Tag Archives: learning

Wisdom and Doubt

When someone is angry at you, organize wisely what you wish to say. Begin speaking in a manner that is likely to have a calming effect. For example, begin by admitting your own mistakes. When you start off in an appeasing manner, the person will pay more attention to your words, and this will prevent him from causing you harm or loss.

We find an example when Abigail successfully calmed down King David, who was furious at her husband (see Shmuel 1, 25:25). She began by admitting that she herself had made an error. Only then did she present her arguments to King David. When you concede that you are wrong, others calm down.

When someone is angry at you, and you start out by either blaming him or denying it, you will usually increase the person’s anger. If you want someone’s anger to escalate, the best way to do this is to either say: “It’s your fault, not mine.”

It takes courage to admit your own mistakes. Even if you are only responsible in a small way, it is still best to start off by saying something like, “Yes, I could (or should) have done differently. I’m sorry for any pain or inconvenience I have caused you.”

This will put the other person in a calmer state, and he will then be much more likely to listen to what you have to say in your own defense.

-see Ralbag – Shaar hapiyus, no.1;
Rabbi Pliskin – Consulting the Wise, pp.58-9
quoted from Aish.com

Just a few days ago I quoted from another Aish.com missive that said:

Only when a person has peace of mind can he really feel love for humanity. Lack of peace of mind leads to animosity towards others. Peace of mind leads to love.

The reality of the situation is that if we wait until we’ve achieved perfect peace of mind before we start interacting with other people, we’ll never interact with other people. Since that’s impossible for most of us, we’ll need another strategy.

What if you’re wrong? Ever thought about that? I think about it all the time, but then again, that’s just me. Maybe I’m insecure or something.

Or something.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell
British philosopher, logician, and mathematician

I hope that means that I’m on the path to wisdom, but I’d hate to delude myself or elevate myself beyond my true position. But I think it was Socrates who said, “the beginning of wisdom is the discovery of one’s own ignorance,” so I suppose I’m in good company whenever I answer a question with the statement, “I don’t know.”

That’s not the same as giving an answer and then discovering that you’re wrong, but it’s related. In the world of the Internet, everybody seems to feel like they must have the “right” answer to all questions and debates all of the time. In that sense, I must be some sort of anomaly for having more questions than answers.

But back to the topic at hand. What if you’re wrong?

I’ve already been wrong in public including in the blogosphere, so it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but I get the impression that it just terrifies others who blog, comment, or otherwise express their opinion online. Some people can’t admit it. Some people would feel like a failure to admit they made a mistake.

I suspect that it’s closer to the truth to say that people already feel like failures or carry around a great burden of hurt and pain when they find themselves in a position where they can’t back down, they won’t recant, and they refuse to admit that they could have made a mistake and overstated their position.

That’s horrible.

That means you are totally locked out of being able to enter into a conversation with someone you’ve hurt or offended and to, as Abigail did, calm down that person and then try to make amends. It also means that even if the other person were wrong as well in some way, you’ll never get to the point in the discussion where they’ll feel free to hear your gentle criticisms. That’s because you’ll still be too busy defending your own “rightness” and challenging the other person’s opinion.

More’s the pity.

You don’t have to possess peace of mind, and you don’t have to even feel compassionate love for humanity to begin to fix this. You do however, need to be able to make claim to just a small bit of wisdom and humility. The Proverbs we find in the Bible are replete with examples of those who disdained wisdom in favor of their own self-directed council.

Those people, no matter how certain of themselves they may seem, are very often completely insecure and uncertain and indeed, not asserting knowledge and facts, but desperately defending an increasingly disintegrating ego. The other day, I called such a person a nudnik. Today, I’m saying that like any hurt and injured human being, they should be pitied and if possible, they should be helped.

Was it something I said or something I did
Did my words not come out right
Though I tried not to hurt you
Though I tried
But I guess that’s why they say

Every rose has it’s thorn
Just like every night has it’s dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has it’s thorn

-lyrics by Bret Michaels
from the ballad Every Rose Has It’s Thorn (1988)
Recorded by Poison

But even if we are injured, hurting, humiliated, and emotionally bleeding, we can’t always wait for all that to stop before trying to right what is wrong. If we still possess a modicum of mercy, grace, and justice within us and we don’t want to live long enough to see ourselves become the villain, then we have to take who we are and do the best we can with ourselves. No one enters life a perfect person and no one leaves life perfect either. Sure, during whatever lifetime we are granted, we are given many opportunities to learn, to become wise, and to elevate ourselves spiritually, but in the end, we are who we are. We take all of that and do our best with it and with us.

If it is permissible, we must use it for good. If it can be elevated, we cannot leave it behind.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Leave Nothing Behind”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

If you can be a better person today than you were yesterday, then you must make every effort to be that better person. Better to admit that you can be wrong and risk looking foolish than to always demand that you’re right and prove you really are unwise.

Just ask yourself, “what does God want me to do in order to honor Him and to avoid disgracing myself?”

