Tag Archives: meditation

Choosing a Storyteller

An illustration of a scientific use of prayer is the experience of two famous industrialists, whose names would be known to many readers were I permitted to mention them, who had a conference about a business and technical matter. One might think that these men would approach such a problem on a purely technical basis, and they did that and more; they also prayed about it. But they did not get a successful result. Therefore they called in a country preacher, an old friend of one of them, because, as they explained, the Bible prayer formula is, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) They also pointed to a further formula, namely, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Being schooled in scientific practice, they believe that in dealing with prayer as a phenomenon they should scrupulously follow the formulas outlined in the Bible which they described as a textbook of spiritual science. The proper method for employing a science is to use the accepted formulas outlined in the textbook of that science. They reasoned that if the Bible provides that two or three should be gathered together, perhaps the reason they were not succeeding what the they needed a third party.

-Norman Vincent Peale
Chapter 4: Try Prayer Power
The Power of Positive Thinking

As some of you know who have been reading this blog for a while, I’ve been considering going back to a church. Of course, there are many barriers to this goal, if it is even an appropriate goal for me, so I don’t know if I will end up at that particular destination or not. However, if I ever find myself sitting in a church sanctuary, and the Pastor delivers a message that sounds anything like the quote from Peale’s book I posted above, I would immediately start looking for the nearest exit.

Why?

I’ve commented on Peale’s book before, and now that I’m almost a quarter of the way through, I remain dubious of how he treats the Bible and prayer. Can the Bible be reduced down to a “textbook” and can one pray by a formula?

Actually, in Judaism, prayer is a highly formal and routinized matter, so on this point, I guess I can’t complain, since I find Jewish prayer beautiful. But Peale’s presentation makes it sound like some sort of scam. I feel like I’m listening to some slick, phony prayer service headed up by the likes of Benny Hinn. I feel like I’m listening to someone trying to sell me the “name it, claim it” philosophy of God; as if God were Aladdin’s genie and had to do what I told Him to do because of some “magic prayer” in the Bible.

No, really, I’m trying to like this book, but I don’t think it speaks my language. Let’s try a different approach.

During tefillah, you must focus your heart on the meaning of the words your lips are uttering. You must imagine G-d’s presence right there before you. Dismiss whatever thoughts are bothering you until you are left with a clear mind to focus on your tefillah…

This was the practice of inspired and legendary people; they would seclude themselves and focus on their tefillah to the point that they transcended their physical senses, and their mental powers dominated bringing them close to prophecy.

If an extraneous thought comes into your mind during the tefillah, stay quiet until the thought disappears.

It’s necessary to think about matters that subdue the heart and focus it on your Father in heaven. Don’t think about empty matters.

—Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1
as quoted from Chabad.org

Really, what’s the difference here? Peale characterizes prayer as a “scientific formula” while the quote from Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 98:1 presents mediation and prayer as a transcendental and mystical practice. Who is right? Neither? Both? Does it matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter which approach you take as long as it works for you. I’m not sure that Peale works for me, and maybe my continuing attraction to the various Jewish sages and their opinions is telling me something about what does work for me.

When I started reading Peale’s book, I did a bit of research on the man and, according to Wikipedia, he’s not exactly without critics. Given the various doctors and scientists and scholars to whom Peale refers to in the book I’m reading, there are concerns that these so-called experts may have just been fabricated by Peale for the sake of telling a story. But then, I’m not above telling a tale and having it interpreted as fact if there’s a good reason for doing so, and some moral or lesson is imparted that way. Milton Erickson was the absolute master of the “therapeutic tale” and, when I used to be a practicing family therapist, he was one of my “heroes”. The use of metaphor and storytelling in promoting psychological change can be amazingly effective, so I can hardly criticize Peale if that’s the way he chose to transmit his lessons in his book. It’s the way the tales of the Baal Shem Tov have come to us from ages past, still full of power and wisdom.

I think Peale’s book really has worked out well for thousands and perhaps millions of people, but the reason it doesn’t work for me is that it doesn’t say that thing I need it to say in a language that makes sense to me. One can tell the same basic story in a Saturday morning cartoon or an erudite philosophical tome, and one method or the other will work out better depending on the audience. I know now that I’m an audience looking for the right storyteller. I don’t think Peale is that guy, so I need to find someone else saying the same thing in a different way.

