Tag Archives: learning

Can You Help Us Find a Bible Study for the Coming Year?

The third month was chosen for the revelation because everything that is closely connected with the Torah and with Israel is triple in number. The Torah consists of three parts: The Pentateuch, The Prophets, and the Writings. The oral law consists of Midrash, Halakhah, and Haggadah… (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, ed. Buber pp. 186-187)

-quoted by Max Arzt in
Part 2: “The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur),” p.285
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement

My friend Tom and I have been toying with the idea of studying Torah together for quite some time, but the recent events that have seen me leave (once again) church have added emphasis to the proposal. This past Sunday, Tom and I were talking over coffee and started to define some of the parameters for our study.

First of all, I’m not sure a study focused on Torah is the best way to go. Sure, the timing is right. We are very close to the end of the current Torah cycle, and the new cycle begins with Torah Portion Beresheet on October 18th, less than three weeks away.

But Tom said that he wants to have a study that specifically focuses on Messiah and what he means in our lives. I don’t know if I want to study the sidra for each Shabbat with the idea that I must find the Messiah within its pages. What if I don’t?

The second goal of our Torah study is that we might be able to see the Messiah clearly in its pages. Remember Luke 24. This chapter establishes for us one of the key hermeneutic principles of approaching Torah. Here Yeshua tells us specifically to look in the Torah in order to see Him. “And beginning with Moshe and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

When we first started looking for Yeshua in every Torah Portion, we were concerned that we would not be able to find Yeshua anywhere. However, much to our surprise, after beginning the work we found it difficult to stop! We have discovered that the person and work of Messiah are evident in even the most technical sections of the Torah. And the more we see Him, the more we can worship Him.

-Ariel Berkowitz
“How to Study the Torah”
MessianicPublications

While I don’t always agree with everything presented at this website, I’ve found Berkowitz’s insights valuable in the past and, when I saw this link show up in my Facebook feed, I decided to have a go at it. Seems Berkowitz has no problem seeing the Messiah in the Torah, but maybe another approach would work better for Tom and me.

I started reading the Berkowitz article with an idea to base our Bible study upon its principles. I said I found Berkowitz valuable, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. In taking the text at face value (and not allegorizing), he says:

This also applies to what appear to be legal sections. If God said to put a fence around the top of our houses, for example, He does not mean to build fences to protect the Torah! Literally, what is being referred to is a protective enclosure being placed around the top of a house to prevent people from falling off. (In that part of the world, most dwellings had flat roofs, which facilitated people congregating on them.) We have no permission at this point to go beyond the literal face value of the text.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

Well, yes and no. Yes, I can agree that it’s a bit of a stretch to create a midrash stating that the Torah commandment to build a fence around the edge of your flat roof also means building fences around the commandments, manufacturing additional barriers to keep the observant from getting too close to the “edge” of sin. I do however, think that we can take the particular commandment and infer a general principle from it (this isn’t my original idea, I got it from one of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermons). I believe the specific commandment about building a fence around your roof can be expanded to the general principle of removing all physical hazards on your property that could potentially cause injury to family and guests. These would be acts of kindness and express concern over the well being of the people around you. I don’t think there’s too much of a stretch involved here, but it does require we think beyond the immediate situation described.

Berkowitz says:

Also associated with this principle is the necessity of determining the intended meaning of the passage. Since Moshe was the writer of the Torah, we must try to put ourselves in his shoes as he wrote it, even as we attempt to discern the Lord’s intent in giving each teaching. Moreover, we also need to put ourselves into the shoes of the people who first received the Scriptures and seek to know how they understood the text.

I agree with this wholeheartedly and I think many Bible students and scholars don’t take this far enough. Remember, almost without exception, all of the writers of the Bible are Jewish people and the Bible’s contents (with the exception of some of Paul’s letters and a few other portions) were intended to be read exclusively by Jews.

We have to at least attempt to understand what the writer was intending his readers to get out of the document, including any allusions, less than obvious references, traditions, and interpretive praxis that could be employed to derive meaning. The answers to all that are likely not easily gleaned from the plain meaning of the text and require some knowledge of the Judaism of the time period in which the document was authored.

A really good example of this is a lecture that Boaz Michael delivered some years ago called “Moses in Matthew”. I don’t think a recording of that teaching is available commercially, but I managed to get a copy of it and reviewed its contents in a blog post called “The Jewish Gospel”, Part 1 and Part 2. Rabbi Joshua Brumbach also reviewed it on his blog about three years ago.

Ariel Berkowitz
Ariel Berkowitz

I don’t want to attempt to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, so for the details, you can click on the links I’ve provided. In brief though, Boaz aptly illustrated that without understanding the highly specific mindset of Jews living in occupied Palestine in the late Second Temple period, we sometimes misunderstand (sometimes to a great degree) what Jesus (Yeshua) was teaching, leading us to a far less than perfect comprehension of the message of Messiah to his people Israel and, across history, to us.

Berkowitz continues in his article making statements I believe are in support of what I just said above:

For example, it makes a difference to our understanding of the Torah if we know that each of the ten plagues was brought against one of the gods of Egypt. It changes our perception of the book of Deuteronomy if we are aware that its format virtually follows that of other middle to late Bronze Age suzerainty treaties and covenants. Moreover, are we aware that our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets can help us understand the structure of Genesis, as well as why Rachel stole the family idols from Laban? Finally, what is meant by the designations “Way of the Philistines” and “King’s Highway?”

Closely connected with this rule is the principle of studying the Torah in Hebrew, its original language. There are sometimes words, thoughts, or concepts in the Hebrew of the Torah that are almost impossible to express in a translation. For example, it is helpful to know that the Hebrew word sometimes translated into English as “sacrifice” is the word korban (קָרְבָּן), which has the same root as the word meaning “to draw close.” Hence, a sacrifice is that which helps us draw close to God. In addition, there are virtually no English equivalents for the Hebrew words tahor (טָהוֹר) and tamei (טָמֵא) (often rendered pure and impure, or clean and unclean, respectively).

