Tag Archives: Joseph Soloveitchik

To Serve My Creator

“Everything was created to serve me,” states the Talmud, “and I was created to serve my Creator.”

-Talmud, Kiddushin 82a.

“I was created to serve my Creator.” With these words, the Talmud sums up the purpose of life. But there is also another version of this talmudic passage, which reads. “I was not created, but to serve my Creator.” A similar “double negative” is employed by our mishnah: “All that G-d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory.”

The difference is significant. The statement, “I was created to serve my Creator,” recognizes man as an existence in his own right (“I was created”), though one whose ultimate raison d’etre is defined by a reality greater than himself. The second version, however, attributes no legitimacy whatsoever to man as an entity distinct from his role: “I was not created, but to serve my Creator”–therein, and only therein, lies the fact of his being.

One of Torah’s basic rule is: “These and these are both the words of the Living G-d.” When the Torah mentions two opinions or interpretations it is because both are valid and relevant. Differing versions and manners of articulation of the same statement also complement one another, each providing another perspective to the concept they express.

The same applies to two descriptions of man’s identity and purpose: both are integral to our lives. There is an aspect to our mission in life that involves the total abnegation of self. But our service of the Creator also includes an element that allows for–indeed demands–the retaining of an individual identity, an “I” which serves as opposed to an egoless service.

from an Ethics of Our Fathers commentary
Sivan 2, 5772 * May 23, 2012

Recently, I’ve been exploring the identity of “faithful man” based on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lonely Man of Faith. You may have read some of my musings in “meditations” like Burning the Plow and Behar-Behukotai: Seeking Crowns. But in all of the explorations of the purpose of man I’ve read that were written by people of faith, I continue to collide with one important fact: each of us as individuals is important to God.

On the one hand, I guess that doesn’t come as much of a shock, since we assume it all the time, particularly when we pray. But on the other hand, the significance of a single human soul seems so unimaginably small when compared to the infinite being of the eternal Creator. Even David remarked on it in this famous passage from one of his psalms:

O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a passing shadow. –Psalm 144:3-4 (ESV)

Interestingly enough, Shakespeare “answered” David’s query.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

-Hamlet Act 2, scene 2

But what Shakespeare quipped in irony, we might say with conviction. I’ve been tempted more than once to imagine that God created the Universe for the sake of humanity but not necessarily for individual people. Then, I’ve imagined that only certain people have been worthy of Creation and the rest of us just got a “free ride,” but is that selling God and His intentions short?

There’s no way to know for sure, except when we read David’s psalm, but then, was David only talking about himself, or was he describing even the most humble of God’s creations? All men, great and small alike, are equal in that our “days are like a passing shadow” and each of us is “like a breath.” No one is immune from loneliness, loss, sickness, pain, and finally, death. We take comfort in the hope of the life in the world to come, but we live here and now and frankly, even people of faith can feel scared and small. In fact, we may be uniquely suited to feel scared and small because we are, in some tiny sense, aware of the vastness of God. Secular man in his self-appointed position of supremacy over the earth, knows only himself as the largest and most dominant of beings and only in vague impressions may get glimpses of something bigger…but then that might only be “the environment” or whatever is out there in “the universe.”

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” -Sanhedrin, 11:1

“G-d makes the spiritual physical; the Jew makes the physical spiritual” -Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

The Jew of faith, can take comfort in these words but what about the rest of us? What about the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah? What about Christians? Actually, Christians tend to be a little arrogant in their…in our salvation. We believe only those who are exactly like us have “saved” and will “go to Heaven” but we deny Sanhedrin 11:1 (which is understandable for most Christians) as well as Paul’s own words:

And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; –Romans 11:26 (ESV)

Somewhere between the crushing humility of insignificance in God’s incredible universe and the Babel-like pedestal some Christians put themselves on, is the reality of who we are as individual disciples of Christ, and what all that means. However, it’s not just individual Christians and Jews who are significant and important in the vision of God but, if we believe that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), then God loves everyone. We were, after all, created in His image, each of us, as individuals, as single, tiny, frail, and frightened human beings. He loves us and cares for us, whether we acknowledge His existence or not.

