Tag Archives: Spiritual

Hiatus or Something Like It

Walking outRabbi Meir Hagar of Viznitz related that one of the great chassidic rabbis was once praying with much enthusiasm. His evil inclination came to him at a moment he was praying with the height of fervor, and whispered in his ear, “How can you be so insolent as to pray in such a manner? Yesterday you did improper things. You are unworthy of such prayers.”

The righteous man was not thrown by the evil inclination and mentally replied, “It might be true that yesterday I have erred. Moreover, it is possible that tomorrow once again I might err. But right now I am in the middle of praying, so get away from me!”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Make the Highs Even Higher”
Aish.com

It is said that for every descent spiritually, there is an ascent. This blog and a good many other things are going into hiatus, or at least a significant slow down, for an indeterminate period of time which may be a few days to a few weeks, or even longer. Frankly, I’ve recently been reminded of my humanity and my fallibility (I came to this conclusion before my recent Nanos blog post, but the mess I caused didn’t help). I’ve always been concerned about putting my thoughts, feelings, and opinions about God, the Bible and everything out on the Internet, since I am only human, when the rest of the religious people in my space (and in all other religious spaces) in the blogosphere seem to be so “perfect” (not that anyone is perfect, of course).

I’m far from perfect. Very far.

I’ll miss the daily writing. I really enjoy it. But discussing theological issues should be less about personal enjoyment and more about enlightenment and truth. I told a friend over coffee last Sunday that I was stuck on the level of content as far as my faith goes. I like reading and writing about “stuff,” about opinions, and doctrine, and information.

But that’s not all that a life of faith is made of. A life of faith must be lived faithfully.

For however long I’m away, or however infrequently I visit, I bequeath the religious blogosphere to those of you who want it or need it. I’m going to see what life is like without living it on a daily basis. At one point, I thought blogging was a way to get closer to God, but now I see that it has become a barrier between me and Hashem, like many other things I have in my life.

Oh, just in case the “apostasy police” or anyone else is “concerned” by what my decision means, no, I haven’t lost faith or walked away from Jesus. I’m walking away from a public online discussion of my faith right now, thank you very much.

When will I be back? I don’t know exactly. I still have one more episode of First Fruits of Zion’s television program A Promise of What is to Come to review, and I know I’m going to watch it, but when will I write the review and post it for all to read? Soon I hope.

Even if I return to this blog in a few days or a few weeks, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll return to daily blogging.  It’s more likely, though nothing is decided yet, that I could just stop by every once in awhile and share a few thoughts or insights or even a review on an irregular basis. Just a brief, intermittent presence.

What will I be doing now that I’m not regularly writing online? Praying, reading, studying, pondering, meditating. Who knows what else? God knows what He wants of me. I just have to discover what that is and then do it.

Lord, Thou knowest that I am growing older.

Keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject.

Release me from the craving to straighten out everyone’s affairs.

Keep me from the recital of endless detail. Give me wings to get to the point.

Seal my lips when I am inclined to tell of my aches and pains; they are increasing with the years and my love to speak of them grows sweeter as time goes by.

Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.

Make me thoughtful but not nosy; helpful but not bossy.

With my vast store of wisdom and experience it does seem a pity not to use it all. But Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.

-found at Aish.com
“A prayer for those growing older”

Blessings on all who have shared in my journey thus far. May it continue by the will and grace of God.

Good Shabbos and Good Night.

The Challies Chronicles: Interlude Courtesy of the Rabbis

Ismar SchorschA third-century Palestinian amora, Rabbi Hanina bar Yitzhak, posited that three common experiences are merely unripened fruit (novelet) of phenomena unknown to us: sleep (foreshadowed death), dreaming (prophecy), and Shabbat (the world to come). Hence to dream is but a faint reflection of the intensity of a direct communication from God. The Talmud speaks of the ratio of these relationships as being one-sixtieth. Together, these views of Rabbi Yonatan, Rava, Rav Hanina, and the Talmud add up to a consistent effort to limit the potency of dreams as recorded throughout the Tanakh, without fully denying the possibility of fleeting contact with the Divine.

