Tag Archives: mitzvot

A Physical Object is Merely “I am”

The mitzvos are primarily physical deeds performed with physical objects: animal hides are fashioned into tefillin and wrapped around one’s head and arm; flour and water become the instrument of a mitzvah in the form of the matzah eaten on Passover; a ram’s horn is sounded on Rosh Hashana; a citron and palm fond are taken on Sukkot. For the physical world is ultimately the most appropriate environment for the function of the mitzvah to be realized.

“The mitzvos relate to the very essence of G-d” is a mainstay of chassidic teaching. But the very notion of something relating to another thing’s essence is a philosophical oxymoron. The “essence” of something is the thing itself, as opposed to manner in which it affects and is perceived by that which is outside of it. Hence the philosophical axiom: “The essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” In other words, if you see it, it is not the thing itself that you see, only the manner in which it reflects light and imprints an image on your retina; if you understand it, then it is not the thing itself that you comprehend, only a concept which your mind has pieced together by studying its effect on other things; and so on.

Nevertheless, G-d desired to project His essence into the created reality. This is the function of the mitzvos: through observing His commandments and fulfilling His will, we “bring” the very essence of G-d into our lives. And this is why He chose the physical object as the medium of the mitzvah’s implementation.

Spiritual entities (i.e., ideas, feelings, etc.) intrinsically point to a source, a cause, a greater reality that they express and serve. The spiritual is thus the natural medium for the various expressions of the Divine reality that G-d chose to convey to us – unlike the physical, whose deeper significance is buried deep beneath the surface of its corporeality, the spiritual readily serves as the expression of a higher truth.

But when it comes to the projection of G-d’s essence, the very “virtues” of the spiritual disqualify it: its capacity to convey, to reveal, to manifest, runs contrary to the introversive nature of “essence.” Here, the physical object, the most non-transcendental element of G-d’s creation, is the most ideal vehicle for G-d’s essence capturing mitzvos.

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

In other words, the object of the mitzvah is not a “manifestation” of the Divine. Were it to reflect Him in any way, were it to reveal anything of the “nature” of His reality, it would, by definition, fail to capture His essence. But capture His essence it does, simply because He willed it to. G-d, of course, could have willed anything (including a manifest expression of His reality) to convey His essence, but He chose a medium that is most appropriate according to logical laws he established in creating our reality – a reality in which “essence” and “expression” are antithetical to each other. He therefore chose the material world, with its virtual blackout on any revealed expression of G-dliness, to serve as the “tool” with which we perform the mitzvos and thereby relate to His essence.

-from a commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (Chapter 4)
“Essence and Expression”
Iyar 17, 5772 * May 9, 2012

Yesterday’s “extra meditation,” The Blood of the Prince, took a look at the “deity of Jesus” issue and inspired many passionate responses. Here’s the same issue from a different point of view.

You may have just read this lesson from the Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers and wondered what it had to do with anything. In Christianity, the physical and the spiritual are usually seen as two separate and often incompatible entities. Christians are always trying to escape “the flesh” so they can connect to the Spirit. Yet in Judaism, this isn’t necessarily the same picture.

The connection of flesh and spirit is a question that was discussed with some fervor recently on Gene Shlomovich’s Daily Minyan blog post, Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d. Once again, the question of the Deity of Jesus was brought up and once again it was not resolved, except in the minds of people who feel they know for sure that Jesus is “God in the flesh.”

Some of us however, aren’t so sure how it’s all supposed to work, which I guess is why we have faith but not always complete knowledge of who and what God is and isn’t.

But the commentary I quoted from includes a very interesting statement:

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

I started thinking about something the Master said that sounds at once somewhat similar and yet is entirely different.

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” –John 8:56-58 (ESV)

Of course, the statement “I am” not only recalls the Pirkei Avot commentary, but Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”

The Master is apparently saying not only that Abraham believed in him, Jesus, by faith (see Hebrews 13:11 as well), but that the great “I am” of Exodus is also the Christ. The quote from the Pirkei Avot commentary says that a physical object’s loudest cry of “I am”  (including physical man) declares that it is defined by its physical nature, and that physical nature is also the ultimate hiding place for the Divinity of the Creator. Which “I am” reference can we apply to Jesus…or can we apply both?

