Tag Archives: humanity

Love Loses: The Aftermath of Terrorism and Humanity

starfish“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

―Mahatma Gandhi

Two bombs exploded near the crowded finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, killing three people and injuring more than 140 others in a terrifying scene of broken glass, smoke and severed limbs, authorities said.

CBS Boston station WBZ-TV reports one of the three who died from the attack was an 8-year-old boy.

“Deadly bombs rock Boston marathon”

Normally I can bounce back from the impact of events like this one but not this time. I wrote about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings more than once, and managed to recover my balance, my relationship with God and humanity, and keep on going, but somehow, this time is different. I don’t think that the specifics of the Boston Marathon horror are different, I just think all these events are cumulative. They’re piling up inside of me and crowding out my soul.

In every human being there is only so large a supply of love. It’s like the limbs of a starfish, to some extent: if you chew off a chunk, it will grow back. But if you chew off too much, the starfish dies. Valerie B. chewed off a chunk of love from my dwindling reserve … a reserve already nibbled by Charlotte and Lory and Sherri and Cindy and others down through the years. There’s still enough there to make the saleable appearance of a whole creature, but nobody gets gnawed on that way without becoming a little dead. So, if Cupid (that perverted little motherf**ker) decides his lightning ought to strike this gnarly tree trunk again, whoever or whatever gets me is going to get a handy second, damaged goods, something a little dead and a little crippled.

-Harlan Ellison
from “Valerie: A True Memoir” (1972)

Ellison doesn’t leave his commentary on personal tragedy and untimely death like that and continues by saying, “Don’t close yourself off, but jeezus, be careful of monsters with teeth.”

Harlan Ellison used to be one of my favorite authors about thirty to thirty-five years ago or so, but eventually, the anger, abrasiveness, and lawsuits that characterized his life began to take their toll on mine and I had to move on. However in moving on, I failed to take into consideration that Ellison just writes as a reflection of our human environment, and the cynicism, dissatisfaction, and out-and-out rage at life he expresses is merely the sea we’re all swimming in. That sea is full of hungry sharks and they smell blood.

Oh, these thoughts and feelings aren’t new to me and in fact, I wrote my own starfish story not too long ago.

Since this latest act of terror, two predictable messages have dominated the news and the social media outlets: encouragement and blame. Gandhi is only one example of the encouragement type message that you can find on Facebook lately. In fact, after Newtown, I based one of my meditations on something attributed to Fred 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.”

I’m sure that’s true, but there seems to be only a few helpers left. The rest of us are just “helping ourselves,” usually to things that don’t belong to us.

defeated-boxerI actually wrote on this theme, disappointment in the human race, days ago, and that “meditation” will appear on Friday morning as my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion. But the sinking feeling that we are all sinking won’t leave me and I’m not going to wait until Friday to complain about it. I slept pretty well last night, but the night before was consumed with dreams of death, blood, kidnapping, and violence. I finally woke up at 3 a.m. and was glad to do so. Sometimes sleep is the only escape I can find from the battering life dishes out, but not always.

Sometimes living is a battle and the only thing you can do is fight back, maybe hoping to win, or maybe hoping just to survive the defeat.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

-Paul Simon (recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel)
from the song “The Boxer” (1968)

In answering a question about “why bad things happen to good people” related to natural disasters, the Aish Rabbi replied:

Thank you for your thoughtful question. It is really a formulation of the classic: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Let me try to explain:

The story is told of the king who commissioned a tapestry to be woven. In the middle of the work, someone came upon the weaver and saw a mish-mash of different colored threads, loose threads and, in general, a very messy piece of work. A complaint was issued to the king who then confronted the artist. The artist pleaded with the king for a few days to prepare his defense. After those few days he came before the king with a wrapped package and told the king, “Here is my defense.” Inside the package was the completed tapestry.

The moral is that we cannot judge the work until it is completed. Moses asked to see God’s face. That request was denied, but he was allowed to “see” God’s “back.” It is explained that Moses wanted to understand how God runs the world. The response was that it is beyond human comprehension until you see the “back.” That is, until we can see the whole picture; then in hindsight it will all make sense.

While this answer may seem a “cop-out,” it prevents us from trying to understand God’s actions from our very limited perspective. In order for us to be able to “judge God,” we need to consider God’s “ground rules” for existence. Using this premise, it becomes very difficult to judge God. Why? Because we are stuck in a finite perspective of time and space, and we can therefore never be sure which rules God is employing at any given moment.

In order to begin to make sense of this, one thing we must understand is that God is in control, and there are no accidents. There has to be intrinsic meaning in our lives; otherwise we are just a random collection of molecules whizzing through space, with no real direction or purpose.