The shift away from revelatory dreams mirrors what Rabbis had done with prophecy itself. They declared it to have ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, to be found henceforth only among “fools and children.” In a culture reconstituted around the centrality of a sacred book rather than a sacred space, the scholar outranked the prophet. Exegesis replaced prophecy as the key to determining God’s will.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Living in Two Worlds,” pg 157
Commentary on Torah Portion Miketz
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is another brief interruption in my Challies Chronicles series which seeks to take the live blogging of Pastor Tim Challies on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, and use it as a platform for analysis and critique.

As I was reading Schorsch’s commentary on last week’s Torah reading, the above-quoted text jumped out at me. The essence of what Schorsch writes, that the Rabbis shifted away from certain “gifts of the Spirit” and toward a more “Bible-based” platform for understanding the revelation of God, seemed like it should be something MacArthur would agree with. Of course, the framework of Judaism would probably result in MacArthur immediately rejecting this information, since it comes from an “alien” (i.e. “Jewish”) source.

But since I stand outside of MacArthur’s own framework, I am at liberty to see the parallels. Evangelical Christianity didn’t invent this shift in perspective nor is it the sole owner of the material. It is true that Ismar Schorsch is only one author and represents the Conservative branch of Judaism, nevertheless, he is mining a rich field of Rabbinic knowledge and wisdom.

But I like what he writes next:

But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be? The reality of God’s presence permeated every aspect of the Rabbi’s discourse, piety, and daily lives. In their religious quest, they crafted a Judaism that enabled one to live in two worlds — the material and the spiritual, the transitory and the eternal, the here-and-now and the here-after — simultaneously and harmoniously.

-Schorsch pp 157-8

Tom Pennington at Strange FireWhile Tom Pennington in my recent Strange Fire commentary acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the current world, restricting its activity only in the areas of such direct spiritual gifts as prophecy, miraculous healings, and “tongues,” I wonder if he’s saying something similar? I’m sure he didn’t mean to sound like the Rabbinic sages, and after all, much of what the Rabbis taught were in the form of midrash or commentary, not directly pulled from scripture. On the other hand, while the Strange Fire speakers present their arguments as based only on scripture, the reality of what they produced at the conference was all inferred information, so both “camps” can be accused of standing on less than absolutely solid ground.

In other words, the Strange Fire speakers have a theory that just happens to fit words in the Bible.

At the heart of their arguments, “Cessationists” exist in a world of polarity. Either you believe this or you believe that. Either the Holy Spirit always enables prophecy in human beings or it never does.

While I myself am a skeptic of many of the strange claims regarding holy vomiting (though I don’t think the practice is mainstream Pentecostalism) and other highly dramatic experiences where the Spirit of God seems to perform on command (tonight and tonight only, on this very stage…), I’m not willing to say that God is quite so rigid as to be subject to such terms as “always” or “never,” at least not as defined by mortal human beings.

I suppose that’s one reason why I’m attracted to Jewish thought. It allows God a little “wiggle room” should He decide to supernaturally act in our world in a way our doctrine doesn’t always anticipate.

Schorsch wrote, “But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be?” How could they be, indeed. God is an ethereal substance that, once we are open to Him, we soak up like a sponge. If the Holy Spirit really in-dwells within all believers, then we are each a nexus point for a simultaneous connection of physical and spiritual reality. This doesn’t make us spiritual super-people, capable of “leaping tall buildings in a single bound,” but it does expose us to realities that a mere secular individual would be blind to.

