Tag Archives: Judaism

Significance in the Vortex of God

The VortexThere we saw giants… and we were in our own eyes as locustsNumbers 11:33

Someone once asked Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch: “What is true learning?”

The Rebbe replied: “When one studies a section of Talmud or an idea in chassidus, one is there, together with its illustrious author. He is building upon the sage’s wisdom like a midget perched upon a giant – he is riding on the giant’s shoulders. “One must be grateful to the giant that he doesn’t fling the nuisance from his shoulders.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Irksome Burden”
Commentary on Parshah Shelach

Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole.

Attuned in perfect consonance, they dance a pas de deux of exquisite form, each responding to every subtle nuance of the other, mirroring and magnifying the most subliminal inner thought, until it is impossible to distinguish them as two.

Within the human being is the consciousness of G-d looking back upon Himself from within the world He has made.

We sit upon the vortex of Creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Heaven Above, Man Below”
Chabad.org

We have this idea that we are connected to God. I wrote yesterday that part of the function of God’s commandments is to connect people with the Almighty. Yet, the two commentaries I quoted above seem to paint different pictures about the relationship between created being and Creator. Are we annoying gnats sitting on the shoulders of giants, or are we fully integrated into the very fabric of God’s eternity?

I have a hard time judging my relative position to God. Oh, I realize that in absolute terms, God is infinite and I am beyond insignificant by comparison. It is only through God’s mercy and grace that He’s even aware of me at all:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? –Psalm 8:1-4

Yet without human beings, what is the point of Creation?

As much as I try, there are days when I wonder how or why God would attend to any single individual. Yes, I know that “God so loved the world” and all of that (John 3:16), but does every single, specific person who is alive or who has ever lived really have a critical, irreplaceable part in God’s majestic, eternal, infinite plan?

Do I?

Someone once posed the following question to Rav Yechezkel Landau, the author of Teshuvas Noda B’Yehudah. He wanted to know whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah that are invalid and incapable of repair into the Aron Kodesh that was made to store valid Sifrei Torah. The questioner initially cited our Gemara as proof that it should be permitted. The Gemara relates that the broken set of Tablets was placed in the Aron Kodesh together with the second set of Tablets that was complete. Even though the Aron Kodesh was made for the second set of tablets, nevertheless, the broken Tablets were stored inside indicating that as long as an item had sanctity before it became broken or invalid it may continue to be stored in the place designated for intact and valid sacred items.

The questioner then rejected this parallel since it is possible that the broken Tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh because they were made by God and that added sanctity allowed them to be stored in the Aron Kodesh even though they were broken. This would not allow for the storage of an invalid Sefer Torah to be stored in an Aron Kodesh since the Sefer Torah was not made by God. Noda B’Yehudah rejected this distinction and cited our Gemara to prove his point. After the Gemara teaches that the broken Tablets were stored in the Aron Kodesh the Gemara comments that this teaches that one must continue to treat a Torah scholar who forgot his learning with respect since he is similar to the broken Tablets. The Torah scholar was not the creation of God and yet the Gemara finds it to be a valid parallel to the broken Tablets and as such an invalid Sefer Torah could also be equated with the broken Tablets.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Storing an invalid Sefer Torah in an Aron Kodesh”
Menachos 99

I’ve felt like an invalid Sefer Torah “incapable of repair”. My life has been like a “broken set of Tablets”. Am I worthy of being contained in a holy place just because I was made by God? Am I like a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning? Once having been made holy, can my holiness be diminished?

Menachos 99 answers the latter question, “No”:

The Mishnah tells us that the lechem hapanim loaves were placed upon a marble stand as they were being brought to be placed upon the Shulchan in the Sanctuary. The set of loaves which were removed were placed upon a golden table after being taken out of the Sanctuary. This was a fulfillment of the adage, “we rise in holiness, and we do not descend.”

I admit to taking liberties with the interpretation and applying what is being said here to human beings , but I think this is a valid perspective (considering the Torah scholar with memory problems). If we are each made by God in His image, then individual people are sacred because we are His creations. If, as Rabbi Freeman states, “Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole”, then people enjoy a special unity with God that nothing else in Creation can possess. If this is true, then how can we dare to feel broken, or lost, or alone, or afraid?

And yet, we do. I know I do.

