Tag Archives: free will

How To Choose Life Over Death

The other day I read an article written by Rabbi Noah Weinberg of blessed memory called “Free Will – Our Greatest Power” originally published over 15 years ago at Aish.com. I only casually mentioned it on this blog post, and thought Rabbi Weinberg’s understanding of free will was worth sharing more in detail.

“How precious is man, created in the image of God.”

Talmud – Avot 3:18

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Unlike other creations, the human being has free will. Within this divine spark lies our potential to shape and change the world.

Proper use of free will beautifies and perfects. Misuse of free will plunders and destroys.

It is a uniquely human endeavor to learn how to use free will properly.

-Rabbi Weinberg

I know that R. Weinberg was writing for a Jewish publication, envisioning a primarily Jewish readership, and probably not considering non-Jewish readers at all, but it does say man (humanity) was created in God’s image, not just the Jewish people and not just Israel, so this should apply to the rest of us too, right?

Actually, according to the article, God did us two favors, not just one. He gave us free will and He told us what He did. That is, we are aware we have free will and can exercise it.

This is somewhat different from what you’ll hear in certain Christian circles, especially those that favor Calvinism (for the record, I don’t subscribe to either Calvinism or Arminianism, because I think this false dichotomy was constructed by people who didn’t interpret the Bible very well). Supposedly we have no free will or only a very limited form of it, because we cannot have consciously chosen God. Only God can choose us. If we had free will, say the Calvinists, it would undermine God’s total sovereignty over the entire universe.

Baloney.

So let’s cut to the chase. What is free will? R. Weinberg tells us:

It is a sweltering summer day. You trudge past the ice cream parlor. Wow – 10 new flavors! Special of the day! Frozen yogurt, too! You go inside and proclaim: “I’ll have double-fudge chocolate, please.”

Is picking chocolate over the vast array of other flavors a “free will choice?” No. It is simply the exercise of a preference, just as a cow chooses to eat hay instead of grass.

“Free will” refers to the type of decision which is uniquely human: a moral choice.

But don’t mistakenly think that morality is the choice between “good and evil.” Everyone chooses to be “good” – even the most evil, immoral people. Hitler rationalized that the Jews were the enemies of the world, so in his mind he justified that as doing “good.”

Rather, free will is the choice between life and death. As the Torah says: “I have put before you, life and death… Choose life so that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

Now before we go crazy making all kinds of assumptions, let’s take a look at Deuteronomy 30:19 in context.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (NASB)

So who’s speaking? Moses. Who’s he addressing? The Children of Israel. Is anyone else there? Arguably, there’s a mixed multitude of non-Israelites, Egyptians and people from other nations who left Egypt with Moses and the Children of Israel.

So, to whom do these verses apply? In their original context, they apply only to the people present and their descendants, but let’s drill down into that a little bit.

Some would argue that because of the (supposed) presence of a “mixed multitude” who had attached themselves to Israel, that the words of Moses, along with the Torah of Moses, is as appropriately accessed by the non-Jew as the Jew, particularly the non-Jew who is a disciple of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), that very specific population I sometimes call Talmidei Yeshua.

But is this so?

Probably not. Here’s why.

Whatever happened to the mixed multitude? If you clicked the link I posted above and read the blog post, you have your answer. It was always understood that the non-Israelites would fully assimilate into Israel by the third generation. The words of Moses applied to these non-Israelites because they had made a multi-generational commitment to attach to Israel and for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to intermarry and become part of the tribes.

In other words, there were no Gentiles who intended for their descendants to remain Gentiles, though attached to Israel in some matter, resident aliens perhaps, who bore the same covenant obligations to Hashem as did the Children of Israel.

However, when Rav Weinberg cites Deut. 30:19 as the definition of free will, the choice between life and death, does that apply, not only to Jews, and not only to Christians, but to all human beings across time?

Everyone who has ever been born, lived, and died will one day stand before God to be judged. Both Christians and Jews believe this. So it would seem that all of us, each and every one, must have free will because we were all created in the image of God and because, based on the fact that we will one day be judged, we all have the ability to consciously choose between life and death.

Yes, the situation we see in Deut. 30 is a specific case and it attached highly specific covenant responsibilities onto Israel (or rather it re-states those commitments as they were originally given at Sinai), but in a much broader sense, Israel and the nations choose between life and death all the time.

Does anyone really choose death over life?!