I’ve explored Messianic Divinity before and have leaned toward an alternate “explanation” for the joining of humanity and Divinity in the person of Jesus Christ than the one held by the church. That doesn’t make me a popular fellow by more traditional Christian thinkers (whether in the church or the Hebrew Roots movement) but at least I’m willing to question my assumptions and admit that I don’t know everything (which seems a prudent position given the ultimate “unknowability” of God).

That said, I’m taking somewhat of a different position today and exploring the other side of the coin, albeit through the interface of a commentary on the classic Jewish texts. I’m hardly saying that what was written in the Pirkei Avot directly or indirectly applies to the concept of the Messiah in general or Jesus in specific. The two “I am” references are competely disconnected in practicality. I’m just choosing to use this comparison as a “jumping off point” for exploring both Jesus and God.

That’s a big jump.

But then, I never said that Jesus wasn’t Divine in some manner or fashion, I just failed to jump on the mainstream Christian bandwagon in terms of an explanation. Judaism may not hold that a man can also be God and worthy of the worship and honor due to God alone, but it does (and I’m not even speaking of Jewish mysticism here) acknowledge the ability of the Divine to somehow exist within our universe and even to play by the rules of that universe, though as a matter of choice, not limitation:

Indeed, since the purpose of creation is that the essence of the Divine should be drawn down into the physical reality, the objective is to do so on its (the physical reality’s) terms, not by overriding them. So if the logical laws that govern our reality and dictate that “expression” is incompatible with “essence,” our bringing of G-dliness into the world is to be achieved “blindly,” without any perceptible manifestations of the Divine essence.

On the other hand, however, if G-d’s essence is truly to enter our reality, He must enter it as He is, without hindrance or inhibition. If His reality tolerates no limits or definitions, “revelation” must be no less conducive to His essence than “concealment.”

In other words, for Him to be here implies two (seemingly contradictory) truths: if He is to be truly here, then His presence must be consistent with our reality; yet if it is truly He who is here, He must be here on His terms.

This is why created existence has two distinct components: the Present World and the World to Come the process and its culmination. The process of drawing down the Divine essence into the created reality is carried out under an obscuring veil of corporeality, in keeping with the created rule that “the essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” At the same time, the product and end result of this process are a world in which G d is uninhibitedly present, in which also the expressions of His reality fully convey the quintessence of His being.

In Jewish mystic tradition, the Angels and even the mysterious essence of the wisdom of Torah must be “clothed” in the mundane in order to exist in our world. Though God the Ein Sof, the infinite and unknown Creator does not interact with the world, something we call the Shekinah, which in most Christian Bibles is translated as “God’s glory” did enter our world, incinerating the top of Sinai and entering the Tabernacle in the desert, constructed by the hand of man. That Shekinah, we call “God” too, but it doesn’t seem to bother us that God existed simultaneously as Ein Sof and Shekinah (if something that strange, mystical, and metaphysical can even be expressed in temporal terms).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:1,14 (ESV)

I don’t know how it all works so I have no answers to give you. If you’re comfortable with your answers, then I guess that works for you. Frankly, I’m more “comfortable” or at least better able to tolerate the vast uncertainty of the nature of “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Once we say that we know all there is to know about God, it is humanity defining Divinity rather than the other way around. I don’t think I could live with that.


A chassid once approached his rebbe, Rav Yizchak of Vorke, in a very broken-hearted manner. He had a physical ailment that contact with water severely exacerbated. When he had been ill the doctor had declared with certainty that his illness was the result of contact with water. Not surprisingly, they absolutely forbade him from going to the mikveh even after he recovered. Chassidim are generally very careful to go the mikveh every day. Interestingly, many pre-chassidic sources mention that observing this takanah is essential for true spiritual development. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, brings a list of some of these luminaries, including the Arizal, the Beis Yosef’s Maggid, and the Reishis Chochmah.

