Tag Archives: sorrow

Birds and Ladders: A Continued Story of Repentance

The idea of prayer is to inwardly have a private dialogue with the Creator. Speak to Him just as you might speak with a friend who is paying attention and listening.

All around you may be noise, traffic, planes, telephones. Inwardly, too, may be a preoccupation with hassles, business dealings, quarrels, competition, desires.

But prayer brings you suddenly to… quiet. The inward silence creates a barrier to the flow of noise, and it is as if there is silence and calm all around. Tranquility is yours!

(see Rabbi S. Wolbe – “Shal’hevesya,” p.34)

Daily Lift #180: Pray One-on-One
Aish.com

Rabbi Mordechai Rottman relates in his article Four Steps to Change that making teshuvah or repentance, requires for basic steps:

  1. Regret
  2. Leaving negativity behind
  3. Verbalization or confession
  4. Resolution for the future

About Verbalization, he says:

Why is it important to say it?

There is a power to saying things as opposed to just thinking about them. Verbalizing a thought brings the idea to a new level of reality, awareness and understanding.

The verbalization that is done after committing a transgression makes one more fully aware of what was done. It therefore heightens the regret and strengthens the resolution not to commit the act again.

This verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.

Granted, you don’t come to this stage of repentance until you’re fully immersed in the first two, but coupling R. Rottman’s commentary with R. Wolpe’s, we see that in talking to God, we don’t have to stand on ceremony, as it were. We can speak from the heart, one-on-one, confessing only to Him our feelings of regret and remorse, expressing our sorrow and guilt, and pleading with Him to be our strength in the face of our trials; our rock in overcoming our challenges.

In one of his commentaries on Torah Portion Vayaitzai, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin stated:

The Chofetz Chayim cited the idea expressed by many commentators that the ladder Yaakov saw in his dream symbolizes the situation of every person in this world. There are two actions a person performs on the ladder. Either he goes up from the bottom to the top, or else he goes down from the top to the bottom. Each day in a person’s life he faces new challenges. If he has the willpower and self-discipline to overcome those challenges, he goes up in his spiritual level. If, however, a person fails to exercise the necessary self-control, he lowers himself. This is our daily task, to climb higher every day. (Toras Habayis, ch.10)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Climb higher on the spiritual ladder each day by growing from life’s challenges,” p.72
Based on Genesis 28:12
Growth Through Torah

However, this sentiment causes me to re-evaluate a teaching of the Master:

For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance…

Matthew 13:12 (NASB)

weightliftingI know Yeshua (Jesus) was talking about blessings, but when a person finds the self-control, with God’s help, to overcome challenges, although we expect some sort of relief from strife, what most likely happens is another, stronger challenge appears. It’s like being an athlete who has exceeded a personal goal. Having done so, it’s not a matter of resting on his or her laurels, but finding the next goal, the next challenge, and tackling it. But on a moral and spiritual level, overcoming a personal challenge is often exhausting, and after a tough battle, all you want to do is rest.

Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

Matthew 4:11

Even after he successfully overcame his trials, Yeshua got to rest. When facing a spiritual challenge, we have two fears. The first is that we will fail (again). The second is that we will succeed only to immediately face a much more serious challenge.

Why not stay where we are? It may not be the best situation, but at least it’s a known quantity.

Two reasons. The first is that by continuing in a state of sin or disobedience to God, you are not only damaging your relationship with Him, but likely with others around you including friends and loved ones. In fact, it might be the realization of their pain that spurs you into action and seeking repentance in the first place.

The second reason, as Rabbi Pliskin relates, is that being on the ladder is like being in a boat on the river. If you stop rowing, you don’t stay in one spot, you go backward. It’s only through constant effort that you make progress. Although a real ladder doesn’t work this way, spiritually, that’s what happens.

In spite of R. Pliskin’s metaphor, few of us start climbing the ladder and successfully master a rung a day. Conversely, few of us start at the top and steadily, unerringly make our way to the bottom. For most people, we struggle up two and down one, or up one rung, then down two, often for quite some time as we seek to master some part of ourself. As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, progress, spiritual or in any other way, is rarely linear like climbing a flight of stairs.

