Tag Archives: perseverance

What I Learned in Church Today: Partakers in Tribulation, Kingdom, and Perseverance

I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Revelation 1:9 (NASB)

John sees himself as a “brother and fellow partaker” with the Asian Christians in three things which are “in Jesus”. Does this mean that these are part of God’s design for them? Explain your answer.

-Charlie’s notes on Rev 1:9-20
for Sunday School class

As I mentioned last week, as a teacher, Charlie has few questions and presents limited material so that we can explore the great depths the Bible has to offer.

I won’t attempt to go over all that we discussed in class today, but I thought that the “three things” Charlie says John identifies as “in Jesus” were particularly interesting. What three things are we “fellow partakers” in?

Tribulation, Kingdom, and Perseverance.

When I saw those three words together, they just “clicked”.

Consider.

When Jesus died and was resurrected, he inaugurated the very beginning of the entry of the New Covenant into our world. In fact, even before the crucifixion, the central message of Jesus was “the Kingdom of Heaven is near,” as if the Kingdom could burst into our world at any second, even as he was speaking (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, Mark 1:15).

seek first the kingdomBut even as the Kingdom is entering our reality, it will not reach fruition until the Messiah returns to us as King. We are to live in the present world, we believers that is, as if the Kingdom is already here and as if Jesus were already enthroned in Jerusalem as King Messiah. As D. Thomas Lancaster preached in his Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, we are freedom fighters or partisans, fighting against the world’s current tyranny, against the brokeness of a world that thinks it’s getting better every day, and fighting for our allegiance to the King, who is steadily coming nearer and soon to return.

Until then, we will indeed face great adversity and tribulation, even as the freedom fighters in Nazi occupied France did during World War Two. But we fight for a great cause, and we represent the King’s justice and mercy. We are fellow partakers in this troubled world, in the hope of the coming Kingdom, and we must maintain patient endurance until the Master comes back and establishes his reign over Israel and nations of the world.

After I was done laying out my answer (and I was feeling really proud of myself), Charlie asked for Biblical support for all that. Oops. I didn’t put that in my notes. Pride indeed goes before a fall. Fortunately, other class members stepped up to the plate and provided what I was missing. I guess there’s some truth in what Paul E. Meier said in his article for Messiah Journal issue 116 Christian Theology and the Old Testament:

Scripture points out that the understanding of individual believers is fragmental; each one of us has been granted a different degree of insight (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). The dimensions of God’s love are so vast that the whole body of believers is needed in order to comprehend them (Ephesians 3:18). God may give more insight to some than to others; he gives to each one according to the measure of his grace (Romans 12:3, Ephesians 4:7).

In other words, it “takes a whole village” or in this case, a whole Sunday school class to properly interpret the Bible. No one of us holds all the keys or can open all the doors to the Word of God, since we’re all apportioned gifts of different types and to different degrees by the mercy of Hashem.

Torah at SinaiThat means, we are all fellow partakers in the tribulations, the kingdom, and in perseverance with each other as we are all in Yeshua our Master, the Messiah King and Priest. But I wouldn’t have put all this together the way I have without an understanding of how the New Covenant works and what the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven really means (see The Kingdom is Now, Seek First the Kingdom, Thy Kingdom Come, Keys to the Kingdom, and Foretaste of the Kingdom).

John’s Revelation, his mystic vision of the exalted Messiah King, is the source of a great deal of mystery and I can’t pretend to understand it all, but I do understand that we have one whose “voice [is] like the sound of a trumpet” as our High Priest.

So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound…

Exodus 19:16 (NASB)

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet…

Revelation 1:10 (NASB)

Yes, my Master and Lord. May your Kingdom come soon.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Revelation 22:20 (NASB)

Amen.

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Planting Seeds of Light

“If you go in My statutes.” (Vayikra 26:3) Our Sages interpret the word “if” as a plea, (Avoda Zara 5a) in the sense of “if only you would go in My statutes.” G-d’s pleading (as it were) with Israel to keep the Torah, in itself aids man and gives him the ability to remain steadfast in his choice of the good. Moreover, “…you go in My statutes” – the soul then becomes a mehaleich, it progresses. (to higher levels of achievement. See Iyar 6.)