But you have to be willing to see beyond the visible light of the universe into a spectrum that exists only in the realm of God. That’s a place we enter when we pray, a sort of doorway that leads from one room of existence to another. We can’t really enter into that other room in this life, but once we gain awareness of it, we can no longer afford to ignore it, either.

torah-tree-of-lifeWe stand in two worlds if we’re willing to see it. My beef with MacArthur’s perspective is that he seeks to define that other world in concrete and quantifiable terms when, from my perspective, the vastness of God extends far, far beyond what can be crammed into our understanding of the Bible.

If I can paraphrase the bard (Hamlet to Horatio), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I suppose MacArthur and party could say the same of me relative to demonology, but my orientation tends to naturally seek the positive aspects of the “spiritual plane,” which in this case, is the Spirit of God.

While I always will remain a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth, I think Judaism, or certain areas of Jewish thought, does a better job of allowing God to be God, than certain areas of Christianity.

Schorach said that the Rabbis crafted a Judaism post-second Temple, that could exist in two worlds. That makes it sound like the Judaism of the Rabbis is “man-made,” a common criticism of Judaism by the Church. But did the Christian Reformation start and Fundamentalism continue to craft a different kind of Christianity than what existed at the end of the first century of the common era?

Maybe both Christianity and Judaism are products constructed as much by their “revered sages” as molded by the hand of God.

Past, Future, or Present?

The world of Moshiach is a world free of hate, jealousy and suffering, a world suffused with wisdom, a world in harmony with itself and its Creator. And what model of leadership does the Torah envision for this perfect world? Moshiach, the world leader who will herald and preside over this climatic era, is described as both teacher and king, a paragon of spiritual and material leadership in one.

So the example of Moses represents the Torah’s concept of the perfect leader. For Moses embodied the ultimate criterion for leadership: an utter self-effacement and a complete absence of self-interest. As the Torah attests: “And the man, Moses, was the most humble man on the face of the earth.” In such a man, absolute authority only ensures the optimum integration and harmony between all areas of communal life. For it is not power that corrupts, but the ego of the powerful. Only in lesser generations, whose leaders’ selflessness is not on the level exemplified by Moses, is it necessary for authority to be fragmented and shared.

But the halving of life into “spiritual” and “material” spheres, its compartmentalization into “moral” and “political” domains, is an artificial one. Life, in its entirety, is a single endeavor: the development of the perfect world that G-d envisioned at creation and outlined in the Torah. The many “areas” of life are but the many facets to its singular essence.

Ethics of Our Fathers
Commentary on Chapter 6
“Torah and State”
Elul 4, 5772 * August 22, 2012
Chabad.org

I’m going to talk a lot more about the “compartmentalization” of the secular and spiritual in our lives in tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” but in reviewing this commentary, I thought we could take a moment to look at a Jewish perspective about life now vs. life in the Messianic Age. I don’t think it’s all that different from how Christians see life now as opposed to how things are going to be when Jesus returns.

Religious Jews tend to draw a much closer comparison between Moses and the Messiah than we Christians do, probably because much of the church has been taught that the Law is done away with, thus Moses becomes superseded by Jesus. In some sense, it’s almost like modern religious Jews see Moses the way we Christians see Jesus. He is the model and the “king” they look up to. He set the standard for Jewish leadership and the Messiah will be a “perfected” version of Moses.

OK, I’m oversimplifying all this, but I think it’s important for us to consider Jesus as the Jewish Messiah King. When Jesus returns (and I’ve said this before), he will look, talk, walk, eat, pray, worship, and be a Jewish man, the Messiah, the King of Israel. He will definitely be “too Jewish” for many Christians and I think it would help if we got used to the idea that he won’t be the “Jesus” we see in the movies before he actually arrives.

One of the reasons I like Jewish commentaries on the Messiah is because it compels me to conceptualize Jesus as Jewish and not as the sort of “gentilized” person that we’ve turned him into as the centuries have passed. This is also why I sometimes encourage Christians to at least try on some Jewish practices for size. Turning our thoughts and hearts toward God during the month of Elul for example, isn’t such a bad idea. It encourages us to conform our lives more toward holiness and God at a time of year when we probably aren’t thinking that hard about our lives of faith (Christians don’t have religious events in or around August typically).