So was the practice of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as they sat in perfect awe beneath the star-speckled sky of the still desert night; so too, the ancient prophets in the Judean hills, strumming musical instruments as they gazed upon the mysteries of heaven and earth, awaiting the vision of prophecy as the morning’s horizon awaits the rising sun; so did the sages of the Talmud, the Bahir and the Zohar lift their souls on mystic journeys through orchards and palaces, chambers and pathways of the spiritual realms, never sure that they could return to their earthly bounds; so too the chassidim were lost in contemplation and the ecstasy of their prayer from early morning until the hours of night.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Meditation’s Hallway”
Chabad.org

But if Peale, as the Christian storyteller seems too “phony” and (as I’ve been told) the Jewish storytellers are just for Jews, where is my storyteller?

Know Before Whom You Stand

PrayingOur sages would put much effort into their prayer preparations (Talmud, Berachot 30b). The essence of prayer is kavanah — focus and concentration. In order to achieve proper kavanah, it is important to pray in the proper place and with as few distractions as possible. This article focuses on the appropriate location for prayer, as well as the immersion in a mikvah (ritual pool) before prayer. There are additional preparations; they will be discussed in another article, G-d willing.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron
Commentary on Parashat Chayei Sarah
“Preparing for Prayer”
Chabad.org

If you read the rest of Rabbi Citron’s article on prayer, you’ll find that Jews take praying very seriously and utilize a great deal more ritual in prayer than most Christians would find comfortable or necessary. And yet, think about what you are doing when you’re praying. Prayer isn’t just shooting off an email, IM, or text message; prayer is entering into the presence of the living and eternal God. If you were to enter into the court of a King, or even into the Oval Office of the President of the United States, wouldn’t you prepare extensively for the occasion?

Of course you would. It’s just amazing how much effort we’ll put into say, getting ready for a job interview, but we’ll just “drop in” in God anytime we feel like it, wearing whatever and saying whatever.

OK, I’m not suggesting that God isn’t available to us under any circumstances and that He would refuse to hear us if we prayed while wearing our pajamas on our sick bed, but perhaps there is some merit to approaching prayer the way we would approach a meeting with an important person.

Rabbi Citron suggests praying in a fixed place where you will not be distracted. This is derived both from “Abraham who, on the morning after Sodom was destroyed, went back to pray to the same spot where he had prayed the previous day to prevent its destruction” (Genesis 19:27) and from Isaac praying the afternoon (Minchah) prayer in a particular, secluded field (Genesis 24:63). The Rabbi goes on to say that the “very air of a synagogue is sanctified due to all the prayers uttered there” (See Rabbeinu Yonah on Berachot 4a, d.h. Eimasai). Perhaps prayer can make a place special and holy.

Jews also value praying in the synagogue rather than just alone:

The ideal place to pray is in a synagogue. One should always try to pray with a minyan (congregation); but even if one is unable to do pray with a minyan, he should still try to pray in a synagogue.

Corporate prayer is not unknown in Christianity, but it would be unusual for a Christian to pray with a “minyan” (in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, this is ten men) morning and evening. While corporate worship is generally conducted on Sundays in the church, Christianity still largely sees the Christian faith as a faith of individuals, with each one of us negotiating our own, personal relationship with Jesus. Judaism is much more about a faith of the community and that not only does the person approach God in prayer, Israel approaches God, much as they did at Sinai when they received the Torah from the hand of Moses (see Exodus 19 and 20).

For Christians, the most important thing we’ve been told we should know about prayer is said here:

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’ –Matthew 6:9-13

The church tends to disdain (rather unfairly) the way Jews pray in the synagogue because of a misapplication of this:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. –Matthew 6:5-8

Jesus was speaking of specific groups who practiced prayer so that others would see them and be “impressed” by their “holiness”, but that doesn’t taint all communal prayer. As Rabbi Citron said, prayer is about “kavanah — focus and concentration”, not about how you think others will perceive you when they see and hear you pray.

