Tag Archives: light

Save Them From Falling

You shall make a fence to your roof … so that the falling person should not fall therefrom.

Deuteronomy 22:8

Rashi notes the unusual term “the falling person should not fall” and explains that even though the person who may be injured may be “a falling person,” i.e. someone who merited punishment for wrongs he or she had committed, nevertheless, you should not be the vehicle for punishment.

Some people act in a hostile manner toward a certain person, even going so far as to condemn him and cause him harm. They may justify their behavior by saying, “Why, that no good … do you know what he did? He did this and that, and so he deserves to be tarred and feathered.”

The Talmud states that God uses good people to deliver rewards, but when punishment is warranted, He chooses people who themselves deserve punishment. Hence, it is not good to be a punitive instrument. The Torah cautions us not to intervene in Divine judgment. God’s system is adequate. We should take reasonable actions to protect our interests so that they are not harmed by others, but we should not take upon ourselves to mete out punishment.

The principle of fencing in a roof applies to every situation where someone else might come to harm as a result of something we did or did not do. Being a responsible person requires using reason. As the Talmud says, “A wise person is one who can foresee the future” (Tamid 32a). We don’t necessarily need prophetic foresight, just the ability to calculate what might result from our actions.

Today I shall…

be cautious to behave in such a manner that no one can come to harm as a result of my actions.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day,” Av 13

I’m sure every Christian would recognize the following where Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 32:35:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” –Romans 12:19 (ESV)

Of course, actually fulfilling that directive is easier said than done, particularly when we read stories such as, Sharp Decline in Terror Attacks After Bin Laden Death. I don’t think there are too many people who didn’t think Bin Laden deserved what he got, but should we be cheerful and feel justified that such an evil man was assassinated?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I oppose the death of such a man, but as we are supposed to understand, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.”

Of course, that’s an extreme example and the vast majority of us aren’t in a position to participate in the assassination of a notorious mass murderer at any point in our lives. Frankly, I’m glad. Who’d want that kind of responsibility and the mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences that would result?

However, we are all in a position to “condemn and cause harm” to plenty of other people all of the time. No, not by causing actual death, but something like it.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. –Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)

It seems that we can be guilty of “murder” every time we lose our temper at someone and condemn them in our thoughts, our feelings, and with our words. Even if the person “deserved it,” who made you and me an instrument of punishment? And if you want to believe Rashi’s midrash (and after all, it’s just a midrash), does that mean by making us such an instrument, God is saying that we too are deserving of punishment?

That’s a frightening thought. Even if God isn’t putting us in that position, by being critical, judgmental, and angry, we are putting ourselves in the “hot seat,” so to speak. Do we really want to sit there?

But what else can we do? After all, we are only human and “the flesh is weak.”

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. –Matthew 5:23-24 (ESV)

I recently saw some sort of Internet meme on Facebook that said when a religious person hurts another human being, they spend the time apologizing to God that an atheist would spend apologizing to the person they hurt. Jesus shows us this meme is (or should be) exactly wrong. We have a responsibility when we’ve misjudged another (or even apparently when we’ve correctly but harshly judged another) of setting aside our prayers to God and to apologize to the person first. Then we can approach God in prayer with an open heart.

But according to Rabbi Twerski’s understanding of the Talmud, it goes beyond simply apologizing after we’ve been critical. We must anticipate our behavior and take steps not to harm other people at all. This is like building the fence on the roof so the person cannot fall in the first place. We must consider what we could do or fail to do that could hurt another human being and then make sure we avoid those behaviors. We must be aware of other people and how they feel, be aware of ourselves, and most of all, be aware of God.

Or as Rabbi Twerski put it:

Today I shall…

be cautious to behave in such a manner that no one can come to harm as a result of my actions.

Inner lightWe must reflect the light of God and be honest and worthy disciples of our Master, for in reflecting the light of our Master, we too become a light of the world.

A mirror is simple. It has no shape or image of its own. If it did, it would not be able to reflect the image of other things. Simplicity is what makes a mirror a mirror.

