Tag Archives: significance

V’Zot HaBerachah: Hanging on a Peg

Sukkot In The Synagogue. Leopold Pilichowski (1869-1933). Oil On Canvas.“And this is to Yehudah, and he (Moshe) said, ‘Listen Almighty to the voice of Yehudah”

Deuteronomy 33:7

What does this verse refer to?

Rashi teaches us that Moshe is referring to the prayers of the kings of Yehudah: David, Asa, Yehoshofot and Chizkiyah.

The Midrash elaborates: There were four kings and each one asked the Almighty for different things. King David asked that he should be able to pursue his enemies and vanquish them. King Asa said, “I don’t have the ability to kill my enemies. Rather, I will pursue them and You Almighty should vanquish them.” King Yehoshofot stood up and said, “I don’t have the ability to vanquish my enemies or even to pursue them. Rather, I will pray and You Almighty should vanquish them.” Chizkiyah stood up and said, “I do not have the ability to vanquish, to pursue or to pray. Rather, I will stay home and sleep and You Almighty should vanquish my enemies.”

What is the meaning of not being able to pursue or pray? Why should anyone find this difficult since the Almighty will be involved? Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz used to explain: Regardless of what we ourselves do to be successful in any area, we must be aware that ultimately it is the Almighty Who causes the victory. Everything is dependent on His will, but we must do our share.

Dvar Torah based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Torah Portion V’Zot HaBerachah
Aish.com

But our share of what? In the above midrash, we are taught that regardless of how much or how little we are able to do in our lives, it is actually God who is the source of everything. There are some people who don’t like that idea, especially well accomplished people who have worked very hard to achieve a measure of success. Imagine a renowned classical pianist being told, “God was so good to you to have given you such talent,” and then hearing the pianist reply something like, “God, nothing. Where was God when I spent endless hours over the past forty years practicing and learning? Thanking God for my talent totally invalidates all of the hard work I did to achieve my current musical skill.”

From an atheist’s point of view, I can see how a Christian saying such a thing would be very insulting. It’s difficult to see the interplay between God’s sovereignty and His expectation of our participation. On the other hand, there’s also a very real danger that by giving God all the glory and then some (not that we shouldn’t give all the glory), we believe we have no responsibility to produce any of the effort God expects of us.

But as I said before, what effort is expected of us? Well, that depends.

… in order that his (the king’s) should not be lifted above his brethren, and that he should not deviate from the commandment to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:20

The Torah requires that even one who is in a position of leadership and prominence must retain his humility. Moses and David are outstanding examples of leaders who were extremely humble.

How can one remain humble when one exercises great authority and is the recipient of homage and adulation? “Simple,” said Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin. “If a king hangs his crown on a peg in the wall, would the peg boast that its extreme beauty drew the king’s attention to it?”

While an organized society needs leaders, and in Judaism there is a need for Kohanim and Levites who have special functions, an intelligent person should never allow a particular status to turn his head and make him think that he is better than others. Nor should men consider themselves superior to women because they have certain mitzvos from which women are exempt, and women should not think that they must attain equality by rejecting these exemptions and performing these mitzvos. There is no need to attain something that one already has. Men and women, Kohanim and Levites, leaders and kings – we are all “pegs in the wall” which the King uses for His purposes as He sees fit.

True, we should always strive for that which is above us, but this means striving for greater wisdom and spirituality, and not for positions of superiority. The latter are not at all “above” us; one peg may be higher on the wall than another, but that does not make it a better peg.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that I, like all other people in the world, am but an instrument of God, wherewith He wishes to achieve the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 13”
Aish.com

hat-on-a-pegOur share or what is expected of us depends on which peg we are. No one, not even the King or the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) is more important than anyone else, but they still have special functions. The local village water carrier could not step in and fulfill the functions of either. For instance, in the days of the Temple, you wouldn’t see the King entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to offer atonement for the nation. Only the Kohen Gadol could do that. Not that the Priest was more important or more exalted than the King, only that his function was highly specialized.

What we do as servants of God’s Divine will depend on who we are. No one person is more important than another but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same, either.

Which brings me to this:

It is not with us, it is with Israel, and by accepting Israel’s Messiah we get to partake in Israel’s blessings. As an example, if my husband receives a family inheritance, then as his wife I would obviously partake in it too. However, it isn’t “MY” inheritance, and my receiving any benefit from HIS inheritance requires connection to him.

I don’t see God covenanting with Gentiles in the Bible, rather, we receive blessings of Israel as we draw near to them.

That was a comment made on one of my recent blog posts.