We are living in a very complex world, and in such a world, God doesn’t only deal with individuals, he also deals with nations.

nicholas-kristofOK, I get it. God is a “big picture” kind of guy and I can’t see the forest for the trees, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor.

But when is enough enough? When do the encouraging messages and the happy platitudes become tiresome and ineffective? Is that why New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof blamed the GOP for the Boston Marathon explosions or why the Westboro Baptist (so called) Church is threatening to picket the funerals of the three people killed as a protest against the LGBT community?

That isn’t fighting back against injustice, that’s insane cruelty. It’s insane to hope that the bomber turns out to be an Arab Muslim or an ultra-conservative white American. The only person to blame for the explosions is the person to planted the bombs, just like the only person to blame for the Newtown School shootings is the person who pulled the trigger.

But if I truly believed that, then I could be like Gandhi, seeing these horrific acts as aberrations among a much larger humanity I can be proud to be a part of, and I could dismiss a few drops of dirty moisture as insignificant amid a sea of refreshing, life-giving water.

But it’s not just a few drops, it’s an endless flood, not of water but of gushing blood, ripped and torn flesh, and the screams and cries of the wounded and dying.

Reddit hosts specialty pages including one on Atheism which is used to make fun of religion and religious people. I guess that sort of thing floats their boat.

Anyway, I saw a photo a “redditer” posted the day after the Boston Marathon explosions of a person donating blood. The story that went along with the image said that the blood donor had been reading a lot of messages (presumably on Facebook and twitter) from Christians saying how they were praying for the victims of the explosions. He decided to do something a little more helpful by donating blood.

I couldn’t help but agree with him, not that I believe prayer ineffective, but the answer to prayer is to actually do something about it, like giving blood. Those type of people, Christians, Atheists, or otherwise, are the “helpers” Fred Rogers’ mother was talking about.

But, to recall Gandhi, are the helpers the ocean or the few drops of “clean” water that are left amid a sea of blood, mud, and fecal matter?

Jesus once lamented, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8 NASB). Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote, “One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.” I am more than aware that I am currently feeding the darkness but I’m hardly alone. For every ten people who are willing to donate blood for people who need it, the world summons ten-thousand who will be glad to shed more blood. If a hundred people hold candles in the night to defy the darkness, a million will extinguish the light, and then rape and murder the terrified victims trying to hide in the shadows.

drowningThere’s no one left to blame except ourselves, so we might as well stop pointing fingers at everyone else besides us. Our group, our political party, our religion, our gender identity, our race, our ethnic type is no more pure than anyone else’s and the one equalizing factor is that we are part of the grubby, trashy, filthy ocean of the human race. We all planted the bombs. We all pulled the trigger. We all spilled blood. We are all drowning in the pain and the death, submerged, begging for air, begging for mercy, begging for life.

Encouraging messages such those uttered by Mahatma Gandhi and Fred Rogers are meant to lift us up out of that ocean so that we can, by resisting discouragement and depression, rise above and lead others to be agents of change and optimism.

But Gandhi and Mr. Rogers are both dead. All of the heroes are dead. The world we live in now looks up to people like Honey Boo Boo, Snooki, and Kim Kardashian. Welcome to the “progressive” age of humanity. The Prophet Isaiah was correct when he said that in the last days good would be called evil and evil would be called good. The apostle Paul expanded on this:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.

2 Timothy 3:1-5 (ESV)

Paul wisely advised those reading his letter to avoid such people, but how is that possible when they are the only people in the world (or so it seems)? In Arkansas, groups are suing the state for the “right” to abort babies up until birth rather than banning abortions after twelve weeks gestation (as if killing a baby at any time could be considered a “good” thing to do). People are obsessed with American Idol and couldn’t care less about any suffering that CNN and the New York Times doesn’t deem worthy of attention. We greave now for the eight-year old boy who was killed in the Boston explosions, but next week, he’ll be replaced by the latest “reality TV show.” And this piece of obvious bigotry didn’t help.

The Joker, played by Heath Ledger is the film The Dark Knight (2008) was right: “When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

And we will. Rob Bell (infamously) wrote a book called Love Wins. He was wrong.

161 days.

A Human Heart…and Courage

vicki-sotoWhen a crazed gunman opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school – murdering 26 children and adults – first grade teacher Vicki Soto responded with an astonishingly selfless act.

Upon hearing the first rounds of gunfire in an adjacent classroom, the 27-year-old teacher went into lockdown mode, quickly ushering her students into a closet. Then suddenly, as she came face to face with the gunman and the bullets flew, she used her body to shield the children.

Vicki Soto was found dead, huddled over her students, protecting them.

We all mourn this unspeakable tragedy.

Yet where did this young woman get the strength and conviction to perform such an extraordinary act of bravery?