With the advent of Mashiach, there will be revealed the superior quality of the traits of simplicity and wholeheartedness found in the avoda of simple folk who daven and recite Tehillim with simple sincerity.

Hayom Yom
Iyar 24, 39th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Matthew 23:37-39 (ESV)

Given the state of the world today and particularly the state of the church, it’s not hard to imagine that God is pleading to us to return to Him, to turn our hearts back to the will and love of God. I’m not really writing this to condemn the church, nor am I absolving myself of any poor performance in the service of God. However, I am aware that there is great benefit is continually looking into the mirror and assessing the person we see to determine if we have fulfilled the commandments of our Master as a disciple should. Have we earned the Master’s praise when he says, Well done, good and faithful servant,” or do we deserve something else?

The passage I quoted from Matthew 23 is sometimes used by Christians to level specific criticism toward Jews (while conversely praising the church), but I think it can be applied to all of us. A few days ago in my “mediation” Burning the Plow, I pointed out a few things:

The transactions between Jesus and those he called to be his disciples seem to be functionally similar to the interaction between Elijah and Elisha. Jesus, the “ultimate covenental man” encounters various “material men” in the process of performing their usual routines and commands them to follow him. Those who hesitate or who desire to fulfill their material obligations first, he says are unfit for the Kingdom of God.

The level of commitment called for both by Elijah and by Jesus seems abrupt and absolute and anything less is considered a failure in terms of entering the Kingdom of God.

There are times in our lives when we pursue righteousness with extraordinary zeal and strive to fulfill the desires of God with all due diligence and even excellence. Those are the times when, like a long-distance runner who is approaching the finish line, we drive ourselves to perform one final sprint in order to reach our goal and perhaps pull away from a slightly slower competitor in the race.

There are other times, most times probably, when like that same long-distance runner, we allow fatigue to dictate our response to God and we merely plod along, laying one foot ahead of the other, managing to continue to move forward, but only as a matter of course. All we’re thinking about it making it through the next step, the next turn, the next day, and longing for a final rest. We aren’t really present with God or truly observing the steps of our Master, trying to imitate not only where he has placed his feet but what he was doing as he walked in holiness.

The beginning of one’s decline, G-d save us, is the lack of avoda in davening. Everything becomes dry and cold. Even a mitzva performed by habit (Compare Yeshayahu 29:13) becomes burdensome. Everything is rushed. One loses the sense of pleasure in Torah-study. The atmosphere itself become crass. Needless to say, one is totally incapable of influencing others.

Hayom Yom
Iyar 23, 38th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Dry spots in our journey of faith are probably inevitable given that we are frail and fallible human beings, but when we become aware of them, we don’t have to stay there. Sure, it’s more tolerable and maybe even more comfortable than the alternative, but it’s not desirable. When we hear God pleading to us and listen to the lament of our Master over us, we can reply with something else besides, “I’m tired” or “I’m doing the best that I can.” Perhaps what we need to do is to stop for a moment, catch our breath, and to see if we’re on the right path at all. Realize that we all get to a place in our faith when we force our effort after we’ve forgotten its purpose. We need to let ourselves be reminded of who God is and who we are in Him, and then let ourselves be refreshed by Him.

Just as a tiny seed awakens the infinite power of life hidden within the earth, so an act of caring and giving buried quietly in the ground can ignite an explosion of infinite light. Charged with that power, all the world is changed.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Seeding Change”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

We are the tiny seeds our Master planted, watered, and nurtured with his life and his spirit. When will we ignite in an explosion of infinite light and change the world?

Waiting for Hope in the Abyss

AbyssRav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, zt”l, taught great inspiration from a statement on today’s daf.

“A person who has sinned and fallen to the lowest place, banished from God’s presence, should also never despair. A sacrifice that was fitting but then lost its status is no longer accepted even if afterward it regained its original status. But Rav holds that if the animal is still alive, it is not rejected absolutely. This fallen soul is no different. As long as he has some chiyus, some vitality, it is always possible to start again and attain forgiveness. This is the deeper meaning of the words, ‘Forgive our sins for they are many.’ This can be also be read, ‘Forgive our sins, because the halachah follows Rav—that ba’alei chaim are not rejected.'”