Beyond our world is an Infinite Light, the origin of all that is. Relative to our world it is a nothingness. So simple and void, we feel as though we have no source at all. So formless, it is able to reflect whatever form we choose to show it from below. Try it. Look up and celebrate. The heavens will celebrate along with you.

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

Do we reflect God or does God reflect us…or is it both?

If we are true disciples, we reflect the goodness and Holiness of who God is. If we are poor and malfunctioning disciples, the evil we do reflects on God’s reputation and the name of the Master of dragged through the mud, or worse.

Your choice.

Behaalotecha: The Presence of Light and Compassion

lightThe Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Numbers 8:1-3 (JPS Tanakh)

The Almighty is not in need of our light. On the contrary, we are in need of His. For this reason the Torah guides us in the proper way of taking full spiritual advantage of the light of the Menorah: The lamps must radiate toward themselves, meaning that the light they give should not only illuminate others, but it must come back and shine on the Menorah itself.

This returning light is at once a fact and a commandment. It applies especially in our day and age when the Temple and the Menorah are no longer standing, and when we must fill the void of the reflecting light that the Menorah once provided.

When the light we radiate around us by leading Torah lives returns to us, enhancing our spirituality and improving our behavior to one another, we will have fulfilled both the fact and the commandment of “When you light the lamps opposite the front of the candlestick the seven lamps shall give light.”

-from “Light That Returns”
A commentary on Torah Portion Behaalotecha

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)

I suppose this week’s commentary on the Torah Portion is only loosely based on the Parashah, but I must admit that I need a little extra “light” in my world. With that in mind, I’m “tweaking” my “meditation” to favor “light.”

The Virtual Jerusalem commentary compares the commandment of lighting the Menorah in the Tabernacle to the “light” of spirituality, goodness, Torah study, and scholarship. To a Christian, praying, singing hymns, and preaching the Word might all seem like more worthwhile activities than studying the Bible, but for some Jews, studying Torah is directly associated with obeying its commands to do good and to show kindness to others. When you take in the light of the Torah, it shines in the world around you as well.

That very well could be related to what the Master was thinking when he said the words we have recorded in Matthew 5:14-16. We shine our light because we have received that light from our Master and teacher. It extends out into the world but it also is reflected back toward us as those we have touched in a meaningful way received our light (which comes from our Master) and it returns to us as a blessing.

Yes, we need blessings and renewal because even among the body of believers, it can be a trying world. If you’ve been reading the comments made on my blog over the past week or so, you know that tempers became heated, nerves became frayed, and some among the body of Christ seemingly forgot that our Master taught us a new commandment to love one another (John 13:34). Of course, there is the concept of “tough love” or “I’m only telling the truth,” but the Bible is replete with teachings about how to approach a brother privately to solve a dispute (Matthew 18:15-18).

Of course, Jesus goes on to say:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” –Matthew 18:19-20 (ESV)

Naturally, the two have to actually agree on something, which seems easier said and done, and perhaps that “two or three..gathered in my name” means gathering face-to-face and not virtually in the blogosphere.

Yes, the “magic” of brotherhood I experienced at the Shavuot conference I recently attended has dissipated and once again, I encounter the actuality of “religious conversations,” where one can be accused of various misdeeds when the only “crime” that occurred was saying to the other person, “I don’t agree with you.” Failing to unreservedly honor another’s sacred cow can be a terrible thing (and I know a little something about pursuing sacred cows).

Tsvi Sadan calls the Messiah the concealed light, in part because the light of the Jewish King has been temporarily concealed from his Jewish brethern for the sake of the nations (see Romans 11). Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, in presenting the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, says:

It all began with an infinite light that filled all and left no room for a world to be. Then that light was withheld so the world might be created in the resulting void.

Then the world was created, with the purpose of returning to that original state of light — yet to remain a world.

All the world’s problems stem from light being withheld.

Our job then, is to correct this. Wherever we find light, we must rip away its casings, exposing it to all, letting it shine forth to the darkest ends of the earth.

Especially the light you yourself hold.

The Light was concealed. But its Source was not. The Source of Light is everywhere.

