Tag Archives: good

Search for God and Find Yourself

God called unto man [Adam] and said to him, “Where are you?”

Genesis 3:9

We read in Genesis that after Adam sinned, he tried to hide in the Garden of Eden. Was Adam so foolish to think that he could hide from God? Certainly not! He was hiding from himself, because it was himself that he could no longer confront. God’s question to him was very pertinent: “I am here. I am always here, but where are you?”

Adam’s answer to God describes man’s most common defense: “I was afraid because I was exposed, and I therefore tried to hide” (Genesis 3:10). Since people cannot possibly conceal themselves from God, they try to hide from themselves. This effort results in a multitude of problems, some of which I described in Let Us Make Man (CIS, 1987).

We hear a great deal about people’s search for God, and much has been written about ways that we can “find” God. The above verse throws a different light on the subject. It is not necessary for people to find God, because He was never lost, but has been there all the time, everywhere. We are the ones who may be lost.

When an infant closes it eyes, it thinks that because it cannot see others, they cannot see it either. Adults may indulge in the same infantile notion – if they hide from themselves, they think they are hiding from God as well. If we find ourselves by getting to know who we are, we will have little difficulty in finding God, and in letting Him find us.

Today I shall…

…try to establish a closer relationship with God by coming out of hiding from myself.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Shevat 4

As human beings, we have the power to remake ourselves and to some degree, even those around us, just by how we behave and how we choose to think of ourselves and other people. A person who goes around chronically depressed or angry is likely to be pretty unhappy and be surrounded by other depressed or angry people.

OK, it’s more complex than that, but the idea is that if you continually involve yourself in doing good and behaving (and even thinking) as if you are constantly surrounded by good people, it is more likely that you will feel better about yourself, and other people will regard you well. At least it beats the alternative I outlined in the previous paragraph.

Rabbi Twerski brings up an interesting idea. People are always searching for God. I myself mentioned that I am continually pursuing God. Why? Is God running away from me? According to R’ Twerski, it’s the other way around. If I feel the need to pursue God, it’s because I’m the one running away from Him. If I need to search for God, it’s because I’m (futilely) trying to hide from Him. In the end, since no one can run and hide from God, all I accomplish is running and hiding from myself, and probably many other people in my life.

Serenity promotes peaceful and harmonious relationships with other people. We have often cited the verse, “As in water, face to face, so too is the heart of one person to another” (Proverbs 27:19). When you speak serenely to someone, the peaceful energy puts the other person in a better state, and usually that person will speak more pleasantly to you.

(From Rabbi Pliskin’s book, Serenity, p.17)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Serenity Promotes Harmonious Relationships”
from “Today’s Daily Lift #234”

SpeakObviously, this won’t work in every single case, but as a general rule, how you speak to someone (or address them in other ways including digital social media) is going to have an effect on how they respond to you.

But remember that all this starts with you and how you talk to yourself.

You are the person with whom you talk to most often. To become a serene person, consistently talk to yourself serenely.

Become aware of the tone of your voice when you speak to yourself. This often is so automatic that many people never consider it an issue. But it can be a major factor in whether or not you are usually serene.

(From Rabbi Pliskin’s book, Serenity, p.37)

-R’ Pliskin
“Speak to Yourself Serenely”
from “Today’s Daily Lift #98”

If you believe you are not a good person and that others don’t like you, chances are you’ll behave as if you’re not a good person and people really won’t like you. I’m not advocating that you become an egomaniac and think you’re the best thing God created since sliced bread, but God did create you (and me) for a reason, and He must have had a good reason for doing so.

I’ve heard it said (I can’t find the source right now) that each Jew should consider the world as having been created just for him or her. I know that sounds pretty bold, but expanding the idea to all human beings, we learn that each individual is precious to God and so we each have a very specific purpose in His design. God just didn’t create a “human herd” and relate to us only as “the masses,” God relates to us as individuals, just as He did with Adam when he tried to hide from God (or rather, from himself) in the Garden.

If each of us is that important to God, shouldn’t we treat ourselves with respect and speak to ourselves with serenity?

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall 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, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Mark 12:28-33 (NASB)

I know I’m stretching the interpretation of these verses a bit, but is it too much to consider ourselves as our own neighbor? If how we treat others flows out of how we speak to and treat ourselves, then shouldn’t we first treat ourselves with love and respect and allow that to direct how we speak to and treat others? After all, if we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we must first love ourselves.