We all want to be great. But achieving our goals takes a lot of effort. So we get distracted and take the easy route instead. The escape route.

I agree. No one would deliberately, meaningfully choose death instead of life. Rav Weinberg says that even Hitler believed in his own twisted mind that he was doing good and choosing life. He just (grossly) misunderstood what good and life happen to be.

So how do we choose death? Hint: we do it all the time, most of us, anyway.

It’s Sunday afternoon. You’re bored. You grab the remote and slump down into the couch. You could be using your time to learn and grow. But instead you choose the easier option of painlessly passing the afternoon… escaping into the world of TV.

Each day we are confronted with many escape routes. Daydreaming, drugs, checking our email for the seventh time this hour…

Killing time is suicide on the installment plan. And suicide is the most drastic and final form of escape.

Basically, any decision that takes us away from God and puts our personal desires ahead of Him is a form of choosing death, and as R. Weinberg put it, every time we choose death, we’re committing suicide an inch at a time.

Whenever we consider our pain or our desires or our cravings first and then act upon them, we are choosing death.

So just how does one live a life that is flawlessly pious? I mean, it sounds really difficult, and probably pretty boring, right?

R. Weinberg believed he had the answers in five stages.

Stage One: Self-Awareness

You aren’t going to be able to correctly choose life over death unless you start becoming aware of the decisions you’re making and why you’re making them. Choosing to watch a football game over studying the Bible isn’t an accident. It’s a decision. Start monitoring each decision you make. Start watching yourself exercise free will.

Stage Two: Be Your Own Person

What does that mean? I’m “me,” right? Well, maybe. R. Weinberg wrote:

Don’t accept society’s beliefs as your own unless you’ve thought them through and agree with them. Live for yourself, not for society.

Oh man, I could really go off here. I recently quoted Israeli writer Naomi Ragen when she said:

I suddenly remembered something my Harvard-educated son recently told me: “Many American Jews will blindly follow any agenda created by the Liberal establishment because it makes them feel virtuous and like part of the in-crowd.”

Also, in the past several months, the news and social media have been highlighting groups of college and university students who are apparently “majoring in the minors” by complaining about everything from the potential for offensive Halloween costumes to culturally insensitive food on campus.

As Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University quipped, This is not a day care, it’s a university.

I know I’m hammering away pretty hard on political and social liberals, and especially very young ones, but I must admit that putting your own wants first isn’t just a liberal trait. It’s a human trait, and one we are all very capable of exercising, every single one of us.

I don’t object to someone being liberal, or conservative, or Christian, or an atheist, or any other alignment or orientation. I object to people selecting an orientation or alignment without thinking it through and making a conscious and informed decision.

So many people simply follow the herd because it’s the path of least resistance (and because they think it makes them virtuous, part of the in-crowd, and “cool”). I think that’s what R. Weinberg is talking about.

Check your assumptions and make sure that they are really yours and not someone else’s. Don’t be a puppet of society.

Stage Three: Distinguish Between Body and Soul

Weinberg calls this a “raging battle”:

BODY: Gravitates toward transitory comforts and sensual pleasures. Desires to quit, to dream, to drown in passions, to procrastinate. Says: “Give me some food, warmth, a pillow – and let me take life easy.” Looks for the escape of sleep… slipping away into death

SOUL: Seeks understanding, meaning, productivity, accomplishment, permanence, greatness. Confronts challenges. Embraces reality and truth.

Which plays out as:

Soul: “Let’s set some goals.”
Body: “Leave me alone, I’d rather sleep.”
Soul: “Come on, let’s be great!”
Body: “Relax, what’s the big deal if we wait til tomorrow?”

Do you ever feel like this? I do all the time. One example is when I realize I have to get up by 4 a.m. to make it to the gym when it opens at five so I can work out. This is the only time during the weekday I can do this, and I think particularly because it’s winter and cold and dark, I don’t want to do it.

I make myself but it’s never easy. Once I get to the gym and get moving, I’m OK, but that five or ten minutes when I first wake up, I’m arguing with myself about getting up vs. staying in bed and taking a “rest day”.

That plays into the next level.

Stage Four: Identify With Your Soul

This is sort of like saying I’m a soul that has a body rather than a body that has a soul. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry,” realize the soul means “My body needs food.” I know. It’s not that easy. That’s why using your free will to choose life takes discipline and practice, like learning to play a musical instrument (although this also takes innate talent) or working out at a gym.

