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.
“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.”
That 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.
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.
What 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)
Granted, 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.