Tag Archives: spirituality

The Language of the Soul

I recently read an online article at Aish written by Sara Debbie Gutfreund called The Blind Woman at the Gym, but it wasn’t what Ms. Gutfreund wrote that captured me. Someone named Sarah commented and what Gutfreund wrote (November 18, 2012 4:31 a.m.) and it was her story that prompted me to write my morning meditation (her comment was a single block of text which I’ve broken up into paragraphs to make her missive more readable):

This story reminds me of something that happened to me 19 years ago when I was doing my undergraduate degree. Our university required us to take a PE class. Being an English and French major at the time, I considered a PE class a waste of time and so I chose something ‘easy’ called “fitness walking”.

The first day of class, the gym teacher told each of us to pick a walking partner because we were to travel in two’s in a line. As I looked up from my books and surveyed the room for someone I knew, I found no familiar face. Then, at the very edge of class, in a corner, sat a blind girl and her leader dog who was an adorable black lab with soft brown eyes. The first thing I noticed was the other classmates looking toward her nervously, then back at each other, and then pairing off with each other and avoiding her because of their own discomfort. I thought to myself, ‘thank Goodness she can’t see their faces.’

I walked over and cheerfully said to her, “Hi, I am Sarah and I would love to be your walking partner this semester.’ The blind girl, with her beautiful long brown curly hair and eager smile quickly introduced herself as Angie and her dog as Sarge. All three of us, Angie, Sarge, and me walked together all semester and became great friends.

We regularly got together even after the class ended and remained friends until I moved 2,000 miles away.

That’s normally the end of the tale, two close friends move away from each other and never see or hear from one another again. But this is the age of social media, so finding anyone on Facebook should be a snap, right? Well, that’s not exactly how this next part happened.

Angie and I lost touch over the years, but the other day she found my parent’s phone number, called them and asked to be put in touch with me. We talked for hours that day and she told me about her marriage and her two children.

I’m leading up to the part of the tale that is the point of my writing this blog post. Here it is:

Then, she hesitated and said, “My daughter, my first born…I named her Sarah– after you…” Tears came to my eyes and I told her I was touched. She continued, “I met you when I was a freshman. You were a senior– and you weren’t disabled. And you took me in as family at a scary time in my life.” After we ended the call, I gave gratitude to G-d for giving me such an opportunity to meet Angie.

I don’t know why this final piece of Sarah’s commentary got to me. Maybe because it tells me that we may never realize how we affect people, for good or for ill, even after knowing them for years.

A chance meeting nearly two decades ago brought two young women together, one who was actively avoided by most of her classmates because she’s visually impaired, and their friendship meant so much to the young Angie, that even after the two parted, when she had her first child, a daughter, Angie named her “Sarah,” after the friend who meant so much to her.

We poor, pathetic human beings think we’re so powerless most of the time. We get cancer and we can’t cure it. We get into car accidents when we’re late for work. Our governments wage wars and we citizens can’t stop our soldiers, our fathers, brothers, and sons, from being maimed and killed. All the time we pray to an infinite and all-powerful God to rescue us from the consequences of being human.

And then Sarah tells the story of her friendship with Angie and in a sudden flash of realization, the power we all wield, to heal or to harm, to inspire or to discourage, stands in stark contrast to the impotency we were feeling just moments before.

I’ve spoken before about why all our religious arguments don’t work to serve the purpose of God, why only God can speak to our souls. Sarah’s story shows us that we can speak to each other’s souls. We just have to say the right words or rather, we have to actually show caring for another living being. Love and compassion are the language of the soul. It speaks even in eternal darkness and paints portraits even the blind can see.

Sacrificing Serenity for Spirituality

And Yaakov sat…

Braishis (Genesis) 37:1

Rashi cites the Sages who say that Yaakov wanted to live in peace and serenity. But this was not to be, and the troubles of his son Yosef began. The Almighty said, “Is it not sufficient for the righteous that they receive their reward in the world to come? Why do they need to live in serenity in this world?”