That revelation is actually very humbling. It hardly contributes to the feeling of significance of a Christian (or any non-Jewish believer) in relation to God. I have written on multiple occasions about how it is only through Israel that we have a doorway at all into any blessings from God. Without the covenant relationship that Israel, the Jewish people, have with God, we people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12), cannot be called by His Name. In fact, only three verses in the Bible create the link that allows anyone but the physical descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to have a covenant relationship with God at all:

Now the Lord said to Abram,

“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1-3 (NASB)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but only that last sentence at the end of verse 3 creates the link. Paul’s commentary on this part of God’s covenant with Abraham brings forth some illumination:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

Galatians 3:16 (NASB)

You have to read that whole chapter in Galatians and then interpret it carefully to realize that Paul was not invalidating the Torah (Law) for Jewish people, but then again, he wasn’t applying the Abrahamic covenant (or any other covenant God made with Israel) as a total unit to his Gentile audience either. He was only applying the blessing from a single condition of the Abrahamic covenant to the non-Jewish believers, as recorded in a tiny slice of Genesis 12:1-3. Misinterpretation of this part of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia has led to generations of Christians believing that they would physically have an inheritance in the Land of Israel, either replacing or at least crowding out the Jewish people.

Square Peg in a Round HoleOther misinterpretations have led many people in recent years to believe they inherit not only all of the blessings that result from God’s covenant with Abraham, but all of the covenants (and their blessings) God made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Children of Israel, effectively deleting any distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish people everywhere.

Just because the Jewish pegs aren’t more important or better loved by God than the Gentile pegs doesn’t mean that just anyone can take the crown from the King’s peg and put it on their own head. Only the King is King. Only the High Priest is the High Priest. Only the Jewish people are Jewish and bear the Jewish responsibilities assigned to them by God. Only the people of the nations who are called by God’s Name are who we are and only we have the special responsibility to encourage, support, and nurture Jewish return to God and to Torah in order to facilitate the return of Messiah.

I know that by just saying such a thing, I’ve become a square peg in the world of round holes. I don’t fit in either the Christian church by having such an opinion, nor do I reasonably fit in any traditionally Jewish realm. Even Messianic Judaism doesn’t know what to do with me because I go to church, and Hebrew Roots can’t tolerate me because of the idea of not being equal sharers in, or owners of, all blessings and all covenants across the board (but isn’t equal access to God’s love, mercy, grace, and salvation enough?).

Equality but not homogeneity is an extremely difficult concept to grasp, and it’s even more difficult to live out. Believe me, I know. I strive to live it out every day. There’s a horrible temptation to see myself not only as not equal to other believers (Jewish or Gentile), but not even significant to God.

But it becomes easier when I realize that it’s not human relationships, human priorities, or human judgments that are the key, but a relationship with God.

It is better to take refuge in the LORD Than to trust in man.

Psalm 118:8

Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever;
Who executes justice for the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.

Psalm 146:3-7

Stop regarding man, whose breath of life is in his nostrils; For why should he be esteemed?

Isaiah 2:22

That said, there are people I admire and esteem for their holiness and their knowledge, but it is hardly wise to base one’s relationship with God on what some other human being says you should or shouldn’t do. Not that there aren’t good teachers and good books to help along the way. But the buck does not stop with such good teachers and good books, and it most assuredly doesn’t stop with most of the silliness we find in most of the religious blogosphere.

Recently, Rabbi Carl Kinbar said to me:

You asked, “But if God is our teacher and perhaps ultimately, our only teacher, where can we go to learn from Him without having to endure endless layers of human filters?” Our Teacher has placed us in complex relationships with these “human filters” who sometimes have to be “endured” (as they have to endure us) but at other times inspire us (as we hope to inspire them. Not to mention our traditions, which are also marked by joy and pain.

Hopefully, we also experience those very rare moments of utter love and holiness with God himself – moments of simplicity that do not transcend life but help direct us in the midst of its complexities and uncertainties.

love-in-lights…those very rare moments of utter love and holiness with God himself… As Rabbi Kinbar said, we have been placed as pegs among many other pegs to sometimes “endure” each other, but also, we pegs have been placed among each other to inspire each other. True, we also sometimes discourage each other, which is often the place from which I write. That is why, as much as we pegs need to be with each other, whether I am a square peg or a round one, it is not only important, but it is vital that I seek out, that we all seek out, those very rare moments of utter love and holiness with God himself – moments of simplicity that do not transcend life but help direct us in the midst of its complexities and uncertainties.

Everything is dependent on His will, but we must do our share. Even understanding who we are and what “share” we must do can be terribly complex. For some people it may be easy, but for many others, it only seems that way, because uncertainty and dissonance is extremely uncomfortable. Saying, “God wants me to do this” (whether He really does or not) is a lot easier than saying (and feeling) “I’m not sure what God wants so I turn to Him in my uncertainty and let His will guide me, not my own.”

I’m glad we are in the days of Sukkot. What better place to be than sitting in my sukkah, looking dimly up at the sky and the clouds, listening to the fabric of the sukkah fluttering in the breeze, seeking a very rare moment of utter love and holiness with God himself.

