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Remembering Newtown: We Live to Love

9-11 Flag“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

Genesis 49:33

“How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily ‘Portraits of Grief’ has been compiling the fragments of eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation and by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing is left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime.”

-Ismar Schorsch
“Portraits of Grief,” pg 180 (December 29, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

As I write this, it is the anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, I recall reading earlier this morning that another school shooting has just taken place at a High School in Colorado, with the eighteen-year old shooter having killed himself and his fifteen-year old victim struggling for life in the hospital.

I have prayed for the victims in Newtown and I have grieved with their parents since I am both a parent and grandparent. The very idea of losing a child to a sudden and needless death is horrifying beyond imagination.

Schorsch’s commentary on the death of Jacob paints a portrait of a man who died with difficulty even as he lived. But he was also a man who had the time to prepare for death, to bless his children and grandchildren, and to be surrounded by a comforting family as he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.”

In Judaism, there is a halakhic requirement to sit shiva or to mourn in solitude and withdrawal from the world for seven days following the death of a loved one. And on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, it is customary to observe yahrzeit by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a candle, and remembering the person who has died.

But these are not my loved ones nor am I Jewish, so what am I to do?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Donne’s famous poem, which I learned forty years ago, reminds me that anyone’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity, because of my humanity and my mortality.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingAccording to Schorsch’s commentary (pp 170-172), second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir’s midrash on the Creation account in Genesis was so controversial that it saw limited circulation during his lifetime. His interpretation of Genesis 1:31 where it is declared “And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good,” Rabbi Meir relates the Hebrew word “me’od” which is translated as “very” to “mot,” which is the Hebrew word for “death”.

In Christian doctrine, we believe that God introduced death into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Rabbi Meir’s midrash…

…God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.

-Schorsch, pg 171

I’m sure this is little comfort to those who are mourning their children in this supposed season of joy. In abstract, we can philosophize that it is our mortality that defines our existence, and the shadow of death cast across our journey of life reminds us that every moment is precious.

But in reality, most people rarely consider their death until something shakes them out of apathy, such as a doctor’s dire report or the murder of a child.

There is a tremendous temptation to either sink into depressive despair or to cry out in anger and pursue the path of vengeance. We want and even need to do something, to respond in some way, either by withdrawal or violent projection, because of the senseless outrage of these deaths.

In the end, neither reaction does much good. The former honors no one and the latter is manipulated by the politicians and the media pundits to achieve their own agendas.

The only thing that makes sense to me, particularly in a universe where I acknowledge a loving, involved, and creative God, is to take the only option that remains…to love those who are left to me here and now, not just because I know they can be taken away at any moment, but because life has to be more than mere existence, pursuit of money, pleasure, and the consumable products in the latest ad campaign on television. If life isn’t the expression of love, especially to those who depend upon us for their every need (even as we all depend on God for our every need), then why were we given life in the first place?

As I write this, I mourn the loss of the young innocents, not just in Connecticut and Colorado, but everywhere, and for every person, because like God, I must be involved in humanity. It is said that when Jacob and the seventy went down into Egypt, God went with them. How He must have grieved knowing just how far down Israel’s children would descend in the following years and decades. It is said that when millions of Jews and other “undesirables” entered the Nazi camps, God entered with them and was imprisoned with them. How He must have grieved as He witnessed each individual death of the six million of His chosen little ones.

The only thing we have to keep us going in the face of death and disaster is our faith in God, that there is something more to life than what we can detect with our five senses, and that there is a greater meaning to it all. When a child dies, even great faith is shaken, for how could a loving God allow such a heinous act to occur?

But where we have faith, God has certainty of perception and knowledge. God knows. He knows the placement of each individual soul in this life and beyond. We live in a universe that is broken and under slow repair. In that universe, death occurs, injustice occurs, tragedy occurs. Tears and grief occur.

landonBut there is also hope.

I took a few days off of work last week to spend time with my grandson. We played with legos, I made him pancakes, we had “sword fights” in my snowy backyard, we went to the playground and slid down slides covered with melting ice. I dropped him off at pre-school and had the wonderful privilege of picking him up again as he ran toward me grinning and gleefully yelling, “Grandpa!”

I can’t say anything that will comfort the grieving and the dying except that if you still have someone precious in your life who needs you and who loves you, then they are the difference, the hope, and the faith that makes life more than just living day-to-day. This is what God does to open our eyes. This is what God does to open our hearts, to turn stone into beating flesh. This is why we are alive. We live to love.

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No Guarantees

NoGuaranteesDue to the widespread famine in Canaan, Jacob and his family descended to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. Before the journey, G-d appeared to Jacob and said “Don’t fear going down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you and I will also take you out (Gen. 46:3).” Wouldn’t this move to Egypt prove to be the beginning of hundreds of years of painful enslavement under ruthless taskmasters? Jacob knew of Abraham ‘s prophecy that his offspring would endure slavery and oppression in a foreign land for hundreds of years (Gen. 15:13). Why shouldn’t he have feared this impending horror?

The truth is that yes, Jacob had reason to fear. But G-d’s promise — that He would be with Jacob’s children all along and that ultimately they would emerge a great nation — gave Jacob the strength to overcome it. G-d, in His Wisdom, sent the Jewish people to Egypt to build them into a great nation. Life in Egypt would be difficult, torturous and deadly at times, but our Father swore to never let go of our hands throughout the surgery. He promised that the Jewish People would leave with new strength and a promising future. A nation committed to G-d, one that would introduce and instill spiritual purpose into the world, would come out at the other end.

Pain is commonplace, and it’s our Egypt. “That’s life!” as they say, but it’s far too glib. Take a moment to consider some of the difficulties you’ve gone through, where the pain has now subsided. Did that experience change the way you look at and value life, your family, or your community? Did you grow or learn from the trying times? Jacob learned the importance of remembering that G-d is with us throughout our suffering, and to focus on the rewards on the other side. We often merit seeing the blessing hidden in the sorrow, if we take a moment to appreciate it.

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Living in Fear”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
and the Sandy Hook School Shootings
ProjectGenesis.org

Experiencing continual anxiety and fear is a terrible thing. According to Rabbi Dixler, we should look back on some crisis we’ve experienced in life and see how we made it through it all, and then determine how we changed and grew as a result. Difficult times are often a “hidden blessing.” Yes, I suppose that’s true. But if we take the example of Jacob and God as we see in Genesis 46:3, even though Jacob knew that his family; his descendents would suffer slavery and oppression in Egypt for centuries, he had God’s direct assurance that they would rise up out of Egypt and become a great nation.

But what happens when you are the one facing a challenge in your life or in your family? God rarely gives us, as individual believers, His personal assurance as to how things will turn out. The vast majority of the time, we don’t have a clue what’s going to happen from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Did the parents of those 26 children murdered at their school in Newtown, Connecticut have any idea at all that when they sent their precious ones off on that fateful Friday morning, they’d never see them alive again?

Of course not. If they did, the parents would never have let them go.

We don’t know what’s going to happen an hour from now, a day from now, a year from now. When tragedy strikes or even threatens to strike, such as an ambiguous and disturbing medical test result requiring a visit to a specialist in the near future, you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen and how it’s going to turn out. So you live with the concern and anxiety of not knowing, sitting on proverbial “pins and needles.” Rabbi Dixler has a suggestion for how we are to endure tragedy and I suppose, the threat of future tragedy as well.

It’s now just a week since the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, and we’re all afflicted with new fears and feelings of helplessness. We don’t know why this had to happen, but perhaps there’s one thought that can give us strength: Someone Who loves us is holding our hand, and the hands of our precious children. Turn to Him for reassurance. May we soon see the other end of this pain, and may we all find new strength and a more promising future.

In other words, there are no guarantees from God that we won’t suffer from tragedy and pain. The only promise is that God loves us and will stand with us, holding our hand, so to speak, while going through the anguish with us.

Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment of their captivity in Egypt. Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment during the Holocaust. And yet millions suffered and died, including many, many innocent children.

job_sufferingI’ve been reading the book of Job for the past couple of weeks and in the midst of all of his quite undeserved suffering, he had no idea what was happening to him or why. He was completely bewildered about why God should allow such terrible things to happen to him, since he could figure out no reason for it. His friends, on the other hand, were quite content to blame Job, most likely sincerely believing that the reason for Job’s pain and anguish was because of some sin. I haven’t gotten to the end of the book yet and I read Job very infrequently, but as I recall, it was only at the very end that God “explained Himself” and He also explained that “He who makes the universe also makes the rules.” In other words, you don’t get to question God. Sometimes God just “happens.”

Some cynics say that religion is a crutch for people who fear death. That may sometimes be the case, but it certainly does not apply to those who study Torah. The Torah does not say much about life after death. It’s really not a book about how to go to heaven or what happens after we die. The Torah is more concerned with how we live in this lifetime, not the next. It is possible to read the entire Torah and conclude that there is no afterlife or resurrection from the dead. In the days of the apostles, a sect of Judaism called the Sadducees did exactly that. They read the Torah, did not see anything about an afterlife, and concluded that there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, no resurrection from the dead.

“Resurrection in the Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

There isn’t even the promise of life after death, at least as far as a plain reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is concerned, which is what led the Sadducees to their conclusion. However, as the FFOZ commentator points out, a study of the Torah tells us more about how to live than how to die, or more accurately, it is a study of how to live in this life not the next one.

But now we have a puzzle. If the foundation of the Bible is a lesson on how to live our lives as we exist in this world and there are no guarantees as to how this life will turn out for us, shouldn’t we continually be in fear, trembling all of the time about what apparently random circumstance is going to happen next? It’s either that or live in denial of everything I just said and either pretend that we have control of our lives or that God, being in control, will never, ever let anything bad happen to us.

Death would almost be preferable, because then, there’s no uncertainty, no fear, no pain (assuming there is no life after death). Just an end and nothingness.

But the FFOZ commentator continues.

Once, a Pharisee named Rabbi Simai was arguing with the Sadducees. They asked him to prove from the Torah that the dead would be raised.

Rabbi Simai said, “From where in Torah do we learn the resurrection of the dead? From the verse, ‘I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan.’ It doesn’t say ‘[to give] you’; it says ‘to give them.’ Therefore [since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob haven’t yet received the land] the resurrection of the dead is proved from the Torah.” (b.Sanhedrin 90b, quoting Exodus 6:4)

Rabbi Simai’s point is that God promised to give the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—not just to their descendents. Yet, as the writer of the book of Hebrews points out, the patriarchs “died in faith, without receiving the promises” (Hebrews 11:13). God must keep His promise, but in order to do so, He will have to raise the patriarchs from the dead. This explains why Jacob was so adamant about being buried in the tomb of his fathers in the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Simai’s argument with the Sadducees sounds similar to Yeshua’s. When the Sadducees asked Yeshua to prove from the Torah that the dead are raised, He pointed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Mark 12:26–27, quoting Exodus 3:6)

There is a hope of a life after this one, both in Jewish and Christian tradition. Sure, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge and we don’t really know exactly how it all works, but I guess that’s where faith and trust comes in.

always-hopeFaith and trust also “fills in the gaps” of our lives in this world and this life as well. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is a mystery and not always in an exciting and fun way. The mystery can be horrifying and terrible. Disaster has struck. We tell ourselves we can only go up from the bottom, but what if the bottom drops out? We can still fall further. We can still suffer more. After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey, it’s not like everything got immediately better for the victims. Many are still struggling to recover. It may take years for some people to restore everything they lost. Maybe some of them never will.

Where is God?

I ask that question a lot. If Rabbi Dixler’s interpretation is correct, then God is with us all the time, even in the midst of hideous pain and suffering. According to Rabbi Dixler, God is not just an impassive observer, watching us as we writhe in agony or shiver in fear. He’s an active if unseen (and unfelt) participant in our pain, experiencing it with us, expressing compassion, demonstrating love, though we may not be consciously aware of it.

We just have to believe He is there and that He somehow helps. We just have to somehow trust in His presence and His concern, that He will not leave us alone, even though we can feel very much alone.

Not a great message to start out your week with, especially since this is Christmas Eve (for those of you who celebrate Christmas). A message of uncertainly with only faith to hang on to in a season most Christians believe is one of ultimate hope, joy, and glory.

That’s the “official story” of Christianity at this time of year. I didn’t go to church again this Sunday. I have my reasons, but basically, I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like listening to and singing Christmas Caroles, hearing the “oh boy, isn’t it great that Christmas is almost here” messages, and “joy, joy, joy to the world” and all that jazz.

God, I would love some “joy, joy, joy” in my life and in the world, but I’ll settle for the knowledge and assuredness that no matter what I and my family must face now and in the future, that you will truly be with us all, strengthening us and comforting us in the bad times, and rejoicing with us in the good times.

Amen.

Nobody Ought to be Alone on Christmas

aloneThings are different since you’ve been here last, Childhood dreaming is a thing of the past

Maybe you can bring us some hope this year, Visions of sugar plums have disappeared

I’m all grown up but I’m the same you’ll see, I’m writing you this letter ’cause I still believe

Dear Santa, I’ve been good this year, Can’t you stay alittle while, with me right here?

Nobody ought to be alone on Christmas

-from the song All Alone on Christmas (1992)
Written and arranged by Steve Van Zandt
Recorded by Darlene Love with members of
the E Street Band and the Miami Horns

This song is one of my guilty pleasures. I love it. I didn’t particularly like the film Home Alone 2 (1992) in which the song is featured, but it has a killer sax solo. No, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I still like the song.

But I can’t listen to the song this year without tears welling up in my eyes (particularly embarrassing, since I’m at work as I write this). I can’t remember which news story I read it in, but I keep remembering something a reporter wrote about how some children’s Christmas presents will never be opened this year in Newtown, Connecticut because the light of those children’s lives was removed from the world last week. Because someone found it necessary to kill 26 children in Newtown, there will be parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and friends who will feel all alone this Christmas.

Imagine anticipating the “thumping” sound of little feet coming down the stairs before dawn on December 25th to see if Santa had brought the presents and then never hearing that sound. Imagine having wrapped each gift for your little boy or girl with care, decorating the package, and writing something loving and special on the Christmas card…but now there’s no one to rip open the wrapping paper and scatter it all over the living room in glee. As a parent, could you bear to unwrap the new toys and donate them to Toys for Tots? What would you do with them?

What would you do with “Christmas?” As a parent and a grandparent, the deaths of these 26 children tears me apart. In my imagination, I’d pull down the Christmas tree and burn it, rip all of the lights from my home and shatter them, eliminate any trace of this “festive season” from my environment, and perform the modern, moral equivalent of putting on sackcloth and ashes (whatever that might be).

But what if your small missing child has brothers and sisters? What do you say to them? How can you “celebrate” with them, or can you? Do you destroy their Christmas because of your grief? What about their grief? How can you comfort your other little ones and your spouse when pain and anguish crowd out everything else in your heart?

I’m normally pretty neutral about Christmas these days but this year, I hate it. I hate all of the expectations people have for “the season to be jolly.” In retrospect, I probably should always have hated it. Who is happy and cheerful now? Doesn’t every home know death? Don’t thousands of children die all over the world every day? Aren’t their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of hearts in the world right now who feel alone and empty for so many reasons? This “season” tells you that you must be happy and joyful and festive.

Eat heaping plates of turkey or ham on Christmas this year if you so choose. I’ll be dining on ashes.

No, that’s too cruel.

I don’t celebrate Christmas but maybe you do. Maybe you have many reasons to be happy and grateful (I’m grateful that my family is alive and safe this year). I have no right to take that away from you. I have no right to believe that the victims and mourners in Newtown haven’t come together to comfort and console each other. I have no right to believe that anyone will be alone this Christmas in Newtown, though I know without a single doubt that there will be an emptiness in each of those homes.

Today, we observed a moment of silence for the victims. Also, bells tolled 26 times, once for each child who died. On Christmas, if you celebrate Christmas, I don’t want to take away from your joy, but in the midst of your joy, take a moment, or two, or twenty-six, or twenty-eight.

And remember them.

Charlotte Bacon, age 6, Daniel Barden, age 7, Rachel D’Avino, age 29, Olivia Engel, age 6, Josephine Gay, age 7, Dylan Hockley, age 6, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, age 47, Madeleine Hsu, age 6, Catherine Hubbard, age 6, Chase Kowalski, age 7, Jesse Lewis, age 6, Ana Marquez-Greene, age 6, James Mattioli, age 6, Grace McDonnell, age 7, Anne Marie Murphy, age 52, Emilie Parker, age 6, Jack Pinto, age 6, Noah Pozner, age 6, Caroline Previdi, age 6, Jessica Rekos, age 6, Lauren Rousseau, age 30, Mary Sherlach, age 56, Victoria Soto, age 27, Benjamin Wheeler, age 6, Allison Wyatt, age 6.

You can find out more about each of them at wptv.com.

Not everyone on that list celebrated Christmas but that’s not really the point. The point is that each of them had the right to live. The point is that each of them was someone’s son or daughter and that each one of them was loved. The point is that there are people left behind to grieve and to mourn and to cry. And the point is that, in spite of all the multi-colored lights that sparkle on homes and businesses and trees right now, the little more darkness has entered our world and a little more light has been taken away from each of us.

sandy-hook-victims

And nobody ought to be alone.

A Human Heart…and Courage

vicki-sotoWhen a crazed gunman opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school – murdering 26 children and adults – first grade teacher Vicki Soto responded with an astonishingly selfless act.

Upon hearing the first rounds of gunfire in an adjacent classroom, the 27-year-old teacher went into lockdown mode, quickly ushering her students into a closet. Then suddenly, as she came face to face with the gunman and the bullets flew, she used her body to shield the children.

Vicki Soto was found dead, huddled over her students, protecting them.

We all mourn this unspeakable tragedy.

Yet where did this young woman get the strength and conviction to perform such an extraordinary act of bravery?

-Rabbi Shraga Simmons
“A Hero in Connecticut”
Aish.com

The world we live in is certainly broken. This broken state is causing us to ask questions on ways to begin to fix it. The issues are complex and go way beyond single issues or problems like guns, video games, violence in movies, etc. The generational problems and patterns have brought us to this place. It will take new behaviors and patterns to eventually repair it. It will not come fast, or easy.

I think the world has become increasingly rude and mean. This has devastating effects on our culture—and leads to permanent scars and horrifying behaviors.

I recently read an article by Dr. Douglas Fields entitled, Rudeness is a Neurotoxin, where he states, “A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.”

-Boaz Michael
“Why are Some People so Rude?”
boazmichael.org

Boaz wrote about one of my “favorite themes” on his personal blog earlier today, but in light of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (which he was obviously alluding to) and the resulting verbal response (onslaught) in the news media and on the web, he probably didn’t take it far enough.

I don’t mean to say that rude people are potentially dangerous and violent people, but on the other hand, the Master had this today about both situations.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:21-22 (ESV)

Does anger equal murder? Certainly anger and jealousy has led to murder, including the first one ever recorded, but in adding rudeness to this discussion, am I taking things too far? Am I exaggerating my issues with rudeness? And what does any of this have to do with Vicki Soto and her courageous and selfless act of heroism?

One of the definitions of “rude” or “rudeness” at The Free Dictionary is “Ill-mannered; discourteous.” When we think of a rude person, it’s difficult not to think of someone who is more focused on their own emotional gratification than on the well-being of others. A rude person shoves and cuts in line. A rude person at a shared meal, takes the largest portion. A rude person reveals an embarrassing detail about a friend in public.

In other words, a rude person cares more about themselves than about others.

Kind of the opposite of 27-year old teacher Vicki Soto who purposely put herself in harm’s way and gave her life for the care and safety of small children. She literally used herself as a human shield, taking the bullets that would have otherwise penetrated the bodies of the tiniest, most cherished ones; our children (and they are all our children).

Boaz says on his blog, Rude people are not godly people. Then he continues:

A reminder from a biblical source:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV)

A reminder through Jewish wisdom:

It is a mitzvah for every person to love every Jew as himself, as it is written “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore we must relate his virtues. To be concerned about his property the way we are about our own, and about his honor the way we are about our own. If a person glorifies himself in the shame of his neighbor even if his neighbor is not there, and the shame does not reach him, and is not embarrassed, but he compared his good deeds and his wisdom to compare with the good deeds, and wisdom of his neighbor, so that from this it may appear that he is a very honorable person and his neighbor a despicable person. This person has no share in the world to come, until he repents with complete repentance. (Kitzure Shulchan Aruch 29:12)

A reminder through apocryphal literature:

Yeshua said, “Love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye.” Gospel of Thomas 25

Rabbi Simmons summed up the life of Vicki Soto and her inspiration to us in this way.

Vicki Soto’s great act of devotion should inspire us to take 10 minutes today and ponder: “What am I living for?”

Finding the answer is a big project. But there’s no better use of our time and energy. Because if we don’t know what higher purpose we’re pursuing, then we’re living like zombies, just going through the motions.

Vicki Soto was up to the challenge. “She didn’t call them her students,” her sister Carlee told NBC. “She called them her kids. She loved those students more than anything.”

She loved her students so much that she referred to them as her “little angels.” In reaching the ultimate level of devotion and saving their lives, Vicki Soto reached beyond the angels.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingWhen we get into our little “Internet spats” in the blogosphere, in discussion boards, or in social networking applications such as Facebook, we often believe we are fighting for what is really important to us. Somehow, we use that as a way to internally justify our rudeness. But as Rabbi Simmons points out, when we find something or someone, some small collection of “little angels” who really are important, then exhibiting behaviors indicative of selfishness and self-gratification doesn’t even enter the picture. Quite the opposite. Courage, like love, is selfless, patient, and kind. Like Vicki Soto, love and courage bears all things and endures all things.

And it never ends even though life may end.

But everything else we do ends. As Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. “ (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 ESV)

I have been trying to stop being so foolish as to participate in online interactions with human attack dogs. Vicki Soto’s remarkable self-sacrifice has provided me another reason not just to cease such fruitless activities, but to strive to become a better person, both in my private life and in my “blogging persona.”

Nothing I can say, no goal I could ever achieve, both professionally as a writer or in any personal sense could equal Vicki’s greatest qualities, which writer Archie Goodwin once described as:

“A human heart…and courage.”

Most of us will never find ourselves in a situation where we have to choose between our life and someone else’s, but as Rabbi Simmons suggests, we can take a few minutes out of our busy day to ask ourselves, “what am I living for?” If you want to give Vicki’s life and the lives of all who have suffered and died for the sake of love, caring, and compassion any sort of meaning, let your answer be to help another human being in some way, great or small.

And, to go Paul McCartney one better, in the end, may the love you make be greater than the love you take.

Separating Good from God

returning-the-torahThe campaign of the Greeks was aimed to “make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will” (Sidur p. 59); as the Midrash (Bereishit Raba 16) puts it, (the Greeks demanded) “Write…that you have no share in the G-d of Israel.” It was a war against G-d. “Let them study Torah,” the Greeks implied. “Let them practice the justice-mitzvot and the ‘testimonial’ observances. But they must not mention that the Torah is G-d’s Torah and the mitzvot are the decrees of His will. Torah and mitzvot must be severed from G-dliness.”

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tevet 2, Seventh Day of Chanuka, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Why should any religion get the credit for people doing good, but not get the credit for people doing bad?

I think it should be consistent either way, don’t you? Either the church gets all the credit or none of it. You can’t just give it the good and ignore the bad.

-comment from NotAScientist
on my blog post
When Christians Do Good

Typically, one of the criticisms non-religious people level against Christians and other people of faith is that we need some sort of excuse to do the right thing. We use our faith and our religion as an external motivator to do good when, as human beings, we should just know how to do good and do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

This gets muddied up further when definitions about what “right” happens to be differ between religious and non-religious populations and certain social priorities and “causes” become involved. Then too, the matter of the “supernatural” vs. the “rational” is also injected into the argument, with rational, scientific atheism and secular humanism weighing in on the side of “thinking” as opposed to “believing”.

In doing a little research into “atheist advertising” for this blog post, I found a number of clever slogans that atheists use to promote their particular viewpoint. One was on the side of a New York City bus and read…

“You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person”

The ad then provided the URL to the New York City Atheists website (see the story at The New York Times for details).

But that takes us back to the “Today’s Day” quote at the top of this blog post and interestingly enough, Chanukah.