The question arises: why is it wrong to want to live in serenity? Yaakov desired serenity not so that he could devote his time to personal pleasures, but rather to be able to engage in spiritual pursuits.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Keep your focus on growth, not serenity,” p.102
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Growth Through Torah

When I’m stressed, when things aren’t working out right, when relationships are strained, more than anything, I want peace and serenity. I want to relax. I sometimes want everyone just to get along, and at other times, I just want to be alone to follow both personal and spiritual pursuits without interruption and distraction.

So midrash aside, I can very much empathize with Jacob’s desire for peace and serenity.

But I think Rashi, as interpreted by Rabbi Pliskin, has a point. We weren’t put here by God to seek peace and serenity, we were put here to serve Him. Serving God is rarely very peaceful. Just look at lives such as Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Joseph’s, Moshe’s, David’s, Jeremiah’s, and of course, our Master Yeshua’s (Jesus’) life. Also consider the apostles, particularly Paul. Was their service in spreading the good news of the Moshiach to the Jews and to the nations particularly peaceful? Most of the time, it was ultimately fatal in a violent and premature sense.

May God not wish me to serve him in such a manner for I know my faith and trust pale in comparison to even the least of the Biblical tzaddikim (righteous ones or “saints”).

But R. Pliskin said “growth, not serenity,” which I take to mean that rather than seeking peace, we should be seeking to experience our lives as the platform upon which we strive to grow spiritually, to grow closer to God.

This, said Rav Yeruchem, is an attitude we should all internalize. Every occurrence in this world can make you a better person. When you have this awareness your attitude towards everything that happens to you in life will be very positive. Before, during, and after every incident that occurs reflect on your behavior and reactions. Ask yourself, “What type of person am I after this happened? How did I do on this test? Did I pass it in an elevated manner?” (Daas Torah: Barishis, pp.222-3)


The Jewish PaulThis means that regardless of our circumstances, good or bad, we should approach the experience in the same manner, as a test or a “training session” designed to assist us in becoming more spiritually elevated. Of course, to be in a position to look at everything from ecstasy to agony in this way probably requires that we be in a fairly elevated state already. I don’t think I’m there yet, but maybe being aware that it’s possible will give me something to shoot for.

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13 (NASB)

If the ancient and modern Rabbinic sages can apply this principle to Jacob, I think it’s reasonable to apply it to Paul as well. This gives it a more universal usage which means it comes right back to my front door, so to speak. The goal of trust and faith in God and living a holy life then, is not to find peace in our circumstances, but regardless of what is happening to us, to find peace in God as Paul did.

“And Yosef was brought down to Egypt.”

Braishis (Genesis) 39:1

Anyone viewing the scene of Yosef being brought down to Egypt as a slave would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step towards his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex program to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.

-Rav Pliskin
“Realize that you can never tell how events will actually turn out in the end,” p.110

Being limited, temporal beings, our major focus is what is happening to us right now or what has just recently occurred. If it’s something unpleasant, then we tend to believe that it is also undesirable. Joseph probably felt that way when he was being sold into Potipher’s household and certainly would have that experience upon being sent to prison.

If only you would think of me with yourself when he benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this building. For indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the pit.

Genesis 40:14-15 (Stone Edition Chumash)

After two years in prison, Joseph’s words give us no indication that he was viewing his continued incarceration as anything but a miscarriage of justice, and an unfair and unpleasant circumstance. He had not “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” he found himself in. With great respect to the Rabbis, I don’t think midrash sufficiently describes Joseph’s personality or spirituality. While he did indeed have great faith and trust in God, he really wanted to get out of prison and he was willing to ask for help from a potentially influential person, a bit of quid pro quo, as it were.

