I realized that it’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve written anything on this blog. There are a few reasons for this. The first, as I chronicled here, is that for the past week, I’ve been sick as a dog. Actually, the whole family has, thanks to some nasty bug my poor granddaughter (who now is thankfully on the mend) picked up at the Germ Factory Day Care Center.
But that’s not the whole reason I haven’t been writing here.
I haven’t been writing “Morning Meditations” because I haven’t been inspired to do so. I suppose that should be disturbing since, given my life situation, this is pretty much the only spiritual outlet (or intake) I’ve got.
I’ve seen a meme on Facebook that says something like, “If you’ve given up on God because your church has failed you, then it wasn’t God you had faith in.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that meme lately.
It seems kind of trite and not exactly true, though. When I walked out of my little church the better part of two years ago, a lot of people tried to find me an alternative. They seemed to think without belonging to a community, that my faith would wane, and that I would eventually stop having faith at all.
It hasn’t been easy.
But it does go to show that when you have problems with community, for whatever reasons, it is generally believed that you cannot go it alone, just you and God.
So the meme isn’t exactly correct.
On the other hand, it’s not entirely incorrect, either.
I’m writing all this because I’ve seen various messages in social media lately saying stuff like “just returned from such and thus spiritual event and had a wonderful time with old and new friends.” I won’t name names, because that’s one way I get into trouble with “the powers that be”.
But I am reminded of the great times I had in community, both regular, weekly get-togethers and special events and conferences. Those doors are closed to me now, precisely because I closed them (and I had good reasons to do so).
A few years ago a person who would be considered successful by most people’s standards shared with me, “Looking back at my childhood, a pattern that I remembered having is, ‘He has more than me.’ ‘His birthday present was better than mine.’ ‘He gets to travel to more interesting places.’ ‘He is luckier than I am.’ ‘He has more friends.’ ‘He lives in a nicer house.’
“On my fortieth birthday I made a mental accounting of my life. I thought about various traits and patterns that I had. The most distressful part of this mental accounting was that I noticed I wasn’t very happy in my life. When I asked myself why, and thought about it, I realized that I kept feeling that I had less than others. I was told to look back at my childhood for this pattern, and that’s when I realized how often this theme came up. There were many ways that others had it better than I did. And my mind was full of thoughts of not only having less, but of being less.
“I realized that if I wanted to live the rest of my life joyfully, I needed to do one of two things. Either I could make it my goal to be so successful in every way that is important to me that I would be far ahead of everyone I knew. Then I would find it easier to be grateful for my accomplishments, successes, and possessions. Or I could learn to gain greater mastery over my thoughts. I would choose to think thoughts of gratitude as my automatic way of thinking. The first choice would take so much time, effort, and energy that I would be in a constant frustrating race with others. I might never reach my goal and even if I did reach it, it was certainly not going to last. Eventually someone would pass me by. This way of thinking would give me many years of stress and frustration and there really wasn’t a way that this would give me gratitude and happiness. It was obvious that the wiser approach would be to be grateful for what I had. Choosing this pattern of thought was one of the best choices I have made in my life.”
So if I feel “deprived” or feel “less” in any way, particularly in the area of spiritual company, I either have to work so hard that I outshine anyone I may be envious of, or I change the way I think about what I do have in my life and be grateful to God for that.
Kind of a no-brainer once you put it that way. Oh, and there’s this:
Ben Zoma says: Who is rich? The one who is appreciates what he has…
I saw another “meme” (not really a meme, but it read that way to me) that said something like “Torah without Rabbinics” or “Judaism without Rabbinics”. Yeah. Good luck with that.
Actually, I’ve heard this one before, and more than once. The first time I can remember was when I was in graduate school. One of my instructors described his childhood and how he would literally play on the railroad tracks behind where he lived because his family didn’t live near a more appropriate venue such as a park.
Now you may think that was terrible, and looking back, a lot of people might tell themselves they had a bad childhood because they were poor, but he said at the time, he was having a blast. When you esteem what you have, it’s hard to focus on what you lack (or what others may think you lack).
Over every single blade of grass, there is a heavenly force that whispers to it and commands, “Grow!”
-Bereishis Rabbah 10:7
OK, there is that. It’s easy, without external prompts, to simply tread water in your own little pool, and I have plenty of experience doing that.
In his commentary on the above-quoted Bereishis Rabbah, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski says in part:
Every living thing in the world has potential, and it is the Divine will that everything achieve its maximum potential. We think of humans as the only beings that have a yetzer hara which causes them to resist growth. Certainly animals and plants, which do not have a yetzer hara, should achieve their maximum potential quite easily.
Not so, says the Midrash. Even plants, and in fact all living matter, have an inherent “laziness,” a tendency towards inertia. Even the lowly blade of grass needs to be stimulated and urged to grow.
We can see from here that a human being thus has two inhibiting forces to overcome in order to achieve growth: (1) the yetzer hara, which is unique to us, and (2) the force of inertia, which is common to all matter.
So while Heaven prompts us to grow, our yetzer hara and plain old inertia counters that. However, if a single blade of grass can push its way up into the air through solid concrete, and if drops of water can slowly wear down a stone, then it possible for a human being, namely me, to pick away at the barriers between me and a more spiritual life, a tiny bit at a time.
Writes Rabbi Twerski: the sum total of all the traits that are unique to human beings comprise the spirit that makes us distinctly human. Whether one believes that the spirit was instilled in man by God or somehow developed in the process of human evolution — the fact that human beings have a spirit is independent of one’s belief.
If one is seeking spirituality, then one must exercise his uniquely human capacities. Spirituality is thus nothing more than the implementation of these capacities, hence spirituality can be seen as being synonymous with humanity. To the degree that a person is lacking in spirituality, to that degree he is lacking in humanity.
Without including religion in the definition of spirituality, the above definition is for generic spirituality. However, for Jewish spirituality one needs to look to the Torah for direction on how a Jew should exercise his uniquely human capacities!