Why not consider and practice self-purification and making who we are just a little bit better than we were yesterday? Maybe we can even do something to make the world a little bit of a better place. Maybe God put us here to actually accomplish something special; something that is uniquely our purpose.

Whoever has faith in individual Divine Providence knows that “Man’s steps are established by G-d,” (Psalm 37:23) that this particular soul must purify and improve something specific in a particular place. For centuries, or even since the world’s creation, that which needs purification or improvement waits for this soul to come and purify or improve it. The soul too, has been waiting – ever since it came into being – for its time to descend, so that it can discharge the tasks of purification and improvement assigned to it.

“Today’s Day”
Shabbat, Elul 4, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Tomorrow, I’m going to ask some important questions on my “morning meditation.” I’m going to ask if Jesus still matters in our lives. I’m going to ask why he’s so important to us and to the world. I think at least some of us are beginning to lose track of the vital nature of the Messiah. It’s not just what he’ll do when he returns and ascends his throne on Earth. It’s what he’s already done for each and every person who calls themselves “Christian” or “Messianic.” It’s what he’s done for us that could never have been done without him.

If you are separating the secular and the spiritual in your life, you may be shutting Jesus out of times and areas of your existence where he needs to be and where you need him to be. Does Jesus matter? Is he important in every part of your life?

I’ll try to answer those questions tomorrow. Stay tuned.

What Do You Know?

Man, like all creatures . . . possesses both a body and a soul. And just as there are those who are poor in body and bodily needs, so, too, are there paupers in spirit and spiritual needs. Thus, the mitzvah of charity includes both physical charity and spiritual charity. In the words of our sages: “[It is written:] ‘If you see a naked person, you should cover him.’ What is the meaning of this? If you see a person who is naked of the words of Torah, take him into your home, teach him to read the Shema and pray, teach him… and enjoin him regarding the mitzvot….”

Regarding material charity, the law is that the material pauper is also obligated [to give], for even the most impoverished person can find a way to help his fellow pauper. The same applies to spiritual charity. There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews and bring them closer to the fear of Heaven, the Torah and the mitzvot.

Freely translated excerpt from the very first “public letter” written by the Rebbe
dated Elul 18, 5710 (August 31, 1950)
Printed in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, pg. 463-4.
As quoted from “A Poor Man’s Gift”
in the “What the Rebbe Taught Me” series
Chabad.org

When I attended my former One Law congregation, it used to bother me a little to teach. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved to teach. I used to craft a lesson the way I write blogs. I’d find inspiration everywhere. I couldn’t read the Bible without getting ideas for future lessons.

But there’s a problem.

I have absolutely no formal educational or vocational background in teaching on Biblical and religious topics. I’m kind of a blockhead that way. I tend to teach as I write; not so much on the nuts and bolts facts, translations, and Greek or Hebrew “wordplay” you see on so many other religious blogs, but on the themes raised by the text and the moral and ethical lessons we can glean from the Word.

It still bothers me to blog for pretty much the same reasons it bothered me to teach. At least now, I’m only representing myself and not a congregation or organization. I don’t have to be worried that what I say and my personal opinions will reflect poorly on others. Now, when I (virtually) shoot off my big mouth, it only reflects poorly (or otherwise) on me.

Well, that’s not absolutely true. As a disciple of Jesus and a worshiper of the God of Abraham, anything I say or do, for good or for ill, reflects upon my Creator. That’s hardly to be taken lightly, but on the other hand, with so many religious bloggers out there, one or two others are probably going to make a few mistakes, too. That’s no excuse of course, but I have to plead that I’m only human. My mistakes are my own, not God’s.

Just in case you were wondering, just how many blogs and bloggers are out there, (I can’t drill down to the specific number of religious blogs, alas) according to nielsen.com, at the end of 2011, there were “over 181 million blogs around the world, up from 36 million only five years earlier.”