But the first of these two greatest commandments is to love God. Why? Because He loves us in an unparalleled and unbounded manner. God’s capacity to love far exceeds any person’s capacity, so He loves each one of us far more than we could possibly love ourselves, each other, and much more than we are capable of loving Him.

Life isn’t easy. Even having the most positive attitude possible won’t prevent bad things from happening. It won’t always prevent you (or me) from sinning and letting that sin separate you (or me) from God and other people.

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting.

Pirkei Avot 3:1

freeIf we keep God constantly before us and don’t attempt to hide from Him (which is impossible) and ourselves, then Akavia ben Mahalalel is right and we won’t (at least not as often) come into the hands of transgression and sin. And if we accustom ourselves to do more good deeds instead, then who we are will slowly change for the good and who we are with God and with others will change for the good as well.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

If we pursue God’s peace, then His peace will find us.

Looking for Good

looking-for-goodEverything that occurs comes from Him, and He is only good.

But if you and your world are not prepared to receive such good, it may manifest itself as apparent bad.

Struggle hard to see the good, think positively—and then the good will become revealed.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

My father once said to a Rav, who labored in avoda and was an especially diligent scholar: A Rav must remember at all times and at every moment that he always stands on the threshold between being one of those who bring merit to the public and, G-d forbid, one of those who cause the public to sin – the threshold between the loftiest of heights and the most abysmal depth. All issues must touch him at the innermost core of his soul, literally, because his very soul is at stake.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Adar Sheini 23, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

For the past few days, I’ve written about my frustration over the apparently endless debates, which sometimes degrade into sniping and back-biting, in my little corner of the blogosphere over matters of identity and religious practice. It’s like one kid has some special toys and when he doesn’t share with another kid, the second kid just takes them and says, “these are mine, too.”

Anyway, I want to be done with all that now because I realize that it’s not really my problem.

Well, yes it is if only because I can’t be so callous about the body of Messiah and the Jewish people. As John Donne famously wrote, “Each man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.”

No one is dying on the blogosphere, but I’m still involved.

But as ticked off as I can sometimes get at the “goings on” on the web, I can’t let it affect me as a person of faith (although sometimes I do let it affect me). There are days I want to throw in the towel and be rid of the lot of you. If this is your idea of serving God, good luck with that.

But I can’t say that either, because I’m no better than the lot of you. I’m one of you if only in the most generic sense as a poorly functioning disciple of the Master and a barely ambulatory follower in Christ’s footsteps.

The above quoted words serve as message and cautionary tale, reminding us that we can choose to view the acts of God as either good or evil, and what we do can either serve good or evil. Do we magnify and sanctify the Name, or diminish and desecrate it? Our choice.

One choice I can make is to try to rise above the din and even if I should occasionally be a voice in that chorus, I don’t have to let it define me. I don’t have to crawl on the ground when I can stand up and step over the mud. As Rabbi Freeman says:

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, known as “The Rebbe Maharash,” the fourth in the golden chain of rebbes of Lubavitch, had an attitude.

Many wise people say if you can’t go under, go over. The Rebbe Maharash said, “Just go over.”

Meaning that instead of first trying to work through a problem by its own rules, and then—if that doesn’t work—gathering the strength and courage to step brazenly over it . . .

Instead, just start by stepping right over it, as though there were no obstacle to begin with.

After all, that’s why obstacles are there in the first place—so you will go higher.

Iván-Fernández-AnayaInstead of considering all the religious online chatter and discord as an obstacle, maybe it exists to remind me that blogging and pontificating is hardly the end-all and be-all of a life of faith. Certainly communicating is important, but only if it serves an uplifting purpose. Too many religious bloggers use their platforms to tear down their opponents, sometimes by name. I don’t want to be among that crowd. I’m afraid of what they’ll have to face when asked by God to give an accounting of their actions.

But I too am responsible, not only for what I write on this blog, but especially for how I serve him (or fail to do so) when I’m doing everything else.

Not long ago I read about a long-distance race with a very unusual finish:

Iván Fernández Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in Spain, running second behind Abel Mutai of Kenya. As they approached the finish line, he saw the leader mistakenly stop, thinking he had already crossed the line. So Fernández Anaya also stopped – and guided the Kenyan to the line, letting him cross first.

Suffice to say, this story would not have garnered much attention if Fernández Anaya had exploited the mistake by speeding past to claim an unlikely victory. It was the act of “doing the right thing” – ostensibly at personal expense – that earned Fernández Anaya the real victory.

