Tag Archives: journey

Returning to the Tent of David: An Introduction

serpentThe serpent enticed Chavah by predicting beneficial outcomes. “Your eyes will be opened… The fruit will awaken a new desire and appreciation for the pleasures around you. It will be a source of intellectual benefit.”

Chavah longed for this new knowledge and exciting awakening, and she ate the forbidden fruit. She then used her persuasive powers to convince her husband to eat it as well.

Chavah’s downfall began when she expanded upon and distorted G-d’s command, which she did not personally hear.

-Chana Weisberg
“Woman and the Forbidden Fruit”

Beginning the Returning to the Tent of David series

This depiction of Chavah (Eve) and her interaction with the serpent casts her in a more favorable light than we typically see her by in Christianity. Rather than being disobedient and rebellious, she is either a bold explorer of new knowledge, or an innocent dupe of the serpent who physically pushed her in to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and after all, it’s not her fault because God did not tell Chavah directly not to touch the tree or to eat from it.

Chavah added the prohibition of touching the Tree of Knowledge. The serpent then forcibly pushed Chavah against the tree, and victoriously claimed, “See, just as death did not ensue from touching, so it will not follow from eating.”

In this way, the serpent introduced doubt into Chavah’s mind. It now became easier to dare Chavah to taste the forbidden fruit. He convinced her that G-d did not actually intend to kill her and Adam, but merely threatened them to intimidate them.

I know, I know. The Torah reading for Beresheet (Genesis) is behind us. Why do I continue to write about it now? Shouldn’t I be preparing my commentary on Noah? Be patient. There’s a reason.

That’s my ministry in a nutshell; it’s a not-so-interesting and rather Baptist-intensive story. I am eternally grateful for my family and for my Baptist heritage. God has used both to lead me to commit my life to Christ, to follow him with my life and to serve him through the church. However, the past eighteen months have opened up for me a more complete picture of who I am and where I came from. Through a series of circumstances, curiosity, and new friendships, I am being exposed to my Jewish roots. I have no doubt that all of these circumstances and friendships, and even my own curiosity that opened me up to the Jewish roots movement, are all God-ordained.

-Durwin Kicker
Senior Pastor at Marshfield First Baptist
From the Foreword (pg 10) of Boaz Michael’s book
Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile

tent-of-davidYou may think it’s terrifically unfair of me to compare Chavah’s situation to Pastor Kicker’s. I’m not really, but it occurs to me that, at least in midrash, we all have something in common with the wife of the first man. When exposed to be brand-new world with seemingly endless possibilities, we want to explore. However, like Chavah, we may also have reservations, since some of the things that we are tempted to explore may not be what God wants us to investigate, even when we get a “helpful” shove.

God has used Boaz Michael and the ministry of First Fruits of Zion to impact my life in a profound way in a very short amount of time. It is my great honor and privilege to call Boaz my friend. His passion and love for Messiah and his gentle spirit have struck a chord in our church family which has served to open many of our people to our Jewish roots, God’s everlasting covenants with his people, and our place as Gentiles in God’s family through our Jewish Messiah.

Boaz’s desire is that this kind of loving impact will be repeated over and over again in church after church. I join with Boaz in saying, the church needs you! The church is good, yet the church needs to change. Each individual who comes to know our Jewish Messiah in his Jewish context can play a part in lovingly and patiently helping brothers and sisters in Messiah come to know him in this way as well.

-Kicker, pg 12

I reviewed Boaz’s book about nine months ago in several blog posts, the two most notable being Return of the Christian and Returning to Faith. I had read an advanced copy of the book months previously, and it was instrumental in overcoming my inertia and inspiring my own return to a local church.

And now it’s been nearly a year later. The progression through the Jewish holiday season and the beginning of a new Torah cycle seem a very good time to review my own “Tent of David” experience and to see how things actually have ended up (not that anything has really ended yet).

Pastor Kicker seems enthusiastic about pursuing the vision of the “Messianic Gentile” in the church by way of his friendship with Boaz but of course, he’s been in the church for quite some time and as Pastor, he is a fully integrated unit within that cultural, social, and theological construct. In other words, he “fits.” Boaz’s book speaks of “Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile.” For me as a recent “returnee,” what has been healed, if anything?

My perception of Boaz’s book (I can’t speak directly to his intent, nor would I ever try…this is my own opinion) is that there are two kinds of healing going on, at least in theory.

There’s the healing of the “Messianic Gentile,” the Christian (non-Jewish disciple of Jesus Christ) who often has left the church because of some emotional or spiritual injury or hurt (real or perceived) caused somehow by the Christian church or some of its members. Many people in Hebrew or Jewish roots congregations believe they have sought refuge in a “safe place” outside of “the Church” and continue to view church and people who identify as Christians as adversaries. Finding a mechanism to have the Hebrew/Jewish roots Gentile return to church in a safe manner and to share who they are with their fellow Christians certainly opens the avenue for healing between the parties involved.