In his article, R. Weinberg outlines specific strategies for how to train yourself to favor the viewpoint of the soul over the body and thus to more consistently choose life over death.

However, the final battle isn’t between your body and your soul.

Level Five: Make Your Will God’s Will

Weinberg wraps up his missive by stating:

The highest stage of free will is not when you ask yourself, “What does my soul want?” It’s when you ask yourself, “What does God want?” When that is your prime interest, you will have achieved the highest form of living. You are using your free will to merge with the most meaningful and powerful force in the universe: the transcendental.

Free will is the choice between life and death. Attach yourself to God and you will be attached to eternity – the ultimate form of life itself.

Make your will His will. If you do, you’ll be a little less than God Himself. Partners in changing the world.

The final battle is won (or continually being won) when you choose God’s will over your own day after day. As Weinberg said, it’s the highest form of exercising free will and choosing life. You are consciously, deliberately choosing God and life in abundance.

Once you embrace and fully integrate God’s will into your own, any concerns about life being difficult and boring seem rather silly.

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:18-21

Non-Jews have no covenant standing before God, except perhaps the covenant God made with Moses. However, through the mediator of the New Covenant, through Rav Yeshua and through God’s infinite mercy and grace, we have been permitted to partake in the blessings of the New Covenant, even though only Judah and Israel are named participants.

Hence our devotion to our Rav.

Every Jewish person is born into a covenant relationship with God whether they want to be or not. Yet they all still have to make a conscious decision to choose life or death. No one else has ever been born into such a relationship with God, and yet we are still given the option to choose life over death by choosing to make God’s will our will.

It is said that no one comes to the Father except through the Son (which takes a bit of explaining which is why I’m linking to another blog post), and if we believe that, particularly as non-Jews, then choosing to become disciples of Rav Yeshua, whether you call that being a Christian or a Talmid Yeshua, is making that choice.

Every morning when we wake up, that choice is before us. “So choose life in order that you may live.”

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

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The Spiritual Responsibility of the Church to Israel

In a closed Facebook group, someone mentioned recently that the Noahide Siddur completely omits the Mussaf, probably because the wording is so closely associated with the exclusive relationship of the Jewish people to Hashem and the avodah of the Temple.

And while I’ve said in the past that Gentile Talmidei Yeshua are not Noahides (though I have been since corrected that a better title would be “more than a noahide”), this does bring up a boundary line between non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua and the Jewish disciples (and Jewish people in general). There are just some things we can’t claim to share with Israel because they are the exclusive property of Israel.

Very recently, I wrote a blog post about a Christian’s duty to support and defend Israel and the Jewish people, even from the “war” being waged against them by our nation’s current administration.

It’s not always easy to do.

No, we’re not Israel. We’re not Jewish. But we still have a duty.

But what is the duty we Christians and/or Talmidei Yeshua have relative to the Jewish nation and her people?

The Jewish people are considered as one “organism.” What happens to one limb affects the entire body.

Every Jew recognizes that all the Jewish People are bound together. When there’s a terrorist attack in Israel, we all feel it. The Talmud says “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh” – Every Jew is responsible one for another.

The story is told of the religious man who died and went to heaven. There, he appeared before the Heavenly Tribunal to hear a listing of his good deeds and bad. The man was quite satisfied to hear of all his mitzvahs. But he was shocked to have included amongst his transgressions the prohibition of eating pork.

“What?!” the man protested, “but I never once ate pork!”

“True,” spoke the Tribunal, “but for 20 years you lived next door to a man who ate pork, and you never made an effort to discuss it with him. For that, you are responsible.”

from the article “Responsible One for Another”
posted in the “Ask the Rabbi” column at
Aish.com

OK, that’s the responsibility of one Jew for another, but what about the rest of us?

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”

Matthew 25:34-40 (NASB)

MessiahI once knew a Christian who had a unique interpretation of these verses. While on the surface, it seems as if the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) are commanded to provide assistance for people who are hungry, thirsty, without clothing, or who are otherwise in distress or disadvantaged, this older Christian gentlemen (and one of the most steadfast doers of what Jesus commanded that I ever met) said he believed that we merit the reward spoken of by our Rav (he didn’t word it this way, of course) when we provide this sort of care specifically to the Jewish people, not just to people in general.

I’m not sure that’s likely, considering that Yeshua’s audience consisted of Jewish people and that Matthew’s Gospel is widely considered to have been written specifically to Jews, but on the other hand, it makes a sort of sense.