There is also a tradition of purifying oneself in the mikvah before prayer:

Ezra the Scribe instituted that a man who had a seminal discharge – during intercourse or otherwise – should go to the mikvah before praying, reciting blessings or studying Torah. The Jewish people found this decree too difficult to keep, so the Sages repealed it. Some say the decree was only repealed with regards to Torah study, not in relation to prayer. Although this is not the commonly accepted view, all agree that prayer is more accepted after immersion.

Throne of GodChristianity only immerses once for baptism, which is the extent of our adaptation of the Mikvah in our religious practice.

That said, if we want to take our approach to prayer and to God a bit more seriously, we might want to consider some form of preparation before prayer as a matter of self-cleansing. I’m not suggesting immersion as such, but I am saying that we might want to meditate upon the gravity and seriousness of approaching God. Yes, there will always be times when we need to cry out to Him in our anxiety, our torment, and our pain, but when we pray each day to make a connection, to pour out our hearts, to live and be with Him, is it so wrong to treat God with respect in the process? Is it a bad thing to prepare ourselves in advance, to adopt the proper intention before going before the Throne of the Eternal King?

da lifnei mi attah omed – “Know before whom you stand.”

-the words displayed before the Holy Ark in the synagogue

Two more things about prayer and our relationship with God before leaving this morning’s meditation:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:9-14

We are imprisoned because we have exiled our G-d.

As long as we search for G-d by abandoning the world He has made, we can never truly find Him.

As long as we believe there is a place to escape, we cannot be liberated.

The ultimate liberation will be when we open our eyes
to see that everything is here, now.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“G-d in Exile”
Chabad.org

We “exile” God from the world He made because we believe He stands apart from us. We believe that He is in Heaven while we are stuck on Earth. We long for the day when Jesus comes so that we can be with God and serve at the Throne of the Father and the Throne of the Lamb. But when we pray, we are not just reaching up to Heaven, we are bringing Heaven down to Earth. God is with us. While we pray with proper respect and awe of the King, once prepared, all we need to do to enter into His presence is to speak. He is already here listening.

Jerry Landers: Maybe, sometimes… couldn’t we just talk?
God: I’ll tell you what. You talk… I’ll listen.

from the film Oh, God! (1977)

Gateway to Eden

Gateway to EdenNow the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:1-4

We are all familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and their sin with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3). As the story goes, the Serpent, most “cunning” of all the animals, comes along and tempts Eve to taste of the fruit, promising that it would open the eyes of man, making her and Adam “as gods knowing good and evil” (v. 5). Eve decides that the Tree is tempting to behold and both eats of the fruit and gives her husband to eat.

This, however, presents a difficultly. If Adam and Eve themselves had no evil inclination, how could they have *wanted* to sin? How could they — entirely spiritual beings — desire anything other than goodness and closeness to G-d? Where could a desire to rebel against G-d stem from?

-Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
The Primordial Sin, Part I (2006)
Torah.org

Christianity and Judaism see “the Fall of Man” event in Genesis very differently, but there are obvious parallels. “In the beginning”, Adam and Eve are sinless beings, created by God and knowing an incredible intimacy with the Source as completely spiritual yet physical beings. In Judaism, people originally had no internal inclination toward evil but upon disobeying the one commandment given by God, the external temptation, represented by the Serpent, became internalized. Man separated himself from God and the nature of the world became broken.

Rabbi Rosenfeld goes on in Part III of the series to ask some difficult questions:

To this we explained that man sinned in order to make life more challenging. Before the Sin, man had only a single mitzvah (commandment) — not to partake of the fruit of the Tree. There was, it seemed, very little for him to accomplish. Now, as a physical being desiring evil, life would be so much more challenging. There would be so much more potential growth in store for man. Eventually mankind would require the rigorous and demanding 613 Commandments to curb the animal within and redirect him G-dward. Thus, man — *spiritual* man — *desired* the greater challenge that would now be in store for mankind.

This, however, still does not suffice. Why would man desire a greater challenge? So that he would have more opportunities for spiritual growth? But isn’t he basically just backing up in order to reach the same goal? The ultimate goal of life — self-evident to the spiritual person — is closeness to G-d. If man was created close to G-d, why not *stay* there — perform his single mitzvah and perfect himself? What was so enticing about making life more difficult?