With all these sources it is no wonder that the young man felt frustrated by his inability to maintain this practice. The Vorkever Rebbe turned to his young follower and said, “In Bava Kama 28 we find: ‘—The Merciful One absolves those constrained by mitigating circumstances.’ This seems superfluous. Why not just say that one who is constrained by mitigating circumstances is absolved? In addition, who cares if he is since he didn’t fulfill the mitzvah? The Rebbe answered his own question: “Hashem sees into a man’s heart. If a person yearns to do a mitzvah but truly cannot, it is as though the Torah itself fulfills the mitzvah for him!”

The chassid lingered in his rebbe’s presence, obviously unsatisfied with this response. He clearly was hoping to receive a blessing that he would, in fact, be able to immerse in the mikveh. The rebbe admonished him, “Why are you still standing here? Who will do the mitzvah better—you, or the Torah?”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Merciful One Absolves Him”
Shulchan Aruch Siman 161 Seif 1

All of this is probably hard for most Christians to understand. About the closest we might get to the idea of a mikvah is the concept of baptism, but that happens only once in a lifetime. We also might have a tough time with understanding how someone could suffer because they can’t perform a specific action that they believe God requires of them (namely, a daily immersion in a mikvah). For many Christians, the one time event of “being saved” pretty much sums up all of our requirements. If, for some reason, we were unable to physically perform some act of righteousness because of a medical condition, we would more or less assume God would be understanding.

However, observant Jews conceptualize their relationship with God in a fundamentally different way than Christians (and I’ve said this before). For a Christian, it’s all about what you believe. For a Jew, it’s all about what you do. And yet, whether or not the poor fellow in our “story to share” is able to enter a mikveh, does not particularly determine if he will merit a place in the world to come. Also, and this is important, the chassid’s merit in the world to come may not be the primary focus of his life.

Shocking, I know. For a Christian, “getting into Heaven” is pretty much what it’s all about. We are a very future-minded group of religious people. For a Jew, the main focus of a relationship with God isn’t what he’s going to do for us in the future, but what Jews can do for God right now through performing the mitzvot. The inability to obey God and to perform deeds of righteous and charity for the sake of Heaven is very painful for religious Jews. I don’t think we have this concept in the church, but maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to cultivate it a little bit.

No, I’m not talking about turning Christians into Jews, having us wear tzitzit, immersing ourselves daily in a mikvah, and kashering our kitchens, but imagine what life as a Christian would be like if our overarching purpose in serving God were to actually serve God right here and right now.

I’m being unfair of course, because many Christians are extremely mindful of their duties to God and to human beings, and Christianity throughout the ages has carried the Torah out of Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem (Micah 4:2):

Christianity has brought billions of people to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and King of the Jews. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. Even some Jewish scholars have recognized the significance of this fact. In Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10-12, Maimonides credits Christianity with preparing the Gentile world for the arrival of King Messiah by spreading knowledge of the Bible far and wide. If even those who do not claim Jesus as Messiah can affirm the good that has come from Christianity, certainly believers should be able to as well.

-from an unpublished manuscript of a super-secret book I can’t talk about right now

But as James, the brother of the Messiah noted, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).

Christianity has helped uncountable numbers of poor, hungry, destitute, abandoned people. Myriads of counselees—drug abusers and alcoholics, victims of abuse, troubled spouses—have benefited from a pastor’s Biblical advice. From Carey and Wilberforce’s campaigns against satī in India to the modern phenomenon of “adopting” starving African children, Christians everywhere have expended their resources to help those less fortunate. Today, Christian orphanages in India take in abandoned children with nowhere else to turn, just as devout Christian George Müller did over a century ago in England.

-from the same super-secret book I still can’t talk about

As difficult as it may be to actually experience the concept, Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Judaism. We share the same foundation. We share the same God. The writers of the New Testament were almost assuredly all devout Jewish men and as such, they would have understood God, the Prophets, the Messiah, and the entire tapestry of the Creator’s continual interaction with humanity from a uniquely Jewish framework.

