Tag Archives: mystic

Mystery Story

MysteryCan you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea.
Job 11:7-9

Whosoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world: what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter?Mishnah Hagigah 2:2

There are two kinds of ignorance. The one is “dull, unfeeling, barren,” the result of indolence; the other is keen, penetrating, resplendent; the one leads to conceit and complacency, the other humility. From the one we seek escape, in the other the mind finds repose.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
pp 56-7

Can we know God? I know that I’ve spent a lot of time writing blog posts about whether or not God wants to know us. My general conclusion was an incredible “yes” but then in any relationship, the current is supposed to flow both ways. Knowing God is sort of like going on a blind date with someone who has talked to our best friend and who knows all about us but we don’t know anything about her (“him” if you’re reading this and you’re female). The date can feel really one-sided and uncomfortable.

God knows all about us and we don’t really know a thing about Him…no, not really.

Sure, we have the Bible. We can read about God’s involvement with people. We can contemplate the mighty works of the Creator and marvel at His power and greatness, but the human mind cannot imagine the unimaginable. God is far beyond our ability to comprehend.

And what if we’re not even supposed to try to know His mysteries? More from Rabbi Heschel:

To the Jewish mind the ultimate enigmas remain inscrutable. “It is the glory of God to conceal things” (Proverbs 25:2). Man’s royal privilege is to explore the world of time and space; but it is futile for him to try to explore what is beyond the world of time and space…We have said..that the root of worship lies in the sense of the “miracles that are daily with us.” There is neither worship nor ritual without a sense of mystery (Heschel pg 62).

That sounds a little like a religious setup. It sounds like the line given by some crafty “holy man” to his new converts telling them that they don’t need to know anything about God. Just let the priests interpret it all for you.

I don’t think that’s what Heschel is saying, though. He isn’t really saying “don’t look under the hood”, he’s saying that it will do us no good to try because we wouldn’t understand what we were looking at. It would be like a physicist trying to explain the inner workings of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to a three year old child. Even if he or she were the top genius of all three year old kids, the child still wouldn’t “get it”. How much less can any one of us “get” the inner workings of God?

Beyond that, the mystery of God is sort of the point. The gods of myth we studied in school were all rather “knowable” because they were pretty much like human beings are. For God to really be God, the God who created the Universe and everything in it, from the largest galaxy to the smallest sub-atomic particle (and whatever else is “out there” that we don’t even know about), then He absolutely has to be beyond our comprehension. That’s the paradox of our relationship with Him. Getting to know and unknowable God.

The awareness of mystery, not often expressed, is always implied. A classical example of that awareness is the attitude toward the Ineffable Name. The true name of God is a mystery. It is stated in the Talmud, “And God said unto Moses…This is My name for ever (Exodus 3:15). The Hebrew word ‘for ever’ (leolam) is written here in a way that it may be read ‘lealem’ which means ‘to conceal’. The name of God is to be concealed.” (Heschel, pp 63-4)

There are some religious circles that won’t want to accept this conclusion, since they put a great deal of value in “knowing” and using the Ineffable Name (which they usually pronounce as “Yahweh” or something similar). Having “secret knowledge” may give some people or groups a certain thrill, but it becomes arrogant presumption to use that which you do not know, and to attempt to possess that which you are not allowed to appropriate.

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. –Exodus 20:7

The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice;
Let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. –Psalm 97:1-2

AweThis isn’t to say that people have not tried to pierce the veil between man and God. Both Christianity and Judaism enjoy a rich mystic tradition and in both the Tanakh and the Apostolic scriptures, we have examples of men going beyond the normal perceptions of the Creator and seeing much more than most of us were meant to experience. Consider the visions of the Prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. What of John’s revelation. Then there are these witnesses:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. –2 Corinthians 12:1-4

But where does that leave us?

