Tag Archives: faithfulness

Soul on the Altar

Meal offeringWhen a person presents an offering of meal to the Lord, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on itLeviticus 2:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The word “soul” is not used in reference to any voluntary offerings except for the meal-offering. Yet, here, the verse (Vayikra 2:1) begins, “And when a soul will bring a meal-offering…” Whose practice is it to dedicate a meal-offering? It is the poor person. The Holy One, blessed is He, said: “Although the poor man’s offering is modest, I consider it as if he offered his soul.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“The precious offering of the poor”
Menachos 104

Who are you? What do you have to offer God? What is your worth to other human beings? Why does what you do matter?

We tend to judge ourselves in comparison to others. When we see that our accomplishments are better or more abundant than someone else’s we feel better about who we are. When another person has more money, more prestige, lives a more righteous life than we do, we tend to feel bad about ourselves.

That’s not a universal response among people, but it’s common and all too human. Yet, we’re not the same. How are we to understand this? Continuing the “Gemara Gem” commentary, we discover:

Two students sat in the same class. They heard the same lectures from their rebbe, and they each tried to record notes to summarize the lessons. After a week, the rebbe announced that an exam on the material would be given.

One student, who was quite bright, relied upon his memory and he exerted minimal effort in studying, but he managed to score a relatively high grade. The other student had a weaker ability. Despite great efforts in preparing, he scored quite low.

Surprisingly, the rebbe called the stronger student to his classroom after grading the tests, and he rebuked him. The rebbe expressed his disappointment in the score that he had earned, even though it was a relatively high grade, and he pointed out how that with a consistent effort, the student was certainly capable of achieving much more. The boy defended himself and pointed out that the weaker boy had scored even lower. The rebbe refused to accept his excuses, and he demanded that the strong student produce an effort commensurate with his abilities.

It is obvious that the excuse of the more capable student was without merit. It is clear that each person has his own talents and abilities, and, at least in spiritual matters, every individual must work and produce to meet his own potential. Some people are blessed with greater intellect, while others are emotionally charged and motivated to action. Every person is expected to achieve the maximum that he is capable of attaining.

We see that we don’t all come equipped with the same passions and identical skills, yet we’re expected to utilize what we have been given to the best of our efforts. This works well for the rich and the richly gifted if they apply themselves, but the poor cannot offer Rising Incensethe same abundance to other people and to God as the rich. How can a poor man dare to hold a banquet for a King? How can a person deep in sin ever hope to entertain the Righteous One?

The Ben Ish Chai, zt”l, explains…”A certain great king visited a large city in his kingdom. In the city were many noblemen and wealthy people, all of whom hoped to host the king for his first meal in their city. Obviously such wealthy people offered to prepare a banquet that would literally be fit for a king. But the king wished to go to his friend who was a poor shepherd and could never afford a repast approaching what is fitting for the king. If the king refuses the noblemen and wealthy to go to his poor friend, they can protest that eating such simple food is not honorable for the king.

“When it comes time for a meal and the greatest citizens are vying for his company – each with a feast prepared in case the king acquiesces to him – the king explains that he cannot eat any heavy food at all. ‘I am not feeling so well and must have a repast composed solely of light foods. I need sheep’s milk, yogurt, light cheese, butter and similar fare. Since the place where I will find these foods freshest is at a shepherd’s abode, I will take my meal with my poor friend.’”

Daf Digest Yomi
Stories off the Daf
“The King’s Special Meal”
Menachos 104

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” –Mark 2:13-17

Rich man or poor, righteous tzadik or a person heavy with sin, we each are not called to offer God everything in the world but only our very best, even though our best may be the meal offering of the poor. While you may envy what the rich and the righteous can offer God in their abundance, out of the depths of despair and poverty, what you offer, though it seems small, is the most splendorous gift of all…your very soul on the altar of God.

May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. –Psalm 141:2

Significance in the Vortex of God

The VortexThere we saw giants… and we were in our own eyes as locustsNumbers 11:33

Someone once asked Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch: “What is true learning?”