The Rav himself said that “salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22), and if Israel can be said, particularly through our Rav, to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), then we owe that light a great debt.

The Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) believed that there were many advantages to being a Jew, as he chronicled in his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 3:1-2). Paul also commended the largely non-Jewish communities (“churches” if you will) in the diaspora for donating charity (tzedakah) to the Holy Ones in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8 for examples), as if the Gentiles owed it to the impoverished Jews in the Holy City.

Of course, there are other reasons we owe the Jewish people a debt:

On this day in 1601, Hebrew books that had been confiscated by Church authorities were burned in Rome. This was an unfortunate theme throughout the Middle Ages: In 1592, Pope Clement VIII had condemned the Talmud and other Hebrew writings as “obscene,” “blasphemous” and “abominable” — and ordered them all seized and burned. Centuries earlier, Pope Gregory IX persuaded French King Louis IX to burn some 10,000 copies of the Talmud (24 wagon loads) in Paris. As late as 1553, Cardinal Peter Caraffa (the future Pope Paul IV) ordered copies of the Talmud burned in the Papal States and across Italy. Yet despite all attempts to extinguish our faith, the light of Torah shines brightly till today.

from “This Day in Jewish History”
for Shevat 11
Aish.com

OK, you might say that you’re not Catholic or that this happened a long time ago and we don’t do this to Jewish people anymore, but the inherit memory of the Jewish people and the history of the Church’s “relationship” with the Jews is very long lived.

And sadly, even to this day, we can often find the spirit of Haman in the Church.

It’s so easy to wallow in the mud, to get tangled up in Israel’s final redemption and the current political landscape. It’s easy for non-Jews in Yeshua to experience jealousy over the advantage of the Jews (Romans 3:1-2), which I suppose is why Christianity developed the doctrine of supersessionism (or cryptosupersessionism as the case may be).

Rabbi Noah Weinberg of blessed memory wrote an article over 15 years ago called Free Will – Our Greatest Power. It’s somewhat lengthy, but here’s a summary of his five main points:

  • Level One: Don’t be a sleepwalker. Make decisions actively.
  • Level Two: Don’t be a puppet of society’s goals, or a slave to your old decisions.
  • Level Three: Be aware of the conflict between the cravings of your body and the aspirations of your soul.
  • Level Four: Identify with your soul, not your body.
  • Level Five: Make your will God’s will.
Rabbi Weinberg
Rabbi Noah Weinberg

If you read the entire missive, you’ll see that having free will and making Hashem’s will our will results in an intersection between the mundane and the Divine. We learn to see past the physical reality of our world and the things (and people and nations) we often fight against, and perceive them (things, people, nations) through a spiritual lens.

By the way, this isn’t an either-or affair:

Given that we live in a physical world, much of the goal of Judaism is to infuse the physicality with holiness. We say a blessing before eating our special kosher food, we have a framework for sanctifying our marital relations, etc.

from the article “What is Holiness?”
posted in the “Ask the Rabbi” column
Aish.com

In the western mindset, we tend to think of things in binary terms. Something is either this or that, we turn left or right, we can choose this one or that one. But that mindset, including within the Christian Church, is based on ancient Greek philosophy.

Judaism and Hebrew thought is much more comfortable with dynamic contradictions in which seeming opposites can live together, if not at peace, then at least under a flag of truce.

Observant Jews don’t choose between the material and spiritual worlds, they infuse the physical with the spiritual. In my own dim little way, I can see Israel as both the present political reality and the Holy Nation of God given to the Jewish people as their perpetual heritage.

I think if we choose to put on that pair of lenses and see the many aspects of our world, and particularly Israel and the Jewish people, the way God sees them, we would have no doubt in our minds (or hearts) at all that we should be doing all we can to assist an Israel under siege, or at the very least, not to get in Israel’s way.

I said that the physical and the spiritual can co-exist in dynamic tension, but looking at Level Four of Rav Weinberg’s summary, it seems like that co-existence isn’t exactly 50/50. If we can perfect our vision, it means being biased somewhat toward the spiritual side of our sight. In this context, that means seeing more of Israel’s spiritual reality than her current physical and political reality. It means seeing Israel more as what she’ll be when her full redemption arrives.

For when Israel’s redemption arrives, ours will arrive with him.

If your bread fell out of heaven, you might be afraid to make a diet of it. Sure, it’s convenient, but most people would rather sink their teeth into a steak, or at least a potato—something that feels like a part of their world.

