Tag Archives: meaning

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.

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Who Am I and Why Am I Here?

Indeed, surveys show that actual converts to Judaism are far outnumbered by Americans born outside the faith who consider themselves Jewish despite having never formally converted to Judaism. However, even in the most liberal Jewish communities, there is a dividing line that excludes non-Jews. Practically no synagogues allow non-Jews to be called to the Torah (unless they are accompanying a Jewish spouse at their kid’s bar mitzvah). Jews married to non-Jews are barred from admission to rabbinical school. And, of course, non-Jews can’t marry Jews under Conservative or Orthodox auspices.

Most importantly, you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.

-from the article “10 Questions About Jewish Conversions You Want to Know but are Afraid to Ask”
VirtualJerusalem.com

Don’t worry. I’m not considering converting. However, I saw a link to this article on Facebook and was interested about which ten questions one might be afraid to ask.

In my two most recent “meditations,” Are Christians Idol Worshipers and Doing It Right, the conversations kept returning to what Derek Leman might call “the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, Jesus and Torah, temple and atonement.”

But while many or most traditional Christians don’t see much of an intersection between their faith and Judaism, those of us involved, at some level in Messianic Judaism find it unavoidable. In a comment to Gene on Doing It Right, I said in part:

From my point of view (and I could be wrong, of course), you have a ready-made world, a Jewish community, to which you belong and in which roles, identity, and expectations are all clearly defined. It would seem to me that all you have to do is step inside of that community, close the door, and never look back.

I, on the other hand, picture myself fighting my way through the Bible tooth and nail, clawing my way through the collision (Derek calls it an intersection) between the Jewish and Christian aspects of my faith, feeling like the inside of a sandwich being squeezed by two opposing slices of bread.

I could make up a story or a series of stories about the Jews and Gentiles who left Messianic Judaism and entered a more mainstream Judaism or entered (re-entered) the Church.

disconnectedI could say that the dissonance (remember, I’m making all this up) experienced living in-between various elements of Jewish and Christian faith are very “crazy making” and that in order to reduce or even eliminate the inherit discomfort of being identified as “Messianic,” these individuals chose to escape into a more internally consistent or at least more readily acceptable religious identity.

I’ve heard stories of more than a few non-Jews in Messianic Judaism who (in my opinion) became confused about what to prioritize in a life of faith and mistook function for devotion by converting to Orthodox Judaism. It’s not being Jewish that makes one acceptable to God, since even the Orthodox readily admit that Gentile conversion isn’t the only way, or even the primary way, a Goy may merit life in the world to come and be considered righteous. It’s living a life that is Holy to God by transforming our lives from being focused on ourselves to being focused on service to others and service to God (think Matthew 22:36-40).

Of course, that’s not the only path leading out of Messianic Judaism. For Jews, there’s going to/returning to a more normative Judaism such as Orthodox Judaism, and for the Gentile, there’s going to/returning to normative Christianity. Those groups disagree with each other, but the world generally accepts them as valid religious expressions.

But the world, including the religious world, doesn’t always know what to do with Messianic Judaism. While many of the Jewish people within the movement strive greatly to live authentically Jewish lives, in some cases, indistinguishable from Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox Judaism, the really big question (and I’ve brought this up before) is what to do with all the Goyim in Messianic Jewish community space.

Actually, there are two other escape paths, particularly for the Gentile, I haven’t mentioned. Leaving the world of faith entirely and becoming an atheist, and continuing to adhere to faith but leaving all forms of religious community and considering all such community as non-sustainable.

I rarely quote from Christian articles and blogs, but the other day, I did find something written by A.W. Tozer called The Saint Must Walk Alone.

The idea, based on a number of Biblical precedences, is that the person of faith by definition is isolated from the larger culture. Tozer cited a number of the Prophets including Noah, Abraham, and Moses, but while it’s true that, in the end, Noah only had his family as his form of community, and Abraham had to gather people around him in order to construct community, Moses, though effectively isolated from the community of God for the first forty years of his life, found a ready-made body of millions of Israelites once God commanded him to rescue His people Israel.

In the Apostolic Scriptures. Jesus (Yeshua) called apostles and disciples to himself, and after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the apostles and disciples, made many more disciples, both Jewish and Gentile, across the latter part of the First Century CE and beyond.

I’ve said before that people gravitate to groups made up of “their own kind”, that is, others who are like themselves. That’s why in older cities in our nation, you have neighborhoods defined by nationality and ethnicity. Visit New York, Chicago, or San Francisco to see what I mean.

