in his book
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

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The Side of Merit

Judge NotJudge every man to the side of merit.

Ethics of our Fathers 1:6

On the most elementary level, this means that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see him commit a negative act, do not judge him guilty in your heart. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior.

However, this only explains why you should not judge your fellow guilty. Yet our Mishnah goes further than this, enjoining us to “judge every man to the side of merit.” This implies that we should see our fellow’s deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person’s shortcomings and misdeeds?

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers
“Double Standard”
Tammuz 18, 5771 * July 20, 2011
Chabad.org

The character traits of strength and firmness evoke mixed responses. On one hand, everyone admires personal fortitude, and respects an individual who has the courage to persevere in his convictions despite challenges. And yet a strong person can also be thought of as rigid and insensitive, clinging stubbornly to his own views without bending in consideration of others. Counseling against this tendency, our Sages commented, (Taanis 20a) “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.”

Commentary on Torah Portion Matot
“True Strength”
-Rabbi Eli Touger

The world of religion is terribly judgmental. To be fair, this is a human trait and not just one seen among people of faith. While secular people tend to blame religion for all the world’s ills (war, racism, poverty, and so forth) is it rather our human nature and our tendency toward selfishness and evil that lets us corrupt the values of God into something that harms people.

In Christianity we are taught, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1 [KJV]), but that certainly hasn’t stopped many in the church from judging others, both within the congregation and in the non-believing world. Is this any way to show the world the love of Jesus Christ?

Despite what I’ve quoted above, Judaism is also populated by human beings and thus, Jewish people aren’t perfect. They have a capacity equal to any Christian to judge others and to assign unfair blame and ridicule. Asher at the Lev Echad blog is on something of a mission to try and turn the hearts of Jews toward each other and to heal the differences between them. Recently, he published a plea asking Jews to not judge each other for their differences in religious practices and lifestyle but rather to guide “others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality”.

Asher’s words can easily be applied to the rest of us, both in their practicality and in their need.

Returning to the example of the Ethics of Our Fathers from which I quoted above, we see in the commentary that we must not only treat our fellows fairly and as we want to be treated, but we should extend ourselves to give others the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time, looking at our own deeds without compromise:

So judge every man to the side of merit—every man, that is, except yourself. For the attitude detailed above, while appropriate to adopt towards other human beings, would be nothing less than disastrous if applied to oneself.

“True, I have done nothing with my life,” the potential-looking individual will argue. “But look at what I am capable of! Look at the quality of my mind, the sensitivity of my feelings, the tremendous talents I possess. It’s all there within me, regardless of the fact that I have never bothered to realize any of it. This is the real me. The extent to which I actualize it is only of secondary importance.”

In our judgement of human life and achievement, we must adapt a double standard. Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within. On the other hand, we must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.

FriendsChristianity has parallel teachings to these Talmudic gems:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. –Matthew 7:3-5

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22

At the core of all these lessons is the Torah itself and the Master’s commentary on the “Torah” that both Jews and Christians can embrace:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:28-31

I specifically say this is a “Torah”, because Jesus is quoting from both Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, so the heart of Christianity was born in Judaism and if we are wise, we will not separate the branches from the vine (see John 15:5 and Romans 11:11-24).

Rabbi Touger’s commentary on Matos describes two symbols of leadership over the twelve tribes of Israel. The authority of a tribal head is symbolized by both a staff and a rod. They sound the same but are wholly different from one another:

What is the difference between these two terms? A rod is supple, able to be bent, while a staff is firm and unyielding. For a rod is freshly cut or still connected to the tree from which it grew and is therefore pliant. A staff, by contrast, has been detached from its tree long ago, and over time has become dry, hard, and firm.

Both terms serve as analogies for different levels in the expression of our souls’ potential. (See Sefer Maamarei Admur HaZakein 5562, Vol. I, p. 237ff.) The term “rod” refers to the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms, where its connection to G-dliness is palpably appreciated. It shares an active bond with the lifegiving, spiritual nurture it receives. “Staff,” by contrast, refers to the soul as it exists in our material world, enclothed in a physical body. On the conscious level, it has been severed from its spiritual source, and its connection to G-dliness is no longer felt.