The Noda B’Yehudah is at odds with the parallel between the broken Tablets and the invalid Sefer Torah because:

…he maintains that the Aron Kodesh was built to store the broken Tablets and since that was the original intent it is permitted for them to be stored therein. An Aron Kodesh in a Beis HaKnesses was designed to store valid Sifrei Torah and as such one that is invalid and irreparable should not be stored in the Aron Kodesh. He observes, however, that common custom allows for the storage of invalid Sifrei Torah in an Aron Kodesh…

This seems to match up with Rabbi Tauber’s interpretation that we exist like insects riding the shoulders of giants every time we even learn one small section of Talmud or other holy lesson, building on the insights of those people much wiser and more righteous than we. We exist as a “convention” in the sense that broken pieces of the Tablet are stored in the holy ark simply because the ark was designed for that purpose and not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

It’s more than a little puzzling. Are we important to God (or for that matter, other people) as individuals or not? Sometimes the answer seems to be “Yes” and at other times, “No”. Perhaps it’s the difference between allowing the full experience of connection between ourselves and God vs. the realization that God is amazingly, awesomely, vast, and my own presence on earth, by comparison, is like a hardly visible bit of flotsam barely staying above the waves of some expansive, turbulent, unfeeling sea.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

I could use some of that “lightness of burden” right now. Contemplating the unimaginable intensity of God and sitting upon the vortex of Creation has become too much for me.

Good Shabbos.

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Stories are Miracles

R. Jacob Kaidaner heard from R. Pinhas Reises of Shklov that “once he was on the way with the holy rebbe [R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady], when the skies suddenly grew dark and a pouring rain began to fall. His honoured holiness said that once the Ba’al Shem Tov had been travelling, and a pouring rain began, and he recited a single verse and the rain stopped. He told us the verse that he [the Ba’al Shem Tov] had recited, and he also expounded for us the mystical intent of the verse. And before he finished the exposition, we saw a true wonder, namely, a torrent on both sides of the wagon, while the wagon itself was completely dry, indescribably so, not a single drop..and when we came to the inn and his holiness took his feet out of the wagon, it immediately was filled from the rain.

Kaidaner, Sipurim nora’im
as told in Gedaliah Nigal’s book
The Hasidic Tale

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.
The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”-Luke 8:22-25

Besides the fact that both of these stories have to do with storms and involve miracles, you may be wondering what they have in common. If we look outside their immediate context and theme though, we find that they are linked by how they affect the audience and how they reveal God.

Yesterday, I spent some time in my “morning mediation” describing and comparing the tales of the Chasidim to the tales of the Messiah’s “Chasidim”. However, from a traditional Christian point of view, the two types of “storytelling” I just quoted seem as different as apples and canaries. But remembering that Jesus has a great deal in common with Rabbis and tzadikim (holy or righteous “saints”), the connection to me seems to be more than clear.

I’ve been reading Nigal’s book, but I don’t seem to be able to get more than a few pages when the way Nigal tells his own story of the Chasidic tales inspires one of my own. Here’s what started me off today:

A fourth characteristic of the hasidic story is its intrinsic ability to perform miracles and wonders. The Ba’al Shem Tov was asked by R. David Forkes how one could pray for a sick person through stories, and indeed, tsadikim succeeded in healing the ill in this manner: R. Berisch of Oshpetzin healed a sick woman through stories, and a young man who suffered from melancholy was cured in the same way. Problems of many other kinds, too, were solved by the power of the tsadik’s storytelling.

Christians are accustomed to how Jesus and his disciples performed miracles, but we don’t see them doing so by telling stories. Often, we see the disciples invoking the name of Jesus, in the same manner as any disciple of any Jewish Rabbi or Maggid does when acting in his Master’s name, and then performing the miraculous act. The Chasidim use stories the way I sometimes think of the therapeutic metaphors of Milton Erickson, but perhaps therapy, healing, and the hand of God are not really different things.

There are ways of making the connection between who we are and who our Master is by using stories, and these stories let us work in mystic ways or bring the Divine within our awareness and perhaps within our grasp:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” –Psalm 77:7-15

I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done.
I spread out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Answer me quickly, LORD;
my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit. –Psalm 143:5-7

True, these are songs and prayers, but they are also meditations, recollections, and indeed, even stories about the mighty deeds of God and how He has rescued His people time and again. In telling the stories of God and putting our trust in Him as we hear these tales, what wonders and miracles can we receive? Maybe the answer to prayer is contained in a story.

What about when you read the Bible? What do you experience? Hopefully, a feeling of encouragement and maybe even a touch of wonder, but is that it? What if you were to recite some of the stories of Jesus? The time he healed the woman of the issue of blood, perhaps. How about when he spoke to the woman at the well? You could even recall some of the stories Jesus himself told. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, or the parable of the talents, or the one about the sower.