Through love, all pain will turn to medicine. –Rumi

Please don’t destroy yourself. Please don’t try to destroy others because you feel they hurt or maligned you. God is the author of love and life, not hate and destruction.

More Than The Heart Can Bear

Rolling the Torah ScrollThey have forsaken Me, the source of life-giving waters, to dig wells that cannot give water.

Jeremiah 2:13

In a world filled with nationalistic pride, where nations, ethnic groups, and individuals are all searching for their historic roots, it is nothing less than mind-boggling that a people who has an unparalleled wealth of recorded and documented history and literature would so ignore its rich heritage. What do most Jewish children know about their people? Only a fraction receive more than a fragmentary awareness of Jewish history. All can identify Twain and Poe, but few know Maimonides or Yehudah HaLevi. They are likely to know much about Nathan Hale and even Simon Bolivar but have never heard of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba. They may remember the Alamo, but not Massada.

Why do we so despise ourselves? Where is our pride? How can we expect our youth to develop a sense of self-esteem if by our own dereliction we fail to convey to them a justified sense of pride in who they are?

We do not need to drink at others’ wells. Our own is filled with sweet, life-sustaining water.

Today I shall…

do whatever I can to further Jewish education both among adults and children.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 16”
Aish.com

As a Christian, you may think it strange that I support Jewish education. It’s not that I don’t support Christian education, but after all, my three children are Jewish and they should know what it is to be Jewish, to know their history, to study the writings of the learned sages, and to cleave to what it is to be a Jew.

But as Rabbi Twersky points out, even many Jewish children raised by two Jewish parents today hardly know who the Rambam or Hillel were, much less are able to discuss even one single lesson they taught.

In my children’s case, that’s my fault for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not a Jewish father. Also, my wife and I came to faith rather late in life, when our children were already growing up. First we went to a church, then to a “Messianic” (One Law) congregation, then we split the difference with me taking the kids to the local Reform shul and my wife worshiping elsewhere (it’s a long story). Finally, I set my course on Christianity (albeit with an unusual expression and emphasis) and my wife on traditional Judaism.

But my kids are all adults now.

I remember that when my wife and I first started attending a church, we were not yet believers (I guess the church called us “seekers”), but we sent our kids to Sunday school and the church youth group to help them get a more focused moral center…one that we as parents did not yet share.

Horrible mistake. Grievous error. You can’t teach your children morals and values by proxy.

From what time may one recite Sh’ma at night? – 2a

In the Sh’ma, which we read every day, the verse instructs us to learn Torah ourselves and teach it to our children. In fact, a person can expect to be successful in transmitting God’s laws to his children only if he himself learns as well. If he makes no effort to acquire Torah knowledge, how will he have the ability to influence and to lead his children along the right path? Only when there are those who inherit the Torah’s teachings can these lessons in turn, be passed down to the next generation.

In a similar vein, a story is told about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. One of his Chasidim asked for a beracha that he merit that his sons study Torah with devotion. The Rebbe replied that the chassid himself had the key to ensure that this blessing could materialize. The Rebbe pointed out to this father that he should learn Torah with devotion, and then he could anticipate that his sons would follow his example. “For, if not,” the Rebbe warned, “your sons will come with the same request – that their sons should study with devotion while they occupy themselves with other matters.”

Torah can only be fulfilled when we are willing to exert ourselves directly and personally in its ways. We must demonstrate the importance of Torah learning by setting an example that others might follow. By merely stating ideals, these goals will not be reached. This lesson in Sh’ma is one of great importance, so much so that we must reinforce it twice each day.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Teach it to your children—by personal example…”
Berachos 2

I remember meeting with the Youth Pastor at the church we attended at the time and I asked him what I had to do to encourage my children in their “Christian walk.” He gave me essentially the same answer, although worded with more of a Christian “spin.” Most parents with any sort of wisdom at all realize that our children will almost never do what we tell them to do if they see we are not living examples of our lessons. They will however, always watch what we do and our behavior will become their teacher.

Derek Leman wrote a blog post the other day called WhyNotTorah4Christians? It is based on what we read in Deuteronomy 4:6:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

Leman suggests that it is not only vitally necessary for Jews to study Torah (and I agree), but for Gentiles, and particularly Christians to do so as well. I questioned him on this point, asking if that would not somehow encourage Christians to take on mitzvot intended only for Jews. He responded…

You asked: “But how do you reconcile that with opposition to a strict One Law interpretation of scriptures?”

I believe the answer is easy: it is impossible to truly STUDY the Torah and remain in the One Law position. I apologize in advance to those who will be offended. But the One Law position is based on a lack of study of Torah.

The One Law position makes the same basic interpretive error which is common in Christian readings of the Hebrew Bible. People see themselves in Israel’s scriptures by direct substitution. So God says, “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and rules,” (Deut 4:1) and One Lawers think, “This is speaking directly to me.” They skip entirely the question: this is what God commanded one nation at Sinai and I should study to determine what my relationship is to these commandments.