The Holy Scriptures the church has today were inspired by God and written by Jews. We Christians have done a good bit of “sanitizing” of these works over the past couple of thousand years, but if we choose to, we can try to recapture the good of both Christianity and Judaism as authored and willed by God.

Maybe someday, we in the church will understand why a young chassid would be so anguished to be forbidden to enter a mikvah. Maybe we’ll understand also how the unfulfilled desire to do so can be counted as if completed by the Torah. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll reclaim the ancient tradition and commandment to obey God in this world as our real reason for being here. The world to come will take care if itself.

Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and comforted the mourning the very day all these events were happening. He didn’t wait for his death or resurrection and he didn’t wait for his second coming to start performing tikkun olam (though that won’t be completed until a future time). We don’t have to wait either.

It’s time to immerse ourselves not only in the Word and the Spirit, but into the action of obeying God and living like our Master.

Love is a Commandment

Today’s daf discusses the halachos of one who gives a gift. The great importance of gratitude cannot be overemphasized. Rabbeinu Bachaya famously writes that one who fails to appreciate what others have done for him—using some trite excuse to explain away this lapse—will also lose appreciation for all the gifts that God bestows on us at all times. In Kelm people knew how to show their gratitude. It was normal to show one’s appreciation to the children of one who had been of assistance. Some had developed their hakaras hatov to such an extent that they even expressed their gratitude to the grandchildren of the one who had helped them.

An interesting question arose regarding such demonstrations. A certain Jew was in a far-flung town during the terrible years of the Holocaust. He knew that he had no chance alone, so he begged a non- Jewish friend to hide him. His friend did not let him down despite the danger of hiding a Jew, and that could lead to an immediate death sentence for interfering with the Nazi war effort.

After the war, this Jew went to Israel and was very successful in business. He always sent a large amount of money back to Europe to help his non-Jewish friend, who was not very well off. After some time, this man passed away, and the Jew wondered whether he was permitted to continue sending money to the non-Jew’s children. After all, although they hadn’t really helped him they were the progeny of the man who had saved his life. Don’t we find in the Torah that the descendants of Amon and Moav should have given Yisrael bread and water as an expression of kindness to Avraham through whose merits Lot’s life was sav? Yet, in general, it is forbidden to give a non-Jew a gift due to the prohibition…It was not as though the children would have a claim against him, since he had always helped their father. Yet he wished to continue giving to them if he could.

When this question reached Rav Nissin Karelitz, shlit”a, he ruled decisively.
“When a person feels gratitude to someone—or his descendants—there is no problem…it is only if he wished to give a gift not due to hakaras hatov that this prohibition applies.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Gift of Gratitude”
Kereisos 24

This is a strange story from a Christian (or a secular Gentile) point of view. Of course, we can understand that the Jewish person whose life had been saved by the non-Jew, should want to show gratitude toward the person who helped him at the risk of his own life. We can see that it was incredibly generous of the Jewish person to continue to provide financial gifts to his benefactor years and even decades after the end of the Holocaust. We might even be able to understand the desire to do something good for the children of the Gentile benefactor as a further act of gratitude and compassion for what their father did.

But is it an obligation?

Most Christians are well versed in the concept that the Law of the Jews was replaced by the Grace of Christ, to the degree that Christians have virtually none of the obligations that God assigned the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. However, a careful study of the teachings of Jesus will reveal that every lesson he taught to his disciples and the multitudes that followed him was based in the Torah and the Prophets.

As Christians, we understand that we should show our gratitude to others, sometimes in a tangible way, but for us, it’s a “nice thing to do” rather than a commandment or an obligation. But given everything I’ve just said, are we seeing this picture correctly?

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

In the two greatest commandments, we see a couple of things and they may not be apparent to you. The first, which I hope is obvious, is that we are indeed commanded to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Jesus is directly quoting from Leviticus 19:18 in this part of his teaching:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

So we understand in this instance that because the Master included this portion of Torah in what he taught and because he gave a mandate that all of the Gentile disciples should be taught to obey his teachings (Matthew 28:18-20), that this is a part of Torah (the Law) that translates into a commandment for Christians.

