Tag Archives: motivation

Terumah: Why Do You Do Good?

menorah“Take for Me an offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give.”

Exodus 25:2

Rashi, the great commentator, tells us that “Take for Me” means that all donations for the Tabernacle should be given for the sake of the Almighty. The question: What difference does it make what a person’s intentions are as long as he does a good deed?

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman clarifies the role of intentions with an illustration. Suppose there is a man who wants to ensure that every child in the community has wholesome milk for breakfast. Rain or shine he delivers milk every morning. What would you say about that man? Likely you would count him amongst the great tzadikim, righteous people, a person of great kindness.

However, what would be your opinion of the man if you knew he delivered the milk only because he was getting paid? No longer is he a great tzadik, now he is just a plain milkman.

Similarly, in everything we do. If we keep in mind that we are fulfilling the Almighty’s command to do kindness, even the mundane interactions at work can be elevated to a higher spiritual level. The bus driver is no longer just driving the bus, he is helping people get to work or to shop for their families. The deed may be a good deed with or without one’s intention, but our growth in character and spirituality depend on our intentions!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah

I suppose you could link this back to commentary on last week’s last week’s Torah portion. In the Aish.com commentary for that week, we looked at the story of a young Jewish woman who was seeking spirituality and felt actually insulted that her Jewish teachers suggested she could find it in “the (Torah) laws regarding returning a lost item.” She abandoned her pursuit of spirituality within the context of Torah and Judaism and proceeded to India. But she found that the behavior of her guru in response to his finding a lost wallet containing a large sum of money showed her that spirituality, responsibility, justice, and mercy must all go together.

In this week’s commentary, we see that even doing what is good may not be enough if the motivation of the person performing the action is less than stellar.

But let’s take two people performing an identical mitzvah. Say both of our hypothetical people are donating food to a local food bank. They both give abundantly in money and goods and many people are fed through their efforts. The first man is primarily motivated by the desire to do good to the people of his community and to serve God. The second man is primarily motivated by the tax break he’ll receive and the recognition he’ll get from his friends and family as a “good guy.”

Which one would you say is the more “spiritual” man? Obviously the first one. But regardless of motivation, people are still fed. Even the man whose motivation is only for his self-interest is doing better to serve others than the person who has “nice, warm, fuzzy” spiritual feelings toward his neighbor but donates not even a single hour, dollar, or can of chicken soup to the food bank (or any other mitzvah).

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James 2:12-26 (ESV)

charity-tzedakahJesus said that you shall know a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:20) and every tree that does not bear good fruits will be cut down and thrown in a fire (v19). James, the brother of the Master, connects faith with actions, the latter arising from the former. Jesus tells us that our very nature is revealed by our behavior. In this week’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to “accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him,” (Exodus 25:2) connecting the nature and amount of the gift with the nature of the giver. Rabbi Packouz says that regardless of motivation, an act that helps others is still of value to those being helped, “but our growth in character and spirituality depend on our intentions!”

If all we want is a tax break and to look good to others, we can perform acts of charity and help many people…as long as we are unconcerned about our relationship with God and growing within that relationship spiritually. On the other hand, if we are trying to take our relationship with God seriously, it’s not just what we do but why we do it that matters. Human beings can only see our behavior but God sees the heart.

This should be a no-brainer, but I find that in the community of faith, we are just as vulnerable to bad motivations, bad attitudes, the desire for self-righteousness rather than God’s righteousness, and the need to “be right,” as anyone operating in the secular world. Just look at the various religious blogs and discussion boards on the web and you’ll see what I mean.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament should tell any Christian who is having trouble with this concept of what to do and why to do it. It really isn’t hard to pick a mitzvah representing “the weightier matters of the Torah,” such as donating a couple of cans of soup of chili to the food bank, shoveling snow off your neighbor’s driveway and sidewalk, or holding the door open for someone who is entering the same place right behind you because it’s what Jesus has commanded us to do.

If you find yourself paying more attention to a belief that certain “ceremonial” mitzvot are your “right” while neglecting matters of “justice and mercy and faithfulness,” (Matthew 23:23), or worse, performing no acts of charity and kindness at all thinking your “faith” is all the covering you’ll need, then you might earn the same ire from the Master as did the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was originally addressing.

There is much in the Torah of Moses for everyone and it acts as the rock upon which the Prophets, the Writings, and the Apostolic Scriptures firmly rest. However, as we see, application isn’t meaningful in a spiritual sense unless we are actually using what we know to do good to others and for the right reasons.

The words of Torah should be as fresh to you as if you first heard them today.