Joseph in prisonPerhaps Joseph realized what God had done in retrospect, but it doesn’t seem that he realized it when he was still locked up. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Joseph acted with utmost integrity and morality, both as a slave and as a prisoner. If he had given up hope and surrendered to despair, engaging in the baser behaviors of a prison inmate, then he certainly would not have been in position to take the next step in God’s plan.

The take away from this is that regardless of circumstances, even if you (or I) can’t possibly see how they can be beneficial at the time they’re happening, we must continue to behave (or start behaving) in a moral and upright manner for who knows how you can affect what happens next by what you decide to do now? And if you (or I) fail in this, there’s still time to repent, but that time is not limitless:

He took up a parable and said: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came to seek fruit from it, but he did not find any. He said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years I have come to seek fruit in the fig tree, but I have not found any. Cut it down; why should it waste the ground?” He answered and said to him, “My master, leave it alone for another year, until I have dug around it and given it some manure. Perhaps it will produce fruit. If it does not produce, then cut it down the following year.”

Luke 13:6-9 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

Birds and Ladders: A Continued Story of Repentance

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

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

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

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

Daily Lift #180: Pray One-on-One

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

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

About Verbalization, he says:

Why is it important to say it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 13:12 (NASB)

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

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

Matthew 4:11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ibid, p.74

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-ibid, p.72

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:12-13

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in Spirituality and Righteousness

This week I wish to share with you some thoughts about Spirituality. Spirituality is feeling the presence of the Almighty. Feeling this connection to the Almighty is the greatest pleasure a person can know. It is the pleasure we feel when seeing a magnificent sunset, looking from a mountaintop over the beauty of the Almighty’s creation — or seeing your newborn baby for the first time.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from Shabbat Shalom Weekly for
Torah Portion Chayei Sarah

These words were spoken by a well-known contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, into which Jesus often engaged in discussion or controversy. However, on this particular subject, I am assuming that there would have been none. The statement is found in Chapter 2, Mishnah 5 when he said that an ignoramus or an uneducated person cannot be righteous. Nor can the bashful person learn (he is too shy to ask questions). Nor can the hot-tempered man teach. Nor can one who occupies himself over much in business grow wise (as he would have no time to study). And, in a place where there are no competent men strive to be a competent person.

A boor cannot be sin-fearing, an ignoramus cannot be pious, a bashful one cannot learn, a short-tempered person cannot teach, nor does anyone who does much business grow wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

So why would Hillel, some two thousand years ago, declare that an uneducated person cannot be a righteous person?

-Roy B. Blizzard
from Passages in Translation: Pirkei Avot Chapter 2, Mishnah 5

Two seemingly random quotes from distant sources speaking of spirituality and righteousness. Taking them in isolation, it would seem that anyone capable of feeling awe at the works of the Almighty can experience spirituality, but only an educated person can be righteous. Hardly seems fair, does it?

Maybe Rabbi Packouz makes the connection:

How does one develop spirituality? First, learn Torah. How many times have you heard people say, “I just love John Grisham … or Hemingway … or Dickens? But they never met those authors! However, they read their books and intuitively love the author for his writings. Ergo … read the Torah and love the Almighty!

The doorway to spirituality and righteousness is knowing God by studying Torah, and in this instance, I’m going to include the entire Bible as “Torah”.

But apparently, we have a problem as Dr. Blizzard notes:

The answer is that Hillel did not mean that the uneducated lack the desire to do good. It’s just that right actions require knowledge and people lacking knowledge will often not know the proper way to behave.

The point is that study is the key. And, basically, it has been and is being neglected in Christendom. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides taught in the Mishneh Torah written in the 12th century, until what period in life ought one to study Torah? His answer was “until the day of one’s death.”

God’s people should never use the feeble excuse, “well, we just don’t have time”. If God is the most important thing in your life and the Bible is His Word, one can only conclude that you need to make time!

