Tag Archives: sin

Where is God When We Need a Miracle?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sovereignty of God lately. There’s always the classic question that if God is all-powerful and completely good, why does He allow pain and suffering in the world?

yom kippur katanMy traditional answer is that we live in a broken world. From a Christian point of view, the world is broken because of “original sin”. From that point on, not only was every single person born automatically with a “sin nature,” the natural tendency to do evil, but the world itself was flawed and out of synch with God’s original intent.

Further, people weren’t capable of fixing themselves, let alone Creation all by themselves. Only by coming to faith in Jesus could we as individuals be saved, and only by Christ’s second coming can the world be saved.

The Jewish point of view is a bit more nuanced, at least as I’m able to understand it. From that perspective, Adam and Havah (Eve) were created with a natural tendency to do good. They could still do evil if they chose (free will) but they naturally did good. When they chose to disobey God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, their tendencies to do good and evil were balanced within them. In other words, it was just as likely for them to choose evil as to choose good (I’m sure I’m not getting this exactly right, and I expect helpful comments will be appearing by the by).

Jews also don’t believe they don’t need an intermediary to atone for them. In ancient days, when the Tabernacle, and then later the Temple stood, once a year on Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer atonement for all Israel. There was also an offering for the atonement of the seventy nations (representing all humanity).

In modern Judaism, each individual provides for his own atonement by sincere teshuvah (repentance).

(You can read more about Judaism’s views on original sin at Jewish Virtual Library and Aish.com>)

Also, while the Messiah is expected to rise, redeem Israel, conquer all her enemies, and bring a time of peace and justice for the world, the concept of Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world,” states that each human being can repair just a small part of the world by doing good. Jews do this by performing the mitzvot (commandments), and Gentiles do this by also performing the mitzvot incumbent upon us (and we have a lot fewer commandments to perform compared to Israel).

But so what?

arguing with godGod is all-powerful and He is not bound by the laws of nature or subject to any limitations at all. If He so desired, couldn’t He fix everything right now?

I suppose He could.

We’re supposed to trust Him. We are supposed to bring all of our worries and woes to Him and accept the promise that He will take care of us.

But plenty of devout Christians and Jews die of cancer every day. Plenty of devout Christians and Jews have starved to death, have been persecuted, and you can’t tell me that of the six-million Jews who died in Hitler’s Holocaust, all of them were sinful and none of them were deeply devout and devoted to Hashem.

But if that’s true, how can we depend on God? Maybe He’ll arrange for someone’s cancer to go into remission and maybe He won’t. Maybe He’ll save our loved ones from suffering and death, and maybe He won’t. How can we know?

We can’t. That’s the faith part. And even when He doesn’t help, we are supposed to trust that whatever happens is for the best? It sure doesn’t feel like the best, does it?

On the other hand, maybe we’re missing the point.

Let’s take hunger and starvation as an example. According to Action Against Hunger, 1 in 8 people worldwide won’t get enough to eat today. The number of hungry people in the world exceeds the combined populations of the U.S., Canada, and the E.U. And about one million children will die this year from hunger-related causes.

Why does God allow this horrible suffering to go on, and on, and on?

If God didn’t create humanity as sentient, self-determining beings with free will, He probably wouldn’t. He probably wouldn’t have to. The world would most likely work the way He designed it to work.

But He did create us and we are here and we all make choices.

We could choose to make hungry and starving people a priority and help them, or we could choose to believe other things are more important.

Oh sure, most of us don’t have the skill sets to even attempt to cure cancer or establish world peace, and most of us as individuals can’t stop world-wide hunger, but each individual can choose to feed just one hungry person.

We can donate time, food, and money to our local food bank. We can give money to charities who send food to nations experiencing a famine, we can choose to do a lot of things to help those less advantaged than ourselves.

jewish charity
Photo: Reuters

We can choose to do good, and even doing a little bit of good makes the world a better place. I think God expects us to do that. I think that’s why God doesn’t just transform the world into a perfect place with a miracle.

We are supposed to be the miracle. We can’t save the world, but we can help fix a small piece of it. Imagine what the world would be like if we all fixed one small piece of the world. It still wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better.

