Tag Archives: life

The Meaning of Life for the Rest of Us

A few days ago, I published a blog post based on an article written by the late Rabbi Noah Weinberg. Since then, for some reason, I can’t get him off my mind, even though I know nothing about him.

So I decided to use Google to find out more about Rabbi Yisrael Noah Weinberg. I received an Amazon gift card recently and it’s been burning a hole in my pocket. I could use some new books.

Although R. Weinberg was not a prolific author of books, he did produce a lot of other material. The Meaning of Life got my attention.

Live For What You Are Willing To Die For

I once met a man who lived by this principle.

“Zev” lived in Israel when the British were still in power. He was a member of a Jewish underground movement which aimed to rout out the British by force.

During the four years that Zev was in the Jewish underground, he was completely cut off from his friends and family – forced to work as an itinerant laborer, with no place to call home. Every day he walked the streets, keeping a steady watch because the British were constantly stopping people and searching them. Any Jew found carrying a gun was guilty of a capital crime.

One day, the British made a sudden sweep, and Zev was arrested. The British realized he was from the Jewish underground and tortured him to obtain other names. Zev lost a leg from the maltreatment.

In 1948, when the British retreated, Zev was released. He went on to get married, build a business, and raise a large family.

He says:
“Looking back over my whole life, unquestionably the best period was being a member of the Jewish underground. True, much of it was a miserable existence. But every moment I was completely alive. I was living for something that I was willing to die for.”

1389.4 Holocaust AThat seems pretty extreme, but then again, I’ve never lived what you’d call an “extreme” sort of life, certainly not one where my health, safety, and very life were constantly at risk.

But then again, R. Weinberg also wrote:

Over the past 2,000 years in the Diaspora, Jews have had many opportunities to display their courage to stand up for Jewish beliefs.

I’m not Jewish. I don’t live in Israel. There’s very little to threaten my life here in my little corner of Idaho, so I’m not continually being challenged with what I’m willing to die for.

Of course Christians all over the world are being persecuted for their faith, so you don’t have to be a Jew to know what you’d die for.

And as Naomi Ragen recently wrote, the majority of liberal Jews in the U.S. are more concerned about the latest liberal causes than they are about the well-being of the state of Israel or how Israeli Jews are living in constant mortal danger from Arab terrorists (not to mention harassment from the governments and news media of the west).

We live in relative comfort here in the U.S., so we have to work harder to get to a state where we know what we’re living for. Yes, many an American Christian says that they’re “living for Christ,” but how far would that living (or dying) go if they were abruptly imprisoned for their faith in a Muslim country?

Many of you may know that a number of political prisoners were recently released by Iran, including Pastor Saeed Abedini whose family lives here in Idaho.

Pastor Abedini was in prison for three-and-a-half years, and although he suffered greatly in Iranian hands, his difficulties, now that he’s free, are far from over. The various news outlets don’t tell the whole story (and rightly so), but it seems the Pastor’s marriage and family relations are under considerable strain.

I gather from some of the stories I’ve read that Pastor Saeed is far from a perfect person, let alone a perfect Christian Pastor, but he has suffered for his faith and he could have died for it. I can only hope and pray that now that he knows what he’s willing to die for, he also knows what (and who) he’s willing to live for.

Rabbi Weinberg
Rabbi Noah Weinberg

But what about you and me?

The other day, I felt that another of Rabbi Weinberg’s articles could be adapted for service by Christians or those rarefied individuals I sometimes call Talmidei Yeshua. Is there something about dying and living for our faith we can learn from R. Weinberg as well?

Comfort is very nice, but it is not meaningful. An idiot is more than capable of leading a comfortable life. He doesn’t suffer much, he enjoys ice cream, insults fly right over his head, he always puts on a smile… The world is b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l.

But he doesn’t experience anything beyond his ice cream. He lacks the capacity to appreciate higher pleasures beyond the physical – relationships, meaning, and spirituality.

Living only for material pleasure and comfort is not really living. We also need to understand the deeper existential meaning of life. Sooner or later, every human being is faced with the cold, hard reality: “What’s my life all about?”

You might tend to see “comfort” and “pleasure” as being the same thing, but not so, says R. Weinberg. From a traditional observant Jew’s point of view, performing the mitzvot (commandments) is a pleasure given to them by God.

A fundamental of Judaism is that there is nothing a human being can do for God. God has no needs. Yet at the same time He gives us everything – air, water, food, sun. And He gave us the Torah as instructions for deriving maximum pleasure from this world.