A person whose main focus is self-improvement and a striving for perfection will always check over his behavior to see what needs correction. Keep asking yourself, “Have I made mistakes?” When you do find a mistake, feel positive for the opportunity to correct the mistake for the future.

-R. Pliskin
“Keep checking your behavior to find ways to improve,” pp.73-4

Oh, if only it were that easy. The Rav makes it seem like we may or may not find that we’ve made mistakes, and yet what I know of human nature in general and my nature in specific tells me that we make mistakes every day, big and small. Of course, the more often we check our moral compass and the path we are traveling, the greater the likelihood that our course corrections will be frequent but small. That assumes, of course, that we generally are on the right course and don’t find ourselves in uncharted and undesirable territory.

It’s much more difficult when you have fallen far, to start climbing the ladder again. The distance from the bottom to the top seems so long, so insurmountable, and overcoming inertia to begin working from the basement of your soul up to that first rung is an almost unimaginable effort.

A word of caution. While self-criticism is a prerequisite for character improvement, one must be careful to have a healthy balance. Excessive self-condemnation will be extremely detrimental to one’s well-being. You need to master an attitude of joy for doing good and then self-criticism will add to that joy. Every fault that is found and worked on will give you the pleasure of knowing that you are improving.

ibid, p.74

I blame myselfStep two on Rabbi Rottman’s list of the four steps of teshuvah is “leaving negativity behind.” He is speaking of changing your environment and the various influences in your life to minimize or eliminate those that contribute to your being tempted to return to sin. However, from my point of view, one of those influences is yourself and what you are saying about your circumstances.

If you look at the ladder from the bottom and say that it’s impossible for you to climb even in a small way, then you are right. It is impossible. Then there you sit in the dust and continue sinking to some sub-level of iniquity.

As much as we’d all like God to “zap” our lives so that we find spiritual and moral growth easy and effortless, such is not the case. Grace may be free but repentance is really hard work. Leaving negativity behind is largely a matter of the stories you tell yourself about yourself. If you tell yourself you are helpless and hopeless, then you’re right. If you tell yourself you are capable and with God’s help, you can begin to climb the ladder and improve, you are also right.

The ladder is either a barrier that holds you down or an opportunity to lift yourself up. You don’t have to achieve spiritual miracles and jump from the bottom to the top in a day, a week, or even a year. Truth be told, the ladder is as long as your life and the challenges never end. But the one you face today that seems so huge and so terrifying, might seem like a small kitten a year from now if you are diligent in your work.

If you look at some temptation facing you and resist it this morning, by tonight you can look back and say that you have accomplished something. Yes, the temptation may be there tomorrow, but that’s another rung on the ladder.

Similarly, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter used to say that a person is like a bird. A bird has the ability to fly very high. But it must continually move its wings. If a bird stops flapping its wings, it will fall. Every person is similar. (cited in Tnuas Hamussar, vol.1, p.300)

When you see birds flying, let that serve as a reminder to you to make the necessary movements to raise yourself spiritually.

-ibid, p.72

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. 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 10:12-13

Five days a week, I wake up at 4 a.m. and make it to my local gym by five. It’s gotten easier to overcome sleepiness and to battle the drive in the dark to the gym to do this, and then to face the free weights, the workout machines, and the cardio exercise, fitting it all into an hour, but in the beginning it was very difficult.

Some days my workout is better than others. Some days, I skip a scheduled day, as I did last Friday, but pick it up the following day to make up for my lack of consistent effort.

It is the same when we face our challenges. We accept them upon ourselves for many reasons. We want to be a better person than the one we are today. We have many flaws which hurt our relationship with God and with our families and friends and we want to repair the damage. We are continually hurting ourselves, and need to become stronger and to heal.

soarChange can be terrifying but it can also be exciting. It’s like moving to a place you’ve never lived before. You have no connections or support, but you also have a brand new environment to explore and learn from.

The effort you make and the story you tell yourself about it will make the difference between falling and soaring. But you don’t have to make the effort alone. Talk to God. Ask for his help. With our eyes on our Master, we can learn to climb high and fly with eagles.