Which begs the question of what Rabbi Packouz or Rabbi Twerski would believe a non-Jew’s proper expression of spirituality should be. Probably as a Noahide, but I’ve covered that territory before.
Taking a step back, what makes human beings unique and spiritual beings? From R. Twerski’s book, Rabbi Packouz lists eight attributes:
The ability to learn from past history.
The capacity to think about the goal and purpose of one’s existence.
The capacity to volitionally improve oneself.
The capacity to delay gratification.
The capacity to reflect on the consequence of his actions.
The capacity to control anger.
The capacity to forgive.
Granted, that people possess these abilities doesn’t mean they exercise them all the time (and some people exercise them almost none of the time, or so it seems), but we do possess them and they are at our disposal.
Please click the link to R. Packouz’s article that I inserted above to read the definitions for each of the numbered items. I’ll quote from the last one here: Free Will.
Animals are under the absolute domination of their body and cannot make a free choice. If hungry, it must look for food. It can’t decide to fast today. If a jackal sees a tiger eating a carcass, it will refrain for fear of retribution. Only a human being can be in a position with no possibility of detection or retribution and decide not to steal because it is morally and ethically wrong.
To the best of my understanding, only a human being can contemplate God and his/her relationship to Him. Only a human being can deliberately ignore God or dismiss Him as “unreal”.
However, since God gave us these capacities, we are responsible for putting them into play and in how we choose to use each of them.
That means we are responsible for not only learning from our past mistakes, but the past mistakes of our ancestors; history’s past mistakes.
Thus a world of human beings should have learned from thousands of years of anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred, but that doesn’t seem to be taking place. The Church as a unified entity (understanding that there are actually thousands upon thousands of separate denominations) should have learned that the Jewish people and Israel have not been rendered obsolete because of “Jesus,” but that doesn’t appear to be happening either. So far, humanity has done a rather poor job of learning from history, in spite of the fact that so-called “progressives” believe they are “on the right side of history” (but are they on the “right side of God?”).
I mentioned a little earlier that only human beings are able to contemplate God. Item two seems related to this since our goal and the purpose of our existence cannot be separated from God’s reason for creating each of us. And yet, how many times have you asked yourself why God specifically created you and why you are here in the first place? I’ve asked myself that question many times. I still do.
I heard a bit of dialogue in an otherwise unremarkable movie once that’s stuck with me:
Her: “People change.”
Him: “Most people don’t.”
Once we’ve locked on to a goal or goals for ourselves, we can create a plan for personal improvement and enact that plan.
OK, maybe that’s unfair, but most people, including me, get to a certain point in our personal development and then tend to stay there. Depending on what stage the person is stalled or stuck at, they can be adequate and even accomplished human beings, or they can be desperately flawed and dysfunctional.
Some people make many plans and goals but fall flat at the execution stage. Others become too anxious to even imagine a plan to change and perform the metaphorical act of “hiding under the bed,” as if life will just leave them alone if they ignore it.
Fasting on Yom Kippur (or for other reasons) teaches delaying gratification. Actually, anyone who’s ever been a parent or grandparent knows all about delaying gratification.
My wife and I had our grandkids for the weekend. Actually, our son brought them over for dinner last Thursday and Friday evening as well, so we saw a great deal of them all. My grandson is seven years old, and my granddaughter is 9 months. They have radically different needs and meeting the needs of both simultaneously isn’t always easy.
Since babies need more attention than little boys, my grandson sometimes had to delay gratification. When I was alone watching both kids and I needed for feed my granddaughter, my grandson had to find something else to do besides play with Grandpa (don’t worry…we found plenty of opportunities to have adventures).
It goes without saying that my wife and I, as well as the kids’ Dad, Uncle, and Auntie, all delayed gratification to one degree or another when the children were in our home. That’s what adults do, especially when taking care of kids. That’s what you do when you love someone and you put their needs and wants ahead of your own.
Ideally, it’s what you do when you love God and you recognize what He wants you to do and what His priorities for you are. It’s not like God is a dictator or doesn’t want you to have time to relax or have fun, but as His servants and His children, we have a responsibility to Him first and foremost. If we see someone else in our world who has a need, God has given us the ability to attend to that need first because, after all, it’s the right thing to do.
Not that we actually do so all the time.
Consequences, like Karma, are a b**** (you probably know how to finish that quote). They are also a reality of life. For instance, if you choose not to pay a debt, your wages or taxes can be garnished. I think this goes along with delaying gratification.
Unless you are insanely wealthy, you have only so much money each month to work with. That means, if you are at all responsible, you have a budget. You may “flex” it a little bit with a credit card, but when all the bills come in, they need to be paid.
That means choosing to pay for necessities first, such as food, housing, clothing, and so forth, and only afterward using money to “play”. Reversing that process tends to lead to painful consequences.
There are also consequences for “blowing off” God. They most likely aren’t immediate. We know that will be an accounting, a judgment at the end of all things, so it may seem as if God is giving you a pass with what ever sin(s) you have a problem with.
Sure, God can arrange for natural consequences. If you use drugs or alcohol habitually, all God has to do is wait for your body to start falling apart. Same for overeating (which is a big problem in our nation). Same for a lot of things. The consequences are built into many sins. For some though, you just have to stand by. Don’t worry. They’ll come. Or you can learn from your mistakes and improve your life so you stop sinning and thus avoid uncomfortable consequences.
Your choice (free will, remember?).
Every time I drive anymore, I get a lesson in controlling my anger. I’m not always successful. It seems that as I get older, I don’t have as great a capacity to tolerate traffic. Good thing I live near Boise, Idaho now rather than Orange County, California.