Wow!

That’s pretty humbling.

If you’re one of those bloggers and you think your blog is really cool beans, just remember that no matter what you write and how important it is to you, there are almost 200 million other bloggers out there who feel the same way about their messages. Talk about a drop in a bucket.

HumbleThere are a lot of reasons why I continually entertain the thought that I should just quit. Especially after a “bad day” online, I brood a bit and figure I’ll set a date to stop blogging, delete my Facebook and twitter accounts, and let the rest of the world duke it out in cyberspace. I’m sure there are a lot of other things I could do with my time besides blogging a ridiculous amount in the Christian/Jewish/Messianic blogosphere. Besides, it’s not as if my one little online contribution could possibly make any sort of difference in the greater scheme of things.

But remember that I quoted from the Rebbe’s letter at the start of this particular missive.

Often, I use my blog as a platform to encourage and support giving tzedakah in a variety of forms, including material, emotional, and spiritual. But Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson in this commentary presents another idea:

What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts, ignorant minds, misguided spirits, and stagnant souls.

While a now-famous Jewish teaching states, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” according to one Talmudic master, “He who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son is regarded by Scripture as though he created him.”

But wouldn’t that presuppose being a competent Torah teacher? I mean, it’s not like just anyone can teach Torah or, to put it in more “Christian” terms, it’s not like just anybody can be a Bible teacher.

According to our aforementioned commentary, the Rebbe was fond of quoting the following:

“If only you know aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) – teach aleph!”

-Old Chassidic Proverb

I suppose that’s sort of like saying, “if you only know the ABCs, teach the ABCs.” But what does that have to do with teaching the Bible or blogging about religious topics, particularly if you are untrained and uneducated?

Herb Brin, a noted author and the editor of four newspapers, met with the Rebbe after becoming editor of the L.A.-based Jewish newspaper Heritage. The private audience lasted six hours. At some point, the following exchange took place:

“Rebbe, I recently became editor of a Jewish publication. The problem is, I know very little about my people and their heritage. Do I have the right to make sensitive editorial judgments as I do not understand Hebrew, my Jewish education was truncated, and I only know fragments of Yiddish?”

Looking him in the eye, the Rebbe said, “Do you have the right to withhold that which you do know?”

OK, that was only a longer and slightly more detailed commentary on what Rabbi Kalmenson said a moment earlier, so not much more was illuminated.

There are actually two problems here. The first is that you should teach only what you are competent to teach. That can be a tough one because human beings are notorious for grossly overestimating what they know and how far their skill sets can take them. The blogosphere is replete with self-appointed “experts” in their fields, particularly when the field is religion, so it would be easy for someone with limited qualifications, or even a reasonably well-educated person, but with a serious ax to grind, to use Rabbi Kalmenson’s lesson as tacit permission to rattle off whatever “teachings” they feel capable of presenting to a spiritually hungry and needy audience.

I can’t speak for all bloggers everywhere, but for my own part, I make every effort to teach and write within the boundaries of my knowledge. I also have a trusted friend or two who, behind the scenes, lets me know when I’ve gone a bit too far.

But what about the second problem?

Say that as a student, I have the right, even the obligation, to teach, to inform, to educate, to share information with those uninformed; but how dare I encourage others when it comes to Jewish observance? How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with?

That is an absolutely excellent question, and one that we should all consider when consulting the various blogs out there (including mine) that suggest how to go about living a moral, ethical, and spiritual lifestyle. How can you know if the author is living up to the standards he or she is teaching to others?

The Rebbe had an answer for that one, too.

A college student once approached the Rebbe in the middle of a chassidic gathering to greet him with a l’chaim. The Rebbe turned and asked him if he was involved with encouraging and helping his fellow students to put on tefillin every day.”But Rebbe,” admitted the young man, “I myself don’t put on tefillin every day!”

“Why is that their fault…?” replied the Rebbe, with a smile.