When you love your neighbor, you express it. When your neighbor (Jew or Gentile) does something outstandingly good to you, you return that goodness in kind, not just because it’s polite, or nice, or the right thing to do, but because God expects it of us.

The other thing we see in Christ’s teaching is that he directly links loving your neighbor as yourself with “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” which is we also find in the Torah. (Deuteronomy 6:5 – ESV)

We Christians aren’t just supposed to love God, we are commanded to do so. Not only that, but we are commanded to love our neighbor. It’s an obligation. And on top of all of that, the two commandments are so linked that if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, then you cannot possibly love God.

Did everyone get that?

I’m not dumping the entire body of the 613 commandments onto the Christian church and the body of non-Jewish believers in Jesus, but I am saying what seems to be self evident. Once you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and Master, what happens next isn’t optional. Once you get your train ticket to Heaven punched by the conductor, your journey isn’t over. Being “saved” isn’t the end, it’s barely the beginning.

I know that living a moral and ethical Christian life, especially in terms of actual behavior (as opposed to an abstract and completely internal “belief” in Christ) doesn’t sound like the “grace” we’re taught in Sunday school or from the pulpit, but I can’t read the Bible any other way.

Once you realize that God expects that you love your neighbor, you’re supposed to do something about it. Otherwise, it isn’t love. Otherwise it isn’t love that you “feel” for God. If you have gratitude to God for saving your life and sparing you the consequences of your sins, show that gratitude to others and even to their children and grandchildren.

Love is an obligation. The struggle, not to feel love but to do love, is a battle. And you dare not fail to win the battle. If you do, how can you say that you love God? How can you win the war, not only for all those souls created in God’s image, but for your very own? How can you say you contain the light of God and that your soul cleaves to Him?

The Alter Rebbe had stated earlier that a person’s intention while performing Torah and mitzvot should be that his soul cleave to G-d.

He now goes on to say that a Jew’s spiritual service also includes the goal of becoming one with all the Jewish people. For this reason his intentions should not be limited to having his own soul cleave to G-d, but also that the source of his soul and the source of all the souls of Israel cleave to Him.

By doing so the individual brings about the union (yichud) of the higher and lower levels of G-dliness known respectively as Kudsha Brich Hu (“the Holy One, blessed be He”) and His Shechinah (“the Divine Presence”), for the former is the source of Torah and mitzvot and the latter is the source of all Jewish souls.

This explains the concluding phrase of the formula recited before the performance of certain mitzvot: “For the sake of the union of Kudsha Brich Hu with His Shechinah…in the name of all Israel.” As the Rebbe notes: “In the name of all Israel” implies that the union achieved through the performance of the mitzvah is for the sake of, and in the name of, all of Israel. For it is with the Shechinah that Kudsha Brich Hu is united and the Shechinah is the source of all Jewish souls.

Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 41
from Today’s Tanya Lesson
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg. Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg. Edited by Uri Kaploun.
Listen online at Chabad.org

To extend this particular lesson somewhat, in performing the mitzvot or the commandments of God as Christians, our souls are also cleaving to God and to all of His other creations.

Serving God

The Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg, shlit”a, gave a very inspiring talk based on a statement on today’s daf. “The Rokeach writes that one should prepare himself with cheshbon hanefesh and teshuvah before fulfilling a mitzvah; he should beg God that he merit to do the mitzvah as is fitting, without feelings of self-aggrandizement. Some would even fast before fulfilling certain mitzvos. The reason for these extra exertions is that a mitzvah done with genuine feeling as it should be makes huge rectifications in the upper worlds. Obviously there are many barriers that block the way of the person who wishes to reach this pinnacle. The least we can do before performing a mitzvah is to beg God for help.