But going back to the example of being a parent or grandparent for a moment, let’s take another look at controlling anger. Sometimes adults get angry at kids, at least momentarily. You catch a kid coloring on the freshly painted walls of her bedroom or letting the air out of your car’s tires (I did the latter once when I was five). Your immediate tendency is to explode at them (Don’t worry, my Dad didn’t).
If you are a mature adult, you stop yourself. Really, they’re just kids. They do stuff like that. Yeah, you can create consequences for their behavior so they can learn more about right and wrong, but blowing up at a kid is just satisfying your own impulses rather than displaying good parenthood.
The same is true when you get angry at another adult in the presence of your kids. Parents fight sometimes. Some fights are louder than others. While yelling and screaming at a significant other doesn’t do you or them any good (how many people have changed for the better as a result of being screamed at?), if kids are around, it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s terrifying.
When Mom and Dad have a major emotional eruption at each other, it’s like the kid’s world has fallen apart. The two people in life who a child absolutely must depend upon and believe in have just exploded into a temper tantrum that makes Mount St Helens look like a firecracker, and that means the two people who are supposed to provide for the physical and emotional security of their child have completely failed and gone down in flames, pulling their child in with them.
OK, I get it. People argue sometimes. Fine. We’re all human, in good ways and bad. But don’t do it when your children are around. That’s not being a good parent, adult, or human being.
The flip side is the capacity to forgive. But wait.
I think Rabbi Packouz (and maybe Rabbi Twerski) missed something. It’s not just about putting our own hurts aside and forgiving the person who hurt us. How about the ability to say you’re sorry, mean it, and ask for forgiveness when you’re the one who’s “blown it?”
If you indeed have blown up at someone or otherwise have failed to maintain behavior consistent with being a mature adult, after you’ve calmed down and realized the consequences of your actions, you have the option of apologizing and asking forgiveness.
Bernie Sanders recently accused the IDF of killing 10,000 innocents in an operation responding to terrorist acts initiated in Gaza. He admitted in the radio interview that he wasn’t sure of his statistics, then went ahead and uttered his outrageous statements anyway.
When later confronted with the fact that the figure was more like 2,300 “Palestinian” Arabs, and many of them were combatants, not innocent bystanders, instead of Bernie apologizing, he said that the New York Daily News distorted his statement.
I heard the radio interview and nothing was distorted or misrepresented except Sanders’ so-called “facts”. Bernie could have taken the moral high road and admitted his mistake (it’s pretty easy to make one when you don’t have accurate information immediately at hand), but instead, he chose to (in my opinion) lie about it, avoid personal responsibility, and blame others for his own inadequacies.
While R. Packouz citing R. Twerski’s list of items of what it is to be human seems pretty optimistic, it’s all too apparent that being human has some serious drawbacks. We have all of these wonderful abilities, and a lot of the time, we don’t use them or don’t use them very well.
Which brings us back to free will.
We can recognize that we are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes even damaged and dysfunctional human beings who have these terrific capacities and screw up using them more often than not.
We can recognize all that and say “screw it.” We can give up. Someone recently wrote about this on her blog. Her choice was go not give up and not give in, but to stay the course.
Moved by her struggle, I offered this:
Affirmations are powerful. They work for us or against us. Every statement we tell ourselves about who we are and what we find possible is really an affirmation. Positive affirmations build us. Negative affirmations do the opposite. So right now you can tell yourself a great affirmation: “I choose better, higher, and wiser self-talk each and every day.”
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
The trick about positive affirmations, is that they need to be used as motivators for actual change, not just internet “memes” that sound good, but only serve to create the illusion that you already are the person you want and need to be.
Using the positive affirmation that you are courageous means that you have to follow-up by facing some difficult situation with courage, rather than avoiding it. Using the positive affirmation that you are compassionate means that you have to follow-up by showing compassion to another person, even if they aren’t very easy to get along with. Using the positive affirmation that you are productive and self-supporting means…
…well, you get the idea.
Bernie Sanders is a politician, so I expect him to lie, even to himself. However Bernie Sanders, like the rest of us, is a human being, and thus, he is ultimately responsible for using what God gave him or to face the consequences…in this life or the next.
Since he’s Jewish, as the quote I placed at the top of today’s “meditation” attests, he’s responsible for looking “to the Torah for direction on how a Jew should exercise his uniquely human capacities!”
As far as I can tell, he’s got a long way to go.
But so do the rest of us.
Where do we look (assuming non-Jews) for direction on how we should exercise our uniquely human capacities? If you are a normative Christian, you’ll probably say “the Bible” and really means your particular church’s interpretation of scripture.
If you’re someone like me, the answer is essentially the same, but the interpretation is different, sometimes really different.
I recently read a question in a closed Facebook group asked by a non-Jew who was wondering what sources he could consult to determine if we, like the Jewish people, are obligated or at least allowed to participate in specific times and practices of prayer. There was a brief but lively discussion, and the general consensus was that while we may not be obligated, we are most likely allowed to pray in a manner similar to Jewish praxis, adjusting for a non-Jewish and non-covenant relationship with God.
And all this takes us back to the question I implied at the top of today’s blog post: What is a non-Jew’s proper expression of spirituality given a more “Judaic” understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Bible, the Messiah, and Jewish Israel?
That answer is our ongoing struggle for self-definition and, for some of you at least, your role and purpose within Jewish community. For the rest of us, it’s merely working out who we are to God and to other human beings, community notwithstanding. At the end of the day, regardless of who we are, who is in our lives, and what we believe, it’s just us and God.
What we do matters. Each day is an opportunity to do just a little bit better than you did the day before. With each morning’s dawn you can dedicate yourself to having a good day. With each passing day, you are building a life. Let’s all try to build a good one.
Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.
In a closed Facebook group, someone mentioned recently that the Noahide Siddur completely omits the Mussaf, probably because the wording is so closely associated with the exclusive relationship of the Jewish people to Hashem and the avodah of the Temple.