Again, and specifically speaking to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles, we would also have to know how other Jewish teachers of that time period wrote, what common allusions and references they shared, the midrashic associations the readers were supposed to make, and so on. Reading Jewish texts of any time period requires knowledge of not only the religious and cultural Judaism of that point in history, but what it was to live as a Jew listening to or reading the teachings of the Rabbis.

This isn’t information always available to us.

But if we don’t always have the past at our fingertips, we do that the present:

Jewish practice and interpretation of the Torah began centuries ago—in many cases even before the time of Yeshua. Although we do not believe in the authority of the oral law, it nevertheless contains much that is useful for us today (such as an incredibly insightful periodic interpretation of the Torah). It is helpful for us, therefore, to read some of the best of the modern Jewish commentators (at least those of both the Rishonim and Akharonim), because in them we may find accurate interpretations of the most difficult passages of the Torah. Moreover, it can also be helpful to examine some of the rabbinic applications of the Torah, as some of these halachic teachings might shed some light for us on a given passage.

Jewish Man PrayingChristians don’t always take me seriously when I say that in order to understand the Bible, including (especially) the teachings of Jesus, you have to understand something about Judaism. However, this is true. Christianity has its interpretive traditions which, from their earliest inception, were designed to minimize if not outright delete any “Jewishness” from the Jewish texts. And yet, as I’ve seen time and again, ignoring a Jewish interpretation of the Bible, including the Apostolic Scriptures, has led to tremendous errors in the development of Christian theology and its resultant doctrine. This isn’t to say that Christianity has completely missed the boat. The Church grasps the principles of loving God and doing good to other human beings very well. They just don’t know what to do with Jewish people as having a unique covenant relationship with God, and especially have not a clue how to understand the Judaism of Jews in Messiah.

Unfortunately, Berkowitz had to employ this rather reductive list of the three rules of interpretation, which I’ve previously encountered:

  • First ask, “What does the passage say?”
  • Next ask, “What does it mean?”
  • Finally, ask, “What does it mean to me?”

Not to say that this list is bad, but if you didn’t understand that it must be expanded to include what I’ve described previously about comprehending the entire historical, cultural, linguistic, midrashic, and every other area of context in which a particular text of the Bible was written and read, then you’ve going to miss a lot.

And in describing interpretation, Berkowitz doesn’t mention that interpretation begins at translation. He admits that most people don’t have a sufficient command of the Biblical languages to read them, and thus tend to rely on translations, but he doesn’t say that some translations do heinous violence to the text. The English Standard Version, for example, changes Greek verb tenses in some of Paul’s letters and in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make the scriptures read as if the Old (Sinai) Covenant has already completely passed away and that it has totally been replaced by the New Covenant. However, the verb tenses in the actual Greek indicate that the old is in the process of still passing away, and there is no indication in the originals that the New is even here yet.

Berkowitz does say that there are a number of good study aids available and I would add to that list a variety of different translations and a lexicon to help with some of the problems modern translators have introduced.

Berkowitz states that the number one requirement in Bible study is to “rely on the Spirit of God to be our teacher.” I can agree, but I’ve argued with a few people here on my blog that the Spirit doesn’t have to exist in isolation from other resources and that we don’t have to “check our brains at the door,” so to speak.

In addressing the use of commentaries, Berkowitz says:

Some people simply will not use commentaries or study aids when studying the Bible. They say they want God to teach them, not man. The problem with this statement is that God has specifically blessed certain people in the body of Messiah with the gift of teaching. We are not disputing the fact that people can discover wonderful things in the Torah by themselves. But God’s usual method is to gift certain people who can, in turn, teach others the truths of His Word. Hence, we all need to rely on the God-gifted Torah teachers whom the Holy One places in our path.

Furthermore, we must also realize that most commentaries were originally sermons or verbal teachings before they appeared in print. If we are willing to ask another person his or her opinion about a given passage in the Bible, we should be willing to consult a commentary. There is no difference, other than the fact that one is a verbal opinion about the Torah and the other is written.

We are not islands unto ourselves. We are members of the body of Messiah, each equipped with certain areas of understanding which, when combined, help bring to all of us a more complete understanding of the Bible. Thus, we should not throw away all the books and say “we will just study the Bible.” God never meant for His people to function like that. In the resources section of this Web site we provide a continually growing list of Bible study aids, such as commentaries, that we recommend. There will undoubtedly be others, especially in other languages. But this is a good beginning for those who are new at Torah study.

TanakhI’ve come the long way around to ask a simple question. Tom and I (and whoever decides to join us) need a structure and format for our studies. We could just shoot from the hip or talk off the tops of our heads, but that’s rather self-limiting.

We need a study that is focused on the Messiah. We’d like to not have the study devolve into a “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” about theology and doctrine, which, for example, so many of these religious blogs tend to do. We would like the study to be specifically Messianic rather than traditionally Christian. If at all possible, we’d like the study not to be too expensive. Unfortunately, a lot of good teaching material out there also costs a proverbial arm and leg.

I’m open to suggestion (without the obligation of having to take everyone’s suggestions). Any ideas?

In advance, thank you for your help and insight.

Oh, and by the “coming year,” I mean within the next few weeks to a month or so, not the beginning of 2015. Thanks.

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David’s Fallen Tent in the Wilderness

The Torah states:

“And the Almighty spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).

Why does the Torah specify “the wilderness” of the Sinai desert? It would have been sufficient to say “in the Sinai desert”; everyone knows that deserts are wildernesses.

The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah comments on this verse, “Whoever does not make himself open and free like a wilderness will not be able to acquire wisdom and Torah”. This refers to having the trait of humility which allows a person to learn from everyone and to teach everyone.

An arrogant person will only be willing to learn from someone he feels is befitting his honor. A humble person is only concerned with gaining Torah knowledge and will be grateful to learn new ideas even from one who has less overall knowledge than himself.