The Rebbe replied: “When one studies a section of Talmud or an idea in chassidus, one is there, together with its illustrious author. He is building upon the sage’s wisdom like a midget perched upon a giant – he is riding on the giant’s shoulders. “One must be grateful to the giant that he doesn’t fling the nuisance from his shoulders.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Irksome Burden”
Commentary on Parshah Shelach

Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole.

Attuned in perfect consonance, they dance a pas de deux of exquisite form, each responding to every subtle nuance of the other, mirroring and magnifying the most subliminal inner thought, until it is impossible to distinguish them as two.

Within the human being is the consciousness of G-d looking back upon Himself from within the world He has made.

We sit upon the vortex of Creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Heaven Above, Man Below”
Chabad.org

We have this idea that we are connected to God. I wrote yesterday that part of the function of God’s commandments is to connect people with the Almighty. Yet, the two commentaries I quoted above seem to paint different pictures about the relationship between created being and Creator. Are we annoying gnats sitting on the shoulders of giants, or are we fully integrated into the very fabric of God’s eternity?

I have a hard time judging my relative position to God. Oh, I realize that in absolute terms, God is infinite and I am beyond insignificant by comparison. It is only through God’s mercy and grace that He’s even aware of me at all:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? –Psalm 8:1-4

Yet without human beings, what is the point of Creation?

As much as I try, there are days when I wonder how or why God would attend to any single individual. Yes, I know that “God so loved the world” and all of that (John 3:16), but does every single, specific person who is alive or who has ever lived really have a critical, irreplaceable part in God’s majestic, eternal, infinite plan?

Do I?

Someone once posed the following question to Rav Yechezkel Landau, the author of Teshuvas Noda B’Yehudah. He wanted to know whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah that are invalid and incapable of repair into the Aron Kodesh that was made to store valid Sifrei Torah. The questioner initially cited our Gemara as proof that it should be permitted. The Gemara relates that the broken set of Tablets was placed in the Aron Kodesh together with the second set of Tablets that was complete. Even though the Aron Kodesh was made for the second set of tablets, nevertheless, the broken Tablets were stored inside indicating that as long as an item had sanctity before it became broken or invalid it may continue to be stored in the place designated for intact and valid sacred items.

The questioner then rejected this parallel since it is possible that the broken Tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh because they were made by God and that added sanctity allowed them to be stored in the Aron Kodesh even though they were broken. This would not allow for the storage of an invalid Sefer Torah to be stored in an Aron Kodesh since the Sefer Torah was not made by God. Noda B’Yehudah rejected this distinction and cited our Gemara to prove his point. After the Gemara teaches that the broken Tablets were stored in the Aron Kodesh the Gemara comments that this teaches that one must continue to treat a Torah scholar who forgot his learning with respect since he is similar to the broken Tablets. The Torah scholar was not the creation of God and yet the Gemara finds it to be a valid parallel to the broken Tablets and as such an invalid Sefer Torah could also be equated with the broken Tablets.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Storing an invalid Sefer Torah in an Aron Kodesh”
Menachos 99

I’ve felt like an invalid Sefer Torah “incapable of repair”. My life has been like a “broken set of Tablets”. Am I worthy of being contained in a holy place just because I was made by God? Am I like a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning? Once having been made holy, can my holiness be diminished?

Menachos 99 answers the latter question, “No”:

The Mishnah tells us that the lechem hapanim loaves were placed upon a marble stand as they were being brought to be placed upon the Shulchan in the Sanctuary. The set of loaves which were removed were placed upon a golden table after being taken out of the Sanctuary. This was a fulfillment of the adage, “we rise in holiness, and we do not descend.”

I admit to taking liberties with the interpretation and applying what is being said here to human beings , but I think this is a valid perspective (considering the Torah scholar with memory problems). If we are each made by God in His image, then individual people are sacred because we are His creations. If, as Rabbi Freeman states, “Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole”, then people enjoy a special unity with God that nothing else in Creation can possess. If this is true, then how can we dare to feel broken, or lost, or alone, or afraid?