Then there’s the more historic healing between the traditional church of Jesus Christ and the historic and Biblical Jewish Jesus and the Jewish and Gentile body of Messiah. A great deal of damage has been done to Jewish and Christian hearts, and that has sustained the separate trajectories believing Gentiles and the Jewish community (including Messianic Jews) have been traveling for twenty centuries.

church-and-crossA non-Jewish believer possessing a Hebraic view and even a passion for the “Jewishness” of Jesus, and one willing to communicate that with his or her Christian counterparts in a church community could facilitate a great deal of healing, ultimately between Christianity and Judaism. Certainly, great strides have already been made in this area between some churches and various expressions of Messianic Judaism, although a lot of work still needs to be done.

But what about me and what I’m doing in the small church I attend? I’d like to completely re-read Boaz’s book before venturing to answer that question in full, but I did want to keep my promise and at least introduce the journey I’m taking in returning to the Tent of David and Boaz’s vision of the healing of Christian and Jewish communities. His book speaks on a larger scope by necessity, but nearly a year down the road,  how has Boaz’s vision worked “on the ground,” so to speak. I can only lend my own single, small voice and my individual experience. As this series progresses, I’ll share my insights with you. Perhaps you will return the favor.

Encounter with Now

Moses at SinaiNow Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day. Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.

Deuteronomy 34:1-8 (NASB)

The final verse of the final portion of the Torah refers to “the strong hand and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.” According to the Talmud, the phrase “before the eyes of all Israel” alludes to the incident when Moses smashed the Tablets of the Covenant when he found the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf.

An odd conclusion for the Five Books of Moses! The whole Torah ends by recalling the destruction of the Ten Commandments by Moses! Another interesting point to consider is that after completing the reading of this portion in the Synagogue, we immediately begin reading from the first portion of the Torah (Gen. 1:1): “In the beginning, G-d created…”

The reason that the Torah ends as it does – by alluding to the breaking of the Tablets of the Covenant – is the same reason that we start over again once we’ve finished. Both ideas are rooted in the same principle; we never just finish up and move on. Just when we think we’ve reached the end – when we get to the very last line of the very last portion – we are reminded that the Tablets of the Covenant were once destroyed and had to be remade.

Rabbi Ben A.
“Starting Over”

In many ways, the start of a new Torah cycle is about starting over. But like the Children of Israel at the death of Moses and being poised to cross the Jordan with Joshua as their leader and prophet, it’s also a continuation and even a radical change…or it can be. It probably should be, otherwise, you’re just recycling the Torah and spiritual learning year by year and as a result, not actually learning anything new.

As the Children of Israel discovered when Moses died (and Aaron and Miriam and an entire generation of Israelites before him), change inevitably means loss, sorrow, and grief, even as change can mean growth, progression, and fulfillment.

broken-tabletsWe know that after Moses destroyed the first set of tablets as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, at the command of God, he made a second set. But it was God who made the first set and it was God who wrote on it. The second set was created by Moses and Moses wrote on it at the command of God. God gave the Israelites a “second chance” but it wasn’t the same situation as the “first chance.” Even if God grants you “do-overs,” you lose something, even if you don’t lose it all.

Rabbi Ben A. is the most famous anonymous rabbi. Using his pen name, Ben A. draws from his personal experience in recovery to incorporate unique Chassidic philosophy into the practice of the 12 Steps. He tells us that our spiritual journey is never complete and we are always starting over, but not quite with fresh start. There is not perfect “reset” button for our lives.

As newcomers looking at the Steps for the first time, many of us wondered what we were supposed to do once they were completed. The answer is that our recovery is never finished; it continues by beginning again. We remember that the life we now have was once in a state of apparent destruction, just as the Tablets containing the Word of G-d had been smashed. In our despair, we agreed to let go, and let G-d give us a new life. We learned to trust G-d. We cleaned house; and we repaired our relationships with others.

We remember that it is He who takes away our pain and gives us joy. It is He who takes away our sickness and gives us health. It is He who instills renewed energy into our desolate lives…it reminds us how the spiritual lives we now have began out of darkness, chaos and void. It is now our job to once again transform our lives with light, order and fulfillment.

Spiritual growth is like a 12-step program? A Spiritual recovery program? It seemed a strange thought when I first encountered it, but actually, it makes perfect sense. Who are we without God but human beings on a path to destruction. We repent, but repentance, forgiveness, and atonement are not accomplished in a single act. It takes time, perhaps a great deal of time…perhaps all of our lives, over and over, year by year, like the Torah cycle.

It is now as it was now a moment before. It grew no older. It was not touched, not moved nor darkened by the events that flickered upon its stage. They have vanished; it has remained. It perpetually transcends.

And it is immanently here. Tangible, experienced, real and known. For what can be more known than the moment in which you stand right now?