He also cites this:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 (NASB)

While study is thoroughly ingrained in religious Judaism, it’s something of a chore in many churches. I was fortunate to attend a local Baptist church for two years where regular Bible reading and study was encouraged. It is true that I brought a different perspective to their ranks and one they ultimately could not absorb, but thankfully they continue to study and draw nearer to our God.

Christian CoffeeBut that’s not the case in many modern churches as Dr. Blizzard stated in the above-quoted paragraph. I study because I’m “built” to study. I completely enjoy reading and studying the Bible, so I don’t experience it as difficult or something to be avoided (which isn’t to say I don’t find study challenging). That means I can hardly take credit for my efforts as if I had overcome some personal obstacle or barrier with the goal of bettering myself.

But for a lot of other folks, it seems like there are so many other priorities that get in the way, or at least those people organize their priorities differently (and notice that as I write, I am not also vacuuming the living room carpet or cleaning the master bathroom).

Rabbi Packouz expands on this initial set of statements about the benefits of Torah study, including learning how to perform the mitzvot, which pleases Hashem and allows us to connect to Him in ways that otherwise would be unavailable to us.

Of course, R. Packouz is writing to a Jewish audience, so in order for Gentile Christians to make use of his commentary, we need to adjust it to our identity and our unique role in the redemptive plan of God.

With the permission of the heavenly assembly and with the permission of the earthly assembly, I hereby prepare my mouth to thank, praise, laud, petition, and serve my creator in the words of his people Israel. I cannot declare that Abraham fathered me, nor can I claim to be his offspring according to the flesh. For I am a branch from the stem of the children of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, like a wild olive branch grafted into a cultivated olive tree, in order to sprout forth and produce fruit in the name of all Israel.

-Aaron Eby
“Declaration of Intent for Messianic Gentiles,” p.134
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

I quoted part of the “declaration” from Aaron’s book to illustrate what I said above, that Gentiles are unique and have a special role to play within the Messianic assembly and among all of the disciples of the Messiah.

Having said that, there are many ways in which Jewish and Gentile roles and practices overlap in the Master’s ekklesia:

  1. Have a constant awareness of our Father, our King, Creator and Sustainer of the universe. As soon you think of the Creator, you immediately connect with Him. Think of Him often.
  2. Feel a sense of awe for the Creator by frequently contemplating the size and complexity of the universe.
  3. Realize that you are created in the image of the Creator and you are His child. When looking in a mirror, say to yourself, “I am a child of the Creator.”
  4. Everything you have in life, you have because it is a gift from the Creator. Be constantly grateful. This gratitude creates love.
  5. The Almighty loves us more than we love ourselves. Frequently say to yourself, “The Almighty loves me even more than I love myself.”
  6. Realize that everything that the Almighty causes to happen in your life, He causes to happen for a positive purpose. Some you will recognize, some you won’t. Frequently repeat, “This, too, is for the good.”
  7. Respect each human being because each human being is created in the Almighty’s image.
  8. When you do an act of kindness, you are emulating the Almighty. Do so frequently.
  9. Every prayer you say, whether formal or in your own words, is an expression of connecting with the Creator.
  10. Make a blessing to thank the Creator before and after eating. This adds a spiritual dimension to the food you eat.

That’s the first ten of the twenty ways R. Packouz lists to connect with the Almighty. Notice that none of them are specific to either Jews or Gentiles (the same goes for the other ten). In fact, you could take that list of twenty ways of connecting with God into any church and I can’t see why any Christian Pastor or layperson would object to them at all, except they might want to substitute “Jesus” for “the Almighty”.

Path of TorahSpirituality and righteousness all center around developing an awareness of God through the wonders in the world around us and specifically by studying the Torah. By studying the Torah however, we can go beyond “mere” awareness of God and begin to grasp who He created us to be and what we are expected to do with the lives we’ve been granted. While we Gentiles are grafted into Israel as a wild branch is grafted into a cultivated tree, that doesn’t make Gentile believers Israel. However, that also doesn’t mean we’re nothing either or that we are separated from God’s unique and chosen nation.