In sum, Judaism teaches that you don’t have to be rich to give to the poor, you don’t have to be a scholar in order to teach the ignorant, and you don’t have to be perfect in order to help others perfect themselves.

That’s absolutely amazing and explains why the poor can give to the poorer or sometimes, even to the rich. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a perfect religious or spiritual walk. Granted, I don’t think the Rebbe was suggesting that it’s OK to be a phony, a hypocrite, or a charlatan, but it is OK to be an honest and well-meaning person with a limited skill set and who struggles with their walk of faith and to still teach what they know and what you know to others. I guess on that basis, I’ll continue to blog for a bit longer. You never know what might happen as a result.

What can the poor man give? The answer is, whatever he has. Jesus talked about this too, but he used more concrete terms in his parable.

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Now imagine that instead of material funds, the Master was talking about what you know, how you encourage, and your example of living out your faith.

What do you have to give? What do I?

Walking In Footsteps

The Midrash offers the following parable to illustrate the advantages of being holy. This can be compared to a simple businessman who was going along when he met a kohen gadol. Obviously, it would be a great honor for the businessman to travel with the kohen gadol. Not surprisingly, when he found out that they were both going in the same direction, he asked the kohen gadol permission to accompany him. “My son, I am a kohen. Therefore I am only permitted to travel on a pure path. To avoid impurity, I must make sure that my steps do not go over any graves. If you wish to be careful to only go in a path which is appropriate for me, I will gladly allow you to join me. But if not, in the end I will leave you and go on my own pathway.”

Similarly, when Moshe broached the subject of purity with Yisrael, he said, “Because God your Lord goes with you in your camp to save you.”

Reishis Chochmah explains this Midrash. “God is absolutely holy and separate from the material world. How are we to emulate Him and become holy even regarding material matters in which we must indulge? The answer is that we must sanctify our thoughts. Holy thoughts are the root of all sanctification. The more we think about holy things the easier it will be for us to sanctify the material. And the more sanctify the material the more we will be able to sanctify our thoughts!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Path of Purity”
Niddah 71

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV)

It isn’t easy. Walking a path of holiness, I mean. It isn’t easy to be human; to be mortal and try to walk in God’s footsteps. I suppose the task seems a little more approachable for Christians when we imagine we’re walking in the footsteps of Jesus. God is just so…so vast, so infinite, so…God. Jesus, at least, we can picture as a human being, as a mortal (though not really) as one whose path we can attempt to walk with some reasonable expectation of success.

And in fact, as disciples of the Master, walking the Master’s path is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.

Oh really?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (ESV)

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

Oh well. Guess that didn’t work. Trying to follow Christ’s footsteps is, for all intents and purposes, trying to follow God’s footsteps. But can this be done? After all, most of us aren’t holy men or tzaddikim or saints, or “super-Christians.” Most of us are just…us, people, human.

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise; rather seek what they sought.

Matsuo Bashō

Although Matsuo Bashō did not follow a Jewish or Christian religious tradition, I find his words to be most illuminating under the circumstances. As I continue to follow my own path, not only in life, but the “path” of writing this meditation, I can see there is only one goal: to seek God.

As the businessman who walked with the kohen gadol had to choose to walk a path of purity if he were to be with his holy companion, if we choose to follow God as disciples of the Master, we too must choose a path of purity. How can this be done when the world we live in is anything but sanctified and pure? As the midrash has already been explained to us, we must carry our purity with us by conforming our thoughts, emotions, and actions to those things we know are from God. We learn this path by reading the Bible, from studying the teachings it contains, by associating with others who also walk their own path as disciples of Jesus who are seeking God.

Like I said, it isn’t easy.

One of the reasons I write these meditations each day is to focus my day on following the path. I’m not always successful and both my internal states and my external environment often conspire to pull me off the trail or to stall me in one spot, sometimes for a rather lengthy sojourn. When I get distracted or even feel lost, I try to retreat to a point on the path I am sure of and one that I know contains a marker to point me in the right direction.