In this setting, there is the possibility for both the positive and the negative types of strength and hardness. There is a tendency towards spiritual insensitivity, a brittle lack of responsiveness to the G-dliness invested within creation.

Tree of LifeTying this back to the analysis of Pirkei Avot 1:6, we see that we should be a “rod” when dealing with others but a “staff” when judging ourselves.

A rod and a staff have a common source and the difference is how long each one has been separated from the tree. It is said that the Torah is a “tree of life for those who hold fast to her” (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:7). Given the Torah source of both Jewish and Christian commentaries on compassion toward others, not the least of which is the teaching of the Master, how can we not take hold of that tree and cling fast to her in our relationships with others and with God?

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.” –Makot, 3:16

Awaiting Dawn

Waiting for DawnPeople ask, “But how could you see so much good in the future when so much evil predominates now —-and it grows day by day?”

But such is the order of things: Darkness was only placed in the world to challenge light. As the light intensifies, the darkness thickens to defy it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Defiant Darkness”
Chabad.org

Kletzky’s parents marked the end of their seven-day grieving period Wednesday morning with a religious tradition of walking outside their Brooklyn home. Nachman and Esty Kletzky, surrounded by relatives, walked around their block at 15th Ave. in Borough Park at about 6 a.m. “It’s a sign that your escorting the soul to its resting place,” said Jack Meyer, of Misaskim, an organization that provides services to grieving families.

Story from NYDailyNews.com

“In the midst of cruelty and horror, human beings can respond in such a warm and caring way it restores our faith in the world and mankind. That is the atmosphere I feel here right now,” said Rabbi Alvin Kass, describing public support for the Kletzy family.

Story from CBS New York News

This is the third “morning mediation” that has been prompted by the death of 8-year old Leiby Kletzky. Perhaps I’ve got this matter too much on my mind, but when something so horrible happens in the world, we should not disregard it after it has been discussed for only a week or so. Certainly Leiby’s parents will not be free of their mourning in so short a time, if at all. Yet the questions I pose here must also be at the forefront of their thoughts and feelings, only with far greater intensity and sharpness. I continue to search for answers within their own context and from the Rebbe, who knew their Brooklyn community and every soul in it so well.

They say the most profound darkness comes just before the dawn. The harshest oppression of our forefathers in Egypt came just before their liberation.

That was a coarse darkness of slavery of the body. Today it is a darkness of the soul, a deep slumber of the spirit of Man. There are sparks of light, glimmerings of a sun that never shone before —-but the darkness of night overwhelms all.

Prepare for dawn.

I woke up much earlier than I expected to this morning. It was still dark outside with no hint of dawn on the horizon. When you are the only one awake in your household, it can feel especially empty, no matter how many people are asleep in their beds. The first subtle bands of light in the east may be only minutes away, but they might as well be on the other side of midnight. Yet we wait for the light, not just out of expectation, but with enduring faith.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. –Isaiah 60:1-3

Tree of LifeThe Jewish people today exist in an unbroken line between the present and the ancient days when the words of the Prophet Isaiah were first spoken, so it is no surprise that in their darkest hours, they would turn to the light. Through Jesus Christ, the rest of the world can become attached; grafted in to these words and promises and become sharers of the light and indeed, disciples of the light of the world, who we all long to see come.

After 33 centuries, all that’s needed has been done. The table is set, the feast of Moshiach is being served with the Ancient Wine, the Leviathan and the Wild Ox —-and we are sitting at it. All that’s left is to open our eyes and see.

[Adapter’s Note: These words I write, but I do not understand. But then, if I understood them, I suppose I would not need to be told to open my eyes.] -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. –Matthew 8:11

Rabbi Freeman quotes from a letter written by the Rebbe:

Before I had even started school, a picture of liberation was already forming in my mind.
Such a liberation, and in such a way, that it would truly make sense of all the suffering, all the oppression and persecution we have undergone.