-Rashi, Deuteronomy 11:13

Excitement often comes from novelty, but novelty is exciting only as long as it is new. Someone who buys a car fully loaded with options may feel an emotional high, but after several weeks, the novelty wears off and it is just another vehicle.

Spirituality, too, suffers from routine. Human beings may do all that is required of them as moral people and observe all the Torah’s demands in terms of the performance of commandments, yet their lives may be insipid and unexciting because their actions have become rote, simply a matter of habit. The prophet Isaiah criticizes this when he says, “Their reverence of Me has become a matter of routine” (Isaiah 29:13). Reverence must be an emotional experience. A reverence that is routine and devoid of emotion is really no reverence at all.

Path of TorahThus, the excitement that is essential for true observance of Torah depends upon novelty, upon having both an understanding of Torah today that we did not have yesterday and a perception of our relationship to God that is deeper than the one we had yesterday. Only through constantly learning and increasing our knowledge and awareness of Torah and Godliness can we achieve this excitement. Life is growth. Since stagnation is the antithesis of growth, it is also the antithesis of life. We can exist without growth, but such an existence lacks true life.

Today I shall…

…try to discover new things in the Torah and in my relationship to God.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 4”

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

The End (from the Abbey Road album)

Good Shabbos.

What Doesn’t Kill You

:‫אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים. — ה‬

Whether one does a lot or a little, it is equal, as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven – 5b

In his commentary to Hilchos Krias Sh’ma, the Or Zarua writes: “One who toils in Torah to the best of his ability might nevertheless feel that he has accomplished very little. He should know, however, that as long as he has done his best, he has earned the same reward as another who has toiled in Torah and who has accomplished much. The reward is commensurate with the effort. (Avos 5:23). The Yerushalmi even says that if one person toiled in Torah day and night for one hundred years, while another studied Torah to the utmost of his abilities for a shortened lifespan of twenty years, God rewards them equally.”

The Or Zarua concludes and rules that the same measure is used in terms of giving tzedaka and for all meritorious acts. When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“To focus one’s heart for the sake of Heaven”
Berachos 5

I suppose this could be condensed down to something like, “do your best” or some similar statement. The “Gemara Gem,” from a Christian point of view, is probably thought of at best as a learned opinion or an encouraging statement, though as I’ve mentioned before that Christianity doesn’t look at Bible study as an act of loving God or something done for its own sake. In religious Judaism however, Torah study brings a Jew close to God in a way that most non-Jews will never understand. I certainly can’t claim any special insights myself.

But think of the implications here. For an observant Jew, failure to strive in Torah study or approaching Torah study with a rather casual attitude must be looked at by God in a less than complementary fashion. If Torah study is that important, whether you’re an accomplished scholar or someone who can hardly grasp the basics, it is your effort and devotion that results in God’s favor. Imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t try your best, but you still cared about merits from God. Or even imagine if you tried your best and still accomplished very little. You might still feel, regardless of what was quoted above, that you are a failure. You might even have friends or family who are more than willing to re-enforce that opinion of yourself, whether due to poor Torah study or any number of other disappointments.

Yesterday, I tried to explain that each of us, having been made in the image of God, are holy and sacred people. We should treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect befitting someone who contains a precious spark of the Divine. However, I ended yesterday’s missive with a cautionary note:

Oh, one more thing. All this is far easier said than done, especially finding that “holy” guy in the mirror while I’m shaving in the morning.

Knowledge and insight are wonderful things but they don’t automatically result in wisdom and change, especially when your so-called “holiness” collides into the reality of day-to-day life.

Consider this.

Someone spends most of their life, for whatever reasons, believing that they have little to offer others and that whenever they try to do their best, failure is the result. They have hurt others without meaning to, hurt themselves, and generally made a mess of things. Finally, they come to the conclusion that everyone who they love and want to be close to, resents them and even sometimes hates them because of all the trouble they’ve caused.

At some point, this person, on a cognitive level, realizes that at least some of what they’re experiencing is self-constructed and self-maintained. They learn that “you are what you think” and after reading more self-help and inspirational material than they thought they could stand, they come to the realization that they have the power to change how they think and therefore, how they feel and behave.

So they give it a shot. Maybe they just practice some set of rules or habits that they’ve been told effective people use. Maybe they even go to a counselor of some sort to help get a direction and supportive feedback.

But it doesn’t work.

Here’s why.

Each day for twenty, thirty, forty years or more, this person has added ten pounds of weight on their back. I know ten pounds doesn’t sound like much, but if you added ten more pounds each day, day in and day out, 365 days a year for decade upon decade upon decade, it would eventually become tons…tons of weight on the person’s back. Tons of weight holding the person down.