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons
“A Hero in Connecticut”

The world we live in is certainly broken. This broken state is causing us to ask questions on ways to begin to fix it. The issues are complex and go way beyond single issues or problems like guns, video games, violence in movies, etc. The generational problems and patterns have brought us to this place. It will take new behaviors and patterns to eventually repair it. It will not come fast, or easy.

I think the world has become increasingly rude and mean. This has devastating effects on our culture—and leads to permanent scars and horrifying behaviors.

I recently read an article by Dr. Douglas Fields entitled, Rudeness is a Neurotoxin, where he states, “A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.”

-Boaz Michael
“Why are Some People so Rude?”

Boaz wrote about one of my “favorite themes” on his personal blog earlier today, but in light of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (which he was obviously alluding to) and the resulting verbal response (onslaught) in the news media and on the web, he probably didn’t take it far enough.

I don’t mean to say that rude people are potentially dangerous and violent people, but on the other hand, the Master had this today about both situations.

“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)

Does anger equal murder? Certainly anger and jealousy has led to murder, including the first one ever recorded, but in adding rudeness to this discussion, am I taking things too far? Am I exaggerating my issues with rudeness? And what does any of this have to do with Vicki Soto and her courageous and selfless act of heroism?

One of the definitions of “rude” or “rudeness” at The Free Dictionary is “Ill-mannered; discourteous.” When we think of a rude person, it’s difficult not to think of someone who is more focused on their own emotional gratification than on the well-being of others. A rude person shoves and cuts in line. A rude person at a shared meal, takes the largest portion. A rude person reveals an embarrassing detail about a friend in public.

In other words, a rude person cares more about themselves than about others.

Kind of the opposite of 27-year old teacher Vicki Soto who purposely put herself in harm’s way and gave her life for the care and safety of small children. She literally used herself as a human shield, taking the bullets that would have otherwise penetrated the bodies of the tiniest, most cherished ones; our children (and they are all our children).

Boaz says on his blog, Rude people are not godly people. Then he continues:

A reminder from a biblical source:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV)

A reminder through Jewish wisdom:

It is a mitzvah for every person to love every Jew as himself, as it is written “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore we must relate his virtues. To be concerned about his property the way we are about our own, and about his honor the way we are about our own. If a person glorifies himself in the shame of his neighbor even if his neighbor is not there, and the shame does not reach him, and is not embarrassed, but he compared his good deeds and his wisdom to compare with the good deeds, and wisdom of his neighbor, so that from this it may appear that he is a very honorable person and his neighbor a despicable person. This person has no share in the world to come, until he repents with complete repentance. (Kitzure Shulchan Aruch 29:12)

A reminder through apocryphal literature:

Yeshua said, “Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye.” Gospel of Thomas 25

Rabbi Simmons summed up the life of Vicki Soto and her inspiration to us in this way.

Vicki Soto’s great act of devotion should inspire us to take 10 minutes today and ponder: “What am I living for?”

Finding the answer is a big project. But there’s no better use of our time and energy. Because if we don’t know what higher purpose we’re pursuing, then we’re living like zombies, just going through the motions.

Vicki Soto was up to the challenge. “She didn’t call them her students,” her sister Carlee told NBC. “She called them her kids. She loved those students more than anything.”

She loved her students so much that she referred to them as her “little angels.” In reaching the ultimate level of devotion and saving their lives, Vicki Soto reached beyond the angels.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingWhen we get into our little “Internet spats” in the blogosphere, in discussion boards, or in social networking applications such as Facebook, we often believe we are fighting for what is really important to us. Somehow, we use that as a way to internally justify our rudeness. But as Rabbi Simmons points out, when we find something or someone, some small collection of “little angels” who really are important, then exhibiting behaviors indicative of selfishness and self-gratification doesn’t even enter the picture. Quite the opposite. Courage, like love, is selfless, patient, and kind. Like Vicki Soto, love and courage bears all things and endures all things.

And it never ends even though life may end.

But everything else we do ends. As Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. “ (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 ESV)

I have been trying to stop being so foolish as to participate in online interactions with human attack dogs. Vicki Soto’s remarkable self-sacrifice has provided me another reason not just to cease such fruitless activities, but to strive to become a better person, both in my private life and in my “blogging persona.”

Nothing I can say, no goal I could ever achieve, both professionally as a writer or in any personal sense could equal Vicki’s greatest qualities, which writer Archie Goodwin once described as:

“A human heart…and courage.”

Most of us will never find ourselves in a situation where we have to choose between our life and someone else’s, but as Rabbi Simmons suggests, we can take a few minutes out of our busy day to ask ourselves, “what am I living for?” If you want to give Vicki’s life and the lives of all who have suffered and died for the sake of love, caring, and compassion any sort of meaning, let your answer be to help another human being in some way, great or small.

And, to go Paul McCartney one better, in the end, may the love you make be greater than the love you take.