This is exactly the same as Christians reading Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you…”) and making it a poster in the youth room as a promise to themselves. Never mind that it was addressed to Israel.

What we need is more study — deep engagement — context — thought.

So studying Torah…really studying Torah for a Christian, is as much about understanding the role of the Jews in relation to God as it is about understanding who we are as Christians in relation to Jews.

Although there are venues for Christians to study Torah, somewhat rarely in a traditional synagogue settings, and a bit more commonly through resources such as First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ’s) Torah Club series, I continue to have my doubts that we can fulfill the imperative of Deuteronomy 4:6, or that God intended us to satisfy that directive by going to classes. I think what we were supposed to do is observe the Laws of Israel in action and to derive the wisdom of God and the understanding of the Jewish people by observing their behavior.

The “behavior” of the Jewish citizens of the modern state of Israel is under constant criticism by most of the world these days, and almost no one is praising Israel as “a wise and understanding people.” It is also true that the majority of the Jews in Israel today are not religious and portions of those who are religious seem to demonstrate behaviors that seem hostile, aggressive, and even violent at times.

On top of all that, we have a subset of Christianity who feels that they are able to redefine Judaism in their own image and even insist that Jews do not have the right to define their own observance or establish their own authorities.

In that light, Christians who have little or no experience in Jewish studies will indeed struggle to understand where and how to study Torah in a way that will be meaningful for them.

As for me, I tend to “dabble” in Jewish studies. My opinion is that one cannot simply study the Torah and Talmud in isolation, however qualified teachers of Torah (so far, all of my face-to-face teachers have been Christians) are few and far between in my neck of the woods. Of course, if my sole purpose in learning Torah was to teach my Jewish children, I’m more than a few years too late. As adults, the burden of learning has been passed to my kids and my opportunities for contribution have dwindled to nothing.

And yet, as we see, I have an obligation to learn Torah as a Christian for my own sake, for the sake of the Torah itself, in response to God, and perhaps even for the sake of unknown people who may observe me (or read my blog) and somehow may benefit.

But there’s another reason:

You shall know… and take to heart (Deut. 4:39)

For many years Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch suffered from ill health, compelling him to undertake many trips to various European healing centers to consult with medical specialists.

On one such occasion, a professor-physician who had examined and interviewed the Rebbe categorized his ailment in the following manner: the heart craves something that is beyond the capacity of the mind, and the mind understands more than the heart can bear…

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Rebbe’itis”
from the “Once Upon a Chasid” series
Chabad.org

There is an insatiable drive within me, and I believe it is shared by many others like me, to learn, to reach out, to explore, to stretch the limits of knowledge and understanding beyond the five senses, and beyond what the mechanics of the human brain may know. I strive to discover the world beyond the plain, black and white qualities of the known universe and to seek the textures and colors of the infinite and unknowable God, which cannot be detected by logic alone.

This is why I believe we should all study Torah and sit at the houses of learning of the Jewish people, who have kept the Word of God for thousands of years before the first Christian ever rose from the dust of paganism to meet the God of Israel.

It’s not a perfect world and we are not perfect people. Many Christians criticize what Jews teach and believe that they deny the reality of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Many Jews do indeed deny that knowledge, but a growing number have come to both knowledge and faith. Where do we go to meet each other? Where is there a place where Christian and Jew may intersect and share a common God? Jesus taught upon the foundation of the Torah and I believe Moses would have understood him very well.

For our own sakes, for the sake of our children and the generation of Christians who will come after us, and most of all, for the sake of God and our own sanity, we must take the next evolutionary step in our faith and rise above the static teachings of supersessionism and replacement theology. Salvation comes from the Jews (John 4:22) but for the church to study Torah; for me to be able to study Torah in a real and meaningful way…

…God will have to create a miracle.

This miracle I believe, when it is brought about, will be another stone upon which the Mashiach will step as he hastens to return to us.

…under the leadership of Mashiach, even Jews who are farthest away from God’s service will be brought back into the fold by gathering them in and rediscovering the point in their hearts with which they still cling to God. These modern worshippers of Pe’or; the spies and the congregation of present-day Korach will all be a part of Mashiach’s redemption. As we see in this week’s haftarah of consolation, “Like a shepherd [who] tends his flock, with his arm he gathers lambs, and in his bosom he carries [them], the nursing ones he leads.” (Isaiah 40:11)

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“Completing Moses’ task”
from Harav Ginsburgh’s class, 11th Av 5772
Wonders From Your Torah

May the Messiah come soon and in our days.

Our Teacher Moshe the Shepherd

The Baal Shem Tov was once shown from heaven that a certain simple man called Moshe the Shepherd served G‑d, blessed be He, better than he did. He longed to meet this shepherd, so he ordered his horses harnessed to his coach, and traveled, with a few of his disciples, to the place where he was told the shepherd lived.

