Tag Archives: mitzvah

The Happiness Mitzvah

Judaism’s most famous slogan is the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” More than just a prayer, it’s a reminder of the very high purpose of life.
Here’s some more Jewish slogans:

“It’s a mitzvah to always be happy.”
“The external affects the internal.”
“The world stands on Torah, prayer, and kindness.”
“Everything happens for the good.” (“Gam zu l’tova.”)
“God is good.”
“God loves me.”

To increase your focus in life, try saying these things … out loud … over and over.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory
“Way #3: Say It Out Loud”
from the “48 Ways to Wisdom” series

Last week, I dedicated all of my blog posts to uplifting and encouraging topics. While I am now “free” to write about a wider range of subjects, I still think it’s important to offer supportive and inspirational missives to whoever happens by my blog, so I’m creating today’s “extra meditation” with that in mind.

Living in a broken world isn’t always easy and being a person of faith can add to the struggle. It’s important to remember that we are not alone. We have each other and we have God. According to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, the Rebbe once said to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land, “Strengthen your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.” That is like a very similar piece of advice from a much older source:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. –Matthew 10:28-31 (ESV)

Somewhere in the teachings of the Master are not just lessons on how to quell our fears, but words that show us how to summon peace and joy. If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know that much of the time, peace and joy elude me as I ponder not only the great mystery of God but the mystery of my one small life. And yet, I’m learning that if I temporarily put that aside, I can create a small bridge between the person I am and the one God created me to be.

Life is what it is. It’s not easy. It can be full of pain and trouble. We want and even beg God to fix our world so we don’t have to suffer.

He hasn’t done it yet. Someday, we know He will. Messiah will come. Jesus will return. In the meantime, we must remember that we have a “very high purpose of life.”

God is One.

God is good.

God loves me.

He loves you, too. He loves us all.

Uncomfortably Serving God

No person can know his own inner motives.

He may be kind because kindness brings him pleasure.

He may be wise because wisdom is music to his soul.

He may become a martyr burned in fire because his nature is to defy, his nature is to be fire.

When can you know that your motives are sincere? Only when it is not within your nature to do this thing.

And how do you know that it is not within your nature? Only when you travel two opposite paths at once.

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

This is exactly how I can tell God is working in my life; by how uncomfortable He makes me. I’ve always found it very interesting that some Christians “confirm” the wishes of the Holy Spirit in their decision making process by how much “peace” they feel after praying about a decision. Their peaceful emotional state somehow tells them that they’ve made a decision (regardless of the situation) that is in accordance to the will of God. And yet we see from Rabbi Freeman’s statement above, that people can feel “at peace” with various decisions or actions, not because their motives are pure and perhaps not even because what they are doing lines up with God’s wishes, but just because those decisions and actions are “natural” for that person.

You could argue, probably successfully, that God created us with natures that allow us to serve Him within the activities associated with our natures, but that seems somehow limiting, especially when the needs of the world are so great and so varied.

Here’s an example.

I hate going to hospitals. They kind of creep me out (I think I’ve mentioned this somewhere before). So it’s not easy for me to go to a hospital and visit a sick person. And yet, it’s a commandment of Jesus that we visit the sick. It’s far easier for me to obey the commandment to feed the hungry, because I have no emotional resistance to donating a bunch of canned goods to my local food bank. But would I volunteer to work the kitchen at my local homeless shelter once a week? Gee, I dunno.

And that’s my point. Not that we have to make ourselves serve God only in ways that trigger our discomfort, but we also need to keep in mind that those uncomfortable opportunities God plops directly in our paths to help people, are the very ones we need to do if we want to be called disciples of Jesus (as opposed to “believers” whose only fruit is to “believe”). That makes serving God a lot less approachable for many of us. I’ve heard Christians praying to Jesus to help them be more like him and wondered what would happen if God really gave them the opportunity to do so. I’m sure some people would rise to the occasion, but how many others, when it actually happened to them, would say something like, “Hey wait! This isn’t what I had in mind!”