Why did Jesus tell these parables hidden in riddles? Just to describe the Kingdom of God in metaphor? Sure, at least that much. But what if the stories he told also performed their own miracles, winning the hearts of the sons of Israel for their Father? What do the stories about Jesus do for us? What do they do for someone who hears them for the first time?

When you turn your heart away from sin and to the Savior of the world, isn’t that a miraculous healing, just as miraculous as halting a storm? Isn’t it a wonder beyond the reason of our world when anyone turns to God?

Let me tell you one more story:

Rav Elchonon Halperin, shlit”a, explains this practice with a statement brought on today’s daf. “Our sages tell us in Menahcos 97 that one’s table atones for him (in the place of the altar in the Beis HaMikdash; the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). Rashi explains that one’s table atones in the merit of feeding poor people at the table. Yet imagine the embarrassment of destitute people who have no choice but to take their meals as charity at another’s table. Surely only a very rare person can give the poor food in a manner which will not be a huge embarrassment. Most people eating at the table of another out of necessity feel nothing less than bitter darkness.

“But at the table of tzaddikim, everyone eats for free. Both the poor and the wealthy join together and one who is hungry can obtain as much food as he wants in an honorable manner. No one feels above his friend, since everyone is there for the same reason and is treated the same way. All those who attend a tisch feel a sense of togetherness that emerges out of holy love and companionship. With such a pleasant atmosphere is it any wonder that we cannot imagine the great atonement of a chassidic tisch?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“The Atoning Table”
Menachos 97

While the vast majority of Christians might say that it is laudable to feed the poor from your own table, this act of charity and kindness has no power to atone for sins nor could it replace any of the sacrifices Jews once offered at the Temple. Only confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ atones for sins.

Of course, the vast majority of Jews don’t see it that way, and with the Temple gone these past 2000 years, acts of charity and prayer are believed to substitute for the Temple offerings.

But what is the story telling us?

Does the act of performing a kindness, feeding the poor at your own table and at the same time, treating the disadvantaged with respect and as equals to even the very wealthy eating beside them…does that mean something? Does it do something? What is burning in your heart? It’s one thing to repent of your sins and turn to God, but words don’t reveal that you have really changed as clearly and definitely as performing acts of kindness and righteousness.

I said a little while ago that the “Messianic Tales” can perform the miraculous act of turning a stone heart into one of flesh; of turning a heart of sin into one that accepts and performs righteousness. Yet do we turn to God only because of us? Well, yes…probably at first. People can be very self-centered. But here is another miracle.

StoriesBy hearing a story about a person feeding poor people at his own table and relieving them of the burdens of shame and embarrassment, not only are the poor fed but so are the poor in spirit…us. Hearing the story, having faith in the tales of the tzadikim, letting it turn our hearts, and causing us to perform acts of righteousness is a miracle and a wonder and who knows what else God may do because of our trust?

God is a storyteller. Why else did He leave us with such a marvelous book of sagas involving tragedy, wonder, courage, and despair? For it is the stories told by God that fill the world with miracles. When we retell those stories, we cause the miracles to be infused in the world around us, in the people that we meet, and within our very souls.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. –Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

And the word became a human being and walked among us. What a wonderful and miraculous story.

Let these commandments that I command you today be on your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:6-7

The Messianic Tale

The Ba'al Shem TovThe third goal of the hasidic story was to rouse its hearers into action for the service of God. Several compilers of hasidic stories quoted the dictum by R. Elimelekh that ‘it is an auspicious sign for a person if, when he hears what is related regarding the virtues of the tsadikim and their faithful holy service of the Lord, may he be blessed, his heart beats at that time with the desire and very great fervour that he also merit faithfully to serve the Lord, may he be blessed; this is a good sign that the Lord is with him.’

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedaliah Nigal

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”Luke 24:28-32

Gedaliah Nigal relates to his audience the importance to the Chasidim of storytelling  about tzadikim (righteous ones), Chasidim (devoted disciples), and the deep and multi-layered influence these tales can have. As you’ve already seen, one of the purposes of Chasidic storytelling is to inspire the listeners to perform acts of righteousness and devotion for the sake of God. We also see in Luke’s Gospel, that the words of the risen Messiah did the same thing. That brings us to an interesting question: is one of the main purposes of the Bible to tell stories that inspire the reader?