They stopped in a field at the foot of a hill, and saw, on the hillside above them, a shepherd who was blowing his horn to call his flock. After the sheep gathered to him, he led them to a nearby trough to water them. While they were drinking, he looked up to heaven and began to call out loudly, “Master of the world, You are so great! You created heaven and earth, and everything else! I’m a simple man; I’m ignorant and unlearned, and I don’t know how to serve You or praise You. I was orphaned as a child and raised among gentiles, so I never learned any Torah. But I can blow on my shepherd’s horn like a shofar, with all my strength, and call out, ‘The L-rd is G‑d!’” After blowing with all his might on the horn, he collapsed to the ground, without an ounce of energy, and lay there motionless until his strength returned.

Then he got up and said, “Master of the world, I’m just a simple shepherd; I don’t know any Torah, and I don’t know how to pray. What can I do for You? The only thing I know is to sing shepherds’ songs!” He then began to sing loudly and fervently with all his strength until, again, he fell to the earth, exhausted, without an ounce of energy.

-Yitzchak Buxbaum
“The Shepherd”
from his book, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov
quoted from Chabad.org

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Deuteronomy 6:5 (ESV)

Buxbaum goes on to describe the shepherd’s further efforts to love and please God, some which may sound almost ludicrous, such as standing on his head and waving his feet wildly in the air, but we can learn a lesson from this shepherd and this tale of the Baal Shem Tov.

In all likelihood, no such shepherd ever existed and God never showed the Baal Shem Tov how to find him, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn something about us and about God and about how we’re supposed to connect our lives to Him. That’s what Chassidic tales are all about.

In our tale, the shepherd, who God tells the Baal Shem Tov worships Him better than the venerated Chassidic sage, is a Jew who was raised among Gentiles and who has absolutely no grasp of Torah, Talmud, or even the most basic understanding of halachah. He has no formal education in any of the mitzvot and although the shepherd knows he is to honor, worship, and give glory to God, he doesn’t know the first thing about how a Jew is supposed accomplish this.

Interesting, isn’t it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t study and learn and strive to comprehend what God expects of us, but the information seems to be secondary to the desire, the will, and the intent of the person in worship. Moshe the Shepherd knew nothing but in a sense, he knew everything. He knew to take care of his sheep just as shepherds such as Moshe the Prophet, David the King, and our “good shepherd” Jesus the Rabbi knew how to take care of their sheep, even to the point of laying down their lives.

Moshe the Shepherd called to his sheep by blowing his horn which he compared to a shofar, and since the sheep responded by going to him, it shows he had certainly earned their trust. He gathered his sheep and watered them, and while watering them, cried out to God, blew his horn for Him, sang shepherd’s songs for Him, acknowledged God’s might and glory in the loudest voice he could muster, and he did all this with such zeal and energy that he collapsed, exhausted upon the ground.

And after seeing Moshe the Shepherd do this over and over again to the point of total collapse, we reach the dramatic conclusion of our tale:

What more can I do to serve You?” After pausing to reflect, he said, “Yesterday, the nobleman who owns the flock made a feast for his servants, and when it ended, he gave each of us a silver coin. I’m giving that coin to You as a gift, O G‑d, because You created everything and You feed all Your creatures, including me, Moshe the little shepherd!” Saying this, he threw the coin upward.

At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand reach out from heaven to receive the coin. He said to his disciples, “This shepherd has taught me how to fulfill the verse: ‘You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’”

What does God want from you? The answer is amazingly simple:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Without studying the Bible, Moshe the Shepherd knew what pleased God and he worshiped and pleased God with all his strength. How much more should we who study the Bible know and then do what pleases God. But do we try to please Him with all our might as did Moshe the Shepherd?

Torah is not about getting to the truth. When you are immersed in Torah, even while pondering the question, even while struggling to make sense of it all, you are at truth already.

Torah is about being truth.

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

Falling and Rising

Rabbi Noah Weinberg was visiting the United States of America. He spent one Shabbat in a small New Jersey community. The people were friendly, and because of the small size of the congregation for Rabbi mingled freely with all the congregants. On Shabbat afternoon, when they sat to eat Seudah Shelisheet, the third Shabbat meal, a young man who was sitting next to the Rabbi began a conversation, which expressed his frustration with his ability to learn Torah. The young man described the many hours in the many techniques he had tried in order to grasp the difficult concepts of the Talmud study.

“How come I just can’t get it?” he asked. “No matter what I do, it seems my conclusions are wrong when I get a chance to review with my Rabbi. I am about to give up,” he said he reported.

-Rabbi Raymond Beyda
“Try Try Again”
Commentary on Parashas Terumah
Torah.org

On last Friday’s extra meditation, I posted a video of Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, Rector at St. Marys, St. Paul, a faith community located in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. As you may recall, she was lamenting that after “years of experience and lots of good will, traditional Faith Formation programming is floundering in communities across the country,” including her own. In response, the ministerial staff at St Mary’s had stopped offering all adult education classes. They cancelled everything. They gave up. Rev. Watkins gave up.

