Tag Archives: Pirkei Avot

Behar-Behukotai: Seeking Crowns

The majority of this Torah reading focuses on the rewards granted for observance of the Torah, and the punishments ordained for failure to observe. One might ask: When a person has internalized the self-transcendence of Bechukosai, of what interest is reward? As the Alter Rebbe would say: “I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.” (As quoted in Derech Mitzvosecho, Shoresh Mitzvos HaTefillah, ch. 40. See also Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah, ch. 10.)

In truth, however, only a person who genuinely “wants You alone” can appreciate the full measure of reward G-d has associated with the Torah and its mitzvos. As long as a person is concerned with his individual wants and desires, he will interpret the reward received for observance in that light. When, by contrast, a person has transcended his individual will, instead of these petty material concerns, he will appreciate the essential good and kindness which G-d conveys. (See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 312)

This will create a self-reinforcing pattern, for the purpose of the rewards granted by the Torah is to enable an individual to further his study and observance. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1.)

As this pattern spreads among mankind, we will merit the full measure of blessings mentioned in the Torah reading, with the return of our people to our land, led by Mashiach. Then “Your threshing season will last until your grape harvest…. You shall eat your bread with satisfaction…. I will grant peace in the land, and none shall make you afraid.” (Leviticus 26:5-6.)

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Real Growth”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behukotai
Leviticus 26:3-27:34

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:11-12 (ESV)

What we get out of our relationship with God is a matter of perspective. As Rabbi Touger illustrates, how we perceive our “reward” depends on how we perceive ourselves. I’ve written a number of commentaries on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s book The Lonely Man of Faith including my most recent missive, Burning the Plow. Soloveitchik presents “two Adams” using the two depictions of the creation of the first man in Genesis to show us two sides of the person of faith, the material and the spiritual. How we function in relation to God is how we see what God can do for us.

That probably sounds selfish, and it’s meant to be, at least in part.

The material man sees his relationship with God in terms of the world of here and now. He prays for success in business, good weather for planting crops, health for his family, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it is the general limit of the material man’s vision of his relationship with God. Man is the majestic steward of the world God created, and in return, he desires that God reward him with the benefits related to that creation.

It is written in Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, Mishna 2, that “the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (quoting Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld). Thus the continued cycle I have described in the previous paragraph is self-perpetuating as long as the perspective of the material man does not change.

And for many people of faith, it never does.

However, Rabbi Touger’s commentary, quoting the Alter Rebbe, shows us a different path:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

On an emotional level, most of us can more or less understand this desire. We want to “feel” closer to God, to love Him with great zeal and to pour our heart and our life into pools of mystic wonder where only God exists. However, such a desire is difficult to grasp for very long for most of us, and we tend to believe that only saints or holy men or mystics who live in caves or monasteries can truly exist in a sustained state of “All I want is You alone.”

It’s hard for most Christians to imagine that Jews might express such a desire to want to walk with God alone, since Judaism is seen as a largely “behavioral” religion. An observant Jew tends to be defined by the mitzvot, by Torah study and obedience to the commandments. By contrast, Christians see their faith as more metaphysical, residing in the realm of belief and pure faith and grace, than in the raw mechanics of feeding a hungry person or donning tallit and tefillin before prayer.

But what about the Jews who first came to the realization that Jesus was and is the Messiah? Where is the meeting point between classic Judaism and traditional Christianity? Where did it all begin before man artificially split the two faiths (or was that split all part of God’s plan as Paul describes in Romans 11:25)?

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)

What is this “crown of righteousness” of which Paul speaks? Is it a literal crown he wears in the Heavenly court? Is it the sheer experience of bliss and wonder in God’s “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden or Paradise)? Or could it be “God and God alone?”

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. –Revelation 4:4 (ESV)

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne… –Revelation 4:9-10 (ESV)

The passages from Revelation 4 certainly seem to indicate real, physical crowns as the rewards, but this could be deceptive, since John’s vision of the Heavenly court and the events he witnessed is highly mystical and may not represent actual, literal actions. But look at what the twenty-four elders do with their crowns when they “give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne.” They “cast their crowns before the throne” and say:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

In addressing “the Lord God Almighty” (v 8), what does it mean to cast your crowns before His throne?