The Lechivitcher, zt”l, offered a parable to help understand this better. “A Jew is like a valuable coin. Even if it rusts and has mud crusted over it, it still retains its original value. The owner must clean the coin by removing the rust and the caked mud, but once he does so it shines just the same as it did when it was new.”

Rav Moshe of Kovrin, zt”l, was once encouraging some young chassidim who were struggling in spiritual matters. “Even if one falls again and again—even one hundred times—he must strengthen himself again and again. It is incumbent upon us to always find a way to encourage ourselves again and again, until we climb out of our spiritual rut!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Ba’alei Chaim”
Temurah 23

I always have to be careful when I generalize a Jewish commentary and try to apply it to Christianity. After all, the Rabbis didn’t produce these Dafs with Christians in mind and sometimes, the judgments and insights they generate are specifically not to be applied to non-Jews. However, when reading Derek Leman’s book review of Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, I found something interesting.

So, it might surprise you to know that Boyarin thinks Judaism and Christianity are compatible. His goal, stated on pages 6-7 is to help Christians and Jews to stop vilifying each other. He doesn’t follow Jesus and isn’t asking fellow Jews to do so. But he demolishes all ideas that Christian devotion to Jesus is contrary to Judaism or that Christianity is anything other than a Judaism to which mostly non-Jews have been drawn. Jews in the time of Jesus were looking, he says, for a divine messiah. And Jesus’ earliest followers were kosher Jews. The sad separation and enmity of Judaism and Christianity is something to get beyond, not something to perpetuate.

According to how I’m reading Leman (I haven’t read Boyarin’s book yet), Boyarin doesn’t see a severe “disconnect” between first century Jewish and Gentile worship of God through the “path” of “the Way”. But, as Boyarin declares, if Christianity is not directly contrary to Judaism, can I say the reverse, that Judaism is not directly contrary to Christianity? Further, can I stretch my metaphor to say that Jewish teachings are not directly contrary to Christianity?

You probably think I’m grasping at straws. On the other hand, let’s look at our “story off the Daf” again. What is the theme? That even the person who is most distanced from God because of their sin should not dispair and give up all hope of reconciliation. Doesn’t that sound like it could be a Christian theme as well?

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. –Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)

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 4:6-8 (ESV)

I believe we who are Christians can take the same hope that, no matter how far we have fallen away from God, we can rise back up to Him, even as Rav Simcha Bunim teaches.

Yesterday, the Jewish world celebrated Purim, the commemoration of the victory of the Jewish people in ancient Persia over Haman’s plan of genocide. If you read the Book of Esther on Purim, you realized how desperate it was for the Jews and how hopeless everything seemed. Even after Esther revealed the evil Haman’s plot to King Achashverosh, it was not in his power to reverse his decree. The destruction of the Jews seemed inevitable. And yet, through the courage of Esther and Mordechai and the love of God for His people, the King granted the Jews the ability to fight back and to defend themselves.

Hopelessness was turned into hope and defeat was transformed into victory; a victory that is still commemorated many thousands of years later, for with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Although God is not explicitly mentioned in Esther, we know that He was there with Israel, defending them and encouraging them. It was a miracle that the Jews survived the enormous threat against them. It is always a miracle when the Jews survive, since often it is only God who is for them, and an entire world who desires that they perish. Remember this too, as you study the sin of the Golden Calf for this Shabbat’s Torah Reading. There is no failing or sin so great that you become irredeemable.

Yet most of God’s miracles are not in the realm of the supernatural. It was (seemingly) through very natural processes that the Jews were saved from the plan of Haman. Seas did not part. The earth did not stop rotating on its axis, Fire and destruction did not rain down from heaven upon the enemies of the Jews. So it is in our lives today, even in the most dire and hopeless of circumstances. You may not feel the hand of God touching you or see His finger writing in the dust, but He is there and while you live, there is hope, but only if you hope in Him.

The philosopher, when he sees a miracle, looks for a natural explanation. The Jew, when he sees nature, looks for the miracle.

-Rabbi Tsvi Freeman
“Unnatural Response”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Blessings and hope.