And I believe the same is true of religious people. We all want to hang out with people like us, so we don’t get thrown too many theological curve balls. The secular world is a hard place to live in, so it’s comforting to know you have a place to retreat once in a while where you can truly be yourself and be understood without being judged or maligned (ironically, sort of like being a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting).

Tozer writes:

The pain of loneliness arises from the constitution of our nature. God made us for each other. The desire for human companionship is completely natural and right. The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share inner experiences, he is forced to walk alone. The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

A.W. Tozer
A.W. Tozer

Of course, Tozer’s “Saint” is only lonely away from the authentic community of the Church, and while he says that there may be few who have great devotion to Christ in the body of believers, he hasn’t taken into consideration the fact that there could be “Saints” who have no access to fellowship, and any such like-minded communities nearby could be too internally conflicted and even unstable to be viable options.

Ultimately, the person of faith may be isolated and alone not only from society but from other religious people, even those who fundamentally conceptualize their theology in similar way.

The problem for many of these “Messianic Gentiles,” is not that they/we are attracted to God, but we’re attracted to a particular exegetical system that allows us to read the entire Bible (Tanakh and Apostolic Scriptures) as a unified Jewish document that upholds the primacy of national Israel and the Gospel message as one of national and even worldwide redemption rather than a truncated plan addressing salvation on an individual-by-individual basis.

By definition, we find Judaism more attractive than Christianity (I speak of institutions, traditions, and lifestyles here). However, as the VirtualJerusalem.com article I quoted from states, “you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.”

Not that I would try to be, but many others like me can’t separate their identities from Jewish (quasi-Jewish really) identities. In the end, we either find others who accept us as we are in religious community, we change our identity by conversion to find acceptance, we retreat into the Church (abandoning Messianic theology) to find acceptance, or we just retreat and call an end to seeking acceptance and community. In the latter case, acceptance comes from secular community. We’ve thrown our net very wide and through the wide gate, everyone can travel together.

Tozer concludes:

The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful “adjustment” to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. And this is the saddest thing that can be said about them. They are not lonely, but neither are they saints.

Earlier in his article, Tozer admits that those Christians who say they are never alone because Jesus is always with them, echo a rather hollow message. Remember, he also said man was made for community, and the people of God are made for community with their fellows.

But in the end, all we really have is God. No religious community is perfect, and some of them are downright toxic. There are who knows how many wounded souls who have sought fellowship, but once burned are thereafter “twice shy.”

I’ve been pleased with how discussions have gone on in my two previous blog posts, especially given the rather controversial nature of the topics at hand. After all is said and done, we “odd balls,” many of whom are like me and simply are not made to be in community, or who otherwise have no acceptable peer group at hand, in addition to God, have the Internet. This is the only place we can find each other, through our communication is merely so much binary and electrical chatter across fiber, copper, and wifi.

Since I’ve pulled back from writing so much, I can feel my intellectual and emotional attachment to the “Messianic blogosphere” wane correspondingly. I don’t scour the web looking at other blogs the way I used to. I don’t view each article and quote at Aish.com or Chabad.org as inspiration for yet another “morning meditation.” I no longer even peek out of my home office on Friday evenings to see if my wife is about to light the Shabbos candles. They either are lit or not as she wills.

purim
Purim Parade in Hebron

Right now (Sunday afternoon), she’s at the Chabad helping to prepare for the upcoming Purim celebration. I couldn’t be more pleased. That’s where she belongs, in Jewish community because that’s who she is. Given the enormous barriers she’s had to cross, I’m glad she’s found her way home. Her experience has taught me that my having community doesn’t seem to be part of the reason I exist. If my marriage to a Jewish woman has previously inhibited her from a Jewish life, maybe our union also helps to reveal my purpose in supporting and encouraging her pursuit of that Jewish life.

I believe for the Messianic Gentile, that’s why we are here, not to promote ourselves but to support Jews, both in Messiah and otherwise, to return to devotion to Torah, devotion to Jewish community, and devotion to Hashem.

As a “Messianic Gentile,” if that’s who I am and why I’m here, it’s enough.

Considering Life and Randomness

Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life. And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman from his book
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth
quoted from sichosinenglish.org

A rabbi was once called to a hospital to see a Jewish teenager who was suicidal. Feeling that he was a good-for-nothing who could not get anything right, the boy had attempted to take his own life. But even his suicide attempt failed. Seeing that he was Jewish, the hospital staff called the rabbi to come and try to lift the boy’s dejected spirits.