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The Price of Admission

Most of all though, I’ve outgrown something that simply no longer feels like love, something I no longer see much of Jesus in.

If religion it is to be worth holding on to, it should be the place were [sic] the marginalized feel the most visible, where the hurting receive the most tender care, where the outsiders find the safest refuge.

It should be the place where diversity is fiercely pursued and equality loudly championed; where all of humanity finds a permanent home and where justice runs the show.

John Pavlovitz
“My Emancipation From American Christianity”
John Pavlovitz: Stuff That Needs To Be Said

I’ve never heard of this guy before today, but apparently he’s a big deal. Not only is he a blogger, but he’s a blogger with 16,759 followers (as of this writing), one who’s been featured on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed, and just the one missive I quoted from above has garnered (as of this writing) 211 responses (that’s up from 209 when I initially completed reading his blog post).

I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, if you’re an “18-year ministry veteran” and “proudly serve at North Raleigh Community Church” pastoring “people in the Raleigh area and throughout the world,” I suppose having such a large audience attending to your content is a good thing.

On the other hand, even with my very modest experiences in religious blogging, I know that what most often attracts attention in the blogosphere is “blood in the water,” so to speak. In other words, people love to “debate” (argue about) controversy.

helping the poorYou can click the link I provided above to see Pavlovitz’s full write-up. You’ll quickly see, even if you just read the quote at the top of my blog post, that this author has something to say that’s likely to upset more than a few Christians.

However, we should consider…

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Luke 19:1-10 (NASB)

And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50

prostitutes
Photo: krauserpua.com

Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.”

Matthew 21:31-32

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 2:14-17

As it turns out, Rav Yeshua (Jesus) really did hang out with marginalized, victimized outsiders. He associated with what was considered the dregs of society in that place at that time. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He was bitterly criticized for it by at least some of the Pharisees.

PhariseesGranted, it was part of the job of the Pharisees to test the many itinerant Rabbis wandering throughout Judah and the Galilee, questioning their teachings and their understanding of the Torah and traditions. But our Rav never faltered in his convictions. How could he? Yes, as fully human, he could have failed.

But if it was impossible for him to fail, why was he tested?

So we can hardly fault Pavlovitz for wanting to emulate Jesus in also ministering to those who have been rejected by our society, and especially to distance himself from the modern-day equivalents of some of the Pharisees, those whose religion requires they always condemn people who we consider latter-day “tax collectors,” prostitutes, and sinners. People who are gay, transsexuals, drug addicts, HIV positive or who suffer from AIDS. Anyone who is not “us”.

Yeshua didn’t isolate himself from these people and often, he called the religious elite of his day to repent of their sins. But I’m not quite sure Pavlovitz is on the same page as the Rav. Maybe he’s just exchanged one form of religious elitism for another.

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

Granted, this is a parable, meaning it’s a metaphorical story that probably isn’t a literal, factual rendition of an event. Nevertheless, it’s intended to teach us a moral and ethical truth. What is that truth?

Which of these two men, after praying, went back down to his house justified? The sinner who sincerely repented, not the one who thought he was already righteous.

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17

jewish-repentanceThis is the central message of Rav Yeshua’s ministry. Repent. Without repentance, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, alternately known as the Kingdom of God (which doesn’t mean going to Heaven to be with Jesus when you die, but entering the earthly Kingdom of Messiah when he establishes his throne in Jerusalem).

Heck, I agree with Pavlovitz about “American Christianity”. God isn’t a Republican or Democrat, He doesn’t prefer either Fox News or MSNBC. He loves humanity, all of us, not just those of a certain political or social bias.

But I think that Pavlovitz may have missed that even though God doesn’t use some American political yardstick in order to judge, He does have standards and we are all accountable to them.

He’d probably think I’m a heretic or something, because, going one step further, I don’t think the Church will inherit the Earth and then rule and reign with Jesus, I think that Israel was, is, and always will be the center of Messiah’s Kingdom.

All of those tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners didn’t keep on doing business as before when they followed their Rav. They repented and kept repenting. The prostitutes stopped prostituting. The tax collectors stopped extorting money, paid it all back, plus an amount over and above what they took (which was a requirement of thieves in the Torah).