And while I’ve said in the past that Gentile Talmidei Yeshua are not Noahides (though I have been since corrected that a better title would be “more than a noahide”), this does bring up a boundary line between non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua and the Jewish disciples (and Jewish people in general). There are just some things we can’t claim to share with Israel because they are the exclusive property of Israel.
No, we’re not Israel. We’re not Jewish. But we still have a duty.
But what is the duty we Christians and/or Talmidei Yeshua have relative to the Jewish nation and her people?
The Jewish people are considered as one “organism.” What happens to one limb affects the entire body.
Every Jew recognizes that all the Jewish People are bound together. When there’s a terrorist attack in Israel, we all feel it. The Talmud says “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh” – Every Jew is responsible one for another.
The story is told of the religious man who died and went to heaven. There, he appeared before the Heavenly Tribunal to hear a listing of his good deeds and bad. The man was quite satisfied to hear of all his mitzvahs. But he was shocked to have included amongst his transgressions the prohibition of eating pork.
“What?!” the man protested, “but I never once ate pork!”
“True,” spoke the Tribunal, “but for 20 years you lived next door to a man who ate pork, and you never made an effort to discuss it with him. For that, you are responsible.”
from the article “Responsible One for Another”
posted in the “Ask the Rabbi” column at Aish.com
OK, that’s the responsibility of one Jew for another, but what about the rest of us?
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”
–Matthew 25:34-40 (NASB)
I once knew a Christian who had a unique interpretation of these verses. While on the surface, it seems as if the disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) are commanded to provide assistance for people who are hungry, thirsty, without clothing, or who are otherwise in distress or disadvantaged, this older Christian gentlemen (and one of the most steadfast doers of what Jesus commanded that I ever met) said he believed that we merit the reward spoken of by our Rav (he didn’t word it this way, of course) when we provide this sort of care specifically to the Jewish people, not just to people in general.
I’m not sure that’s likely, considering that Yeshua’s audience consisted of Jewish people and that Matthew’s Gospel is widely considered to have been written specifically to Jews, but on the other hand, it makes a sort of sense.
The Rav himself said that “salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22), and if Israel can be said, particularly through our Rav, to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), then we owe that light a great debt.
The Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) believed that there were many advantages to being a Jew, as he chronicled in his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 3:1-2). Paul also commended the largely non-Jewish communities (“churches” if you will) in the diaspora for donating charity (tzedakah) to the Holy Ones in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8 for examples), as if the Gentiles owed it to the impoverished Jews in the Holy City.
Of course, there are other reasons we owe the Jewish people a debt:
On this day in 1601, Hebrew books that had been confiscated by Church authorities were burned in Rome. This was an unfortunate theme throughout the Middle Ages: In 1592, Pope Clement VIII had condemned the Talmud and other Hebrew writings as “obscene,” “blasphemous” and “abominable” — and ordered them all seized and burned. Centuries earlier, Pope Gregory IX persuaded French King Louis IX to burn some 10,000 copies of the Talmud (24 wagon loads) in Paris. As late as 1553, Cardinal Peter Caraffa (the future Pope Paul IV) ordered copies of the Talmud burned in the Papal States and across Italy. Yet despite all attempts to extinguish our faith, the light of Torah shines brightly till today.
from “This Day in Jewish History”
for Shevat 11 Aish.com
OK, you might say that you’re not Catholic or that this happened a long time ago and we don’t do this to Jewish people anymore, but the inherit memory of the Jewish people and the history of the Church’s “relationship” with the Jews is very long lived.
It’s so easy to wallow in the mud, to get tangled up in Israel’s final redemption and the current political landscape. It’s easy for non-Jews in Yeshua to experience jealousy over the advantage of the Jews (Romans 3:1-2), which I suppose is why Christianity developed the doctrine of supersessionism (or cryptosupersessionism as the case may be).
Rabbi Noah Weinberg of blessed memory wrote an article over 15 years ago called Free Will – Our Greatest Power. It’s somewhat lengthy, but here’s a summary of his five main points:
Level One: Don’t be a sleepwalker. Make decisions actively.
Level Two: Don’t be a puppet of society’s goals, or a slave to your old decisions.
Level Three: Be aware of the conflict between the cravings of your body and the aspirations of your soul.
Level Four: Identify with your soul, not your body.
Level Five: Make your will God’s will.
If you read the entire missive, you’ll see that having free will and making Hashem’s will our will results in an intersection between the mundane and the Divine. We learn to see past the physical reality of our world and the things (and people and nations) we often fight against, and perceive them (things, people, nations) through a spiritual lens.
By the way, this isn’t an either-or affair:
Given that we live in a physical world, much of the goal of Judaism is to infuse the physicality with holiness. We say a blessing before eating our special kosher food, we have a framework for sanctifying our marital relations, etc.
from the article “What is Holiness?”
posted in the “Ask the Rabbi” column Aish.com
In the western mindset, we tend to think of things in binary terms. Something is either this or that, we turn left or right, we can choose this one or that one. But that mindset, including within the Christian Church, is based on ancient Greek philosophy.
Judaism and Hebrew thought is much more comfortable with dynamic contradictions in which seeming opposites can live together, if not at peace, then at least under a flag of truce.
Observant Jews don’t choose between the material and spiritual worlds, they infuse the physical with the spiritual. In my own dim little way, I can see Israel as both the present political reality and the Holy Nation of God given to the Jewish people as their perpetual heritage.
I think if we choose to put on that pair of lenses and see the many aspects of our world, and particularly Israel and the Jewish people, the way God sees them, we would have no doubt in our minds (or hearts) at all that we should be doing all we can to assist an Israel under siege, or at the very least, not to get in Israel’s way.
I said that the physical and the spiritual can co-exist in dynamic tension, but looking at Level Four of Rav Weinberg’s summary, it seems like that co-existence isn’t exactly 50/50. If we can perfect our vision, it means being biased somewhat toward the spiritual side of our sight. In this context, that means seeing more of Israel’s spiritual reality than her current physical and political reality. It means seeing Israel more as what she’ll be when her full redemption arrives.