And yet, we do. I know I do.

The Noda B’Yehudah is at odds with the parallel between the broken Tablets and the invalid Sefer Torah because:

…he maintains that the Aron Kodesh was built to store the broken Tablets and since that was the original intent it is permitted for them to be stored therein. An Aron Kodesh in a Beis HaKnesses was designed to store valid Sifrei Torah and as such one that is invalid and irreparable should not be stored in the Aron Kodesh. He observes, however, that common custom allows for the storage of invalid Sifrei Torah in an Aron Kodesh…

This seems to match up with Rabbi Tauber’s interpretation that we exist like insects riding the shoulders of giants every time we even learn one small section of Talmud or other holy lesson, building on the insights of those people much wiser and more righteous than we. We exist as a “convention” in the sense that broken pieces of the Tablet are stored in the holy ark simply because the ark was designed for that purpose and not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

It’s more than a little puzzling. Are we important to God (or for that matter, other people) as individuals or not? Sometimes the answer seems to be “Yes” and at other times, “No”. Perhaps it’s the difference between allowing the full experience of connection between ourselves and God vs. the realization that God is amazingly, awesomely, vast, and my own presence on earth, by comparison, is like a hardly visible bit of flotsam barely staying above the waves of some expansive, turbulent, unfeeling sea.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

I could use some of that “lightness of burden” right now. Contemplating the unimaginable intensity of God and sitting upon the vortex of Creation has become too much for me.

Good Shabbos.

Starting to Walk

WalkingThe Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

-from the Chabad.org commentary for
Avot Pirkei (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 1
“Barrier and Gateway”

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. The Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces

For the past several days, I’ve been blogging on topics related to the Torah and the meaning it has for not just the Jewish people, but for all of us. I’ve also been trying to describe that the Torah is more than just a document and in an almost mystic way, it transcends its own physical nature and becomes both the blueprint and container for Creation.

As the Chabad commentary I quoted above states, the Torah has an expansive mission to address all people everywhere and as Rabbi Ginsburgh suggests, part of that purpose is to help us understand that holiness and sanctity are infused in everything we encounter.

The Chabad.org commentary for Chapter 2 of Avot Pirkei introduces an additional mystery in how we are supposed to understand what the Torah, the book of instructions for living in a created world, is to be understood and lived out:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the correct path for man to choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say… Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.”

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the “correct path” is defined by “whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind”? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” This is what man is doing when he refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one’s own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

However, if “the Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3), then this teaching and the ethics attached cannot be limited to the Jewish people. All of humanity becomes God’s partner in Tikkun Olam; the repairing of a broken world, and in the mission to prepare existence itself, starting with our own lives, for the coming of the Messiah. This effort at once requires that we submit to the demands of the Torah but also to interweave the Torah’s fabric with our own, fusing its life with our soul, resulting in a life made holy by God.

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Avot Pirkei 1:3

Paul, a servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David… –Romans 1:1-3

Here is a painting of “slaves” of God but not slaves who serve out of a desire for self-gain or reward, but out of “fear of Heaven”. This doesn’t necessarily mean fear of punishment but rather an intense awe of God, His Holiness, His purposes, and the immense task of which we are a part. An observant Jewish man wears a yarmulke or kippah on his head to cause him to be always aware of the One who is constantly over him. The Word of God reminds us of the God we serve and who we are in Him.