In the Shema, the Jewish pledge of allegiance, we are commanded to love God B’chol Nafshecha – “with all your soul.” You have to be willing to sacrifice your life rather than deny God.

If mitzvot are for our pleasure… how does this give us pleasure?!

This is the pleasure of clarity and commitment. If you can perceive something as so important that you will sacrifice your own life for it, then your life has weight and purpose and direction. Because until you know what you are willing to die for, you have not yet begun to live.

charity-tzedakahWhat is so important about you being a Christian (or a Talmid Yeshua or whatever you call yourself)? If your pleasure is all about Sunday (or Saturday) services, “fellowshipping” with your congregational friends, maybe taking a class on Wednesday nights, and otherwise living an ordinary human life, you may be confusing your comforts with your pleasures.

If performing the mitzvot, charitable acts, acts of kindness and compassion, praying individually or with a group, living a lifestyle morning, noon, and evening when you are constantly blessing God for everything from your food to your spouse to your home and even your sleep, is considered pleasurable for an observant Jewish person, why isn’t this considered pleasurable for the rest of us?

I know I’m probably being unfair. After all, there are lots of Christians who do all of that (but not in the manner of a Jewish person, kosher, Shabbat, davening with a minyan and such). who give glory to God, and who are sources of much charity and kindness to their family, friends, and even strangers.

Unless you live in a war zone or some other place where you are in danger just by being who you are, you may not always be confronted by what you’d live and die for.

God has done everything for us and yet there is nothing we can do for Him. But there is something we can do for ourselves that will benefit others around us. We can take our “pleasures,” if you will, in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

R. Weinberg wrote this article for a Jewish audience to describe why the self-sacrifice of the Jewish people is of a higher status than other people or groups who have also been willing to die for a cause:

Throughout the ages, the destiny and mission of the Jewish nation has been to teach monotheism. Jews are dying not for their own sake, but for the sake of humanity. By transmitting the message of monotheism and Love Your Neighbor, we continue to be a “Light unto the Nations” and thereby preserve the hope of world peace.

But isn’t that our mission too?

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16 (NASB)

MessiahGranted, Rav Yeshua (Jesus) was also addressing a Jewish audience, so we can’t automatically assume his commandment can be expanded to the Gentile Talmidim who would one day desire to walk in his footsteps. After all, being a light to the world is a Jewish mission, so maybe the impetus remains with the Jewish people and we non-Jewish disciples are meant to be mere “consumers” of that light.

I don’t believe that’s true, though.

The short definition of a disciple (as opposed to a follower) is to imitate your Master, your Rav in every detail of living. This doesn’t mean that we non-Jews are supposed to play “dress up” and start wearing kippot and tallit gadolim (yarmulkes and prayer shawls). It does mean we are to imitate our Rav in the weightier matters of his teachings: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

That’s what it is to be a light. If we profess a faith and then live that out in our daily lives, then we know what we are living for and what we are willing to die for.

Longing for Mercy in an Ordinary Life

When Moses got up that morning and counted the sheep, he did not say to himself, “I think I’ll take the sheep out on the west side of the wilderness over by the Mountain of God.” Mount Horeb was simply Mount Horeb, an indistinct rock in the wilderness like so many other hills and mountains, completely ordinary looking. There was nothing special about it. Mount Horeb became Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, simply because God chose it, not because it was taller, mightier or holier than any of the surrounding hills and mountains.

-from “Ordinary Life” the Torah Club commentary on Shemot
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

This topic pops up periodically in Christian circles, usually in response to a question such as:

How could God use me for anything? I’m no one special. I’m just an ordinary person with an ordinary life.

Another part of the answer goes like this:

Most of us do not regard ourselves as extraordinary people. You probably think of yourself as a fairly ordinary person with a fairly mundane life. From God’s perspective, that is perfect. You are the perfect person with whom He can do extraordinary things. He is not looking for prophets; He is looking for normal people who are carrying on under normal circumstances.

Frankly, I’d be elated to live an ordinary and mundane life perfectly or even just reasonably within the bounds of God’s expectations. I don’t have to be Moses. I don’t want to be Moses. I am unworthy to be anything like Moses. I just want to be “me” but a better “me” than I am today.

Teshuvah within an “ordinary life” is a lot of hard work with no guarantee that life will get immediately better even upon turning away from sin. An “extraordinary” life seems exhausting by comparison.

Of course with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26) but God is God and I’m just me.