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Asking for Help in the Aftermath of Death

joseph-and-pharaohIn this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Commentary on Chanukah and Torah Portion Mikeitz
Director, Project Genesis

2 dead after shooting at Las Vegas hotel Gunman Wounds 3 at Ala. Hospital 28 Dead, Including 20 Children, After Sandy Hook School Shooting

Brent Spiner on twitter

I am angry/disgusted. Amazing that some think the solution is more guns. Madness. Even NRA members want more control. LLAP

Leonard Nimoy on twitter

Late Friday I said a prayer for the victims of the horrible shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the same day, 22 school children were attacked by a man with a knife in China but thank God, none of them were killed. As Actor Brent Spiner’s “tweet” on the micro-blogging site twitter indicates, there have been other tragedies in the world as well. Actor Leonard Nimoy laments the response to these events among some elements of our society to take control, in this case by replying to gun violence with gun violence.

And according to midrash, Joseph condemned himself to additional prison time by desiring to take control of his situation (asking the “chancellor of cups” to remember him to Pharaoh, King of Egypt) rather than relying solely upon the King of the Universe.

But as Rabbi Menken asked above, what’s wrong with trying to take control of a situation with our own efforts, especially when the situation, the world we live in, seems to be totally out of control? Rabbi Menken’s commentary continues.

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

reading-torahWe can read last week’s Torah portion and as we review each word, we know in advance what’s going to happen, because we’ve read and studied these pages many, many times over the years. The story of Joseph’s redemption and rise to Messiah-like authority and position is like an old friend to me. But while Joseph, at his exalted spiritual level (according to midrash), should have known better than to forget to rely on God alone, as Rabbi Menken wisely points out, that is hardly ever the case for you and me.

We are faced with an insurmountable problem, a terrible tragedy, children have been injured and murdered, and what are we going to do about it? The blood of the victims cries out to us, demanding that we respond. Should we ban private ownership of all firearms in this nation? Should we pour more tax dollars into mental health research and treatment? What can we do to prevent this from ever happening again? What could we have done to prevent the deaths of those 20 small lives in Newtown, Connecticut?

Experts of every type, from political pundits, to psychologists, to the clergy are all weighing in with their opinions. Some people feel that the strict separation of church and state in our nation, which “bans God from our schools” is to blame, but for others, that response seems cheap, shallow, and hurtful. Other people and groups want to arm school officials with firearms so that, should such a situation happen again, teachers and school counselors could fire back, protecting the children.

To be perfectly honest, I haven’t the faintest idea what to do. I don’t know if these sorts of attacks are happening more frequently or if we just react as if they are every time something like this happens.

Joseph’s situation and Rabbi Menken’s commentary on it doesn’t seem to help, but then again, neither one was facing what we are facing right now as a nation…as a world. It is said that everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven. Christians are fond of saying that God is in control. Tell that to the parents of the 20 dead children in Newtown and see how they answer you…if you dare.

No one knows what the right thing to do is but everybody has an opinion about what they think the solution should be. We people of faith rely on God but it is a bitter thing to lose a child and if I were the father of one or more of the dead children, I would be asking where God was when they died. Rabbi Menken reminds us that faith is not blind, but while that makes for interesting intellectual discussion, how does it help when a parent’s heart is being torn to shreds as they cry bitterly over the loss of a son or daughter?

Don’t look for my opinion or my answer to this disastrous mess. I don’t have one to give. I’m still too angry and too sad and too miserable to render one, and even when I manage to tame my emotional response, my intellect and wisdom will still fail me here. Like Joseph, I want to take control. I want to do something. I want to prevent even one more child from dying. I don’t have the power to even begin to make such and effort and as I’ve already said, I wouldn’t know what to do if that power were mine.

school_shooting_in_connJoseph rose to a position where he had power to save a starving world. His authority was second only to the greatest King who ruled over the most civilized and prosperous nation of his day. Joseph saved Egypt, and he saved Canaan, and he saved everyone who came to him, and he saved his family. He finally reunites with them, provides for them, takes care of them, and sees his aging father before he dies.

And yet, Joseph died just like all men must.

And none of us is like Joseph…or like Jesus…or like God.

God is in control but He rules over a broken world. We broke it. Only God can fix it. But as I’ve mentioned numerous times over the years, according to Jewish thought, human beings are partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world. That may mean our human desire to want to act when disaster strikes is built into us by God and part of who we are as His “partners.”