It is not that there will be no more darkness, no more suffering, that those things shall cease to exist.
It will be such an essence-light that darkness itself will become light
—even the darkness and suffering of the past.

While the Rebbe wouldn’t have considered the following, we who are the disciples of the Master cannot help but recall these words of prophecy and hope as we continue to wait for him to come:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. –Revelation 21:3-4

In the midst of pain, all we can do is cry and call out, “Abba! Father!”, endure the suffering, and look forward to the days when there indeed will be no more tears, pain, and death. When sorrow will be abolished from the earth and the King will reign in justice, mercy, and bringing joy and peace to the subjects of the Kingdom. May the Moshiach come soon and in our days. Amen.

“They (Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky) have had thousands of people who came to show them moral support,” he said. “Now the trying time starts. They’re all alone. … Now they’ve got to cope with it on their own.” -Jack Meyer of Misaskim

Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the LORD Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever. –Micah 4:4-5

Sparks in a Jagged Darkness

Man alone in a caveIt is written in the holy Zohar that those who have their needs provided for today and sit and fret over what will be tomorrow are not being practical – they are simply incorrectly focused.

Every day you are nourished straight from His full, open and overflowing hand, Everything in between – all your work and accounts and bills and receivables and clientele and prospects and investments – all is but a cloud of interface between His giving hand and your soul, an interface of no real substance which He bends and flexes at whim. If so, if He is feeding you today, and He has fed you and provided all you need and more all these days, what concerns could you have about tomorrow? Is there then something that could stand in His way? Could He possibly have run out of means to provide for you?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?Matthew 6:25-27

But what if you’re starving?

Sometimes when reading and studying, I hit a wall. While the Bible and the Talmud are replete with encouragement and promote the ideals of faith and trust in God, there is still great suffering in the world, even within the community of faith. People die in pain and loneliness every day. Children are starving to death. Women are beaten and raped. They rely on God’s goodness and kindness even as do you and I. But what happened to God?

I’ll put it another way.

Last week, an 8-year old Jewish boy named Leiby Kletzky who lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn was kidnapped, brutally slain, and dismembered by Aron Levi, a 35-year old man who lived in the same community. While the event was truly horrific by anyone’s standards, the fact that it happened in the insular Haredi community and that the crime was committed by another Orthodox Jew living in the same small group rocked the Borough Park Jewish community to its core. Sadly, some exploitive groups wasted no time in trying to turn this tragedy to their advantage, adding insult to mind-shredding grief.

Losing a child by any means is beyond devastating. But how can any two parents even begin to cope with the circumstances surrounding the death of young Leiby? Showing unbounded grace in what is doubtless the most difficult time of their lives, Leiby’s parents, Nachman and Itta Kletzky, issued the following public statement:

“We are forever grateful and thankful to Hashem (G-d). We would also like to express to each and every individual – to our friends and neighbors and our fellow New Yorkers and to all the volunteers and to all the agencies from the local, city, state, and federal, who assisted us above and beyond physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and to all from around the world, who had us in their thoughts and prayers. From the depths of our mourning hearts, we thank you!”

Though this statement is brave and open, no one but Nachman and Itta Kletzky can know the immense depth of the pain they are enduring and will continue to suffer under for the months and years to come. They buried their son last Wednesday evening. Does even God know how they’ll continue to walk with Him now?

Sometimes, you’ll hear it said in church that, “what was meant for evil, God means for the good.” In Judaism, the sentiment is expressed as “everything is for the good, perhaps not immediately, but eventually”.

This is true in principle since we must acknowledge that everything in Creation, every object and every event, has a single Source.

Still, how can we not search for a reason beyond the simple platitudes of religion when something hideous and horrific enters our world? What miracle of God could give meaning when an 8-year old boy walking home in his own neighborhood is viciously extracted from life? Can even something like this make a difference?