For those of you with little tolerance for Chassidic mysticism, I prefer to think of these writings as metaphorical. If indeed we shine some of the “concealed light” of our Master, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as he taught us, we must not let the light be concealed. We must “rip away its casings” and expose that light to others. But what light are we talking about and what happens when it shines?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. –Matthew 5:3-12 (ESV)

I suppose I could have quoted from any number of the Master’s teachings, but this one seemed particularly appropriate. Who is blessed? The poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, people who are passionate for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, the reviled, those falsely accused on account of the Master.

If you toss the Beatitudes into a big bowl, take a large wooden spoon and stir vigorously, you can come out with the idea that if you are persecuted, reviled, falsely accused, or just plain “bad mouthed,” you should still respond with meekness, act mercifully, be peacemakers, and mourn for the souls of those who need to personalize conflict in the name of Christ. What an odd way to react to a verbal slap in the face, but then the Master also said something about turning the other cheek (though probably not literal in meaning).

Sorry, I just needed to ponder those thoughts and to consider that even the world of religious discourse (some would say especially the world of religious discourse) is no less filled with landmines and tripwires than any secular conversation.

He could have placed streetlamps along all the pathways of wisdom, but then there would be no journey.

Who would discover the secret passages, the hidden treasures, if all of us took the king’s highway?

Toward the light Rabbi Freeman uses light and darkness to describe the presence or absence of wisdom and knowledge of God, but I choose to see this as a metaphor illustrating peace, mercy, and righteousness, or their absense. A movie I’ve seen a few times starring Harrison Ford as (of all people) the President of the United States, contains one of my favorite lines of dialog:

Peace isn’t merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.

In my case, I’d settle for only the occasional absence of conflict (since, after all, this is the Internet and human beings are involved), the presence of compassion, and the soft glow of a bit of kindness, like candlelight, holding the darkness at bay.

Good Shabbos.

The Light from Within

It used to be a burning issue for religious Jews, and for many it still is a quandary: may one daven in a non- Orthodox shul? The main underlying question is regarding whether a mechitzah is an absolute halachic requirement.

When the Chazon Ish, zt”l, was asked regarding whether a mechitzah is a halachic requirement, he affirmed that it is. “Mechitzah is a halachic obligation. Gazing into the women’s section of a shul is absolutely forbidden. Those who heed this halachah an put up a halachically acceptable mechitzah will be blessed with everything good.”

When the Machaneh Chaim, zt”l, was asked about davening in a shul without a mechitzah, he replied that this is forbidden. “It is a very serious sin to look at women in a shul; even more serious than in other places. For this reason it is preferable to daven at home than to daven in a shul without a mechitzah, even on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.”

A certain rabbi was offered a position in a prominent liberal shul. He wondered whether he was permitted to accept it, since he believed that he could influence the community towards greater commitment to Torah..

When this question reached Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a, he explained that this question had already been put to the Chazon Ish long ago, and been well answered. “Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, asked the Chazon Ish this question. The Chazon Ish replied that it depends. If the rabbi felt certain that he could influence the community to accept a mechitzah within a year, he could be their rabbi for this time. If not, he may not.”

Rav Eliyashiv added, “But since this rabbi is a talmid chacham, he must avoid making a chilul Hashem. He does this by informing the public that he is accepting this position because he hopes that the situation will change within a fairly short time.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Proper Separation”
Middos 35-1

This “story off the daf” brings up a lot of issues for me in terms of comparisons of different faith communities. I scarcely know where to begin but I have to start somewhere (I also have to stop somewhere, so I’m not going to cover everything I’m thinking of..yet).

I know most Christians will take one look at this commentary and wonder what the big deal is about looking at women in a congregation. After all, I can’t think of a single Christian church I’ve been in that required separation between men and women during worship. What’s the problem? Of course, Christianity, even among the more conservative churches, doesn’t have the same sense of modesty that Orthodox Judaism employs. But let’s take a look at this for a moment (and no, I’m not suggesting separating men and women in the church).

My wife made an interesting observation, more than once actually, when we were regularly attending a Christian church over a decade ago. During services in the sanctuary, she remarked on how husbands and wives seemed to be “all over each other” during worship. What she’s describing is the hugging, cuddling, and leaning on each other of married couples in church, primarily during the Pastor’s message.