For when Israel’s redemption arrives, ours will arrive with him.
If your bread fell out of heaven, you might be afraid to make a diet of it. Sure, it’s convenient, but most people would rather sink their teeth into a steak, or at least a potato—something that feels like a part of their world.
That’s also the way many people feel about any topic that touches on the spiritual. It is the unknowableness of it—that you can’t grasp it in your hand or tally it up with your assets—that causes people to shun it, to run from it, to even deny it exists.
These people are running from who they are. Far more than we are a body with a bank account, we are spiritual beings. Without nourishment for our souls, we are plagued by insatiable cravings—like a body lacking essential nutrients.
For the human being, inner peace is achieved by first surrendering to the unknown.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Grasping Bread from Heaven” Chabad.org
If we don’t feed ourselves with “bread from Heaven,” not only will our spiritual self be starved, we won’t be able to recognize what is truly, spiritually real, and then act upon it in the present world.
I wrote this blog post some months ago wondering if I’d ever publish it. Given recent events, now seems like a good time.
The final verse of this parashah uses the words…[which] literally [mean]: “This is the Torah,” in reference to the laws of tzaraas. Sifsei Kohen understands this to be teaching us an important remedy: if one has brought down upon himself the Divine punishment of tzarras, he must cleanse himself through the study of Torah. The Torah is a fire of ruchniyus, spirituality, and fire has the capacity to purge impurity (as we see in Bamidbar 31:23). However, simply learning the Torah is not sufficient; one must absorb the Torah into his very being…Even if one learns the Torah, his task is not yet complete. If he internalizes what he has learned, he will come to purity; but if he does not, the potential for tumah still lurks.
-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.177
for the Shabbos study of Parashas Tazria A Daily Dose of Torah
I realize this was written with a Jewish audience in mind and the concept of elevating oneself by the study and internalization of Torah isn’t meant to be applied to me, a non-Jew. Nevertheless, I think I can take a wider principle out of this lesson. Please bear with me.
I think what I quoted above is what separates me from the friend I have coffee with on alternate Sundays. He has been urging me to push myself further in my relationship with Messiah. But when he describes his own experiences, the spiritual depths he explores, and even the periodic visitation by the presence of Hashem, I’m flabbergasted.
I’d make a very poor Pentecostal. It’s difficult for me to process statements such as “…and then God talked to me and told me…”
Over eighteen months ago, I wrote a blog post called Standing on the Jewish Foundation of the Bible. I wrote it in response to some of the conversations I was having back then with the head Pastor of the church I used to attend. He was also pushing me, but in his case, to adopt a more classic Christian identity and understanding of the Bible.
As it turns out, I make a very poor Fundamentalist or Evangelical too. It’s not where my head and my heart lie. In my reviews of the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, I’ve been reminded of how a more Judaically-oriented view of the scriptures makes a great deal more sense to me than what Christianity has to offer.
This is why I study the Torah and the rest of the Bible from the perspective of the “Messianic Gentile,” or at least I have been up until now.
But as the above-quoted passage and my friend attest, studying is not enough. Knowing but not doing is probably a bigger sin than mere ignorance or even being on the wrong track.
In the review I mentioned above, I hope I’ve shown that the traditional way the Church understands Paul represents the “wrong track.” Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve rendered this option. But at least many people within the Church are behaving from their convictions, performing acts of charity, feeding the hungry, giving comfort to the grieving, all the “weightier matters of Torah” the Master valued so highly.
Even if you (or I) believe we possess “the truth,” or at least a more historically and culturally accurate and factual interpretation of Paul and the writers of the rest of the Bible, what good is it if you (or I) don’t do something about it, and don’t allow our personalities, our very souls to absorb, integrate, and radiate the lived experience of Torah?
I think a life like that looks like this:
The Torah gives us an important rule in relationships: Even though you are suffering, you have no right to cause suffering to others. Whatever your distress, you still need to speak and act with respect. If you are ever in a bad mood, be especially careful not to speak or act to others in a way that will be distressful for them.
(see Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler – Michtav MaiEliyahu, vol.4, 246; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Consulting the Wise”)
I think the litmus test for whether or not you (or I) have integrated Torah principles into our identity and lived experience is stress. Even the morning commute into work can be abundantly revealing (I know it is of me). A person who has internalized Torah principles; internalized the teachings of the Master, will react to various stresses in a different way than one who studies but has not absorbed that study.
James (Ya’akov), the brother of the Master, said it well:
But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
–James 1:6-8 (NASB)
Does faith have something to do with whether or not one internalizes what he or she has learned of Torah? I think so. Think of it more like faithfulness or especially trust. I think we all encounter circumstances where we find it’s hard to let go. Like the character Marlin in the film Finding Nemo (2003), our fears overwhelm our ability to trust, even Hashem, and to let our God open His hand and provide for our every need. If we don’t trust completely, then we can still study Torah and be illuminated, but we will never become the illumination.
The Master said to his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16), but our light will not shine if we cover it over with doubt and distrust. On some level, I must not be letting go. I’m comfortable with the study but not with what comes after it. I like my spiritual plateau, but I will never be who Hashem wants me to be unless or until I let go, trust my Master’s teachings, and let them truly transform every area of my life.
Study is supposed to lead to transformation, but not unless I first break down the wall. I know that wall is mine to break down and not God’s. The next move in this little chess game is mine, not His. But just like the Knight in Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film The Seventh Seal, I find myself at the losing end of that game and the inevitable consequence is my extinction. However, unlike the Knight in the film who, like many of the other players, dies in a plague and goes off into eternity dancing with a personified death, my end is not the end of life, but the end of any attempt at community and belonging.