Sure. We all want to serve God. We just want to serve Him our way and to be really cool and comfortable while doing so.

Uh-huh. Let me know how that works out for you.

Here’s another perspective:

Teshuvas B’tzeil Hachochmah suggests that our Gemara is a proof to Gaon Chida’s position. The Mishnah teaches that one who made an erech vow while wealthy and before fulfilling his vow lost his wealth remains obligated to fulfill his vow as someone who is wealthy and he is not appraised by the kohen as one who vowed when poor whose obligation is discounted in accordance with his means. Tosafos Yom Tov asserts that they will take from the person what he has towards his vow and the remaining amount will remain a debt that he will fulfill when he acquires the necessary funds. The question is how they could collect from him only part of his obligation if it may turn out that he will never have the necessary funds to pay off this debt. If that were to happen he will have never fulfilled his pledge and there was no reason to have taken funds from him in the first place. It must be that even partial fulfillment is considered fulfillment of the mitzvah and that is why they will collect from him what they can even though they may never collect the remainder.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Fulfilling only part of a mitzvah”
Arachin 17

OK, all that might be difficult to understand, so let me boil it down a bit. If you decided to serve God out of your strengths, such as having a lot of money, and something should happen unexpectedly to make that service a lot more difficult, are you still obligated to fulfill your commitment to God? After all, you said you’d do it and presumably, you made a commitment. Are you absolved of your commitment because you misunderstood how God wanted you to satisfy the requirements of the task or because you realized that you didn’t have enough money in your bank account to cover costs?

The Rabbinic sages debate the matter and conclude that you only have to do the best you can. If you promised to donate $1,000 to the food bank but you only have $500, then you pay the $500 and it’s as if you paid the full amount. If you promised to pray for the sick each morning without fail for the next week, but you woke up late for work two days out of seven and had to rush off without praying, then praying for the sick for only five days fulfills your promise.

Gee, you can see why Jesus said this.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. –Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV)

Of course, that doesn’t cover those unanticipated “requests” from God to serve Him that you never saw coming across the horizon. What about those areas when you want to serve God as a “prayer warrior” for an hour each day just after lunch, but instead, on your commute into work, He wants you to help a mother trying to get her sick baby to the doctor’s office by changing her flat tire? The answer is you do the best you can, and if you can’t change a flat tire, you use your cell to call your brother-in-law who works for a tow truck company to drive over and help out.

You do the best you can, which doesn’t have to be perfect. You do the best you can, even though you are really uncomfortable doing it. You do the best you can, even though sometimes God asks you to do things that make you want to crawl out of your skin.

At least you know that when you’ve served God under those conditions, it wasn’t because you were serving yourself.

The Words of His Image

Hebrew FirePlants live in a world of earth, water, air and sunshine. Animals live in a world of the body and its senses. Human beings live within a world of their own words.

The sages called us “the speaking being,” saying that our soul is filled with words. When our words leave us, our very being goes out within them. We conquer with them. We declare our mastery over Creation with them. Our words tell us that we exist.

For us, nothing truly exists until we find a word for it. All our thoughts of every object and every event are thoughts of words. Our world is a world not of sensations and stimuli, but of words.

Build your world with precious words. Fill your days with words that live and give life.

Memorize words of Torah and of the sages. Have them ready for any break in your day. Wherever you go, provide that place an atmosphere of those powerful words.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Life in Words”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.James 3:7-12

People are very careless with their words. Even the best among us tends to slip in what we say from time to time. More often than not, these “slips” are an indication of the difference between how we publicly present ourselves and what we’re really thinking and feeling inside. In that, we use our words, not to represent the person we are, but the person we want others to believe we are.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. –2 Corinthians 10:5

Yes, we are supposed to “take captive every thought”, but that’s easier said than done. As we see from both Rabbi Freeman and James, words are extremely powerful and have tremendous impact, for good or for ill. Words of Torah, kindness, and compassion are wonderful and can change the world around us for the better. But if we use the same mouth to utter words of praise to God, yet speak curses to men, what are we telling people about our inner being and what are our words allowing to become “real” in the world?