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” –John 9:1-5

Jesus subsequently heals the blind man so that, for the first time in his life, he can see and his life-long suffering “for the glory of God” ends, but those events happened half a world away almost 2,000 years ago. What about suffering today? The pain is real; the anguish is almost a tangible thing. How can anyone endure without God and even with God, suffering is hardly a matter of saying, “don’t worry, be happy”.

The Rebbe’s lesson as told in Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s book gives an answer of sorts, but I’m not convinced it’s particularly satisfying:

In every hardship, look for the spark of good and focus upon it with all your might. 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 can rise to overcome its guise of darkness and even transform the darkness fully to light.

Man aloneI wonder at what future point will (or if) Mr. and Mrs. Kletzky be able to rejoice again. The Rebbe lived in the same community in Brooklyn where Leiby was murdered and although Rabbi Freeman now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, he spent many years studying under the Rebbe in Brooklyn. Staring the spectre of ghastly death straight in the face, how would he feel reading the words of his book today?

I’ve asked a lot of questions and I don’t have an answer to even a single one. I know what the answers are supposed to be and I know the ideals behind them, but there is often a difference between ideals and when horrible events have brought you to your knees or have ground your face into the dirt and sand.

In Rabbi Freeman’s book, he writes of how anxiety and uncertainty can be like a raging storm at sea. He calls to mind the ark of Noah and how that ark endured the greatest flood the world has ever known, brought about by the wrath of a completely just God. From the Rebbe’s wisdom, he suggests the following:

Do as Noah did and build an ark. An ark in Hebrew is “taiva” – which means also “a word”. Your ark shall be the words of Torah and of prayer. Enter into your ark, and let the waters lift you up, rather than drown you with everything else.

That’s a bit like saying, “when you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on with all of your might”. That’s probably what the Kletzkys are doing right now and will do for some time to come. But a life of faith cannot be lived all of the time in prayer and Torah study. Eventually, you will have to stop sitting shiva and re-enter your day-to-day existence. How can this be done?

It’s a paradox: The greatest revelations are to be found not in meditation, study and prayer, but in the mundane world – but only if you would rather be meditating, studying and praying.

It is one of the most ingenious innovations of chassidic thought: Even if you fail to conquer the darkness entirely, even if you are still rolling in the mud with the enemy – you can still find G-d in the struggle itself.

Jacob, when facing what he thought was certain death at the hands of a vengeful Esau, literally found God in a struggle (Genesis 32:22-32), and despite many other hardships, including the death of his beloved wife Rachel and the perceived death of his favorite son Joseph, he went on to found a twelve tribes of Israel. Could something like this be true of us?

I have some Christian friends in the Puget Sound area who both struggle with cancer. To face this struggle with courage and composure isn’t the same as a lack of suffering. Once recently, I responded to their plea with this:

Our greatest blessings were uttered not by Moses, not by David, not even by G-d Himself. They were uttered by a wicked sorcerer, hired to curse. The most brilliant diamonds hide in the deepest bowels of the earth; the most intense blessings in the darkest caverns of life. -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

In suffering, no one thing helps all that much, if at all. Even the awareness of God with us may not comfort sufficiently and His presence may even remind us that the all-powerful Sovereign, who could have turned aside our disaster, chose not to. All of the words of the Bible, all of the well-wishes of friends and family, all of the prayers and cries ripped straight from our souls still do not cause the pain to vanish and the jagged reality to become smooth.

The only thing I can offer is that, put all together, they may help us make it through one hour, or even one day. Then we start over again and try to make it through another day…and then another. God’s vision is infinite, but an hour at a time or a day at a time is as far as most of us can glimpse when extreme hardship strikes like a heartless predator. We seek shelter from the storm in the ark and try to ride it out. We exit from the ark and struggle through the aftermath of our world that’s been destroyed.

We pray to God to please help us make another one.

Please.

Top Hat and Shoes

Top Hat and ShoesAbsolute truth is hard to come by. Many gedolim made it their life goal to speak and act only in accordance with their true level. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, gave an interesting explanation of why one should not act above his level.