Falling and Rising

Rabbi Noah Weinberg was visiting the United States of America. He spent one Shabbat in a small New Jersey community. The people were friendly, and because of the small size of the congregation for Rabbi mingled freely with all the congregants. On Shabbat afternoon, when they sat to eat Seudah Shelisheet, the third Shabbat meal, a young man who was sitting next to the Rabbi began a conversation, which expressed his frustration with his ability to learn Torah. The young man described the many hours in the many techniques he had tried in order to grasp the difficult concepts of the Talmud study.

“How come I just can’t get it?” he asked. “No matter what I do, it seems my conclusions are wrong when I get a chance to review with my Rabbi. I am about to give up,” he said he reported.

-Rabbi Raymond Beyda
“Try Try Again”
Commentary on Parashas Terumah
Torah.org

On last Friday’s extra meditation, I posted a video of Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, Rector at St. Marys, St. Paul, a faith community located in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. As you may recall, she was lamenting that after “years of experience and lots of good will, traditional Faith Formation programming is floundering in communities across the country,” including her own. In response, the ministerial staff at St Mary’s had stopped offering all adult education classes. They cancelled everything. They gave up. Rev. Watkins gave up.

I just got an email notice from WordPress.com notifying me that the domain name for this blog will expire in 90 days. I can either choose to renew it for another year, or let it lapse, sending my “morning meditations” into obscure oblivion. Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to give up, too. The contentiousness and extreme lack of unity within the community of faith in Jesus Christ is just stunning at times. It’s not only the lack of unity, but the hostility expressed in our various online exchanges that makes me wonder if there even is a community of faith in the Messiah anymore. Everyone is so concerned with protecting their own turf and their own theologies, usually at the expense of everyone else who calls Jesus “Master” and “Lord.”

An extreme, though understandable, example is found in Lawrence H. Schiffman’s review of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s controversial book, Kosher Jesus as posted at JewishJournal.com. Even the concept of attempting to establish peace between Judaism and Christianity is depicted in widely different ways by these two Jewish gentlemen:

Most difficult to accept is Boteach’s claim that Jews should re-accept Jesus as one of their own teachers, so that Jews and Christians will share this common teacher and unite in our service of God. This notion is probably the cause of the great controversy that already surrounds this book. In making this proposal the author ignores two major issues: 1) The symbolism of Jesus in Western culture where Jews were taunted, persecuted and killed in Jesus’ name. It is simply insensitive to expect, as Boteach does, that this experience should be forgotten so quickly. 2) The need for Judaism to draw clear lines between itself and Christianity to avoid losing adherents to the dominant faith. The Jewishness of Jesus is regularly used in evangelizing Jews by Christian proselytizers to ease the way from Judaism to Christianity. So there is no sense to the proposal to reclaim Jesus as a teacher and hero. He is best left to his Christian adherents, even if he was once a fellow Jew who lived by the Jewish tradition.

Although Rabbi Boteach advocates Jews attempting to reintegrate the historical and Jewish Jesus back into Judaism in order to foster Jewish/Christian peace, Professor Schiffman believes that such peace can only be achieved and maintained by abandoning any hope that Jesus could be considered Jewish, relegating him to the exclusive realm of “Gentile god”. While I can certainly understand the need to separate the Christian Jesus from modern Judaism, given the traditional enmity between the two religions, it is still discouraging that Judaism is unable or unwilling to at least consider the teachings of the Jewish teacher from Natzeret, even apart from Christian rhetoric.

Of course, there are plenty of disagreements within Christianity and particularly between the church and the Messianic Jews who have accepted the Nazarene as Master and Messiah, so I don’t have to go looking too far for discouragement. Going back to Rabbi Beyda’s commentary, at the level of the individual, disappointment doesn’t have to be caused by interfaith conflicts. Just facing personal inadequacies can be enough to make you, or rather, to make me want to give up.

But what about our metaphorical Talmud student. Is his case truly hopeless. I found an interesting answer from a very non-religious source:

In this new paper, Moser et al. extends this research by looking at how beliefs about learning shape these mostly involuntary error-related signals in the brain, both of which appear in less than half a second. More specifically, the scientists applied a dichotomy first proposed by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford. In her influential research, Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

-Jonah Lehrer
“Whe Do Some People Learn Faster?”
October 4, 2011
Wired.com

I encourage you to read the entire article but in brief, research seems to support the idea that what you tell yourself about learning affects your ability to learn more and to learn faster. If you believe learning is only an effect of your raw, native intelligence, then you internally set limits that you cannot and will not exceed. If, on the other hand, you believe that time and effort can create change and expand your ability to learn beyond your current thresholds, then you indeed will learn more and exceed your limitations.