God, what can we do to help? What can any of us do in the face of such an unimaginable pain? I don’t know. All I know how to do is ask for help. Help us. I’m not the only one asking for help.

Please.

A Prayer for Newtown

school_shooting_in_connFor those who suffer, and those who cry this night, give them repose, Lord; a pause in their burdens.

Let there be minutes where they experience peace, not of man but of angels.

Love them, Lord, when others cannot.

Hold them, Lord, when we fail with human arms.

Hear their prayers and give them the ability to hear You back in whatever language they best understand.

Margaret A. Davidson

I can’t think of a worse nightmare for a parent than the death of a child. My children are all adults and I continue to pray daily that God will watch over their lives. I can’t imagine what the parents of the child victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut are going through right now and, coward that I am, I don’t want to know.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about a child’s death and sadly, I’m sure it won’t be the last. 8-year old Leiby Kletzky was murdered over a year ago in Brooklyn, and several Jewish children were killed at their school in Toulouse, France by a heartless terrorist.

I’m reminded of the final words of John Donne’s very old, very famous poem No Man is an Island:

Therefore, do not send to know
For whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee

In truth, no matter where a child dies in the world or how he or she is taken, the child is taken from all of us. They are all our children. When someone’s precious son or daughter is killed, they’re taken from all of us and we all grieve.

I know I grieve.

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

-Mourner’s Kaddish

Visions of Inner Pain and Beauty

When dealing with a person you find difficult, keep in mind that this person’s way of behaving and thinking might be causing him to suffer even more than he is causing you to suffer. See life from his point of view – and be compassionate.

“Understanding Difficult People”
-for more essays on this topic
see Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Self Knowledge,” p.203
quoted from Aish.com

Last week I wrote on this topic in my “meditation” Blessing the Nudnik. But since the term nudnik has negative connotations, and since I have dedicated all of my meditations this week to topics and themes that are positive and uplifting, I thought I’d take advantage of a few quotes from Aish.com to come at this concept from a different angle.

First of all, I’m willing to believe that the vast, vast majority of people I consider to be “difficult” don’t see themselves that way at all. In fact, in any disagreement between them and me, I don’t doubt for a second that they see themselves as “in the right” and view me as the difficult person.

And I probably am a difficult person to deal with, at least sometimes (see my wife for a full and unedited list of my faults…I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek).

I’m not a perfect person. No, not even close. I can be wrong. And I have been wrong.

So, as I said yesterday, an awareness that we can be difficult people, that we can have shortcomings, that we can feel hurt and disappointment, and that we can be unfair and unkind, should allow us to feel empathy for those people who are like us and sometimes act in a “difficult” manner.

But of course, that requires a great deal of painful personal honesty and the ability to publicly make use of that awareness, thus becoming vulnerable to others who may take advantage of our self-exposure.

But then again…

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin. –Ecclesiastes 7:20

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”
Aish.com

Paul’s commentary on Solomon goes like this:

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” –Romans 3:9-12 (ESV)

Given the opinions of these two sage authorities, I think we can conclude that no matter how self-assured, or perhaps even self-righteous, we may feel, even the best of us (and I’m hardly that) has some sort of flaw, especially when in contrast to a perfectly Holy God.

A long time ago, I used to think that people who were (at least in public) perfectly self-confident were either really good people who had it all together or total egomaniacs who thought they were “all that and a bag of chips,” as the saying goes. Only later on did I begin to realize that many of these “self-confident” individuals were really very vulnerable and injured people desperately defending themselves against being hurt again. They say the best defense is a good offense, but a lot of these folks defend by being terribly offensive.

And remember what I said before that even the most difficult of these people almost universally sees themselves as “good” and sees their opponents (which can sometimes include pretty much the rest of the world) as “bad” or as “a threat.” As much as their reaction to the world can cause other people pain and hardship, imagine how difficult it must be for them to feel as if they are about to be hurt and tortured by everyone they encounter.

On some level, we’re all injured. We all have our vulnerabilities; those areas of our lives where we experience fear or shame or humiliation; those domains of our inner being we are terrified people will discover and drag into the light, exposing our deepest darkness and weakness.