And “sinners…?”

But the man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

John 5:13-14

changeAnyone who Jesus helped, anyone he healed and comforted was expected to repent and stop sinning.

I don’t know how Pavlovitz sees his marginalized and outsider populations. I don’t know what he considers sin. It’s possible to be an outcast even after you’ve repented, made a big U-turn, and ceased sinning, so maybe these are the people he means. If so, then more power to him.

I hope that’s what he means. There are quite a number of churches and synagogues in the U.S. and elsewhere that have conformed, not to they hyper-conservative politics of many Evangelical churches, but the more progressive societal norms we see associated with secularism, emphasizing love far, far above obedience to the requirements of God.

I think it’s possible for what’s been referred to as Progressive Christianity to be just as elitist and just as self-righteous as they consider what Pavlovitz calls American Christianity. In responding to one of his critics, Pavlovitz wrote:

Brad, I’ve outgrown responding angrily to those who don’t understand, or wish to attack me from a distance. Take care.

If he’s outgrown so many things, does he believe he’s somehow more righteous than his detractors? Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector again. Who shall we apply the Pharisee role to? I don’t know. I can’t read Pavlovitz’s mind.

I’ve said on more than one occasion that each one of us as people of faith have our hands full taking care of our own behavior, our own battles with sin, our own faults and imperfections to have time (if we’re willing to be honest) to judge others.

I’m just as guilty as the next person of hopping on Facebook or twitter and slamming some politician, social media pundit, or, most recently, matters of safe places and microaggressions we see plastered all over the news.

I admit it.

I also admit, having once again confronted my own personal brand of self-righteousness, that I can’t go back down to my home justified until I leave all that behind and repent, begging God’s forgiveness because I’m a sinner, too.

I really hate admitting that, but it would be far worse for me if I didn’t.

faithI do believe that we, as believers, are better people when we stop looking at others as “types” and start looking at and treating them as human beings, just as human and flawed and loved by God as we are. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pass on the message of repentance of our Rav to those around us, though. But it does mean we should do our repentance first before asking anyone else to do so.

Jesus loves…but his love isn’t blind. The price of admission into the Kingdom of God always has been repentance. Keep practicing repentance.

Who Delivers the Consequences for Sin?

Fortunate is the person who fears God, and has a great desire for His mitzvos.

Psalms 112:1

We think of fear as a negative emotion, so we try to eliminate it. We therefore lose sight of the fact that fear can also be constructive. Fear motivates us to drive cautiously even when in a great hurry, and fear makes a diabetic adhere to his diet and take his insulin daily.

Religion has often been criticized for advocating the fear of God. This criticism may be justified if we were conditioned to think of Him as an all-powerful Being holding a huge club, ready to beat a sinner to a pulp for doing something wrong. All ethical works discourage the use of this type of fear as motivation. Rather, fear of God should be understood to mean the fear of the harmful consequences that are inherent in violating His instructions. The Psalmist says that wickedness itself destroys the wicked person (see Psalms 34:22).

“Fortunate is the person who fears God,” in the sense that “he has great desire for His mitzvos” (Psalms 112:1). It is only natural for one to desire the very best, and the realization that observing the mitzvos is indeed in one’s best interest should constitute the “fear” that should deter someone from transgressing the Divine will.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that observance of the mitzvos is in my best interest, and that I should fear transgressing the mitzvos in the same way I fear any injurious act.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day”
Aish.com

I blame myselfI’ve been thinking about this in terms of my own shortcomings, my own fears, and my own relationship with God and with other people.

In the Church, there’s this implicit idea that God punishes sin, and if you step out of line, you will be struck down by God in some manner. Keep stepping out of line, and you’ll be sent on a one-way trip to Hell without an electric fan.

That’s a really good reason to be afraid of God.

But as Rabbi Twerski describes it, the “fear” of God should take the form of a deep respect for the Creator of the Universe and a corresponding desire to obey Him. In fact, to repeat part of the above-quoted passage:

This criticism may be justified if we were conditioned to think of Him as an all-powerful Being holding a huge club, ready to beat a sinner to a pulp for doing something wrong. All ethical works discourage the use of this type of fear as motivation. (emph. mine)

While in traditional, fundamentalist Christianity, the “fire and brimstone” approach is supposed to be our prime motivator for not sinning and walking the straight and narrow, in Judaism, it is ethically unsustainable to use fear of harm and punishment from God to drive us to proper behavior.