That’s also the way many people feel about any topic that touches on the spiritual. It is the unknowableness of it—that you can’t grasp it in your hand or tally it up with your assets—that causes people to shun it, to run from it, to even deny it exists.

These people are running from who they are. Far more than we are a body with a bank account, we are spiritual beings. Without nourishment for our souls, we are plagued by insatiable cravings—like a body lacking essential nutrients.

For the human being, inner peace is achieved by first surrendering to the unknown.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Grasping Bread from Heaven”
Chabad.org

If we don’t feed ourselves with “bread from Heaven,” not only will our spiritual self be starved, we won’t be able to recognize what is truly, spiritually real, and then act upon it in the present world.

Choosing Your Prison

It is worthwhile to elaborate a bit on this important concept of free will, which the Rambam calls “an important principle and a pillar of all Torah and mitzvos.”

He states: “Do not let the thought cross your mind, that which the foolish ones among the nations and even ignorant Jews claim, that Hashem predetermined and decreed upon every person what he will be — a righteous person or a wicked one. It is not so — for every single person can be either a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu, or a wicked man like Yeravam. There is no one pulling him in either direction. It is each person’s own choice to pick the way of life he will follow.”

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.14
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

So much for Calvinism. We can’t claim that God preselected us to be good or to be evil. We get to choose who we are and we get to make different choices over time. That’s miserable and encouraging all at once. It’s miserable because we human beings all by ourselves are prone to willfulness, weakness, and error. But it’s also hopeful in that we can strive to overcome our faults and to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

One of the recurring themes in the various incarnations of “Star Trek” is that mankind continually works to improve itself, with the presupposition that humans have the moral framework and ability to do so independently. However, both Judaism and Christianity maintain that we are unable to elevate ourselves spiritually to any degree at all without relying on God. This does not negate free will, since we must choose to either obey or disobey God in the different and varied areas of our lives.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)

Maybe that’s the answer to this sometimes frustrating statement of Paul’s. It may seem like temptation is irresistible, but the circumstances tempting us are the same for a lot of people, even if we’re only aware of our own individual experience. We can either rely on ourselves and fail or rely on God and have the hope of success, and God is faithful.

It’s when we assume that we’re helpless victims, either of God’s “Divine Plan” to choose only some for salvation and to let the rest burn, or of our own “sin nature” or “evil inclination” that the following happens:

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Joseph the SlaveNot that God necessarily gives up on us, but He certainly can give us enough rope to hang ourselves with, if we so choose. Then, when swinging in the breeze, if we’re still alive, we can call out to Him.

But even resisting temptation is no guarantee of an easy or good life.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

Genesis 39:11-20

Joseph resisted the repeated temptation to have an illicit affair with his master’s wife. He was blameless and still ended up in prison. How much more so do we, who are not blameless, risk “prison” of one form or another, even after we cry out to God and begin to learn to resist our own temptations and to strive to be better servants of Hashem.

The worst prison is when G-d locks you up. He doesn’t need guards or cells or stone walls. He simply decides that, at this point in life, although you have talent, you will not find a way to express it. Although you have wisdom, there is nobody who will listen. Although you have a soul, there is nowhere for it to shine.

And you scream, “Is this why you sent a soul into this world? For such futility?”

That is when He gets the tastiest essence of your juice squeezed out from you.

(Likutei Sichot vol. 23, pp. 163–165; Shlach 5732:1; 5th night of Chanukah 5720:4.)

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Invisible Prison”
Chabad.org

If God puts us in “prison,” isn’t it what we deserve? Why should we complain (although we invariably do)? In sin, we are slaves but slaves who have deliberately put ourselves in the hand of our master. In choosing to not sin, we are deciding to be slaves of a different Master, one who loves our soul, one who desires the best for us. As Rabbi Freeman suggests, the prison God incarcerates us in is designed not to confine and demoralize us, but to drive us to be the very best we can be.

PrisonWe can either choose the evil prison where we trap ourselves and reap only what we deserve, or allow God to “imprison” us and have the hope of being led to a better life.

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

II Samuel 24:14

This verse is the opening line of the Tachanun prayer. Dovid HaMelach had sinned by taking a census of the Jews in a manner contrary to that prescribed by the Torah. Hashem, through the agency of the prophet Gad, gave Dovid HaMelech a choice of three calamities, one of which he and his people would have to suffer in atonement for his sin: seven years of hunger, three months of defeat in battle, or a deadly three-day plague. Dovid chose the last, because that one would be inflicted directly by God, Whose mercy is ever present even when His wrath is aroused. His choice proved to be the correct one, for God mercifully halted the plague after a duration of only half a day.