Taming the tongue and the mind that generates our words takes a lot of discipline. But there are rewards:

If you see someone’s faults hanging out and you truly want to help—whether it be a friend, a spouse, your child, or even your nemesis—don’t say a word about what you have found wrong.

Find something wondrous about that person, perhaps something that nobody ever mentions, and talk about it—to yourself, to those who will listen and sympathize.

In very little time, you will see such a new person, you will believe you are a maker of wonders.

Indeed, we all are.

-Rabbi Freeman
“Wonder Making”

For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. –1 Thessalonians 5:9-11

Our words create wonders and even miracles in other people, if we choose them carefully. It’s amazing to think that something as simple as a word spoken by a single human being could be so powerful. Yet if our words can possess such might, remember that with a word, God created the universe:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. –Genesis 1:1-4

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
he puts the deep into storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. –Psalm 33:6-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. –John 1:1-3

The words of God are immense, and when they reach the hearing of man, it is no small and simple thing:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” –Exodus 20:18-19

Torah at SinaiAnd yet when God speaks, His words are always for our benefit. God gave the words of Torah at Sinai to the Children of Israel, and the Torah detailed every aspect of the Jewish lives as a unique community. But there are so many “words”:

But why so many mitzvos? Why so many dimensions to Torah? We have positive and negative commandments. The mitzvos also include logical laws, logic-defying laws, and everything in between. We have intellectual mitzvos, emotional mitzvos, agricultural mitzvos, business mitzvos, mitzvos dealing with food, dress, housing, and family life. The Torah include every medium of teaching known to man: stories, legal codes, numerological calculations, history, philosophy, ethics, poetry, metaphorical and mystical works.

Ethics of Our Fathers commentary
Elul 22, 5771 * September 21, 2011

It is said that God made man because He desired to dwell in “the world below”, in our world. To prepare the world, He gave the Torah to the Children of Israel, His “light to the world”. However, for God to truly inhabit our realm, “then the Divine presence must permeate its every aspect.” Man must be refined by the word of God “down to his every element and component” so that the human life will “become a vehicle for the fulfillment of the Divine will.”

While the Torah as given at Sinai was not expected to be placed upon the shoulders of the rest of humanity, not even the non-Jewish disciples of the Master (see Acts 15), we are not left wanting in this regard. That said, it isn’t always clear what are the specifics of Christian obligation to God. Put another way, if the Torah is the Word of God to the Children of Israel, is there a separate “Word” for Christianity?

The “official stance” of the church is that the Law (Torah) has been wholly replaced by the Grace of Christ for everyone (Jewish and Gentile Christians) and the Law is therefore irrelevant. The “One Law” branch of Messianic Judaism declares that Jewish and Gentile believers are equally obligated in lifestyle to all of the 613 commandments that typically believe constitutes the Torah. Jews (including many Messianic Jews) see Gentiles (Christians and otherwise) as being obligated to only those “words” spoken to Noah in Genesis 9, commonly referred to as the Seven Noahide Laws (although some in the Messianic community believe this is modified for Christians by the Acts 15 letter specifically and by the teachings in the Gospels and Epistles generally). Most people settle on “the system” that works for them. Some of us continue seeking His will daily.

(I previously examined the difference between Noahides or “God-fearers” and Gentile Christians in two blog posts: The Sons of Noah and Children of God)

Both Jews and Christians spend all their lives looking at the Bible, reading, studying, and gleaning insights from inspired teachers and Rabbis. We’re trying to understand who we are and who we are supposed to be in the eyes and words of God. What are the commandments of God for our lives? How are they different from person to person? How are they different from generation to generation? How are they different between Jew and Christian? How can we teach others what we are always trying to know in ourselves?