What would be so bad about letting the mystery be the mystery? This isn’t to say we should avoid drawing closer to God and that study is futile, but the Psalmist said, “The awe (Yirah) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). The word “Yirah” in Hebrew can mean either “fear” or “awe”. Fear usually implies a reaction to potential punishment, either in this life or in the life beyond, while awe is our reaction to God in His infinite glory, and not based on whatever consequences we might end up facing:

Though He may slay me, yet I will trust Him. –Job 13:15

Jesus admonished his disciples (including us) not to worry because we have no control over the things God provides (Matthew 6:25-34). Expand his “sage advice” to include not worrying about God, who He is, what He does, how He works. If we trust Him then we do know Him, or at least we know as much as we need to know. It is said that awe (or fear) of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10), but that doesn’t have to include infinite knowledge or understanding beyond where God has placed His boundary markers. What we need to know, He’s already told us. The rest can remain a mystery, and we can be in awe.

Healing the Wounded

Snake swallowing tailWhen the Egyptians realized that they were being attacked by supernatural forces at the Red Sea, they said, “I must flee from the presence of Israel, for G-d [Havayah] is fighting for them against Egypt.” (Ex. 14:25)

As you know, Pharaoh derived sustenance entirely from immature divine consciousness [mochin d’katnut], which is alluded to by the word “End”.

The words usually translated as “Red Sea” [in Hebrew, “Yam Suf”] really mean “Reed Sea”, and can also be read as if they were vocalized “Yam Sof”, meaning “Sea of the End”. The “end” is the final sefira, malchut, which descends into the lower worlds, i.e. the lower levels of divine consciousness. Relative to its native environment, these lower levels of consciousness are “immature” or “constricted”.

This is the significance of [the fact that] the snake puts its tail in its mouth.

Pharaoh personified the Primordial Snake.

From the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“The Snake at the Sea’s End”

This is Part 3 in a 3-part series. Before reading this, see Part 1: Overcoming Evil and Part 2: The Primordial Serpent.

The surprise appearance of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (yes, “that” Pharaoh, King of Egypt…the one that gave Moses so much trouble) in the role of the primordial serpent may take you a little off guard, but from the perspective of Kabbalah, many things look different. In Judaism, the serpent is less a specific being or entity (i.e. Satan) and more a representation of an idea or a force, in this case, the personification of the evil inclination. In this sense, you could have many evil people across history personifying the snake. Hitler could be a personification of the ancient serpent of Eden.

But there’s more:

This being the case, Pharaoh was both a head and a tail, in the idiom of the verse, “G-d will cut off from Israel both the head and the tail…on one day.”(Isaiah 9:14)

Pharaoh, here signifying the evil inclination in general, acts as the tail, the lowest consciousness of the Jew, and as the head, i.e. the tail elevated to and usurping the role of the head, proper divine consciousness.

This also alludes to the [Primordial] Snake. Originally, he was the tail and Adam was the head, but [because of the Primordial Sin] this was inverted and the snake became the head and Adam the tail.

Adam here personifies the Good Inclination, or divine consciousness. Sin consists of reversing the hierarchy between divine and material consciousness.

This is the mystical meaning of the verse “He will hit you on the head and you will bite him in the heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Man hits the snake on the head because the snake has usurped man’s role as the leader; the snake bites the heel because by sinning man has become the heel/tail instead of the head.

This is very interesting when your deconstruct the role of snake as Pharaoh back to the original appearance of the serpent in the Garden, and then re-visit the relationship between the snake and Adam (which I suppose we could project back up to the relationship between Pharaoh and Moses).

Adam is the heel (or tail) rather than the head because by sinning, he exchanged roles with the serpent. Instead of man ruling over Creation, now evil rules and man struggles to allow good to ascend while evil inhibits his efforts. The snake bites the heel but the heel will crush the snake.

In Christian thought, the heel of man is symbolized by Jesus crushing the evil of Satan, and Rabbi Wisnefsky, when recounting the wisdom of the Rebbe in his article Transforming the Primordial Snake, presents an interesting interpretation that seems to apply:

Since the snakes were deadly, anyone who had been bitten was for all intents and purposes already dead. Healing the bitten person was thus tantamount to resurrecting him.

Now, in order to resurrect a dead person, it is not enough to simply infuse his body with life, because the body has already lost its capacity to support life. First, the dead body had to be made capable once more of living. This can be done only by a force that transcends the laws of nature, including the dichotomy of life and death. Infusing this transcendent force into the dead body restores its capacity to support life, after which the person’s soul can re-enter it and he can live again.