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” pp.15-16
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

Joseph’s incarceration is recorded in this week’s Torah Portion but not its resolution. Joseph was made a slave and then a prisoner in order to accomplish God’s plan, not just for Joseph or even just for Egypt, but for the entire world. No doubt you already know how the story of Joseph continues, how he was released from prison to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s, and as a result, how Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh. From prisoner to prince in one stroke.

Very few of us will have such an experience, yet it would be enough if God were to judge us and not human beings. God is incapable of treating us with malice and His rulings are truly impartial and fair, though they can be harsh.

When you look at that imperfect and sinful wreck in the mirror each morning, are you not much harder on yourself than God would be? Doesn’t God look at us with pity and compassion when most people, even those closest to us, react out of hurt and anger?

A basic Torah principle is that when correcting someone, we need to do so with a sense of love and compassion. When you speak in a blaming manner, the message you give is not a loving one.

If there is a specific person you tend to speak to in a blaming manner, be resolved to speak to more pleasantly.

(For a series of probing questions on this topic, see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” pp.135-7)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #189: “Replace Blame with Compassion”
Aish.com

Would that other people or even we ourselves were as merciful and compassionate as God when we fail and seek to make amends.

compassionBut coming back to the matter of free will, our actions and the consequences rest on our shoulders. No one else is to blame, though we can hope and pray for mercy. In the end, people are not always merciful, but even when we do not deserve it, God is compassionate.

The Tzemach Tzedek writes: The love expressed in “Beside You I wish for nothing,” (Psalm 73:25) means that one should desire nothing other than G-d, not even “Heaven” or “earth” i.e. Higher Gan Eden and Lower Gan Eden, for these were created with a mere yud…. The love is to be directed to Him alone, to His very Being and Essence. This was actually expressed by my master and teacher (the Alter Rebbe) when he was in a state of d’veikut and he exclaimed as follows:

I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden, I don’t want Your olam haba… I want nothing but You alone.

from “Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Kislev 18, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Whatever prison you find yourself in, seek God alone. Everything else will take care of itself.

What I Learned In Church Today: The Devil Made Me Do It

I know the title is pretty inflammatory and I’m deliberately exaggerating this part of what was taught in Sunday school today because it’s one of those things about the Church that really bugs me.

Here’s what started it all off:

Give some ways Satan supplies us with reasons and circumstances to justify ignoring God’s counsel?

-from Sunday School class notes
for August 10th

The context of this teaching is Pastor Randy’s sermon on Acts 27:13-44 and particularly the circumstances leading up to the fateful shipwreck of Paul and his traveling companions on the island of Malta. Dean, the Sunday school teacher, is focusing on Acts 27:13-15 and the moment when everyone on board ship realized that they should have listened to Paul’s advice and not tried to push on from Fair Haven to Phoenix (Crete).

Coincidentally (or not), on Saturday I was reading Ismar Schorsch’s commentary on Torah Portion Vaethanan from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries called “The Locus of Evil in Judaism.”

Schorsch wrote his small article in July 1996 and recorded two tragic events that had recently happened. The first one is:

On the first anniversary of the bomb blast that erased 168 lives in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of Jannie Coverdale, who had lost two grandsons. She posed between twin beds, each covered with stuffed animals, holding a portrait picture of each boy toward the camera. Beneath the photograph, the Times quoted her as saying: “A year ago this week, Satan drove up Fifth Street in a Ryder truck. He blew my babies up. He may have looked like a normal man, but he was Satan.”

-Schorsch, pg 592

And the second one is:

When Susan Smith in South Carolina sent her two small boys to their watery death strapped into the child safety seats inside her Mazda, her minister, Reverend Mark Long, speculated that she was witness to two presentations that night: “God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation.” After weighing them in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan’s.

-ibid

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, the “red alert” alarm started going off in the back of my head, but maybe not for the reason you think.

In moments of numbness, I envy the clarity and conviction of these statements. The explicit dualism seems able to account for the ubiquity of evil, that tragic aspect of human experience that defies comprehension — as in the words of the young Augustine before his conversion, “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution.”