When I became chief rabbi, I had to undergo a medical examination. The doctor put me on a treadmill, walking at a very brisk pace. “What are you testing?” I asked him. “How fast I can go, or how long?” “Neither,” he replied. “What I am testing is how long it takes, when you come off the treadmill, for your pulse to return to normal.” That is when I discovered that health is measured by the power of recovery. That is true for everyone, but doubly so for leaders and for the Jewish people, a nation of leaders (that, I believe, is what the phrase “a kingdom of priests” means).

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
“Light in Dark Times”
Chabad.org

Man alonePart how I measure my physical health is how quickly my heart rate recovers after a cardio workout. However, that principle can be applied to a completely different context. How quickly a person recovers after a major failure in making teshuvah and restoring relationships with God and people is also a measure of health.

Of course, there could be a problem:

Question: What if the person to whom you want to apologize won’t speak to you?

Answer: Here is what Maimonides writes on the matter:

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is the one considered as the sinner.

-Rabbi Menachem Posner
Comments from the article:
“Teshuvah — Repentance”
Chabad.org

While facing God with your sin and asking for forgiveness as part of true teshuvah is daunting, we have certain promises in the Bible that God will indeed forgive us of our sin, cleansing us and making us white as snow (Psalm 51:7). However, with the people we have hurt, they are quite likely, at least initially, to react with blame, anger, and rejection.

In Rabbi Posner’s comment above citing Maimonides, we should repeatedly approach the offended party and continue to ask for their forgiveness. However, there is a limit as to how many times we are expected to extend ourselves and, at least from the Rambam’s point of view, anyone who refuses to forgive a true Baal Teshuvah is considered a sinner themselves.

Not that this is much help if you’re trying to repair relationships.

Every prayer of the heart is answered. It’s the packaging that doesn’t always meet our taste.

Maamar Vayigash Elav 5725, 6—based on a statement of the Baal Shem Tov, Keter Shem Tov.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bad Packaging”
Chabad.org

Yes, we can pray for a positive outcome, and as Rabbi Freeman says, God answers all prayers, but the “packaging,” that is, exactly how God answers the prayers, may not be what we desired or hoped for.

Hearken and hear Israel (Devarim 27:9), this is the time marked for the redemption by Mashiach. The sufferings befalling us are the birth-pangs of Mashiach. Israel will be redeemed only through teshuva (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit I:1). Have no faith in the false prophets who assure you of glories and salvation after the War (Note that this was during the early 1940’s). Remember the word of G-d, “Cursed is the man who puts his trust in man, who places his reliance for help in mortals, and turns his heart from G-d” (Yirmiyahu 17:5). Return Israel unto the Eternal your G-d (Hoshei’a 14:2); prepare yourself and your family to go forth and receive Mashiach, whose coming is imminent.

-from “Today’s Day” for Wednesday, Tevet 15, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

praying aloneThis is heralding a very extraordinary time that will lead to the ultimate redemption of Israel and the nations, but in the meantime, there are still many mundane matters we all struggle with. I find it hard to always pray for the return of the Master when all I really want is to be successful in teshuvah, for God to grant me mercy and forgiveness, and for His Spirit to soften the hearts of those who have been hurt so they will be moved to mercy and forgiveness.

May God grant this to all of us, for who hasn’t failed?

Chayei Sarah: The Days of the Years of Life

abrahamic-covenantAnd these are the days of the years of the life of Avraham which he lived; a hundred years and seventy years and five years. And Avraham expired and he died in a good age, mature and satiated and was gathered to his people.

Genesis 25:7-8

Reb Avraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, testifies about his father:

“For over fifty years he never slept more than half an hour at a time…Even when his health began to fail, he did not set aside his holy learning. Immediately, he would rise like a lion, in fear and dread of his Creator, wash his hands, and recite his morning blessings with a joy and awe which is beyond description. Afterwards, he would stand on his feet from before midnight until the first light of dawn learning Gemora and Poskim in a beautiful and awesome voice…Whoever heard it was moved with deep feelings of holiness.”

Arriving in Jerusalem, one summer, I immediately made contact with my good friend and study partner, Reb Reuven, and we agreed to get busy the next morning studying an hour or more before Davening. The next morning I made it on time but I was suffering from jet lag, sleeplessness, and exhaustion. I commented to my friend that I don’t know how the Vilna Gaon did it. I can’t imagine what it means to only sleep at half hour intervals four times per day for the course of a lifetime. He told me, “It’s not true!”