“Now we can understand why, although it was a printer’s decision, every tractate in the Talmud begins with a shaar blatt, a page with a gateway, and then starts on a page marked as number two. Tzaddikim always petition God for help to learn and do mitzvos. They plead with God: ‘I know in my heart that I am not as I should be. I have done much wrong. Nevertheless, You God are gracious and merciful. I therefore plead with You to help me serve You in truth.’ The first page is the gateway: we enter into the gates of learning Torah lishmah by begging God for His aid. Only after entering this gateway can we begin the actual tractate on page two.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Seeking the Laws of Pesach”
Bechoros 58

According to Rabbi Daniel Gordis in his book God Was Not in the Fire (pg 132), most people understand the word “mitzvah” to mean “good deed” when the better translation is “commandment”. He states that, “Doing a mitzvah might well be nice, but – perhaps surprisingly -Judaism values it not only for its “kindness” but for its “commandedness” as well.” This might go some of the distance in explaining how we can understand the Jewish value of asking; in fact, all but begging for God’s help in performing a mitzvah, even to the point to fasting and praying beforehand. For a Christian, this may seem way over the top and far too formal a process. If you feel moved to donate canned food to the local food bank, volunteer at the homeless shelter, or visit a sick friend in the hospital, can’t you just do that without all the preliminary activity suggested by the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg?

Rabbi Gordis says that many Jews feel this way, too and resist “what they see as Judaism’s tendency to regulate too many elements of life.” I think that’s one of the reasons Christians and many “Messianics” are critical of the “man-made rules” contained in Talmud and the principle of halacha. After all, does this vast collection of minute details really matter to God? Isn’t He pleased if we just do His will without all the ceremony involved? Rabbi Gordis offers one possible answer.

Yet as much as it sounds reasonable to wonder whether God really cares about the details, these specific elements of Jewish life are often important not necessarily because God cares about them, but because we need them. It is through our attention to detail, tradition claims, that we express what Judaism called a sense of “commandedness,” a sense that we behave in a certain way in order to construct a relationship with God. Mitzvah is designed not to make unnecessary limitations on our privacy and autonomy, but to express the idea that if we wish to feel God’s presence, we need to evoke that feeling in action.

This is what Christians would probably call “works-based religion”. A Christian “believes” and “feels” God through faith while a Jew “obeys” and “acts” on their faith. I suppose this is as good a place as any to (again) invoke James 2:14-26 including the very famous verse 17: “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. “ The specific formalities of Judaism in preparing to perform a mitzvah and then the specific manner in which the mitzvah is accomplished may not actually matter to God, but that ritual and ceremony provides meaning and structure in the life of a religious Jew (and this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about how important ritual and tradition is in a life of faith).

I suspect that one of the primary reasons why many “Gentile Messianics” resist Talmud and halacha when attempting to emulate a Jewish lifestyle, is not that the traditions were constructed by human beings, but that the traditions were constructed by Jews for Jews for the specific purpose of Jewish performance of Torah “commandedness”. Many non-Jews are attracted to Torah as a means of having a closer walk with God through the commandments, but they resist a fully Jewish experience with those commandments (because it is too Jewish).

Derek Leman wrote a multi-part series called Not Jewish yet Drawn to Torah (the link goes to part 1) addressing this dynamic in much detail. Leman doesn’t criticize Gentile attraction to the mitzvot but rather the approach that allows Christians (including “Gentile Messianics”) to approach the Torah with a casualness that Judaism doesn’t understand and finds offensive. Christians, particularly in the West, tend to think of their faith as only involving Jesus and the individual (“Just me and Jesus”). Judaism, though acknowledging the individual relationship, is much more about community and being a people under God, rather than an individual under God. Leman presents “Lessons Learned from Past Mistakes” illustrating some of this problem:

You should know that many have walked the path before you. And many have found some unhelpful paths and can warn you not to try them.

The major problem many Torah-seeking gentiles have run into is very similar to the problem of shallowness in much evangelical Christianity: individualism run amok.

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN SHALLOWNESS = “The gospel is about me and my salvation.” Read some N.T. Wright, like Justification or Surprised by Hope or After You Believe.