However, human beings have different means of coping with vulnerabilities. I don’t believe that we are all injured to the same extent and so we each have different levels of pain and inner opposition to manage and overcome. On top of that, some folks have tremendous coping skills and can manage enormous obstacles and difficulties with seeming ease, while others may struggle mightily all of their lives to barely stay afloat above troubles that don’t seem that tough to the rest of us.

But who am I to judge?

This isn’t about judgment of the frailties of others, it’s about recognizing where we ourselves are lacking and letting that “weakness” function as a strength. Seeing another person who we think of as “difficult,” we should examine ourselves to see how we are like that person and what pain may result from our own “difficult” behavior. For some people who may have reconciled with their “inner demons” so well that they don’t actively perceive themselves as having defects, it might take an extra effort to overcome the barriers that separate them from what they may be afraid of seeing in themselves.

As it turns out, the way to best help another person who is hurt inside but defending that hurt by pushing against others, is not to “come on strong” but to approach with compassion and even a little vulnerability.

That isn’t easy.

When someone pushes us, we want to push back. If we think someone is aggressive and even hostile, the last thing we want to do is “expose our throat” to them. But mercy, grace, compassion, and even “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is exactly what the Master requires of us in dealing with injured and imperfect people. Your “olive branch” may not always be accepted and reconciliation may not always be possible, but you at least have to try…we all must make our best efforts, even knowing they won’t be successful all of the time.

We were created to overcome the difficulties in other people with the best and most decent qualities in ourselves (Romans 12:21). Overcome evil with good, not only in “difficult people” but first, within yourself.

“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men. Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for perhaps it is your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

-Thomas Merton

As Rabbi Twerski says, “Today I shall be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.”

It is only by learning to be at peace with the greatest pain within you, that you learn to be at peace with others and with God.

May the Prince of Peace come soon and in our days, and may his peace heal us all.

If That’s Not Love

An elderly woman and her little grandson, whose face was sprinkled with bright freckles, spent the day at the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a resident artist who was decorating them with tiger paws..

“You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line said to the little boy. Embarrassed, the little guy dropped his head. His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek. “Freckles are beautiful!” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face, and softly whispered…

“Wrinkles!”

-Rabbi Label Lam
“Wrinkles!”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
Torah.org

Elsewhere in Rabbi Lam’s commentary, he discusses the power of words. When we speak we have the power to heal or to harm, to educate or mislead, to raise one person to the highest achievements possible in his nation, and reduce another to abject defeat and despair. Even as I write this, two men are using the power of words to try to convince our nation which one of them should be our President and the leader of the free world for the next four years. Words have great power.

The writings of James, the brother of the Master, also tell us just how powerful words can be.

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. –James 3:5-10 (ESV)

Rabbi Lam tells us that the “entire world was created by G-d with words! We say every day in our liturgy, “Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came to be!” So it is said elsewhere:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:1-5, 14 (ESV)

We human beings wield a terrible power; we have the ability to speak. With that ability, we can create or destroy, much in the same manner that God creates or destroys with words. One misspoken word and we can destroy a child’s dreams or break a lover’s heart. We can crush a grandmother’s love or reduce a young girl’s spirit to ashes.

Not that we’d mean to, but mistakes happen. One slip of the tongue is all it takes. This is how we are not like God. We can make mistakes and He can’t…

…or can He?

We know that G‑d is the most perfect Being, and that everything exists solely because of Him. Furthermore, He knows everything through His knowledge of Himself, so of course He does not make mistakes.

At the same time, our rabbis shake it up and tell us that there are things which G‑d “regrets” having created, such as the evil inclination.

One way to reconcile these viewpoints is to understand that of course G‑d knew what He was doing when He created these negative things, but He knew that they were necessary in order for humanity to attain the greater good He had in mind. So, while He created these things, He does not “like” them, and we are supposed to view them as temporary.

-Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
“Does G-d Ever Make Mistakes?”
Chabad.org

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize God, to make Him seem human. We do this in order to relate to Him better because how can you imagine an infinite, unimaginable being?

You can’t.

So you make Him seem a little more like you in order to talk to Him. I think that’s why some Christians pray directly to Jesus instead of God the Father (even though Jesus said to direct prayers only to God). Because Jesus lived as a human being and walked among his people. He’s easier to relate to, to talk to, to express ourselves in words to.