From Christianity’s point of view, there was no justifiable reason for Adam and Eve to sin; to disobey God. It was a terrible, ghastly mistake that sent both humanity and the nature of Creation down a dark and dismal path, away from God and into the arms of darkness, requiring that God give “His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Judaism says that, amidst what Christians can only view as a total spiritual disaster, there is something salvageable and even perhaps desirable to be gleaned:

The deepest, most profound desire a human soul has is to feel it exists — to feel it is not just a passive entity, acted upon and taken care of by others. A person needs to feel he is an independent being — what the Serpent called a “god” (and our mishna calls a “king”) — who can accomplish, grow and make a difference in the world. There is nothing more painful — *spiritually* painful — than feeling that one’s life makes no difference to anyone or anything, that he exists only as a person acted upon by others or by natural forces, and that he has done nothing to express his own existence.

This was man’s dilemma in the Garden of Eden. Man at first, as lofty as he was, was an almost entirely passive, “created” being. He was given existence by G-d. He was placed in the Garden of Eden with all his wants and needs satisfied and with only a single mitzvah to perform. Man wanted to feel he truly existed — that he was not just a plaything of the Almighty. He wanted to be a god himself. How could he do it? By forcing upon himself greater challenges. Adam and Eve would no longer be passive beings, practically created in G-d’s presence. They would now have to earn it. Spirituality would come only through the greatest of efforts — *their* efforts. It would be the challenge they would have to face to achieve their purpose — and in order to exist.

From what Rabbi Rosenfeld presents, man faced two options: live life close to God, obeying the single commandment provided by the Almighty, but never having the opportunity to truly carve out his own path and the ability to rise spiritually, or deliberately distancing himself from God, lowering his spiritual status, and then struggling back up the ladder, rung by rung, to drive himself ever closer to God and Eden.

I suppose a challenge like that would tempt the spiritual Sir Edmund Hillarys of the world, but for the rest of us, we see the “downside” to such a decision in terms of the pain, suffering, and anguished death of billions upon billions of human beings across the long march of millennia between the dawn of man and the current age.

And yet, here we are. “Our physical flesh (is) now a confused mixture of good and evil. We know the passing of the seasons as we age, and we know decay and death. We are separated from the infinite Spirit. The struggle against evil and the abyss is no longer an external enemy, but rather, it is part of who we are inside. Judaism longs for the coming of the Messiah and Tikkun Olam. Christianity looks to the day when Jesus will return and mankind will be redeemed from a fallen world.

But what if we don’t have to wait? Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh says that we don’t:

After the primordial sin, Adam and Eve heard “the voice of God” walking through the garden. They heard God, He spoke to them, and they answered. This is the consciousness of “hearing,” the height of our consciousness of Godliness (God and His Divine Providence) is our lives subsequent to the primordial sin, the consciousness of the weekdays, the workdays (“By the sweat of your brow…”).

But on Shabbat we return to the pristine state of consciousness of God as it was prior to the primordial sin (and as it will be universally in the future). In the terminology of Kabbalah, during the weekdays our consciousness is at the level of understanding (“hearing” in Hebrew means also “understanding”) whereas on Shabbat our consciousness rises to the level of wisdom (direct insight into the mysteries of creation hidden within reality, and into the “mystery of mysteries,” the Creator of reality, the true and absolute Reality).

Throughout the week everything that happens around us, all that we see and hear, “tells” us about God and His Providence. On Shabbat we don’t have to be told about God, we experience Him directly.

ShabbatOne of the mistakes of the early (non-Jewish) Christian church was to casually discard the commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The church alternately says that Jesus did away with Sabbath observance with the rest of the Law or that the “Sabbath” was mysteriously moved over one day, to coincide with the “Day of the Lord” and the resurrection of the Master. I personally think that the 2nd and 3rd century church found it necessary to separate themselves from anything “too Jewish” and simply shifted the “Holy Day” over by 24 hours to achieve this, and then used specific points of Scripture to justify the decision.