Once in a while, He seems to be peeking through the latticework of our world, filling the day with light.

But then there are times He hides His face behind a thick wall, and we are confused.

We cry out to Him, loudly, for He must be far away.

He is not far away. For the latticework is His holy hand, and the walls themselves are sustained by His word.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hiding Behind His Hand”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

In Torah-study the person is devoted to the subject that he wishes to understand and comes to understand. In davening the devotion is directed to what surpasses understanding. In learning Torah the Jew feels like a pupil with his master; in davening – like a child with his father.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tamuz 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

I have to keep reminding myself that there is something bigger than humanity. If I ever stop, my faith in just about everything would completely collapse, especially in human beings. It seems like every time I turn about (virtually), someone else is saying that all religious people everywhere are fanatics. I have to keep reminding myself that, for some people, all they know about a life of faith is from those people and groups who only pretend to honor the God of the Bible. I have to remind myself that the only “Christians” some folks are aware of are those who use their religion as an excuse to spew out their vile, personal hate.

No wonder other religious people as well as agnostics and atheists hate Christians.

But it makes me wonder.

If all Christians everywhere are judged by the behaviors of a few, fringe fanatics, doesn’t that make the people doing the judging prejudiced and bigoted?

I know that even the best among the body of faith take heat for evangelizing to the “unsaved”. From the Christian’s point of view, he or she is fulfilling the mandate from Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and sincerely trying to keep another living human being from “eternal damnation” (I put these terms in quotes because they are very “Christian-centric” and not easily understood outside the church).

I know that although we are not of the world, we are supposed to be in it (John 15:19, Romans 12:2), if only to live the lives we are created for, to do our part in repairing the world, and to prepare our environment for the Master’s return (“and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I anticipate that he will come”…from the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith).

But most of the rest of the world still thinks I’m a schmuck.

Trying to convince them that not all people of faith are “the enemy” seems hopeless. The secular “haters” outnumber me by quite a bit, and as I’ve said before, I guess I should have expected this. I guess it’s especially difficult to take when people who I like and otherwise get along with continually bombard me with “religion is evil” messages day in and day out.

Judaism’s answer, according to Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe is:

The first thing needed to fix this world is that Jews should love each other and be united.

And this can begin even without a planning committee and without funding.

It can begin with you.

That can work for the church too, but this strategy often involves defining yourself by who or what you oppose. How can you oppose the world and not expect it (and them) to oppose you? Doesn’t that make it difficult to have conversations? Does that mean the church becomes a self-contained box and only talks inside of itself? How do you spread the Gospel of Christ that way, or do you only “spread” it inside the church?

All that said, maybe the only way to survive with faith intact is to withdraw periodically. I think that’s what prayer is like sometimes. It’s what Shabbat would be like for Christians if Shabbat were permitted to the non-Jew.

It’s almost a shame that my primary template for understanding Christianity is traditional Judaism, because the vast majority of Jews are completely opposed to everything I stand for. Somehow, I manage to fit a square peg into a round hole, but perhaps only in my own imagination.

Alone in silenceI’ve always thought that Christian hymns like just you and me, Jesus were terribly self-centered and driven by the desire to contain the King of the World within a single, human relationship, but I also see the appeal. It’s easy, when you don’t feel as if human beings are friendly, approachable, or even trustworthy, to want to withdraw from humanity all and only trust the Divine.

Of course, that strategy presupposes you have the ability to trust God, but then, that’s one of the interesting things about people who oppose religion. Sometimes people like them and people like me have a thing or two in common.

But I learned long ago that you have to trust someone. If God can’t be trusted, then life is hopeless.

Rabbi Freeman’s solution goes something like this:

Do kindness beyond reason.

Defy terror with beauty.

Combat darkness with infinite light.

I could spread light throughout the world from today until the day I die and most people would continually refactor and redefine the light as darkness, just in order to keep fitting me into how they define religion. In the end, I have to hide some tiny spark of His infinite light  deep inside of me and somehow manage keep it kindled. The horrible alternative is to surrender to terror and a perpetual descent into the abyss, watching both people and God dwindle in the increasing distance between us.

As opposed to people, God is supposed to be the ultimate inclusionist. I certainly hope so.

The One Side of the Coin

As a matter of fact, at the level of his cosmic confrontation with God, man is faced with an exasperating paradox. On the one hand, he beholds God in every nook and corner of creation, in the flowering plant, in the rushing of the tide, and in the movement of his own muscle, as if God were at hand, close to and beside man, engaging him in a friendly dialogue. And yet the very moment man turns his face to God, he finds Him remote, un-approachable, enveloped in transcendence and mystery. Did not Isaiah behold God, exalted and enthroned above creation, and at the same time, the train of his skirts filling the Temple, the great universe, from the flying nebulae to one’s most intimate heartbeat? Did not the angels sing holy, holy, holy, transcendent, transcendent, transcendent, yet He is the Lord of hosts, who resides in every infinitesimal particle of creation and the whole universe is replete with His glory?