I’m not really asking if the Bible is inspirational. I think most believers would say “yes”. What I’m asking is whether or not the Bible is a collection of stories designed to inspire its readers?

I’ve just implied that not everything in the Bible is literally true, a contention supported by many leading New Testament (NT) scholars, not the least of which is Bart D. Ehrman. You might be tempted to dismiss Ehrman based on the fact that he is a self-declared agnostic (though a former Christian), but other scholarly New Testament books address the question of how literally we can take the Bible, including whether or not the New Testament defines Jesus as God (see Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God as examples).

If you believe that the Bible is 100% literally true and should be read as a history, I’ve no doubt just shocked you by suggesting otherwise, yet modern NT scholars readily confirm that the Bible is less a history book and more a set of stories (based on eyewitness accounts, at least to some degree) about the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and what they mean to the nations of the world in terms of access to God, forgiveness of sins, and a life beyond the one we know. The New Testament speaks to the Jewish people but it also speaks to the non-Jewish nations about the God of Israel and the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah who brought the Good News of the Most High to all of mankind. These “stories” represent as much the perspectives and character of the  NT authors (who may not always be the people we attribute these stories to) as well as the nature of character of the Messiah.

That brings us to another purpose of these “stories”:

The very power of the hasidic tale wins adherents to hasidism. Many people, among them some outstanding individuals, have been drawn to hasidism by its stories. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, one of the leading hasidic tsadikim, said of himself that ‘he was made a hasid by an old man who told stories about the holy tasdikim’. The Ba’al Shem Tov excelled in his ability to attract new followers by this means.

Teaching of the TzadikimWhile Nigal is speaking of Jews who turn toward the teachings of Chasidic Judaism, I will admit to being attracted, as a Gentile, to these teachings when I read some of the tales of the Chasidim. It’s difficult to disregard the wisdom and compassion of the inspirational stories about the Chasidic tzadikim, but it doesn’t stop there. This, I think, is also what is so attractive about the tales of the “tzadik” Jesus. In fact, there is one Chasid who, after thoroughly investigating the Gospels, found the “stories” of John especially to be reminiscent of the tales of the Chasidim and as a result, became a lifelong disciple of the “Maggid of Nazeret”.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

If a young Chasid named Feivel Levertoff (he later changed his name to “Paul Philip”) could discover the Messiah in Jesus in the late 19th century because John’s Gospel was so much like the powerful and mystic writings on which he was raised, is it so difficult to imagine that a passionate exploration of Jesus might lead a Christian to discover an extension of his faith in Chasidic tales?

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the novel:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

In the days prior to and even after Christ’s earthly existence, it was somewhat common for non-Jews to see the beauty and wisdom in the teachings of the God of Israel, so in those days, many Gentiles converted to Judaism as the only means by which they could live a life of righteousness (though through the revelation of Christ, all people may be reconciled to God). While Christianity begins with Judaism as its root, two millennium of separation between Judaism and Christianity have made them two almost completely unrelated faiths, with only the spectre of a connection between them (most Jews would say that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a misnomer). However, if Christianity truly accepts that we follow the Jewish Messiah, who first came for the lost sheep of Israel and only afterwards for the nations, who never abandoned his people, and as the Apostle Paul taught, all of Israel will one day all be saved (Romans 11:26), then we cannot be so arrogant as to brush aside the natural branch just because we, the wild and alien olive shoot, have been grafted into the root (Romans 11:17).

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts as related in the Ethics of the Fathers (Avot Pirkei). I won’t recount the entire story (you can click on the link I just provided and read it for yourself), but it does illustrate the drive and passion among some of the Gentiles to truly understand what it is to be a Jew and to have that special covenant relationship with God. While Hillel and Shammai died perhaps only within a few years of the birth of Christ, they each established great schools of Jewish learning and their disciples, native Jews and converts, carried on their teachings and traditions for generations and eventually, ensured that their stories would be recorded for all time so that we have them with us even today.

The “Chasidim” of Jesus also made sure the stories of their Master were passed on from generation to generation, eventually being recorded and passed on to the future…to us.

Paul Philip Levertoff thought that the teachings of Jesus read like a collection of Chasdic tales. Perhaps as Gentile Christians reading tales of the Chasidim, we can also find a connection to the Messiah, the Prophet, and the greatest Tzadik, whose own death atoned for not just a few, but for all.

Two Sons

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son”.Exodus 4:22 (JPS Tanakh )

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

In what way is G-d our “father”? There are, of course, the obvious parallels. G-d creates us and provides us with sustenance and direction. He loves us with the boundless, all-forgiving love of a father.