The Word of God and the words of men are tremendously important and powerful. But while God is not careless with His Words, men most certainly are. The Word of God is wielded with great care lest disaster should strike existence. If man would utilize an equal amount of care over his words, how blessed we would be, for in speaking kindness, charity, compassion, and words of Torah, we would re-make the world in His image.

So shall it be in the days of Messiah.

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)

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)

Searching for Sparks

Holding SparksAt one time there were tzaddikim who would look into the soul of a disciple, see the place where the G-dly sparks were awaiting this soul and tell the disciple to go to that place to liberate those sparks.

All that has changed is the perception of the disciples. If you are where you are with the blessing of the Rebbe, you are where you belong. And you are there with a profound purpose.

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

Well, I – I think that it – it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It is said that we contain Divine Sparks from our Creator and those parts of us that belong to Him yearn to return to the Source. It’s what causes people to search for something beyond themselves; sometimes not even knowing what they are looking for or how to find it. It’s the part of us that brings some people to God and others to less than noble destinations, believing some false teaching is the answer they need.

It’s also believed that there are other sparks in the world that correspond to those we contain and that finding and liberating those sparks defines the purpose of our lives. Put in less mystic terms, we all have a purpose that gives meaning to our lives. We only need to discover that purpose in order to experience accomplishment, fulfillment, and to understand why we were created by God.

Some people search for this all their lives and die with the truth about themselves still undiscovered. While Hamlet calls death the undiscovered country, I think that “country” is rather the truth of our existence which we must discover while we are still alive. Even David said that once dead, we can offer nothing:

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave? –Psalm 6:5

It is not the dead who praise the LORD,
those who go down to the place of silence;
it is we who extol the LORD,
both now and forevermore.
Praise the LORD. –Psalm 115:17-18

Continuing with this theme, Vine of David’s commentary on Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age tells us:

“Although every man has the divine potential of a godly soul planted within him, this is not a guarantee that every man will enter into a relationship with HaShem or even that every soul will be redeemed. Instead, the soul is separated from God by a wall of partition – sin and guilt. HaShem removes the wall of partition between man and Himself through the work of the Messiah. When the wall is removed, then the soul can connect with HaShem. Then He can “use it for the gathering of these ‘sparks’.”

We journey near and far looking for and gathering sparks in order to fulfill the script of our lives written by God on our souls. But must we necessarily travel to distant and strange lands to find what we seek? Rabbi Freeman gives us part of that answer as he again relates the Rebbe’s wisdom:

People want to run away from where they are, to go to find their Jerusalem. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing there, make that a “Jerusalem”.

I wonder if the Rebbe ever saw The Wizard of Oz?

Hide and SeekGod is mindful of the days of our lives, where we go, what we are doing. He watches us as a father might watch his small son take his first, halting steps. We watch our children as they learn to walk, almost willing them in how to take the next step and in which way they should go. We cannot interfere unless they are about to be hurt, because otherwise, they’d never discover how to walk on their own. God is like that with us. The difference is, we should know that we are learning how to walk and be paying attention to the path. We should know that our Father is watching over us and that He’s ready to keep us from harm. Often, we don’t:

A certain chassid who had suffered a major financial loss stood before Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and lamented over his debts. “All you are telling me,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman replied, “is what you need. Who needs you, you don’t say much about. Do what G-d expects from you, and He will provide what you want from Him.”

Lest you think that God only expects us to serve and that He doesn’t care about who we are, our fears, our needs, and our concerns, we have two messages that console us; one from the Rebbe, and the other from “the Maggid of Nazaret”, Jesus:

The teaching of the Baal Shem Tov: Not only is the movement of a leaf as it falls off a tree, the quivering of a blade of grass in the wind-each and every detail of existence directed, vivified and brought into being at every moment from above-but beyond that: Every nuance is an essential component of a grand and G-dly scheme, the gestalt of all those vital minutiae.

Meditate on this. And then think: How much more so the details of my daily life.