I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.

John 15:5

Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.

John 13:16

We see here that disciples of the Master are “grafted in” to him as a branch is grafted into a vine. That however doesn’t make any one of us Yeshua (Jesus), because he also teaches that we “sent ones” are not greater than the one who sent us. We are servants of the Master and slaves to the Most High.

But if we are grafted into the vine of Messiah and are not Messiah, to extend the metaphor, we are also grafted into Israel and are not Israel. In fact, without the benefit of the covenant promises God made with national Israel and the Jewish people, we Gentiles would have no status or relationship to God at all. We are grafted in only by God’s abundant mercy to mankind, and by our faith in the accomplished works of our Master, the mediator of the New Covenant.

The rest of the “declaration of intent for Messianic Gentiles” goes thus:

Father in Heaven, I will rejoice in you alone, for you have sanctified me and drawn me near to you, and you have made me a son of Abraham through your King Messiah. For the sake of our Master Yeshua, in his merit and virtues, may the sayings of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be joined to the prayers of all Israel, and may they be favorable before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Although you are reading this on Sunday morning or later, I’m writing it near lunch time on Friday. My personal Shabbos Project will begin in a few hours and I hope to improve upon last week’s experience (and I no doubt will be writing about “Shabbat Observance 2.0” subsequently).

We all discover ourselves by the light of Torah, but what is illuminated is different for each of us. This is sometimes the difference between being a Jewish or Gentile disciple of the Master, but there are also many other distinctions.

Although by necessity, I’ll be observing Shabbat alone, I know that it is designed to be celebrated in community. But there are ways in which we seek God that sometimes require that only the person and the Almighty be present. The Master sought to be alone often to pray, and yet he was also part of the larger community of Israel. When Paul became the Master’s emissary to the Gentiles, he was faced with the challenge of integrating Gentiles into Jewish communal and religious space, and that challenge remained before him for the rest of his life.

Shabbat candlesWhile I agree that community is a vital part of a life of faith, it is only half of that life. The Master indeed said we were to love our neighbors as ourselves but the prerequisite for doing so was to love the Almighty with all of our heart, spirit, and resources. Holiness, spirituality, and righteous living begin with one person studying the Torah, praying, and developing a growing awareness of God in the world around that person. Sometimes those experiences can be shared, but in the case of we “Messianic Gentiles,” often they cannot be, except “remotely” via the Internet.

But there’s nothing remote about God or the Torah. His inspired Word and His Created world are before each of us. Today they are before me and tonight, as I write this, so will the Shabbat. May the blessings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart always be pleasing before Hashem, my rock and my redeemer, and may I always be a faithful servant to my Master, Messiah Yeshua.

Who is Righteous?

goodly-tents-of-jacobHow goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. As for me, through Your abundant kindness, I will enter Your House. I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You. O HASHEM, I love the house where you dwell and the place where your glory resides. I will prostrate myself and bow, I will kneel before HASHEM my Maker. As for me, may my prayer to You HASHEM come at an opportune time; O God, in Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation.

“Mah Tovu (How Good)”
-from the Siddur

This is the beginning of the Shacharit or morning prayers, said by Jewish people around the world at the beginning of each day.

I have a sad confession to make. I don’t pray in the morning very often. The first hour or so after I get up is dedicated to a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and slowly waking up in front of my computer. Oh sure, I recite the Modeh Ani upon awakening, but that takes only a few seconds and I’m still in bed when I make the blessing.

However, this morning my son wasn’t feeling well and frankly, neither was I, so we decided to skip the 5 a.m. visit to the gym. I could have noodled around on the web or even read a book, but I decided to pray.