True greatness does not come at the expense of others. It comes from doing the right thing.

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons

How do you define winning?

“A person should always strive to do the ‘right thing’ simply because it’s the truth. And [if one does so], the end result will be good.”

-Maimonides (Teshuva 10:2)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11 (ESV)

Today, I will look at everything we talk about, and even if it seems, on the surface, to represent strife and self-serving, I will try to see the good in it, or by God’s grace, try to find the good in Messiah.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing…

2 Corinthians 2:14-15 (ESV)

When the Fruit Tree is Silent

the-fruit-treeOne who humiliates another person in public … even though he may be a scholar and may have done many good deeds, nevertheless loses his portion in the eternal world.

-Ethics of the Fathers 3:15

Imagine a situation: you have a fine home, a well-paying job, a comfortable car, and a substantial retirement annuity. If you do a single thoughtless act, you will lose everything you have worked to achieve: home, job, car, and savings. What kind of precautions would you take to avoid even the remotest possibility of incurring such a disaster? Without doubt, you would develop an elaborate system of defenses to assure that this event would never occur.

The Talmud tells us that everything we have worked for during our entire lives can be forfeited in one brief moment of inconsideration: we embarrass another person in public. Perhaps we may say something insulting or make a demeaning gesture. Regardless of how it occurs, the Talmud states that if we cause another person to turn pale because of being humiliated in public, we have committed the equivalent of bloodshed.

Still, we allow our tongues to wag so easily. If we give serious thought to the words of the Talmud, we would exercise the utmost caution in public and be extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings, lest an unkind word or degrading gesture deprive us of all our spiritual merits.

Today I shall…

…try to be alert and sensitive to other people’s feelings and take utmost caution not to cause anyone to feel humiliated.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 2”

I suppose this is a continuation of a previous morning meditation and yet another attempt on my part to appeal to the body of faith. I am aware of a discussion in the Hebrew Roots “blogosphere” that has cast me and a friend of mine in an unfavorable light, but up until now, I’ve said nothing about it. I certainly have no intention of visiting said-blog and attempting to refute the accusations. What would be the point? As we see from Talmudic wisdom, behaving unkindly in response to criticism is unsustainable. Of course virtually all Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots movement, have little use for the Talmud, so I imagine Rabbi Twerski’s appeal is in vain when applied to such an audience.

Accessing the Bible, do we really get a sense that if we humiliate another person publicly, we’ll lose our salvation as the Rabbi suggests? No? So why worry about it? I guess we are free to humiliate others with impunity, right?

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32 (ESV)

OK, that’s a little harsh, even for me. Also, Paul was talking about God’s wrath upon the unrighteous, and that couldn’t possibly include anyone in the body of Christ, could it? Maybe I should look elsewhere for more appropriate scriptures.

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

1 John 3:11-15 (ESV)

That may still be a little over the top, since you don’t actually have to hate someone in order to publicly embarrass and humiliate them. I’m sure my recent critics don’t actually hate me. Given that, is it OK with Jesus then to be insulting?

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)

Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but that one seems to be pretty close to the mark. In fact, it is pretty much identical to the following:

He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.

-Talmud: Bava Mezia 58b

studying-talmudWell, so much for the Talmud having absolutely and totally no relevance to a Christian life of faith. Perhaps a certain amount of the Torah and traditional Jewish halachah applies to Christians after all, if it connects back to what we learn from our Master.

But getting back to the main point of this missive, it seems that (and I’ve mentioned this many times before) our endless series of rants, public insults toward others, and general “bad mouthing” of other Christians with whom we disagree, isn’t exactly “kosher,” so to speak. Unfortunately, when I say stuff like this, the usual response from some quarters is that I’m just an old “softie” and that I’m sacrificing “clarity” and “truth” for the sake of patience, kindness, avoiding envy or proud boasting, and attempting not to dishonor others (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

Obviously, I’m not perfect at it, thus some of the language that I’ve included in this “extra meditation.”

But what are we to do under such circumstances when other believers insist on overlooking both Matthew 5:21-22 and its Talmudic corollary Bava Mezia 58b?