TORAH-SEEKING GENTILE SHALLOWNESS = “The Torah is about me and my status with God.” Read some medieval commentators and Jewish theologians, would you? Learn the depth.

A BETTER PATH = Learn slowly and carefully. Think before jumping into things. Consider that God has a plan for the whole world, through Israel, to redeem. How does Torah fit into that? What is your place in God’s plan?

While Christianity doesn’t share an equal and identical covenant identity with the Jews, we do operate from the same “core values:”

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

If we, as Gentile believers, feel drawn to perform some additional mitzvot on a voluntary basis, and beyond what is required by Jesus, in order to further honor God, we need to respectfully approach how best to prepare for the experience of offering that service. While there is no mandate to flawlessly imitate a Jewish person, we can still attempt to take our actions a little more seriously and inject more formality into the process, not because God needs it, but because we need to be reminded that any action performed in His Name should invoke respect and awe of God.

Christianity and Judaism do share mandates to perform some of the same mitzvot, the actions I typically quote in many of my blogs, to feed the hungry, visit the sick and the prisoner, clothe the unclothed, and to welcome the stranger. In doing those deeds, why shouldn’t we as Christians, allow ourselves to perceive the incredible responsibility God has placed in our hands to serve Him and to serve others? Doesn’t that deserve a little formality and ceremony? Shouldn’t we ask for God’s aid in performing duties done in His Name? Aren’t these types of details there to help us, too? Let us remember these words and say them in truth to God:

I know in my heart that I am not as I should be. I have done much wrong. Nevertheless, You God are gracious and merciful. I therefore plead with You to help me serve You in truth.

Being Heaven on Earth

feeding“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’Matthew 25:34-40


Each year, we Jews spend so many millions of dollars, and devote so much time and energy, to building synagogues, Jewish schools, and a slew of other religious and academic institutions. Wouldn’t it be better if we applied all those resources to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and working to alleviate all the horrendous suffering that goes on in so many places in the world?


Jewish education is the impetus for charity. Any charity. People with a proper Jewish education are most likely to give more charity to the hungry, to the sick, and to the helpless. And to future Jewish education.

Because when you invest in Jewish education and Jewish institutions you are investing in every form of charity.

-Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro

What separates Jews and Christians? It shouldn’t be the desire, the will, and the action of helping others, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the unclothed, and visiting the sick. This is a value that is inexorably woven into the fabric of both faiths and has been since the beginning. Tzedakah or “charity” is at the very heart of the Jewish service to God. It is considered more than just a good thing to do and is an actual obligation to Heaven, as described at the Judaism 101 website.

Giving to the poor is an obligation in Judaism, a duty that cannot be forsaken even by those who are themselves in need. Some sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all commandments, equal to all of them combined, and that a person who does not perform tzedakah is equivalent to an idol worshipper. This is probably hyperbole, but it illustrates the importance of tzedakah in Jewish thought. Tzedakah is one of the three acts that gain us forgiveness from our sins. The High Holiday liturgy repeatedly states that G-d has inscribed a judgment against all who have sinned, but teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah can alleviate the decree.

Numerous positive and negative commandments are devoted to the needs of the poor and unfortunate based on verses from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. When Jesus commands his disciples to “Love your neighbor as yourself”, he is quoting Leviticus 19:18, so the core of both Judaism and Christianity is charity and love. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in yesterday’s morning meditation, there is a startling degree of separation between Judaism and Christianity. Although much in our culture, worship, and identity keeps us apart, we also find there should be much that makes us alike.

A few events inspired me to write today’s “extra meditation”. The first was a story I read yesterday at jweekly.com about a woman named Linda Cohen.

When Linda Cohen’s father died in 2007, the mother of two was reeling. Grief-stricken, she decided to take time off from her active life and health consulting job in Oregon for a “spiritual sabbatical.”

“I just wanted to be quiet. I wanted the time to be with that loss,” recalls Cohen, a Boston native.