Chassidic teaching delves further into the metaphor. It examines the biological and psychological dynamics of the father-child model, and employs them to better understand our relationship to each other and to our Father in Heaven.

Physically, what began in the father’s body and psyche is now a separate, distinct and (eventually) independent individual. Yet there is a good reason we say, “Like father like son.” On a deeper level, the child remains inseparable from his begetter.

In the words of the Talmud, “A son is a limb of his father.” At the very heart of his consciousness lies an inescapable truth: he is his father’s child, an extension of his being, a projection of his personality. In body, they have become two distinct entities; in essence they are one.

-from “The Awareness Factor”
Minding the Child: The Soul of a Metaphor commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (Avot Pirkei)
Chabad.org | Sivan 7, 5771 * June 9, 2011

Israel, the Jewish people, is the first-born son of God. The Father has lavished great love and blessings upon the son, and even when the son was disobedient and burdened with exile, persecution, and extreme hardships, God’s love never wavered. When Jacob and his family went down into Egypt, an act which ultimately would see the Children of Israel become slaves (Genesis 46:3-4), God went down with them. It is said that God went into exile with the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of His people from Israel. It is said that when the Jews went into the camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Treblinka, and all the others, God went in with His people. God has “suffered” with his first-born son Israel for thousands of years because of His love of them and now He is bringing them back.

But what about the rest of us? Can the nations claim any “sonship” before God, and if so, under what circumstances?

It depends on who you ask.

The Seven Laws of Noah demonstrate that almighty G-d has rules and laws for all human beings …and that G-d loves us all. He does not leave anyone, Jew or non-Jew without guidance. To the non-Jew He has given the Seven Commandments.

-from noahide.org

To the Jewish people G-d gave the entire Torah [teaching] as their Law. They therefore have a special responsibility—with special commandments—to be the priesthood of the world, a “light unto the nations.”

What about the rest of the world? What is G-d’s will for them?

G-d gave Noah and all his descendants (B’nei Noach or “children of Noah”) seven commandments to obey. These seven universal laws (known as the “Seven Noahide Laws”) were reaffirmed with Moses and the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai in what is now known as the Oral Torah, establishing modern observance of these laws. These seven commandments (mitzvos), actually seven categories of hundreds of specific laws, are G-d’s will for all non-Jews.

-from noahide.com

The vast majority of the Jewish world believes that all of humanity is loved and cherished by God and may merit a place in the world to come if they obey God’s commandments to them. The Children of Israel have a very special covenant status in relation to God with equally special duties and responsibilities, but that doesn’t leave the rest of humanity out in the cold. While the Children of Israel were charged with being “a light to the nations”, we, the nations, were charged with being attracted to and learning from “the light” that our responsibilities to God (perhaps as “second-born sons”) are encompassed in the Seven Laws of Noah. The first-born son is “B’nei Yisrael” (the Children of Israel) and those of us who cling to God and conform to the Noahide commandments are considered “B’nei Noach” (Children of Noah).

The Christian viewpoint regarding non-Jewish “sonship” differs quite a bit. Judaism says that a non-Jew doesn’t have to convert to Judaism to be loved and cared for by God. Christianity requires that everyone, even Jews (who already have a covenant relationship with the Creator) must convert to Christianity and in the process, surrender the Mosaic covenant for a “better” one, abandoning all that it is to be a Jew. Only once you convert to Christianity, whether you’re a Jew or otherwise, are you truly included in God’s love.

I know. It doesn’t make much sense to me, either.

Yet, Jesus did bring the non-Jews something special and unique that we cannot possess otherwise, even as B’nei Noach.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will… –Ephesians 1:3-5

I can’t read ancient Greek (or modern Greek for that matter), but I’ll accept the biblegateway.com commentary on Ephesians 1:5 that the “Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture”. Since Paul wouldn’t consider that the Jewish people needed to be “adopted” by God since they are His “first-born son”, then in this context, Paul must be writing to a non-Jewish group of Christian disciples.

Through the process of coming to faith in God by trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, anyone can become an adopted child of the Most High as a full covenant member. This does not mean a full covenant member of the Mosaic covenant, the Torah and its 613 commandments, but it does grant us a special status to approach the throne, side-by-side, with our Jewish “older brother”.