I’m no theologian so it’s impossible for me to say with any authority what John was really witnessing in this act of supreme worship of the Ein Sof God Almighty, “who was and is and is to come.” But let’s pretend what they were/are all doing was/is fulfilling this desire:

“I don’t want Your World to Come. I don’t want Your Gan Eden. All I want is You alone.”

When I was a child and I tried to imagine Heaven, I thought it sounded pretty boring. There was nothing to do there except constantly worship God. I thought it sounded like one, infinitely long church service where you had to sit in a hot sanctuary in sticky, itchy clothes, and be quiet, and listen to organ music, and pray and recite stuff, and endlessly say:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

Didn’t anybody ever have fun in Heaven? What kind of reward was all this “holy, holy, holy” stuff anyway?

Most children tend to be “material man,” lacking the ability to see beyond their immediate, temporal needs and desires. Many adults, even in the community of faith are like this, too.

Beyond majestic, material man is the person seeking to simply walk with God; who perceives his path as illuminated by an ineffable light. When we desire “God alone” there is no way we can truly understand what we are asking for. Who could possibly imagine what the crowns of Paul or the elders in John’s vision actually were, and if they existed materially or not? I choose to believe that there is so much more to the rewards awaiting covenantal, spiritual man and that, attempting to imagine them from the viewpoint of the material human being, we miss the point completely.

Pray not for Heaven or for Paradise or for crowns of gold. Let your only desire for reward be God Himself.

Then let awe and wonder in every corner of your existence take hold and realize that He is already here. Life is a miracle and your soul is the soul of your Creator. Once you know this, the mitzvot will take care of themselves for they will be inseparable from the ineffable light of God.

He could have made a world where the nature of each thing may be deduced from its parts. A predictable, orderly world. A world devoid of wonder. And then we would say, “Things are this way because they must be this way.” G-d would be a stranger in His own world.

Instead, at each step a whole new world emerges, one we could never have predicted from anything we knew before. Until we must conclude that our finite world somehow contains infinite possibilities, that both nothing and everything is possible, that things are the way they are only because He desires they be that way.

He has made our world wondrous, so that it has room for Him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Unnatural Nature of Things”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

A Physical Object is Merely “I am”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”

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

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

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

That’s a big jump.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blood of the Prince

tallit-prayerThis is one of those “hot” topics. A Messianic Jewish rabbi friend of mine recently got an email from a distraught woman urgently asking him to intervene on behalf of her husband. I would like some opinions on the matter from my readers. I will paraphrase that email below to protect all parties:

Please pray for us and help us. You see, my Jewish husband (who is from Israel) believes that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel through whom God redeems and saves, but he refuses to believe that Jesus is God too. My husband is adamant that he will not accept this belief. I don’t know what to do – I don’t want him to be lost. I need urgent help and I think my husband will benefit from your counseling. I am really hoping that you would be able to convince him of his error before it’s too late.

Question for my readers: should this woman be concerned about the spiritual fate of her husband? If this Jewish man never changes his mind on the nature of the Messiah, should he be concerned about his final destiny and should we?

-Gene Shlomovich
Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Daily Minyan blogspot

I’m not in the habit of quoting one person’s full blog post to begin one of my own, but this question, which I thought was unanswerable, may just have been answered (though judging by the subsequent comments that have been accumulating as I’ve been writing this missive, maybe not). There was a lively debate by various folks commenting on this blog but it degenerated (and is still degenerating) into a “Jesus is God” vs “Jesus is Messiah but not God” vs “I don’t know what Jesus is” kind of debate. A few people took a stab at actually trying to answer Gene’s question, but no one really knew or could support their opinions from scripture…that is until now:

I am convinced that Peter’s first introduction to Messiah (John 1:41), and his own confirmation of that introduction (John 6:69, 11:27) brought him into sonship, and is all that is expected of any Jew to be saved and secured for Kingdom status (Romans 10:13, 11:26).


Then Gene replied:


Thank you for providing an answer to my exact question directly from scripture.

Traditional religious Judaism doesn’t spend a great deal of time worrying about whether or not Jews are saved. In the merit of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, Jews are all considered to have a place in the world to come. However, in Christianity and the various corners of the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements (which all overlap but are not really the same), there are a couple of important questions that have remained unanswered:

If Jews are “saved” through the merit of the patriarchs, what significance does Jesus have as the Messiah to them?

On a more fundamental level, the question is:

Are Jews saved?