But within a month, she had a new sense of direction. Inspired by her father’s wishes to have friends and relatives make donations to charities in lieu of sending flowers after his death, she decided to honor his memory by performing 1,000 mitzvahs.

LindaCohenThe story goes on to say that Linda’s husband encouraged her to chronicle her progress on a blog which became 1000mitzvahs.org. Four years later, Linda’s compassion and her story has become a book: 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life.

Linda Cohen is just one person who lost her father. A lot of people have lost a loved one and we all know that sooner or later, our parents are going to die. We all go through that grief at some point in our lives, but most of us don’t recognize it as anything except another stage in our existence. Linda turned her grief into not only a way to honor her father, but a way to help many others and to inspire the rest of us.

The second inspiration came in the form of a video I watched on Facebook earlier this morning about a fellow in India who was so moved by compassion for the people starving in his own village, that he quit his job just to feed them, to clothe them, to bathe them, and to remind them that we are all human beings.

The original story is from CNN. Here’s the link to the Facebook page for Achyut Sharma’s Video on this story. It’s less than three minutes long. Please watch it before continuing to read here.

It’s not like any of this is revolutionary news, or at least it shouldn’t be. I’ve talked about being the answer to someone’s prayer before. You don’t have to quit your job and make it your full time mission to help the starving in your community. You don’t have to abandon you life, goals, and dreams, but you can make doing even one small mitzvah a day part of those goals and dreams.

Debate about what counted as a mitzvah – Replacing a roll of toilet paper? Smiling at a stranger? – became the stuff of Cohen family’s dinner-table discussion. (Cohen’s children were 6 and 9 when the project started, and grew to see the recurring topic as perfectly normal, she says.) These questions also served as conversation-starters on Cohen’s blog, which steadily gained followers over the course of the 2 1/2-year mission.

“There’s nothing really too small,” she says. “The idea is that bringing even a bit of kindness into the world is a holy connection.”

Just imagine if you did one thing today as a good deed that you didn’t have to do. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Maybe it’s just picking up one piece of trash off the ground and putting it in a garbage can. Maybe it’s smiling at someone you pass on the street. Maybe it’s buying one extra can of food at the store and then stopping by the local food bank and donating it. Nothing big.

Now imagine doing that one thing every day. That’s 365 mitzvot in a year. Now imagine inspiring one other person to do the same thing. Imagine that other person inspires one other person, and so on, and so on, and so on, and…

Tikkun Olam doesn’t begin with huge, heroic, “Superman-like” acts of courage and strength. It begins with one person who cares enough to pass along some small blessing to the next person. It can be one person feeding the poor, the starving, the old, and the mentally ill in his village, or it can be a person taking five minutes out of their day to help their next door neighbor move a sofa. It can be anything, but it must be something.

You don’t have to be religious to do something like this and, to the shame of people who profess faith and yet do nothing for others, many secular people perform frequent acts of kindness for the sake of doing good. If you are a person of faith, it is a duty to God to serve other human beings, not as a burden and a chore, but because it is passing along the grace we received from God to the next person, regardless of who they are, or regardless if your acts ever become known to others.

You may never put your deeds on a blog, write a book, or be filmed by CNN, but as the Master taught, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

You can change the world. You can inspire others to change the world. You don’t need to make some herculean effort to accomplish this. You only have to do one extra deed a day and then do it every day. Anyone can complain about the terrible condition of our world. Anyone can carry signs, protest, and cry out for justice. But very few actually do something about it, even though anyone can. If you seek justice, act justly toward others. If you seek mercy, then be merciful. If you want to be forgiven, then forgive. If you value kindness, then be kind.

I learned so much throughout this process,” she says. “I moved out of a place of grief, into a place of feeling very inspired. If there’s something negative that happens, I feel like there’s a lesson I can glean from that. I really learned how to see the good in the world.” –Linda Cohen

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. –Matthew 6:10-12

Don’t wait for goodness to come into the world. It’s here now because you’re here now. All you have to do is perform it. Your faith means nothing until you do. Then your faith means everything.