The rabbi arrived at the hospital not knowing what to expect. He found the boy lying in bed watching TV, a picture of utter misery, black clouds of despair hanging over his head. The boy hardly looked up at the rabbi, and before he could even say hello, the boy said, “If you are here to tell me what the priest just told me, you can leave now.”

Slightly taken aback, the rabbi asked, “What did the priest say?”

“He told me that G‑d loves me. That is a load of garbage. Why would G‑d love me?”

It was a good point. This kid could see nothing about himself that was worthy of love. He had achieved nothing in his life; he had no redeeming features, nothing that was beautiful or respectable or lovable. So why would G‑d love him?

The rabbi needed to touch this boy without patronizing him. He had to say something real. But what do you say to someone who sees himself as worthless?

“You may be right,” said the rabbi. “Maybe G‑d doesn’t love you.”

This got the boy’s attention. He wasn’t expecting that from a rabbi.

“Maybe G‑d doesn’t love you. But one thing’s for sure. He needs you.”

This surprised the boy. He hadn’t heard that before.

-Rabbi Aron Moss
“The Rabbi and the Suicidal Teenager”
Chabad.org

I’ve heard this before and on the surface, it sound pretty good. It sounds like you would never have been born and wouldn’t have continued to live if you didn’t have some important part to play in God’s plan. It also sounds like if you took yourself out of God’s plan (by suicide for instance) there would be a big hole punched into the middle of that plan.

Seems like a really fragile and vulnerable plan. Since human beings have free will, we can commit a thousand different actions that would be contrary to God’s master plan for Creation. If one human being were to kill himself before fulfilling his or her part in the plan, what would God do? Is there a “plan B?”

I want to finish with the Rabbi Moss commentary before continuing:

The very fact that you were born means that G‑d needs you. He had plenty of people before you, but He added you to the world’s population because there is something you can do that no one else can. And if you haven’t done it yet, that makes it even more crucial that you continue to live, so that you are able to fulfill your mission and give your unique gift to the world.

If I can look at all my achievements and be proud, I can believe G‑d loves me. But what if I haven’t achieved anything? What if I don’t have any accomplishments under my belt to be proud of?

Well, stop looking at yourself and look around you. Stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking of others. You are here because G‑d needs you — He needs you to do something.

My friend, you and I know that happiness does not come from earning a big salary. Happiness comes from serving others, from living life with meaning. I am convinced that all you need to do is focus outward, not inward. Don’t think about what you need, but what you are needed for. And in finding what you can do for others, you will find yourself.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Does fulfilling your part in God’s plan for your life automatically mean you’re going to be happy about it?  Look at the Apostle Paul’s life. After being commissioned by Jesus to be the emissary to the Gentiles and to spread the Good News of Christ to the nations (Acts 9), was his life happy? It may have been fulfilling and rewarding in the sense that Paul knew he was doing what God was asking, but it was hardly happy or even comfortable. Paul was beaten, left for dead, had to run for his life, was shipwrecked, and bitten by a poisonous snake. He was finally executed in Rome after a lengthy stay as a prisoner. That doesn’t sound like “happy” to me.

But Rabbi Moss isn’t talking about happiness, he’s talking about serving others as part of God’s plan and in doing so, finding yourself. If you had a chance to fulfill a great purpose in life and to serve God in bringing many otherwise lost people to Him, wouldn’t you do it, even if it meant personal hardship?

Actually, that’s a tough question, especially for many Christians in western nations who aren’t typically called upon to make such great sacrifices and to suffer such hardships. In theory, our answer should be “yes,” but in practicality, I’m not so sure we’d all jump up and down enthusiastically and yell out, “Pick me!”

Now let’s dig a little deeper. Paul’s purpose in life was unmistakable. Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him what he wanted. A few days later, he sent a human messenger to him to tell Paul his next steps. We see in other parts of the Bible how Paul seemingly had other supernatural experiences which no doubt re-enforced his life’s purpose.

But all that stuff doesn’t happen to most of us. Even if it did and we saw visions and heard voices telling us to do such and thus, most Christians around us would think we were nuts and recommend us to the nearest psychiatrist.

But as far as I can tell, most of us don’t have supernatural experiences to tell us what our life’s purpose happens to be. Most of us have to figure it out, seemingly on our own.