Today, Christians miss out on an opportunity, however limited, to return to Eden. For contained in the Shabbat isn’t just a day to go to church or synagogue, but in fact, we discover an opportunity to remove oneself from the other six days of the week, of the toil, of the work, of the worries, of the laboring, and to totally devote ourselves as spiritual and physical beings to the God of the Universe and the King of Righteousness, as in days of old.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. –Exodus 20:9-11

Both Christians and Jews are going to disagree with me here, particularly since this mitzvot was directed at the Children of Israel, but I believe we Christians cheat ourselves terribly out of the experience to turn one-seventh of our lives into a time to walk personally with God. I think Rabbi Ginsburgh has a point to make, not only to Jews, but to Christians as well. But more gateways to Eden exist:

There are two exceptions to the above distinction between Shabbat and the weekdays, two times that we rise to the consciousness of Shabbat during the otherwise mundane time of the week. The Arizal teaches that our consciousness in the times of prayer, every day of the week three times a day, is at the level of Shabbat. The times of prayer, when we turn to God and address Him directly, are the Shabbat as its light shines into and permeates the week.

Also, a true Torah scholar is referred to in the Zohar as Shabbat. Continuously in communion with God through the means of His Torah (which ultimately in one with Himself) he experiences Shabbat-consciousness the entire week.

Whenever we immerse ourselves in the things of God, we are drawing closer. It happens when we pray, when we give to charity, when we help our neighbor with his yard work, when we hold a small child’s hand to cross the street, when we study the Bible, when we turn away from sin and turn, in obedience, to God.

While the mystic aspects of this process may be confusing or even a little frightening, it is clear that we are separated from God by the nature of humanity and the nature of the world, but we don’t have to be that way always. While waiting for the King of Kings to come to us, we do not have to wait helplessly. We can choose, whether commanded to or not, to observe a Shabbat where we are completely devoted to God. We can take one day of our week and separate it from the rest, separate it from the office, from phone calls, from the Internet, from worry, from work, from care. We can pray, study, speak of God and the Bible with others as we break bread together.

We can create isolated pockets of Eden in the Sabbath and even during the week when we pray and beg to come close to the Throne of Heaven. We can be like “little Messiahs”, helping to fix a broken world one dent and crack at a time by performing even one single act of kindness and humility.

Sin happened. Humanity fell. The world is a broken top spinning hopelessly off the table of existence. We can’t go back to fix it but we can choose to go forward toward God. We can choose to visit Eden on Shabbat. We can cross the threshold of the gates of Paradise every day, every time we pray. We can walk with God in the Garden every time we love our neighbor more than we love ourselves.

However you want to interpret these words, observe Shabbat, return to Eden, walk with God. You can never be lost as long as you are seeking God. You can never be lost as long as God wants you to find Him.

“Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not crave honor. Do more than you have studied and do not desire the ‘table’ of kings. For your table is greater than their table, and your crown is greater than their crown. And your Employer can be trusted to pay you the reward for your efforts.”
Pirkei Avot
Chapter 6, Mishna 5(a)

Brilliant Light

BrillianceDescribing the joy of the Rebbe is something like describing the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to a prairie dweller. We think of happiness as all the outer trappings of smiley faces and the “having-a-good-time” look. But what we saw on the Rebbe was an inner joy – the sort you feel when a sudden, brilliant light bulb flashes inside – except continual and constant. Not a joy that dissipates and burns itself out, but a tightly contained joy of endless optimism, power and life, waiting the special moment when it would burst forth like an unexpected tsunami, sweeping up every soul in its path.

The Rebbe once confided that he himself was by nature a somber and introspective person. With hard work, he said, he was able to affect his spirit to be full of joy.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Last March I wrote about Failing Joy 101, mainly because I don’t go around all smiley and happy all the time. I have my moods. I can be “down”. People who are perpetually perky and “up” kind of annoy me. But that’s not what joy is all about.

Yesterday’s “morning meditation” was in part, about the murder of 8-year old Leiby Kletzky and how his death affected his parents, his Borough Park (Brooklyn) community, and ultimately, everyone with a conscience. I lamented at one point that it will be a long time or never, before Leiby’s parents, an Orthodox Jewish couple, will ever experience joy again. After all, how can they?

The words I quoted from Rabbi Freeman’s book at the beginning of this blog post are from a chapter called “From Despair to Joy”. It’s easy, under the circumstances, to imagine the despair being experienced by Nachman and Itta Kletzky, but how can any reasonable and compassionate person expect them to go from “despair to joy”? Certainly it won’t happen very quickly and only a cad would suggest that people who are in severe emotional and spiritual pain should just “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “get on with life”.