Yet, what can be so utterly unknown?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Rolling the Torah ScrollLike the continual Torah reading cycle, we are constantly moving forward, continually experiencing and re-experiencing what we need and what God understands we need. But also, we only live inside of one instant in eternity at a time. It is always “Now.” We look to the future and remember the past, but it is always now. When you read Beresheet last Shabbos (if you follow the traditional Torah readings), it was “Now” and when you read Noah next Shabbos, it will also be “Now.”

It’s what we do inside of each instant of life that creates or inhibits the progression, the growth, the journey toward drawing closer to God. We may have done terrible damage to ourselves and to others in the past, but the past is just that. It’s gone, though the consequences can still be with us. It is now. It is always now. You are always in now. Living inside of now is like guiding a ship by working the tiller to move the rudder. Now you move it one way. Now you move it another. Now the tiller moves the rudder and now the ship moves in response. Moment by moment, every action you take in an endless progression of “now events” creates the sequence of our lives and results in consequences for us, for our loved ones, and in our relationship with God.

Rabbi Freeman concludes:

If you are here only now, what is the purpose?
And if all is transient, why be here now?

Grasp the now by both ends and every moment is divine,
every experience is precious.
For you have grasped G‑d Himself.

I will tell you a secret that can be told, and within it a secret that cannot be known: Take the Hebrew present tense of the verb to be, and prefix it with the letter yud to indicate a perpetual state of now-being—and you will have the name of G‑d.

G‑d is now.

Over two weeks ago, a friend of mine challenged me to experience God more fully. I felt backed into a corner knowing that I should want such an experience but dreading it as well. I didn’t want to change and I knew God would require it if I turned to Him. Now…yes, right now, God is also backing me into a corner. The choice of whether or not to turn to Him is still mine but God is limiting my options. The consequences for not accepting His challenge are becoming more dire, and I see that He has been allowing me enough rope and may yet let me swing if I continue in that direction.

ancient-sail-boatSo what do I do? I do what God wants, I do what God requires, not because I have no choice, but because God has made it abundantly plain what the result of my choices will be.

I know there is a future, a wonderful and terrible future. Where I’ll be standing when that future becomes “Now” depends on which direction I move the tiller, which direction I choose to turn the ship. The wood is in my hands, I can move right or left, the ship is traveling forward into the storm. Moving one way leads to disaster, with my ship and everyone on it being broken apart on jagged rocks, and moving the other way leads to safe haven. I may have seen this before but I chose to ignore it, believing I had time before I had to make the final decision. Now, what I once saw vaguely and disregarded has become a present reality viewed with absolute and crystal clarity.

Now I grasp the ship’s tiller, I apply pressure. I feel resistance. The tiller moves and with it, the rudder. Now the ship begins to change course and…

…and Moses dies. And the Children of Israel mourn. And the Ark goes ahead of the Assembly into the Jordan. And Joshua leads. And we read the last few lines in Deuteronomy. And we hastily re-roll the scroll. And we read, “When God began to create heaven and earth…”

O Hashem, You have scrutinized me and You know. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought from afar. You encompass my path and my repose, You are familiar with all my ways. For the word is not yet on my tongue, behold, Hashem, You knew it all. Back and front You have restricted me, and You have laid Your hand upon me.

Psalm 139:1-5 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

And now…

Behaalotecha: The Journey of Grass

desert-islandThen Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place about which the L‑rd said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us, and we will be good to you.”

Numbers 10:29

Note that Moses said that the Israelites would journey to Israel, whereas Jethro was invited to go to Israel. The difference between “going” and “journeying” is that going can mean to travel physically but remain emotionally unwilling. The body moves along, but the heart remains in place. Journeying means to go physically and mentally—the entire person journeys to the destination.

It is possible to go without journeying. One can board a plane and travel with reluctance. Your heart and spirit are with your family, but you have no choice, because circumstances force you to make the trip.

As we read these lines, we can reflect on our own lives. Those of us privileged to be born into Judaism are in possession of a gem we don’t fully value. It is incumbent on us to learn from righteous proselytes (The same applies to those holy souls who do teshuvah midstream in life and adapt to a whole new lifestyle) how to value the privilege of Judaism.

-Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
“Live Every Moment”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behaalotecha

Last week I was in the middle of a journey, at least I hope it was a journey. To tell the truth, I always think of myself as in the middle of a journey, but last week at this time, as you read my Friday missive, I was also far from home. Specifically, I was attending the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Although I had made my airline reservations months in advance and on some level was looking forward to attending the conference, part of me wanted to cancel everything and just stay at home. It’s more comfortable at home, more predictable…it’s safer. I suppose I was “going” to the conference but not “journeying,” to borrow Rabbi Gurkow’s metaphor. But then again, I was forgetting something.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives, And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you…

Genesis 12:1

That’s how the verse is translated in the NASB version of the Bible. Now let’s look at how the Aish Ask the Rabbi writer translates the same verse and then read his brief commentary.