I’ve struggled with these questions as well. To say that the process of salvation for a Jew is identical to a Gentile means that prior to the coming of the Messiah, no Jews could be saved. I also means that the millions of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity because they believed we Christians practiced paganism and polytheism, have been consigned to hell, often having suffered torture and murder at the hands of the church who was attempting to force their conversion, first.

I’m not sure I have the answer regarding “salvation” relative to all Jews everywhere, but it appears that Brad, armed with “only” a Bible, has answered the first question. Let’s take a look at his material in a more detail. His statement can be broken up into two main sections:

I am convinced that Peter’s first introduction to Messiah (John 1:41), and his own confirmation of that introduction (John 6:69, 11:27) brought him into sonship…

PrayingSo what do we see when we are introduced to the Messiah and that introduction is confirmed? What brought Peter into “sonship?”

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi”, “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”. He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas”. –John 1:35-42 (ESV)

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” –John 6:66-69 (ESV)

Mary, the sister of Martha, also faced the same question and arrived at the same conclusion.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” –John 11:25-27 (ESV)

Now here’s section two:

and is all that is expected of any Jew to be saved and secured for Kingdom status (Romans 10:13, 11:26).

So what is actually expected of a Jew for salvation through the Messiah?

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” –Romans 10:10-13 (ESV)

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27 (ESV)

“No distinction between Jew or Greek” seems to be relative to the issue of salvation, so the Messiah has always been a vital element, but as Paul also said, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved,” so this two is part of God’s plan for Israel.

Putting it all together, nothing else but what has been presented above is required to answer Gene’s question (and I’m paraphrasing): “Is a Jewish man ‘saved’ if he comes to faith in Jesus as the Messiah but not as God clothed in flesh and blood?”

Peter believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the holy one of God and that he had words of eternal life. Mary, sister of Martha also believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God that that “everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.” Everyone, Jew or Gentile, who calls on the Lord’s name shall be saved, and Gentiles, in God’s mercy, are brought into the Kingdom through the temporary hardening of the Jews. In the end, as Paul continues, “all Israel will be saved.”

God will not abandon the life of his heritage Israel nor let the blood of the Messiah go to waste:

The poor man stood in the doorway, smelling the sweet, freshly baked bread, and held out his hand for something to eat. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, for he had not eaten in days. He had tried to find work, but no one wanted to hire him. At last, hearing that Rabbi Yitzchak of Kalush had an open heart and an open door, he came to his house late one Friday afternoon.

Even before they opened the door, he could smell the fresh baked bread . . .

The cook looked at her challahs, golden baked and twisted, and sprinkled with poppy seeds. The cook did not want to give him a slice from the challahs. They were for Shabbat. She looked in the kitchen cabinets and drawers for an old, stale piece of bread, the kind that is usually given to beggars, but she found none.

“Slice up a loaf,” a man’s voice said, “no blood will be lost because of it.”

And so she cut into the loaf, soft and white, and gave the poor man a thick slice to eat. Unless a person has truly been hungry, he cannot know the meaning of bread. The poor man ate greedily. As he left, a man with kind eyes nodded. He was the one who had told her to cut the bread. The poor man knew that this man had saved his life.

-from a commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (4:3)
“The Blood Not Lost”

The Son of God is the bread of life to all mankind but particularly to His people the Jews. The blood of the Prince was not spilled in vain on Jewish soil and was not wasted for the sake of Israel. We in the church should not consider the Jew with contempt:

Ben Azzai used to say: “Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything; for there is no man who does not have his hour, and nothing which does not have its place.” -Avot 4:3

Passing Judgment

Said Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov:

When a person comes before the supernal court to account for sojourn on earth, he is first asked to voice his opinion on another life. “What do you think,” he is asked, “about one who has done so and so?” After he offers his verdict, it is demonstrated to him how these deeds and circumstances parallel those of his own life. Ultimately, it is the person himself who passes judgment on his own failings and achievements.

This explains the peculiar wording of the above passage of the Ethics, “before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting.” Is not the verdict handed down after the cross-examination of the defendant? So should not the “judgment” follow the “accounting”? And why are you destined to “give judgment” as opposed to being judged? But no judgment is ever passed on a person from above. Only after he has himself ruled on any given deed does the heavenly court make him account for a matching episode in his own life.

The same idea is also implicit in another passage in our chapter of the Ethics: “Retribution is extracted from a person, with his knowledge and without his knowledge.” As a person knowingly expresses his opinion on a certain matter, he is unwittingly passing judgment on himself.