Instead, what we “fear” is the natural consequences of our misbehavior.

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

John 5:14 (NASB)

It would seem that Rav Yeshua (Jesus) agrees with this perspective. How about the Apostle Paul?

In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5

consequences
Credit: NPR.org

So is Paul advocating for the sinner to literally be dragged to the gates of Hell and handed over to the Adversary to be physically destroyed? Probably not. This is just a guess on my part, but it sort of sounds like Paul is willing to give the sinner enough rope to hang himself with, so to speak.

It comes back to consequences. Drink enough alcohol or do enough drugs, and you’ll destroy your body. View enough “adult material,” and you’ll destroy your marriage. Spend enough money gambling or even just binge buying a bunch of stuff you don’t need and can’t afford, and you’ll destroy your family’s finances.

Or as the Psalmist said, “…wickedness itself destroys the wicked person.”

In most cases, you won’t have to wait for some sort of supernatural intervention. You’ll turn your life into a pile of doggy doo all by yourself…

…or myself.

But if you have the power to destroy your own life, you also have the power to save it.

I’ve always been mystified when I hear Christians saying things like “I turned it all over to the Lord,” or “The Lord released me from my bondage to [fill in the blank].”

How in the world did they perform an action that sounds like a symbolic or even a hypothetical concept?

I think it means that the person finally trusted God so completely that he/she was willing to endure the consequences of making teshuvah (repentance or turning away from sin and back to God), believing that those consequences, no matter how difficult in the short run, would be ultimately beneficial in the long run.

wheelbarrowI suppose “I turned it all over to the Lord” is “Christianese” for expressing an act of great trust in God that, no matter what the consequences, teshuvah will always be the better course of action than living with the consequences of sin.

So God isn’t a mean old man with a club waiting to beat us half to death the second we step out of line. He’s a Father and a Teacher, guiding us in a particular direction and letting us know the consequences of each action we take. What He won’t do is override our free will. We have to choose the right path because, right or wrong, we are responsible for the consequences.

The longer we sin, the greater the consequences, or as our Rav put it so long ago, “do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

Failure Is Always An Option

Failure is not an option.

attributed to Gene Kranz,
retired NASA Flight Director

I really wasn’t going to mention Derek’s latest blog post. What I had to say, I said there in my comments. But then something happened.

I am very encouraged by the overwhelming amount of support people are expressing toward Derek, with just a few, minor detractors chiming in.

We all have our problems, our failures, and our sins. They become much more public and more powerful when you happen to be a teacher and an organizational leader, especially in a movement as “intimate” as Messianic Judaism, where most folks involved have at least heard of each other if not personally know one another.

I suppose it’s one of the reasons why many of us should not be teachers (James 3:1).  Who wants that kind of pressure, especially if we should sin (and who doesn’t sin)?

I was reading the latest installment at the lyfta på jobbet blog this morning when I came across a link to the article Failure Is Always An Option.

That certainly flies in the face of American particularism, independence, and a “get-er-done” attitude, and it probably wouldn’t have sat very well with the above-quoted Gene Kranz as he dedicated his efforts to rescuing the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13.

But let’s face it, we’re all human. Failure is one of our defining qualities. Not that we should revel in failure, but it’s arrogant to presume that you or I will never sin.

Yet, some of our sins are rather spectacular and some of our sins are astonishing and shocking when they come into the public light. Some of our sins hurt not only us, but every one we have ever loved.

Even with confession, repentance, and undeserved forgiveness, the guilt can still be crushing.

I’m grateful for Derek’s sake, for everyone’s sake, particularly for my sake, that God is more forgiving than most human beings…more forgiving than I certainly am toward myself.

In the Future Buzz article I cited above, author Adam Singer wrote:

Failure is a beautiful thing, and if you organize your business around it you can gain a serious advantage over competitors who think they’re infallible and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be perfect versus trying lots of things, failing like crazy, and seeing what sticks. The truth is we all fail, every one of us, and when you really stop and remove the societal stigmas associated with it, you realize it’s not actually a negative.