-The Rebbe
as related by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. –Matthew 6:25-33

Finally, in our little game of “hide-and-go-seek” with the Divine in ourselves and in the Universe, Rabbi Freeman presents the Rebbe’s teachings on this matter, again from his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth:

G-d is not something of a higher realm that you cannot reach Him. Nor is He made of stuff ethereal that you cannot touch Him. G-d is “That Which Is” – He is here now, everywhere, in every thing and in every realm – including that realm in which you live. The only reason you do not perceive Him is because it is His desire that you search for Him.

Life is a game of hide and seek. G-d hides, we seek.

God does not play “hide the ball” with the Universe. He means for us to not only find Him, but everyday, to find who we are in Him. Start gathering the sparks. He’s there. And so are you.

Not in Heaven

HeavenThe Torah is not in heaven [i.e. though the Torah is of heavenly origin, it was given to human beings to interpret and apply].

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedalyah Nigal
pp 148-9

This small snippet from Nigal’s book touches on something I’ve been pondering for quite some time. It’s a concept that’s common in Judaism but almost completely escapes Christianity, including many of the Jewish and non-Jewish believers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah commonly referred to as “Messianic”. Here’s another example with more detail:

As a result of testimony by R’ Yehoshua b. Zeiruz, Rebbe ruled that fruits and vegetables which grow in Beis Shan were exempt from terumah and ma’aser gifts. Rebbe’s extended family members rose up against his ruling, and they wondered how he could release the obligation for tithing from items grown in Beis Shan, an area which his ancestors had deemed to be obligated in these halachos. Rebbe responded and said that this was an area of halacha which his ancestors had left for Rebbe to rule and to thereby be credited with this decision. Rebbe illustrated that a similar scenario is recorded in Tanach, where we are told that King Chizkiyahu ground up the copper snake made by Moshe Rabeinu to alleviate a devastating plague that threatened the nation. Later, this copper image was abused by the people, as they began to offer incense to it for idolatrous purposes. This is why Chizkiyahu had it destroyed. The Gemara notes that it is wonderous to think that this image which was being used for idolatrous purposes was not destroyed much earlier. Why would Assa and Yehoshafat, both righteous kings, not have destroyed this statue earlier? Rather, it must be that they left it intact in order for Chizkiyahu to take care of the matter.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Leaving room for later generations to make their mark”
Chullin 7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that the tzadikim (righteous people) and the sages in each age were given authority to make rulings about the Torah commandments and that these rulings were and are binding. The other thing is that rulings on the same Torah laws could be applied differently based on the demands of each generation.

Most Christians believe in “the Word” (i.e. the Bible) as the only authority (and certainly the absolute authority) over the believer’s life and consider the rulings of the Jewish sages to be “merely” the opinions of men and thus, they have no authority over a person’s day to day existence. The following is considered something of a “proof text” of this opinion in the church:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” –Mark 7:1-8

Jesus was most likely referring to Netilat Yadayim or the ritual of hand washing, which is performed by observant Jews even today. This practice is considered to be a method of purifying the person after awakening and before eating and re-dedicating his or her life to the service of God.

It’s unlikely Jesus was speaking against the practice as such in Mark (see the full text of Mark 7 for the details) but rather, he was criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on what might be considered a matter of “lesser” priority and ignoring the more “important” duty (kaloh vs. chamurah or minor vs. major mitzvos) of caring for impoverished and elderly parents (and one of these days, I’d love to research how Jesus probably did practice the halacha of his day).

For the vast majority of Christians, what I’m saying now probably seems like so much nonsense. Christianity tends to put a great deal of value on being “Spirit-led” when trying to understand the Word and the Will of God in their lives and will only rely on local authorities (for the most part) such as a trusted Pastor or teacher to help interpret the Bible. In other words, the Bible is understood on an almost exclusively individual level, though most Christians in the same church or denomination probably share many of the same opinions about what the Bible says. Interpretation for the person though, remains primarily part of the relationship between the individual and the Spirit of God (though this has rather obvious potential pitfalls).