This is why G-d also commanded Moses to heal the people using a snake. By using the image of the deadly, Primordial Snake to restore life, G-d indicated to them that resurrection requires eliciting a level of divinity that transcends the dichotomy of life and death. When people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good.

What was that? Resurrect the dead?

River of LifeLet’s weave Rabbi Wisnefsky’s commentary into more familiar language. When man fell in the Garden, he was “bitten” by a “poisonous” snake and that “poison”, the evil within us, has continued to sicken humanity down through the ages. Christianity considers a sinner as “spiritually dead”, unable to perceive God let alone to attempt to perform His will.

Jesus, by his death and resurrection, provides the means by which mankind can be healed of our poison and by which we can be brought back from the dead. The commentary above talks about the restoration of the soul and the resurrection of the body, both of which we see in the promise of Jesus Christ. The last paragraph of the Rabbi’s missive illustrates that we must see and be aware of our evil inclination, how it serves as the barrier preventing us from a holy life, and also shows us how we can conqueror that nature and bend it to our will and God’s will (Romans 8:37).

I’m sure that Rabbi Wisnefsky would say that I’m playing fast and loose with his interpretation of the Rebbe’s teachings, but there seems to be more than a casual similarity between the Rebbe’s lesson and what we know of the role of the Messiah relative to the subjugation of evil. Jesus came during the Second Temple period to provide for the repairing of our damaged souls, to reconcile us with God, and to prepare the way to eternal life. When he returns, he will finish the job and completely heal us and the world of the evil that plagues us and restore us to the state which we enjoyed with God in Eden.

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

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. –Revelation 22:1-5

We’re not there yet. We’re still in “exile”. However, God is here with us.

Perhaps, for you, this exile is not so bad. And you feel you are doing whatever you can about it, anyway.

But it is not just you. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all their children through all the generations, as well as all the heavenly hosts,
the entire Creation—all is unfulfilled, in exile and imprisoned.

Even the Creator, blessed be He, locks Himself into prison along with His Creation.

Until you get us out of here.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“Pity on the Cosmos”

Devarim: One Man’s Story

MosesThis week’s Torah reading begins: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people.” Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”

Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff

For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

Author and New Testament Scholar
Bart D. Ehrman in his book
Jesus, Interrupted

Today’s “extra” meditation and my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Devarim.

Occasionally people ask why most of the book of Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, “Devarim”) even exists. It seems to do little more than repeat and summarize the events in the first four books of the Torah. The answer can be a little disturbing to some Christians and even to some Jews. Our understanding is that the first four books of the Bible were the words of God as dictated to Moses and Deuteronomy is in Moses’ own words.

Does that mean Deuteronomy is completely human in origin and without the influence of God? Let’s return to Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

This does not…mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”

Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.

For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”

The origin of the Bible and exactly how it was written and codified is complex and more than a little mysterious. The simple belief among many Christians is that each author wrote under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and what they wrote originally is exactly what we have in our Bibles today (translated into the language we prefer to read). I included the quote from Bart Ehrman’s book to illustrate that even among modern Bible scholars, there is some doubt as to whether or not we can read the Bible as if it were a history book, newspaper, and court reporter’s record all rolled into one. In fact, we can’t.

The Bible is as much a human document as a document of the Divine. It’s a series of “stories” that illustrate something about God and His interactions with humanity. That it contains internal inconsistencies and historic flaws in no way disqualifies its moral and mystic significance among the community of faith. The stories tell us what we need to know, not as a history lesson, but as a guide to righteous living and as a doorway into domains that leave our mortal plane and allow us to glimpse the Throne of God.

In referring to Midrash Tehillim to 90:4; Bereishis Rabbah 8:2, we see that the Sages believe that “The Torah preceded the world” and when we read John 1:1, we see that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From this, we understand that only part of the Bible’s function is to act as a record and a document. Beyond the scroll in the Ark or the book on our hand, it exists in transition between our world and the next.

Rabbi Touger continues:

Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity (see Tanya, ch. 4).