Rabbi Moss suggests to his (possibly fictional) suicidal teenager that as a young person, he has most likely not yet had the opportunity to fulfill his life’s purpose. God needs him to do that, so he has to stay alive until that purpose if completed. But what is that purpose? How do you know what it is? How do you know when you’ve done it? Do you just wait around and hope you can figure out what it is and then perform it when opportunity strikes?

Tough questions. Here’s another one. If you do figure out what your purpose in life is and you have already completed it, what’s the purpose in continuing to go on?

Running out of timeOK, that’s somewhat unfair, because the question assumes that your purpose in life is to commit one act that is easily defined and can be performed in a relatively quick manner, like changing a tire, or helping an older person across the street. But what if that’s it? You’ve done what God created you to do. You may have years or even decades of life still left in you. What now?

Of course, your purpose might be long-lasting and multi-dimensional. You could have been created to be a parent and a grandparent and to influence and support your family across your entire lifetime. In that case, you can never fulfill your purpose until God dictates that it is time for you to die.

Reflecting back on everything I’ve just written, it would seem that, if we accept the premise Rabbi Moss provides, we know we haven’t fulfilled our purpose in life because we’re alive. We assume that when we die, we’ve completed what we were created to do.

But what about “suicide” and “plan B?” If free will allows a certain number of people to kill themselves, what happens to God’s plan? Is it irreparably thwarted? That hardly seems likely since God is God. Being human, we tend to think of the progression of time, fate, and the universe relative to God’s plan as rather linear. Step 1 leads to step 2 and then to step 3 and so on. But if we accept that, we’re saying that no sort of randomness is possible in a created universe. But if we have free will, that can’t be true.

If God’s plan includes the possibility of randomness and further, the possibility that not all people born will fulfill their plan (so far, I’ve only included the single reason of suicide, but people may fail to fulfill their plan for a variety of other reasons tied in to their free will and the free will of people in their environment), then God must have a “plan B” (and I’m sure it’s much more complicated than this) to compensate. If one person who is to fulfill some aspect of God’s plan dies, then there must be a method (that is totally outside of human awareness) of shifting people and events around to accomplish God’s goals in this instance.

That means in an absolute sense, as individuals, we are not indispensible to God. We can be replaced. God doesn’t have an ultimate need for our individual lives.

Rabbi Moss’ story may seem compelling and we can even see how it might have turned around this depressed and suicidal boy, but it’s also not too hard to work our way around his argument, either. When Rabbi Freeman says, “Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life. And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair,” it sounds like he is being too dismissive of someone else’s despair. If Rabbi Moss (or whoever was the Rabbi in the story of the suicidal teenager) had walked into the room, dropped Rabbi Freeman’s two sentence “bomb,” and walked out, do you think it would have done any good?

People have better days and worse days. Having a purpose in life is usually pretty important, but most of the time, it gets lost in the day-to-day shuffle of going to work, interacting with our families, paying the bills, and whatever other tasks we’re expected to perform just because of the roles we play in the various areas of our lives. Most of the time, we don’t give our overarching purpose much thought. It only comes up when you read blog posts such as this one or encounter a personal life crisis.

The raw fact is that many of us may never become aware of some higher and nobel purpose of our life, let alone one that is assigned to us by Heaven. Most of us, if we have an awareness of God at all, will live our day-to-day existence, try to love, strive not to hate, read our holy book, pray, and by the time we die, we can only hope that we did whatever we were supposed to do.

That’s not a particularly satisfying thought and Rabbi Moss tells a better tale than I do, but who’s to say if life works out this way or that?

I can’t.

Disconnect Reconnect Disconnect

Normally, I start out a “meditation” with some sort of meaningful or inspirational quote, usually from Chabad.org, but I’ve got other things on my mind. Most of you know that I recently attended the First Fruits of Zion 2012 Shavuot Conference, hosted by Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. After five wonderful, exhausting days, I’m back home in Idaho. I’m really tired, even after sleeping all night, but I need to start writing about all this.

Blogging is inherently lonely. I know it might not seem that way, since in theory, I’m talking to anyone who has Internet access, but the reality of blogging is that I’m sitting at a computer keyboard alone and writing to myself. Ultimately, when I post this online, it’s available to anyone and everyone, but from my point of view, it’s like being a man who is stranded on a small, desert island, writing a note, putting it in a bottle, and then throwing it into the ocean. The tide takes it out and I’ll probably never see it again or know what happens to it. Will the cork work loose and pop out, letting water in and sinking my bottle? Will just enough water get in and ruin the message so that even if someone finds the bottle, they’ll never be able to read the note inside? Or will the bottle just float and float, carried here and there by nameless, unknown currents, bobbing around the seas, lost to time and man forever and ever?