This is just a thought, but what are you going to be focusing when holding your beloved spouse closely in church, worship or your beloved spouse? I suppose it’s just a matter of different “cultural values” between the church I attended (I can’t say this sort of “cuddling” goes on in all churches everywhere) and Orthodox Judaism. I’m kind of a conservative guy, so I’d probably not engage in a lot of affectionate touching with my wife in worship (assuming we ever worship together in one place again).

That’s not really the main point I want to make, though.

For one brief moment, when reading the story, I started injecting the various Judaisms into the situation, including Messianic Judaism. Look at this particular phrase again:

If the rabbi felt certain that he could influence the community to accept a mechitzah within a year, he could be their rabbi for this time.

Earlier, I mentioned the cultural differences between the church and the Orthodox synagogue but of course, there are a number of cultural and halakhic differences between different branches of Judaism. We see here that it would be permitted for an Orthodox Rabbi to accept an appointment to a more liberal synagogue, but only if the Rabbi felt “he could influence the community to accept a mechitzah within a year.”

This is addressing a very specific situation; the separation of men and women in the synagogue for purposes of promoting modesty and proper respect to God during worship. Now I’m going to turn the issue on its head, so to speak, and put it back on Hebrew Roots and the Messianic movement.

I have been considering a suggestion I’ve heard recently, that “Messianic Gentiles” might best serve the Messianic Jewish movement, not by attending a Messianic or Hebrew Roots worship community, but by worshiping in the church instead. This is probably a radical idea to some Messianics who may be reading my blog. After all, a lot of Christians in the Hebrew Roots movement deliberately left the church because they felt the church wasn’t meeting their needs or worse, because they felt the church was pagan and apostate.

Gentile Christians in the Hebrew Roots movement, at least some of them, have given the church a lot of “bad press” and much of it is undeserved. Sure, there are things in the church that could and should improve, but we have to remember that for the past nearly 2,000 years, the church has been the sole custodian and transmitter of the Good News of Jesus Christ to the rest of the world. During the past century or so, many of the Jews who have discovered Jesus is the Jewish Messiah have done so through the church. What we think of as “Messianic Jewish synagogues” are a very recent expression of Jewish faith in the Messiah. For the most part, historically, Messianic Jews have come about as “Jewish Christians” worshiping in the Christian church.

The church isn’t going to go away and be replaced by Messianic synagogues, at least not anytime in the foreseeable future. Do people in the Hebrew Roots movement then just intend to ignore Christianity as irrelevant and pray for the day when it no longer exists?

That’s insane. That’s like saying you want 90% or more of the body of Christ on earth to simply vanish.

But as a staunch opponent of supersessionism, I’m the first to admit that the church could do a lot better in terms of how it perceives Jews and Judaism (Messianic or otherwise) and the state of the Torah in relation to the New Testament. The response of many in Hebrew Roots/Messianism, is to blame the church for betraying them, to dismiss the church, and to even revile the church. These behaviors aren’t likely to promote an atmosphere of cooperation and a mutual exchange of ideas and perspectives.

What will?

Perhaps more people attending church who have a “Hebrew Roots” perspective.


There are a lot of barriers separating the idea from the actuality, but as we see from our example off the daf, it is not unheard of to compromise your personal comfort and convenience for the sake of “promoting change from within.”

I’m going to cover this idea in much more depth in the near future, but for now, I’m asking you folks within your various areas of Hebrew Roots to consider what the best option might be for combating antisemitism and supersessionism in the church (and just to throw a monkey wrench in the machine, both of these elements exist even within some Hebrew Roots congregations). You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind by arguing with them and by insulting them. You are more likely to make a positive impact, not by pretending to be their friend, but by really being their friend and showing them how things can be otherwise. God never intended to throw his people Israel under a bus. We can be examples of how to understand the Bible outside the (church doctrine) box.

Our Master taught among his Jewish people who spanned the spectrum from sincere but confused to almost hopelessly corrupt. He showed his Jewish disciples (and not a few of the Gentiles) how to be a light by being a light himself. He called all of his disciples, including us today, to be a light among the nations. If our understanding of the “Jewish Jesus” and the current and future relationship between God and the Jews is of value, then we should shine that light in the church rather than hiding it under a bowl.