I began with extemporaneous prayer and my mind scattered all over the place. I kept trying to focus it back, but that would last only a few seconds. I can certainly see the benefits of hitbodeut since it actually encourages “talking” to God as one talks passionately to a close companion, but for that, I’d need to be completely alone (I don’t want to wake my wife and daughter).

Then I remembered my siddur. I opened it up to the Shacharis/Morning Services section and began to read. And I began to pray.

I know that I previously expressed some hesitation and even trepidation at attending the recent First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference. I wondered if I really belonged in a “Jewish” worship context anymore (or if I ever did). I wondered why it didn’t feel like “home” anymore.

But praying, even somewhat briefly, with the siddur this morning did feel like home. I limited my prayers, trying to avoid those that overtly identified the person praying as Jewish, but I feel as if the pattern and rhythm of the siddur is almost calling to me.

After Mah Tovu, I prayed Adon Olam (all this is in English and I’m softly reciting, not singing), skipped the blessings of the Torah, and continued with the liturgy up to the Akeidah portion.

It’s not very long, actually.

But why don’t I do this every morning? I can’t say I don’t have the time, because I can find the time.

Then I was reminded of something else that happened at the conference.

I won’t go into too many details, but one person giving a presentation referenced another individual present and called him a tzadik. This was because the person being referenced is scrupulous in all the prayers, rituals, and traditions of observant Judaism. He refrains from all inappropriate forms of work on the Shabbat and festivals, observes each time of prayer, davening in Hebrew, and otherwise is diligently mindful of his duty to Hashem…

…even though he’s not Jewish.

That last part’s important because it brings up the question of whether or not observing Jewish religious practices makes a non-Jew more holy, more righteous, more “tzadik-like.” Particularly as a non-Jewish person involved in the Messianic Jewish movement, however tangentially, do the Jews and Gentiles in that movement consider me a failure for not following Jewish religious observances?

After a wave of guilt passed over me, I realized that some of the most righteous men I know are Christians who probably don’t pray one word in Hebrew. I’ve come to develop a great admiration particularly for a few of the men at the church I attend. I’ve learned some things about one specific individual that he’d never tell me himself, but that are completely consistent with how I experience him.

israel_prayingIf he were Jewish, I’d probably call him a tzadik. But what makes him such isn’t his “Jewish” observance, because as far as I know, he has none. What makes him such is that he is devoted to God in all of his ways, not only in prayer and worship, but in everything that he does.

How a life of righteousness looks, at least superficially, may be different depending on whether or not you’re a Christian or a Jew, but at the core, living a life that is pleasing to God should be the same regardless of who you are.

Jews pray and Christians pray. I remember my Pastor said that there were times in Israel when he was traveling with Jewish men. They would daven shacharit in a minyan and he would sit off to one side and silently pray, not intruding on them, but observing the holy time nonetheless. They all honored God and each other with their prayers and their devotion.

Jews give to charity and Christians give to charity. Jews visit the sick and Christians visit the sick. Jews feed the hungry and Christians feed the hungry. Jews gather together regularly to worship God and Christians gather together regularly to worship God.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

A “tzadik” isn’t just a Jewish righteous person, it’s any righteous person. Granted, the term itself is Jewish, but the concept behind it can be applied to any individual who seeks the will of God and then does the will of God.

I guess a Christian would use the word “saint” but I’m not quite sure it is an equivalent term exactly.

But the words used matter less than the life that’s lived. While in the example I cited above from the conference, one person acknowledged that another was a tzadik, but the recognition matters less than the life that’s lived, even if it is lived in obscurity so that no one knows.

But God knows.

God knows everything about the righteous and the unrighteous.

…as it is written:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.”

Romans 3:10-11 (NRSV)

There is no one who is righteous just because of who he is or what he does. Paul goes on in the same chapter to say that we are only righteous by faith. It is by faith that we seek God at all. It is by faith that we pray.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski writes an online “column” for Aish.com called Growing Each Day in which he begins with a quote from the Bible, Talmud, the Siddur, or some similar text. He then writes a brief commentary and finishes by applying the principle to his own life (and by inference, his readers are invited to apply it to their lives in order to “grow each day.”