I just got an email notice from WordPress.com notifying me that the domain name for this blog will expire in 90 days. I can either choose to renew it for another year, or let it lapse, sending my “morning meditations” into obscure oblivion. Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to give up, too. The contentiousness and extreme lack of unity within the community of faith in Jesus Christ is just stunning at times. It’s not only the lack of unity, but the hostility expressed in our various online exchanges that makes me wonder if there even is a community of faith in the Messiah anymore. Everyone is so concerned with protecting their own turf and their own theologies, usually at the expense of everyone else who calls Jesus “Master” and “Lord.”

An extreme, though understandable, example is found in Lawrence H. Schiffman’s review of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s controversial book, Kosher Jesus as posted at JewishJournal.com. Even the concept of attempting to establish peace between Judaism and Christianity is depicted in widely different ways by these two Jewish gentlemen:

Most difficult to accept is Boteach’s claim that Jews should re-accept Jesus as one of their own teachers, so that Jews and Christians will share this common teacher and unite in our service of God. This notion is probably the cause of the great controversy that already surrounds this book. In making this proposal the author ignores two major issues: 1) The symbolism of Jesus in Western culture where Jews were taunted, persecuted and killed in Jesus’ name. It is simply insensitive to expect, as Boteach does, that this experience should be forgotten so quickly. 2) The need for Judaism to draw clear lines between itself and Christianity to avoid losing adherents to the dominant faith. The Jewishness of Jesus is regularly used in evangelizing Jews by Christian proselytizers to ease the way from Judaism to Christianity. So there is no sense to the proposal to reclaim Jesus as a teacher and hero. He is best left to his Christian adherents, even if he was once a fellow Jew who lived by the Jewish tradition.

Although Rabbi Boteach advocates Jews attempting to reintegrate the historical and Jewish Jesus back into Judaism in order to foster Jewish/Christian peace, Professor Schiffman believes that such peace can only be achieved and maintained by abandoning any hope that Jesus could be considered Jewish, relegating him to the exclusive realm of “Gentile god”. While I can certainly understand the need to separate the Christian Jesus from modern Judaism, given the traditional enmity between the two religions, it is still discouraging that Judaism is unable or unwilling to at least consider the teachings of the Jewish teacher from Natzeret, even apart from Christian rhetoric.

Of course, there are plenty of disagreements within Christianity and particularly between the church and the Messianic Jews who have accepted the Nazarene as Master and Messiah, so I don’t have to go looking too far for discouragement. Going back to Rabbi Beyda’s commentary, at the level of the individual, disappointment doesn’t have to be caused by interfaith conflicts. Just facing personal inadequacies can be enough to make you, or rather, to make me want to give up.

But what about our metaphorical Talmud student. Is his case truly hopeless. I found an interesting answer from a very non-religious source:

In this new paper, Moser et al. extends this research by looking at how beliefs about learning shape these mostly involuntary error-related signals in the brain, both of which appear in less than half a second. More specifically, the scientists applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

-Jonah Lehrer
“Whe Do Some People Learn Faster?”
October 4, 2011
Wired.com

I encourage you to read the entire article but in brief, research seems to support the idea that what you tell yourself about learning affects your ability to learn more and to learn faster. If you believe learning is only an effect of your raw, native intelligence, then you internally set limits that you cannot and will not exceed. If, on the other hand, you believe that time and effort can create change and expand your ability to learn beyond your current thresholds, then you indeed will learn more and exceed your limitations.

Interestingly enough, that’s not much different from the advice Rabbi Weinberg gave to the troubled Talmud student.

“That is the worst solution, you could choose” the rabbi responded. “A person has to understand that the learning of Torah is not something that a human being can do without the help of Hashem. Hashem expects you to put in all the effort you can, and then he will produce the results.”

The young man listened and was encouraged. The respect he had for the sage gave him the strength to continue with his suggestion of try try again. Not long after he made a breakthrough. He reached a level where he was able to prepare a portion of the Talmud on his own. Today that young man is a practicing Rabbi in his community teaching others how to learn and how to be patient, if at first they do not succeed.

I’ve presented a lot of content to express what has already been said in a single sentence attributed to 19th century educator Thomas H. Palmer: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. W.C. Fields said something similar, but it’s hardly as useful. Then there’s what the brother of the Master said.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

Am I trying to give you some sort of pep talk? Not at all. If anything, I’m trying to encourage myself. Given the sad shape the world is in lately, the spiritual struggles of one human being who otherwise is doing fairly well don’t really stack up all that much. To extend that thought back into the realm of famous Hollywood quotes, here’s what the “great sage” Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) had to say:

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

Casablanca (1942)

If I (or anyone else) feels alone in the world of faith, it’s not because we are separated from God, it’s because we are separated from each other as human beings and disciples of the Master. That separation is largely by choice. We choose to believe this or that about what the Bible says, which makes it difficult for us to associate with people who interpret the Bible differently. We choose to organize a worship service on a particular day, using specific prayers, and songs, and sermons, and others choose to do it differently on a different day. Then we tell ourselves that one type of service “feels at home” while another type “feels uncomfortable,” but those are choices, too.