Who knows, but that’s how I feel. Even if someone responds to a blog post, they are far away and faceless, an identity I can communicate with but never really know. An almost anonymous cardboard cut out, but never a living, breathing flesh-and-blood human being.

Until now.

There’s a long story about everything that happened up to the point when I entered Beth Immanuel for the first time last Thursday afternoon, but I won’t tell that tale right now. Jeremiah, my ride from the motel to the conference on the first day, dropped me off and then was called away. I walked into the congregation building (which is a very beautiful and richly textured synagogue) and didn’t get two steps inside before someone said (I can’t remember the exact wording), “You’re Jim Pyles. I love your blog.” (Hi, Michele)

Needless to say, I was stunned.

I really didn’t expect to get any attention relative to this blog. I figured that I’d meet one or two people I know through Facebook but otherwise I’d be pretty much anonymous. That never happened.

Please don’t think I’m saying this to blow my own horn, but probably fifteen people or so came up to me during the conference, recognizing me on sight, and saying something complementary about my blog. Daniel Lancaster publicly introduced all of the staff of FFOZ the first evening of the conference, asking each person to stand up when their name was called. I didn’t think much of it until he called my name.

What?

It probably didn’t help that I agreed be a presenter at Tikkun Leil Shavuos Saturday night (Sunday morning at about 2, actually).

Why am I telling you all this? It’s what happens when someone finds the bottle, reads the message, and comes to rescue you with a boat. It’s what happens when you get on the boat and you realize that a lot of people read the message and because of that, they feel like they know you and they want to get to know you better. It’s when you feel disconnected and alone on a desert island and then the island fills up with people who all know your name and story and all of them want you to know them, too. They tell you their stories and somehow your story and their stories interact, weave, and blend into each other to create a different, larger story about people who come from radically different places and yet all have something in common. To use a “star trek-ism”, it’s infinite diversity coming together to form an infinite combination.

Disconnection becomes connection.

And then it’s over.

Anyone who’s been to a conference like this knows that you are put through a whirlwind of events, worship services, presentations, meals, discussions, and fellowship. Suddenly, you’re back in your motel room asleep and then the next thing you know, it’s another morning and you’re praying shacharit with the congregation again. What seems like a days long stream of activities compresses into a few minutes, and once they blur by, you’re on a plane in the middle of the night, fighting the urge to try to sleep in an extremely uncomfortable seat while wedged between two people, flying back home.

I actually started to feel this loneliness the evening of the first full day of the conference. Some “vision” of the end presented itself to me during one of the presentations and I felt compelled to write notes for this particular blog post. I can’t find the notes but I still feel the separation and disconnection. I suppose that’s to be expected. After one of these events when you make or re-make so many connections so quickly, you almost always feel a sense of profound loss when it’s over. I remember thinking at one point that I could happily settle down into the community at Beth Immanuel and spend the rest of my life in worship there.

Of course, that will never happen for more reasons than I have time to recount in this missive.

Since I didn’t have a car, Jeremiah Detwiler picked me up from the airport (thanks for all your help, Jeremiah), and during the first night, I met a fellow named Dave who was staying at the same motel, so he agreed to ferry me back and forth (thanks, Dave). Dave and I met in the motel lobby on Friday morning after breakfast and drove back to Beth Immanuel. We got there a little early and sat in the sanctuary. After a few minutes, I heard the faint sound of Hebrew prayers and followed it into the library (the library by the way, is to die for). In a small room above the library, a group of men had gathered together for shacharit before the public ceremonies began.

I remember standing directly under the room and being filled with…something, an emotion, just listening to the prayers, and I found myself floating on the surface of the rhythm of the words, letting myself be carried off to sea. I’m terrible at languages and on my best day in life, I’ll never be able to learn Hebrew, but for some reason I can’t explain, Hebrew prayer just calls to me. However, it would have been too embarrassing to actually try to participate in the prayers with them, and since I’m not Jewish, I’ve promised myself I won’t put on a tallit again for that, and more reasons than I have time to recount here. But I couldn’t help myself when I followed the sound of the prayers from the sanctuary to the library and then I just stood in awe and wonder and longing, and I listened.