The Amazon.com product description for Ehrman’s book states that “the New Testament is riddled with contradictory views about who Jesus was and the significance of his life”, yet from a mystic point of view, this doesn’t present a problem.

The Ba'al Shem TovWhen I was reading The Hasidic Tale by Gedaliah Nigal, I wrote several commentaries about what I gained from the text including The Messianic Tale and Stories are Miracles. From these, we see that the stories of the Chasidim are less a series of historical facts and more a collection of mystic and allegorical tales designed to reveal something about ourselves, about holiness, and about God. How much of each story is factually accurate isn’t particularly relevant, because one does not approach the tales of the Chasidim that way. What we are looking for is something that will peel away the covers from the world of the supernatural and give us a peek at what lies around the next bend on our path of faith.

We can apply that commentary back to the Bible thus.

Jorge Quinonez, in his book “Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader” Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34 (quoted in Love and the Messianic Age) describes Levertoff, a Chasidic Jew and devoted disciple of Jesus, this way:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

This perhaps, is what scholars like Bart Ehrman miss when they study and criticize the Bible for not reading like a story posted at CNN. Divinity and humanity collide, meld, mesh, and blend within the pages of the Bible and we are not always meant to be able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…or if that division is even possible.

Rabbi Touger states:

But why is the Book of Deuteronomy necessary? Enclothing the Torah in human intellect seemingly does nothing but lower its spiritual content. What purpose is served?

Nevertheless, this is G-d’s intent in giving the Torah: that it permeate mortal thought and thus elevate man’s understanding. Whenever a person studies Torah, regardless of his spiritual level, he is making its infinite truth part of his personal nature.

Were there to have been only four books in the Torah, it would have been impossible for our powers of understanding to unite completely with the Torah. It was only by having the Book of Deuteronomy pass through Moshe’s intellect that this goal accomplished. Moreover, Moshe’s review of the Torah in he Book of Deuteronomy gives us the capacity to understand the previous four books in a similar fashion.

Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.

TranscendentWho we are and who God is in us requires that we leave behind some of our attachment to what we call “reality” and allow ourselves to stand transcendent at the uncomfortable and mystic threshold between Heaven and Earth. We don’t have to rely on the Bible to be a book of facts but rather a book of truth.

Consider this:

These are the words which Moses spoke to the children of Israel, across the Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiroth, and Di-Zahav –Devarim 1:1

All these “places” are allusions to sins committed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as not to embarrass them.

-Rashi’s commentary

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch once delivered a scathing critique of a certain type of outlook and behavior. Later, one of those present complained to him: “Rebbe, why did you rebuke me in public? Could you not have privately made me aware of my negative traits, without embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Did I mean you? Obviously, I did. You see, I am a hat-maker. The hat-maker fashions a hat and places it in his window. People come in and try it on, until someone finds that it suits his head perfectly. Whom did he have in mind when he made this hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that it fits him!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary of Torah Portion Devarim
“The Discreet Hatter”

The Bible serves many purposes in our lives, not the least of which is to reveal the nature of who we are, for good or for ill. It is a book that condemns but also encourages. It shows us the goodness of God and where we fall short of that goodness (Romans 3:10). Let the Bible be what God intended it to be and let God be who He is. Listen to the words of Moses and his “Chasidic” tale of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, of his own journey with God, of the approach to the end of his life, and in listening to him, learn something about yourself.

Good Shabbos.

Know Before Whom You Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This, then, is how you should pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-the words displayed before the Holy Ark in the synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from the film Oh, God! (1977)

Gateway to Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Finding Freedom

CaptureTell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.Galatians 4:21-26

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.James 2:12-13

So what is it? Does the Law take away freedom or does the law give freedom? Are we even talking about the same Law; the Torah?

I’ve often suspected that Paul and James didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. Paul was operating for years at a time in the diaspora, bringing the Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah and teaching them his ways and how to trust in God. There wasn’t a lot of oversight going on from the Jerusalem Counsel, so Paul could have gotten away with re-writing the Gospel message in his own image, diluting or even eliminating the law and replacing it a type of “grace” that is the antithesis of the law (though in reality, they are not mutually exclusive). It’s clear that James wouldn’t have agreed with that message.