Granted, this particular message is directed toward a business and marketing environment, and yet it has applications on the social, personal, and religious levels of our existence. If we allow our sin to crush us, to prevent us from repenting, to inhibit the idea that there can be a road back, not only to God, but to our family and friends, then we truly have been defeated.

Failure is not falling down, it is not getting up again.

―Mary Pickford

fallingThere’s a plethora of similar quotes available on the web. I just picked the first one that came up in a Google search.

No one, no sports hero, champion, competitor in any human endeavor, or any human being at all has failed until they allow their failure to result in giving up.

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 (NASB)

Easier said than done as I imagine the Apostle Paul can attest.

And yet, it’s not the depth of sin we have fallen into that defines us but how we recover afterward.

Failure is always an option. It happens to us every day. Sometimes it happens with brutal intensity and swiftness, and when our failure is revealed for all to see, it’s easy to wonder how we’re going to survive the shame and humiliation. It’s easy to imagine the bridges have been burned and that our only option is, like Icarus, to fall out of the light and into the darkness.

Failure is always an option, but failure does not have to be permanent.

I can only imagine that it took a tremendous amount of courage for Derek to publicly confess his transgressions on his blog. He could have gone silent and stayed silent, containing the impact to those people directly involved.

No one likes to air their dirty laundry.

I wouldn’t recommend this method, but sometimes it may be possible to lead by starting at the bottom. If you have fallen and fallen far, and can pick yourself back up, by Hashem’s strength and grace, and start the long ascent, the rest of us who witness this, can come to realize there’s hope for us too, as we sit at the bottom of our wells and our caves, buried by the darkness and dreaming of the light.

Great Teshuva

My friend and I are having a disagreement about degrees of righteousness in God’s eyes. Who is greater: One who is virtuous by inclination, or one who is virtuous by choice – i.e. one who must struggle with his passions and transform vice into virtue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud says: “In a place where a ba’al teshuva (spiritual returnee) stands, even a full tzaddik cannot stand” (Brachot 34b). The idea is that by having sunk to the lowest depths, and then genuinely turning one’s life around, the distance traveled in a positive direction is so great that it even exceeds those who have always been on the plus-side.

Shofar as sunrise(Of course, one would not want to deliberately get into a negative situation, because there is no guarantee of coming out. Further, it often leaves residual stains.)

-from the Ask the Rabbi column

That’s only part of the Aish Rabbi’s reply, but it’s the most relevant part. If a life of righteousness comes (relatively) easy to you, what have you really accomplished? However, if acts of righteousness, charity, and piety are difficult, if they go against your nature, if you have to struggle everyday to do good or to recover from some monumental failure, how much greater will your success be than your failure?

Things That Matter

There was a time when God became so distant that we were almost ready to deny Him, had psychologists or sociologists not been willing to permit us to believe in Him. And how grateful some of us were when told ex cathedra that prayer is not totally irrelevant because it does satisfy an emotional need.

To Judaism the purpose of prayer isn’t to satisfy an emotional need. Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that constitutes the very essence of man. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
“An Ontological Necessity,” p.78
Man’s Quest for God

I suppose a definition of Ontology is in order:

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

That sounds very abstract and even cold, especially when applied to the intimacy of prayer, but I see where Heschel is coming from. Periodically, you may read about studies that say people who pray have less anxiety than those who don’t, or they (we) recover from illnesses faster than those who don’t pray. Prayer, from this perspective, is put in the same category as meditation, which doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the existence let alone the absolute necessity of God in our human lives. Thus prayer has value from the atheist’s point of view because it is a psychologically valid method of reducing stress or otherwise providing for a state of well-being.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

But Heschel is saying that prayer is the reality of our existence, providing vital linkage with the source of our lives and the very author of all creation. Prayer is what gives a sense of completeness to our being, which is probably why Heschel says (outrageously, from an atheist’s point of view) that he “who has never prayed is not fully human.”

So in prayer we realize our full humanity, but in doing so, we collide head on with our vulnerability, our frailty, our mortality, with everything that separates us from God as well as what binds us to him.