The Midrash teaches that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai because Mt. Sinai was the lowest of all the mountains. This symbolizes that if a person wants to receive wisdom he must be humble. If he is full of himself there is little room for anything else.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Commentary on Torah Portion Bamidbar
Based on Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book
Growth Through Torah
Aish.com

Wow, speaking of arrogance and humility. Rabbi Pliskin’s message as presented by Rabbi Packouz came along at the right time.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been pondering my wife’s accusation of my being arrogant in my approach to attending church and presenting my particular (and from their point of view, unique) perspective on the Bible, the Messiah, Jewish people, and Judaism. How dare I walk into someone else’s house and tell them they should redecorate, what color to paint the walls, and that their taste in art is hideous?

Well, hopefully, I wasn’t that bad, but sometimes it feels like it.

As Ben Zoma said:

Who is one that is wise? One who learns from every person.

Pirkei Avot 4:1

I am inexorably drawn toward learning from Jewish sources, and yet when I try to enthusiastically share what I’ve learned with my fellow Christians, I feel like I’m the only guy in the room speaking Martian.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Interestingly enough, I have learned a lot by going to church. Not so much in the areas of theology or doctrine, although it’s been illuminating to capture the Evangelical perception of theology and doctrine, but in the areas of history, both Church history and the more generic kind, church social dynamics, and…brace yourself…kindness.

No matter how much of a pest I make of myself, people are still smiling at me, reaching out to me, offering to listen to my woes (should I ever share them in person), and to pray for me.

Who is wise? One who learns from every person, including every person at church. Yes, there is much to learn. I have to remember that church isn’t just theology and doctrine, it’s action. It’s the perpetual food drive I donate to every time I go to church, dedicated to feeding the hungry in our local community. It’s the missionary effort around the world, serving people who have never heard of the compassion of Christ, it’s visiting the sick, offering comfort to the grieving, providing care and education for little children.

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

-John Ruskin

Ironically, most Christians are so “works-phobic” that they don’t count their own good deeds (mitzvot) as really meaning anything in the cosmic economy of God, more’s the pity, because it’s what the Church does best.

I don’t have as much to complain about as I think:

“A child, for example, cuts his finger and screams the house down. An adult cuts his finger and gets on with life. Children live in the here and now, so a child has no context for his pain. There is no meaningful future to look forward to, just the immediacy of the pain. An adult realizes that the pain will pass and life will be good again in spite it. He doesn’t suffer. And, by the way, why is it that when you hug and kiss a child the pain seems to go? It’s not the pain that goes, it’s the suffering. You have given the child a meaningful context for the pain – the context of a parent’s love. The child still feels the pain, but with a newfound context for it, he no longer suffers.

“An adult must find his own meaning in his pain. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of a woman in labor. Sometimes it is a little harder. But when he or she can look at the pain as a means to grow, a means to develop deeper self-understanding, then the pain remains, but the suffering will be forgotten.

“Everyone goes through pain in life. But not one of us has to suffer if we do not want to.

“Again, the choice is ours.”

-Rabbi Packouz

Rebbe
Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

R. Packouz is referring to tremendous human suffering and agonizing pain, not simply being frustrated when people around me don’t take my point of view seriously. What I am experiencing isn’t as painful as even a child’s cut finger. But I still gave in to the temptation to say, “ouch.”

I’ve started reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, and in the first chapter, she relates (pg 17):

The Besht’s (the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) message was revolutionary. His followers broke with certain Jewish norms, adopting specific dress and customs and making ritual modifications, all of which horrified the Jewish establishment.

I don’t know if I’ve “horrified” anyone, but I’m certainly shaking up the establishment here and there. Fishkoff also writes of the Besht:

“I have come into this world to show man how to live by three precepts,” he said. “Love of God, love of Israel, and love of the Torah.”

If I can have a similar purpose within my own context, then it wouldn’t be just me wielding my opinion like a sword, but the will of God to teach how to love and how to focus love.

Not that my fellow Christians are ignorant about love. Many, as I’ve said above, love greatly and demonstrate that love abundantly, particularly to the Jewish people. I just want to help illustrate that there is no dissonance between loving the Jewish people, loving Israel, loving the Torah, and loving God. There is no dissonance between loving Jewish people and realizing that means accepting and approving Jewish people loving the Torah, loving Israel, and loving God, including Messianic Jewish people.

Since I frequently read material published online by Aish.com, I often come across quotes of Rabbi Pliskin’s work, such as the one I cited above. I decided it was long past due to actually purchase one of his books, so after I finish Fishkoff’s book, I’ll be consulting (since it’s a Torah commentary) Growth Through Torah.

From what I can tell about R. Pliskin from his writing, he seems to stress compassion and kindness toward others. He seems like the sort of person who desires peace in the world and peace between people, rather than always banging heads over this theological point or that.

Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones

In many ways, we are at war in the world, battling against ignorance, hostility, brutality, and indifference, but if all we do…I do is fight, then I’ve simply redoubled my efforts after forgetting my purpose (a lesson I learned from Chuck Jones when he was describing his philosophy behind creating Wile E. Coyote to a film class I once attended).

I still don’t want to be too quick in deciding what I’m going to do next, so I’m not going to hastily pursue a conclusion.

On the other hand, there is this…

Giving up is a final solution to a temporary problem.

-anonymous holocaust survivor

And this…

While most Hasidim restrict their personal dealings to Jews, and some even to Jews within their own ultra-Orthodox communities, Lubavitchers have never been insular. Their first interest is in kindling the sparks within Jewish souls, but since the early 1980s they have widened their appeal to include non-Jews, whom they urge to remain within their own religions while obeying the seven laws God gave to Noah … This is crucial because only when all God’s divine sparks are released and reunited with the Divine Oneness will God’s purpose be achieved. “Our job is to make a dwelling place for God in the lower world,” says Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic … “We try to make the world a more and more godly place, until the coming of Moshiach [the Messiah].”

-Fishkoff, pg 22

Although many Orthodox Jews, including Chabadniks, look down their noses at Gentiles and particularly Christians, here we see a perspective that acknowledges all human beings are “sparks” thrown off by the Divine Oneness, and only by all of those sparks being united with their Source can the world be prepared for the coming (return) of the King.