Interestingly enough, that’s not much different from the advice Rabbi Weinberg gave to the troubled Talmud student.

“That is the worst solution, you could choose” the rabbi responded. “A person has to understand that the learning of Torah is not something that a human being can do without the help of Hashem. Hashem expects you to put in all the effort you can, and then he will produce the results.”

The young man listened and was encouraged. The respect he had for the sage gave him the strength to continue with his suggestion of try try again. Not long after he made a breakthrough. He reached a level where he was able to prepare a portion of the Talmud on his own. Today that young man is a practicing Rabbi in his community teaching others how to learn and how to be patient, if at first they do not succeed.

I’ve presented a lot of content to express what has already been said in a single sentence attributed to 19th century educator Thomas H. Palmer: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. W.C. Fields said something similar, but it’s hardly as useful. Then there’s what the brother of the Master said.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

Am I trying to give you some sort of pep talk? Not at all. If anything, I’m trying to encourage myself. Given the sad shape the world is in lately, the spiritual struggles of one human being who otherwise is doing fairly well don’t really stack up all that much. To extend that thought back into the realm of famous Hollywood quotes, here’s what the “great sage” Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) had to say:

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

Casablanca (1942)

If I (or anyone else) feels alone in the world of faith, it’s not because we are separated from God, it’s because we are separated from each other as human beings and disciples of the Master. That separation is largely by choice. We choose to believe this or that about what the Bible says, which makes it difficult for us to associate with people who interpret the Bible differently. We choose to organize a worship service on a particular day, using specific prayers, and songs, and sermons, and others choose to do it differently on a different day. Then we tell ourselves that one type of service “feels at home” while another type “feels uncomfortable,” but those are choices, too.

There’s nothing wrong about making those choices, but having made them, we live with the consequences. I’ve made choices and am living with the consequences now. I can choose to do nothing or choose a different direction and then there will be more and different consequences. Rev. Watkins and the folks at St. Mary’s made a choice and now they, and the people who attend their church, will live with the consequences. If the Talmud student had given up, there would have been consequences too, but he chose to go on and the consequence for perseverance was to become a Rabbi.

We like to think that we make one choice and we never have to revisit it again, but I find that I am looking at the choices I’ve made every day and continually confronting the consequences, adjusting my studies, my searches, my prayers, and my actions all the time as a result. A relationship with God is incredibly dynamic. If I were to dare to become comfortable with my choices, I have no doubt He would challenge me into discomfort, and then I would have to learn something by generating some effort. What we learn isn’t always what we want to learn but it all adds up to something, though I’m not always sure what. In the end, the only thing I know how to do is to move forward, whether I ultimately choose to continue this blog after the next 90 days or not. I can’t see around the next bend on this “trail of faith” which I suppose makes sense. Faith is pursuing the unseen, not the knowable. God is unseen but sometimes, so are people. Even though I know that my goal is holiness and it is God, what the finish line looks like, and whether I’ll accompany anyone else on the journey, is a mystery.

I only know that I can’t give up what I’m doing, whether it is chasing the scorching Sun like Icarus and plummeting to earth in flames, or like the Phoenix, rising painfully from my own burnt and smoldering ashes. I only know that I have to keep trying, regardless of the consequences. Because God will let me do no less.

 

The Last Bobsled

Afterlife is a very rational, natural consequence of the order of things.
After all, nothing is ever lost—even the body only transforms into earth. But nothing is lost.

The person you are is also never lost. It only returns to its source.

If your soul became attached to the material world during its stay here, then it must painfully rip itself away to make the journey back.

But if it was only a traveler, connected to its source all along, then its ride home is heavenly.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Journey Home”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

When one “falls on his face” the custom is to lean on his left arm.