-ibid

I was caught somewhat off guard in Schorsch’s apparent agreement with such Christian sentiments, however understandable they may be, but then he added:

Yet this view is also thoroughly un-Jewish.

Christianity and Judaism have fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of the origin of good and evil, and Judaism does not embrace what Christians call “Original Sin” or “the Fall” in any aspect. I won’t try to present a detailed analysis here, but I do want to offer the part of Schorsch’s commentary I presented in class:

The Torah never speaks of Satan, for that would compromise its austere monotheism as affirmed by the Shema, but only of a heart that is hardened or uncircumcised. The culprit lies within.

-ibid, pg 594

The class became momentarily confused after I stopped talking but quickly reoriented around Dean’s original question and started describing all the bad things Satan has done to them. I even added the following for good measure but it didn’t help:

But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

James 1:14-15 (NASB)

Eve and the SerpentWhile other parts of the Apostolic Scriptures refer to the Adversary, here James (Jacob), the brother of the Master says “when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust, not by Satan or some evil external force that enticed him.

This was the only item in the Sunday school notes I intended on addressing and seeing how my point fell flat on its face, I decided to remain silent for the rest of the class time. But when discussing Acts 27:27-32, one of the questions was:

What proper role do our efforts play in God’s will for us?

Fortunately, people were able to articulate that we actually do have a role, we have things to do, we have stuff we must achieve, even though God doesn’t need our help. We are responsible.

That’s what I was trying to say. One of the fellows in class referred back to my comment when discussing “our efforts” and I was grateful. Someone got it.

It’s just that the Adversary gets a lot of credit, too much in my opinion, when things foul up in the life of a Christian.

I know this is a ridiculous example, but it appeared in my local newspaper and I think deserves a mention:

Last December, Alexander Gonzalez Garcia blamed Satan for causing him to molest a 12-year-old girl in a storage room at the Nampa Seventh-Day Adventist Church where he served as a deacon.

from “With church response: Ex-deacon in Nampa sentenced to prison for molesting girl”
The Idaho Statesman

No, I don’t think anyone at the church I attend would fail to hold this person responsible for his acts of sexual abuse and go directly to Satan, but I don’t doubt they’d see Satan as involved.

But whatever happened to personal responsibility? Whatever happened to being accountable for your own sins. Whether you are tempted by an evil supernatural entity or your own human character flaws are getting in the way, the result is the same. You have a choice to make. You either choose God’s will or your will.

Pastor Bill was in Sunday school class and when I mentioned looking at the guy in the mirror rather than pointing the finger at Satan when life turns to doggie doo, he looked momentarily startled and said we had three enemies: Satan, the world, and our sin nature. I popped right back that it was our own nature that’s our first and worst enemy. I think he nodded “yes,” but I’m not sure. Christianity pays a lot of attention to an entity we’re supposed to stay as far away from as possible. Maybe we’re giving him more credit (and along with it, more “glory”) than we ought to.

Instead of focusing on the author of evil in our lives, how about we cleave to the author of all that is good.

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

James 1:12 (NASB)

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.

Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (JPS Tanakh)

…but also the appearance of the Shema in this week’s parashah. I wish to draw your attention to but a single phrase — al levav’kha, “upon your heart” — at the end of verse 7 in chapter 6.

The function of the verse is to speak of the heart as the locus of our unbounded love for God. More concretely, we are instructed to articulate that love by embracing God’s commandments. Our lifelong challenge is to internalize a set of beliefs, values, and actions that is not self-generated, to take what feels alien and unnatural for us and make it our own. The words “upon your heart” identify the scene of battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that our impulses frustrate our ideals. The blood-stained pages of history are but a mirror of our conflicted hearts. To quote Jeremiah, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse — who can fathom it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

-Schorsch, pg 593

I regret that it is not appropriate for me to recite the Shema daily or even on Shabbat because Schorch is describing a human battle, not just a Jewish battle. But God has promised the House of Judah and the House of Israel that one day it will be possible for them to win that battle.

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

Jeremiah 31:33 (NASB)

heart in the sandThrough a rather long and not easily understood process, I have learned that the New Covenant God will make with Israel, that is, the Jewish people, will also apply its blessings to the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel through faith in the Messiah who Paul called “rich root of the olive tree.” (Romans 11:17)

I look forward to that day when my heart will be circumcised and His Word will be written on it. I grow so very tired of having to deal with myself every day as the person I am. The battle is hard, and it’s been going on far too long, and I only have myself to blame.