-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from Chapter VI of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

Fusing the existential acuity of Kierkegaard with the wisdom of the Old Testament, Boston Orthodox rabbi Soloveitchik has produced a timeless spiritual guide for men and women of all religions. In this soaring, eloquent essay, first published in Tradition magazine in 1965, “The Rav,” as he is known to his followers worldwide, investigates the essential aloneness of the person of faith, whom he deems a misfit in our narcissistic, technologically oriented, utilitarian society. Using the story of Adam and Eve as a springboard, Soloveitchik explains prayer as “the harbinger of moral reformation” and probes the despair and exasperation of individuals who seek to redeem existence through direct knowledge of a God who seems remote and unapproachable. Although the faithful may become members of a “convenantal community,” their true home, he writes, is “the abode of loneliness” as they shuttle between the transcendent and the mundane. Sudden shafts of illumination confront the reader at every turn in this inspirational personal testament.

-from Publishers Weekly, 1992

Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two descriptions of the creation of man from the first two chapters of Genesis to illustrate the two natures of humanity: the physical nature and the spiritual nature. I’m being very simplistic in this explanation, but as I read Soloveitchik, the basic conflict of any person of faith is in the dichotomy of the natural and supernatural human being. The first seeks significance and even triumph in domination over the created world, while the second sees transcendence beyond the world, to peek, as it were, under the hood, and to touch the very garment of the Creator.

Christianity’s response to this dilemma is to completely separate the physical and the spiritual, giving the latter ascendance and (ideally) priority over the former (it doesn’t often work out this way). This creates a barrier between the “two Adams” who, living in one flesh, travel in two apparently opposite directions. However, maybe Judaism has another approach:

Yula is an enlightened being. He spends his life in the wilderness, far from humanity, focusing his mind on the higher realms.

Harriet Goldberg is a schoolteacher. She spends her life cultivating small minds, hoping to give them a sense of wonder for the world they live in.

Who is closer to G-d?

That depends. Where is G-d?

If G‑d emanated a world spontaneously, dispassionately—just as the sun provides us light and warmth without any investment on its part—then G-d is found beyond this world, and Yula is closer.

But if G-d created a world deliberately, because that is what He desires and cares for, and so He invested Himself within that creation, so that His very essence and being can be found here, then Harriet is closer.

You choose.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How to be Spiritual”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Then again, maybe not. But do we really have to make a choice between Yula and Harriet? Why must one be closer to God than the other? Isn’t there room in God’s throne room or His heart for both?

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch wrote:

When my grandmother, the Rebbetzin Rivkah, was eighteen years old she fell ill and the doctor ordered that she eat immediately upon waking. But grandmother, who did not wish to eat before prayer, would pray at an early hour and only afterwards eat her breakfast.

When her father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, heard of this, he said to her: “A Jew must be healthy and strong. Concerning the precepts of the Torah it is written “live in them”- one is to infuse life into the mitzvos; and in order to infuse life into the mitzvos, one must be fit and joyful.”

Concluded Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Better to eat in order to pray, than to pray in order to eat.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary on Torah Portion Acharei
Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Here we see that the physical is ascendant over the spiritual, but only so the former can serve the latter’s purpose. However, Rabbi Freeman has another way of looking at the human condition:

There are crossroads where you choose not only your future, but your past as well.

Take one path, and your past becomes but a silly, useless dream that might as well never have happened.

Take another road, and your past becomes a magnificent frame for a glorious moment of life. The moment now. The moment for which your soul was formed.

—Padah B’shalom, 5738

Future and past, humanity and Divinity, secular and spiritual, each human being, perhaps even those who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of God, stands at the center of a room with two doors, each leading into two directions that are impossible to fuse into a single path.

But each of us is only a single being. While Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the two different descriptions of the creation of Adam to illustrate these separate paths, in fact, Adam was one man who was created into two worlds. He was commanded to dominate and rule over a physical Creation, but he was also directed to transcendently guard Creation for the sake of Heaven. When man fell, it did not destroy the “second Adam,” it just made it harder for the two paths to unite into a single journey.

Since the day when Adam and Eve were rejected by Eden, we have been trying to walk both east and west in search of God. Where might He be found; in the Heavens above, or in the earth below?

Ironically, we find Him at once in both, which is just plain confusing to most people. To solve the confusion, some men turn only to Heaven while others choose to observe Him only in how He manifests in nature. One extreme imprisons God in the realm of spirituality while the other traps Him on earth or worse, leads man to worship only the observable.