But what can you do when soul-numbing grief steals your last crumb of joy and all you’re left with is a life in the emotional shadows of depression and loss?

Depression is not a crime. But it plummets a person into an abyss deeper than any crime could reach. -The Rebbe

If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

The Rebbe could easily have been talking about little Leiby’s murder and Nietzsche could have well been describing the consequences of the crime, or at least, the consequences if we allow ourselves to stare too long into that deep, dark place. The Rebbe “responded” to Nietzsche thus:

Fight depression as a blood sworn enemy. Run from it as you would run from death itself.

I don’t think the Kletzkys can run from death just yet. Death is what surrounds them as they sit shiva for their son. And yet, they can’t sit there forever staring into the darkness, and neither can we, unless we want to be consumed.

The Rebbe anticipated our question, “how can I be happy if I am not?” and suggests an answer:

True, you can’t control the way you feel, but you do have control over your conscious thought, speech, and actions. Do something simple: Think good thoughts, speak good things, behave the way a joyful person behaves – even if you don’t fully feel it inside. Eventually, the inner joy of the soul will break through.

Sounds a lot like some of the things the Apostle Paul taught:

…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. –2 Corinthians 10:5

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:8-9

Paul suggested thinking of wholesome things and putting them into practice and the Rebbe asks that we start with our thoughts, if necessarily, set our feelings to one side temporarily, and then behave as if we are experiencing joy. The antidote of both Paul and the Rebbe to despair is to do joy.

To be healthy, a person needs to be affecting his surroundings, uplifting those about him and bringing more light.

InfiniteI’ve heard this teaching of the Rebbe more than once. Even when everything has been taken from us and we feel completely empty inside, unable to fill the void in our very being, we still have something we can offer someone else. In bringing another person light, we may discover some of that light is being nurtured within us, dispelling the darkness of the abyss.

The Rebbe tells us that God created the natural state of human beings to be one of joy. That is hardly apparent as we look around us, watch the news, drive through traffic, and otherwise co-mingle with other people, but as his proof, he says, “look at children and you will see”. He also offers us this:

People imagine a place of G-dliness as serious, awesome and intrepidating. That fact is, where G-d is, there is joy. -The Rebbe

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore. –Psalm 133 (A song of ascents)

There are times when we feel very small, and afraid, and alone, even in the midst of our loved ones. You’ve probably felt this way in the middle of the night, when it’s quiet and dark and when everyone else is asleep, but your private pain and anguish will not give you up to rest. You may feel tormented by a world far larger than you are and you feel yourself shrinking into the night, into the abyss, and you fear in your tininess, that you will be swallowed alive and disappear altogether.

But even at that moment, when you feel as if you are about to vanish from God’s universe, there is something you own that no one can ever take away from you. It will anchor you and safeguard you. Here’s the secret:

A person is happy when he knows something worthwhile belongs to him. A person is very happy when he feels he is small and yet he owns something very great.

We are all finite owners of the Infinite.

We could argue with the Rebbe that we belong to the Infinite and not the other way around, but that’s the secret. He also belongs to us and as long as He does, we can never disappear. It’s not just that we are small and He is large. If God were only big, He would have limits, He could be eclipsed by something even bigger, God could be measured, God could be quantified. God wouldn’t be God.

But God is not big, He is Infinite. He has no limits. He cannot be measured. He does the eclipsing. In fact, being Infinite means God is not like anything or anyone we have experienced or can experience. That’s the secret. That’s the miracle. In our tininess, in our smallness, in our minuscule existence, we own something more than worthwhile, something very great, something Infinite! And belonging to Him and having Him belong to us, we can never truly be lost. Our breadcrumbs can never be consumed. We always know the way home, even in the darkest night.

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” –John 10:25-30

As If Considering Angels

Broken AngelFor this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:5-8

Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated “A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.” And it says: “And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets” ; read not “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (chairut)—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, “And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.”Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

I know these two quotes may not seem to go together, but consider this. Peter says that we should add faith to goodness and then add goodness to knowledge. What knowledge? Where does this knowledge come from? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi implies that knowledge comes from Torah by expressing the inverse that one who does not occupy himself with Torah “is considered an outcast” and is like a “golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason”.