I’m one of those small sparks. But so is each and every individual soul at the church I attend, and each and every individual soul in all of the churches in the world. They’re just waiting for someone to discover them, reveal them, and free them, so they can fly…so they can soar.

I should take a fresh look at the blueprints for that tent again and see if God really wants me to help build it.

I’m Not Who I Was

changing-courseDo not be dismayed by the hypocrisy of others, nor by your own inconsistencies. Our lives are all journeys through hills and valleys—no person’s spiritual standing is a static affair.

But the good each person achieves is eternal, as he connects to the Source of All Good, Who is infinite and everlasting. The failures, on the other hand, are transient and superficial, fleeting shadows of clouds, as stains in a garment to be washed away.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hypocrisy”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I’ve written over 900 blog posts for “morning meditations” and 214 for my previous blog (which stopped being active in 2011) called Searching for the Light on the Path. That’s over 1100 blog posts that record my progressive journey of faith, attempting to discover my position along the trail that leads to God.

In all that time and in all those blog posts, my opinions and beliefs have shifted a bit; perhaps more than just a bit in some areas. I’ve explored and opened myself up to some concepts and investigated and shut down others. Some people who were my friends or who were at least friendly to me have dropped me like a hot rock as I’ve developed my understanding of God, the Messiah, and the Bible in directions that oppose their belief systems. Other people have opened up to me and shared their highly valuable insights when seeing that I am not trying to impose my will on others, but seeking to discover God’s will for me and the world around me.

I suppose that last part sounds a bit narcissistic but then again, no one blogs except from their own perspective and as a means of presenting that perspective to anyone with Internet access.

I haven’t been directly accused of this, but I remember one blogger accusing another of hypocrisy based on the changing of the second blogger’s perspectives over time.

But aren’t we supposed to change? Aren’t we supposed to grow? What would happen if you learned basic arithmetic but never progressed beyond that point? What would have happened if no one anywhere across history ever developed algebra, calculus, or trigonometry? What would have happened if the best telescope we had in the world was still on the level of the one created by Galileo? What if our best medical technology for curing fevers and multiple other ailments was to apply leaches to human beings?

Are you a hypocrite if you learn something new and it changes how you see things and how you think?

As Rabbi Freeman said above, “Our lives are all journeys through hills and valleys—no person’s spiritual standing is a static affair.”

It’s interesting that a religious person should be the one to say that because, at least in Christianity, after achieving a certain level of knowledge, the expectation (this is just my opinion, of course) is that we should stay “static” with “the truth.” I’m not denying that there is Divine and eternal truth in our universe. Our universe was created by such truth. But that hardly means we know everything that there is to know about God or faith or that we even know enough. Is it enough to answer some altar call or to raise your hand in church as a profession of your faith in Jesus Christ? Is it enough to be saved?

It seems that a lot of Christian Bible studies and Sunday school classes aren’t really designed to teach people new ideas or to help people explore uncharted territory in theology, but to continue confirming what everyone already knows. Earlier today, I reviewed a television episode produced by First Fruits of Zion describing the meaning behind the name “Jesus.” However, the information presented, though very basic from my point of view, was designed to be new and even a tad bit “revolutionary” to the traditional conservative Christian audience targeted by these programs.

iam-not-a-numberIf someone who had been raised and educated spiritually in a “typical,” “ordinary” American church saw this or some other episode of FFOZ TV, they would very likely encounter what for them would be brand new information about topics they thought they knew completely.

I recently reviewed Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. In the book, McKnight recounts a conversation he had with another Pastor about the meaning of the gospel. That Pastor too had stopped learning a long time ago and if he was studying at all, it was for the purpose of maintaining the pattern and level of knowledge he already possessed:

I replied, “A book about the meaning of gospel.”

“That’s easy,” he said, “justification by faith.” After hearing that quick-and-easy answer, I decided to push further, so I asked him Piper’s question: “Did Jesus preach the gospel?”

His answer made me gulp. “Nope,” he said, “Jesus couldn’t have. No one understood the gospel until Paul. No one could understand the gospel until after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost.” “Not even Jesus?” I asked.

“Nope. Not possible,” he affirmed. I wanted to add an old cheeky line I’ve often used: “Poor Jesus, born on the wrong side of the cross, didn’t get to preach the gospel.”

In my weekly conversations with my Pastor, I find myself challenged by a person who does study a great deal and who presents me with information I don’t possess which, in my case, is how traditional Christian theology, doctrine, and dogma works. For a Christian, I don’t know very much about how the formal “church” conceptualizes things. I often reference Jewish sources for my studies, both because I’m drawn to them and because they challenge my “Gentile” way of understanding God and faith. Both my Pastor and my studying help me grow, at least a little bit at a time.

We’re supposed to grow and we’re supposed to help other people grow. In the church (and in other Gentile-driven religious contexts based on the Bible), we have adopted a philosophy, not of growth, but of comfort. We want to be comfortable in what we think, feel, and believe. We don’t want to be challenged. Our day-to-day lives are challenging enough. We want to spend our Sunday services and Bible studies with people who think just like us, discussing things that we all understand in exactly the same way.

I know that sounds cynical, but it’s actually very human. All people who identify with a group that thinks, feels, and acts in a particular way relative to the larger environment want that. Christians want that, and religious Jews want that, and Hebrew Roots people want that, and progressives want that, and atheists want that, and everyone else wants that, too.

God is transcendent. He doesn’t fit in the little boxes we try to put Him in (if we are people who believe that God exists at all). Our hope, our goal, our journey should all be pointed in the direction of transcendence. We can never completely know the infinite God all in all, but we are tasked with approaching Him as closely as we can, knowing that it won’t be incredibly close.

Instead, we’ve reached an area of comfortable equilibrium and there we stay. It’s like two married people who behave more like roommates, including sleeping in separate bedrooms. It may be comfortable, but you’ll never experience passion that way.