He said, “This can be compared to a person who wears a luxurious top hat but is absolutely barefoot. Surely all who see him will remark at the inappropriateness of such an imbalance in this man’s apparel! The same is true in spiritual matters. One must first put on his shoes, which are the foundation middos. Then he can aim for higher.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Perhaps He is Not His Father…”
Chullin 11

I’m immediately reminded of two other stories; the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, and Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The former tells a tale of self-delusion which others are willing to buy into, and the latter assures us that the Torah was given so that even the most mundane acts in our lives can be seen as holy.

Besides the clothing motif, what do they have in common? Let me explain.

Rav Levovitz shows us that, as people of faith, we strive to achieve higher spiritual goals. If we are at all connected with God and we’re on speaking terms, we “know” that we can be closer to Him and we can be better people. We can be the people God designed us to be. However, it’s not that easy.

Have you ever set a goal for yourself that, in retrospect, you realized was unrealistically high. Have you ever aimed at achieving something lofty before doing the ground work and laying a foundation for what comes next? I know I have. I believe it’s a fairly common human behavior. We fail, not because we are lazy or don’t have high aspirations, but because we don’t look at the entire sequence of events between where we are and where we want to go. We try to jump from “A” to “Z”, without going through the intervening letters of the alphabet. We fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have to.

Rabbi Ginsburgh puts what we need to do very simply and elegantly:

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it.

Hans Christian Andersen shows us what happens when we cut corners and don’t pay attention to the difference between fantasy and reality.

If you feel like you’re in a rut in your church life, in your synagogue life, in your prayer life, in your spirituality…it’s probably because you are.

A relationship with God is like being married. When you first get married, it’s all exciting and romantic and thrilling. Then five years go by. Ten. Fifteen. Suddenly, you realize you’ve been married for almost thirty years and sometimes, life at home seems pretty boring. Not much romance is going on. No thrills have happened for months, maybe years. Is this the goal you were shooting for?

Let’s go through that story again with a slight twist. You’ve been married for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years. Some days are better than others. The “magic” in the marriage comes and goes, waxes and wanes. It’s sometimes pretty good and sometimes not so good, but in the end, you find that nothing really gets better or more intimate. Stuck in a rut again.

Let’s apply that back to your relationship with God.

You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. –James 4:2-3

In marriages, sometimes a breakdown in communication makes it difficult to understand your spouse. Since God always understands us, the breakdown in our relationship with Him can only come from us. We don’t know what to ask or we ask with bad motives. Who am I? Who is God? What do we have in common? How can we communicate? How can I get closer to Him? I put on my best top hat, but I forget to put on socks and shoes. What can I do? Maybe Rav Yerucham has the answer:

In Kotz, a certain chassid who served God with his entire heart once exclaimed while praying, “Oy, Tatte! Oh, Father!”

A fellow Kotzker heard this and quoted a statement on today”s daf, “And maybe he is not his father…”

This shook the chassid up quite a bit and pushed him to consult with the Kotzker Rebbe. Although the rebbe gave many short shrift, he gave this man encouragement. The rebbe said, “You need to cry out, ‘Oy, Tatte,’ so much that He becomes truly like a father to you!”

That sounds almost like:

I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. –Psalm 2:7

Going to GodA few days ago, I wrote about how a spiritual leader can profoundly affect our lives, not just by what he teaches or by his example, but by inspiring us to be better people. It is said that the Rebbe who is head of a Yeshiva is like a father to his students. Indeed, the Rebbe is considered even more of a father than the student’s actual father. A father brings physical life to a child but a Rabbi and teacher brings the student to the Torah and to God, which gives life beyond measure.

Both in Judaism and in Christianity, we call God “Father”, but we don’t recognize Him as our Father until we desperately cry out to Him with all our strength. At that moment, He becomes our Father and we become sons and daughters. All people were created in God’s own image, so regardless of your religious tradition or even if you have no faith at all, you are still God’s child. You only need to recognize that fact and call out to Him.