At the end of the book of Exodus, God dwelt among His people in the “form” of the Shekhinah, which indeed seemed to possess a heaviness and “substance” within the material world. But God did not cease to exist as the infinite and unknowable Ein Sof in His highest Heavens.

Is God found in the human heart and in the unattainable mystic domains beyond man’s ability to conceive? Most certainly. But where does that leave man? How can we find God when He exists in two impossibly incompatible realms?

I don’t know. I only know that the reason both “Adams” are lonely is not just because of their great difficulty in attaching to God, but because of the near impossibility in talking to each other. Two essences are trapped in one flesh, the first being completely at home there and the second being a complete foreigner.

But we can’t live, one without the other. The material man without the spiritual man, is just a machine who perceives only the world around him and is unable, by default, to understand anything else. God is lost to him or man himself becomes his own “god.” The spiritual man without the material man is at best, indifferent to the physical world and obsessed with ephemeral mysticism. At worst, he is just plain dead. In this extreme, if we refuse to eat and drink in order to “better” pray to God, we starve our bodies and deny our lives.

But God made us as both and for the length of our earthly existence, this is who we are. Man struggles to make his peace with God but in reality, we cannot be at peace with our Creator until we find peace within ourselves. The Adams must learn to live with each other and to appreciate and embrace both sets of priorities, not as incompatible opposites, but as two fused sides to a single coin.

God cannot be anything but the unique and radical One. We human beings, created in His image, are two, but as two we are incomplete. We must also be One, as He is One. That is the destination to which we are striving all our lives to attain.

Perhaps that’s the answer to how we must be holy as God is holy and how we must be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. We must be One, as God is One.

In the end, the coin will only have one side.


Publishing Mistakes

That doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you recognize the value in researching, teaching, collaborating, and correcting mistakes. That’s why the Move The Web Forward folks went on to encourage writers to “keep your posts updated.”

And that’s why Rebecca Murphey, when discussing how to get better at writing JavaScript, said:

“The number one thing that will make you better at writing JavaScript is writing JavaScript. It’s OK if you cringe at it six months from now. It’s OK if you know it could be better if you only understood X, Y, or Z a little bit better. Cultivate dissatisfaction, and fear the day when you aren’t disappointed with the code you wrote last month.”

In this case, Rebecca was talking about actually writing code, not writing about code. But the same principle applies: you will get better when you make mistakes and correct them.

-Louis Lazaris
“Publish What You Learn”
Smashing Magazine

Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he shatters the doors of bronze
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Psalm 107:10-16 (ESV)

No, I’m not a programmer, but a great deal of what these “meditations” represent are writing about what I have learned and being open about my mistakes (which is rare in just about any kind of blogging…particularly religious blogging, in spite of what Lazaris just said).

The Psalm writer encourages us (OK, he was writing to a Jewish audience, but I think I can stretch the interpretation to include all of those who were created in the image of God) to acknowledge God and to thank Him for redeeming us, especially when we have been redeemed from our own stupidity and ignorance.

Publicly admitting your mistakes and even thanking God for getting you out of the mess you created is easier said than done. Even after God has redeemed you and relieved you from the consequences (or some of them) of your actions and the punishment for willful sin, there’s still the guilt and shame to deal with. Thanking God for being redeemed is still a lot like saying that you’re a screw up and you did something immeasurably stupid. Blogging about the same “immeasurably stupid” stuff is making the same admission, except it’s to people and not to God.

And yet, there’s supposed to be some sort of benefit to doing both, even though it makes you (and me) feel like crawling under the nearest slime-covered rock and hiding there for the next 70 or 80 years.

The 73rd mitzvah is that we are commanded to verbally acknowledge the sins we have committed before G-d (exalted be He), when we come to do teshuvah (to repent). This is vidui (verbal confession), the idea of which is to say, ” ‘O G-d, I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed and done …” One should elaborate verbally and ask for atonement on this transgression with all the eloquence at his command.

-Translated by Rabbi Berel Bell
From “Sefer Hamitzvot in English”
Confessing Sins
Positive Commandment 73

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. –Matthew 23-24 (ESV)

It is said that if we have sinned against God, we must seek forgiveness from God, but if we’ve sinned against man, we must seek forgiveness from that man before God will forgive us. If we do not ask the man for forgiveness, God will not forgive us, either.

And if we do seek forgiveness from man and it is not given, will God then forgive us in the man’s stead?

I don’t know. Logic says that God will forgive you if you’ve made your best effort to seek forgiveness from one you’ve sinned against, but I’m not sure. I only know we are supposed to do our best to live at peace with others, regardless of what they’ve done to us…even if they hate us.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

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)

The Bible talks about forgiving others and seeking forgiveness from others and seeking forgiveness from God, but it never talks about forgiving yourself. It seems as if the last person you must forgive is yourself. Otherwise, you live with guilt, shame, and condemnation for the rest of your life, paying for a crime that has already been atoned for in Heaven (or so we hope).