Sounds pretty harsh, but then, so does Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. –2 Peter 2:10-12

I’ve been involved in a series of online discussions lately that have been critical of Talmud study among Christians. Specifically, the allegation is that the sages who documented the Oral law and established a system of rulings for the Jewish people, were the inheritors of the tradition of the Pharisees and that Jesus had nothing good to say about the Pharisees, citing examples such as this:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. –Matthew 23:1-7

This is just one of the examples in the Gospels which cast all Pharisees everywhere in a particularly bad light, but as I commented recently, Jesus is upset with this group of Pharisees, not because they taught bad things, but because they didn’t practice what they taught! Keep that in mind. If the Pharisees had behaved consistently with their teachings, Jesus wouldn’t have had a problem with them at all. His only beef with the Pharisees is that they were hypocrites, not false teachers.

Think about it. If, as some have stated, the Talmudic scholars and sages have inherited the mantle of the Pharisees and they behaved consistently with their own teachings, then it is quite possible that the “Rebbe of Nazaret” wouldn’t have any problem with them either.

I know there are a lot of variables to consider and we won’t know for sure until Jesus returns to us, but based on this small bit of simple logic, we cannot reasonably discard or disdain anything in the Talmud based on the behavior of a collection of hypocritical religious authorities that operated in Roman-Judea in the time of Jesus. We can’t also reasonably apply the following to the Rabbis of the Talmud:

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” –Isaiah 29:13-14

I know it’s enormously tempting to apply the words of the Prophet not only to the Pharisees but to the Talmudic sages as well. Certainly, if we think of the Talmudic writings as only the rules of men with no Biblical source, then we might be justified in doing so, but taken out of context, we don’t know if Isaiah is even considering the Oral Law (which he would have seen as Torah) or the Rabbinic commentaries and rulings on said-Oral Law (and Written Law), which are recorded in the Talmud. The rulings of the Rabbis don’t overwrite and contradict Torah, but rather, are intended to interpret and make sense of the Written and Oral Law for each generation of Jews as they met new challenges in applying a Torah lifestyle in an ever-changing world.

Here’s something else to consider:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. –Matthew 11:25-26

Taken together with some portions of the quote from Isaiah 29:13-14, these words of the Master might suggest that it’s bad to be intelligent, well-read, and educated. Why bother to learn how to read at all if intelligence is not to be trusted and if it’s better to be ignorant and untaught? I don’t think this is what the Master means here, but rather, he’s saying you don’t have to be a scholar to have access to the grace of God. Of course, he’s not saying grace is denied the learned sage, either.

It’s been suggested that Rabbinic judgments and rulings are not to be trusted and that the wisdom of the average individual, as guided by the Spirit, reading the Bible in English and outside of its history, culture, and other contexts, is far preferable to trusting and learning from people who have spent all of their lives pouring over Scripture and striving to master the teachings of God.

And yet Peter was critical “of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority”. Further, he said that “First of all, understand this; no prophecy of Scripture is to be interpreted by an individual on his own, for never has prophecy come as a result of human willing – on the contrary, people moved by the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) spoke the message from God”. (2 Peter 1:20-21 [CJB]).

Cutting BranchesWe could be tempted to say Peter is confirming that all a person; any person, needs is the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible, but he’s also speaking of Prophets like Isaiah, not the average guy on the street. We read the prophecies of Isaiah because he was a prophet of God and we’re not. We read the teachings of Jesus because he’s the Messiah and we’re not. Also, lest we forget, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and the key to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the world, was a very well-educated man…in fact, far more educated than many of Christ’s inner circle who were what we would consider today as blue-collar workers and laborers.

There’s no problem with who Jesus chose to be close to him as being, relatively speaking, uneducated, because, as I’ve already mentioned, the love of Christ isn’t primarily accessed through “book-learning”. But on the other hand, the fact that Paul was chosen by Jesus says that education and authority isn’t a problem either. Certainly, being learned and possessing authority requires that such a position be used with justice, honor, and humility. The Ethics of the Fathers 6:5 speaks to this:

Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.

In fact, from the same chapter (Chapter 6:6), we find that study of Torah (which includes Talmud in this context) yields people who have qualities such as:

love of G-d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, fleeing from honor, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, participating in the burden of one’s fellow, judging him to the side of merit, correcting him, bringing him to a peaceful resolution [of his disputes], deliberation in study, asking and answering, listening and illuminating, learning in order to teach, learning in order to observe, wising one’s teacher, exactness in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker.