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers
Chapter 3
“Subjective Judge”
Iyar 10, 5772 * May 2, 2012

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”

Matthew 25:31-33 (ESV)

I don’t think many Christians believe they’ll be given the opportunity to judge themselves in Messianic days, but then most Christians think they won’t be judged at all. Only sinners (i.e. non-Christians) will be judged. Christians are saved and exempt from all this sort of stuff.

Whew! What a relief.

But wait a minute. What else did Jesus say?

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” –Matthew 25:34-46 (ESV)

Now that’s odd. It sounds like we aren’t judged based on what we believe in our hearts but on what we actually do with that belief. The Master’s own brother said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If faith without works is dead, then if we are without works, regardless of what we feel or believe inside, are we dead, too?

I’m not really going to try to evaluate the mechanics of how salvation works or who does or doesn’t merit a place in the world to come (i.e. “Heaven” as Christianity understands it). I do want to talk about the times when you judge other people.

C’mon. Admit it. You do judge other people, dear Christian friends. So do I, though I’m not saying that out of any sense of pride. Think of the guy or gal who cut you off in traffic yesterday when you were driving to work. Didn’t you, even in the privacy of your own thoughts and emotions, momentarily “judge” that person and their relative driving skills? Any time you become angry at another person, don’t you judge them in terms of their worthiness or some other attribute they possess or lack? If you’re a football fan, when your favorite quarterback fumbles what should have been your team’s winning play, don’t you judge that knucklehea…uh, player for his failure to lead his team to victory?

Do you want to be judged by the same standards you use to judge others?

and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. –Matthew 6:12 (ESV)

I’ve mentioned this particularly telling part of the Lord’s Prayer before. It certainly seems like Jesus is saying that we will be forgiven in direct relation to how we forgive others.

Oh certainly, Jesus couldn’t have meant anything like that! Oh yeah?

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” –Matthew 18:23-35 (ESV)

Oh wow! Apparently, he did.

Now look back at the commentary for chapter 3 of Ethics of the Fathers. Imagine that’s how you’ll actually be judged; by how you judge others. Now imagine that if you show mercy to others to such and thus degree, God will show you the same mercy. But if you show such and thus judgement toward others, God will judge you to the same degree. When you judge, you’re looking in a mirror.

Imagine you have control over how your life will be judged. Imagine you can determine how harsh or how merciful God will treat you at the end of your days. Imagine how you forgive or condemn one human being today will affect how God judges you tomorrow. Imagine.

A gentile once came to Shammai, and wanted to convert to Judaism. But he insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

-Rabbi Hillel

Practicing Faith, Part 1

The essential thing, however, is the training to habituate one’s mind and thought continuously, so that it always remain imprinted in his heart and mind, that everything one sees with his eyes — the heavens and earth and all they contain — constitutes the outer garments of the king, the Holy One, blessed be He.

In this way he will constantly remember their inwardness and vitality, which is G-dliness.

This is also implicit in the word emunah (“faith”), which is a term indicating “training” to which a person habituates himself, like a craftsman who trains his hands, and so forth.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, end of Chapter 42
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Hebrews 11:1-3 (ESV)

Um, what is “faith” again?

We tend to think of faith as something we either have or don’t have, kind of like the color of your eyes. You either have brown eyes or not. It’s not something that comes and goes in stages, exactly. You either have faith or you don’t. You either believe in God or you don’t.

But wait a minute. Faith and belief aren’t the same things, are they? The writer of Hebrews seems to say that faith is the mechanism by which we understand that everything was created by the word of God, even though there isn’t any obvious physical evidence to support that this must be so.

But the lesson from the Tanya says that faith (emunah) is something we can be trained in and that we learn to habituate. Faith is learned? You can train in faith?

Kind of an interesting concept, and if you think about it a minute, it makes a lot of sense.

And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” –Matthew 8:26 (ESV)

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” –Matthew 16:8 (ESV)

Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once. –Matthew 15:28 (ESV)

Here, we see that faith can be little or great. Presumably, faith can be anywhere between little and great, too. So there are degrees of faith. But where do these “degrees” come from? Is there anything we can do if we have little faith to make it great or at least bigger than it was before?