Good Shabbos.

5 days.

Advertisements

61 Days: Stars

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (ESV)

The Voyager 1 spacecraft’s 35th anniversary is proving to be unexpectedly exciting, as scientists gathered this week to examine new hints that the spacecraft is on the verge of leaving our solar system.

Voyager 1 is now more than 11 billion miles away from Earth. It blasted off in September 1977, on a mission to Jupiter and Saturn. But it also carried a Golden Record filled with music and the sounds of our planet, in case it encountered intelligent life as it moved out toward the stars.

Scientists have been eagerly waiting for Voyager 1 to become the first human-made object to leave the solar system. And in recent weeks, the spacecraft has sent back intriguing signs that it might be getting close, to the delight of researchers who have been working on it for decades.

-Nell Greenfieldboyce
“After 35 Years, Voyager Nears Edge of Solar System” (Sept. 5, 2012)
NPR.org

Most weekday mornings, I get up early enough to leave home by five, pick up my son who lives nearby, and then go to the gym to workout together. This time of year especially, it’s still dark when I open the garage door. Usually, I step outside for a minute and look up at the sky. The front of my house faces south, so if the sky is clear, I can see a fair number of stars, including the constellation Orion.

I don’t know why I look for it, except I can remember different times in my life, different “eras” in decades gone by, when I would look up at the night sky and recognize that constellation. I suppose it gives me some sense of continuity across my personal history.

It also reminds me of how incredibly small I am.

I intellectually understand how far away the planets and stars are, (I once, very briefly, considered a career in Astronomy) from millions of miles to untold light years, but to actually, experientially grasp the distances, even for a moment, is a staggering feat. I know we have robots on the surface of Mars, and Mars is relatively close to Earth, but if I had to walk such a distance; if I have to travel across the emptiness of interplanetary space, how lonely and isolated I would feel. Imagine yourself somehow traveling with Voyager 1 as it prepares to exit the official confines of our solar system and, setting aside the fiction of Star Trek or Star Wars for a moment, try to comprehend just how far away you would be from everything you know and love…

…except God.

I was thinking all these thoughts this morning as I lay awake in bed around 3 o’clock. I don’t know what brought it to mind. I had a bit of a headache, which is unusual for me, particularly in the morning. Perhaps it was something I had dreamed that disturbed me in some way.

My blog and blog comments periodically come to the attention of a few Internet trolls and, in their self-importance, they find it necessary to be disagreeable (only excusing their rudeness and hostility by calling it “debating” or even some form of “loving”). It’s certainly unsettling to be treated badly by those who also claim the cause of Christ (such as being openly maligned by name on their blogs without so much as a “by your leave”) and I won’t pretend it doesn’t bother me, but then, I stop and realize that it doesn’t really matter.

Oh, of course people matter. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t care about others and their well-being, but what I realize is that there are a few unhappy, or grumpy, or insecure people out there who have to try to suck joy out of the lives of others in a quixotic quest for significance in the blogosphere. It’s their behavior that inspired my Days series where I have been examining the idea of abandoning this blog and perhaps all Internet social media by the end of the calendar year.

So far (and I haven’t made a final decision yet), I’m deciding against giving up. First of all, my trollish critics are few in number, even though they can occasionally make a loud “noise” (like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal). Secondly, far more people have been encouraging of me, both publicly and “backchannel,” than these two or three “curmudgeons” have been discouraging of me (though they aren’t curmudgeons in terms of years, merely in attitude).

I had thought about making this particular “meditation” today’s morning meditation, but passed it off as random thoughts of the night, deciding that Re-entry was a more worthy topic. But since the trolls have been active today, I decided I’d write this to clear my head of them and to realize that, in our human smallness, what happens from day-to-day in a small collection of blogs among a minority expression of Christianity doesn’t really matter. It’s certainly not worth my peace of mind.

As I said, I’m currently leaning toward continuing this “morning meditation” blog past January 1st, but I also think I’ll institute a tighter set of controls for comments. There haven’t been any really rude comments here for a while, but I anticipate they may return. In the past, in the interests of being fair, I’ve allowed a significant amount of abuse (in the guise of “debate” or being “loving”) in the comments people have posted on my blog, but that is likely to change. Free speech doesn’t mean “free to abuse” and a blog owner is more of a “benign dictator” than a moderator of democratic speech.

No, I won’t immediately flip over into draconian mode and if I think someone has crossed the line, I’ll serve fair warning first, but beyond that, I feel perfectly content to remove specific comments if they cross the line I set for proper decorum. And on occasion, I will close comments on a specific blog post if things get too heated (I’ve done both in the past). Repeat offenders who are not willing to “take a hint,” or those to engage in severe personal attacks or who use obscenities will be immediately banned.

Consider this my version of putting a wall around the roof of my home so that the safety of my “guests,” (and my own safety) who I consider anyone visiting my blog, (and most visitors don’t post comments) can be ensured.