The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G-d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G-d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G-d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G-d.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Menachem Av 12, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

For the past few days, I’ve written a meditation or two on the topic of love, and particularly Christian and Jewish love. We see from the quote above that for many religious Jews, loving each other and even their “inner essence,” is deeply connected to loving God. This is also true for Christians:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34-35 (ESV)

But in expending our love to our family, our friends, to the fellowship of believers, and to the struggling and conflicted world around us, we must never forget that to give means we must also receive. It’s not selfish to want and even need to be loved. Certainly, we can’t expect the whole world to love us and being Christians, we can in fact, expect much of the world around us to show us anything else besides love.

It’s very draining.

But we do have our families, our friends, our companions in the faith to help sustain us as we walk a path in the footsteps of God, which seems like an impossible task. Our goal is equally impossible; to seek and find God, to be perfect as He is perfect. To focus only on the light and not be distracted by the encroaching shadows. But God so loved the world and that includes us, not just as a group, but as individuals. Each of us is precious to God.

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. –Matthew 10:26-31 (ESV)

This isn’t to say that our path will always be secure with no challenges or stress. Far from it. But it does mean that whatever we face and even when we feel that we can no longer see the next step on which to place our foot, God is there, too.

Not long ago, I wrote about fear and insecurity as a challenge to faith and urged all “secure” believers to be compassionate toward their weaker brothers and sisters. Today, while I can’t promise the easy path to anyone who is a disciple, I can promise a path, a definite direction, a concrete goal. The things of holiness and faith seem sometimes confusing and indistinct was we negotiate our way through a world built out of moral relativity and public opinion, but God is One and He is perfect and He is present and He will not abandon us…even in those times when we feel utterly alone.

You can choose to believe in a G‑d aloof from all things, a distant G‑d that leaves you in the hands of so many worldly troubles.

Or you can put your trust in a G‑d that carries you as a nursing mother carries her suckling infant by her bosom; as a father carries his child high upon his shoulders; as an eagle carries its fledgling young upon its wings.

Make room for Him and He will enter. As large as you allow your trust to be, so will be the space that He will fill.

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

The signs may not look the same on my path as they do on yours. The mile markers may appear completely different. Even the terrain, the scenery, the sky and the ground of my path may be totally dissimilar to your own. After all, we’re different people, at different points on the path, and with different paths to walk. And yet we have the same companion, we are following the same footprints, and we have the same goal.

We don’t follow the wise men or the sages because they are not the goal, but we take our cues from them. We seek what they sought. We seek to follow the path that leads to God. May He always walk with you and with me.

Burning the Plow

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.

1 Kings 19:19-21 (ESV)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik concludes his classic book The Lonely Man of Faith with a comparison of Elisha and Elijah as archetypal figures representing the “two Adams” or two different types of men of faith: material and spiritual man. I recently suggested that what makes the man of faith lonely isn’t just the inability to adequately connect to God, but the difficulty in developing a true relationship between the spiritual and material persons that “live” inside each of us.

How do we resolve this conflict, or is it unresolvable? I’m inclined to believe the latter, since Rabbi Soloveitchik introduced his book thus:

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses.

-Soloveitchick from the Foreword of his book

So if there are no “problem-solving thoughts” and no “new method of remedying the human situation” of the man (or woman) of faith, then why continue to belabor the point? Faith will always isolate us from God, from society, from each other, and even from our own personalities. But Soloveitchick did not end his book on a note of despair or futility.

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centered around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices. His objective was economic success, his aspiration – material wealth. The Bible portrays him as efficient, capable, and practical, remindful of a modern business executive. When Elijah met him, we are told, he was supervising the work done by the slaves. He was with the twelfth yoke in order not to lose sight of the slave-laborers. What did this man of majesty have in common with Elijah, the solitary covenantal prophet, the champion of God, the adversary of kings, who walked as a stranger through the bustling cities of Shomron, past royal pomp and grandeur, negating the worth of all goods to which his contemporaries were committed, reproaching the sinners, preaching the law of God and portending His wrath?