And He loves us so much, all humanity, each and every person, that He made it possible for us all to be aware of Him, to know Him (to the best of our ability and comprehension), and to love Him.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. –Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV)

We were once “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12 ESV) but no longer. Not because we are just part of humanity but because each and every one of us as an individual person was crafted by God’s own hand. He made us lovingly, He cherished us, He caused us to be born, He’s helping us grow.

and I was created to serve my Creator…

Addendum: As most of you know, I recently attended the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) 2012 Shavuot Conference hosted by Beth Immanuel Shabbath Fellowship in Hudson, WI. It was fabulous but it will take quite a number of “meditations” to describe all of my experiences, including the wonderful people I met and the very interesting ideas, concepts, and teachings to which I was exposed. For those of you who attended with me and everyone else who want to know how things went, please be patient. I’ll be writing about all this shortly.

Behar-Behukotai: Seeking Crowns

The majority of this Torah reading focuses on the rewards granted for observance of the Torah, and the punishments ordained for failure to observe. One might ask: When a person has internalized the self-transcendence of Bechukosai, of what interest is reward? As the Alter Rebbe would say: “I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.” (As quoted in Derech Mitzvosecho, Shoresh Mitzvos HaTefillah, ch. 40. See also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah, ch. 10.)

In truth, however, only a person who genuinely “wants You alone” can appreciate the full measure of reward G-d has associated with the Torah and its mitzvos. As long as a person is concerned with his individual wants and desires, he will interpret the reward received for observance in that light. When, by contrast, a person has transcended his individual will, instead of these petty material concerns, he will appreciate the essential good and kindness which G-d conveys. (See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 312)

This will create a self-reinforcing pattern, for the purpose of the rewards granted by the Torah is to enable an individual to further his study and observance. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1.)

As this pattern spreads among mankind, we will merit the full measure of blessings mentioned in the Torah reading, with the return of our people to our land, led by Mashiach. Then “Your threshing season will last until your grape harvest…. You shall eat your bread with satisfaction…. I will grant peace in the land, and none shall make you afraid.” (Leviticus 26:5-6.)

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Real Growth”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behukotai
Leviticus 26:3-27:34

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:11-12 (ESV)

What we get out of our relationship with God is a matter of perspective. As Rabbi Touger illustrates, how we perceive our “reward” depends on how we perceive ourselves. I’ve written a number of commentaries on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lonely Man of Faith including my most recent missive, Burning the Plow. Soloveitchik presents “two Adams” using the two depictions of the creation of the first man in Genesis to show us two sides of the person of faith, the material and the spiritual. How we function in relation to God is how we see what God can do for us.

That probably sounds selfish, and it’s meant to be, at least in part.

The material man sees his relationship with God in terms of the world of here and now. He prays for success in business, good weather for planting crops, health for his family, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it is the general limit of the material man’s vision of his relationship with God. Man is the majestic steward of the world God created, and in return, he desires that God reward him with the benefits related to that creation.

It is written in Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, Mishna 2, that “the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (quoting Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld). Thus the continued cycle I have described in the previous paragraph is self-perpetuating as long as the perspective of the material man does not change.

And for many people of faith, it never does.

However, Rabbi Touger’s commentary, quoting the Alter Rebbe, shows us a different path:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

On an emotional level, most of us can more or less understand this desire. We want to “feel” closer to God, to love Him with great zeal and to pour our heart and our life into pools of mystic wonder where only God exists. However, such a desire is difficult to grasp for very long for most of us, and we tend to believe that only saints or holy men or mystics who live in caves or monasteries can truly exist in a sustained state of “All I want is You alone.”

It’s hard for most Christians to imagine that Jews might express such a desire to want to walk with God alone, since Judaism is seen as a largely “behavioral” religion. An observant Jew tends to be defined by the mitzvot, by Torah study and obedience to the commandments. By contrast, Christians see their faith as more metaphysical, residing in the realm of belief and pure faith and grace, than in the raw mechanics of feeding a hungry person or donning tallit and tefillin before prayer.