-Shulchan Aruch Siman 131 Seif 1

No I’m not going to talk about the “life in the World to Come,” known to Christians as “Heaven,” though I suppose my meditation this morning is related. I’m talking about who we are and where we belong in the here and now. That seems to be my theme this week, since I started things out a few days ago with God is in the Backyard and yesterday posted The Sufficient Summit. It’s always kind of bothered me that Christians are so focused on “going to Heaven” when we die, and yet in Judaism, Heaven is not just somewhere you go, it is something you carry with you. Why worry about the future when there’s so much to do here in the present? Interestingly enough, in the film Cool Runnings (1993), the character Irv, played by the late John Candy, has the defining line of dialog for the movie and perhaps, for life as well.

Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.

If you take out the “Olympic” imagery, you can easily see that Irv could be talking about anything in life we consider important; anything we think defines us as human beings.

What makes our lives worthwhile? What makes us good servants of God? How do we know we’re “enough?” In the aforementioned film, Derice asks his coach Irv how he’ll know if he’s enough. Irv answers, “When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you’ll know.” Notice Irv didn’t say “when you cross that finish line first.” You just have to cross it. You just have to keep going. You can’t give up. That’s the only failure.

In the film, our intrepid Jamaican bobsled team (the film is very, very loosely based on fact) finishes dead last after their four-person bobsled malfunctions during their final race. In fiction (though not in fact), Derice and his teammates pick up the sled and walk across the finish line to thundering applause. They didn’t finish first. They didn’t win a gold medal. They didn’t win anything. Or did they?

Shift the metaphor over to your life as a person of faith. Take a moment to consider what you think you have to do to be worthy of that faith. Now think of your failures. If you’re Jewish, think of the ramp up to the Days of Awe, with Yom Kippur looming on the horizon. Think of reciting the Vidui which is an extremely humbling public experience. Think about how much you have let God down.

Does that mean you failed? Only if you didn’t get up, pick up your sled, uh…cross (Luke 9:23), and keep on going; following him…you know, Jesus…following him toward the finish line. Paul himself said “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). It’s easy to translate a film about sports to the Apostle’s “sports metaphor” written to the Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora…and to us nearly 2,000 years later.

The one thing Christians want to avoid more than anything else in the universe is Hell. Once a person is saved, regardless of whatever other hardships they may face, fear of Hell is supposed to be a thing of the past. Pastor and author Rob Bell in this book Love Wins (which I have yet to read) challenges the traditional Christian teaching about Hell and he took plenty of “heat” because of it. As it turns out. Bell’s view of Hell isn’t exactly his own.

Everything about the Rebbe was pure kindness. Even his idea of “hell” was as kind and generous as could be:

People have a misconception of Hell. Let me tell you what Hell really is.

Hell is a spiritual place where everything that exists in our world exists, but in an infinite way. So, whatever you chased after in this world, there you do it ad infinitum.

And that’s Hell.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hell”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I’m not making any sort of commentary about what Hell is or isn’t or what happens to us exactly when we die, but just ponder the Rabbi’s words for a moment. Some of us live a kind of “hell on earth” depending on what we have attached ourselves to in our lives. In yesterday’s meditation, I quoted a parable about Rav Raphael of Barshad who could never find peace in serving God, no matter how many duties he took upon himself. His anxious desire to serve Hashem in perfect purity was ironically what prevented him from achieving his goal. He had created his own “hell on earth” in his desire to touch Heaven. Fortunately, he continued to “run the race” and finally reached the place he needed to be, just by surrendering his anxiety.

Shulchan Aruch Siman 131 Seif 1 states, When one “falls on his face” the custom is to lean on his left arm. This recalls the custom to recite tachanun while leaning on the left arm because Mishnah Berurah explains that when a person davens, the Divine Presence is on his right. When a person leans on his left arm, he is facing toward the Divine Presence. After a person “falls on his face” (fails God or hides his face from God), he lifts his head and supplicates while sitting, in his place according custom, and shows respect for God. When one falls on his face, he lifts himself up, faces God again in supplication, rises, and continues in “the race.”

Supposedly, Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” After failing God, we sometimes feel as if the failure is indeed fatal, at least to our spiritual life, and there is a strong temptation to consider ourselves “damaged goods” and unworthy to continue the pursuit of holiness. We feel soiled and desecrated. Yet the Sages have something to say about this, too.