But as I also said, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I can still pull the plug on life support and consign “morning meditations” to a peaceful, dignified demise. Better that than allowing the trolls to abuse what started out as such a peaceful and uplifting vision to begin each day.

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and meditate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

There are those who insist in living in darkness and they are not satisfied unless they pull others down into their realm with them. I prefer to soar and glide in the heights, letting the light illuminate my mind, my emotions, and my spirit, like the light of the sun gracefully reflects off of the wings of a dove.

The best response to harsh people is how Buddha responded; with a smile, accepting what was good and uplifting around him and not accepting anything else. I can’t even aspire to be Buddha, let alone Jesus, but I am supposed to emulate my Master so far as it depends on me by “living peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18)

Infinite darknessAngry and dissatisfied people are not helpful and are not healthy, for themselves or anyone exposed to them, even over the Internet. To repeat a lesson I continually need to learn…

Today I shall…

…try to improve my response to other people so that I only accept and give gifts of kindness, and not of anger.

Everything that we fuss and feud and argue about won’t really matter in the end. Jesus isn’t going to judge us on who won this blogosphere argument or that, no matter how important we may think they are at the time. They don’t really matter. They aren’t significant. Most of what we do isn’t significant. Staring up at the stars at five o’ clock on a clear autumn morning in Idaho, I realize that against all that vastness, against the stars, the space between me and them, and whatever is beyond, I’m not significant at all…

…except to God.

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 (ESV)

Noah: Dreading Significance

The Maggid of Mezritch interpreted our Sages’ statement: (Avos 2:1) “Know what is above you,” as: “Know that everything ‘above’ all that transpires in the spiritual realms is ‘from you,’ dependent on your conduct. Each of us has the potential to influence even the most elevated spiritual realms.”

The Torah alludes to this potential in the opening verse of our reading: (Genesis 10:9) “These are the chronicles of Noach. Noach was a righteous man.”

The word noach refers to satisfaction and repose. By repeating the word, the Torah implies that Noach and by extension, every one of his descendants can sow these qualities in two different fields, both among his fellow men, and in the spiritual worlds above.

Every person affects his environment. Our thoughts, words and deeds can inspire peace and tranquillity in our fellow men, helping create meaningful pleasure. And by establishing such conditions in our world, we accentuate similar qualities in the worlds above. To highlight our obligation to spread these virtues, this week’s Torah portion is called Noach.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Genuine Satisfaction; Noach’s Legacy”
from the “In the Garden of the Torah” series
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, p. 285ff;
Vol. XXV, p. 23ff
Commentary on Torah Portion Noah
Chabad.org

The higher something is, the lower it falls. So too, the loftiest revelations are to be found in the lowest places.

Therefore, if you find yourself in a place seemingly devoid of anything spiritual—don’t despair. The lower you are, the higher you can reach.

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

In checking my commentary on this Torah Portion for last year, I noticed that I quoted the same content from Rabbi Touger then as I have just now. But it speaks to me from another direction one year later. I realize (I realized this a year ago, too) that whatever we do in the world has consequences that extend far beyond our world and into the spiritual realms. That means everything we do matters in some mysterious, cosmic sense. It also means that everyone of us matters in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

That’s almost a shame in my case, because I’m at a point where I would much rather hide from significance than embrace it. I know most people strive all their lives to achieve significance. We want to be significant to our families, we want to be significant to our employers, to our friends, to the community. Some people want and need to be significant to large audiences, spanning the nation or even the globe, though I would imagine those types of people are somewhat rare.

But being significant means taking on responsibilities, and there’s a difference between being noteworthy and doing what it takes to support being noteworthy.

I am aware of the principle in both Christianity and Judaism that directs the member of the community to be in community with their fellows. For a Christian, that generally means going to church, and for most Christians, that’s not a problem. I have known some Christians who have gone to congregation without their spouses, sometimes taking the kids to services, because the spouse is a non-believer. Previously, I regularly attended a congregation of believers without my spouse (though she used to attend) because she stopped being a believer in Christ when she adopted a more traditional identity as a Jew.

I stopped going to that congregation for a lot of very valid reasons (though they are wonderful people and have done nothing wrong), not the least of which was that I abhorred worshiping without my wife at my side. If I couldn’t convince her to join my world, I was (and still am) willing to worship in her’s (though my faith in Jesus remains intact).

That was the plan nearly a year and a half ago and it didn’t happen. It will never happen. The question is, do I keep the peace by not attending any congregation, or do I follow the advice I’ve been receiving from a few people and “trust God” by attending a church?

Enter Noah and this week’s commentary on the Parashah. I’m still contemplating jumping and that first step looks like a doozy.