Yet unexpectedly, the call came through to this unimaginative, self-centered farmer. Suddenly the mantel of Elijah was cast upon him. While he was engaged in the most ordinary, everyday activity, in tilling the soil, he encountered God and felt the transforming touch of God’s hand. The strangest metamorphosis occurred. Within seconds, the old Elisha disappeared and a new Elisha emerged. Majestic man was replaced by covenantal man.

This isn’t really what I was looking for. Elijah represented the covenantal man, the man of God, while Elisha possessed the role of majestic, material man, in command of his environment, aware of God but not consumed by Him. The answer to the dilemma of how to connect spiritual and material man seems to be to convert one to the other. Elisha effectively becomes Elijah, and one man is substituted for the other rather than resolving the conflicts and distance between the two which would have allowed them to co-exist.

Interestingly enough, this wouldn’t be the last time such a conflict is described in the Bible and such a resolution is attempted.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” –Luke 9:59-62 (ESV)

The transactions between Jesus and those he called to be his disciples seem to be functionally similar to the interaction between Elijah and Elisha. Jesus, the “ultimate covenental man” encounters various “material men” in the process of performing their usual routines and commands them to follow him. Those who hesitate or who desire to fulfill their material obligations first, he says are unfit for the Kingdom of God.

The response of material man to spiritual man it seems, must be immediate or it does not work at all. So what did Elisha do according to Soloveitchik?

He slew the oxen and fed the meat to the slaves who, half-starved, tilled the soil for him and whom he, until that meeting with Elijah, had treated with contempt. Moreover, covenantal man renounced his family relationships. He bade farewell to father and mother and departed from their home for good.

The level of commitment called for both by Elijah and by Jesus seems abrupt and absolute and anything less is considered a failure in terms of entering the Kingdom of God. But that isn’t the end of the story.

Elisha’s withdrawal from majesty was not final. He followed the dialectical course of all our prophets. Later, when he achieved the pinnacle of faith and arrived at the outer boundaries of human commitment, he came back to society as a participant in state affairs, as an adviser of kings and a teacher of the majestic community. God ordered him to return to the people, to offer them a share in the covenantal drama and to involve them in the great and solemn colloquy.

I’m not satisfied. The book ends with Elisha lonely but not despairing, discovering triumph in defeat, hope in failure, and sheltering the Word of God in his bones like an all-consuming fire burning in his heart. In his loneliness, Elisha discovers a God who resides in the recesses of transcendental solitude.

But is that all there is?

None of us bear the mantle of prophet and holy man in the way of Elijah and Elisha, but we see that a similar process occurs when Jesus calls each of us into discipleship. We are all called to leave our former life, to metaphorically burn our plow and slaughter our oxen in order to feed the poor and enslaved, and then to follow the Master on a completely new course of life, interacting with the material world as a messenger for the spiritual world. Is that what’s supposed to happen?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. –John 17:11-14 (ESV)

We aren’t taken out of the world to become completely one with the spiritual realm. There’s an interactivity between who we are as spiritual people and the role we play in the material world around us. We cannot serve the purpose God created us for if we merely retreat into our spiritual reality and ignore the majestic and material environment where we happen to live.

Soloveitchik is right. There is no cure for the loneliness of a man of faith but that’s to be expected. We don’t belong here, none of us. We are the proverbial strangers in a strange land, pilgrims in a broken world, carrying a message from the Master to everyone else not to give up hope. It’s a hope that no political figure or celebrity can offer because they are wholly one with the material and are limited by the boundaries of their devotion to only the physical. The hope we offer as messengers of our Master is the love of God and the promise of redemption, not only of created world, but of our very beings.

The loneliness of the man of spirit will end, but not yet.