Prayer also brings us perspective:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

You probably recognize the Serenity Prayer which is regularly said at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around the world. This prayer connects rather nicely with the image I placed toward the bottom of today’s “morning meditation” (scroll down).

I saw that diagram taped near the desk of one of my co-workers and, in considering the ongoing process of teshuvah, it made a great deal of sense. In the effort of making that 180 degree turn away from sin and toward God, a lot of information and emotion is thrown up in the air, like a sandstorm obscuring vision. How can I see when I’ve made my complete turnaround and know when I’m facing the right direction so I can begin to proceed if I’m confused by all the things that matter that I can’t control and all the things that don’t matter that I can?

The Serenity Prayer seems to be how to ask God to let you see through the sandstorm and pick out only those specific details that are necessary for you (or me) to start walking toward Him.

Why do we need serenity?

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:12-13 (NASB)

I maintain that only a person who is highly elevated spiritually can possibly stand in the eye of the hurricane and dispassionately watch the tempest rage and completely surround him. The rest of us would be running for the storm cellar.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a goal to shoot for, even if achieving it is years or a lifetime in the making.

I’ve mentioned before the seven steps in achieving teshuvah (repentance) which interestingly enough, are sort of connected to the 12 steps that are fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous. It would seem that the process of recovering from additions can be extended to the process of “recovering” from all manner of sins, at least from the Jewish perspective.

thingsA couple of days ago I commented on something written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman or rather, one of the comments made in response to his writing:

And 12-Step groups call this “Willingness.”
Wow – I keep seeing how the 12-step recovery coincides with Judaism, it is beautiful.

Would it sound too crazy to suggest something called “Teshuvah Anonymous?”

God help me to accept the things I cannot control, understand all the things that matter, and focus on those things that matter I can control. For only there will my efforts be successful in changing my life so that I behave toward others with greater compassion, kindness, and care, and only there will I find my path to You in prayer.

Choosing Your Prison

It is worthwhile to elaborate a bit on this important concept of free will, which the Rambam calls “an important principle and a pillar of all Torah and mitzvos.”

He states: “Do not let the thought cross your mind, that which the foolish ones among the nations and even ignorant Jews claim, that Hashem predetermined and decreed upon every person what he will be — a righteous person or a wicked one. It is not so — for every single person can be either a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu, or a wicked man like Yeravam. There is no one pulling him in either direction. It is each person’s own choice to pick the way of life he will follow.”

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.14
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

So much for Calvinism. We can’t claim that God preselected us to be good or to be evil. We get to choose who we are and we get to make different choices over time. That’s miserable and encouraging all at once. It’s miserable because we human beings all by ourselves are prone to willfulness, weakness, and error. But it’s also hopeful in that we can strive to overcome our faults and to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

One of the recurring themes in the various incarnations of “Star Trek” is that mankind continually works to improve itself, with the presupposition that humans have the moral framework and ability to do so independently. However, both Judaism and Christianity maintain that we are unable to elevate ourselves spiritually to any degree at all without relying on God. This does not negate free will, since we must choose to either obey or disobey God in the different and varied areas of our lives.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB)

Maybe that’s the answer to this sometimes frustrating statement of Paul’s. It may seem like temptation is irresistible, but the circumstances tempting us are the same for a lot of people, even if we’re only aware of our own individual experience. We can either rely on ourselves and fail or rely on God and have the hope of success, and God is faithful.

It’s when we assume that we’re helpless victims, either of God’s “Divine Plan” to choose only some for salvation and to let the rest burn, or of our own “sin nature” or “evil inclination” that the following happens:

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Joseph the SlaveNot that God necessarily gives up on us, but He certainly can give us enough rope to hang ourselves with, if we so choose. Then, when swinging in the breeze, if we’re still alive, we can call out to Him.

But even resisting temptation is no guarantee of an easy or good life.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.

When she saw that he had left his cloak in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household servants. “Look,” she said to them, “this Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed. When he heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home. Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined.