Adapting his model to today’s “extra meditation:”

Today I shall…

…seek God each morning by turning to Him in prayer, so that my life will begin to conform to His will.

Good Shabbos.

110 days.

Gifts of the Spirit: Pursuing the Mystery

MysteryLest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Romans 11:25

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.

Ephesians 3:1-3

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Colossians 1:27

What is this “mystery” of which Paul speaks? In all three of my examples from scripture, it seems directly related to the Gentiles being brought into the Jewish movement of “the Way.”

(I have to say before going on that you’re probably going to think I’m a little crazy for writing this. I don’t have some big theological point to make and I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I just have this rattling around in my head and I need to put it out there. OK, that’s done. Continue reading).

I’ve been rather slow in my reading this past week for a variety of reasons, but I managed to squeeze in a chapter from John Sanford’s book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John. In Chapter 3: Christian Disciples, the First Disciples – John 1:35-51, he says (pg 32):

The call to the disciples is a call to initiation into the mystery of Christ. The idea of initiation is all but lost in our present culture, but it was an important one in the time of the inception of Christianity, for in the Roman Empire at that time there flourished a burgeoning number of “mystery religions.” The Greek word translated in English as “mystery” did not mean to the ancient Greek-speaking person what it means to us. A mystery for us is a puzzle to be solved. A mysterion for the ancients was “a matter to the knowledge of which initiation is necessary.” There are some things that can be known only by experiencing them; all in-depth spiritual or psychological understanding falls into this category. For this reason the word mysterion (mystery) is very important in the New Testament.

That statement reminds me very much of the recent First Fruits of Zion Shavuot conference which was held at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. The focus of the conference was Gifts of the Spirit and by definition, a spiritual encounter can only be perceived through a direct experience, and is certainly one that reveals something of God. Yet the receiving of the Holy Spirit by those who repent and turn toward God is something that can only be understood by the person receiving the Spirit (unlike in ancient days when outside observers could actually see “tongues of fire” descending upon those whom the Spirit encountered and rested upon).

It also reminded me of something that happened a week ago when I was having coffee with my friend Tom. I won’t tell you all of the details, but at one point, Tom was telling me how important it was to him to be able to communicate to others his unique personal message of encountering God. Tom closed his eyes and a change came over him. I can’t explain it except to say that it reminded me of this:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:3

I actually can’t find in the Bible where it says something like “and then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he spoke…” but that’s what it reminded me of. At the conference, some of the presenters were discussing the folks who stand up in church and say stuff like “And thus says the Lord” or “The Lord gave me a word of wisdom to speak…” and then they go on to say whatever it is that they think God told them to say.

But actually, the people who are really speaking “in the Spirit” don’t typically make a preamble statement, they just speak in the Spirit.

That’s what I think was going on with Tom.

OK, I can’t prove it and maybe he was just being very passionate at that moment. He certainly didn’t report anything unusual happening to him during our conversation. But that’s what it looked like. That’s what I experienced in listening to him. It was a mystery. It was an initiation of sorts into another perspective. As Sanford states in his book (pp 32-3), “this is, one who leads the initiate into a deeper revelation of himself and God.”

light-in-my-handsI don’t want to get too mysterious here and I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that I’m selling you some sort of spiritual bill of goods. I’m not claiming to have “gotten a word from the Lord” or anything like that. I’m just saying that there’s a point at which we encounter God that doesn’t translate well into human language. It isn’t easy to articulate. Nevertheless, it’s something I believe God shares with those He chooses as He wills.

These experiences are not random. They happen for a reason, though that reason isn’t always apparent.

The experiences that now came to the disciples in their association with Jesus were deeply meaningful and exciting. They had found the Master and they followed him happily, growing in consciousness and enthusiasm as they did so. But their full initiation was not complete. Before they could really truly know, deep within themselves, they would have to undergo two more crises even more painful than the first.

