Tag Archives: Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

How to Get to Where We Belong

“You mean, Mr. Zacks, that there is this vast structure G-d has created of plants, animals, food chains, stars, and planets. And, that the only creature in all of creation that doesn’t understand how to fit in and live their life purposefully is the human?”

-Gordon Zacks quoting the Rebbe
“Where Change Begins”

In reading Mr. Zacks’ article about his encounters with the Rebbe, I was captured by the statement I quoted above because I couldn’t agree more. Out of everything in God’s creation, only man has no idea where he fits into that creation. Even those of us who are “religious” struggle, and argue and, as we’ve seen in recent events, occasionally conduct world-wide riots, all for the sake of who we think God is and our belief about what He wants.

I recently had an email conversation with a gentleman about, among other things, the differences between Christianity and Judaism. One key difference we noticed is the need, or lack thereof depending on your religious tradition, for absolute certainty. In Christianity, all questions must be answered, all puzzles must be solved. Everything is either black or white. Doubt and uncertainty are not to be tolerated. A bad answer (or God forbid, a wrong answer) is better than no answer at all. When a Christian asks you to describe the details of Heaven and you answer, “I don’t know for sure,” it tends to frustrate the Christian.

By comparison, the name “Israel” is the very heart of struggling with God over every question, every puzzle, every elusive detail, with no guarantee at all that there even is an answer, or at least not one that we could understand. It’s not only tolerable to live at a particular level of uncertainly, it’s practically required in Judaism. Every question has a dozen potential answers, every person has an opinion, ideas and concepts critical to faith in God are bandied about, but no one truly get’s upset, dismayed, or hurt over agreements, disagreements, (although, I have written recently about how such debates typically go wrong in the “Hebrew Roots” arena) and the “I don’t know” statement of another human being.

When the Rebbe was addressing Mr. Zacks, (and I encourage you to read the entire article) it seemed as if the Rebbe knew where man fit and lived purposefully in God’s creation. Further, he expected others, including Mr. Zacks, to know as well. Such late night meetings with the Rebbe typically lasted between 30 seconds and one minute. In his initial meeting with the Rebbe, Mr. Zacks had a conversation with him for about an hour and a half. In that time, one of the things the Rebbe said was this:

He quoted Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation. “Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn’t know. And Zorba comments, ‘Well, all those damned books you read–what good are they? Why do you read them?’ Zorba’s friend says he doesn’t know. Zorba can see his friend doesn’t have an answer to the most fundamental question. That’s the trouble with you. ‘A man’s head is like a grocer,’ Zorba says, ‘it keeps accounts…. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.’ Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free. Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G-d’s map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It’s like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That’s how you bring about improvement in the world.”

(Now I feel as if I should read Zorba the Greek)

The Rebbe’s solution to what he saw as Mr. Zacks’ “problem,” was to ask Mr. Zacks to accept a teacher, sent by the Rebbe, into the Zacks home for a year to teach him how to live as a Jew, how to be a Jew.

Understanding who you are, where you fit in, and how to live purposefully in God’s universe isn’t something you just study and understand. Unlike what we are often taught in the church, it’s not just something you cognitively believe or feel emotions about as you sit in a pew or pray in the night. It is something you do, it is a continual experience of life and living and being a child of God, made in His image.

At the Rebbe’s initial request to place a teacher in the Zacks home, Mr. Zacks said, “Rebbe, I’m not ready to do that.” Although through a series of letters, the Rebbe continued to make his request over the years, I don’t believe Mr. Zacks ever took him up on the offer.

While the “solution” to our fitting in and leading purposeful lives as Christians probably isn’t having a Chabad Rabbi live in our homes for a year (or for that matter, a Baptist Pastor), we do need to not just believe in God, but experience what it is to live out God’s purpose for the world and His purpose for our lives. What that is for me as an individual, alas, remains something of a mystery, in spite of everything I just wrote. On the other hand, and I’ve said this many times before, on a very basic level, it’s not that hard to understand and do, either.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

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.’ –Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

As we begin a new year on the Jewish calendar with Yom Kippur still facing us, if you (or I) have no idea where God wants you to “fit in,” I suppose following the advice of the Master wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

“Don’t dream it, be it.”

-Richard O’Brien
from the song, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack

Out of respect for the Jewish people and to honor Rosh Hashanah, which is considered a Shabbat and celebrated for two days starting today at sundown, my next “meditation” will be posted on Wednesday morning.

May you have a good and sweet year

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Shana Tova u’metuka

Practicing Faith, Part 3

What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God. What we have to learn is love. The healing and the learning are the same thing, for at the very core of our essence we are constituted in God’s likeness by our freedom, and the exercise of that freedom is nothing else but the exercise of disinterested love – the love of God for His own sake, because He is God.

The beginning of love is truth, and before He will give us His love, God must cleanse our souls of the lies that are in them. And the most effective way of detaching us from ourselves is to make us detest ourselves as we have made ourselves by sin, in order that we may love Him reflected in our souls as He has re-made them by His love.