Genesis 39:11-20

Joseph resisted the repeated temptation to have an illicit affair with his master’s wife. He was blameless and still ended up in prison. How much more so do we, who are not blameless, risk “prison” of one form or another, even after we cry out to God and begin to learn to resist our own temptations and to strive to be better servants of Hashem.

The worst prison is when G-d locks you up. He doesn’t need guards or cells or stone walls. He simply decides that, at this point in life, although you have talent, you will not find a way to express it. Although you have wisdom, there is nobody who will listen. Although you have a soul, there is nowhere for it to shine.

And you scream, “Is this why you sent a soul into this world? For such futility?”

That is when He gets the tastiest essence of your juice squeezed out from you.

(Likutei Sichot vol. 23, pp. 163–165; Shlach 5732:1; 5th night of Chanukah 5720:4.)

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Invisible Prison”
Chabad.org

If God puts us in “prison,” isn’t it what we deserve? Why should we complain (although we invariably do)? In sin, we are slaves but slaves who have deliberately put ourselves in the hand of our master. In choosing to not sin, we are deciding to be slaves of a different Master, one who loves our soul, one who desires the best for us. As Rabbi Freeman suggests, the prison God incarcerates us in is designed not to confine and demoralize us, but to drive us to be the very best we can be.

PrisonWe can either choose the evil prison where we trap ourselves and reap only what we deserve, or allow God to “imprison” us and have the hope of being led to a better life.

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

II Samuel 24:14

This verse is the opening line of the Tachanun prayer. Dovid HaMelach had sinned by taking a census of the Jews in a manner contrary to that prescribed by the Torah. Hashem, through the agency of the prophet Gad, gave Dovid HaMelech a choice of three calamities, one of which he and his people would have to suffer in atonement for his sin: seven years of hunger, three months of defeat in battle, or a deadly three-day plague. Dovid chose the last, because that one would be inflicted directly by God, Whose mercy is ever present even when His wrath is aroused. His choice proved to be the correct one, for God mercifully halted the plague after a duration of only half a day.

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” pp.15-16
Commentary for Monday on Parashas Vayeishev
A Daily Dose of Torah

Joseph’s incarceration is recorded in this week’s Torah Portion but not its resolution. Joseph was made a slave and then a prisoner in order to accomplish God’s plan, not just for Joseph or even just for Egypt, but for the entire world. No doubt you already know how the story of Joseph continues, how he was released from prison to interpret a dream of Pharaoh’s, and as a result, how Joseph was made a ruler in Egypt second only to Pharaoh. From prisoner to prince in one stroke.

Very few of us will have such an experience, yet it would be enough if God were to judge us and not human beings. God is incapable of treating us with malice and His rulings are truly impartial and fair, though they can be harsh.

When you look at that imperfect and sinful wreck in the mirror each morning, are you not much harder on yourself than God would be? Doesn’t God look at us with pity and compassion when most people, even those closest to us, react out of hurt and anger?

A basic Torah principle is that when correcting someone, we need to do so with a sense of love and compassion. When you speak in a blaming manner, the message you give is not a loving one.

If there is a specific person you tend to speak to in a blaming manner, be resolved to speak to more pleasantly.

(For a series of probing questions on this topic, see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” pp.135-7)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #189: “Replace Blame with Compassion”
Aish.com

Would that other people or even we ourselves were as merciful and compassionate as God when we fail and seek to make amends.

compassionBut coming back to the matter of free will, our actions and the consequences rest on our shoulders. No one else is to blame, though we can hope and pray for mercy. In the end, people are not always merciful, but even when we do not deserve it, God is compassionate.

The Tzemach Tzedek writes: The love expressed in “Beside You I wish for nothing,” (Psalm 73:25) means that one should desire nothing other than G-d, not even “Heaven” or “earth” i.e. Higher Gan Eden and Lower Gan Eden, for these were created with a mere yud…. The love is to be directed to Him alone, to His very Being and Essence. This was actually expressed by my master and teacher (the Alter Rebbe) when he was in a state of d’veikut and he exclaimed as follows:

I want nothing at all! I don’t want Your gan eden, I don’t want Your olam haba… I want nothing but You alone.

from “Today’s Day”
Wednesday, Kislev 18, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Whatever prison you find yourself in, seek God alone. Everything else will take care of itself.