There’s nothing wrong about making those choices, but having made them, we live with the consequences. I’ve made choices and am living with the consequences now. I can choose to do nothing or choose a different direction and then there will be more and different consequences. Rev. Watkins and the folks at St. Mary’s made a choice and now they, and the people who attend their church, will live with the consequences. If the Talmud student had given up, there would have been consequences too, but he chose to go on and the consequence for perseverance was to become a Rabbi.

We like to think that we make one choice and we never have to revisit it again, but I find that I am looking at the choices I’ve made every day and continually confronting the consequences, adjusting my studies, my searches, my prayers, and my actions all the time as a result. A relationship with God is incredibly dynamic. If I were to dare to become comfortable with my choices, I have no doubt He would challenge me into discomfort, and then I would have to learn something by generating some effort. What we learn isn’t always what we want to learn but it all adds up to something, though I’m not always sure what. In the end, the only thing I know how to do is to move forward, whether I ultimately choose to continue this blog after the next 90 days or not. I can’t see around the next bend on this “trail of faith” which I suppose makes sense. Faith is pursuing the unseen, not the knowable. God is unseen but sometimes, so are people. Even though I know that my goal is holiness and it is God, what the finish line looks like, and whether I’ll accompany anyone else on the journey, is a mystery.

I only know that I can’t give up what I’m doing, whether it is chasing the scorching Sun like Icarus and plummeting to earth in flames, or like the Phoenix, rising painfully from my own burnt and smoldering ashes. I only know that I have to keep trying, regardless of the consequences. Because God will let me do no less.

 

Why Am I Alone?

embedded by Embedded Video

I can’t get this woman out of my head. I’ve seen this video embedded at a lot of different online venues yesterday, but I was busy and didn’t take the time to actually view it until this morning. As it turns out, my “lack of time” is part of what makes this Episcopal Priest’s plea so poignant.

To give credit where it’s due, I clicked a link at Derek Leman’s blog, which took me to the actual embedded video on Scot McKnight’s blog. If you frequent either of those places, you’ve probably already seen the video. If not, and if you haven’t already watched it here or someplace else on the web, please do so before continuing to read my blog post. The video is less than ten minutes long and it is so worth it.

Reading the various comments on Derek’s and McKnight’s blogs, I was taken aback at some of the criticism expressed by a number of the commentators. Granted, the Episcopal church isn’t my cup of tea either, but there’s a lot more going on here than just how we view one version of Christianity versus another. Also, as was pointed out repeatedly, most of the approaches this Priest felt had failed in bringing in and retaining people to a religious and spiritual experience have to do with “programs”. It’s as if, because her methods and her techniques weren’t successful, it meant that people didn’t care about the cause of Christ.

I mentioned on McKnight’s blog that…

I have sort of the opposite problem. I’m sure she and I would disagree about a good many things, but I would *love* to sit down with her (or someone) and talk about Jesus. I just can’t find a person or a place (face-to-face as opposed to online) where I’ll fit in. It’s not a matter of the details, but the honesty and passion this Priest has for what she’s doing and who she is as a person of faith is exactly what I’m looking for.

To me, her specific religious “bent” or her reliance on programs and methods are all secondary to what she’s really saying and particularly, what she’s really feeling. I’ve felt that way too, sort of. No, I’m not an ordained minister of any kind and I haven’t been “called to lead” (although I did a bit of teaching for several years at a small congregation), but I do feel frustrated and isolated, as if no one understands the drive I have to do what I’m doing. She has a drive and a need as well, and she keeps hitting a brick wall. You can only take a good run at a brick wall and smash into it so many times before the pain and lack of forward progress makes you do what she said: “So we cancelled it all…”

In a way, I “cancelled it all” too, but my reasons were very different. I “cancelled” my former way of leading a religious life, not because I wasn’t happy and not because I wasn’t making a kind of progress, but because of where my progress lead me. It’s really a lot more complicated than that, and to find out more, read Why I Don’t Go To Church. I left, not because I hit a wall exactly, but because I realized, in order to avoid hitting a wall, I had to change course.

And so I did.

And then I hit a wall anyway. I recognized the possibility that I might hit that wall, but I was banking on managing to avoid it. I didn’t. So I’m sitting at the base of the wall, as I imagine this Episcopal Priest is doing, taking stock of my options and looking for a way around, over, or under the wall. I’ll need to change my course again, but that’s what life is all about: change. Change is always painful, even when it’s beneficial.