There is a common misconception that life is about being in the right place at the right time. In truth, how you experience life has more to do with what is happening inside you as with what is happening outside.

Like riding a roller coaster without being prepared, if you are not well-tuned to the channel of life, a symphony of miracles could come across as cacophony from the boiler room.

This is what the sages call z’chut –sometimes translated as merit. It means a refinement of the soul, so that it will be precisely on the right frequency and static-clean.

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

People can be very cruel and spiteful, sometimes even to themselves. Do I need to have my frequency fine tuned?

Yeah, I know. I sound more like Yom Kippur is coming up rather than Passover.

Tzav: Burning in the Dark

The fire upon the altar shall be kept burning upon it, it shall never go out. Each morning, the kohen shall burn wood upon it.

Leviticus 6:5

Although a supernal fire from heaven always burned upon the altar, nevertheless, it was imperative that an additional fire be provided by man.

Talmud, Eruvin 63a

The Ramban states (Commentary on Vayikra 1:9.) that the offering of an animal upon the altar was able to achieve atonement for a sinner because the person realizes that everything transpiring with the animal should have been happening with him, were it not that G-d in His kindness permitted the substitution.

It is thus understandable that all aspects of an offering, including the burning of fat and limbs, find corollaries in terms of man’s spiritual service.

How does “burning the fat” apply to our spiritual lives?

Fat is indicative of pleasure. (See Gittin 56b.) The lesson here is: “All fat is to be offered to G-d” (Vayikra 3:16.) – all of a Jew’s pleasure and satisfaction should be offered to G-d.

Commentary on Torah Portion Tzav
from the The Chasidic Dimension series

There’s a sort of “communication” that happens in substitutionary sacrifice. In saying that the body, the sinews, the flesh, and the fat of this animal is burning in your place because of your sins, God was showing the Jewish people the dire consequences of their sins. Extending that to we who are Christians, by showing us a picture of a Christ crucified and “abandoned” (Matthew 27:46) by God, He lets us see the ultimate consequences of our own sins. By continuing to show us that horrible image after we have come to faith and trust in God through the Messiah, we can see that any wrongdoing we commit as a “saved” person is throwing pain, suffering, blood, and death right back in the face of the Master.

If God so loved the world and the world continues to sin, what does His love mean to us anyway?

To be fair (if fairness comes into the equation), human beings are very frail and easily distracted. As I mentioned in yesterday’s morning meditation, we are all in search of a language and a method by which we can reconcile the spiritual and the “animal” within each of us. We strive to reach heaven while wallowing in the mud. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) We will never be “perfect people” this side of paradise and so our “fruits” will never be perfect either. I think it’s the struggle toward holiness that defines us just as much as the result.

…it is possible to explain the analogies of day and night on a deeper plane, enabling us to understand why offering the fats during the day is a positive mitzvah, while offering them at night serves merely to preclude sin.

In addition to the interpretation mentioned above, day and night can be seen as analogies for a person’s spiritual state. Day refers to a time when one feels the G-dly light in his soul. This applies not only when he is involved in the observance of Torah and mitzvos, G-d’s will and His wisdom, (Tanya , ch. 4.) but also when involved in material activities. Even in the worldly sphere, he serves G-d, following the dictum: (Mishlei 3:6.) “Know Him in all your ways.” To cite an example, when tzaddikim partake of food, their eating serves a higher purpose than humanity’s ordinary efforts at refinement; “A tzaddik eats for the satisfaction of his soul.” (Mishlei 13:25.)

Night, by contrast, refers to a condition in which a person does not feel G-dliness. Therefore his need to engage in material things generates a constant struggle to serve G-d rather than indulge his desires. Moreover, even when he is involved in studying Torah and observing its mitzvos, he must labor to remain properly motivated. For the law is enclothed in mortal intellect, and the mitzvos involve material entities and the potentials of our animal soul. And so it is necessary to strive that one study lishmah, only for the sake of the Torah. Similarly, our observance of the mitzvos must be for G-d’s sake, and not for our own.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Lekutei Sichot: Tzav
“Day and Night in Our Divine Service”
Adapted from Sichos Yud-Tes Kislev, 5711

I think a lot of folks qualify as “night people” by the above interpretation and, sad to say, that includes me. I admire people who can “Know Him in all your ways,” but that behavior eludes me. I think it requires that I somehow repair the disconnect between the spiritual and the secular within me. I say that with the awareness that to “repair” something means it must have worked properly at some point in the past. However, in my case, maybe I never made the connection in the first place. Maybe I have never “known Him in all my ways.”