God appears to Abraham and commands him: “Go to yourself” (“Lech Lecha”) – away from your country, your relatives, and your father’s house.” God is telling Abraham that in order to become truly great, he must “cut the umbilical cord,” and embark on a journey of growth and self-discovery – away from the familiar routine.

In commanding Abraham to go away from his country, his family, everything he ever knew, God is also commanding him to “go to himself.” We can understand this as going to the Land of Promise, to Canaan, to the Land that would one day be known as Israel. This was the core of everything God intended Abraham to be as the Father of Judaism and the spiritual father of all of those who turn to the God of Abraham through faith in Messiah.

Go to yourself.

In some sense, that’s what I discovered (or rediscovered) in returning to Hudson last week. I expressed some misgivings about going to the conference right before my trip and it turns out, on that first Tuesday night as I sat in services and listening to the teachers, I was right to feel that way. Instead of everything feeling comfortable and familiar, I felt like a literal “stranger in a strange land.”

boaz-michael-beth-immanuelEven as Boaz Michael was welcoming all of the attendees that first night, encouraging those who were completely unfamiliar with synagogue worship to engage in the process on whatever level they felt they could, it was as if I was standing on the outside looking in through a dirty window. I realized that I was at the intersection, or some might say, the point of collision, between the Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience.

Seven months ago or so, I started attending church again. In spite of the discomfort I felt on multiple levels, I eventually settled into a sort of “rhythm” in my church attendance, in my fellowship with other Christians, in my weekly conversations with Pastor Randy, and everything has gradually become “normal.”

But in sitting in the pew at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference, I was struck by how familiar and unfamiliar everything was. Even as I moved through the subsequent days of the conference and gradually re-acquainted myself with Jewish worship, eventually drawing a sense of comfort and even enjoyment in the Jewish expression of encountering God, I realized what it was really like to stand between two worlds. In some ways, the typical Sunday worship service at church couldn’t hold a candle to the Jewish prayer and Torah services, the depth they generated in me, and the complex pattern that davening in a synagogue weaves in my personal fabric.

But while I realized that the synagogue wasn’t my world, it reminded me that the church really isn’t my world either. I started wondering about the consequences of Calvinism and perhaps I was one of those consequences. What happens when a person who God doesn’t choose for salvation ends up on the House of God anyway? What happens when he wants to love an encounter with God but feels completely foreign to the attempt?

Was this God’s way of telling me that I didn’t belong? Were others called to “journey” but I was merely “going” along for the ride?

Go to yourself? But exactly where does “myself” reside?

I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:18-20

Tree of LifeIf Calvin is right, then how dare God tell the Children of Israel as a corporate body to “choose life” knowing that He had deliberately programmed some of them to not choose life? Talk about setting people up for destruction. Was that what God did to me? Did he program me for destruction and then allow me to find myself among the people of God? If that was so, then my sitting in Beth Immanuel listening to the prayers, listening to the Torah being read, listening to the Spirit of God speaking to the hearts of everyone around me except me was a cruel and horrible jest.

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear…

Isaiah 59:1

No, the arm of the Lord is not too short that it cannot save, if God actually chooses to save. Was God choosing to save me or condemn me as I sat among those at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference?

Either Calvin was having a hardy laugh from Heaven (or from the grave…whatever) or I was being kicked in the gut by bilateral, bicultural ecclesiology.

I realized looking around me at Beth Immanuel, how vitally important it is to create and preserve a fully religious, cultural, and halachic Jewish experience within the context of Jewish disciples of Messiah. This must feel like “home” to the Messianic Jews (and not a few Gentiles) in attendance, both those who had traveled far to be there, and those who attend every week.

But as I cruised into the synagogue at a pretty good clip emotionally, I suddenly hit a major cultural wall and dropped from warp speed down to sublight down to a full, complete, and abrupt stop. It was like being dropped from an airplane down, down into the ocean. Splash! I was underwater and I couldn’t breathe. Which way was up? Would I drown?

I eventually found the surface and oriented myself. Eventually things got better. While I didn’t always understand everything that was happening around me, it was the people who made me feel at home.

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

Troy Mitchell

Troy was kind enough to let me know the actual words of his midrash, which Boaz was quoting from memory at the conference.

It was the teachings at the conference that helped me focus on what’s truly important, which is building the Kingdom of God. I’ve already blogged on what that means and will continue to do so from different perspectives and through the eyes of different teachers as I keep writing into next week. When we proceed forward under our own effort or feel as if we’re being dragged along for the sake of social or moral obligation, we are merely “going.” To actually, willingly follow the Spirit on the path of God, it is then we are on a “journey.”

The goal of humankind is to reach beyond the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden—to a state where any sense of ego is meaningless. A place called Eden, which is beyond the Garden, the place of Essential Being from where all delights flow . . .