However, if you read D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, you’ll see that Paul and James were more alike than unalike (though I still suspect that they had their individual perspectives). For one thing, despite the common Christian tradition of interpreting Galatians 4:21-26 as “anti-Law” (and in the plain English text, it certainly seems that’s what Paul’s saying), the issues are more complex. Lancaster interprets them this way:

The passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Old Testament against the New Testament or the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.

It means that if you are a Jewish believer , you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are part of the people, a spiritual son of Abraham, and that is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that God made to Abraham so long ago.

I’ve already written a review of Lancaster’s book and I’m not going to “reinvent the wheel”, so to speak, but I’m presenting this “extra meditation” this afternoon, in response to the following:

No one can say he is free today because yesterday he was granted freedom.

Freedom is a source of endless energy.
Freedom is the power behind this entire universe.
Freedom is the force that brings existence out of the void.

You are free when you take part in that endlessness. When you never stand still. When you are forever escaping the confines of today to create a freer tomorrow.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Perpetual Freedom”

As an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Freeman isn’t considering that the Torah is somehow slavery or bondage, even for a single moment. So how are Christians to interpret his words of freedom as well as the apparent conflict between Paul and James, both observant and devout Jews, on how they view the Torah?

It is said that the world was created for the sake of Torah and that, without the Torah, the world could not have been made. The analogous teaching we have in Christianity is this:

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

TeshuvahHere, we see a sort of “fusion” or co-identity, in some mystic sense, between the Torah and the Messiah, Son of the living God. Christians know that Jesus gives us freedom from the slavery of sin and Jews know that the Torah is the gateway to God’s endless energy, the power behind the universe, and the limitless, eternal source that creates existence out of nothingness. Through Torah, God does not enslave, but provides the means by which men may know God and understand our relationship to Him. If the same can be said of Jesus, then we can all understand from where our freedom comes.

While non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are not obligated to the same “yoke of Torah” as the Jewish people (see Acts 15), we nonetheless are grafted into the root of the Tree of Life and like branches on the vine, we draw our nourishment and the ability to live a life of holiness from an identical source; God.

To do so requires more than just believing and more than just learning; we must do, we must behave, we must live out the values we understand from the Torah and how they were taught to us by the “living Torah”, the Moshiach, Jesus Christ. Part of that living is understanding where we came from, who we are, and our need to separate from sin and embrace holiness and peace. To gain freedom from sin, we must recognize the depth and despair of sin, which is what the Torah aptly defines, and only upon achieving that understanding, can we truly turn away from that sin and turn toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The Ohr Hachaim HaKadosh, zt”l, writes that one can only do teshuvah if he first recognizes the gravity of his sin.

A certain person committed a sin. When Rav Mordechai Aryeh Halevi Horowitz, zt”l, gently nudged him to repent the sinner displayed his relaxed attitude towards teshuvah. “Why repent now? Soon enough it will be Elul, the season when the shofar is sounded to remind us to do teshuvah. Can’t my teshuvah wait until then?”

Rav Horowitz rejected this attitude out of hand. “As is well known, the main element in teshuvah is havdalah, separating between what is proper and what is not. It is only by determining which actions lead to darkness and which generate light that we act as is fitting. Even if a person with understanding falls to sin chas v’shalom, he knows to repent and change his ways. But many people wait until Elul to do teshuvah. After all, isn’t that when we are aroused to repentance by the shofar as the Rambam writes?

“We find in the Mishnah in Chulin 26 that whenever the Shofar is sounded we do not say havdalah. Conversely, whenever we say havdalah we do not sound the shofar. Although on a simple level this is a sign for when they would blow the shofar to signify the onset of Shabbos or Yom Tov, this statement also teaches a lesson about teshuvah. When one feels justified waiting to do teshuvah until the shofar is sounded during Elul, this shows he lacks understanding. He does not comprehend the gravity of sins since this leads to havdalah, healthy separation between what is right and what is wrong. One who has fitting discrimination between good and bad doesn’t wait to hear the shofar to repent!”

Dam Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Time for Repentance”
Chullin 26

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:8-9

Good Shabbos