The Rebbe would sit down with his students and say, time and time again:

The Baal Shem Tov taught that from every thing a person hears or sees in this world he must find a teaching in how Man should serve G‑d. In truth, this is the whole meaning of service of G‑d.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“All the World is My Teacher”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

icarus-seeking-lightIn Greek mythology, the wings of Icarus melted when he flew too close to the Sun and he fell, but we will freeze into complete inaction and be totally ineffectual if we stay away from the flames of wisdom and knowledge. Challenge involves risk and risk feels dangerous. Sometimes we accept a challenge and the danger and then we (seemingly) fail and fall, ending up not getting what we want. Moses accepted the challenge of leading the Jewish people through a desert for forty years at the behest of God, and in the end, he was denied entry into Israel. He failed the challenge.

Or was it a failure?

Chassidic teaching explains that this is the deeper reason why Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel. If Moses would have settled us in the Land, we could never have been exiled from it. If Moses would have built the Holy Temple, it could never had been destroyed. If Moses would have established the people of Israel in their homeland as a “light unto the nations,” that light could never have been dimmed.

If Moses would have crossed the Jordan, that would have been the end: the end of the struggle, the end of history.

G-d wasn’t ready for the end yet. So He decreed that Moses remain in the desert. But He did allow him to see the Land. And because Moses saw it, and because the effect of everything Moses did is everlasting, we, too, can see it.

At all times, and under all conditions, we have the power to ascend a summit within us and see the Promised Land. No matter how distant the end-goal of creation may seem, we have the power to see its reality, to know its truth with absolute clarity and absolute conviction.

We are still in the midst of the struggle. It is a difficult, oft-times painful struggle; but it is not a blind struggle. Moses has seen to that.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Land and See”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

building-the-templeAll that isn’t in the Bible, but let’s go with it for now. If Moses had entered the Land, would the Messiah have come? What would have happened to the people of the nations of the world? Would we all have been drawn to the light of Israel in the days of Moses? What would that have meant? Becoming gerim, “resident aliens” and then having our descendants being assimilated and absorbed into tribal Israel? That would mean anyone outside of the original Israelites and their descendants would have had to ultimately become part of tribal Israel to become Holy unto God. But what about the rest of us?

God wasn’t ready for the end, perhaps not because of what it would have meant for Israel but because of what it would have meant for the majority of the world. All those things midrash says Moses would have done will actually be performed by Messiah, Son of David. But Israel had to suffer because Moses didn’t enter the Land and instead died in the desert. That’s a horrible realization; not comfortable at all.

We won’t come to learn the reality of our existence in a world created by God if we allow ourselves to remain in a comfortable place. Moses died, and Joshua was challenged with conquering a nation. David founded Jerusalem but the task of building the Temple was left to Solomon. Israel fell into exile on multiple occasions, her Temple destroyed, her Land lost for centuries. The Messiah came and died. Then he rose. Then he ascended. And then he didn’t come back. Human history has been spinning out of control ever since, or so it appears.

What can we do? We can stop being comfortable. “Comfortable” is not the condition of our current world. We need to read, to study, to challenge ourselves, to change as we encounter each new spark of the Divine that has been left here for us by the Source of that fire. We’re meant to grow, to develop, and to act. How else can we prepare the way for the return of the King?

Learning God

davening_morningIn the early period of his leadership the Alter Rebbe taught: “The footsteps of man are directed by G-d.”(Tehillim 37:23) When a Jew comes to a particular place it is for an (inner Divine) intent and purpose – to perform a mitzva, whether a mitzva between man and G-d or a mitzva between man and his fellow-man. A Jew is G-d’s messenger.

Wherever a messenger (shaliach) may be, he represents the power of the meshalei’ach, the one who sent him. The superior quality that souls possess, higher than the angels (who are also “messengers”), is that souls are messengers by virtue of Torah.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Tamuz 10, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

If you know something worthwhile, share it. By reaching others, you will reach yourself.

Whatever you learn – from books, lectures, or life experience – do so with the goal of sharing with others. If it was fascinating, how did it change you? What did it teach you about living? And how can you transfer that insight to others?

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Way #46: Learn In Order To Teach”s
Aish.com

Sharing life experiences? Rabbi Weinberg is talking my language.

The past two “morning meditations” were my commentary on a teaching given by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) President and Founder Boaz Michael called Moses in Matthew. One of the essential points I tried to get across is that not all of the information “encoded” in the gospels (or the rest of the Bible for that matter) can be accessed and understood apart from a Jewish context. That context includes not only understanding the original languages and the cultural and historical framework of the time in which the Bible writers were operating, but the philosophical, religious, and midrashic material that would have been in the minds of those writers and their immediate audiences.

While the Bible is truly the inspired word of God, the Bible writers most likely had no idea that what they penned would be translated into hundreds of languages and consumed by nations and cultures all over the planet, two-thousand or more years into the future. In their intent, they were writing to people like them, people they knew or knew about, a specific and contemporary  readership.

Localization, when applied to language, is the process of writing a document in one language with the specific purpose that it be (more or less) easily translated into other languages. That requires the original document be written as “generically” as possible, employing no slang, idiom, or other language forms that are difficult to translate literally into other languages.

But one of the things we know or should know, is that the Bible writers used a lot of word play, symbolism, imagery, idiom, slang, and nicknames that were extremely specific to not only the original languages but to the time and culture in which these writers were living. To make matters worse, the Greek of the New Testament can seem extremely awkward at communicating thoughts and ideas that the Hebrew thinking/speaking writers were attempting to communicate.

My Pastor, who is fluent in Hebrew, agrees that some of the New Testament phrases written in Greek are worded in a very difficult manner, but they become much clearer when “retro-translated” into Hebrew (which is one of the reasons why the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels are extremely helpful).

man_risingThe quote from “Today’s Day” at the top of this blog post says in part that “A Jew is G-d’s messenger. Wherever a messenger (shaliach) may be, he represents the power of the meshalei’ach, the one who sent him.” That’s quite true but as disciples of the Jewish Messiah, even we Gentiles are messengers of God and we also represent the one who sent us.

Rabbi Weinberg says that the purpose of learning is to teach, not that we must all take on the role of a formal teacher, but any time we communicate something we have learned to another, we are teaching them what we learned. That’s what I’m doing with this blog.