The ascent of the soul occurs three times daily, during the three times of davening. This is particularly true of the souls of tzadikim who “go from strength to strength.” It is certain that at all times and in every sacred place they may be, they offer invocation and prayer on behalf of those who are bound to them and to their instructions, and who observe their instructions. They offer prayer in particular for their disciples and disciples’ disciples, that G-d be their aid, materially and spiritually.

Hayom Yom
Iyar 29, 44th day of the omer
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943)
from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory

Light and the Lucid Crystal

Inner lightWhen a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints – for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are.

-Thomas Merton
Part Two, Chapter One, “With a Great Price,” pg 186
The Seven Storey Mountain

This explains a lot. It explains how people who have no faith in God in any manner and no apparent external moral compass (at least from a religious person’s point of view) can still do good and great things for others and uphold noble causes. It also explains how some “religious people,” even though they seem to have faith in God and to uphold the teachings of His prophets and apostles, can harbor evil thoughts and feelings for others and say and do heinous things, all supposedly in the name of God.

Merton further illustrates that a person who is perfect in his or her nature because he or she was made in God’s image and who allows themselves to accept and reflect and refract the light of God as does a crystal, can be perfected beyond human standards and be elevated in a relationship with God and man. This is what it is to be holy.

I was struck with these passages in Merton’s book and remembering this was written when he was a young Trappist monk, I was astonished at how closely some of his ideas and images paralleled those of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, as I often quote them from the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. These quotes, of course, are an extension of Chasidic and even Kabbalistic thought and belief, which seems an even stranger comparison for me to make to the observations and reflections of a Catholic monk writing his autobiography in the 1940s.

I wonder if men from such different cultural and religious backgrounds aren’t on some level joined together by the light of God?

But if this unlikely and wonderful parallel between two men of such divergent faiths exists, how much more tragic that there are so many others in the religious and spiritual arena (and particularly in the blogosphere) who claim the title “saint” or “prophet” but who Merton would definitely classify as “devil?”

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling of lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands.

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book – the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine – is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation.

-Merton, pg 187

I’m not a big fan of censorship and I’m probably one of those people who would be driven out of my mind with indignation if someone should hand me a book that was declared “safe” by the Catholic church. But in reading these sentences and the ones that followed, I began to draw a comparison to what Merton could not possibly have anticipated – the proliferation of information on the world wide web.

The Internet isn’t filtered and in my humble opinion, it never should be, but the danger in this is that anyone who can create a website or blog (and this includes everyone nowadays) will create a website or blog, and they’ll spew their opinions all over the Internet so that anyone with web access can find them and read them.

If you are reasonably well educated from other sources, (such as books and reliable teachers) you can probably make your way through the maze of good content and bad, but there are so many would-be “saints” in the world who unknowingly fall into the teachings of a “devil” out of sheer ignorance.

I was once teaching a class at a congregation and was confronted with a strange thought by one of the students. In the course of the conversation, she said the oddest thing. I believe we were talking about the Tetragrammaton; the most holy and unpronounceable name of God, which many people express as “YHWH,” and she said that the reason the Jewish people were exiled was that they refused to reveal the pronunciation of “the Name” to the world and thus, lost all knowledge of the pronunciation as an additional punishment.


Yes, that sounds crazy to me, too.

I don’t remember all of the details and I probably wouldn’t publish them if I did, but apparently, there was some sort of “teacher” on the Internet who was spreading this kind of information. She gave me the URL to his site and I looked him up.

Oh my!

There were years and years and years worth of articles on his site (I really don’t remember his name) and it would have been impossible to go through all of his stuff. I searched for the information on the “Sacred Name” but didn’t find it. I looked through some random web articles and some of it was relatively sane and a lot of it wasn’t. The guy seemed like he was intelligent and even educated, but his conclusions were highly suspect.