And he’s supposed to understand mistakes.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. –Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)

Well, yes he was tempted, but no he didn’t sin. So he never made a mistake. And God never makes a mistakes, though He has His “regrets.”

We have our regrets, too. We make mistakes. Lots of them. We hurt people. We use words carelessly. Then we don’t like to admit mistakes because we’re embarrassed. And we hurt people again. We’re irresponsible. We don’t say we’re sorry. We don’t apologize. We don’t ask for forgiveness. We don’t say, “I forgive you.”

God doesn’t make mistakes but we do. Jesus didn’t make mistakes but we do, all of the time.

So why are we here? It’s not like we’re going to get any better. Well, maybe we’ll get somewhat better, but perfection is beyond our capacity. The church tells us that if we just confess our sins to Jesus and ask for forgiveness, we are covered in Christ’s blood, so we appear as pure as the driven snow to God.

But that does nothing to get rid of remorse.

The progressive humanist society around us says that if we become atheists and surrender our archaic belief in God, then we’ll have nothing to feel guilty about. But does that mean surrendering accountability and a conscience? Isn’t that just replacing one system of laws and judgments for another, but with human fallibility being the final arbiter of right and wrong?

I suppose one of the reasons my faith is sustainable is that my pursuit of a Holy God gives me an ideal to shoot for that isn’t based on humanity’s foibles, errors, and selfishness. All men fail. All men make mistakes. There is no “Messiah” apart from God.

God gave us the ability to use words and shows us how to be perfectly creative with them, whereas mankind mixes up creativity and destruction. It’s the destruction where I find despair. But even in our imperfection, God finds hope.

We are the finishing tools for His handiwork.

He applies His breath, our souls, to the harsh earth , softening it to absorb the rains of blessing from heaven; to the coarse surfaces of human life to polish them, so they can receive light from above and shine.

That friction that wears us down, those sparks that fly—it is all a byproduct of His handiwork.

And if you should ask, how could it be that a mundane world presents resistance to the infinitely powerful breath of G‑d?

In truth, it cannot. But He condenses that breath into a soul, He tightly focuses her power, until the harshness of this world can seem real to her, and then she will struggle, and in that struggle she will make the world shine.

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

And struggle we do. An imperfect vessel vainly attempting to contain and utilize the power of a perfect soul. And yet we fail to use even a simple set of words such as “I love you” correctly.

King Solomon had acknowledged that “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue!” The famous British poet Rudyard Kipling expressed it this way, “Words are the most intoxicating drug known to man!” Isn’t it so!? Lives rise and fall on a single word! People get courage to carry on or so discouraged to end it all, based on the slight turn of a phrase. It makes a world of difference if the message says, “I love you!” or “I hate you!”

-Rabbi Lam

Even when you know inside that someone loves you, a single word spoken in anger or disdain can be ultimately annihilating. The apology comes too late. The memory of a thousand, thousand prior failures springs unbidden from the abyss. A lifetime of verbal slaps is re-experienced in a moment.

If we are to make mistakes, then we need to make a lot fewer of them. For every word of anger, we need to speak ten of love and compassion. It’s not as hard as we imagine. All we have to do is this.

His grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles. When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles,” she said, while tracing her finger across the child’s cheek. “Freckles are beautiful!” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s more beautiful than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandmother’s face, and softly whispered…

“Wrinkles!”

If that’s not love…

Try to speak words of love before it’s too late.

Being Crushed

This scan report is heartbreaking.

Heidi’s cancer has progressed everywhere: lungs, bones and most dangerously, in the liver. This afternoon they start Heidi on Taxotere. She is so brave.

Thanks for helping us get through this. This week’s going to be really tough, getting used to the bad news and also Heidi’s new side effects with Taxotere. — at SCCA.

-Joe
Scenes from Our Cancer Battle

I wrote about Joe and Heidi’s cancer battle about a week ago and extended the conversation in a “morning meditation” called Unavoidable a few days later. Today, Joe posted the latest “scene” on Facebook. It was devastating.

I suppose I could do a Google search on inspirational Bible quotes, but that’s not really “me” and I doubt it would really help. Throwing religious platitudes and the same standard Bible verses at people who are in agony is a lot like throwing a pail of water onto the Sun in a vain attempt to quench nuclear fusion.