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:14-21 (ESV)

But in making this an issue on my blog, am I “repaying evil for evil” rather than “heaping burning coals” (by heaping kindness) upon the heads of those who are so critical of me? (As an aside, Paul’s quoting partially from Proverbs 25:22, so again, I guess more of the Torah is applicable upon us than we commonly realize.)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Easier said than done, especially on the Internet, when people visit each other’s blogs and make sniping comments like gangbangers doing drive-by shootings. It’s one of the reasons I don’t visit and especially don’t comment on the blogs of some of my “opponents.” My minor effort at not repaying evil for evil and perpetuating the cycle of “drive-bys.”

But this still isn’t working because I’m still writing a message to people who don’t want to listen. There’s no hope of trying to get them to see why what we’re all doing is so wrong. Self-justification is a powerful lure and there’s a tendency to confuse our priorities with God’s.

But if there’s no hope, what’s left?

There is hope, and there is trust in G-d –and they are two distinct attitudes.

Hope is when there is something to latch on to, some glimmer of a chance. The drowning man, they say, will clutch at any straw to save his life.

Trust in G-d is even when there is nothing in which to hope. The decree is sealed. The sword is drawn over the neck. By all laws of nature there is no way out.

But the One who runs the show doesn’t need any props.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Between Hope and Trust”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

shhhhSo I should trust in God to take care of whatever (or whoever) is bothersome and move on. That’s pretty much what Rabbi Freeman said as I quoted him on a previous meditation.

Why don’t people like to remain silent when others insult them? Because they’re afraid that others might think they’re weak and unable to answer back.

The truth is, it takes much greater strength to remain silent when someone insults you. Revenge, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness. A revenger lacks the necessary strength of character to forgive.

(Rabbi Yerachmiel Shulman; Ketzais Ha’shemesh Big’vuraso, p.42; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness,” p. 302)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #728: It Takes Strength to Keep Silent”

Yeah. I’ve got to work on that one. After all, I can hardly say I’ve advanced further spiritually than my critics if I’m just as prone to the same misbehavior as they display. We shall know a tree by its fruit. In my case, I’ve striving to be a “silent fruit tree.”

Taking a page from Rabbi Twerski’s book…

Today I shall…

…try to refrain from replying to insults that others say to me or to those people I care about and strive to return good for evil.

Seeking Helpers

fred-rogersAll the ways of a person are pure in one’s eyes.

Proverbs 16:2

As a rule, people do not do anything that they believe to be wrong. Those who do wrong have somehow convinced themselves that what they are doing is in fact right. They justify themselves with ingenious rationalizations.

If we are so susceptible to our minds playing tricks on us and deluding us that what is wrong is right, what can we do to prevent improper behavior? Solomon provides the answer: Direct your actions toward God, and your thoughts will be right (Proverbs 16:3).

The distortion is greatest when the motivation is, “What do I want?” If we remove ourselves from the picture and instead ask, “What does God want?” the possibility of distortion shrinks.

While there is less distortion in the latter case, we cannot say that distortion is completely absent. Some people have strange ideas about what God wants. However, if we take ourselves out of the picture and are motivated to do what God wants, there is greater likelihood that we might consult someone in a position to give us an authoritative opinion as to the will of God. While this is not foolproof, there is at least a chance of escaping the distortions of rationalization that are dominant when one seeks to satisfy primarily oneself.

Today I shall…

try to dedicate myself to doing the will of God, and try to learn what His will is by studying the Torah and accepting guidance from Torah authorities.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 4”

The Almighty loves those who constantly find merit in others.

Right now, think of someone you have been critical of. Now find something meritorious about that person.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #671, Find Merit in Others”

It’s not easy to find merit in some people, particularly when we perceive that their primary character traits and behavior are particularly “unmeritorious.” The recent tragedy in Connecticut has mobilized a great deal of emotion in our nation, and as a people, we are divided as to how we should respond. There have been many comments on the web over the past several days where it is obvious that people are not trying to discover merit in their “opponents.”

On the other hand, I saw a quote on Facebook attributed to Fred Rogers (yeah, that Mister Rogers).

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That seems more like trying to find people who are already meritorious in a difficult situation rather than finding merit in a person who may be a “difficult” individual, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

What about finding merit within ourselves? According to Rabbi Twerski, that could lead us to self-deception, since we all have a tendency to justify our behavior, spinning it toward being good and not finding fault with ourselves. The Rabbi’s answer is to first seek God’s will in all things rather than our own, which is a point I tried to make in yesterday’s morning meditation.

light-of-the-worldSeeking God’s will and God’s standard for doing good helps us avoid self-deception, but as Rabbi Twerski pointed out, we still must be careful. Many, many religious people believe they have sought out and successfully received the will of God, and then proceed to justify the most evil and hurtful actions based on their “sketchy” understanding of what God wants (and who could possibly call themselves a child of God and yet take advantage of the extreme grief of others for their own personal or organizational benefit?).