“And a river went out from Eden to water the Garden.”

And now you know the secret of why such a tree was created.

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

Over every single blade of grass, there is a heavenly force that whispers to it and commands, “Grow!”

-Bereishis Rabbah 10:7

Hands of the GardenerAccording to Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, midrash says that human beings must struggle against two forces as we strive for spiritual growth, inertia, which affects all things, and the yetzer hara, which is unique to people.

While Christianity sees our “sin nature” wholly as an impediment to be done away with, Jewish thought considers both inertia and the yetzer hara as motivators, urging us on, pushing us to achieve more, to climb higher, to plumb ever greater spiritual depths, to strive toward the sun, the light, the air…to overcome who we are in order to become who we were meant to be.

That’s what I found at the intersection, or even the terrific, horrific collision of this year’s Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience in the church. Rabbi Twerski’s commentary puts the finishing touches on my journey like this:

If a lowly blade of grass has both a tendency towards inertia and a spiritual “mentor” which demands that it fulfill itself, we human beings, with two adversaries, certainly have even more powerful forces urging us to achieve our full potential. We should be aware of what can hamper our achievement and make the effort to overcome it.

Today I shall…

…bear in mind that there are numerous obstacles to spiritual growth, and that I must try to triumph over them.

May it be so by the will of God.

Good Shabbos.

124 days.

Beshalach: Traveling to Meet God

train-october-expressAround the turn of the twentieth century, Vladimir, an illiterate and unworldly Siberian peasant, struck it rich. One day he was offered a very lucrative business proposition. Closing the deal, however, required his presence in Moscow.

Moscow. He was pretty sure that a horse—even the sturdiest his village had to offer—would not be able to make the trip of several thousand kilometers . . . Some of the more sophisticated residents of the town came to his rescue, advising him about the existence of a new mode of transportation, a “train.” If he were to travel to Novosibirsk, the closest large city, he would be able to catch a train to Moscow.

Thus, one fine day found Vladimir in the central train station of Novosibirsk. When he informed the lady behind the ticket counter of his intended destination, she asked him what sort of ticket he wished to purchase. Observing his confusion, she told him that he could purchase a first-, second- or third-class ticket. A third-class ticket, she explained, offered absolutely no amenities, and didn’t even guarantee a spot on the train. If the arriving train was already filled to capacity, he would have to wait for the next one. A second-class ticket offered a greater chance of a spot on the train, along with more comfortable accommodations. A first-class ticket came with a guaranteed seat, and all amenities necessary to ensure a luxurious and comfortable journey.

Money was hardly an issue, so first class it would be. The ticket lady explained to her consumer that the ticket was non-refundable, and should be guarded carefully…

-Rabbi Naftali Silberberg
“First-Class Stowaway”

At this stage of reading the Rabbi’s fable, I was anticipating disaster at any second. While Vladimir had certainly done well for himself in a material sense, anyone who didn’t know what a train was and needed one as a mode of transportation was certainly bound to get into trouble. I guess that’s what happens when you have too much of one thing but not enough of another. Money minus common-sense or experience equals what?

But before getting to the answer, you may be asking yourself what Vladimir’s predicament has to do with Torah Portion Beshalach?

That’s a very good question.

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion — that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “By evening you shall know it was the Lord who brought you out from the land of Egypt; and in the morning you shall behold the Presence of the Lord…

So they gathered it every morning, each as much as he needed to eat; for when the sun grew hot, it would melt. On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the Lord. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered; and it did not turn foul, and there were no maggots in it. Then Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath of the Lord; you will not find it today on the plain. Six days you shall gather it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

Yet some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found nothing. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you men refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? Mark that the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.” So the people remained inactive on the seventh day.

Exodus 16:4-7, 21-30 (JPS Tanakh)

I suppose the Children of Israel couldn’t be blamed. After all, no one had ever seen or heard of such a thing as manna before. I mean, food that rained out of the sky? C’mon! And once they got used to the idea that they could gather food that had rained right on the ground every morning, they had to get past the idea that it would be there tomorrow and the next day. They didn’t have to save up. But then, on top of all that, they had to get used to the idea that a double-portion would fall on only Friday morning, and that double-portion they could save overnight, so that they’d have food for Shabbat. No food was going to rain from Heaven on Shabbat.

waiting-for-mannaToday, it is typical that we have jobs, earn money, and go to the store when we want food. We don’t expect, nor has God promised that our food will literally fall out of the sky and into our backyards. And yet, we are expected to know when to make an effort in order to meet our needs as God provides, and when to wait for God alone to fulfill our requirements.

It’s not easy.

Part of it has to do with experience. The Children of Israel eventually became quite accustomed to manna and how to manage it, including its “gathering schedule.” But at first it was quite awkward and difficult to figure out, even after Moses told them what God had to say about manna. That takes us back to Vladimir and his predicament.