Each time they employ some sort of method to change their thinking, their feeling, and their behavior, they are taking a small hammer and a wee chisel and chipping off a fleck here and a fragment there of fifty or sixty or seventy tons of concrete and steel, trying to lighten the load. After a few days or a few weeks or a few months, the person tries to stand up under the load. It doesn’t seem any lighter. They still can’t stand. They still can’t move.

On top of all this (no pun intended) the original mechanism of thoughts and perceptions that cause this person to process all outside input as negative and punitive is continuing to add more and more weight on. So as this person attempts to make their burden lighter at an extremely miniscule rate, the weight is being replaced faster than it can be removed, so in fact, change is not occurring at all or worse…the weight is getting even heavier.

Do you think when the Or Zarua says the following, that it applies to our much burdened individual?

When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

I’m not sure it does. Here’s why.

Only when a person has peace of mind can he really feel love for humanity. Lack of peace of mind leads to animosity towards others. Peace of mind leads to love.

Only if a person has peace of mind will he be able to pass the test of dealing properly with other people. He will be able to [be] kindhearted to everyone. His peace of mind will enable him to tolerate others and be patient with them.

see Daas Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, p.203;
Mussar Hatorah, p.10;
Gateway to Happiness, p.73
quoted from Aish.com

If we are supposed to love God by loving other people and performing acts of kindness and charity, and thus achieve an understanding that we can love ourselves and that indeed, God loves us too, how is this achieved if you cannot perform the first step? I suppose I’m looking at this in too much of a linear fashion. I’ve said before that feelings are not necessary in order to do good. Just do good. And yet, thoughts and feelings of self-loathing, self-deprecation, and the insurmountable weight of depression, like 88,000 pounds of lead crushing you into the dirt and mud, makes it difficult or even (seemingly) impossible to budge an inch. In real life, it takes some sort of motivation to do just about anything, especially something that is out of character and that requires an extraordinary effort.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:5-8 (ESV)

But the encouragements of Paul in the New Testament might seem to backfire in the face of someone pinned to the ground by their faults like an insect trapped in amber.

I know some people read blogs like mine for a sense of encouragement, support, and inspiration, but mine is a very strange “inspirational” blog. Candy-coating life is usually ineffective, and it’s practically insane to deny that some people find emotional survival to be the best they can accomplish on any given day, or at the very least, it’s rather cruel. In the background of life for a person like the one I’ve been describing, it isn’t just the fear that the people they love will get fed up with them and leave, but that God will get fed up as well.

Worry can always provide reason. Maybe G‑d is out to punish you. Maybe you don’t deserve to be saved from the mess you’ve gotten into. Maybe an ugly mess is the only way He has to provide for you.

That’s not called trust. Trust means you have not a shade of doubt that He will deliver. No matter what.

The heavens above mirror the earth below. Trust in Him and He will fulfill your trust.

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

Telling someone like this that they don’t trust God may seem to be rather “oh duh” at this point. They know that. It’s just another nail in their emotional coffin, just another ten or a hundred pounds added to what they’re already ladened with (though I should say at this point that if you can’t trust God, trusting or even liking most other people is probably out of the question, but here’s the kicker…do you not trust God because people have proven to be untrustworthy or do you not trust people because you believe God is untrustworthy?).

You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.

That which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

And yet the Jewish people have survived every conceivable defeat, degradation, and humiliation, and still managed to survive and even to thrive due to such teachings added to the promises of God.

Why doesn’t this work for anyone else?

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?



Locking Up Meditation

There are three forms of hitbon’nut (contemplation, meditation):

  1. Study-meditation: After mastering the concept thoroughly, one meditates on its profundity, until the intellectual element shines forth for him.
  2. Meditation before davening: This is directed toward sensing the vitality of the concept learned, in contrast to sensing the intellectual element emphasized in study-meditation.
  3. Meditation in davening: To sense the “G-dly element” in the concept learned.

These three are rungs on the ladder of sensitivity. It is only by G-d’s kindness towards us that we may occasionally sense G-dhood spontaneously, without any avoda at all. This comes about by virtue of the quality of Ultimate Essential G-dhood within the soul. For avoda by one’s own efforts, however, these three forms of meditation are essential.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Tamuz 20, 5703
Torah lessons: Chumash: Pinchas, Shishi with Rashi.
Tehillim: 97-103.
Tanya: Precisely so (p. 357) …or articulation. (p. 357).
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.

-Author unknown

I always consider meditation to be a quiet, contemplative state. As such, I never enter into it. I know that seems completely contrary to the basic premise of this blog, but I find it very difficult to quiet my mind. About the closest I come to a conscious, meditative state is the four minutes I’m cooling down after an aerobic workout on the elliptical machine. I can close my eyes and imagine my breath going in and out as a frosty, illuminated vapor in the darkness. All I’m trying to achieve though, is to slow my heart rate down as much as I can so that when I get off the machine, it’s not still pounding away at 150+ beats per minute.