Most Jews don’t see it that way, and given the heinous treatment of the Jews by the church over the last two thousand years or so, I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, as Christians, here we are, and by faith and God’s providence, here we stay. We can learn from our mistakes and repent, give glory to God, and remember that the Jews honored and cherished the Torah, the Shabbat, and God’s sovereignty for several millennium, while the non-Jewish nations were bowing to pieces of wood and stone and passing their children through sacrificial fires.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. –Luke 15:17-24

This parable is typically (and correctly) interpreted as Christ’s desire to redeem “the lost sheep of Israel” and not a commentary on the “unsaved” nations, but please permit me to add a personal understanding.

While the Children of Israel were close to God, the rest of us were far off if, for no other reason, than we had not even heard of the God of Israel. We see examples in the Apostolic scriptures (Acts 10:1-3 and Acts 17:10-12, for example) of those non-Jews who did hear of and come to faith in the God of Israel and who worshiped at synagogues as “God-fearers” (Noahides?) but we have every indication that though worshipers of God, they had no covenant status, no “sonship” relating to the Almighty. However, we were welcomed out of paganism and into “sonship” through the Jewish Messiah, who gives the true meaning of the Torah and redeems the lost of Israel and also grants the right to the Gentiles to become sons and daughters of God.

In my family, I am the oldest son. I have one younger brother who was born when I was ten. Because I am the first-born, my father doesn’t love my brother any less than he loves me. Sure, my brother and I are really different people, especially due to our age difference, and our father has a different sort of relationship with each of us based on our personalities and such, but the love is the love. We are sons. He is our father.

I won’t go into the dynamics of families who have “born” and “adopted” children but as you can imagine, it’s not uncommon for the adopted kids, especially if they were adopted at an older age, to wonder if they are just as loved as the “born” children. I can’t speak for all adopted families and what they experience, but I can say with confidence that, with God as our Father, we are all loved equally (Galatians 3:28); the first-born son and the adopted son.

There is no truth about G‑d.
Truth is G-d.

There is no one who learns Truth.
You become Truth.

There is no need to search for Truth.
You have inherited it and it is within you.

You need only learn quietness
to listen to that inheritance.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Become Truth”
Chabad.org

God loves both sons and all we have to do to realize it is to “learn quietness and to listen to that inheritance”. But given the long and difficult history between Christians and Jews, do we love each other?

The Otzar HaYir’ah, zt”l, explains why shekalim serve to unify every Jew with the community. “We give specifically half-shekels to teach an important lesson: that without the community we are nothing. Since every individual has a mission to fulfill which no one else can achieve, it is easy to feel uniquely different. We must never feel separated from our friends since, at the root, all Jews are one.

“To teach that we all need each other, each person gives half a shekel – which is only completed through another Jew’s half shekel. This shows that we are only complete when we are unified with our friend. This brings to great feelings of brotherhood and nullifies our natural tendency towards feeling uniquely alone.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“The Power of Community”
Menachos 93

While the Otzar HaYir’ah, zt”l is speaking of the Jewish community and the need one Jew has for his people, I would like to extend the metaphor to include how we “sons” need each other, the Jewish and the Christian sons. We may have a difficult time relating as “siblings” (not all that uncommon in some families), but we can try to learn to trust each other, to forgive the insults and injuries of the past, to turn to a common Father, and through His love for us, learn to love each other.

Starting to Walk

WalkingThe Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

-from the Chabad.org commentary for
Avot Pirkei (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 1
“Barrier and Gateway”

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it. The Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces

For the past several days, I’ve been blogging on topics related to the Torah and the meaning it has for not just the Jewish people, but for all of us. I’ve also been trying to describe that the Torah is more than just a document and in an almost mystic way, it transcends its own physical nature and becomes both the blueprint and container for Creation.

As the Chabad commentary I quoted above states, the Torah has an expansive mission to address all people everywhere and as Rabbi Ginsburgh suggests, part of that purpose is to help us understand that holiness and sanctity are infused in everything we encounter.

The Chabad.org commentary for Chapter 2 of Avot Pirkei introduces an additional mystery in how we are supposed to understand what the Torah, the book of instructions for living in a created world, is to be understood and lived out:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the correct path for man to choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say… Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.”

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the “correct path” is defined by “whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind”? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” This is what man is doing when he refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one’s own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

However, if “the Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3), then this teaching and the ethics attached cannot be limited to the Jewish people. All of humanity becomes God’s partner in Tikkun Olam; the repairing of a broken world, and in the mission to prepare existence itself, starting with our own lives, for the coming of the Messiah. This effort at once requires that we submit to the demands of the Torah but also to interweave the Torah’s fabric with our own, fusing its life with our soul, resulting in a life made holy by God.