The train arrived. After his initial shock at seeing such a monstrously large caravan of cars, Vladimir regained his composure and scanned the terminal to see what to do. As it was early, most of the passengers had not yet arrived, but he noticed three passengers boarding the very last car on the train. He followed them into the car, and when each one climbed beneath one of the benches in the car, he did the same. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fully familiar with proper stowaway protocol, and his feet jutted out across the aisle of the third-class car.

It was dark and lonely beneath the bench, and Vladimir quickly dozed off. He didn’t feel the train start to move, and didn’t hear the conductor entering the car. He did, however, feel a sharp kick to his shins, and the startled peasant was expertly hoisted out by the burly conductor.

“You moron, you think this is a free ride?” he bellowed. “You need a ticket to ride this train!”

“What’s the problem, sir,” Vladimir meekly responded. “I have a ticket.”

The other travelers on the train car burst out laughing at this ludicrous claim. Their laughter only intensified when he started peeling off layer after layer of clothing, starting with his expensive fur coat and ending with his undergarments. But, much to their astonishment, he pulled out a ticket—a first-class ticket, no less!

After verifying that the ticket was indeed authentic, the conductor, in a distinctly humbled tone of voice, asked the obvious: “Sir, you have an expensive first-class ticket; pray tell me why you are lying under a bench in the third-class car?!”

“Because that’s what the others were doing . . .” was the embarrassed response.

What is it about being a Christian that’s so difficult? Lots of things. What is it about being a person who hasn’t been a Christian for very long that’s so difficult? Lots of things. Like Vladimir, we have been given a tremendous gift, something of great value, but we have no experience with it.

In some ways, this is a very enviable position, because we don’t come with years or decades of dogma riding on our shoulders and getting in the way. It’s just the new Christian and God. Probably some of the most honest prayers a person will ever utter will be when he or she has just come to faith.

But there are liabilities attached. When you don’t know much about the God you’re supposed to have a relationship with, you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know how to act, you are like a person who has a ticket for a first-class train ride, and you’ve just seen your first train that morning. So, when you don’t know what to do, you do like everyone else is doing, even if they’re exactly the wrong people to emulate.

transcendenceBut how do we know who to imitate?

I could get on my soapbox about mentorship and discipleship and the responsibility of experienced believers to help teach “newbies,” but I suppose you’ve heard all that before. Vladimir learned an embarrassing but not disastrous lesson (he didn’t lose his expensive ticket as I imagined when I read just the first half of the tale).

But what about you and me?

I suppose Vladimir eventually learned the ins and outs of rail travel and probably became quite good at it, but the moral of this particular story is that we will be held accountable by God, not for just what we did in the first days and weeks after becoming a believer, but what we did with our “first-class ticket” for our entire lives. Experience is only valuable if we learn from it and let it modify our behavior. We have to grow spiritually or we get stuck doing the moral equivalent of sneaking on board a train for which we have a ticket. We waste what God has given us (reminds me of Matthew 25:14-30). This too is the lesson of the manna. We can use it wisely, learning when to gather and when not to, when to save and when to use it all in the evening, or we can waste what God has provided.

The Children of Israel were on a journey to go and meet God. So are we. The manna was just one of the lessons they needed to learn along the way in order to get ready to encounter God. What lessons is God giving us that we need to learn before our encounter?

When God calls for an accounting of what you did with your first-class ticket, your life as a believer, what will you say?

Good Shabbos.

A Line as the Unending Horizon

horizon-at-nightWe live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

As he sent Adam and Eve into exile, God promised redemption and offered protection. But toil, pain, relational struggle, sin and death went with them as well, marking them and their descendants as refugees from Eden. Consider the ways in which your everyday life is not at all like the perfect paradise of that Garden. Take a few moments to list the markers of your existence as an exile by naming the broken things in your world, the brokenness in you.

The sorrow or anger that you may have felt as you named those broken things? The sinking recognition that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be?

Those are marks of the exile experience, but they also contain a clue, a compass of sorts. Deep in our DNA, beyond rational thought or extravagant imagination, is a longing for home. Adam and Eve had it or it wouldn’t have taken sword and cherubim to protect Eden. We have it, too. This longing contains our invitation into the new identity and life direction God longs to give to his beloved exiles. This longing is designed to transform us into pilgrims.

Which word resonates with your life experience more: exile or pilgrim? Why do you say so?

-Michelle Van Loon
“Pilgrim’s Road Trip #1”

Since becoming aware of the reality of God, my existence has been one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination…God doesn’t promise that we’ll always be well or even safe, just that regardless of what happens to us, he will be with us, as he was with Jacob when Jacob and his family descended into Egypt. Sometimes we’re slaves. And we wait until God lifts us up again. Even if he doesn’t, blessed be the name of the Lord. I’m still walking as a pilgrim on the trail.

my (edited) response

I’ve admitted before feeling abandoned by God, an exile in the desert, but I suppose in reality, I was the one pushing God away and not the opposite. Frankly, encountering God is scary and there have been long periods of time when I thought I’d rather not hear from Him. Ultimately though, once a person has become aware of God’s presence, avoiding such encounters is impossible. God has ways to get our…my attention and He calls us…me out of exile and into relationship.