The interesting thing is that, based on everything I’ve written over the past several days (and long before that), as Christians, we can’t really learn the Bible beyond a certain point until we learn to read it “Jewishly.” Therefore, we can’t really teach what we’ve learned about the Bible beyond a particular limit until we’ve learned to teach it “Jewishly.”

This isn’t to say that we Gentile Christians will ever learn to conceptualize the world in the same way as someone who was born into a Jewish home, raised and educated within a fully cultural and religious Jewish context, and as someone who lives a life that is halachically Jewish. I live with a Jewish wife and have three Jewish children and I don’t come anywhere near understanding my world from the Jewish perspective, let alone writing from that perspective.

But hopefully I’ve learned enough to add a bit of an “accent” to my language…to communicate from a different perspective, presenting my understanding of the Bible (limited though it may be) in a way that appears new or at least different from what most Christians teach and comprehend.

According to Rabbi Weinberg, you don’t have to be perfect to teach. That’s a lesson I know all too well:

The best teachers make mistakes; more at the beginning, less later on. It’s like riding a bike or driving a car – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Nobody ever became a great teacher without flopping a few times.

The first time, you’ll probably be laughed at. But don’t be discouraged. (Be glad they didn’t curse you!) Try again. The second time they’ll argue with you. That’s a good sign already; you’ve got them engaged. The third time they’ll thank you. That makes all the previous efforts worth it.

The same way a budding artist needs to study under the masters, a teacher needs to study the methods of great educators. If you have a favorite teacher (or journalist, actor, etc.) be conscious of their techniques for communicating the message.

But don’t wait until you’re perfect – because that’s a long way off! Just get started and teach as best you can. It will do wonders to help clarify your own viewpoint.

Of course, no one will ever become a perfect teacher and some people are more naturally gifted in that role than others. One of the reasons I write is to clarify what I’m learning within myself. Sometimes presenting that to others helps me learn as well. If the Jewish people were called to be a light to the nations, then Messiah has taught us that we need to be a light, too. We are learning things from our Master that are well worth sharing, but as he said, a light cannot shine if it is hidden under a basket.

GardeningLearning and teaching is a living, organic process. We know we’re alive when we are interacting, not only with other human beings, but with God. We are fulfilling the purpose of our existence. We are exercising the reason for our design.

We don’t have to be perfect and we don’t even always have to be all that good. We do have to do, though. If we are sincere, and motivated, and acting in His Name, we will move forward, we will learn, we will teach, and with the help of God, a few people will actually understand, then learn, and then teach too.

People think that to attain truth you have to pulverize boulders, move mountains and turn the world upside-down. It’s not so. Truth is found in the little things.

On the other hand, to move a mountain takes some dynamite and a few bulldozers. To do one of those little things can take a lifetime of working on yourself.

You do what you can: Learn and meditate and pray and improve yourself in the ways you know how—and He will help that what you do will be with Truth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Small Truths”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

-Helen Keller, American writer and political activist

The Master said (Luke 21:15), “…for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” While that may not always seem true given the amount of ridicule believers receive from various members of our society, we are not abandoned and alone, either. Learn and keep on learning, but information kept to yourself only helps you. You are only serving God when you share it and Him.

Love and Commentary

praying_jewFrom where do we learn from the Torah that changing one’s clothes is a sign of respect?

-Shabbos 114a

The verse from Yeshaya 58:13 was already expounded to teach, among other things, that one’s Shabbos clothes should not be like one’s weekday garments (113a). Nevertheless, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted trying to show that this concept is indicated not only from a verse in the prophets, but that it is also rooted in the Torah. Ben Ish Chai explains that based upon this verse from the Torah, there is a practical difference which can be derived regarding the need to wear special clothing on Shabbos.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Suiting up for Shabbos”
Commentary on Shabbos 114a

I’ve been pondering a few things lately regarding Judaism and particularly the Messianic sect of Judaism which recognizes Yeshua (Jesus) as the Moshiach (Christ). There are many things about Judaism that I find beautiful and I find myself sometimes drawn to those traditions. In the days when I used to worship on Shabbos and pray while wearing a tallit gadol, there was a “specialness” about it I can’t articulate. Weekday mornings when I would pray shacharit while wearing a tallit and laying tefillin had a texture and a quality about them that I can’t describe. The blessings I recited from the Siddur (which are taken from Hosea 2:21-22 in the Tanakh or verses 19-20 in Christian Bibles) when donning the arm tallit, invoked a particular unity between me and my God that I think Christians miss some of the time.

I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness, and with mercy; and I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you will know Hashem.

Hosea 2:21-22 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Christians sometimes criticize Jews for all their “man-made traditions” but there is a certain beauty in how observant Jews even prepare themselves for encountering God in prayer. After all, if you were summoned to appear before an earthly ruler, such as a King or President, you would certainly prepare yourself, including dressing for the occasion. Why shouldn’t the same be true if we are summoned to appear before the Ultimate King: God? And after all, Jews are indeed commanded to wear tzitzit (Deuteronomy 22:12) and to, in some sense, wear the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:8).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (JPS Tanakh)

But as my conversation with Pastor Randy reminded me the other day, there are also commandments and rulings that are beyond my comprehension.

All holy writings may be saved from a fire.

-Shabbos 115a

Perek teaches the laws of saving items from being burned in a fire on Shabbos. On the one hand, our sages realized that if a person is given an unlimited license to save everything he can possibly grab, the person would invariably be driven to try to extinguish the flames, which is a Torah violation… This is why the halachah put a finite limit on what a person is allowed to salvage from a fire. Once this quota of clothing and food is met, the person may not remove anything more from the burning building, even if the particular situation allows the time and conditions to retrieve more.

On the other hand, our sages were lenient to allow saving holy scrolls from a burning building. It is permitted to remove a Torah scroll, for example, to a domain which is normally rabbinically restricted. This is the topic which the first Mishnah discusses.