If I’m going to make a decision, it should be soon. Perhaps I can still become, in some sense, associated with a Christian community and still find an excuse to avoid the “Christmas rush” of programs, plays, and musicals that will occur in December. Waiting too much longer then that will put me into Easter season, and how would I avoid the invitations to the various “ham fests?”

Too cynical or just too nervous?

But like I said, enter this week’s commentary on Noah and the significance all human beings have in every decision we make or fail to make. Do I really dare to imagine that whether or not I go to church has cosmic ramifications? Is that ego or avoiding God?

But you can’t avoid God.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

Psalm 139:7-12 (ESV)

I sometimes admire (even though I think some of them are misguided) people who state with such assuredness that God has told them “such-and-thus,” as if God were sitting with them at their kitchen table this morning, chatting with them over a cup of coffee or tea. I once had a blog discussion with a Christian fellow who styled himself a “prophet,” and he told me point-blank that was exactly how his conversations with Jesus occurred. I immediately stopped following his blog because, even though he seemed really nice and all, I thought only an ego the size of Montana could imagine the Son of God casually schmoozing with him in his kitchen, with each of them sipping a cuppa.

But who knows? Certainly not me.

I don’t have supernatural revelations telling me to go to the corner of 5th and Main and then await further instructions from the local Angel.

I know, cynical again, right?

Heck, Christians struggle with these questions all the time, right?

Recently I quoted Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski when he said:

The Hebrew word for ark, teivah, has two meanings: it can mean “an ark,” and it can also mean “a word.” In the above verse, the latter meaning tells us that God instructed Noah to “enter into the word.” Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin expounded on this theme, explaining that when we pray, we should “enter into the words,” i.e. totally immerse ourselves into each word of prayer, as though the word is encompassing us.

I can’t avoid God. I can’t avoid my conscience. I can’t avoid the idea that I might have a purpose and a reason beyond pressing a bunch of keys on a keyboard to produce blog posts day after day. I can only choose to attend to God and my conscience or ignore them.

Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?

-Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)
from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s exactly how I feel. Oh well, maybe I’ll start by emailing the Pastor. Maybe he has some ideas. This is terrible. I’m not looking forward to this at all.

HAL-9000 (voice, Douglas Rain): What is going to happen?
Dave (Keir Dullea): Something wonderful.
HAL-9000: I’m afraid.
Dave: Don’t be. We’ll be together.
HAL-9000: Where will we be?
Dave: Where I am now.

from the film 2010 (1984)

Yeah, well…there’s always hope.

“A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is part of the day’s unity.”

–Charles Ives

Good Shabbos.

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”
Chabad.org

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

The Equality Puzzle, Part 3

To be perfectly blunt: I must say the Christians have robbed the Jews! And perhaps what is worse is that this thievery has been encouraged by theologians, pastors, and even Sunday School teachers, where small children are taught to sing the song, “Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.”

Every promise in Scripture in some way benefits Christians, but it is not all promised to Christians. Sometimes the thievery has been inadvertent and unintentional. It’s like thinking that the raincoat hanging in the office closet is yours for wearing home because of unexpected showers. Hopefully, you will discover the raincoat belongs to a fellow worker and you will restore it. It is not as if Christians do not have the greatest promise of God, which is 1 John 2:25: “And this is the promise that He hath promised us, even eternal life.”

Moishe Rosen
from his Foreward to Barry Horner’s book
Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged

This is Part 3 of a four-part series. Go to Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already read them.

I know that Mr. Rosen was addressing concerns with the traditional Christian church and the effects of Christian supersessionism on the Jewish people, but given what I said in Part 2 of this series, he could just as easily have been addressing Christian “One Law” proponents. I know “thievery” seems like a strong term to apply to people who want nothing but to obey God and all of the Torah mitzvot, but from a Jewish point of view, (even a “Jews for Jesus” point of view in the case of the late Mr. Rosen) that’s how it looks.

But Rosen says something curious at the end of the above-quoted statement. He says, “It is not as if Christians do not have the greatest promise of God, which is 1 John 2:25: “And this is the promise that He hath promised us, even eternal life.”

The greatest promise of God means that we Christians are the direct beneficiaries of the promise of eternal life. What more do we want of God but what He has already granted us by His bountiful grace and mercy?

However, as human beings, we have a tendency not only to want what we can’t have, but to believe that we’re being shortchanged if, for instance, “Moishe” has been given a unique gift or responsibility that was not granted to “Barry” as well.

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. –Romans 3:1-2 (ESV)

I agree, being a Jew, including a “Messianic Jew,” has many advantages in relation to God. But saying that, and getting back to Mr. Rosen for a moment, I believe there are many advantages to being a Gentile Christian as well.