There is no going back. What I think is one thing, but what I feel is something beyond my abilities to grasp. I will post a general reivew of the Nanos/Zetterholm volume on Amazon rather than finish writing my essay-by-essay reviews here.
Frankly, given the last few blog posts and especially this one, I think it’s best for me to take some sort of hiatus, at least from blogging if not from any sort of involvement in Messianic Judaism as a social venue online or otherwise. While I still think it’s the most Biblically sustainable method of study, as far as me, an individual human personality goes, I don’t think I belong here anymore than I belong in a church.
If God still wants anything from me, He knows where to find me. I seem to be making a mess of finding him, at least through any method I’ve attempted thus far.
For any individual or group I have upset or offended, I apologize and ask forgiveness, though I don’t expect I deserve it. I wish you well in your endeavors, but I seem to need to travel a different path than yours.
It’s time for me to reduce my search to simply me, the Bible, and prayer. After that, let God make his judgment.
It can take a long time until something is invented. But once one person has already broken through the creative barrier, others can easily follow suit and produce the same results. For example, it took many years until someone invented the first railroad train. But after one person invented it, many others built similar railroad trains. It doesn’t take a genius to model the work of a genius!
The same principle applies to spiritual growth. There were people in previous generations who reached great heights. They were innovators in the field of Jewish metaphysics. Since we now have them as models, the knowledge of how to reach spiritual greatness is available to all of us.
Today, think of five great people you have met or read about. What qualities do you most respect in each one? As you reflect on these qualities, consider how you would apply these same attributes to yourself.
I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about and discussing the meaning and nature of non-Jewish identity within Jewish space, particularly within Messianic Jewish space. While it’s been suggested that most or even all non-Messianic Jewish synagogues would at least feel comfortable with non-Jews as guests (assuming these guests were polite and respectful), someone mentioned in a comment on another one of my missives that Messianic Jewish synagogues in Israel might not be so cool with that idea.
If it’s true, I can understand why.
I’ve heard it said that when a Jew makes aliyah and returns home to the Holy Land, they do one of two things: either increase their level of religious observance or become totally non-observant. There’s a single reason for both.
In Israel, a Jew has nothing to prove. They are Jewish. Israel is the Jewish homeland. End of story.
Except perhaps for Messianic Jews. I’m just supposing, since I’ve never been to Israel and I’ve never been to a Messianic synagogue in the Land, but if a Jew ever needs to prove he or she is an observant Jew in Israel, it’s when they are also a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus).
For thousands of years, any Jew who has been such a disciple has voluntarily converted to Christianity or been forcibly coerced into doing so. Though one process or another, they surrendered their Jewish practices and their Jewish identity and effectively became, at best, a “Hebrew Christian,” and at worst, a “Goyishe Christian”.
While there have been other Jews who have remained observant and become Yeshua-disciples historically, the weight of the Church’s requirement (demand) for Jews to abandon their covenant relationship with God so they can accept the grace of Jesus Christ is heavy on their shoulders.
Association with (Gentile) Christians in Messianic synagogues could easily be seen as compromising the Jewish identity and affiliations for Messianic Jews in Israel.
Like I said, this is based on a number of assumptions on my part and I’m sure PL or someone else can correct the mistakes I’m most likely making.
But particularly in Israel and certainly every place else, if non-Jewish disciples with a Messianic Jewish “leaning” can’t depend upon any sort of Jewish role model in order to understand ourselves (which I suppose could be rather “crazy-making” since, for a multitude of reasons, you can’t mix the two identities), where do we go?
Rabbi Pliskin no doubt was writing to a Jewish audience in the above quoted “Daily Lift” but he makes a suggestion I think we can all use.
Today, think of five great people you have met or read about. What qualities do you most respect in each one? As you reflect on these qualities, consider how you would apply these same attributes to yourself.
Think of five spiritually elevated people, five tzadikim, Jewish or Gentile. Consider what qualities they possess(ed) that you admire. Then incorporate those qualities over time into yourself.
Seems simple enough.
I know what you’re thinking…well, a few of you, anyway. You’re thinking “I want to imitate Jesus.” That’s fine and well. No better role model available. But then, what attributes or qualities about the Master do you want to emulate?
Yes, Yeshua donned tzitzit and laid tefillin but he was and is Jewish, so unless you’re a Jew (and if you are, you already have a set of traditions available to you that define the mitzvot for observant Jews), let’s just set those behaviors aside for now.
What about Yeshua’s kindness, his compassion for others, his wisdom, his sense of justice, his expression of duty and servitude to his followers, and even to strangers?
Those are all fine qualities to imitate, and you don’t even have to be Jewish to incorporate them into your own behavior.
Like Yeshua, you can give to charity. You can pray. You can “preach the Word”. You can urge others to repentance. You can look forward to the coming of the Kingdom and teach others to do the same.
There’s a lot you can do to imitate the Master. He gave plenty of examples that are accessible to any one of us right now.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to Yeshua or even anyone you know about from the Bible. Pick anyone you can think of who you consider spiritually great, figure out why they had such greatness, choose some qualities they displayed, and then learn to integrate them into your own life.
Above, I said it seems simple enough, but it really isn’t. It’s not simple or easy at all.
In fact, it will take a lot of hard work.
But that’s OK because you’ve got the rest of your life to work on improving yourself. So do I.
There are two basic things you (and I) can do to start off with: when you consider yourself, think the best of yourself, and when you consider other people, think the best of them, too.
There’s a blues chart I heard the other day called “I’m Amazing” by Keb’ Mo’. I inserted a link to a YouTube video of his performance in one of my comments on a previous meditation, but I’m sure it’s going to get lost there.
So I’m posting it at the bottom of this blog post where it won’t get lost, at least not as easily. I think my way of lifting up our spirits where many of my blog posts lately have been bringing them down.