-Rabbi Label Lam
“Today!”
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Torah.org

I periodically suffer from insomnia. Some nights are better than others. In extreme cases, I walk around like a zombie the next day, barely able to think. All the coffee in the world doesn’t turn me back into a human being. Yesterday (as I write this) was such a day. I finally collapsed into bed at 7:30 p.m. and fitfully drifted off. Only to wake up on several occasions during the night. Fortunately, on each occasion, I was able to go back to sleep. I chose not to go to the gym this morning in order to spend an extra hour in bed, finally getting up at a few minutes after five.

I feel much better today. I have my brain back.

Rabbi Lam’s commentary helps me realize though that it’s not just the number of hours you are awake or asleep, but how you use them. I was disappointed that, even in my dreams last night, I was focused on the mundane and ordinary rather than anything more lofty. The previous day, I could hardly concentrate on anything except what I absolutely had to get done, which tends to be mundane and ordinary.

Which was too bad, because I received some rather inspiring reading material that I wanted to dig into, but fatigue argued with my desire and fatigue won.

Vilna-Gaon-207x300I don’t know how the Vilna Gaon did it either. It seems like a physical impossibility. I’ve learned to take such tales of the great sages with a grain of salt, so to speak, which probably wouldn’t endear me to many in Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, these tales often act as an inspiration for a more important principle that is to be grasped and applied to our day-to-day experiences.

Rabbi Lam comments:

How are living “the days of years of the life” different than living just the “years of the life”? What is the great advantage of living in units of days? It’s a nice aphorism, “One day a time!” but how does that translate into daily life? What does it mean to live each day as if it was the only day?

Which reminds me of this.

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Matthew 26:39-41 (NASB)

This was perhaps the most important night in the Master’s short, human life, and his closest disciples and companions couldn’t keep their eyes open for even one small hour.

I know the feeling, although last night was hardly the most important night for anything in particular.

Or was it?

He told me, “It’s not true!” I insisted I had read an authenticated biography of the Gaon and that it was certainly true that he only slept two hours in total each day. He told me again that it was not true and so I argued my case again only to be countered with the “not true” claim. Eventually Reuven explained and I realized how right he was. He told me, “It’s not true that the Vilna Gaon only slept two hours each day! He learned Torah twenty-two hours each day!” I understood that he was not into sleep deprivation as we imagine but rather the sublime joy of learning Torah.

It’s not true that the Vilna Gaon slept only a total of two hours a night. It is true that he studied Torah twenty-two hours a day.

Well, maybe not. He had to eat sometime, and I don’t doubt that various biological, family, social, and other demands may have consumed some portion of those twenty-two hours.

intimate-prayerBut this is still an important lesson to be learned. It’s not the amount of time you have that’s so important but what you do with it. What are your priorities? For that matter, what are my priorities? It is true that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, but what about when you are well rested and the flesh is strong (or stronger)? Do you spend your time in Torah study or in watching TV? Do you spend your time in prayer or in surfing the web? Do you spend your time in service to others or by serving yourself?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy life and indulge yourself as you are able to (within the will of God), but I am saying that how you spend your time, day by day, hour by hour, defines your priorities. If you pray to God to be of greater service to Him but spend most of your time being of service only to yourself, you betray what and who is really important to you.

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (NASB)

It’s nice to have space and a little slack time to relax and appreciate life instead of being on the go, go, go, but space is there so you (and I) can grow into it. It’s like when I was a kid and my parents bought me shoes half to a full size bigger than my feet because they knew I’d rapidly grow into that space.

That is why we have the mitzvot, prayer, Bible study, volunteering for charitable services, visiting those who are sick. It’s what we do to fill the space and time God gives us in our lives.

Rabbi Lam asks, How are living “the days of years of the life” different than living just the “years of the life”? Each day of our life is a lifetime within itself.

Today I shall learn to better spend my time in the service of God, with Bible study, in prayer, in meditation on His Word, in seeking an encounter with the Divine.

Good Shabbos.

Encounter with Now

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

Deuteronomy 34:1-8 (NASB)

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

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

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

Rabbi Ben A.
“Starting Over”
Chabad.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, what can be so utterly unknown?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Now”
Chabad.org

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

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

Rabbi Freeman concludes:

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

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

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

G‑d is now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 139:1-5 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

And now…

V’etchanan: What Comes From God

ancient_jerusalemFor what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?

Deuteronomy 4:7

Should one only call out for the “big things”? To think that prayer to God is only for the “big things” is a big mistake! We must turn to God for help and understanding in everything we do.