In the “Messianic” world, there’s a sort of covert bit of jealousy going on, at least with some of the non-Jewish participants, because these Gentiles see the beauty and wonder of living a Jewish religious lifestyle and they desire to live that life as well, but without converting to Judaism. More conservative elements in Messianic Judaism are echoing Moishe Rosen’s words and crying “foul” when One Law Christians demand the right to be obligated to the full weight of performing the 613 mitzvot, including those behaviors that specifically point to Jewish covenant status and Jewish identity markers. Those Jews cry out, (again, echoing Rosen) “Hey, that’s my raincoat. Give it back,” and in response the “Jewish raincoat wearing” Gentiles retort, “It’s mine, now.” as if they’re still singing the old Sunday School song,Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.”

I said clearly in Part 2 of this blog series that there is nothing preventing the Christian who finds meaning and beauty in the Torah from adopting many of the mitzvot in their worship lives. Please, you can joyously light the candles on Shabbos, pray the Shema, and daven facing toward Jerusalem. You can even feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, help a lame person cross a busy street, and give abundantly to charitable causes. All of these are Torah mitzvot and if performing these deeds brings your heart closer to God, who am I as one lone Christian to tell you that they are forbidden you?

Oh wait.

What did I say? What were those mitzvot again?

I’m trying to clean up something that has become terribly muddied and messed up in translation. In “hosing off” the muddled confusion, I have “discovered” (no, it’s no great secret) that a great deal of the Torah is stuff that Christians all over the world have been doing for uncounted centuries. You want to “obey Torah?” It’s not complicated in its essence. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love justice. Do mercy. Smile at a stranger. Hug a small child with a scraped knee. Honestly, where’s the mystery? How hard is it to obey God? It’s a no brainer.

If, in the middle of all that, you want to order Kosher meals on your next international flight, or wear a head covering to honor the God who is always above you, I don’t think there’s much of a problem. No one is locking you out of the Torah or keeping the God of Israel hidden in a room with a sign on the door that says, For Jews Only.”

D.T. LancasterBut I keep saying that Christians are not Jews and I also keep saying that there are great advantages to being a Christian. But what are those advantages, I mean besides eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord? If there are advantages to Jews that uniquely belong to Jews, can the same be said about Christians?

I should say at this point that even if, beyond having our sins forgiven, coming into a “right relationship with God,” and being granted eternal life, there are no other “special advantages” to confessing Christ and coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah, is it really our place to complain to God about it? Hasn’t He done enough for us? If he chooses to assign additional obligations to the Jew, including the Messianic Jew, that He does not apply to the Gentile Christian, isn’t that God’s right? Maybe we can apply one of the Master’s parables to our own situation by way of an answer.

And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” –Matthew 20-8-16 (ESV)

I know it seems as if I’m contradicting myself because the parable is actually about how God’s love, grace, and salvation are applied in equal measure regardless of what age a person is when they come to faith. That is, everyone, no matter who they are or how old they are, eight years or eighty, when they become disciples of the Master, receives the same gifts from God as equals. Couldn’t this also mean that the obligations of Torah should be distributed evenly to both Jew and Christian as equals?

But look at it another way. The workers who were hired early and worked longer received the same wages as the workers who were hired later and worked less…and the “early hires” were ungrateful and jealous, even though it’s the Master’s money and he can pay as he pleases.

It’s also God’s Torah and He can apply it as He pleases. Are we really going to “get in God’s face” and kvetch about it? Just how ungrateful and ungracious do we want to be?

So what advantage is there in being uniquely Gentile Christian? As Paul might say, “much in every way.”

Instead of attacking Christianity, Messianic Gentiles would do well to focus on what is good about Christianity. This is necessary for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Messianic Gentiles, as stated above, are Christians. Just as important, though, is the impact this positive attitude will have on any effort to bring Christians to recognize the Jewish roots of their faith.

It isn’t difficult to find good things to say about Christianity. First, Christianity has brought billions of people to Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah and King of the Jews. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. Even some Jewish scholars have recognized the significance of this fact. In Hilkhot Melakhim 11:10–12, Maimonides credits Christianity with preparing the Gentile world for the arrival of King Messiah by spreading knowledge of the Bible far and wide. If even those who do not claim Yeshua as Messiah can affirm the good that has come from Christianity, certainly believers should be able to as well.

Second, Christianity has helped uncountable numbers of poor, hungry, destitute, abandoned people. Myriads of counselees—drug abusers and alcoholics, victims of abuse, troubled spouses—have benefited from a pastor’s biblical advice. From Carey and Wilberforce’s campaigns against satī in India to the modern phenomenon of “adopting” starving African children, Christians everywhere have expended their resources to help those less fortunate. Today, Christian orphanages in India take in abandoned children with nowhere else to turn, just as devout Christian George Müller did over a century ago in England.

Most of these people—the poor, the abandoned, the disenfranchised, and the abused—will never understand how Yeshua fulfilled the Passover. They may never taste matzah. They may never utter a single word of Hebrew or even be able to read the Bible in their own language. Yet they rely, just as we do, on the saving grace of God through Yeshua the Messiah.