But what about the Jews who first came to the realization that Jesus was and is the Messiah? Where is the meeting point between classic Judaism and traditional Christianity? Where did it all begin before man artificially split the two faiths (or was that split all part of God’s plan as Paul describes in Romans 11:25)?

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:6-8 (ESV)

What is this “crown of righteousness” of which Paul speaks? Is it a literal crown he wears in the Heavenly court? Is it the sheer experience of bliss and wonder in God’s “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden or Paradise)? Or could it be “God and God alone?”

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. –Revelation 4:4 (ESV)

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne… –Revelation 4:9-10 (ESV)

The passages from Revelation 4 certainly seem to indicate real, physical crowns as the rewards, but this could be deceptive, since John’s vision of the Heavenly court and the events he witnessed is highly mystical and may not represent actual, literal actions. But look at what the twenty-four elders do with their crowns when they “give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne.” They “cast their crowns before the throne” and say:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

In addressing “the Lord God Almighty” (v 8), what does it mean to cast your crowns before His throne?

I’m no theologian so it’s impossible for me to say with any authority what John was really witnessing in this act of supreme worship of the Ein Sof God Almighty, “who was and is and is to come.” But let’s pretend what they were/are all doing was/is fulfilling this desire:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

When I was a child and I tried to imagine Heaven, I thought it sounded pretty boring. There was nothing to do there except constantly worship God. I thought it sounded like one, infinitely long church service where you had to sit in a hot sanctuary in sticky, itchy clothes, and be quiet, and listen to organ music, and pray and recite stuff, and endlessly say:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

Didn’t anybody ever have fun in Heaven? What kind of reward was all this “holy, holy, holy” stuff anyway?

Most children tend to be “material man,” lacking the ability to see beyond their immediate, temporal needs and desires. Many adults, even in the community of faith are like this, too.

Beyond majestic, material man is the person seeking to simply walk with God; who perceives his path as illuminated by an ineffable light. When we desire “God alone” there is no way we can truly understand what we are asking for. Who could possibly imagine what the crowns of Paul or the elders in John’s vision actually were, and if they existed materially or not? I choose to believe that there is so much more to the rewards awaiting covenantal, spiritual man and that, attempting to imagine them from the viewpoint of the material human being, we miss the point completely.

Pray not for Heaven or for Paradise or for crowns of gold. Let your only desire for reward be God Himself.

Then let awe and wonder in every corner of your existence take hold and realize that He is already here. Life is a miracle and your soul is the soul of your Creator. Once you know this, the mitzvot will take care of themselves for they will be inseparable from the ineffable light of God.

He could have made a world where the nature of each thing may be deduced from its parts. A predictable, orderly world. A world devoid of wonder. And then we would say, “Things are this way because they must be this way.” G-d would be a stranger in His own world.

Instead, at each step a whole new world emerges, one we could never have predicted from anything we knew before. Until we must conclude that our finite world somehow contains infinite possibilities, that both nothing and everything is possible, that things are the way they are only because He desires they be that way.

He has made our world wondrous, so that it has room for Him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Unnatural Nature of Things”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

Burning the Plow

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.

1 Kings 19:19-21 (ESV)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik concludes his classic book The Lonely Man of Faith with a comparison of Elisha and Elijah as archetypal figures representing the “two Adams” or two different types of men of faith: material and spiritual man. I recently suggested that what makes the man of faith lonely isn’t just the inability to adequately connect to God, but the difficulty in developing a true relationship between the spiritual and material persons that “live” inside each of us.

How do we resolve this conflict, or is it unresolvable? I’m inclined to believe the latter, since Rabbi Soloveitchik introduced his book thus:

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses.

-Soloveitchick from the Foreword of his book

So if there are no “problem-solving thoughts” and no “new method of remedying the human situation” of the man (or woman) of faith, then why continue to belabor the point? Faith will always isolate us from God, from society, from each other, and even from our own personalities. But Soloveitchick did not end his book on a note of despair or futility.