The Chazon Ish, a great rabbi, cited the Talmud which relates that Rav Huna had 400 barrels of wine that spoiled. His colleagues told him to do some soul-searching regarding the cause of this loss. Rav Huna asked, “Do you suspect me of having done anything improper?”

The Sages responded, “Do you suspect God of doing something without just cause?” They then told him that he was not giving his sharecropper the agreed upon portion of the crop.

“But, he is a thief!” Rav Huna protested. “He steals from me. I have a right to withhold from him.”

“Not so,” the Sages said. “Stealing from a thief is still theft” (Talmud Bavli, Berachos 5b).

“Suppose,” the Chazon Ish said, “that something like this would occur today. The search for the cause would be whether the temperature in the room was improper or the humidity too high or too low. Few people would search for the cause within themselves, in their ethical behavior. We should know that God regulates everything except for our free will in moral and ethical matters. As with Rav Huna, nothing happens without a cause.”

Dvar Torah for Parashat Va’ethannan
from Twerski on Chumash, by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz in “Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Aish.com

I agree that we should turn to God with all our matters, large or small, but I wonder if every single thing that happens to us was caused by God to teach us a lesson. What can we learn from the flat tire we get while driving to an important meeting and dressed in our best clothes? What should we gather from being caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella, stubbing our toe, tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, catching a cold? Does every single event that happens, even down to the tiniest detail have to be ordained in Heaven?

I don’t know. I suppose it could. On the other hand, maybe sometimes things happen and they have no meaning. If I go down to a ridiculously small level, does it matter if I choose to wear black or white socks today? Is there going to be some consequence one way or the other? Is there a moral lesson I should learn if I get the flu or did I just get the flu? If I’m in business and should have a bad year, is that the result of some moral or ethical fault of which I’m guilty, or is it the consequence of the current economy and all businesses like mine are suffering?

Regardless of the cause of our fortunes or misfortunes (and believers are taught that everything we have comes from God), it certainly wouldn’t hurt to turn to God in good times and in bad, and call to Him for He is always near, even when we don’t feel as if He’s near.

…fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer…

Romans 12:11-12 (NASB)

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

James 5:13-15 (NASB)

praying-apostleThe verses in the Bible exhorting the advantages of prayer are all but endless, so I offer only a few examples. But it doesn’t answer the question about the nature and cause of each and every circumstance we find ourselves in. When raising small children, we try to make the consequence of misbehavior happen immediately after the misbehavior, so they’ll connect the two and learn to avoid the misbehavior. It’s easy to get the idea that God does the same thing. But then again…

Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 (NASB)

In fact I believe that God deliberately delays providing the consequence upon the sinner, giving him or her time to repent and to change their behavior.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

In some ways, it might be more merciful of God if He was to discipline and chastise us each and every time we mess up right when we mess up, kind of like swatting a dog on the nose with a rolled up newspaper when it does its business on the living room carpet. Then, like a dog or a small child, we’d see the obvious and inescapable pattern between certain of our actions and the painful things that happen right afterward.

But unlike the commentary I quoted above, God just doesn’t seem to arrange our lives that way, at least not all the time. We are left then, wondering which consequence is a moral lesson and which is only a random event.

We don’t know.

But what if we pretended that everything we experience is an immediate communication from God to us? This could be horribly misused and sometimes people blame themselves without reason because they were the victim of a tragic accident or a terrible crime. You can’t blame a five-year old boy because he was killed in a drive-by shooting while standing on a street corner with his Dad waiting for the light to change. You can’t blame a forty-four year old woman who has lived a life of impeccable health who is diagnosed with breast cancer.

But…

praying_at_masada…but what if regardless of whether we think an event has come from God or not, we turned to Him anyway? What if after having a productive day at work, you turned to God and thanked Him? What if after learning that the cost of repairing your car’s sudden breakdown will empty your savings account, you turned to God and begged for His help? What if, day in and day out, you turned to God, with praise and with petition, in happiness and in anguish?

What if?

Life happens. Sooner or later, something good will happen to you. Sooner or later something bad will happen to you. Sooner or later, nothing will happen to you and you’ll be really bored. You live, you laugh, you bleed, you breathe, you cry, you get angry, you get frustrated, you feel depressed, you are overjoyed, and everything else.

That’s your life. That’s from God. Talk to God about it. Ask Him Why? Ask Him How? Say “Thank you.” Say “I’m sorry.” You know your life. You know what’s happening. You know what to say. Just turn to God and say it.

And then listen.