In that case, are all of my efforts in attempting to “know Him,” while constantly walking into walls in the material world, in vain? Maybe I am the one who is burning on the fire and I just haven’t let myself smell the aroma of my own incineration yet. Maybe like Peter and the two sons of Zebedee at Gethsemane, I’m also asleep at the switch, present in the garden because of my spirit but completely unconscious because of my “flesh.” In “practicing stillness,” I have “stilled” myself into a spiritual nap, and in my nightmares, I can’t escape the maze of my so-called day-to-day existence.

On today’s daf we find that, for certain sacrifices, one who is poor can use a bird instead of an animal. The birds permitted for use are either a pigeon or a dove.

In Bava Kama, Rabbi Avahu learns a lesson from this. “One should be among those whom others pursue rather than among those who pursue others. We learn this from the birds used when bringing a sacrifice: pigeons or doves. There are no birds which are more pursued than these.”

Ramban, zt”l, explains why specifically these birds are used. “There are no birds more readily available than pigeons or doves. As our sages say regarding the animals used for sacrifices, he brings a sheep or a goat since no other animals are more readily available. This is so that a person should not have to hunt to bring a sacrifice. God wanted us to use big pigeons since they never take another mate. Similarly, Yisrael is God’s nation and will never leave Him for anything. Doves will take new mates however. That is why we find that only small yonim are qualified to be used as a sacrifice.

“Our sages tell us that if a person takes eggs or chicks out of the nest, most birds will never take them back. The yonah is an exception to this rule—it will never abandon its eggs or offspring. This symbolizes, that we will never leave God no matter what duress we may have to endure. As the Midrash writes, Jews would say, ‘Either let me live as a Jew, or crucify me!'”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Doves”
Kereisos 10-1

According to the Daf, a Jew must be allowed to live as a Jew in every detail of day-to-day existence because it is that lifestyle that expresses his worship of and devotion to God. When the church has historically demanded (and forced) Jews to abandon their Judaism in order to “be saved” and to worship the Jewish Messiah (though the church did not depict him as such in that bygone era), they were asking the impossible. They were asking a Jew to abandon God for the sake of worshiping the Christian Jesus. As the Daf concludes, “As the Midrash writes, Jews would say, ‘Either let me live as a Jew, or crucify me!'”

It’s that level of devotion in the face of human tribulation that escapes me. The ability to rise above adversity, the arguments about religion, politics, and what it means to be good or bad, given the various biases in the world is (as I see it) impossible for me to achieve. Where is the “one small still voice” and the “peace beyond all understanding” in a world of controversy surrounding whether the Jewish murder victims in Toulouse are more or less worthy of compassion than shooting victim Trayvon Martin in Florida? Why does the world insist that I choose and why should I care what the world insists upon? Why can’t I see beyond the arguments of the moment and extend my perspective to the world as God sees it? Does God not care equally for all of the hurt, and the fearful, and the dying?

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

-John Donne
No Man Is An Island

This is a very old poem, and yet it presents the modern day humanity with a perfect image of how we should feel about one another. The Master said that the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) were to love God and to love our neighbor, and he forever, inexorably linked the two mitzvot. If we love God, we must love each other, but that requires that we step outside of ourselves, our petty squabbles, our biases, our wants, our needs, and our humanity. To love God requires a mystical connection to the supernatural, ephemeral essence of God, the Ayn Sof, the Infinite, the Unique One. The Jewish Messiah provides the conduit we non-Jews require to make that happen, but it’s hardly automatic.

I sometimes wonder if these “day people” are truly real or even possible, and it’s only a matter of some people being better able to hide their “night” persona better than others? Yesterday, while sitting at the bottom of the abyss, I optimistically reached out for the first rung in my metaphorical “Jacob’s ladder” of prayer and dared to imagine I could climb up and achieve a “light at the end of the tunnel” experience with God.

Today, it seems like my reach has greatly exceeded my grasp and nothing but wishful thinking and presumptuous arrogance allowed me to imagine I could go that far. But restructuring probably isn’t an event that can be achieved in a moment of brilliance. It’s rather a process that occurs as slowly as the movement of the constellations against the velvet dark sky.

So here I am, a night person in the dark, sitting with my Bible and my humanity, wrestling with that other part of me created in God’s image. They don’t like talking to each other, and although perfectly aware of each other’s presence, they can barely see or even stand each other. So I try to light a candle to give off even a tiny modicum of light in the hopes that humanity and divinity can come to some sort of accord, but is that light the illumination of my inner holiness, or is it just my flesh burning on the pyre?

By our nature, we are aflame. We burn with anxiety, the angst of survival in a hostile world.

To channel this fire, there is meditation and prayer. With these, we fan a fire of love for that which transcends this world. One fire swallows another and we are set free.

Liberated from fear, we face the world no longer as slaves, but as masters.

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

Good Shabbos.