Jesus seemed to think so, otherwise he wouldn’t have criticized his disciples for having little faith. But how is this to be done? The commentary in the Tanya Lesson continues:

The Rebbe notes that “who trains his hands” means: “He is cognizant of the craft in his soul; he has a natural talent for it, but needs only to train his hands, so that it will find tangible expression in his actions (be it through art, or fashioning vessels, or the like).”

This is sort of like the old joke about a country fellow who decided to visit New York City. He went on a sightseeing tour of all the famous places in New York such as Times Square, Madison Square Garden, and the Empire State Building. He also bought a ticket to a Broadway play, but as the time of the performance was drawing near, he realized he didn’t know how to find the theatre.

The tourist stopped someone on the street who looked like a local and asked, “How do I get to Broadway?”

The New Yorker brusquely replied, “Practice.”

Can faith be practiced? Can we learn faith the same way we learn a skill, such as painting, molding clay, or replacing a light switch in the hallway of your home?

The Rebbe said something else though. He said that the soul “has a natural talent for it…” (faith) “…but needs only to train his hands, so that it will find tangible expression in his actions.”

So who has a natural talent in faith?

G-d speaks with us at every moment.
His words form the world we see about us.

A prophet is no more than one who catches those words before they congeal into space and time.

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

While the Rabbi is talking about prophecy and not faith, I think we can apply his lesson to our “meditation.” God speaks to everyone, not only by virtue of the universe continuing to exist, but in many other ways. We were all created in His image. We are all His children, whether we even acknowledge Him or not. That means, we all have the ability, if we choose to use it, to connect to Him using faith as our bridge. True, some folks seem to have a greater talent for faith than others, as the Prophets had a greater “talent” for “hearing” God and passing on His Words, but even as we all can “hear” the voice of God, we all have a native talent to respond with faith…and to strengthen that faith by practicing it.

So how to you practice the “skill” of faith?

Part of the answer is in the source of the question. You study. You also pray, meditate, seek reliable teachers, spend time with other people who are also learning faith, and you let your general, day-to-day behaviors reflect your practice. This goes back to things I’ve said before about donating food to the hungry and visiting sick people in the hospital. If you want to be a person of faith, you have to act like a person of faith.

We learn by doing.

But I’ve heard some Gentile Christians say that if we are attracted to “practicing” the Bible and particularly practicing what we consider the Torah, we are really “practicing spiritual Judaism.” But is that true?

Who Is A Jew?

This apparent dichotomy in the nature of relations between Jew and Jew also appears in the words of our sages which describe the very definition of Jewishness and a Jew’s relationship with G-d.

The Talmud states: “A Jew, although he has transgressed, is a Jew.” He may violate, G-d forbid, the entire Torah, yet his intrinsic bond with the Almighty is not affected. In the words of the Midrash, “Torah preceded the creation of the world… but the thought of Israel preceded all in the mind of G-d.”

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers, Chapter 1
“Ulterior Motive”
Nissan 28, 5772 * April 20, 2012

Judaism, at least from the Chabad perspective, considers a Jew to be a Jew, even if he or she doesn’t “practice Judaism” at all. That can’t apply to we non-Jewish Christians if we must practice our faith to be disciples of the Master and are attached to the God of Israel by that practice. So it would seem that “spiritual Judaism” isn’t something that the goyim (non-Jews) can possess, even by diligent practice.

So what are we practicing when we who are not Jewish, practice faith? Christianity?

I’ll save the answer for Part 2.

The Resolute and Supple Reed

“Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
-Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)

Throughout the existence of the Jewish people, we have long been enamored with intelligence. Just look at the disproportionate amount of Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. However, intelligence by itself is not a supreme value; it can be used for either good or evil. Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all. Furthermore, Ben Zoma’s excerpt from Pirkei Avot alludes to the fact that while a person’s intellectual capacity is innately limited, wisdom can be attained by anyone. A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.

“Who is Wise”
Lev Echad blog

I didn’t create this “morning meditation” blog to simply spew out answers but rather to ask hard questions. I don’t pretend to have some special insight into God or religion or faith. I only have my experience as I continue and grow in my relationship with God. I chronicle the developments of that relationship here in a variety of forms, including commentary on the Bible and occasionally reviews of related publications. I’m not really here to teach but to learn, and I learn from every person who talks to me in this blog. I think that’s how we all learn…by communicating.