The Gemara in Avoda Zara (52b) cites a discussion regarding the status of the stones of the Altar which were contaminated by the Greeks when they occupied Eretz Yisroel and Yerushalayim during the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Rav Sheishes says that the Greeks did not have the ability to desecrate that which did not belong to them. The stones of the Altar which were defiled were declared to be ruined only from a rabbinic perspective, but Torah law considered the stones as remaining holy. Rav Pappa holds that the verse from Yechezkel which we cited proves that the invaders who defiled the stones of the Altar also succeeded in causing the stones to lose their sanctity. Rav Pappa understands that the ones who “came into it” refers to our enemies who entered into the Sanctuary of the Mikdash.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“They entered the holy and profaned it”
Bechoros 50

Rising SparksWe cannot be defiled by something we are not truly a part of and that is not a part of us. Only if we attach ourselves to something in this life does it become our “hell on earth” (and perhaps beyond). No one success in our lives means we will never face failure again, but no one failure defines us as perpetually unworthy to serve God, unless we stop running, sit down, and give up. If we fall down into the mud, as long as we can raise ourselves up again to face God, stand on our own two feet, and keep on going, we haven’t failed. We were merely delayed. Nothing is ever lost unless we decide it is, including us. Even death cannot destroy us if we are attached to our Source. Our body may burn to ashes or return to the dirt, but who we really are soars like an eagle and rises like a fiery spark returning to Him who has created everything.

There are no gold medals for being the first spark, or bobsled, to reach God. The only reward is for finishing…even if you’re dead last.

Vayishlah: The Running Shliach

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.Genesis 32:23-32 (JPS Tanakh)

As he prepared to face Esau, Jacob experienced a strange mystical encounter with God. He had sent his family, his servants and his possessions across a river ahead of him. He was about to follow when he was suddenly attacked by an assailant. Jacob wrestled the man through the night. The attacker turned out to be none other than the angel of the LORD.

“A Life-Changing Encounter”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on
Torah Portion Vayishlah

I know. Everybody teaches and writes on Jacob wrestling with the angel. It gets a little cliche’ after awhile. Who was the angel? Was it Jesus? Was it God? Was it Jacob’s “evil inclination?” Was it the angel embodying the spirit of Esau? All of the above, some of the above, none of the above? Who knows?

And what does it have to do with us?

The FFOZ commentary goes on to say that the name change of Jacob to Israel, as a result of the patriarch’s encounter with the Divine, altered the course of his life, changing his nature from “trickery and deceit” to one who is “authorized to receive the blessing.” The commentary concludes with this:

A genuine encounter with God is life-changing. It is a sort of wrestling match. The apostles teach us that, through faith in Yeshua, we are born again as new creations. In Messiah we have a whole new identity. Paul speaks of our old identity as the “old self.” He declares that, for the believer, the “old self was crucified with [Messiah], in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). “Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The commentary assumes, like Abraham before him (Genesis 17:5), that Jacob’s name was changed immediately and permanently and that “Israel” would never be referred to as “Jacob” again.

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters — all his offspring.

These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt. –Genesis 46:1-8

As you can see here, the names “Jacob” and “Israel” seem to be used interchangeably. Unlike Abraham who was never called “Abram” again after his name was changed, Jacob seemed to exist as both “Jacob” and “Israel” depending on the situation or the role he was playing. Someone once told me that the patriarch was called “Jacob” when he was being referred to as an ordinary person and “Israel” when he was fulfilling his prophetic and “national” role. I have no idea if this is correct or not, but it seems to fit what we read in the Torah.

But what does this have to do with us and encountering God as if we were meeting a stranger along our path? How are we changed by that meeting and what is the nature of the change?

From a personal point of view, I feel the “aftermath” of my personal encounter with God (coming to faith) is more like Jacob’s than Abraham’s. I feel like my “name change” isn’t quite permanent, and that I toggle back and forth between one nature and the other. I know you probably think that’s a terrible thing to say. After all, who can deny that once we come to faith in Jesus, that we are changed to a “new man” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that we’ve left our old sin nature completely behind us. Of course, my struggle could be an indication that I’m “double-minded” (James 1:8) which is certainly not a good thing.