With that memory fully recalled and in reading Merton’s book, I’m beginning to develop a new respect for the “imprimatur” concept. Not in terms of consuming data that is only acceptable to the Catholic church, but with the idea of separating the “wheat from the chafe” relative to sound versus unsound religious “research”. If I want to buy a book, I can always go to Amazon and read the reviews to get some sort of idea if the book is any good or not (although sometimes even that litmus test fails). For random craziness on the web, there often is not litmus test except keeping yourself educated with valid sources and knowing when something looks suspicious.

Even with that, some otherwise reliable and well-educated blog authors can become overly-enamored with their own self-importance, just because they get a lot of attention and some local notoriety. The curse of even marginally “famous” believers is that the temptation to forget that God is the focus can be really strong.

I occasionally get “spammed” by folks who tell me that they’ve got a direct line to the Holy Spirit of God who whispers in their ears and helps them not rely on their own intellectual prowess. That kind of makes it hard for me to say that God should be our final litmus test on information when any sort of supernatural revelation is, by its very nature, totally subjective. We can say that revelations of the Spirit should only be considered on the up and up if they jive with Scripture, but interpretation of Scripture is also extremely variable, depending on who you read, who you talk to, and who you believe. Seems like a vicious circle.

Ultimately, we each take some sort of stand and say that “this religion” or “this denomination” or “this sect” or “this viewpoint” is what we consider foundational, and we proceed from that point. None of us have it completely “right” but then perhaps none of us have it completely “wrong” either. In the intellectual “holy wars” on the web, regardless of our differing opinions, we can still rely on the words of the Master that are not ambiguous:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I am also reminded of the Prophet Micah:

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)

And although not a prophet as we understand the term, Thomas Merton managed to crystallize something important:

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

If we open ourselves to Him, we are the breath of God. When we love others, then we are breathing, then we are alive.

Develop your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land

Learning to Breathe

Breath, the inhale and exhale, marking life itself. From the first breath to the last, the constant inhale and exhale signifies vitality.

Take a moment to experience it. Breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with the fresh, pure oxygen. This inhale represents your very inner, core essence; your very being in life. It signifies who you are.

Now, release it; let it all out. Witness your breath exiting and meshing with your surrounding. This represents your doing in life, your impacting on the outside world and accomplishing. Your inhale is self-preservation, defining your own boundaries of self. Your exhale is your universal imprint on the society and world around you.

All beings and any life force experience this duality of inner and outer; inner parameters and boundaries versus outer affects and imprints. Who it is and what it does. The protection of its inherent boundaries, and its reaching out to the world.

The greater a life force the more evident is its inhale and exhale.

-Chana Weisberg
“In and Out”
Chassidic Thought

I’ve been looking for ways to unload my surplus stress and to reorganize my life around life, rather than around anxiety, depression, and despair. (OK, things aren’t quite that bad, but still…) After “plumping up” over the past few months, I’ve returned to the gym in a (vain) attempt to dump my belly fat and to fit more comfortably in my jeans.

I’m also trying to fit more comfortably inside my skin and my skull and my being.

It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling a bit lately, as evidenced by my family’s Passover Seder as well as other recent events. Although I know that the struggle with mortality and humanity is unavoidable, it’s still difficult to let go and to integrate all of the ugly little bits and pieces of reality into my life, rather than shunning them. I need some way to reminding myself, even at the worst of times, that God has not disappeared down the cosmic rabbit hole and escaped my angst and anguish.

I’m trying to learn how to breathe.

Obviously, I know how to breathe and I’m not talking about some esoteric or mystic breathing technique used during deep meditation. Well, not exactly. I was remembering a quote from a few episodes of Star Trek Voyager, where the character Tuvok (played by Tim Russ) in assisting another member of the crew to meditate. Tuvok would say something like, “Turn your attention to the white light that is your breath..”

I can’t remember the exact quote and my Googling skills have failed me. (but thanks to the helpful commenter (see below) for supplying the correct link and quote) However, I try to imagine my breath as a white light as I breathe in and out during exercise. This image is especially helpful during the last five minutes of an aerobic workout, when I’m trying to reduce my heart rate back to some semblance of normalcy, rather than trying to go from 156 to 70 in a single, sudden stop. I’m actually able to close my eyes and visualize the light as it goes in and out of my mouth and lungs.