As long as the teacher behaves consistently with these, and the other teachings in the Torah and Talmud, what problem could this present? What problem could it present for any person of faith and good will who wishes to devote time to pondering this wisdom?

We see that taking Scripture out of context and applying an overly simple interpretation to what may turn out to be very complex matters of principle actually results in a disservice to the Prophets and Apostles, as well as to the later sages, and finally to Jesus and to God the Father.

We should all be very, very careful how we interpret and apply Scripture, especially if we use it to malign our teachers and scholars and, by inference, every religious Jew who has ever lived or will live, for they too revere the sages and attempt to live their lives by the principles of Torah, which have been established and interpreted across the ages.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” –Genesis 12:3

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” –Sanhedrin 11:1

for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. –Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

Do not denigrate the root, lest your branch be cut off from it.

He Who Desires Repentance

BalaamThe angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.Numbers 22:24-31 (JPS Tanakh)

This villain was going to curse an entire nation which had not sinned against him [merely by the power of his speech], yet he has to smite his donkey [with his hand] to prevent it from going into a field! …the donkey spoke to Balaam saying, “You need a sword in your hand to kill me? How then do you intend to uproot an entire nation with only your words?” Balaam could not think of an answer, so he kept silent.Numbers Rabbah 20:14

This week’s Torah Portion Balak could easily be called “Don’t make an ass out of yourself”. Balaam, the wicked prophet, who referred to himself as “the man whose eye is opened” (Numbers 24:4), wasn’t seeing so well when God sent an angel to stop him, three times, from cursing the Children of Israel. But lest you consider yourself superior to this ancient wizard, consider that you too have been blind when it comes to God. Paul said, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), and his words certainly must apply to you and me. There is a difference between what we think we see and know and what we truly perceive and understand. In our arrogance and “self-confidence”, we can be humbled, even by a lowly ass.

A few months ago, I wrote a small missive about the difference between faith and trust in God. Many have faith, but trust is much more rare. Few souls attain that truly exalted level of holiness we all desire:

To one whose self is his body, death of the body is death of the self. But for one whose self is his love, awe and faith, there is no death, only a passing. From a state of confinement in the body, he makes the passage to liberation. He continues to work within this world, and even more so than before.

The Talmud says that Jacob, our father, never died. Moses, also, never died. Neither did Rabbi Judah the Prince. They were very high souls who were one with Truth in an ultimate bond—and since Truth can never die, neither could they.

Yes, in our eyes we see death. A body is buried in the ground, and we must mourn the loss. But this is only part of the falseness of our world. In the World of Truth, they are still here as before.

And the proof: We are still here. For if these high souls would not be with us in our world, all that we know would cease to exist.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“High Souls”
Chabad.org

What do you really see and who do you really trust? God?

On the 3rd of Tammuz on the Jewish religious calendar (sundown July 4th to sundown July 5th this year) is the seventeenth yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the yahrtzeit of an exalted sage or tzadik is traditionally a day for reflection, learning, prayer, positive resolutions and acts of loving-kindness. It is an opportunity to humble ourselves before God and before men, set aside an overabundance of confidence in our ability to “see” God and to instead, seek Him with a contrite heart and a desire to rise to a higher level of trust and spirituality.

For this occasion, Rabbi Ezra Schochet writes of Joyful Remorse; the act of repenting or making teshuvah, not with tears and anguish, but with gladness and rejoicing in our hearts.

The Rebbe continued saying that, in fact, repentance is greater than every mitzvah. Its purpose is to correct the transgression of all other commandments, it must fill the spiritual “gap” that the lack of observance engendered. Teshuvah’s ability to do so stems from the fact that it emanates from a higher spiritual source than all the others (as explained at length in the chassidic texts). And “the greater the mitzvah, the greater the joy.”

It would seem that tears and sorrow would be the more appropriate response when repenting of our sins and short-sightedness, but we see here that in performing teshuvah, we are clearing the barriers away that stand between us and God. What could be a better time to celebrate, to lift our spirits high, and to cry out and give thanks to God for desiring that we return to Him?

Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who desires repentance.

-from the daily prayers