I’m not sure what this Priest’s answer is. I’m not particularly sure of what my answer is. I do know that I’m not inclined to criticize her for her religion or her approach to her need to teach, even if I disagree with them. I do know she’s someone I would really love to talk to about Jesus, not because we would agree with each other, but because, in spite of our extremely different backgrounds, we are at the same place on the trail. We have the same experience. We’re asking the same questions. We’re looking for the same answers. And that tells me something I hadn’t let myself realize before.

It tells me that, in the mess of all of our different religious traditions, and all of the subsets of our religion, and all of the splinters and fragments and offshoots we inhabit because we are so unalike in how we conceptualize God and the Bible and faith, we are all the same. I spend a lot of time focused on how different I am from everybody else around me and what an oddball I must look like to all the other Christians, but today I found someone in a video who helped me realize that we are all the same, too. We travel different paths and occupy divergent trails, but all of those trails intersect between the question and the answer of “who is God” and “who am I”. When we take off our pretenses and our masks and our religious self-delusions and are brutally honest with ourselves and with everyone else, we are all alike when we ask, “why isn’t this working for me?” “Why isn’t this working for everyone else around me?” “What’s wrong and how can I fix it?” “Can I even fix it at all?”

We are all alike when, even in the presence of God, we cry out, “Why do I feel so alone?” That’s why I want to meet her. To tell her she’s not alone. And I want to meet her so I won’t feel alone, too.

But there is hope, even in emptiness, as Rabbi Tzvi Freeman cites from the teachings of the Rebbe:

The beginning of all paths and the starting point of every climb is to open yourself to receive from Above.

How do you receive from Above?
By being empty.
For a vessel that is full cannot receive anything.

A person that is full of self-concern, of “what will become of me?” of “where life is taking me?”—such a person leaves no room for life to enter.

But a simple, open spirit is filled with joy from Above.

Addendum, Friday afternoon: I realized I had no idea who the Priest in the video is and decided to try and find the original source or at least something a little closer to that source. I discovered that the Priest is Rev. LeeAnne Watkins of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. I traced the video as far back as February 16, 2012 as posted at the Episcopal Story Project. If I find out any more, I’ll update my information here.

Mishpatim: The Boundaries of Knowing God

At the conclusion of Mishpatim – after almost an entire Torah portion that addresses matters not directly related to Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah – Moshe is told: “Go up to G-d.” (Shmos 24:1) Rashi explains (Commentary of Rashi ibid.) that this took place on the fourth of Sivan, prior to Mattan Torah.

The Midrash notes (Shmos Rabbah 12:3; Tanchuma, Va’eira 15) that at the time of Mattan Torah , two things were accomplished: “Those Above descended below” – “G-d descended on Mt. Sinai,” (Shmos 19:20) ; and “Those below ascended Above” – “And to Moshe He said: ‘Ascend to G-d.’ ” (Ibid. 24:1) Man ascended to G-dliness.

“A Tale of Two Portions”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mishpatim
The Chassidic Dimension
Chabad.org

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”

When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.Exodus 24:12-18 (JPS Tanakh)

Regardless of the differences between the world’s wide spectrum of religious disciplines, they share one, basic, common goal: to understand God. How we conceive of God and the mechanics and meaning behind the process of finding Him (or her, depending on your tradition) varies tremendously across different cultures and across the panorama of history, but in the end, we want and even need to connect to something that is larger than us, and to find out why we are here and where our place is in a universe.

In Judaism, this process has two parts: God descending to man and man ascending to God. Both of these parts happen at the end of Mishpatim, and the climactic moment of this week’s parashah, in some sense, mirrors the desires of every person of faith. This is why we study the actions of the Creator: to learn the nature of God. It is also why we study people who have had personal encounters with the Creator…because those people have learned something of the nature of God. I like how Rabbi Tzvi Freeman expresses the thoughts of the Rebbe in this matter:

Science is the study of those things G-d thinks about,
by one of His thoughts.

Torah is the study of G-d thinking.

We do not have the privilege of ascending Sinai as God has descended upon it, and the ability to encounter God within the smoke and the flames, but like my previous description of how Moses encountered God, we also have two parts to our own process of approaching an understanding of Him: we can study the universe and we can study the Torah. As Rabbi Freeman points out, the first is studying what God thinks about and the second is studying God as He thinks.

I’m not discounting prayer at all and prayer is a vital component in establishing and developing our relationship with the Creator, but we are not only called to experience God in a spiritual and emotional sense, we are also called to experience Him in thinking. We need to understand, at least to the limits God built into the human mind.

This is why the Torah has manifested as a document or series of documents that is tangible and lends itself to study and multiple layers of interpretation. It’s why humanity has spent countless centuries pouring over every tiny bit of text and arguing with ourselves and each other over meanings both obvious and arcane. This is why the Bible can be read in your native language, pointing the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and still allow God to be a complete mystery in every single aspect.