With my legs still moving on the machine, I can imagine myself on a trail. It is narrow, with the forest on either side of me. The trail is going up and I can see the crest of the hill ahead of me. There’s a point where the sky meets the ground that is a bright, white light. My breath seems to go to and come from that light. I realize that I’m getting closer to the top and the light is getting brighter. And yet, I’m not able to get too close.

I know that the light is God and that, in those few short moments as I’m encouraging my body to go from working very hard to beginning to calm down, I’m also approaching that calm with my mind, my feelings, and my spirit.

Indeed all creation, say the Kabbalists, is characterized by this to and fro movement, called ratzo v’shuv (running forth and drawing back) or mati v’lo mati (reaching and retreating).

The heart contracts and expands; the lungs exhale and inhale. On a deeper level, the body sleeps, extinguishing its active faculties in order to rejuvenate. The earth enters an interlude of night and winter in order to vivify itself with the necessary energies for its more outward oriented dawn of spring.

The same is true of the flow of vitality from G-d to His creation. This flow also comes in flashes of running forth and drawing back, reaching and retreating.

Furthermore, each breath of life — each protective withholding of boundaries as well as each outer exertion — reflects the Divine balance and flow to creation.


Each breath we take, each beat of our heart, separates us from eternity and yet joins us with the infinite at the same time. God breathed life into the first man and something of that breath exists within all of the living. When we think of ourselves as being “created in the image of God,” we (OK, I) tend to imagine that image as static and unchanging. I can’t really picture what that “image” must look like, but when I’m breathing in and out the light of God’s breath, the Spirit of God and man are dynamically being interchanged, interwoven, and stirred together. I have no way to truly understand God, but in those few minutes, as a strive to approach the top of the trail and to reach the light, I am able to touch something and to share something with God.

And He shares a little something with me.

Come and see! G-d made the world by a breath and by the breath of the mouths of those who study Torah it is preserved.

-Translated and annotated by Rahmiel-Hayyim Drizin
from the Zohar selection in Hok L’Yisrael
Based on Zohar Bereishit 47a

It is common for us to try to understand God and who we are in Him, by studying the Bible as well as other learned texts. We read and we attend classes and we ask knowledgeable teachers our questions and attempt to touch the edge of great mysteries.

It is also common to pray and to reach out with our thoughts and feelings to God, calling across the bridge that stands between the earthly and the Divine in the hopes that we can reach Him and in some way, connect with something that is part of our Creator.

But for all that effort, and none of it is wasted, sharing something with God may be as simple as taking a deep breath, letting it out, and visualizing that light going in and out of us as the breath we share with God. His light fills us every time we take a breath, and He wills every beat of our heart.

We are alive because He is the Living God.

There will come a time, very soon, when we will be shown miracles so great, they will make the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea appear as ordinary as nature itself.

So great, no mind can begin to fathom them;
so powerful, they will transform the very fabric of our world, elevating it in a way that the wonders of the Exodus never did.

For then, our eyes will be opened and granted the power to see the greatest of miracles: Those miracles that occur to us now, beneath our very noses, every day.

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

Every moment we’re alive, and each time we breathe in and breathe out, is a miracle.

Putting Light in a Cage

On today’s daf we find that Rabbi Akiva asked Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua a halachic question while they were in the market purchasing an animal for Rabban Gamliel’s son’s wedding. This is the way of gedolei Torah. Even while on their way to a simchah, they only think about Torah.

Rav Eliezer Gordon, zt”l, the first Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, was just such a person. The tales regarding his absolute devotion to Torah even during the most unusual times are astounding.

Rav Gordon was a person who had such a deep-felt ahavas haTorah that he would think in learning at every available moment. While he walked down the street and while he was apparently in repose, he was always immersed in a sugya.

Once, when Rav Gordon was on his way to serve as sandek at a bris milah, he passed by a shul and heard two bochurim discussing a certain difficult question in learning. Rav Gordon immediately forgot everything. He stopped in front of the window and, while standing outside, began to discuss this complex question in depth. He attempted to answer it and the bochurim debated various suggestions he proposed that might resolve the problem.

Two hours later, the guests at the bris were still waiting, but the rav had not yet come. Finally they found an acceptable answer and Rav Gordon continued on his way. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be sandek at a local bris.