By contrast, Judaism has a vast repository of knowledge commonly referred to as the Talmud, that contains the discussions, arguments, and rulings of a long list of sages stretching back across the centuries to before the time of Jesus. Christianity, with the exception of branches such as Catholicism, has no such tradition. The dictates of the Church fathers and the commentaries of renowned teachers and spiritual leaders, both historical figures and modern men and women, while highly valued, are not considered perpetually binding legal rulings over the lives of the devout of Christ. Rulings, authorities, and judgments in Judaism, particularly among the Orthodox, are much more defined and delineated.

Even for those parts of Christian theology that are considered binding (belief in the Trinity, belief in the resurrection of Christ, belief that people who are “saved” go to Heaven when they die, and so on), it’s hard for the collective church to imagine that “legal rulings” could continue to be issued across the passage of time and into the modern era. What new interpretation of the Bible would be necessary today that didn’t already exist in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (and I know I might be unfair in saying this since “progressive revelation” is part of the Christian belief structure)?

Consider the following:

Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. –Exodus 35:3

Based on this commandment in the Torah, observant Jews, to one degree or another, do not light a flame on the Shabbat. Back in the days of the Exodus, this was understood in a particular way. No candle lighting, no lighting a fire in a home or at a camp, and so on.

Netilat YadayimBut no one ever thought of things like the invention of the automobile, the electric light bulb, and the microwave oven. How does the commandment to not light a flame apply to these technologies? Can an electric spark be considered “igniting” something? Once the question comes up, who gets to answer the question and decide how it is applied and to whom? After all, if you’re a devout Jew who doesn’t want to violate the Shabbat, you’ll need to know if you can start your car, warm up a cup of coffee in the microwave, or pop on a reading lamp when it gets dark on the Shabbat (and as it turns out, the ruling is that an observant Jew can do none of these things without violating the commandment).

In religious Judaism, your life is orchestrated in a beautiful but somewhat complicated dance as you progress through the days and months and years. The Torah is both instruction book and part of the mystic presence of God in your life, but who can understand the Torah and all that it instructs? The average Jew may not have the time, the mental discipline, or the necessary intellectual capacity to study the Torah and the sages in depth and thus understand his or her responsibilities to God in all matters of living. Yet there is halacha and tradition upon which a Jew can count to guide his or her steps in this dance with God and with life. These traditions, rulings, and judgments have provided continuity and consistency in Jewish communities all over the world for thousands of years. Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.

The Torah may be from heaven but it is not in heaven. God gave it to the Children of Israel from the hands of angels to Moses, not because God wants to control the actions of each individual Jew, but because God loves his Chosen People and wants to take care of them. And while the Mosaic covenant and thus much of the Torah is not applied to the “grafted in” Christian, the Torah was always intended to “go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:1-4) and to be a guide and a protector, not only of the Jewish people, but for all the people of the Earth, if they will only turn to and walk with God in faith and trust.

Why am I saying all this? Why should you care?

Perhaps, as a Christian, you don’t care and you don’t think it matters and you believe that the Torah and the Talmud is best left to the Jews. If you happen to be Jewish, you may not care about the potential applications of Torah and Talmud to Christianity. For my part, as a Christian married to a Jew, I can see great value in studying not only the Bible, but the judgments, rulings, and insights of the sages, from Hillel and Shammai to Rambam and Rashi. Unless we understand how Jewish Rabbis and learned scholars read and understand the Torah and God, how can be begin to comprehend the Jewish sage and apostle Paul and what he wrote and taught? Indeed, how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?

Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side. The Talmudic scholars can be our guides into ways of seeing God and His Word that would otherwise be missing hues in our color palettes. What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look?

A true master of life never leaves this world
—he transcends it, but he is still within it.

He is still there to assist those who are bonded with him with blessing and advice, just as before, and even more so.

Even those who did not know him in his corporeal lifetime can still create with him an essential bond.

The only difference is in us:
Now we must work harder to connect.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman