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Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”
Chabad.org

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
Saratogachabad.com
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”
Chabad.org

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.

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Waiting for the Dawn

Waiting for the dawn“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Matthew 6:25-27

Rav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, provides an incisive explanation of a statement on today’s daf. “On Menachos 103 we find that the curse in the verse (Devarim 28:66) – ‘And you will not believe in your life’—refers to one who must purchase bread daily from a baker.

“On the surface this seems very difficult to understand. Surely during our sojourn in the desert when the manna came down each day we were not in this category. Yet wouldn’t a person who had children wonder about his livelihood for the next day, since he was relying on another miracle for his family’s food? How can we understand this? Is it plausible to say that God told us about a punishment which will happen in terrible times if it was a curse we suffered daily for forty years?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Daily Bread”
Menachos 103

Give us today our daily bread.Matthew 6:11

Despite the words quoted above, I still worry. Not all the time, but sometimes. To be fair, I don’t doubt that you worry, too.

Yesterday morning, I woke up with the realization that I now have no congregation with which to worship on Shabbat. For reasons too numerous to mention, I found it necessary to end my relationship with a congregation where I had fellowship and taught for many years (though I did mention something about it in the first post in this blog series). I do have a “plan” in mind for my future, but I am also acutely aware that my plans aren’t the deciding factor in what is going to actually happen:

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” –Luke 12:16-20

I find it somewhat ironic that after Jesus told this parable, he delivered a message to his audience saying not to worry (Luke 12:22-32, also related in Matthew 6:25-34). I suppose the irony goes away when you consider the overall message is that we should not trust in our own abilities and plans to take care of our needs but rather, we should rely on God. That said, I still invest in a 401K and other, similar plans with an eye on retiring someday.

For the past two years, and very specifically during the past year, I have been considering and pondering the decision I’ve just recently made. If you’ve been reading the other posts on this blog or any of my “essays” on my previous personal blog, you’ll realize that I don’t think “the church” would be a good fit for my worship and faith needs. My viewpoint on God, Jesus, the Bible, and Judaism is too out-of-step with Christianity’s perspective on such things. I don’t believe the Law is dead (for Jews, that is). I don’t believe God undid or took back all of the covenent promises He made to the Children of Israel and transferred them to “the church” (non-Jewish Christians). I certainly don’t believe that God now requires that all Jewish people who want to worship the Jewish Messiah and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must renounce their religious, ethnic, and cultural Jewish heritage.

I’m an oddball.

But where does that leave me?

I have not be able to worship with my wife for many years due to the gulf that exists between her faith context and mine. Part of the reason I recently left my former congregation was in an effort to reduce that gulf and hopefully even to fully bridge the gap. While I’m not giving up my faith, I would be content to worship with her in the same “house of study” since after all, God is One.

But that’s not entirely up to me.

WorryingIn turning myself over to God’s mercy in part, I am also turning myself over to my wife’s. In the latter case, “mercy” is probably not the right word, but she will have to want to worship with me in the same way I desire to share worship and prayer with her.

If she makes the decision not to, or just never considers the possibility that we can share time in worship as a married couple, then I will remain a man adrift at sea without motive power or even a rudder by which to steer. I can hardly believe that God would allow this to continue perpetually, but I’ve been wrong before.

Should I be worried?

“The answer is that it all depends on one’s attitude. As our sages say, one who has sustenance for today yet worries about tomorrow is a person of little faith. For such a person, lacking food for the future is surely a terrible curse since he spends his time worrying. But for one who has faith, this is not a curse at all. Since he trusts in God he does not worry. Instead of being a curse, this situation will be a blessing since it forces him to turn his heart to God.” -Rav Yisrael Salanter

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. –Matthew 6:28-34

It’s easy to feel insignificant in God’s vast universe and to wonder how or even if God hears our prayers, but as Rav Salanter says, it all depends on one’s attitude and how we have prepared and nurtured faith and trust in our hearts.

That’s where I am right now. I’m looking down the road at a future, looking for a light in the darkness, turning my heart to God, and waiting for the dawn.

We are said to be studying Mussar when we delve into the descriptions of the human condition as they appear in the blueprint for the world, the Torah -Rabbi Ephraim Becker

The important thing is not to stop questioning. -Albert Einstein

Significance in the Vortex of God

The VortexThere we saw giants… and we were in our own eyes as locustsNumbers 11:33

Someone once asked Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch: “What is true learning?”

The Rebbe replied: “When one studies a section of Talmud or an idea in chassidus, one is there, together with its illustrious author. He is building upon the sage’s wisdom like a midget perched upon a giant – he is riding on the giant’s shoulders. “One must be grateful to the giant that he doesn’t fling the nuisance from his shoulders.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Irksome Burden”
Commentary on Parshah Shelach

Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole.

Attuned in perfect consonance, they dance a pas de deux of exquisite form, each responding to every subtle nuance of the other, mirroring and magnifying the most subliminal inner thought, until it is impossible to distinguish them as two.

Within the human being is the consciousness of G-d looking back upon Himself from within the world He has made.

We sit upon the vortex of Creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Heaven Above, Man Below”
Chabad.org

We have this idea that we are connected to God. I wrote yesterday that part of the function of God’s commandments is to connect people with the Almighty. Yet, the two commentaries I quoted above seem to paint different pictures about the relationship between created being and Creator. Are we annoying gnats sitting on the shoulders of giants, or are we fully integrated into the very fabric of God’s eternity?

I have a hard time judging my relative position to God. Oh, I realize that in absolute terms, God is infinite and I am beyond insignificant by comparison. It is only through God’s mercy and grace that He’s even aware of me at all:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? –Psalm 8:1-4

Yet without human beings, what is the point of Creation?

As much as I try, there are days when I wonder how or why God would attend to any single individual. Yes, I know that “God so loved the world” and all of that (John 3:16), but does every single, specific person who is alive or who has ever lived really have a critical, irreplaceable part in God’s majestic, eternal, infinite plan?

Do I?

Someone once posed the following question to Rav Yechezkel Landau, the author of Teshuvas Noda B’Yehudah. He wanted to know whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah that are invalid and incapable of repair into the Aron Kodesh that was made to store valid Sifrei Torah. The questioner initially cited our Gemara as proof that it should be permitted. The Gemara relates that the broken set of Tablets was placed in the Aron Kodesh together with the second set of Tablets that was complete. Even though the Aron Kodesh was made for the second set of tablets, nevertheless, the broken Tablets were stored inside indicating that as long as an item had sanctity before it became broken or invalid it may continue to be stored in the place designated for intact and valid sacred items.

The questioner then rejected this parallel since it is possible that the broken Tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh because they were made by God and that added sanctity allowed them to be stored in the Aron Kodesh even though they were broken. This would not allow for the storage of an invalid Sefer Torah to be stored in an Aron Kodesh since the Sefer Torah was not made by God. Noda B’Yehudah rejected this distinction and cited our Gemara to prove his point. After the Gemara teaches that the broken Tablets were stored in the Aron Kodesh the Gemara comments that this teaches that one must continue to treat a Torah scholar who forgot his learning with respect since he is similar to the broken Tablets. The Torah scholar was not the creation of God and yet the Gemara finds it to be a valid parallel to the broken Tablets and as such an invalid Sefer Torah could also be equated with the broken Tablets.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Storing an invalid Sefer Torah in an Aron Kodesh”
Menachos 99

I’ve felt like an invalid Sefer Torah “incapable of repair”. My life has been like a “broken set of Tablets”. Am I worthy of being contained in a holy place just because I was made by God? Am I like a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning? Once having been made holy, can my holiness be diminished?

Menachos 99 answers the latter question, “No”:

The Mishnah tells us that the lechem hapanim loaves were placed upon a marble stand as they were being brought to be placed upon the Shulchan in the Sanctuary. The set of loaves which were removed were placed upon a golden table after being taken out of the Sanctuary. This was a fulfillment of the adage, “we rise in holiness, and we do not descend.”

I admit to taking liberties with the interpretation and applying what is being said here to human beings , but I think this is a valid perspective (considering the Torah scholar with memory problems). If we are each made by God in His image, then individual people are sacred because we are His creations. If, as Rabbi Freeman states, “Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole”, then people enjoy a special unity with God that nothing else in Creation can possess. If this is true, then how can we dare to feel broken, or lost, or alone, or afraid?

And yet, we do. I know I do.

The Noda B’Yehudah is at odds with the parallel between the broken Tablets and the invalid Sefer Torah because:

…he maintains that the Aron Kodesh was built to store the broken Tablets and since that was the original intent it is permitted for them to be stored therein. An Aron Kodesh in a Beis HaKnesses was designed to store valid Sifrei Torah and as such one that is invalid and irreparable should not be stored in the Aron Kodesh. He observes, however, that common custom allows for the storage of invalid Sifrei Torah in an Aron Kodesh…

This seems to match up with Rabbi Tauber’s interpretation that we exist like insects riding the shoulders of giants every time we even learn one small section of Talmud or other holy lesson, building on the insights of those people much wiser and more righteous than we. We exist as a “convention” in the sense that broken pieces of the Tablet are stored in the holy ark simply because the ark was designed for that purpose and not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

It’s more than a little puzzling. Are we important to God (or for that matter, other people) as individuals or not? Sometimes the answer seems to be “Yes” and at other times, “No”. Perhaps it’s the difference between allowing the full experience of connection between ourselves and God vs. the realization that God is amazingly, awesomely, vast, and my own presence on earth, by comparison, is like a hardly visible bit of flotsam barely staying above the waves of some expansive, turbulent, unfeeling sea.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

I could use some of that “lightness of burden” right now. Contemplating the unimaginable intensity of God and sitting upon the vortex of Creation has become too much for me.

Good Shabbos.

Candle in Obsidian

Rising SparksFrom the moment that they were sundered apart, the earth has craved to reunite with heaven; physical with spiritual, body with soul, the life that breathes within us with the transcendental that lies beyond life, beyond being.

And yet more so does the Infinite Light yearn to find itself within that world, that pulse of life, within finite, earthly existence. There, more than any spiritual world, is the place of G-d’s delight.

Towards this ultimate union all of history flows, all living things crave, all of human activities are subliminally directed. When it will finally occur, it will be the quintessence of every marriage that has ever occurred.

May it be soon in our times, sooner than we can imagine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Cosmic Marriage”
Chabad.org

The 213th mitzvah is that we are commanded to acquire [by kiddushin] a woman before marrying her [n’suin]: either by giving her something [of sufficient value]; by giving her a document [of marriage]; or by having marital relations [for the purpose of kiddushin]. This is the mitzvah of kiddushin.

This mitzvah is hinted to in the Torah in the verse, “When a man acquires a woman and has relations with her….” This implies that he can acquire her through having relations.

-Rabbi Berel Bell
“Marriage: Positive Commandment 213”
Sefer Hamitzvot in English
Chabad.org.

Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.Mark 10:9

There are all kinds of “marital metaphors” in the Bible. In the Tanakh, Israel is often described as God’s bride (sometimes as a faithless lover) and in the Apostolic Scriptures, “the church” is referred to as the Bride of Christ. This language implies a special type of intimacy between God and his redeemed community (depending on your point of view regarding who is “redeemed”). While we’d like to think of ourselves as “intimate” with God, Rabbi Freeman points out that as long as heaven and earth are separate environments, man and God are like forlorn lovers, separated by a broad and dark sea, yearning for each other as if estranged paramours in a tale by Chaucer.

I once quoted Paul Philip Levertoff’s commentary on this from his work Love and the Messianic Age thus:

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

We are all made in the image of God and what He has placed in us yearns to return to the Source. Those of us who call ourselves “believers” are receptacles for His Holy Spirit and as such we find that we are with God and of God, yet still apart. It’s as if we can see each other and yearn for each other, but are still somehow separated. The Vine of David commentary on Levertoff says it this way:

Although every man has the divine potential of a godly soul planted within him, this is not a guarantee that every man will enter into a relationship with HaShem or even that every soul will be redeemed. Instead, the soul is separated from God by a wall of partition – sin and guilt. HaShem removes the wall of partition between man and Himself through the work of the Messiah. When the wall is removed, then the soul can connect with HaShem. Then He can “use it for the gathering of these ‘sparks’.”

But even after we confess our sin to God and receive forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation, there is still a “wall of partition” between us. We live in a broken world and that “brokeness” in Creation and in the nature of man, mars the intimacy of who would otherwise be perfect lovers.

Rabbi Bell’s interpretation of the 213th positive commandment speaks of how Jews see the mitzvah of marriage. A man may join with a woman by presenting her with a gift, a document of marriage, or by being physically intimate with her for the purpose of marriage. In the case of the Children of Israel, God in the role of the groom, presented His gift, the Torah, to the entire assembly, His bride, at Sinai. For the nations of the world, the marriage document “became a human being and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and the other document (of divorce) that condemned us and separated us from this gift was destroyed when “the Word made flesh” died on our behalf (Colossians 2:14).

We have access to an intimate relationship with God. So why do I often feel alone? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have such a relationship between ourselves or even within ourselves.

Candle in ObsidianWhile God is perfect, the human beings in the community of faith are not. We are as flawed and as broken as the world we live in. We seek to fly up like sparks into heaven while our feet are stuck in the mud and roots of a sullied earth. The Master said Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate, yet we put barriers between each other and between us and God all the time. We may gather together all of the “Divine Sparks” in the world but still struggle to reunite them to Heaven:

At a certain point, each of us, through all our many journeys through life, will have found and redeemed all the Divine sparks in our share of the world. Then the darkness that holds such mastery, such cruelty, such irrational evil that it cannot be elevated—all this will simply vanish from its place, like a puff of steam in the midday air.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Completion”
Chabad.org

Rabbi Freeman paints a very optimistic picture but the truth is, gathering together these sparks is easier said than done. If it weren’t, we would all be shining with God’s light and the darkness would not exist. Rabbi Freeman completes his thought:

All that we salvaged and used for good, on the other hand, will shine with a tremendous light beyond even the light of the G-dly realm. The world will have arrived.

More’s the pity that we must await the Messiah to ignite the final bowl of the Menorah. Our own light is not enough to illuminate the abyss of a world shrouded in darkness. What should be the courtship of estranged but impassioned lovers burning like a forest fire has become a dim flame frozen in obsidian:

I sit before my only candle,
like a pilgrim sits beside the way
Now this journey appears before my candle
As a song that’s growing fainter, the harder I play
That I fear before I end, will fade away
I guess I’ll get there, but I wouldn’t say for sure

-from “Song for Adam”
by Jackson Browne

Two Worlds

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the book:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

Steinberg’s classic is set at the beginning of the Talmudic age in Palestine during the Roman occupation, some fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The book’s protagonist, Elisha ben Abuyah was born a Jew but raised by a Jewish father who disdained the traditional beliefs and who pursued pagan philosophies instead. Nicholaus was Elisha’s Greek tutor when he was a child but the tutor was dismissed when Abuyah died (Elisha’s mother died in childbirth). Abuyah’s brother then took charge of Elisha, providing him with a Jewish education rooted in Torah and tradition.

Elisha eventually abandons his Greek education and as a disciple of the sage Joshua, he not only becomes a Rabbi in his own right, but a member of the Sanhedrin as well.

Yet a series of personal and political conflicts throws Elisha into a crisis of faith and pulls his heart between the Jewish and Greek worlds. A chance meeting with his old tutor Nicholaus many years later in a bookstore in Caesarea, provides the stage for a confrontation between the spiritually tortured Elisha and his former teacher. But rather than support Elisha’s pursuit of “truth” by guiding him back into Greek beliefs, Nicholaus pushes Elisha toward the only path that seems sensible and right for a Jew; the path of Moses.