When he arrived he apologized and explained what had happened. “Regarding Torah I am like a drunk near a bottle of wine who cannot think of anything else!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Intoxicated by Torah”
Kereisos 15

I know. It sounds kind of irresponsible to me, too. If I have an appointment and people are expecting me, especially for an important event, I really try to be on time and often, I’m a little early. So how can we explain Rav Gordon?

At the threshold of liberation, darkness filled the land of Egypt. But in the homes of those to be liberated, there was only light.

Light is our true place, and light is the destiny of every child of Noah who nurtures the G-dly beauty of this world. As dawn approaches and Darkness shakes heaven and earth in the final throes of its demise, those who belong to Light and cleave to it with all their hearts have nothing to fear.

For darkness is created to die, but light is forever.

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

Imagine being filled with light all of the time. You can’t really help it. God is not only on your thoughts and affecting your emotions, but His very Word is interwoven into your flesh and bone. It has invaded your blood stream and is coursing through your veins and arteries like life-giving corpuscles. The light of His Word creates the electrical impulses that leap at lightning-fast speeds across the gap between the synapses in your brain. And all that light within you is inexorably drawn to other light just like it…and you cannot help but run the other’s light, so you can join the light within and the light without.

So too, is Rav Gordon, even to the point of allowing himself to be distracted and to be hours late to a bris.

Or he could have just been one of those people who lose track of time when caught up in a compelling intellectual argument.

Where is the balance between the holy and the secular? It is said that Hillel the Elder, the great Torah sage who lived a generation before Jesus, devoted his life to Torah study while also working as a woodcutter. (Hertz J.H. 1936 The Pentateuch and Haftoras. Deuteronomy. Oxford University Press, London.) Certainly Hillel knew the meaning of balance in his life.

And then there’s this:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. –2 Thessalonians 3:6-8 (ESV)

I can’t find the source, but I recall reading that it is considered a sin if you study Torah to the exclusion of all other responsibilities, such as feeding your family, and meeting your other worldly obligations.

I can’t lay all of that at Rav Gordon’s feet. After all, he was only distracted for a couple of hours and perhaps justifiably so. I’m in no position to judge.

To tell you the truth, it’s far more common for people to allow the demands of their day-to-day secular life to distract them from their duty to study the Bible, to meditate upon God, to pray, to show devotion on the Shabbat. It is far more common to be lured off of the path to God by your daily grind, than to be late for work because you were praying or studying.

God understands that we have a daily life and indeed, he requires that we do have an “ordinary” job so that we, like Paul, can support ourselves and not be a burden to others. All of the great Torah scholars had some means by which they supported themselves, as did the Prophets, and as did the Apostles. Part of a whole life is not only sharing it with God and joining with that light, but allowing the light to shine into the rest of your world. God is in the act of commuting to work, in sitting at a computer keyboard, in picking your children up from school, in mowing the lawn, in paying your taxes, in taking out the garbage.

And He’s in being immersed in a sugya and in joining two bochurim discussing a certain difficult question.

There’s a passion that must be part of who we are as people if we are to overwhelm the oppressive demands of a human experience with the light of God. In Judaism, each soul is considered to be a shard or a spark of the Divine Light of God, come to earth to inhabit a person. The spark yearns to return to its Source but the flesh chains the holy shard to earth. The bird is caged and cannot fly. If you remove freedom from the bird long enough, it forgets how to fly, and pines for its lost freedom. The notes of its song sour and it loses its way back to the Source, perhaps forever.

So too is the soul within us that is cut off too long from its Source. Humanity is an anchor that drags us to the floor of an impenetrably deep sea. This is the opposite of Rav Gordon and his drive to seek out perpetual light perpetually. But if we pray, if we meditate, if we study the Bible, if we associate, even occasionally, with others who have the same drive and light, if we allow the Word to weave its way through us, the bird is not kept in total darkness and it is allowed to spread its wings. It has a song to sing, even while caged within its flesh and blood prison.

The bird has hope, not only that someday it will return to the Source, but that in the here and now, there is a light within that shines, and a light without to follow.

Someday we will be free.