-Boaz Michael
from an early manuscript of his forthcoming book
“Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile” (pp 50-51)

For nearly twenty centuries, the church has preserved the Gospels of Christ and the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and others, and that “good news” has brought countless millions of human beings into covenant relationship with God. How many people found faith who would have otherwise been hopelessly lost without the church? How many people have been given clothing, food, medicine, companionship, mercy, and kindness by Christians whose only motivation was to serve the Savior and to the will of God? I admit that many terrible things have been done in the name of Jesus, but that’s the fault of flawed and damaged human beings, not the will of the Creator of the Universe. When we actually do His will, it always is for the good.

But you might be saying right now, “So what? Haven’t Christians have always done that?”

I’ll answer that question and more in the Fourth and final part of this series.

Addendum: Derek Leman has written a blog post called Is MJ Guilty of Jewish Elitism? The theme is substantially similar to this series of “meditations” and I recommend that you stop by Derek’s blog and have a read.

The Equality Puzzle, Part 2

Part 2 in a four-part series. Go to Part 1 before continuing here.

While Christians and Jews rarely get hung up on who is obligated to what under usual circumstances, there is a “middle area” where Christians and Jews meet and sometimes enter into conflict. Of course I’m talking about Messianic Judaism which, in its ideal, is a form of normative Judaism (modern traditional Judaism and the traditional church will disagree with me here) that allows halakhic Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, to give him honor and to worship God in a wholly religious Jewish context and environment. It could be thought of as a Judaism like other sects of Judaism in the 21st century, but one acknowledging that the Messiah has already come and will come again.

As I said, the rest of normative Judaism in our world completely rejects any suggestion that Jesus could possibly have been (or will be) the Jewish Messiah King and thus (for the most part) rejects all Jews who “believe in Jesus.”

Christianity sometimes struggles with Messianic Judaism as well, since the phrase “under the Law” is virtually a curse word in most churches. “Jewish Christians” who continue to observe the mitzvot are considered to be a slap in the face to Jesus Christ and his bloody, sacrificial death on the cross, which, after all, was supposed to have freed all men from the Law.

OK, not all churches believe in such supersessionist ideas and many churches are slowly progressing forward, but for a large number of “average Christians,” Messianic Judaism is at least a mystery if not an actual affront to their concept of the work of Christ.

Somewhere in the midst of all this is a group of Gentiles who believe in Christ as Lord, Savior, and Messiah, but who disdain not only the church as a whole, but even the name “Christian,” preferring to refer to themselves as “One Law” or “Messianic Gentile” or some other circumlocution.

Last week in Journey to Reconciliation, Part 1 and Part 2, I said that many people who make up the Hebrew Roots/One Law movement became disillusioned with the traditional church and feel that some form of “Judaism” is the key to returning to the true intent of Christ and the “grafting in” of non-Jewish believers into the Hebraic root. However, it becomes amazingly confusing when large groups of Gentile Christians start attempting to absorb and live out Jewish religious customs and identity markers, often without a very good understanding of the underlying traditions, definitions, and methods of operationalization of a Jewish religious lifestyle.

In other words, many One Law practitioners are only “quasi-Jewish” in appearance and otherwise don’t typically conform to actual Jewish religious behaviors. In any event, a group of Christians practicing modern Jewish Halacha is not the same thing as the first pagan goyim abandoning idolatry and starting to worship in a First Century church established by the Apostle Paul.

It gets even more confusing when, confronted with hundreds of years of Jewish Rabbinic judgments, rulings, and education, some Hebrew Roots Christians either decide to toss the Talmud out altogether or reinvent it for their own purposes. However, any attempt to live out even the semblance of a Jewish lifestyle, either without the Talmud or using it in a drastically altered version, is ultimately doomed to failure.

The ability to even understand how to enact the basics of Torah doesn’t exist without some form of interpretation. Whether you choose to believe in the authority of the Rabbis to make halakhic rulings or not, they did establish a standard of Biblical interpretation and behavior that has served to safeguard the Jewish people for the past 20 centuries. Granted, the Rabbis never intended the vast majority of the Talmud to ever apply to non-Jewish people, but once you commit yourself to a Jewish lifestyle, it becomes impossible to avoid significant encounters with the Talmud.

Any Gentile who chooses to pray with a Siddur has encountered the Talmud and probably the Zohar. Any Gentile who dons a tallit gadol has encountered the Talmud. Any Gentile who attempts to “keep kosher” beyond the limits of Leviticus 11 has encountered the Talmud. The Rabbinic Sages and their rulings are so integrated into modern Judaism that for all intents and purposes, they are modern Judaism. You cannot adopt any item or element from modern Jewish religious and worship life without encountering and adopting some aspect or ruling of the Sages.