Good Shabbos.

68 days.

On Choosing God

TrustNegate your own will in favor of God’s will.

-Ethics of the Fathers 2:4

If I surrender my will and turn my life over completely to the will of God, do I not thereby abrogate my power of free choice?

Certainly not. Take the example of a child who receives money for his birthday. An immature child may run off to the toy store or candy store and spend the money on everything his heart desires. He may indeed have several moments of merriment (although a stomach ache from indulging too heavily in confections is a possibility). Without doubt, however, after a short period of time those moments of enjoyment will be nothing but a memory, with the candy long since consumed and the broken toys lying on the junk heap.

A wiser child would give the money to a parent and ask that it be put into some type of savings account where it can increase in value and be available in the future for things of real importance.

Did the second child abrogate his prerogative of free choice by allowing the parent to decide how to invest the money? Of course not. In fact, this was a choice, and a wise choice as well as a free choice.

We can choose to follow our own whims or we can choose to adopt the will of an omniscient Father. We are wise when we make the second choice.

Today I shall…

…turn my will over to God, and seek to do only that which is His will for me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nisan 23”
Aish.com

How much is this like the choice Jesus made on that last night?

saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

Luke 22:42

Last week, I started talking about free will and Divine Election and how that describes the nature of man and our relationship with God. I still don’t think that we are wind up toy soldiers, pre-programmed by God in all our responses, including the most important response, accepting or rejecting the Almighty.

I don’t think this issue comes up for Jewish people, but then, all Jews are born into a covenant relationship with God just by virtue of being Jewish. Still, the recognition and acceptance of Messiah is a vital task that remains hidden from most Jews, largely due to how Gentile Christianity has “morphed” the Jewish Messiah into a Goyishe King. Still, many Jews see God, not as a harsh overseer with a whip controlling the gates of life and death, but as a teacher, gently but firmly guiding us in the lessons of life as we walk the path with our companion.

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Luke 23:13-27

Imagine having this conversation with the Master along the road, but imagine it being a picture of your entire life.

Jewish in JerusalemRabbi Twerski paints for us an image of giving our lives over to God by conscious choice. Even if a Jew is born into covenant, he or she can still completely reject God, and many Jews have done so. The majority of the Jewish population of Israel is secular, so even in the Holy Land, which contains Jerusalem and the Holy Temple Mount, most of the Jewish inhabitants choose not to connect to God.

Both Easter and the Week of Unleavened Bread are now done. Religious Jews continue to Count the Omer, but Christians just “coast” into April and for most of the church, Pentecost (Shavuot) is hardly a little blip on our radar. This is why it is so important for those few of us who are conscious of the season to remind everyone else.

The presence of Mashiach is revealed on Acharon Shel Pesach, and this revelation has relevance to all Israel: Pesach is medaleg, “skipping over” (rather than orderly progress), and leil shimurim, the “protected night.” In general the mood of Pesach is one of liberty. Then Pesach ends, and we find ourselves tumbling headlong into the outside world. This is where Mashiach’s revealed presence comes into play – imbuing us with a powerful resoluteness that enables us to maintain ourselves in the world.

“Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Nissan 23, Issru chag, 8th day of the omer, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

After the week of Matzot, we see that beyond the Omer count, some Chassidic Jews carry forward the revealed presence of the Mashiach into the outside world with them. How much more should we, who know for certain that Messiah is revealed in Jesus Christ, should carry him forward into the world with us?

Any Jew alive on the face of this planet today is a walking miracle. Our mere existence today is wondrous, plucked from the fire at the last moment again and again, with no natural explanation that will suffice.

Each of us alive today is a child of martyrs and miracles.

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

I can only imagine that just seeing a Jew walking the streets of the old city in Jerusalem, buying falafel for lunch, davening at the Kotel, must all be miraculous. Who would have thought such a thing possible a scant six decades before? Yes, of course it is a miracle of God that there are any Jewish people left alive today in our world and that they live in a Jewish nation.

But it is also a miracle that there are any Christians, for who of his own free will and in his nature of sin, would choose the Almighty, to come to Him through His Son, unless the Spirit of God were not whispering in our ear, urging us, pleading with us, exploring our heart?

And once Moshiach Rabbeinu has opened our eyes to God, and our minds and hearts to the scriptures, and we choose Him, and we learn of Him and who we are as His sons and servants, what would we not do, from the wisest among us to the most simple, to serve Him who is the author of our story and the lover of our soul?

Choose Love. Choose God. Choose Life.