O God before Whom my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked – God Who shepherds me from my inception until this day…

Genesis 48:15 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Although Jacob suffered greatly over his lifetime, and before Pharaoh, King of Egypt, Jacob said of his life that “few and bad have been the days of the years of my life,” (Genesis 47:9) yet he calls God his “shepherd” who has guided the steps of Jacob “from my inception until this day.”

We Christians have a shepherd, the same shepherd actually, though we access God through the “good shepherd” who once walked among men and who will walk among us again.

I am the good shepherd, and I know what is mine, and I am known to those who are mine, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I give my life for the flock. I have other flocks that are not from this sheepfold, and I must lead them as well. They will hear my voice, and there will be one herd and one shepherd.

John 10:14-16 (DHE Gospels)

While Jesus admittedly came for the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Matthew 15:24), the “good shepherd” verses are widely believed to express his desire to also bring in the people from the nations, that is non-Jews, into his “flock,” though this wouldn’t begin to occur until some years after his death, resurrection, and ascension. While Israel has many covenants with God that establish their relationship with Him, it is only through Israel’s first-born son, the Moshiach, the “Notzri,” Jesus that we who are from outside Israel have been brought near to Israel and to God.

I don’t mean to imply that there are two roads to salvation, one for the Jewish pilgrim and one for the Gentile, and in fact, as he was dying, Jacob explained everything to his sons about the centrality of Messiah, and because of the Torah, we hear his voice, too.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations.

Genesis 49:10 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Perhaps a slightly different translation will be more illuminating.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from his descendants, until the Moshiach comes . . .

king-davidThese words are widely believed in Judaism to be the primary source indicating that the Messiah will come to restore justice and that even the nations will pay homage to him with gifts. As the midrash states:

…the word Shiloh is a composite of the words “a gift to him” (in Hebrew), a reference to the King Messiah, to whom all nations will bring gifts. This verse is the primary Torah source for the belief that the Messiah will come, and the rabbis always referred to it in the Middle Ages…

…the sense of the verse is that once Messiah begins to reign, Judah’s blessing of kingship will become fully realized and go to an even higher plateau (Sh’lah). At that time, all the nations will assemble to acknowledge his greatness and pay homage to him.

This is quite similar to how Christians believe that Jesus will return and establish his Sovereign rule over all the earth. Remarkable how none of this paints a portrait of the faithful in exile but rather a people who are following a King.

They led the boat to the land, and they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:11 (DHE Gospels)

Our existence is one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination. Although most of us don’t literally leave everything behind, home, family, job, to follow him, when we commit our lives to pursuing holiness by walking in the footsteps our Master left in the dust, who we are and how we live are never the same again. Our every sin is illuminated by a stark, white light, our imperfections are covered in dripping scarlet, we are always aware of our faults and our shortcomings, and maybe it is out of that awareness we sometimes feel exiled from God’s presence, for how can the pure and the impure co-exist?

But through repentance, we are offered a way out of the darkness, through teshuvah we are once more made clean. God offers us a path that we may journey from the mundane to the magnificent. Each day we have the opportunity to travel with a companion. He is only far off when we push him away, and he draws near the instant we call with sincerity.

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 18:24 (ESV)

…the LORD is near to all who call upon Him; to all who call upon Him with sincerity.

Psalm 145:18 (from the siddur; weekday morning and afternoon prayers)

Although many times when we desire God the most, we don’t get a sense of His presence. But putting the limitations of our perceptions aside, God is as near to us or as far from us as we want Him to be. If what we want most in our lives is God, He is there. If we have other more pressing priorities, God will stand aside. If we are in exile, it is one of our own making. God has already made the path for us to be with Him. All we have to do is decide to walk on it.

Walking In Footsteps

The Midrash offers the following parable to illustrate the advantages of being holy. This can be compared to a simple businessman who was going along when he met a kohen gadol. Obviously, it would be a great honor for the businessman to travel with the kohen gadol. Not surprisingly, when he found out that they were both going in the same direction, he asked the kohen gadol permission to accompany him. “My son, I am a kohen. Therefore I am only permitted to travel on a pure path. To avoid impurity, I must make sure that my steps do not go over any graves. If you wish to be careful to only go in a path which is appropriate for me, I will gladly allow you to join me. But if not, in the end I will leave you and go on my own pathway.”

Similarly, when Moshe broached the subject of purity with Yisrael, he said, “Because God your Lord goes with you in your camp to save you.”