I’m not contemplating God.

Even when I do contemplate God, it’s in a sea of static and chaos. It’s difficult or impossible to enter into a space where it’s just Him and me. Frankly, I don’t know if I even want to enter into that space. God is big and scary and I’m not even sure how guys like Abraham and Moses could stand being in His presence for even one split second. The God that created the Universe and everything in it isn’t some comfortable cosmic teddy bear that you can just walk up to and then sit in His lap.

Most days, I have a really good idea what I want to blog about, but not today. I pretty much burned off all my passion in yesterday’s meditation. Today, I’m emotionally drained. Wiped out. I know it probably doesn’t look this way from the outside, but some of these mediations take a lot of energy to write.

I just saw a photo of me (thankfully, I’m way in the background) in some promotional material for where I work. Everyone else looks fresh and young and happy. I look really old and fat and worn out. While I’ve got all this dynamic energy that sparks up in most of my “morning mediations,” today I feel like that picture (believe me, you don’t want to see it). I have this horrible feeling that’s how I look all the time.

I’m kind of reminded of the character Happy Hogan who first appeared in the comic book Tales of Suspense #45 (September 1963) with Iron Man. Marvel comics has “handsomed him up” quite a bit since those days, but back then, he was created for comic relief (along with Tony Stark’s then “mousy” secretary Pepper Potts). Happy rescued Tony from a race car crash and as a reward, Tony gave the out-of-work boxer a job as his chauffeur and personal assistant. Happy was always looking completely glum and “hang-dog”. Tony commented on it early in their relationship and asked if he was depressed. Happy’s response was something like, “Nah, I look like this all the time.”

I think I look like this all the time. OK, so I’ve never been a really attractive person, but I think this is more than age and carrying around a bunch of extra tonnage. I think I get tired of fighting God or fighting life or are they both the same thing? Problem is, that sort of fight is unavoidable. You only stop fighting when you die. Until then, it seems like it’s one battle after another, hammering away at something or being hammered at by something.

I try to imagine what it would be like to not fight. To relax. To set aside responsibility and duty, not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or when I’m asleep, but to really relax. Don’t say “vacation” because vacations are anything but relaxing. In fact, they’re harder work than going to work. Besides, even the most relaxing vacation in the world has to end sometime.

Paul spoke of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) but I haven’t found it yet. I suspect I never will.

My “morning meditations” are really more like “morning encounters” or “morning contemplations” or even “morning conflicts”. I sleep. Wake up. Drink coffee. Go to the gym with my son. Eat breakfast. Take a shower. Go to work. Somewhere in the rest of the day, the next morning’s meditation gets written depending on my available time and what I’m thinking about. I eat dinner. Go to sleep. And the cycle starts all over again.

If someone has this lovey-dovey, floating on clouds, easy-peasy relationship with God and faith that keeps them in a semi-divine state as they slowly sail through each day, I’d like to know about it. I’m probably not a good candidate for such a state, even if it exists, but sometimes, as fluffy as it all sounds, I think I’d like a piece of it.

We are representatives of Above. And as such, live two lives at once:

We are free-thinking, independent beings.

And we are no more than messengers of Above.

It is a play of opposites in a single being. An impossibility realized in true-life drama. Just the sort of thing in which the Impossible One Above delights.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Rabbi Freeman presents an idealized view of the thoughts and expressions of the Rebbe and thus of the Chabad, but I know there’s a reality behind Crown Heights in Brooklyn that isn’t anywhere near as pretty. That’s not to say anything against the Chabad as such, but to acknowledge that humans are humans and we can make a mess of things on the inside, even if the outside looks good.

My insides and my outsides seem to look the same, that is rather threadbare and lumpy. All the religious and motivational stuff on the web often seems empty to me because all of that “feel good” material seems so phony and unrealistic. Life is a struggle. You fight hard every day. You can only hope that food and sleep will rejuvenate you enough to face another day just like the one that came before. Somewhere in there, God is present, but who knows exactly where or when or if He’ll make Himself known or intervene in any meaningful way?

Between the “free-thinking, independent being” and the “messenger of Above,” there’s an ordinary (or sometimes I feel, sub-standard) human being who is just trying to stay alive and make sense the events of each passing moment. Making sense of life and contemplating the nature of God doesn’t happen as much as you’d think.

I get tired. Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing all this. I’ve also just been reminded again of how many Jews see Christians so…gee whiz.

Time for another cup of coffee and then back to work…

..and to try to find that last key that will open the lock to…who knows what?