It’s that awareness that gives us the drive to learn how to serve God and then to devote our lives to that service. The renowned Torah sages Hillel and Shammai both commented on this:

Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. –Avot Pirkei 1:12

Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance. –Avot Pirkei 1:15

Many of the opinions recorded in the Mishnah seem inconsistent about whether or not it is praiseworthy to devote an entire life to Torah study. Is it better to study Torah, forsaking all other pursuits or should a person both study and practice the Torah, balancing life between student and “doer”? Torah scholars are still subsidized in Israel today and exempted from military duty and other societal responsibilities, but there is this principle to consider:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin. –Pirkei Avot 2:2

It is very similar to lessons we find in Christianity:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –2 Thessalonians 3:10

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8

A desire to serve God and to immerse oneself in His Word does not excuse a person from the mundane chores in life or the requirements of his family. In fact, it actually becomes a sin to study the Torah to the exclusion of all other activities and supposed acts of holiness can become an excuse for disobeying God:

But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. –Mark 7:11-13

That brings us back to Rabbi Ginsburg and the art of tying our shoes.

Shoes allow us to walk the face of the earth, to contact physicality and move around as we wish freely. More than any other material artifact that we possess and utilize daily, shoes symbolize our involvement with the mundane. As we walk forward to achieve our goals in life they protect our feet from the stones and thorns that cover the ground upon which we tread.

But so long as we have not sanctified the earth in its entirety to be a sanctuary for God we need shoes to protect our feet, while continuously on the move, doing our utmost to make this world a better place – a meeting ground for us and our Creator.

Tying ShoesThe world is a work in progress and so are we. Everything we do is a transition from the mundane to the holy. We constantly are on a quest to see the holy in every ordinary object, act, and person. Even getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed is both common and sacred. People often “get into a rut” by doing the same things in the same way day-in and day-out. We can become bored, numb, burned-out, and tired of life. As Rabbi Ginsburgh says though, the “Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.” Studying and living out God’s Word, God’s blueprint, God’s plan, opens our eyes so that we can see beyond the surface appearance of the world and people around us, and it enables us to see beyond the surface of the Torah itself.

In stripping off the outer layers or reality, we see the mystical substance which makes up the “truer reality” of everything. The world was created through more-than-natural processes in a manner that transcends human understanding and what we think of as “the laws of the universe”. In the Torah, is the lens by which we can take brief glimpses of that reality and from it, gain the strength to get out of bed for another day, get dressed, put on our shoes, and find holiness in tying our shoelaces.

Then we begin to walk on whatever road God sets before us.

“Which is exactly what he will not concede. As he sees it, the Jewish people possesses a unique religious truth, an unsurpassable morality of peace, mercy, justice and human equality-all indispensible to a man’s salvation-and, in addition, a Tradition or way of life in which they are embodied. It is for these and their communication to the nations of the world that we have been appointed. No sacrifice on our part can be too great for the fulfillment of so heroic a destiny. What is more, no power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose.”

-Pappas to Elisha
in Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

Abundant is Your Faithfulness

This blog has been a long time in the making, perhaps as long as two years. I’ve been searching for something. I’ve been looking for a road. I’ve been staring into the dark abyss looking for even the faintest glimmer of light. After two long years, I think I’ve found it and so, to share my tiny light in the darkness, I’ve created this blog.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman said something recently at Chabad.org that resulted in my finally finding the right name and letting me launch this weblog.

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

Every morning when I wake up, before I get out of bed, I silently recite a blessing to God, thanking Him for returning my soul to me. While I don’t usually think that I might “die before I wake” as I go to sleep, I am aware that my life is in the hands of God; my well-being depends on His chesed and His providence. In that sense each new day, when I become aware that I’m still here, is a gift from God.

I’m going through a transition and learning to find my faith. I have gone through the past year searching for the path I must walk and now I believe I am walking on it. The path isn’t always easy and much of the time, it’s shrouded in twilight. Although I walk with God, there are times when I feel that I’m totally alone in the dark. Yet as Rabbi Freeman said, I can also let myself be inspired, allow God to illuminate me, and then become my own light casting away the darkness.

In the days and weeks ahead, I’m going to pursue the journey of bringing light into the darkness, may it be the will of God.

I invite you to join me and we can become aware of each new day and the promise it brings.

“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”

Blessing Upon Arising in the Morning