If you are (or I am) not sure where to go in your walk of faith and your life of devotion to God, and especially if you’re frustrated because that walk cannot be defined as “Jewish,” it doesn’t mean there aren’t Biblical and other holy examples available to you. I just outlined how you can imitate the most important and holy Jew who ever lived and who still lives, Yeshua, and you don’t even have to be Jewish (or Torah-compliant, Torah-observant, Torah-submissive, or whatever) to do it.
We’re all amazing. It’s OK for you to be amazing. It’s OK to realize everyone around you is amazing, too.
I need to find a way to accelerate this review process or it’ll take as many blog posts to finish as Jackson’s book has chapters. Okay, here goes.
According to Pastor Jackson, we are all leaders in the sense that anyone with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will “rise to the top,” so to speak. That said, rising to the top in our homes, our jobs, and our relationships, as he says, is easier said than done. It’s possible for anyone to lose their “spiritual edge,” as Jackson puts it, including Pastors.
The cure for “spiritual dullness” (and I can relate) is to remember that “the Christian journey is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” True enough. Any of us can temporarily pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but for the long haul, we need the faithfulness of God to see us through.
Like most Christians, Jackson says we need to believe in God, but he also says we must experience Him. This goes back to advice I’ve been given in the past about not focusing so much on Judaism or Christianity, but pursuing the presence of God. Jews do that through prayer and the mitzvot and there are Christian equivalents, though Christianity considers itself more of a “relationship” than a “doing” religion.
Jackson asks a telling question:
When was the last time you took the day off of work just to be with Jesus?
If this Pastor had a Jewish appreciation of the Shabbat, he wouldn’t have to ask that question, at least not in that way. He might ask instead, “When was the last time you truly observed Shabbos?” With Easter behind us and now in the midst of the Week of Unleavened Bread, special days of Holiness should be on everyone’s mind, and hopefully, in everyone’s experience.
End of Chapter questions included “Have you lost the edge in any area of your life” and “Are you convinced that you can get it back?”
Moving on to Chapter 14: Mimicking God, Jackson spoke of a small-group meeting he had recently attended where the meeting began:
He opened his Bible to Ephesians 5:1 and read, “Be imitators of God.” After that, he closed his Bible, looked everyone in the room in the eye and said three words: “Now…let’s wrestle.”
Jackson continued, “Some truths must be wrestled with.” I agree, and in fact, I believe that many more truths must be wrestled with than most religious people are willing to engage, particularly in the Church.
While Jackson describes Ephesians 5:1 as a “wrestling verse,” he states that wrestling ends in verse 2: “and walk in love.”
The word “walk” is a great word with a profound meaning. In the Bible it means ” to regulate one’s lifestyle.”
Again, Judaism anticipated his response with the concept and application of halachah. Jackson’s “halachah,” if you will, is summarized with the word love. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s out of this love for God and our neighbor (see Matthew 22:36-40) that we must respond behaviorally. Walking in love isn’t metaphorical, feel-good language, it’s a call to action.
I’m convinced that the primary search of mankind is not for doctrine, religious truth or strategies for successful living; it is for love. It is for acceptance. It is for belonging…
Then why are these things so difficult to find in religious community?
When people in the world see Christians who bear one another’s burdens, who are quick to forgive, who fail to judge and criticize, who are quick to repent and ask forgiveness and who reach out with accepting arms of love, they will feel like they’ve come home. They will realize that they have truly encountered Jesus in our churches.
While I can see his point that living out the teachings of the Master is the best way to communicate the truth of his faithfulness, Jackson seems to have moved from attempting to heal the wounded Christian who is estranged from the Church, to matters of what Christians call “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20). What’s the connection?
Or is Jackson speaking to the person who not only left the church but left the faith?
The Lord not only wants to heal you from your hurtful experiences in church, but He wants to make you one of his saints.
I’m never really sure what being a “saint” means in this context. Is it equivalent to the Jewish concept of a tzadik, a holy, righteous person who is close to God?
From here, Jackson encourages his readers to consider how children relate to God with that innocent faith that never questions anything. We should be more transparent than performance-oriented, don’t worry so much about “coloring inside the lines” (rules), and instead, becoming “prayer warriors”. We should also consider ourselves God’s “favorite,” as if the world were created only for our sakes individually (and that last part is actually a very Jewish concept).
The chapter seemed to focus on how much God loves each of us as a way of healing our hurts and getting us to reunite with church. By realizing that we are loved by God, we should reflect that love, both to people outside the Church and to other Christians.
Jackson continues with this theme in Chapter 15: Becoming Someone’s Angel. I’ve sometimes said that we should be the answer to someone’s prayer. Instead of waiting for God to intervene supernaturally in some situation, if we see a need and we have the ability to fill it, we should fill it. I think Jackson would agree with this.
Jackson seems filled with his own boundless enthusiasm for the work of the Church, so much so that he said:
I believe the United States is due for a third Great Awakening and that the other nations of the earth can also be transformed by a visitation from Him.
I believe no such thing, and in fact, based on the ethical and moral nosedive that many churches and all of secular western culture is in right now, I believe that in the end, except for a small remnant, the nations in general and most churches in particular, will turn against Jewish people, Judaism, and national Israel. The churches may call that “a Great Awakening” but based on how I read the Bible, it will actually be rebellion against God.
Like many American Christians, Jackson sees America as the central nation in God’s field of vision. But the Bible says that the centrality of Israel is the lynchpin in God’s redemptive plan for the rest of the world. If Jackson doesn’t see this as well, he’s in for a big surprise when the Messiah returns.
Jackson does rightly say that “most answered prayers come in the form of other people,” but he misses the big, big picture.
He did go on to say something to which I can relate:
One Sunday morning I was so discouraged that I didn’t think I could cut it as a pastor. I didn’t even want to be in church.
I used to have quite a number of Sunday mornings in church where I felt exactly like that, not that I had to worry about being a Pastor, of course. My answer was to stop going to church. My Sundays seem more productive and liberating now.