I guess those last few sentences weren’t exactly reflective of looking for merit in others. See how hard it can be sometimes?

I agree with Mister Rogers’ mother that even in the darkest place, we should look for the light that is shining from the helpers. If we can’t find it, then I think we’re obligated to be the helper and to shine with a light for others to see.

Never forget that your true place is a place of light. Even when you find yourself in the midst of darkness and sorrow, know that this is not your home.

Where is your home? Where does your true self live?

It lives absorbed within the very origin of light. From there, a glimmer of itself escapes and splashes below.

All it takes is that glimmer to transform the darkness, that it too should shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Staying Above”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I admire Rabbi Pliskin in his ability to seek out the merit of others, particularly those “difficult” people and groups who exist in our world. While I believe his advice is sound, there are just some folks I will always struggle with because what is most obvious about them is also extremely hateful or at least “challenging.” If I can’t always see past the problem to get to that glimmer of merit that is possessed by another, may I look to God and ask that I exhibit some small piece of Him in myself that can be an inspiration instead.

Return and Reconciliation

“We will thank You and declare Your praise for our lives, which are entrusted into Your hand; for our souls, which are placed in Your Charge; for Your miracles which are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favors at all times, evening, morning, and midday.”

Thanksgiving blessing
Shaharit for Shabbat
Koren Siddur, pg 488

I once heard it said, “Coincidences are miracles in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”

If we were to carefully scrutinize everything that occurs in our daily lives, we would find many such “coincidences.” Sometimes we may not be aware of the significance of a particular occurrence until much later, when we may have forgotten how or why we think it occurred, and so we just write it off to chance. Other times, we notice that things seem to “just happen at the right time.” And in some instances, the likelihood of the desired occurrence being chance is statistically so remote that it may penetrate the skepticism of even the most confirmed non-believer.

Why don’t people see the Divine hand in so many things? Could it be that being aware would require them to be thankful to God, because it is unconscionable to be an ingrate (and if one has difficulty with feelings of gratitude, it is simply easier to deny the awareness of the Divine favor)? Could it be that the awareness that God is looking after them would obligate them to live according to the Divine will, and since that might entail some inconveniences and restrictions on their behavior, it is more comfortable to believe that “God does not care”?

Psychologists have great respect for the human capacity to rationalize, to convince oneself of the absolute truth of whatever it is that one wishes to believe or not believe. How much wiser we would be to divest ourselves of such self-deceptions.

Today I shall…

scrutinize my daily happenings with an alertness to how many favorable “coincidences” have occurred in my life.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 8”

You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16 (ESV)

It’s not just the miracles, signs, and wonders for which we should thank and praise God, but for every good thing we experience in our lives. As Rabbi Twerski said, those events we consider “coincidences” are most likely also from God, and even if they aren’t, we should thank Him anyway, for the very fact that we are alive to encounter all goodness.

Of course, we’re also alive to encounter “all badness,” too.

I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the Lord, who does all these things. –Isaiah 45:7 (ESV)

The word that the ESV translates as “calamity” is translated as “evil” by the King James Bible, the American Standard Version, and the Barby Bible Translation, to name a few. Not a comforting thought, but if God is to be considered sovereign over all, then He must create all.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)

Paul doesn’t say to give thanks to God only when things go your way and God gives you what you want and need, does he? That’s the tough part. We are always ready to thank God when good things happen, but true faith and trust thanks in all circumstances, good and bad alike. Being thankful doesn’t happen just when you’re happy and satisfied, but at all times, because good and bad both come from God, in all circumstances, God is with us.

I know. I must be crazy, right? I mean, who can thank God when disaster and calamity strike? Only a saint or a fool (or are they the same thing?). Not too long ago, I talked about trusting God, not just in good times or bad, but in uncertain times; during events or when pondering mysteries that you aren’t very sure about. Who is God? What is salvation? When we pray, is God listening?