It is interesting to note that the sages put limits on a person regarding his property pulled from a fire in a building, whereas in other cases we find the opposite. If a person is traveling up to the last minute before Shabbos, and he fails to make it to the city, what should he do with the valuables he is carrying? The Gemara (153a) rules that a Jew in this predicament may instruct a gentile who may be traveling with him to bring the items into the city for him. This is normally a violation of “amira l’nochri – telling a non-Jew to do a melachah for a Jew on Shabbos”, but in this case our sages allowed it, being that they felt that if the Jew would have no recourse, he
might carry the items into the city himself. The Rishonim deal with this apparent inconsistent approach of the halachah to a Jewish person who is faced with a risk to his property. In the case of a fire we limit him although he is not doing any melachah, but when carrying into the city as Shabbos begins, we are lenient.

PogromFor a Christian, the problems being posed here and their solutions do not appear on our “radar screens,” so to speak. It’s as if a difficulty was made up for the sake of proposing a solution. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to observe the Shabbat and to keep it Holy (see Exodus 20:8, Exodus 31:15-17, and Deuteronomy 5:12), but all of the Rabbinic rulings that go along with these commandments are enormously complex, at least to me. How can one even begin to observe Shabbos and remember each and every condition and circumstance that could possibly apply in a flawless manner?

But then again, I don’t live in the Orthodox Jewish space, so what do I know?

(I should say at this point that being married to a Jewish wife does give me an insight that a Christian who is not intermarried lacks, but on the other hand, my wife is the first one to say that she’s hardly Orthodox)

I can only imagine that there are many, many Jews who are Shomer Shabbos. I know that after the local Chabad Rebbetzin gave birth to her youngest child on a Friday night, her husband, the Rabbi, walked from the hospital to the synagogue in the middle of the night (since it was Shabbos and he was forbidden to drive or to even accept a ride from another) so that he could be at shul to lead Shabbat services Saturday morning.

I can’t imagine a Pastor ever being in a similar situation and from a Christian’s point of view, even if we had such a restriction, it is very likely that we would depend on the grace of Jesus and under unusual circumstances, overlook the commandment by allowing ourselves to drive or, in the case of a fire, retrieve any of our property we could lay our hands on before the fire could get to it (or to even put out the fire if we could).

Do we admire such dedication to the commandments of God as they are understood in religious Judaism or do we consider observant Jewish people to be bound and gagged by the letter of the Law and also by the commentary on the letter of the Law?

That’s a tough one. Even if we in the church disagree with how Jews choose to obey God, it’s their choice, not ours.

But if those Jews are also Messianic, should we look at the mitzvot any differently? Should we allow ourselves to judge others because they are Jewish and they choose to live a religious Jewish lifestyle?

I’m in no position to do any such thing, but it does bring forth interesting questions. There is not always a single tradition in religious Judaism as to how to perform the mitzvot because there isn’t a single Judaism. Further, there isn’t always agreement between the ancient or modern sages as to how to perform certain of the mitzvot, and so one much choose which tradition to follow, usually based on which Judaism you are operating within.

But those are human choices not necessarily the will of God, unless we want to consider that God is “OK” with all of the variants on Rabbinic teachings, and that is a big “if.”

Setting that aside for a moment, another problem presents itself, but it too is a man-made problem.

I was recently criticized on another person’s blog about the questions I was bringing up as a result of last Wednesday evening’s conversation with Pastor Randy, but the criticism wasn’t coming from anyone Jewish. There is a certain corner of Christianity that believes we Christians are identical to the Jewish people once we come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, at least as far as the mitzvot are concerned…well, sort of. It’s complicated, but the core of their argument is that there is such a thing as a perfect Christianity/Judaism that can be divined solely from the Bible, and that it is possible to practice this very particular form of religion without any (or any excessive) human-created interpretation and set of attendant traditions, and using more than a little theological sleight of hand to “prove” their position.

What’s really interesting is that my critic and his friends who have commented on the matter, didn’t seem to actually read what I’d written. I was asking questions, not making pronouncements, and yet they were actively condemning my “conclusions.” The one thing I can say with certainty though, is that I see no directive for modern Christians to mimic modern Jewish religious behavior in an attempt to worship as if we are in one of Paul’s first century churches or synagogues.

I’m not here to criticize Jewish people or Jewish religious observance. I don’t have the right or the necessary qualifications to render a definitive commentary, only the drive to share my questions and thoughts on the matter, such as they are. I’m not even really criticizing how other Christians choose to view their religious obligations to God, except to the degree that they attempt to impose their personal viewpoints on other Christians and on observant Jews.

To the best of my understanding (and I’m attempting to improve my understanding all of the time), no human being has the ability to perfectly obey God in every single detail, regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong. This was probably as true in the days of Moses, Solomon, and Elijah, as it was true in the days of Jesus and Paul, as indeed, it is true today.

studying_tanakh_messiahPastor Randy suggested a very straightforward method of studying the Bible based on the three steps of observation, interpretation, and application. That requires some fluency in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and lacking much ability in that linguistic arena, I’m already handicapped. This is why I speak with teachers who I respect to discuss and debate them on their insights. This is why I have so many questions.

But in the end, the advice of another friend of mine must be at the heart of every question and lay the foundation for every answer. In the end, and in the beginning, we should not seek out Judaism or Christianity, but only an encounter with God. This is something that not only are we all capable of, regardless of who we are, but in fact, it is something that we are all commanded to do, because it is God’s greatest desire.

“What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

-Shabbos 31a

Yeshua answered him, the first of all the mitzvot is: “Hear, O Yisra’el! HaShem is our God; HaShem is one. Love HaShem, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength.” This is the first mitzvah. Now the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” There is no mitzvah greater than these.

Mark 12:29-31 (DHE Gospels)

Love God and seek Him and, if you do love God, seek out your fellows and love them, too.

47 Days: Learning Humility

Dear Rabbi:

I have a problem. It’s my ego.

I have been duly chiding myself and ever reminding myself that my accomplishments are only possible by G‑d’s good grace, so I should not feel any more accomplished than the guy next door.

But then I start wondering: am I never allowed to feel good about myself? How can you accomplish anything in this world if you never take credit for anything you do?