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Avot Pirkei 1:3

Paul, a servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David… –Romans 1:1-3

Here is a painting of “slaves” of God but not slaves who serve out of a desire for self-gain or reward, but out of “fear of Heaven”. This doesn’t necessarily mean fear of punishment but rather an intense awe of God, His Holiness, His purposes, and the immense task of which we are a part. An observant Jewish man wears a yarmulke or kippah on his head to cause him to be always aware of the One who is constantly over him. The Word of God reminds us of the God we serve and who we are in Him.

It’s that awareness that gives us the drive to learn how to serve God and then to devote our lives to that service. The renowned Torah sages Hillel and Shammai both commented on this:

Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. –Avot Pirkei 1:12

Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance. –Avot Pirkei 1:15

Many of the opinions recorded in the Mishnah seem inconsistent about whether or not it is praiseworthy to devote an entire life to Torah study. Is it better to study Torah, forsaking all other pursuits or should a person both study and practice the Torah, balancing life between student and “doer”? Torah scholars are still subsidized in Israel today and exempted from military duty and other societal responsibilities, but there is this principle to consider:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin. –Pirkei Avot 2:2

It is very similar to lessons we find in Christianity:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –2 Thessalonians 3:10

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8

A desire to serve God and to immerse oneself in His Word does not excuse a person from the mundane chores in life or the requirements of his family. In fact, it actually becomes a sin to study the Torah to the exclusion of all other activities and supposed acts of holiness can become an excuse for disobeying God:

But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. –Mark 7:11-13

That brings us back to Rabbi Ginsburg and the art of tying our shoes.

Shoes allow us to walk the face of the earth, to contact physicality and move around as we wish freely. More than any other material artifact that we possess and utilize daily, shoes symbolize our involvement with the mundane. As we walk forward to achieve our goals in life they protect our feet from the stones and thorns that cover the ground upon which we tread.

But so long as we have not sanctified the earth in its entirety to be a sanctuary for God we need shoes to protect our feet, while continuously on the move, doing our utmost to make this world a better place – a meeting ground for us and our Creator.

Tying ShoesThe world is a work in progress and so are we. Everything we do is a transition from the mundane to the holy. We constantly are on a quest to see the holy in every ordinary object, act, and person. Even getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed is both common and sacred. People often “get into a rut” by doing the same things in the same way day-in and day-out. We can become bored, numb, burned-out, and tired of life. As Rabbi Ginsburgh says though, the “Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.” Studying and living out God’s Word, God’s blueprint, God’s plan, opens our eyes so that we can see beyond the surface appearance of the world and people around us, and it enables us to see beyond the surface of the Torah itself.

In stripping off the outer layers or reality, we see the mystical substance which makes up the “truer reality” of everything. The world was created through more-than-natural processes in a manner that transcends human understanding and what we think of as “the laws of the universe”. In the Torah, is the lens by which we can take brief glimpses of that reality and from it, gain the strength to get out of bed for another day, get dressed, put on our shoes, and find holiness in tying our shoelaces.

Then we begin to walk on whatever road God sets before us.

“Which is exactly what he will not concede. As he sees it, the Jewish people possesses a unique religious truth, an unsurpassable morality of peace, mercy, justice and human equality-all indispensible to a man’s salvation-and, in addition, a Tradition or way of life in which they are embodied. It is for these and their communication to the nations of the world that we have been appointed. No sacrifice on our part can be too great for the fulfillment of so heroic a destiny. What is more, no power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose.”

-Pappas to Elisha
in Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

Crossroads

Crossroads“Let me explain,” Demonax continued. “To you philosophy is science. To me it is art. To you it is a method of discovering the truth. To me it is a guide to noble living.”

Demonax to Elisha in
Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

In my previous blog post Two Worlds, I compared my journey of faith to that of Elisha’s. Elisha is a Jewish man living in the first fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He is a man who had been trained as a Rabbi and who had served as a member of the great Sanhedrin. Yet, in a profound crisis of faith, he has abandoned his Jewish heritage and the Torah of Moses and fled to the Syrian city of Antioch to try to find the truth of his existence in the realms of Greek literature, science, and philosophy.

I, for my part, am a person who came to faith in Jesus sometime after my 40th birthday and after a few years not being satisfied by the answers of the church, proceeded into a “blending” of Christian and Jewish practices in a small, local congregation. However, in recent years, from the vantage point of a Christian man, I’ve been watching my Jewish wife on her journey of discovery to embrace her Judaism. I now find myself challenged by both the Christian and Jewish worlds to explore the value of my own faith through a Jewish lens.