Rabbi Twerski recommends “scrutinizing your daily happenings with an alertness to how many favorable “coincidences” have occurred in your lives.” I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice because it helps make us aware of all of the good God does for us that we take for granted, but that’s not the end of it. In every bad time, in every time of uncertainty or doubt, even when doubting God, give thanks that He remains with you and with me. Give thanks that, unlike a human being, He won’t abandon us or doubt us, just because we sometimes doubt Him and at least temporarily, withdraw from His presence. He is not like a person. He’s not like us, and for that, we should be infinitely grateful.

It is ridiculous how some people are concerned about trivial aspects of “honor.” For example, a person may refuse to visit a friend or relative, because they feel the other person should come to him first. Or they become angry if they visit someone and that person does not repay the visit.

Focus on being practical. If you would like to speak to someone, what does it matter if he did not come to you first?

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #559

As long as we’re thanking God for his faithfulness when we are faithless, we might as well take the next step and try to emulate Him just a bit. If there is a friend or family member who we have refused to speak with or visit because of our pride or a matter of “honor,” consider how God is not affected by how we’ve offended Him and remains with us, even in our most foul and dark moods. In the month of Elul, observant Jews make an effort to repair damaged friendships and to overcome the emotional barriers that have caused these rifts.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

-Lady Dorothy Nevill, British writer

You can do this, too. You can extend yourself in humility and in gratefulness to God and approach an estranged loved one. Remember, God is always waiting for you to return to Him as well.

Take a Deep Breath

I am grateful that the secular spirit of the modern world has made the medieval option of fear of God’s punishment spiritually irrelevant. I felt dignified and challenged as a teacher of Torah in not having the support of God’s punitive powers as a fallback for awakening interest in Torah. In my experiences as a teacher, I never saw Judaism as necessarily weakened by the modern emphasis on the significance to or distaste for the terrifying descriptions of divine retribution awaiting the sinner found in the liturgy and rabbinic midrashim.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Postscript of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

That isn’t exactly a statement that would be palatable to many traditional Jews and particularly fundamentalist Christians, who adhere to the words “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Nevertheless, I don’t think Rabbi Hartman absolutely has to be discussing the absence of divine judgment of humanity, but rather, our human response to God. One of the criticisms leveled against Christianity is our punitive nature, both toward the secular world and within our own. I’ve heard it said more than once that “the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” No wonder we don’t have a stellar reputation for love, compassion, and peace within the societies where we live.

Very recently, I’ve been expressing my recurring feelings of diminishment as a believer and frankly, as a human being. It seems that once you become a Christian, as far as other religions and the secular world are concerned, you surrender your passport to travel among your fellow human beings and within your society, and are relegated to a cage assigned to bigots, superstitious louts, and Bible-thumping thugs. If you actually express your faith in terms of compassion, charity, and love toward other people (and not just those who agree with you socially and politically), then repeatedly hearing what a fascist you are can be hard to take.

Time to take a deep breath.

I am deeply frightened by the growth of religious dogmatism and intolerance in many parts of the world, including Israel. I believe that a relationship to God based on fear of punishment, excessive repression, and fear of natural joy and spontaneity contributes to the growth of religious dogmatism and fanaticism.

-Rabbi Hartman

I’m frightened, too.

I’m frightened because one of the results of dogmatism is the destruction of the message of the Bible which promotes love of your fellow human being as the primary expression of love of God. How can the name of God be sanctified if hostility and extremism is overwhelming the voice of Jesus Christ? It’s not like the Messianic lesson doesn’t include moral and ethical components. Far from it. At the heart of the ancient Judaism in which Jesus taught, is the emphasis on the laws of ethical monotheism and the universal benefits that they yield when applied to human society. But as Paul famously said:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. –1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)

I get tired of fighting but what I’m trying to fight isn’t really all of the times atheists say, “I hate Christians” or all of the times Jewish people say, “Christianity is a pagan religion.” I get tired of fighting how badly Christianity has carried the message of Christ forward into the 21st century. I get tired of supersessionism in the church. I get tired of extremist exclusivism in Christianity which goes to the point of defining itself by what it’s against rather than by the nature and character of God’s grace and love.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity “liberalize” to the point of blending into secular culture, but there’s a difference between standing on a firm moral center and using it as a blunt instrument to commit violence against anyone who steps outside of your interpretation of “Biblical truth.”

I’m tired of being blamed for a system and a history I have no control of and do not participate in. I think it’s possible to do good and be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, and just about anyone else. My understanding of good is the teachings of the Jewish Jesus. Your mileage may vary.