Reishis Chochmah explains this Midrash. “God is absolutely holy and separate from the material world. How are we to emulate Him and become holy even regarding material matters in which we must indulge? The answer is that we must sanctify our thoughts. Holy thoughts are the root of all sanctification. The more we think about holy things the easier it will be for us to sanctify the material. And the more sanctify the material the more we will be able to sanctify our thoughts!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Path of Purity”
Niddah 71

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What 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 (ESV)

It isn’t easy. Walking a path of holiness, I mean. It isn’t easy to be human; to be mortal and try to walk in God’s footsteps. I suppose the task seems a little more approachable for Christians when we imagine we’re walking in the footsteps of Jesus. God is just so…so vast, so infinite, so…God. Jesus, at least, we can picture as a human being, as a mortal (though not really) as one whose path we can attempt to walk with some reasonable expectation of success.

And in fact, as disciples of the Master, walking the Master’s path is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.

Oh really?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (ESV)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

Oh well. Guess that didn’t work. Trying to follow Christ’s footsteps is, for all intents and purposes, trying to follow God’s footsteps. But can this be done? After all, most of us aren’t holy men or tzaddikim or saints, or “super-Christians.” Most of us are just…us, people, human.

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise; rather seek what they sought.

Matsuo Bashō

Although Matsuo Bashō did not follow a Jewish or Christian religious tradition, I find his words to be most illuminating under the circumstances. As I continue to follow my own path, not only in life, but the “path” of writing this meditation, I can see there is only one goal: to seek God.

As the businessman who walked with the kohen gadol had to choose to walk a path of purity if he were to be with his holy companion, if we choose to follow God as disciples of the Master, we too must choose a path of purity. How can this be done when the world we live in is anything but sanctified and pure? As the midrash has already been explained to us, we must carry our purity with us by conforming our thoughts, emotions, and actions to those things we know are from God. We learn this path by reading the Bible, from studying the teachings it contains, by associating with others who also walk their own path as disciples of Jesus who are seeking God.

Like I said, it isn’t easy.

One of the reasons I write these meditations each day is to focus my day on following the path. I’m not always successful and both my internal states and my external environment often conspire to pull me off the trail or to stall me in one spot, sometimes for a rather lengthy sojourn. When I get distracted or even feel lost, I try to retreat to a point on the path I am sure of and one that I know contains a marker to point me in the right direction.

The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G-d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G-d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G-d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G-d.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Menachem Av 12, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

For the past few days, I’ve written a meditation or two on the topic of love, and particularly Christian and Jewish love. We see from the quote above that for many religious Jews, loving each other and even their “inner essence,” is deeply connected to loving God. This is also true for Christians:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34-35 (ESV)

But in expending our love to our family, our friends, to the fellowship of believers, and to the struggling and conflicted world around us, we must never forget that to give means we must also receive. It’s not selfish to want and even need to be loved. Certainly, we can’t expect the whole world to love us and being Christians, we can in fact, expect much of the world around us to show us anything else besides love.

It’s very draining.

But we do have our families, our friends, our companions in the faith to help sustain us as we walk a path in the footsteps of God, which seems like an impossible task. Our goal is equally impossible; to seek and find God, to be perfect as He is perfect. To focus only on the light and not be distracted by the encroaching shadows. But God so loved the world and that includes us, not just as a group, but as individuals. Each of us is precious to God.

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. –Matthew 10:26-31 (ESV)

This isn’t to say that our path will always be secure with no challenges or stress. Far from it. But it does mean that whatever we face and even when we feel that we can no longer see the next step on which to place our foot, God is there, too.

Not long ago, I wrote about fear and insecurity as a challenge to faith and urged all “secure” believers to be compassionate toward their weaker brothers and sisters. Today, while I can’t promise the easy path to anyone who is a disciple, I can promise a path, a definite direction, a concrete goal. The things of holiness and faith seem sometimes confusing and indistinct was we negotiate our way through a world built out of moral relativity and public opinion, but God is One and He is perfect and He is present and He will not abandon us…even in those times when we feel utterly alone.

You can choose to believe in a G‑d aloof from all things, a distant G‑d that leaves you in the hands of so many worldly troubles.

Or you can put your trust in a G‑d that carries you as a nursing mother carries her suckling infant by her bosom; as a father carries his child high upon his shoulders; as an eagle carries its fledgling young upon its wings.

Make room for Him and He will enter. As large as you allow your trust to be, so will be the space that He will fill.

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

The signs may not look the same on my path as they do on yours. The mile markers may appear completely different. Even the terrain, the scenery, the sky and the ground of my path may be totally dissimilar to your own. After all, we’re different people, at different points on the path, and with different paths to walk. And yet we have the same companion, we are following the same footprints, and we have the same goal.

We don’t follow the wise men or the sages because they are not the goal, but we take our cues from them. We seek what they sought. We seek to follow the path that leads to God. May He always walk with you and with me.