In some ways, I can relate to both Elisha and Nicholaus. Like Nicholaus, as a non-Jew, I can see great beauty, wisdom, and meaning in the fabric of Jewish ritual, learning, and understanding. Like Elisha, I feel as if I’m struggling to stand between two worlds; the Christian world which is the source of my faith, and the Jewish world which provides clarity and purpose to that faith. I too know what it’s like to be self-tormented, searching the path looking for divine sparks and not letting myself be satisfied with what I already possess.

Elisha’s anguish, and my own, reflects that of Job’s in our shared search for meaning and God, expressed here in Elisha’s own words:

“‘Wherefore,’ he demanded, ‘hidest Thou Thyself from me? Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?’
“I know how he felt. The great curiosity is like that. It is not a matter of volition. It is a stark inner compulsion, dire necessary. And he against whom it moves has no more choice than a leaf driven by a gale. No, there is no retreat. Forward is the only way.”

Why do you hide your face
and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
Will you chase after dry chaff? –Job 13:24-25

For the past year, I have also been enduring a crisis of faith and like Elisha, seeking answers in unusual places..well, “unusual” relative to modern Christianity which doesn’t typically see a great deal of validity in seeking the Christ within the pages of Talmud and Kabbalah. Yet I have seen the Messiah in the Chasidic writings and found his fingerprints on the pages of the Zohar. How can I relent, when Jewish sages from Hillel to Maimonides teach wisdom that so clearly points to the Master?

In his desperation, Elisha desires to seek out those who his Jewish disciples and peers would categorically reject as pagans and heretics:

“Two courses are before me. I wish first of all to make contact with the Christians and the Gnostics here in Caesarea.”

“What good will that do you?” Nicholaus inquired, wary now.

“It is not impossible that they can teach me some principle to give me direction.”

While a Christian might read these words and rejoice that a Jew is seeking out the grace and salvation of Jesus, for Elisha, this could very well turn out to be a disaster. It is not so much that he sees in Christianity what Judaism lacks, but that he has not allowed his faith to rest on the foundation of his fathers, and for that matter, on the rock of Torah, which the Jewish Messiah continually taught and lived when he walked among men.

Ironically, Elisha’s quest threatened to cost him the very thing he already possessed in Judaism:

“A man has happiness if he possesses three things – those whom he loves and who love him in turn, confidence in the worth and continued existence of the group of which he is a part, and last of all, a truth by which he may order his being.”

AbyssIn a sense, I am prepared to do what Elisha has done and leave my group and to some degree, the truth they follow, in order to seek out what I believe is right for me. Like Elisha, I’m taking a risk of falling completely away from my current expression of faith in order to seek out a greater closeness with God. Like Elisha, I am convinced in the existence of God but am uncertain as to how He may be understood and approached.

Unlike Elisha, I was not born into a people and a tradition built on the holy mount in Jerusalem and forged by the Shechinah at Sinai.

Here’s the danger:

“But look here,” Nicholaus cried, discerning a possibility he had not envisaged before. “Suppose the results of your experiment are not consistent with the Jewish religion?”

Elisha’s voice was strained, as though his throat had tightened, but he did not falter.

“I have considered that possibility, too. I hope it may never become an actuality. Yet, should that be my destiny, I am prepared to assume it.”

Here is what I face:

“I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” –Luke 12:8-9

Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself. –2 Timothy 2:11-13

I don’t say this is a great danger to me, but the challenge exists. Nicholaus called Elisha’s effort an “experiment” but for me, what I am doing is taking a journey and I expect that I will be traveling all of my life. I walk the path before me and risk losing my way. I travel in darkness while seeking the light. I pray that God travels with me and shows me who He is and who I am in Him. May my footsteps follow His as I climb a holy mountain.

As a Driven Leaf is a cautionary tale; it’s Steinberg’s warning that a Jew cannot live in two worlds without the danger of falling away from everything that gives meaning to being a Jew. Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss gazes also into you.” Yet like Elisha, I am driven by forces I do not always understand and cannot control, to seek out God in the places where He may be found, even in the darkness of the abyss.

That’s why I write. That’s why I’m here. I am the leaf driven before the wind. Where will I finally alight and take rest?

Only time and God can answer me.