For myself, belief in the unity of God requires that one learn to appreciate the way every human being reflects the divine image. The unity of God is a challenge to find a shared moral and spiritual language between different faith communities. The declaration of Judaic faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” must lead a Jew to relate the profound sense of the particular and intimate relationship of Israel to God (“The Lord is our God”) to an appreciation of the way God is manifested in the variety of spiritual cultures existing throughout the world (“The Lord is One”). Whereas for Maimonides, correct reasoning provides the healing powers that make belief in the unity of God possible, from my perspective the power to appreciate the other, the overcoming of individual or communal narcissism, is essential if we are to act in a way that reflects belief in the unity of God.

-Rabbi Hartman

Obviously, Rabbi Hartman’s views do not represent all of religious Judaism and they certainly don’t represent most of Christianity, since exclusivism is a requirement for access to God on a covenantal level. For Jews, the covenant is Mosaic, although Gentiles may access through the Noahide laws. For Christianity, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) is an absolutism that locks out anyone who is not a Christian and, in many cases, not a member of a specific congregation or denomination. Even in Judaism, the debate rages on “who is a Jew” which, in its extreme form, is expressed in the contrast between the Haredi Jews and secular Jewish Israel.

Time to take another deep breath.

Let’s try to set all that aside just for a few minutes. I know that most religious people fear the term “unity” because they feel it must also mean “homogeneous,” the idea that in order to have unity, you must surrender all distinctions from the other groups around you, and particularly the dominant group (which, in most cases today, is atheist secular humanism). In other words, the fear is that to have unity, you must either stop being religious, or be religious in name only while really embracing and practicing the entire package of liberal progressive modernism.

But that’s not what I mean.

In Christianity, I understand two things. I understand that God is the God of the universe and not just the God of Christians, Jews, or Muslims. I also understand that every human individual, no matter who you are (yes, even atheists) was made in the image of God. Besides being generically human, we all have those two things in common (whether you choose to recognize that or not). If God is a complete unity of One, then according to Rabbi Hartman, He created humanity to reflect that “oneness,” that particular sort of “unity” whereby we share a common drive to serve Him.

If you’re an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or anyone else, and you have a need for justice and mercy in the world, we all have that in common because God desires justice and mercy. I don’t care if you recognize God as the source of those two qualities or not, the fact remains, in spite of our differences, that we have a common need to create justice and mercy.

We aren’t going to agree on a good many things. That much is certain. But if we find something we can agree upon, let’s say it’s feeding hungry people, is it only good if you do it but not if I do it? Really, do you have to be an atheist to do good? Do you have to be a Christian to do good? Do you have to be a ...fill in the blank here... to do good?

That’s the sort of crap that’s wearing me down. Well, it’s not all of it, but if I could crawl out from underneath societal condemnation long enough to share something good with you, and affirming that we have that much in common, I’d feel a lot more lively and optimistic.

Christians are accused, and sometimes rightly so (but only sometimes) of being bigots and exclusivists. But many other human groups are guilty of the same thing including (believe it or not) political and social progressives. Inclusiveness is supposed to “include” but it often excludes people like me for no other reason than the label “Christian” I have stamped on my forehead. If you want me to listen to you, get to know you, and not judge you on shallow and superficial appearances, then shouldn’t you practice what you “preach?”

I should, too.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Making peace doesn’t require compromising morals or ethics, but it does require doing good and putting aside prejudice and bigotry. If Christians and Jews weren’t capable of doing that, there would have been no civil rights movement in the 1960s. We can do it, we can all do it if we choose to. Or we can choose to continue to wage this senseless social battle of defining ourselves by who we’re against rather than what we can do for good.

That’s your choice and it’s mine.

No, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think one small human being writing on one small blog is going to change the world. Heck, I won’t even be able to change predominant social opinion on the Internet. But I can take the moral high road just to see what happens. I can promote good just because it’s the right thing to do. I can love God by loving my fellow human being.

And I can continue to remind myself that even if no one else gives a rip, that each and every step I take, every piece of trash I pick up, every person I smile at today just because I can, is noticed by God. Hopefully, some of it will do other people some good as well.

We live in a broken world. Many of us are broken people. Only by realizing that we are all broken together can we begin to heal. One day we will all realize that our healing comes from Heaven. I know many of you don’t believe me. Let’s try out a little cooperation and see how it works. For the rest of it, just wait and see.