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centered around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices. His objective was economic success, his aspiration – material wealth. The Bible portrays him as efficient, capable, and practical, remindful of a modern business executive. When Elijah met him, we are told, he was supervising the work done by the slaves. He was with the twelfth yoke in order not to lose sight of the slave-laborers. What did this man of majesty have in common with Elijah, the solitary covenantal prophet, the champion of God, the adversary of kings, who walked as a stranger through the bustling cities of Shomron, past royal pomp and grandeur, negating the worth of all goods to which his contemporaries were committed, reproaching the sinners, preaching the law of God and portending His wrath?

Yet unexpectedly, the call came through to this unimaginative, self-centered farmer. Suddenly the mantel of Elijah was cast upon him. While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. Majestic man was replaced by covenantal man.

This isn’t really what I was looking for. Elijah represented the covenantal man, the man of God, while Elisha possessed the role of majestic, material man, in command of his environment, aware of God but not consumed by Him. The answer to the dilemma of how to connect spiritual and material man seems to be to convert one to the other. Elisha effectively becomes Elijah, and one man is substituted for the other rather than resolving the conflicts and distance between the two which would have allowed them to co-exist.

Interestingly enough, this wouldn’t be the last time such a conflict is described in the Bible and such a resolution is attempted.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” –Luke 9:59-62 (ESV)

The transactions between Jesus and those he called to be his disciples seem to be functionally similar to the interaction between Elijah and Elisha. Jesus, the “ultimate covenental man” encounters various “material men” in the process of performing their usual routines and commands them to follow him. Those who hesitate or who desire to fulfill their material obligations first, he says are unfit for the Kingdom of God.

The response of material man to spiritual man it seems, must be immediate or it does not work at all. So what did Elisha do according to Soloveitchik?

He slew the oxen and fed the meat to the slaves who, half-starved, tilled the soil for him and whom he, until that meeting with Elijah, had treated with contempt. Moreover, covenantal man renounced his family relationships. He bade farewell to father and mother and departed from their home for good.

The level of commitment called for both by Elijah and by Jesus seems abrupt and absolute and anything less is considered a failure in terms of entering the Kingdom of God. But that isn’t the end of the story.

Elisha’s withdrawal from majesty was not final. He followed the dialectical course of all our prophets. Later, when he achieved the pinnacle of faith and arrived at the outer boundaries of human commitment, he came back to society as a participant in state affairs, as an adviser of kings and a teacher of the majestic community. God ordered him to return to the people, to offer them a share in the covenantal drama and to involve them in the great and solemn colloquy.

I’m not satisfied. The book ends with Elisha lonely but not despairing, discovering triumph in defeat, hope in failure, and sheltering the Word of God in his bones like an all-consuming fire burning in his heart. In his loneliness, Elisha discovers a God who resides in the recesses of transcendental solitude.

But is that all there is?

None of us bear the mantle of prophet and holy man in the way of Elijah and Elisha, but we see that a similar process occurs when Jesus calls each of us into discipleship. We are all called to leave our former life, to metaphorically burn our plow and slaughter our oxen in order to feed the poor and enslaved, and then to follow the Master on a completely new course of life, interacting with the material world as a messenger for the spiritual world. Is that what’s supposed to happen?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. –John 17:11-14 (ESV)

We aren’t taken out of the world to become completely one with the spiritual realm. There’s an interactivity between who we are as spiritual people and the role we play in the material world around us. We cannot serve the purpose God created us for if we merely retreat into our spiritual reality and ignore the majestic and material environment where we happen to live.

Soloveitchik is right. There is no cure for the loneliness of a man of faith but that’s to be expected. We don’t belong here, none of us. We are the proverbial strangers in a strange land, pilgrims in a broken world, carrying a message from the Master to everyone else not to give up hope. It’s a hope that no political figure or celebrity can offer because they are wholly one with the material and are limited by the boundaries of their devotion to only the physical. The hope we offer as messengers of our Master is the love of God and the promise of redemption, not only of created world, but of our very beings.

The loneliness of the man of spirit will end, but not yet.