God seeks to dwell among mankind, but our ability to “know God” is something we struggle with all our lives. As human beings, we often make the mistake of thinking that God is knowable in the same way his creations are knowable. We mistake how we can learn what God’s thinking about by studying His universe (which we don’t understand all that well, either) with understanding the process of God thinking by studying the Bible. And even in studying God’s “thought process,” our ability to truly comprehend more than a tiny fraction of anything at all regarding God, is extremely limited. The world is filled with commentaries (including this one), in bookstores, in libraries, in seminaries, and particularly on the Internet, with a stream of endless text purporting to explain the nature and character of God, including that which is secret and that which may only be known to a favored few “prophets”.

But what do we know?

One who is unqualified can never assume that he understands the depths of halachah like a genuine posek. It is astounding how even the most apparently obvious halachos can sometimes be much more complex than they appear on the surface.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Transfer of Holiness”
Siman 153 Seif 1

A certain man was assumed to be a kohen for many years and redeemed many bechoros. One day he was confronted with an unexpected visitor to town who claimed upon his arrival that this kohen was really no kohen at all! To the surprise of everyone in the town, the man who had been assumed to be a kohen for so many years admitted that he was not a kohen. People wondered what the halachah was in such a case. Was this man still considered a kohen? Did all the many bechoros that he had redeemed need a new pidyon? Although they figured he was now like a yisrael in every regard since presumably he had nothing to gain by accepting this man’s testimony — and this is the halachah whenever
someone believes one witness—they decided to consult with a competent posek.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The False Kohen”
Arachim 34

Studying TorahHere we see two things. We see that not everyone is qualified to interpret the Bible and, even more so, to plum the depths of halacha related to Jewish understanding and ritual observance, and we also learn that one may successfully misrepresent himself as a person who has a special religious or teaching authority when in fact, he does not. Beyond the fact that there are false prophets, charlatans, and religious hucksters in the world who have some sort of religious ax to grind, there are also people who are seemingly well-meaning and sincere, but who are also naive or just plain ignorant about how complicated it is to study the text and arrive at meaningful conclusions. There are people who feel they have a special calling to arrive at these “meaningful conclusions” and to teach them to others, perhaps because of some emotional need, when that special calling is only an illusion. Anyone can create a web site or a blog (even me).

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from honest study and exploration on the path that leads to holiness, (which is, after all, what I’m trying to do) but there’s a difference between being one pilgrim on the road who asks questions and reaches for the Heavens, and someone who is a true posek and tzaddik who has spent all of his or her life and resources in acquiring the knowledge to fulfill a position that only God can assign.

I am the former and not the latter, but I still need to ask the questions, record my observations and, if necessary, accept (hopefully) gentle rebukes from those who are authentically learned (as opposed to the scores of folks out there who only think they are) as to where I’ve made my mistakes.

And I’ve made mistakes.

And I will no doubt continue to make mistakes as I attempt to learn, throughout the rest of my life.

But it’s worth it if, in the end, I am allowed to even approach the tiniest thread trailing from the hem of the garment of God.

But, as I said, there are limits.

The above allows for an extended interpretation of a famous statement of our Rabbis: (Bechinos Olam, sec. 8, ch. 2; Ikarim, Discourse II, ch. 30; Shaloh 191b.) “The ultimate of knowledge is not to know You.” The simple meaning of this statement is that a person should realize the limits of his intellect, and therefore understand that knowing G-d is impossible, for He transcends all limits. There is, however, an allusion to the concept that when a person has fully developed his mind, he appreciates that even the concepts which he knows possess an inner dimension which transcends intellect. And going further, one can infer dimensions of G-d that are infinite, internalizing this knowledge to the point that it shapes our personalities.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
After Sinai; Making the Torah a Part of Ourselves
Commentary on Mishpatim
“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 896ff; Vol. XVI, p. 242ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 243ff.
Chabad.org

As I’ve already mentioned, our limits are built in, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal we can learn, as long as we are mindful that we do have limits and know where those limits are set. Some men are great scholars, while others will only rise to the level of a humble and seeking student. Some women have been appointed by God to be learned sages, while others may only reach the most elementary levels of Torah comprehension. This does not make one of us better than another in God’s eyes, or make the learned more loved and cherished by the Creator than the struggling disciple. It only means that we have our roles and our boundaries which have been set for us as God has set the limits to the sea and the sky.

Of course, we must make certain that the limits we acknowledge are those set by God and not by us. Just as an overly ambitious or arrogant person can elevate himself to a station higher than God intended (and eventually fall an equally great distance into a spectacular abyss of defeat), so can a person fail to rise to the level God has apportioned for them, not recognizing that they can seek and learn and understand more than they have imagined (or more than someone else told them they were allowed). Seek the level that God has set; learn to see when you still have miles to go on the trail and when you have reached the point where God has said, “no further”.

But even when you have reached that limit, realize that it’s not truly the end.

Knowledge of G-d in this manner anticipates and precipitates the coming of the Redemption, the era when “A man will no longer teach his friend…, for all will know Me, from the small to the great.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
-Rabbi Touger

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

-John Muir, Scottish-American environmentalist and writer

Good Shabbos.