But do we abruptly change? Really?

Poof! All at once, you came to faith and transformed into a completely new human being that has absolutely no resemblance to the person you were ten seconds before? Really?

It didn’t happen that way for me. Not by a long shot.

After I came to faith and even after I was baptized in the Boise River, I didn’t suddenly feel like an emotional and spiritual stranger to my “former self”. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that I felt and thought in exactly the same way as I did the day before. What a let down. I was expecting this mystical transformative experience, but it didn’t happen that way.

In fact, over many, many years, my life has gone through various twists and turns, some of which were extremely unpleasant, and looking back, I can see that my way of looking at things and reacting to my surroundings and to people has very gradually begun to change. In fact, the process is still going on today, although at a pace that would make a glacier’s movement seem like the electric speed of “Lightning McQueen” in the Pixar film Cars (2006).

There are times when I experience my life as truly different than it was before I came to faith. Sadly, there are times when I still feel like that flawed and limited human being I was before I even considered the idea that there is a God. In fact, I don’t ever think I’ve felt “perfect” in anything (Matthew 5:48).

What happened?

I don’t think “perfection” is something we achieve and then rest on our laurels but rather, I think a life of faith and unity in God is a goal was always strive for. Some days are better than others. Some days can be just lousy. Occasionally, we are magnificent, but I think for most of us (especially me), those days are rare.

There are times when I just want to know it all and to be it all but it’s sort of like my goals at the gym. No matter how much I psych myself up for a workout, when I actually hit the machines, I can only lift so much weight so many times, and then I run out of gas. Sometimes I exceed my expectations, sometimes I fail miserably, and most of the time, I break even. Kind of disappointing to shoot for the stars and to land in the mud.

Tear off a piece of your bread before you eat. You cannot fit it all into your mouth.

Do the same with wisdom. For Truth does not begin with Mind.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Wisdom and Bread”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. –1 Corinthians 9:24

I’ve always been such a terrible runner. I don’t know if that means I’m not really “in Christ” and thus I never transformed into that mystical, magical “new creature,” or if this is what most believers experience (or would admit to if it is their experience) most of the time. From where I sit in the mud, having fallen down in my race in the rain for the ten-thousandth time, a life of faith is lived one day at a time and the bread is eaten one chunk at a time. In the end, God will make the judgment about whether or not I’m good enough for what comes next. All I can do is drag my sweaty, out-of-shape body out of the mud hole one more time, and try to force my dead, lead-heavy legs to run for one more mile. As I rise to run the race again, I strain to see if the sages understand this puzzle.

As we apply ourselves to our mission, we also internalize it. Not only do we effect changes in the world, we ourselves change. Just as an agent must be identified with his principal, we must give ourselves over to G-d’s will and identify with it.

There are tzaddikim, righteous men, whose commitment to G-dliness dominates their personality; every aspect of their being is permeated with G-dliness. Their thoughts and even their will and their pleasure reflect G-d’s.

This, however, is a rung which most people cannot attain. But the second level in which each person remains an independent entity although his deeds are not his own is within the reach of more individuals. For the mitzvos we perform are not human acts; they are G-dly, so a person who performs them selflessly expresses their inner G-dly power.

There are individuals at an even lower level; they are not concerned with the G-dly nature of the mitzvos they perform. Nevertheless, they perform mitzvos for even “the sinners of Israel are filled with mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds” and the consequences of the deeds they perform represent an expression of G-d’s will. Thus they also contribute toward the transformation of the world.

Regardless of the differences between individuals, all mankind possesses a fundamental commonalty: we are all G-d’s agents, charged with various dimensions of a shared mission. The setting in which each individual functions, the task he is given, and the intent with which he performs it may differ, but the goal is the same.

This is the message of Parshas Vayishlach : that every one of us is a shliach, an agent of G-d.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlach
“Changing Ourselves as We Change the World”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, pgs. 323-324;
Sefer HaSichos 5748, p. 138ff;
Sichos Simchas Torah, 5748
Chabad.org

We are each an agent of God. We are sent. We run. We fall. We get up and run again.

Addendum: Rabbi Joshua posts a more conventional interpretation of this Torah reading at Yinon Blog.

Good Shabbos.