It’s not always easy. As I’m sure you’ve discovered by participating in or just reading the comments on this blog, a lot of disagreement and sometimes heated debate happens. Occasionally, tempers flare, though I do my best to try and contain the “emotionalism” of our debates. The goal, as I see it, is not to try to prove who is right and who is wrong, but to pursue realization and truth. Truth, as I’ve said before, is not the same as fact, and thus truth can take on more than one form.

As Asher said in the quote I posted above, “A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.” He also said this:

Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all.

The goal Asher describes is similar to mine. The point of being intelligent isn’t to “be right” but to “bring about repentance and good deeds.” We’re supposed to study and explore and debate and discuss, not to exalt ourselves and to prove we’re the “smarter guy,” but to become better people through a greater understanding of our relationship with God. From a Jewish point of view, that also involves doing and not just thinking or saying, so “good deeds” are a vital part of that process as is repentance of our sins before man and God.

Does that mean a truly wise person is always a doormat who never takes a strong stand on a moral principle? Not at all.

On today’s daf we find that the Beis HaMikdash was purposely destroyed either before or after Shemittah, since bad things happen during times that are already difficult.

Keeping Shemittah in Israel was a big conflict not too long ago. Hardly anyone was doing it—even otherwise religious farmers—and those who were willing were often intimidated by their peers. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, wrote a beautiful letter of encouragement to those farmers who were willing to consider sacrificing what appeared to be their advantage in order to keep the letter of the law.

“I am a farmer who makes his living through the work of my hands. It is now almost Shemittah and a riveting thought has gotten into my head: I want to keep the laws of Shemittah with courage and boldness. I am alone and unaided, a joke to all of my neighbors. ‘How could it be?’ they asked when I began. ‘You won’t plant and you won’t harvest? You can’t fight against reality!’

“But my chutzpah stood me well and despite the indisputable fact that anyone with intelligence knows that it is physically impossible to keep these halachos unless one has a silo filled with grain for three years—since Shemittah is obviously impossible to fulfill in our times without enough grain before the seventh year. Now isn’t like it used to be, they say; you cannot rely on miracles. Yet the year is already halfway over and it looks like one can keep Shemittah after all. I planted everything before Rosh Hashannah, while it was still the sixth year, and during the seventh year I have not worked my field. I am careful to treat the produce which overlaps from the sixth year to the seventh with holiness and I hope to make peace with reality—or that reality should mete out what is good for me.

“My neighbors mock me—yet the weather mocks them. It works out to be good for one who planted early, but not for their crops planted during Shemittah. Only my early-planted crops have survived!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Time of Challenge”
Arachin 12

It seems obvious that if we are in the right in an argument or dispute, we should stand our ground, even against overwhelming odds, including that of “popular public opinion.” The question is, how can you know that you are always right? If you are a reasonable person and honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you can never be “always right”. That’s where learning from others comes in. Even a genius cannot know everything if that genius is in isolation. Only by discourse with the rest of the world, including a world that is fundamentally different from you, can real learning ever take place. The trick is to differentiate between being resolute in your principles and being mule-headed stubborn, even in the face of great evidence that discounts the validity of your arguments.

OK, I say that with the understanding that most people don’t change once they’ve made up their minds. But if change were impossible, then no one would come to realize that the God of Abraham is the Maker of the Universe. If we could not humble ourselves and admit that we were wrong, no one would come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, our Lord, Savior, and King.

But our greatest adversary doesn’t exist outside of us in some other group or church or synagogue or even in the supernatural realm. Our greatest enemy is who we are.

There are times you must be like a reed in the wind. And there are times you must face it like an iron wall.

When it comes to matters that lie at the surface, then “I hold like this” and “my opinion is like this” stand in the way of harmony and peace. Every such “I” is the very root and source of evil.

But when it comes to matters that touch your essence and core, the purpose for which you were placed in this world, then you must be an iron wall. Then you must say, “On this, I cannot budge.”

Liberated from its thick shell of ego, empowered and emboldened, the essential self breaks through the concrete, blossoms and flourishes.

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

Although “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), we must not “dull” ourselves by always seeking resistance. To “sharpen” a human being requires debate, disagreement, and discourse, and then an experience of contrition before God to help us understand when it is time to stand our ground like an iron wall, and when it is time to be supple like the reed before the wind.

In the midst of our human storms, we must never forget that what matters most is to seek His Face.

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, LORD, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples. –Psalm 108:1-3