This is the meaning of the contemplative life, and the sense of all the apparently meaningless little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery: they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is – that we may get sick of the sight of ourselves and turn to Him: and in the end, we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…

-Thomas Merton upon entering a Trappist monastery as a novice
Part Three, Chapter Four: “The Sweet Savor of Liberty” (pp 409-10)
The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith

I hadn’t planned on writing a “part 3” to the part 1 and part 2 of “Practicing Faith,” but this quote form Merton’s book, which I did want to write about, sort of demanded it. I’ve been trying to define what “practicing faith” means which, for me, isn’t always the same as “practicing religion.”

Religion is the mechanism or the interface by which we practice our faith. For Thomas Merton, that interface was the Catholic church and eventually, a Trappist monastery. That’s not exactly my cup of tea and it may not be yours either, but it certainly was his and in the above quote, he has a point to make that I rather like.

But it’s not perfect.

On the one hand, Merton draws a sharp dichotomy between our human self and our selfless love of God. On the other hand, he reunites these two halves when he says our “purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love…” Christianity tends to split the world into the secular and the Divine, devaluing the former and elevating the latter to the highest degree. This explains the rationale for Merton’s joining a “contemplative monastery” in which he could engage in the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors” that comprise monastery life as a life dedicated to our holiness while minimizing our human nature.

Judaism doesn’t support a monastic lifestyle and generally believes that everything we do in the secular has meaning and substance in the Divine realm without really being separated from it. Life is life and faith is faith; a unified whole, much as God is, not divided or relegated into different categories, meanings, or realms. If God created you to be here in the world, then He meant for you to live out your holy life in a concrete universe, not pining away for the ephemeral, spiritual heavens.

When we are confronted to lead a life of faith, we have to ask ourselves (and God) how we’re supposed to do it. For Merton, the answer was to convert to Catholicism and later, to join a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. That isn’t the answer for all of us.

But wait!

If God is One and His Name is One, isn’t there just One religion or One religious sect…one and only one way to worship Him?

You’d think so, which is what allows many people in many different religions to say, “we are the one and you are not.” But I recently compared Thomas Merton and some of the things he teaches to Rabbi M. M. Schneerson and his teachings, and I think we can agree that these two men had radically different ways of practicing faith and certainly of practicing religion.

But the vision or essence behind the mechanics of their practice may have been more closely aligned than we can see on the surface. True, they would have disagreed on a good many things, but they also seemed to see and talk to the same God and I am convinced that God talked to both of them.

I don’t know how they would have tolerated each other if they had actually ever met (both the Rebbe and Merton have since passed away some time ago, so only God knows what a conversation between these two would be like), but in stripping away the “little rules and observances and fasts and obediences” involved in each of their daily lives, maybe we can get a glimpse of the bigger picture.

He has an opinion of how each person should be, how each thing should be done. Those who follow his choreography are his friends, those who dare dance their own dance are his enemies; and few, if any, are left without a label.

In truth, he has neither enemies nor friends. He has only himself, for that is all that exists in his world.

“If you don’t want to be so lonely,” we tell him, “make some room for the rest of us.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Thick Lagoon of Ego”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I suppose I’m coming dangerously close to saying that what religion you practice doesn’t matter and that there are many roads that lead to God. That statement is bound to offend just about everyone, since we are all deeply invested (me too) in our various religions and how our particular religion is a wonderful way (or the wonderful way) to encounter God and find the meaning of our life in Him. In fact, as proof there is one and only one way, Christians will undoubtedly quote:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. –John 14:6 (ESV)

This, for the Christian, would automatically rule out the Rebbe as having the ability to come to God and for many Protestants, it would rule out Merton’s having a life of holiness as well. And yet, how can we be so sure of just who God accepts and who God rejects, based on their life and how they understand practicing faith?

Human beings can be terribly arrogant and self-absorbed. In order to feel as if we matter to God, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that God cares less for people who are not like us than for people who are like us. For God to love us more, He must love someone else less. We have to be the favorite child to feel secure, so God’s other children can’t also be “favorite.”

Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours burn any brighter. -Anonymous

If you want to get better at your faith, by all means, please practice it. But this isn’t a competition. You don’t have to worry that God has only one “gold medal” in the “holiness Olympics.” If we’re competing against anyone, it is ourselves. The only challenge is to be a better person of faith today than we were yesterday. What someone else does or doesn’t do in practicing their faith cannot and does not affect who we are and what we are doing as people who are faithful to God.

We spend all of our lives trying to understand God and understand who we are in Him. That’s a full time job. Do we really need to waste that time worrying about the other person and how he or she chooses to practice faith?

There are no things. There are only words. The Divine Words of Creation.

The words become scattered and we no longer understand their meaning. Only then are they things. Words in exile.

If so, their redemption lies in the story we tell with them. Reorganizing noise into meaning, redefining what is real, and living a life accordingly.

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

We are all journeying on our own path. We are all using our own words to tell our story about God. We each live our life according to that story. The story is our tale about how we practice our faith, and it is always different for each person…but God is the same.