The prayers ended and I quickly returned to my seat in the sanctuary, but those precious moments when I was listening to the men praying are one of the highlights of my entire experience at the conference. I really do miss the prayers and while they resonate in some mysterious way with my soul, they also remind me that I can only be who I am and that there is a world I will always orbit but never truly arrive upon. My bird has no legs, so I must forever be suspended alone in flight.

And so I’m disconnected again, but it’s even worse than that.

It’s not simply that I’m restored to my previous state. If that’s all it was, I would eventually return to my “normal life” and that would be the end of it. After all, there’s always next year and I can attend the 2013 conference if I want to.

But it’s not just that.

I brought something back with me from the conference. Yes, I brought books back, and materials back, and memories back, but that’s not what changed things for me, not really. I also brought back questions about purpose, identity, and mission. I’m wondering about goals, and process, and destination. In the days ahead, I’m going to write about what I brought back, some of which is vast in scope and some that touches on just a few tiny details.

In many ways, blogging is futile. While I know now that I’ve touched a lot of people just by writing, I also realize that in a much grander scope, it doesn’t really matter. I can only touch people who choose to read this blog and even then, only those people who choose to be touched. And as a said before, there are severe limitations to the (dis)connections I can make in a virtual universe when, after all, both God and man exist and talk in the real one.

It’s like something really strange happened to the man rescued from the desert island and to all the people who welcomed him on their boat. Instead of going away from the island and letting himself go back to their land with them, the man ate with those people, and talked with those people, and shared experiences with those people for four or five days, and at the end of that time, he got off the boat and went back to the island. The people turned their boat around and went back where they came from. And again, they are isolated from him and he is isolated from them. From disconnection to connection to disconnection.

But he carried away their notes with him and he’s reading them. And he can’t just send out messages in a bottle anymore. And he doesn’t know what to do instead. So he reads. And he thinks. And he prays. And he waits.

And he still writes messages and sends them off upon the currents of the sea every morning as the sun rises because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Maybe one day, God will reach onto the surface of the deep and find one of those messages and read it.

And maybe one day, God will be the one to come to the island and talk to the man.

And then, He’ll tell the man how to leave the island without a boat, even if he has to walk.

And he’ll go to a place where he’ll find someone new to talk to.

I want to thank Dave, and Jeremiah, and Michele, and Karen, and Jim, and Mel, and Jacob, and Jacob, and Michael, and Bill, and Cliff, and lots and lots and lots of other people for talking to me and spending time with me and sharing your lives with me. If I didn’t mention your name, it’s because my memory leaks and sometimes certain details go away. It’s nothing personal, my brain is just getting older.

I also want to thank the leaders and congregation at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship for hosting the conference and for allowing me to participate in your community. I also want to thank everyone at First Fruits of Zion for creating and producing an absolutely amazing conference that not only informed but illuminated human beings. I now have a lot of new mysteries to experience and anguish over (but in a good way). I want to thank Aaron who I’ve never met before and Daniel who I have, as well as Toby, even though he thought I was a different person at first, and Shayna who kept the entire event under control. I want to thank Nick and Jordan who I never met before and who are two of the most amazing young people it has ever been my privilege to encounter, and Jacob who is an amazing young person who I have (virtually) encountered before.

Most of all, I want to thank Boaz Michael who I have met before but who I never got to know so well as I did over the past five days or so. It’s fairly common to encounter Boaz’s thoughts but I am blessed to have experienced his heart, and his passion, and his desire to please God and to serve not only the Jewish community, but the body of all believers in the Jewish Messiah, no matter who they are or where they may be found.

I’m sitting in a chair in front of a computer on a desert island on a Tuesday afternoon as I write this. I have no idea what’s going to happen next as I listen to the waves softly washing up to the sandy shore and hear the wind rustle the palm fronds above my head. But as I experience the loss of connection and settle back into my solitary niche, I proceed hopefully.

Time is the Fire

Woman in fireRav Yaakov Meir wrote, “In Chullin 58 we find a fascinating story. The Gemara records that people tell of a gnat who rebelled against her husband for seven years since he once enjoyed sucking a man’s blood without telling her. The Gemara explains that although gnats don’t live that long this number of years is meant to be relative to its brief lifespan. Its short life is divided into seventy segments. For seven of those segments this insect abandoned her mate in anger. Although gnats live a very short lifespan, these creatures still squandered their days on folly, fighting and taking vengeance. This story begs for an explanation.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Life’s Too Short”
Chullin 58

This is part of a series of blogs I’m writing based, though not always directly, on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review yesterday’s installment, Why Are We Who We Are?, then return here and continue reading.