But Elisha has the worst position of the two of us. He is trying to seek an objective method of proving the existence of God (or proving God doesn’t exist) and then determining, regardless of the result, how men are supposed to live based on scientific and indisputable evidence.

Good luck.

But look at how Demonax, the Greek moralist and cynic philosopher, differs with Elisha in even describing the task and the goal. Elisha is trying to understand the “meaning of life” by scrutinizing existence as an astronomer looks at a planet through a telescope. By contrast, Demonax sees the meaning of life not as an attempt to understand existence, but to live it out. The mechanic vs. the poet. While both perspectives are valid, here they are placed at odds with each other.

But should they be?

Think about why a person comes to faith, any sort of faith, in any religious structure. There are two approaches. The first is that a person concludes in their current system that life is random and without meaning. Why is the earth here? What is the purpose of existence? Is the universe the result of a blind, unreasoning accident or is there a conscious creativity at work? How am I supposed to understand the world around me?

The second approach is that a person concludes in their current system that their life is random and without meaning. The questions are similar but pregnant with a profound difference. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence? Am I just the result of a random joining of two reproductive cells or is my life special and meaningful? Then, the most important question is, if my life is special, meaningful, and unique, what am I supposed to do? “How am I supposed to live?”

The two questions generally lead to the same answer, for in discovering the meaning of the universe, you discover the meaning of yourself and how you are to live out the life you were given. Both Elisha and Demonax are traveling to the same city but they’re taking two radically different routes.

ChasidNow consider the Chasidic understanding of the Torah. You may look at a Torah scroll or a Bible and see words on paper, but that’s only the surface appearance and this only hints at its true purpose and meaning. In the following series of short quotes, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman brings to light some of the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to help us understand what we are really seeing:

They translate it as “The Bible,” or “The Law,” but that’s not what the word means. Torah means “instructions.”

Whatever piece of Torah you learn, you must find the instructions it is giving you. -from Instructions

Torah is the blueprint by which the world was designed. Everything that exists can be found in the Torah.

Even more: In any one concept of Torah you can find the entire world. -from Blueprint

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo.

Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.” -from Penetrating Wisdom

We find that the Torah is not only the blueprint for existence, but a set of instructions for our existence. Beyond that, we discover that every object and being within the created universe is a container, of sorts, for the “material” used for its creation: the Torah. I don’t mean to say that all of humanity should attempt to live a “Torah lifestyle” identical to the Jewish people, but it seems more than reasonable that we should study the Torah to learn the essential truths by which God intends for us to live. After all, God’s instructions to do so are here:

Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The Torah will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. –Isaiah 2:3

Rabbi Freeman’s teachings are not far from what this early 20th century Chasidic scholar had to say:

Why has God created the world and mankind, and for what purpose? Why has the soul descended into the body? (The preexistence of the soul was assumed in Chasidism.) Is there a more ideal world than the divine world in which the soul previously existed? Is there a greater joy than when man rejoices in God?

-Paul Philip Levertoff
as published in “The Love of God”
Messiah Journal issue 107

Elisha considers philosophy and thus the search for meaning and ultimately for God, to be a science. Demonax believes the same journey is the art of learning how to live in a noble, and even in a holy manner. Yet Elisha’s personal doubts have blinded him to what he should have known, having been a student of the Torah from childhood. He should have seen that the Torah contains all the questions and all the answers. Greek science and philosophy, like our modern, western thought, seeks to compartmentalize and to segregate our objective environment, our physical bodies, and our souls, but the Torah is the maker and container of all these and indeed, we are a container for the Torah, as is the entire universe and everything in it.

Like a splinter in our minds, the questions drive us madly to seek the answers of why we’re here and why the world exists, and yet the answers are right in front of us and they have been right in front of me all along:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” –Mark 12:28-33 (quoting Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18)

Christ’s answer tells us both the meaning of the universe and the meaning of our lives, what Creation is, who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing.

The great sage Hillel once summed up the Torah as that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and study” (Shab. 31a). While the “two greatest commandments” don’t give us every detail of the journey on which we must travel, it does provide a clear direction. Here I am, standing at a crossroads looking for a direction, just as Elisha was. May I make a better decision than he did. I pray we all do.

Well I looked into dream of the millions
That one day the search will be through
Now here I stand at the edge of my embattled illusions
Looking into you

-Jackson Browne
“Looking into You” (1971)

Chag Sameach Shavuot.