Jackson then told a story that I think illustrates some of my points well. He mentioned how he had visited a church friend, and older woman who was laid up with an injury, to pray with her. As they were praying, he heard a noise from the bathroom and discovered another woman cleaning the toilet. As it turns out, this other church friend had been coming over pretty much every day cooking and cleaning, as well as praying with the injured woman and keeping her company.
I suddenly felt a little sheepish and realized that this young lady’s cooking, cleaning and other practical help was far more a demonstration of the heart of God than any quick prayer.
I completely agree. I think it’s examples like this young woman, this living, breathing answer to prayer, that trump all of the “religious arguments” we have in the blogosphere, from the pulpit, or anywhere else. Churches and synagogues that preach this sort of message and follow it up with continued action are better than all of the theological and doctrinal pontifications we stack up against each other.
Then in Chapter 16: Ten Times Better, Jackson says:
One of the most significant problems with Christians–with me–is that we so frequently surrender the image of God in us. Rather than living in our glory as the Creator’s image-bearers, we live from our lover, natural selves.
And living like that, Jackson wonders if non-believers ask:
Is that what it means to be a Christian?
I’m sure many people who surf into our blogs and read the comments sections ask that same question about Christians, Messianics, and Hebrew Roots people as well.
Jackson makes another good point:
…a major reason that people are leaving the Church today by the thousands is that there is frequently no real discernible difference between Christians and the world.
So many churches, in an attempt to “fit in” with the current culture, “adjust” their Biblical morals and ethics to fit the larger, politically correct and progressive mindset of the world around us. How can the Church be imitators of God if it’s too busy taking its cues from CNN and MSNBC?
For the Church as well as the individual believer, how we live out our faith is a matter of choice. Who are we trying to please, people or God?
None of this is why I left church, but I can agree with a lot of what Jackson is saying. True, he’s speaking from his own Hashkafah, but it’s not as if I can’t relate at all with his worldview, at least the broad strokes of it.
It goes back to what I said before. Don’t seek Judaism and don’t seek Christianity, but seek an experience with God. I might add, then walk on the path He sets before you, even if it leads to some pretty uncomfortable places.
I still don’t think that means back into church, or at least not the church I left. My problem is that I can only see a few steps ahead at a time, so beyond that, I proceed forward trusting that God won’t lead me over a cliff.
Moving on to Chapter 17: Christianity Doesn’t Make Sense Without It, Jackson says:
The Christian religion is a lifelong quest to know our loving Creator and become more and more like Him.
In that, it is indistinguishable from my understanding of Judaism, although exactly how that task is accomplished can look quite a bit different between the two religions. For instance, Jackson asked:
How can I know God more? How can I be more like Him? How can I prosper financially and thus bless my family?
That last question seems distinctly Christian. In Pirkei Avot 4:1, we learn:
Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot
That doesn’t preclude ambition and achievement, only that we need not constantly feel that we must have more just because somebody else has or become some television commercial says so. I sincerely hope Pastor Jackson doesn’t subscribe to any form of Prosperity Theology, which seems like a total scam.
Jackson wants to “experience the abundant life” he says Jesus promised him? Really? Does that really mean financial abundance? Is that what the Master meant in John 10:10?
Jackson goes on to compare Genesis 1:1 with John 1:1 and says “John 1:1 details the real beginning of the story.”
I’m sure from his point of view, that probably seems true, but most Christians read the Bible from the Gospels or from Paul backward rather than from Genesis forward. That unfortunately leads to the false conclusion that “the Church” is the center of God’s plan rather than Israel. And focusing on John 1:1, Jackson says:
If any project, process or expedition gets too far away from its original design, it is destined to fail.
Unfortunately, from my perspective, that describes the Christian Church and the divergent path it has taken across history since the days when the Apostle Paul was sent to be an emissary of the Messiah to the Gentiles.
Jackson goes on to state how Matthew 28:19“set the course of the Church throughout the ages” based on good, solid principles.”
He compares this with:
Jesus said of the Pharisees that they searched the Scriptures in pursuit of life, but they couldn’t find it. They could not find true life because their religion had become divorced from mission.
In other words, he presents a traditionally Christian discounting of the Pharisees and by extension, all of post-Biblical Judaism. From Jackson’s point of view, 100% of the Church’s mission is evangelizing:
On days when I share my faith with an unsaved person, I’m on top of the world.
I exist to manifest the glory of God.
What about the young woman who was manifesting the glory of God by cooking for a disabled woman and cleaning her toilet?
…and I think I blessed the people who were in attendance. Of course, they were just like me…
I think this is the book’s central message about community, whether Jackson intended it to be or not. Particularly in the church, but most likely in any other human community, we thrive if we are in a group made up of people just like us.
But I’m not just like them.
Life makes no sense…until we return to the sanctuary of God. Christianity makes no sense…until we return to the place of mission.
Assuming Jackson isn’t being metaphorical, it seems he’s replaced the Holy Temple in Jerusalem with the Great Commission. This isn’t far-fetched from the Church’s point of view if he believes that the body of Christ is the Temple and that we are all stones that together make up the Temple. He won’t be able to see that we can metaphorically and spiritually be a “temple” and yet there can also be a Heavenly Temple as well as a future Temple on Earth in the coming Messianic Age.
These chapters continue to convince me that, as I said above, I’m not like them.
And further, as I quoted Boaz Michael saying in my previous blog post:
Most religious arguments involve bitter clashes over “what we believe” (theology) and “what we do” (praxis). If we do not share the same hashkafah informing our theology and praxis, this type of debate will be pointless and irresolvable.
For example, many Christians operate under the hashkafah which assumes that the authority of the New Testament has replaced the authority of the Old Testament. This paradigm holds it as self-evident that any conditions established in the Old Testament remain operative only if restated in the New Testament. So long as that paradigm remains firmly in place, there is no point in arguing…
I made it through five chapters today. Only six more to go.