As you’re reading this, Chanukah has just ended (at sundown Sunday night) but the lessons it teaches us are still fresh in my mind. Why would the Greeks be content to continue to allow the Jews to perform the Torah mitzvot and to do justice, as long as they divorced those moral and ethical deeds and the Torah itself from the God of Israel? If you donate food to your local food bank because you believe that helping others is the right thing to do, and I perform the same act in response to the will of God, what difference does it make? Hungry people are still fed either way, right?

atheist_christmas_adWell yes, hungry people are still fed either way. Someone can enjoy a donated meal without wondering about the motivation of the person who provided it. Their belly will be just as full and they can feel just as grateful to the person who helped them out. I can understand why an atheist would make such a statement, but why would the ancient Greeks, who had no end of gods of their own, want to say something like that about the Jews? Why separate the good deed from the ultimate author of the good deed, God?

Pinchas arose and wrought judgment, and so the plague was checked.

Psalms 106:30

The word tefillah, or “prayer,” has its origin in the word pallel, which means “to seek justice.” Prayer should therefore be an activity whereby one seeks justice. The first recorded prayer in Jewish history is that of the Patriarch Abraham. He sought justice for the people of Sodom and pleaded with God to spare them (Genesis 18:23-33). Thus, when we pray, whether for ourselves or for others, it should be with the understanding that we are seeking justice.

How, then, can we ask of God to grant our various requests? Are we deserving of this? Do we deserve them? Are they within the realm of justice?

Two answers come to mind. If, as part of our prayers, we admit the wrongs we have done, sincerely regret them, and commit ourselves not to repeat them, then we may indeed be deserving. We therefore do not make our requests on the basis of what we are, but on the basis of what we will be. Second, if we extend ourselves by forgiving people who have offended us and acting with kindness toward them, then God’s acting accordingly toward us can in itself be considered justice.

Thus, teshuvah (the process of regret and return) and gemilas chasadim (acts of kindness) are the foundations of prayer.

Today I shall…

try to do teshuvah, and to act toward others in a way that I wish God to act toward me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 1”
Aish.com

I don’t have some wise commentary or a learned sage to draw from to answer the question I posed above, but there seems to be one difference between the atheist’s motivations and the reason a person of faith does good: the definer and creator of good.

If man is the final arbitrator of what is good and evil, then good and evil changes over time, changes between nations and cultures, and changes from one individual to the next. What I may consider good, another person may see as evil. What I can justify within my own conscience may be considered tremendously heinous within another’s moral structure.

But God is God. He does not change and thus what is good does not change.

And what is good?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Mark 10:18 (ESV)

OK, it’s not that simple. I’ve mentioned before that religion and how we understand God evolves over time. Besides that, even just within Christianity, various denominations and even individuals who go to the same church can differ on a number of political and social issues in terms of what is “good” and “evil.” Should you pray for the well-being of President Obama or pray against his health and safety? You may believe the answer to that question is clear, but I promise you that no matter what your answer may be, there is a believer out there who has the opposite answer, and yet both of you believe you are in the right because of God and the Bible.

But even though we have that monkey wrench in the machine, I still believe it is better to seek out God in matters of right and wrong than to universally rely on our own judgment and feelings. I’ve been writing recently about the Sandy Hook school shootings and it is only the most recent of the many debates you will find on how to address violence in our society. What is the right thing to do? What is the ethical and moral thing to do in response to the death of 26 people, including 20 small children?

symmes_chapel_churchI don’t know.

I do know that even those of us who turn to the God of the Bible for our strength and our hope don’t always agree on the answer. How much more must a secular world with only the standard of public opinion dispute each other, disagree, and contend?

I don’t know the answer. But I am thankful that when I have to ask the question, I don’t have to ask another human being who is just as hurt, sorrowful, and angry as I am.

If my sense of right and wrong became detached from God, even if my basic behavior and my concept of what is good did not change, I would be at the mercy of the opinion of whatever group of people I chose to listen to or worse, I would have to depend upon the voice of my own personal thoughts and feelings.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2 (ESV)

It was God who took a family and made them a people and a nation too numerous to count. If the Greeks had succeeded and caused the Jews to detach the Torah from God, Israel too would become detached and ultimately lost. It is God who redeems the soul of every living person and from whose hand we receive what each of us needs at its proper time. Without God, we too would be lost.