There’s no such thing as a “Bible-only” Jewish life (there’s no such thing as a “Bible-only” Christian life either, since we too have a rich history of tradition and ritual…we just pretend their is). Any understanding and implementation of the mitzvot at all is heavily interpreted and filtered through hundreds of years of Rabbinic commentary.

I mentioned in another blog post that, while Rabbis discourage non-Jews from taking on Jewish identity customs such as wearing kippot, they also recognize that we non-Jews may want to adopt the underlying intent of those markers. There are some Gentiles who refrain from wearing a kippah outside of an authentic Jewish synagogue setting, but who honor God by covering their heads with a hat or similar article when in public. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The Messianic educational and publishing ministry First Fruits of Zion has written an overwhelming number of books and articles outlining the appropriateness and desirability of Christians keeping significant portions of the Torah, including the correct Halacha involved, so it’s not as if we Gentile believers are cut off from the beauty of wonder of the traditions and prayers. However, it is one thing to be a grafted in branch being nurtured by the “civilized” root, and another thing entirely to say that we now own that root and that it is totally ours to do with as we please.

We cannot throw out the Jewish lifestyle without exterminating the historic link that connects Judaism (and thus any Jewish application to Christianity) back 2,000 years to the days of the Messiah’s earthly existence. We cannot take the Jewish lifestyle and morph it into something that pleases we Christians better without destroying the authenticity and the “Jewishness” of that link. In our ignorance or our arrogance, (or both) we are continuing to do what we did in the darkest days of the history of the church; invalidate and destroy the history of the Jewish people and claim its “first fruits” as belonging only to us.

If anyone in Christianity desires to address some form of “Torah observance,” it hardly makes sense for us to reinvent the wheel by redesigning Halacha. If we want to “keep kosher,” for example, the standards for keeping kosher are well established. We don’t need to “fix” them or rewrite them. How could we do better? Where do we get the authority to try to take Jewish life and “Gentilize it?” If some Christians want to pray with a siddur, then you will have to get used to the idea that most of the prayers were written post-Second Temple, and a significant portion of the content originated with the ancient Jewish Sages.

Actually, I don’t blame “One Law” Christians and even the more moderate “Messianic Gentiles” (a category to which I probably still belong, although I think of myself as “Christian”) for being confused as to what aspects of Torah are allowable and which are considered “forbidden” to Gentiles by the Jewish people.

(I suppose now would be a good time to mention that Judaism can’t actually walk into some Gentile’s home or congregation and say, “You can’t do that. Only we can do that.” If any non-Jews refrain from Jewish dress or practices that uniquely identify the Jewish people, it would have to be out of respect for the Jews and the desire to honor the Jewish forefathers who brought the first Gentiles into faith and discipleship under the Jewish Messiah King. If you choose not to show that type or level of honor, then I guess you’ll do as you please.)

For people who are intermarried and interfaith like me, it’s a little simpler in that, having a Jewish spouse, whatever Jewish practices the Jew in the home performs, the non-Jew is involved. Thus if my wife should choose to light the Shabbos candles and say the blessing, I, as her husband, would be able to enjoy the full flavor of the Shabbat entering our home. Of course, I’ve blogged many times in the past about the conflicts and dissonance that can also be involved in an intermarried home, so in some sense, a husband and wife who are either both Christians or both Jews (or both Messianic Jews) have certain advantages.

In the home, there is no problem for the Christian who loves welcoming in the Shabbat, praying with the Siddur, and even wearing tzitzit and tefillin in prayer since, in privacy, it is between the Christian and God. In public, it becomes more “dicey” as I’ve already mentioned, especially once the Gentile individual or group purposefully adopts Jewish practices and dress and then deliberately alters time-honored Halacha and tradition because they believe they have the “right,” and what the Jewish people have established either doesn’t fit, or isn’t “good enough” somehow.

As I said, this issue is already hopelessly confused, which is one reason why I simply put the brakes on my own “One Law” religious practice, put my tallit, my kippah, and everything else “Jewish” in a box, and hit the “Reset” button. If a Christian has to adopt Jewish practices in order to feel religiously significant, spiritually closer to God, or validated in their faith in Jesus, then something is terribly wrong.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith – just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? –Galatians 3:1-6 (ESV)

Some people get so involved in adopting or adapting the “mechanics” of modern Judaism into their lives that they effectively forget that Jesus does matter. In fact, they forget that he matters more than anything because without the Messiah, we Gentiles could never become Christians and as such, enter into a covenant relationship with the God of Abraham.

But if the Torah is not our “keys to Heaven” so to speak, and if focusing on the mitzvot or our own adaptations of Halacha are not the most significant things in our lives, then on what do we base our hope? Where does our treasure lie? Are we always, as Christians, the “little brother” tagging along behind the older and “cooler” Jewish Messianics?

Absolutely not! But if not, then who are we and, in terms of anything “Messianic,” where is our significance, our role, our purpose in God’s Kingdom. We’ll cover that in Part 3.