Answer:

You are not alone in this struggle. This balance between letting go of ego and maintaining a healthy sense of self-confidence is an issue for all of us, simply because we are human.

We have G‑d given talents for a reason: So we can refine them, develop them and use them in our daily lives to serve our Maker. G‑d gives us the tools, but utilizing them to their full potential is up to us.

So we should be thankful and happy that G‑d has given us our unique talents, for it means that He thinks we can develop them and do good things with them. He believes in us. And as we develop an understanding about G‑d and who He is, we can deepen our appreciation for His belief in us.

G‑d’s belief in us is even more apparent when we look at our weaknesses, for that’s where the real challenge lies. G‑d gave us these major challenges because He knows we have the ability to overcome them and succeed. Contemplating this fact will certainly result in a happy and self-confident attitude about oneself.

-Rabbi Avi Davis
“Without Ego, How Can I Feel Good About Myself?”
from “Questions and Answers”
Aish.com

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

All this sounds a lot like what I wrote about yesterday in relation to God’s sovereignty vs. our own over the world. Humanity went from being taken care of in creation to be the caretakers of creation because we desired it. We desired it more than we desired obeying God. Now, on the other side of the equation, we (well, those of us who are aware of God and His nature) realize that we really do need God and that the world is often too big for us to manage alone.

Well, anyway that’s how I feel. The world is too big for me to manage alone. Heck, even my life sometimes is to big and too messy for me to manage on my own. When don’t I plead to God to lend a hand (or two or five) in sustaining me and my family?

And yet amazingly, there are those, even in the community of faith, who don’t seem (at least in public) to have any concerns about their personal abilities whatsoever.

Even if the entire world considers you a tzaddik (pious and righteous), you should nevertheless think of yourself as if you were sinful.

-Niddah 30b

In 1965, I visited the Steipler Gaon, a sage whom people often consulted for medical advice. Since he had heard that I was a psychiatrist, he wanted to find out new developments in medications for mental illnesses. I related to the Gaon whatever I knew about the most recent advances.

“Is anything available that can cure someone from delusions?” he asked. I told the Gaon that delusions were very resistant to treatment, and that while antipsychotic medications could subdue overt psychotic behavior, the delusional thinking itself was difficult to eradicate.

“But what if someone has the delusion that he is the greatest tzaddik in the generation?” the Gaon asked. I could not restrain myself and laughingly replied, “No medication can cure that.”

The Gaon shook his head sadly. “Too bad,” he said. “That malady is so widespread.”

Delusions of any kind are a sign of mental illness. How sick a person must be to consider oneself a tzaddik, and how wise the Talmud was to caution us against developing such delusions!

Today I shall…

try to be honest with myself, and even if my behavior is such that people may think I am a tzaddik, I must not allow myself to be deluded.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 28”
Aish.com

This is certainly one delusion I don’t harbor within myself. I have great admiration for the tzaddikim who I encounter in both the Jewish and Christian communities (although I suppose truly righteous Christians would be referred to as “saints”). And yet there are some people, who are fortunately few in number in my corner of the blogosphere (at least since I’ve decided to respond to them differently) who seem to behave as if they were the most righteous people in our generation, apart from anything resembling humility.

There’s an irony here. I have found that those who have achieved great things and who are truly righteous before God are often quite humble. We see in Rabbi Twerski’s story that a man who may well have been one of the most righteous in his generation, did not desire to experience that awareness (I suspect he was speaking of himself and not others) and wanted to be “cured” of his “delusion.” Even Moses, the greatest of the Prophets, who lead millions of people through the wilderness for forty years and spoke “face-to-face” with God, was called the most humble man on the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Most of the time, truly accomplished individuals don’t have to go around telling everyone they are truly accomplished individuals, at least if they are secure in who they are (and secure in God). As we saw from the “Ask the Rabbi” question I quoted at the beginning of this missive, most of us (I include myself in this group) struggle to achieve a balance between humility and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. And whenever one is in danger of becoming a little too arrogant as a tzaddik, as we see in Paul’s example, God provides a “thorn” or other reminder that he is (and we are) constantly dependent on the Providence of Hashem.

When we are aware of God and we become aware that we have a definite part in His plans for the world around us, sometimes there’s a temptation to take pride in that. It’s difficult for most of us to separate what God is doing through us and what we are doing ourselves. How are we to take pride and boast of God while not boasting of our own achievements?

For a true tzaddik, this doesn’t present much of a problem because they have reached such a spiritual level that their eyes are constantly on God and they can see it is His power and His will that is working in the world. The tzaddik is the instrument of that will, and it is the tzaddik’s job to take the talents God has provided him and refine them in the world for the sake of Heaven.

For the rest of us, we continually strive to realize what the tzaddik has learned. We must bend our will, submit to God, and refine our gifts without succumbing to self-pity, or out of a sense of victimhood, depression, because we feel we aren’t good enough as just who we are. On some occasions, it is exactly those individuals who have succumbed to their identity of “victimization” who appear, on the surface, to be the most arrogant and confident in who they are. In reality, they struggle a great deal (but in a futile way) to achieve a type of signficance from external situations which can only truly be achieved internally, between the person and God. Like Paul, we can only achieve significance in humility.

I have found a new sense of humility in my recent return to church and the challenges it has presented. I am in no sense the conductor of my own destiny within the church’s walls or within its community of souls. I am the recipient of acts of kindness and friendliness among hundreds of strangers who are also my brothers and sisters in Christ.

And yet, I haven’t “talked Christian” as such in many years, so each encounter is like visiting a foreign country for three hours a week and wondering how I can accomplish the “immigration” process to become a “citizen,” not of the Kingdom of Heaven, but of this particular body of believers.

In writing these words, I realize that one of the reasons God has put me where I am right now is to learn this very lesson. Whenever you encounter feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, isolation, and even embarrassment, stop for a minute or two and look at where you are and why you are there. Maybe it isn’t just a tough social situation or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maybe you are in the right place in God’s time. For me, I believe, at least for now, church is where God put me to listen, not just to Him, but to everyone else.

We learn humility and even some modicum of righteousness like we learn anything else…by the doing.