Yes, it certainly does beg for an explanation. Fortunately, the explanation is obvious.

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. –Psalm 103:15-16

LORD, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. –Psalm 144:3-4

The aforementioned “Story off the Daf” includes the following:

A certain person had a hard time capitalizing on his time. He learned but also wasted lots of time on what he knew was nonsense. Although he wished to stop, he didn’t feel like he could do so himself, so he sought some inspiration to wake him up.

It’s not like we don’t know that life is short. It’s not like we don’t know that we are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Social networking is just the latest method we have of pouring our hours down the drain, but we also have many other activities that don’t contribute to those things we know are most important:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40

So what are we doing? Is even blogging on topics such as this one a waste of time? What should I be doing instead?

When I realize all that there is to learn, all that there is to accomplish in even attempting to understand one more thing about God, about humanity, about how to live a better, more meaningful life, I feel time gaining on me. I am aware that in my life, there are more days behind me than there are ahead. When you’re young, you think that time is an infinite resource, like the ocean or the sky, but as you get older, you realize that even the water and the air can become used up. So it is with life.

Is there an optimal amount of learning that, when accomplished, can be said to be “enough”? I can’t imagine that there is, and yet so many Christians, Jews, and other people of faith seem to behave as if that were true. I guess that’s how we justify sitting in front of the TV, or going to a baseball game, or even taking an afternoon nap.

But on the other side of the coin, is life just for toil, even in the service of God? That’s hard to say. We don’t see the Apostle Paul ever taking a vacation. Moses didn’t ask God for time off when leading the Children of Israel in the desert so he could relax in Cabo or Aruba. Did Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel ever take a break to go and “smell the roses”?

Running out of timeOn the one hand, there’s a tremendous urgency about life, living, learning, and serving God. On the other hand, we have this:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. –Ecclesiasties 1:2-4

We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Does what we do really matter? In seventy or eighty years in life, what sort of real impact do we make? Sure, there are very famous people whose lives do make a tremendous difference on the national or global landscape. I’m sure most people know of the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa, and many people will continue to learn about them for years to come. But most of us aren’t like them. Most of us…the vast, vast majority of us, don’t really make that much of a difference.

Maybe it just comes down to making a decision about what to pay attention to. If we focus on the futility of life and realize that not much we do really affects more than a tiny handful of people in the world, we can then just sit down and stop moving, because it doesn’t really matter. Or we can focus on that tiny handful of people who do think what we do matters…our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends…if we stopped doing and being, what would happen to them?

I know we can’t learn everything and we can’t do everything. When I’m gone, nothing I’ve ever done will really be remembered. Eventually, it will be as if I never existed. On the other hand, maybe it’s enough to matter, even a little, to just a few people. If one person’s life matters to just five or ten other people. and everything those five or ten people do matters to another five or ten each, if we multiple all of that out, eventually reaching all the people there are, then we do matter. Futile or not, each individual is a small part of a larger system. From the point of view of a molecule, it’s hard to see that it makes up the structure of something vital like a human heart.

Also, from our temporal point of view, it’s sometimes hard to see the wider scope that we are a part of, simply because God cares for us and we are His children:

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,

“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you. –1 Peter 1:22-25

As people, we know that regardless of what we accomplish in any endeavor, it will never be enough. But we have to let whatever we can do be enough against the larger background of eternity. Even, if like the gnat, we waste some portion of our precious lifespan, we are still a part of something that is much, much larger than we could possibly imagine…and that our days, even when exhausted, spent, and depleted, will continue to extend to that place that has no time, when our tiny feeble sparks once again fly free and reunite with the fire that is the source of all things…God.

Who Are We to God?

Who are we?Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”Revelation 19:7-9

“Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband—
the LORD Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth.
The LORD will call you back
as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—
a wife who married young,
only to be rejected,” says your God.
“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
I will have compassion on you,”
says the LORD your Redeemer.Isaiah 54:4-8

This is a continuation of my series based on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so already, before going on, review yesterday’s “morning meditation” Shattered Fragments. Then come back and continue reading here.

There are “marriage metaphors” recorded many places in the Bible. We see an example here of Israel being God’s “wife” but also in Revelation we have a picture of “the church” as “the bride of Christ”. Given the traditional Christian viewpoint that Jesus is part of the Trinity and thus is God as much as God the Father is God, how do we reconcile this? Does God have two brides? Is God the bridegroom of Israel and Jesus the husband of the church? Or do we have to entertain the idea that as “co-heirs”, both Jews and Christians become “one new man” and the difference between Jews and non-Jews becomes obliterated under the Kingship and glory of Jesus Christ?