For those of you who know you are sons and daughters, but who seem to be spinning your wheels in your relationship with Him, cry out to Him. Tell Him you need Him (He knows this, but you might have to remind yourself). Whether you call out “God” or “Father” or “Abba”, you are calling Him. As Christians we are told that what we pray to God in the name of Christ, will be heard in Heaven and answered.

It’s time to move out of apathy and into action. It’s time to reach new heights in your relationship with Him, or perhaps develop a relationship with Him for the first time. Go to God. Put on your finest clothes for the occasion. Just remember to put on your shoes so you can keep your balance.

He Who Desires Repentance

BalaamThe angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.Numbers 22:24-31 (JPS Tanakh)

This villain was going to curse an entire nation which had not sinned against him [merely by the power of his speech], yet he has to smite his donkey [with his hand] to prevent it from going into a field! …the donkey spoke to Balaam saying, “You need a sword in your hand to kill me? How then do you intend to uproot an entire nation with only your words?” Balaam could not think of an answer, so he kept silent.Numbers Rabbah 20:14

This week’s Torah Portion Balak could easily be called “Don’t make an ass out of yourself”. Balaam, the wicked prophet, who referred to himself as “the man whose eye is opened” (Numbers 24:4), wasn’t seeing so well when God sent an angel to stop him, three times, from cursing the Children of Israel. But lest you consider yourself superior to this ancient wizard, consider that you too have been blind when it comes to God. Paul said, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), and his words certainly must apply to you and me. There is a difference between what we think we see and know and what we truly perceive and understand. In our arrogance and “self-confidence”, we can be humbled, even by a lowly ass.

A few months ago, I wrote a small missive about the difference between faith and trust in God. Many have faith, but trust is much more rare. Few souls attain that truly exalted level of holiness we all desire:

To one whose self is his body, death of the body is death of the self. But for one whose self is his love, awe and faith, there is no death, only a passing. From a state of confinement in the body, he makes the passage to liberation. He continues to work within this world, and even more so than before.

The Talmud says that Jacob, our father, never died. Moses, also, never died. Neither did Rabbi Judah the Prince. They were very high souls who were one with Truth in an ultimate bond—and since Truth can never die, neither could they.

Yes, in our eyes we see death. A body is buried in the ground, and we must mourn the loss. But this is only part of the falseness of our world. In the World of Truth, they are still here as before.

And the proof: We are still here. For if these high souls would not be with us in our world, all that we know would cease to exist.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“High Souls”
Chabad.org

What do you really see and who do you really trust? God?

On the 3rd of Tammuz on the Jewish religious calendar (sundown July 4th to sundown July 5th this year) is the seventeenth yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the yahrtzeit of an exalted sage or tzadik is traditionally a day for reflection, learning, prayer, positive resolutions and acts of loving-kindness. It is an opportunity to humble ourselves before God and before men, set aside an overabundance of confidence in our ability to “see” God and to instead, seek Him with a contrite heart and a desire to rise to a higher level of trust and spirituality.

For this occasion, Rabbi Ezra Schochet writes of Joyful Remorse; the act of repenting or making teshuvah, not with tears and anguish, but with gladness and rejoicing in our hearts.

The Rebbe continued saying that, in fact, repentance is greater than every mitzvah. Its purpose is to correct the transgression of all other commandments, it must fill the spiritual “gap” that the lack of observance engendered. Teshuvah’s ability to do so stems from the fact that it emanates from a higher spiritual source than all the others (as explained at length in the chassidic texts). And “the greater the mitzvah, the greater the joy.”

It would seem that tears and sorrow would be the more appropriate response when repenting of our sins and short-sightedness, but we see here that in performing teshuvah, we are clearing the barriers away that stand between us and God. What could be a better time to celebrate, to lift our spirits high, and to cry out and give thanks to God for desiring that we return to Him?

Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who desires repentance.

-from the daily prayers