It was almost four years ago when my friend Dale Stucker said good-bye for the last time to his beloved wife Cyndy. She had fought cancer for so very long, but in the end, it consumed virtually every system in her body. But by God’s grace it never consumed her spirit.

No I’m not anticipating the worst but it’s hard not to think about it right now.

It’s like my thoughts are a little gerbil in a cage running around and around and around trying to get somewhere and getting nowhere. I keep thinking “pray, pray, pray” but people “pray, pray, pray” all the time and other people still “die, die, die” all the time.

This is the part about God that’s really hard for me to understand. I know, I know. For the glory of God, right? Swell. Say that when you have a wife like Cyndy or Heidi who has been fighting a years-long, exhaustive battle and you absolutely, positively can’t do anything about it. Say that if you’re watching it all happen from the outside and you desperately want to help and you absolutely, positively can’t do anything about it.

So what can I do about it. Absolutely, positively nothing.

So what am I doing? I’m writing because that’s what I do when I’m helpless and ineffectual. For me, writing is like praying. Maybe when I’m writing, I’m closer to God than when I’m not. I don’t know how it works.

There’s only one other place to go and it’s been a place I don’t like to go. It’s not that I don’t like going to God, but this is a place where He’s big and scary and He might not give me the answers I want. So I suck up my courage and I walk down that long spiral staircase into the bottom of a big, dark hole in the ground where I can be alone, just me and Him.

Part of me wants to scream at God, “Just what the heck do you think you’re doing? Haven’t you been paying attention? She needs you! She’s dying! DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!”

OK, so maybe I’m going to hell for that one, I don’t know.

Another part of me wants to curl up into a fetal position and make myself as small as I can make all six-foot, three inches of me, and softly sob into the dirt underneath me, “Please, please, please, if you’ve got an ounce of compassion and caring for this woman, please, please don’t do this to her.”

Maybe I’m going to hell for that one, too.

If there’s one thing I learned from the book of Job, it’s that He who makes the Universe, makes the rules. You don’t talk back to God. But then, I never understood the book of Job, either. In the end, God gives Job back everything he lost, including new kids. Except it never explains that kids aren’t these interchangeable little spark plugs where one will do just as well as another. If one child, one unique and precious son or daughter dies, having another one does not replace the first and it doesn’t make the hurt go away.

So I don’t understand you, God.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. –Psalm 121:1-2

I’m not offering that to Joe and Heidi as some sort of comfort, I’m offering it as a plea to God. I know You don’t have to care, and even if You care, You don’t have to answer our prayers. And even if You answer our prayers, the answer doesn’t have to be what we want it to be.

There is an immeasurable, unending, limitless, infinite, gargantuan supply of human pain and suffering out there in the world and in here in all of our hearts. Just turn on the evening news and you’ll be flooded with it. And yes, I want it all to stop. And yes, I realize it won’t stop until the Messiah returns. And yes, I understand that bad things happen to good people and we just have to deal with it.

But You can’t stop me from lifting my eyes to the hills and looking for Your help.

The most poignant line uttered by Job through his long agony was, Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” (Job 13:15) In the end, when all of our enthusiasm and optimism and strength and even when our prayers are exhausted and we can’t send another syllable into the ear of God, we only have our hope in God’s presence.

In tomorrow’s morning meditation, I’m going to say something about God finally lifting His thumb off my skull and relieving the pressure, but although that is true in terms of one circumstance, the weight of God’s presence in a world where Heidi has cancer is pressing me to the floor, as the Shekinah did to Moses when it entered the newly constructed Tabernacle.

And like Moses and like the Priests in Solomon’s Temple, I am at once grateful for the presence of God and completely helpless before Him, unable to rise or even move.

And like the Children of Israel, gathered pensively with trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai, I wait for God to speak.

Please God, let it be good news. Joe and Heidi are buried under the weight of their sorrow.

Let the weight of Your glory cover us
Let the life of Your river flow
Let the truth of Your kingdom reign in us
Let the weight of Your glory
Let the weight of Your glory fall

-Paul Wilbur
Let the Weight of Your Glory Fall (YouTube)

Please.