I reject that last option out of hand because I see too much evidence in the Bible for the Jewish people; the nation of Israel being the beneficiaries of an eternal covenant relationship with God, while the other people of the earth can “approach the Throne” through the covenant made available through Christ.

But where does that leave us in terms of these seemingly contradictory “wedding images”?

I’ll tell you right now, that I don’t have an answer. I don’t believe that God has two brides but I don’t know how to make these different parts of the Bible fit together, either.

What I do know is that God is saying something important when he describes His relationship with people as a marital relationship.

Consider yesterday’s morning meditation. We saw a very compelling (though probably flawed) picture of a man and a woman who were “joined” since the beginning. We have an archetype of humanity, created as a single being at the dawn of Creation, and then literally split in half to become man and woman. How could any two people ever get any closer than the two who had been one?

What is God trying to tell us here? Does He really want to be that close to any of us?

The “marriage metaphor” breaks down pretty quickly when we consider that a married couple are supposed to be two equal halves of the same whole. After all, how can we even remotely consider ourselves equal to God? And since we’re not, what sort of “marriage” do we have to a groom who is infinite, all-powerful, and needs nothing from His “bride”? What can we contribute when God does the vast, vast majority of the “heavy lifting” and, by comparison, our efforts amount to a symbolic token, like allowing a four-year old to “help” set the table for dinner?

Am I being cynical?

Experiencing GodThat brings us right back to the question, why did God create us in the first place? Why does He love us? What can we contribute to God and the Universe that He can’t do for Himself?

I mentioned yesterday that only God is a unique One. Only God stands alone with no equal or peer (speaking of why marriage metaphors break down). Ideally, people are created to bond with another in marriage, and to live out the model God designed for living creatures in general and for human beings specifically.

When I started this series, it was with the intent to illustrate, if possible, that the life of each individual has a special meaning and purpose in the world and that we; each and every one of us, is loved by God for who we are and who He created us to be. Part of what I’ve written seems to show that every one of us has something unique to contribute to the world, to each other, and to God, that no one else can provide. The only real mystery involved is discovering what that purpose happens to be and then figuring out how we can possibly live up to our purpose day by day for the rest of our lives.

Put that way, just being here is kind of intimidating. After all, who wants to fail “Life 101”, right?

People’s lives are supposed to have meaning. If meaning doesn’t exist, then God just created a large cosmic maze, made a bunch of white lab rats (humanity), dumped us into the maze, and now He’s sitting back, collecting data, and seeing what we’ll come up with next.

So we decide God created us with a purpose because the alternative is to say nothing matters, life is meaningless, and we might as well devour each other alive because it’s a “dog-eat-dog” world.

Yet, as we saw in the comments section of yesterday’s “morning mediation”, if we aren’t created for one special person, if we could potentially successfully mate with any number of people; having thousands or even tens of thousands (or more) possible selections, then how “special” are our marital relationships? Extending the metaphor back to being God’s “bride”, what does this perspective do to the “specialness” of our relationship with Him? Even if there is a “bride of Christ” or of God, we always see it expressed in the Bible in terms of groups and not individuals. God chooses Israel as a wife, all of Israel, not the individual Jew. And it’s “the church” who is the bride of Christ, not individual Christians.

I can’t see this vast landscape from God’s point of view, so I have no idea how He really perceives all this and all of us. Frankly, even if I could see God’s perspective, I doubt I could comprehend it for even a second. All I can see of Creation is through the other end of the telescope and the image is small and indistinct. I don’t know why the Bible has marriage metaphors unless God, in some manner or fashion, is trying to communicate that He does want to be close to us. He wants some form of intimacy with people, either with the mass of human kind or with each of us as specific individuals (or both), but He desires something and we don’t understand what it is.

We know what we want, or we think we do. We want shelter in an uncertain world. We want to be taken care of and protected in a dangerous and violent universe. We want someone or something more powerful than us to care whether we live or die, and to care about what happens to us in-between birth and death (and beyond). It’s easy to see why people would try to imagine our relationship with God as Him being a loving and protective bridegroom. But it’s hard to see the motivation from God’s point of view.

I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for returning my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness. –Modeh Ani

Thank you that I woke up alive this morning, God. Now please tell me what I’m supposed to do.