-Sanford, pg 36

For the Jewish disciples of the Master, they endured his death, rejoiced at his resurrection, watched him ascend into the Heavens, and then waited. But in Acts 2 we see that their wait had ended and something miraculous happened to them. They were initiated into the Spirit of God in order to fulfill the purpose of spreading the Gospel message to Israel, Samaria, and to the world beyond. The message of Spirit and salvation. The message of repenting and bringing near the Kingdom of Heaven.

Just looking at Peter when he denied the Master and then seeing him later, after Acts 2:2-4, we encounter a totally changed man.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Acts 2:36-39

Do you feel changed? Have you been “initiated into the mystery of Christ?” For that matter, do I feel changed?

Those who give priority to their physical selves and make the soul subordinate cannot achieve sincere brotherhood.

-Tanya, chapter 32

Rabbi Schneur Zalman states that a thorough unity is achieved between friends when their neshamos (souls) are permitted to fuse. Since all neshamos are part of God Himself, and inasmuch as God is the Absolute One, all souls can similarly be one. Separation and divisiveness among humans do not derive from the soul, but from the physical self.

The needs and desires of the physical self – the quest to satisfy one’s earthly drives – are the causes of divisiveness. The neshamah does not seek pride nor wealth, is not offended, and does not seek to berate others. All these are traits of the physical self. To the degree that one recognizes the neshamah as one’s true essence and subordinates the physical self thereto, to that degree one can eliminate the divisive factors and achieve true unity and brotherhood.

We thus see why spirituality is of such overwhelming importance. Hillel said that the essence of the Torah is “love your neighbor as you would yourself.” To achieve such love, one must eliminate the impediments to sincere love of another, and as Rabbi Schneur Zalman stated, these impediments are the non-spiritual aspects of life. The greater the degree of spirituality one achieves, the more perfect can one’s love of another person be.

Today I shall…

…seek to establish the primacy of spirituality in my life.

-Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Sivan 17”

paul-on-the-road-to-damascusParticularly in Judaism but also in Christianity, we can become very focused on studying. There’s nothing wrong with studying, with learning the Word of God, and in fact, as responsible believers, we have a duty to familiarize ourselves with the Bible and, to the limits of our abilities, to delve into its depths.

But it is going to take more than the capacities we have within ourselves, our “wetware” and programming, so to speak. In truly learning to know God we must start with the Bible, but we must continue in the Spirit. This isn’t something we can turn on and off like a light switch, and I think it’s pretty much up to God to initiate such a contact, but we have to be open to it.

True, in Acts 9, Paul was nowhere near desiring such an encounter when the Messiah came upon him in a light and a voice. Messiah “happened to” Paul whether Paul wanted him to or not.

But in our material world with our material problems and our material worries, it’s far too easy for us to put aside the spiritual reality of our relationship with God. I imagine that even some other believers reading this blog post will think I’m some sort of “religious nut” for talking about the Spirit of God. And yet, what else can I do? A.W. Tozer says that “I would emphasize this one committal, this one great volitional act which establishes the heart’s intention to gaze forever upon Jesus.” All we can do is look up, to gaze at Him, and like the apostles, we wait.

Messiah will one day walk among us again in our world, but his journey of return begins in the clouds.

This is the actual time of the “footsteps of Mashiach.” (The final age prior to Mashiach’s advent.) It is therefore imperative for every Jew to seek his fellow’s welfare – whether old or young – to inspire the other to teshuva (return), so that he will not fall out – G-d forbid – of the community of Israel who will shortly be privileged, with G-d’s help, to experience complete redemption.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Sivan 18, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

As Rabbi Twerski might say, today I shall strive to be open to the mysterious movement of God’s Spirit in my life through love of Him and so that my love of my neighbor is more evident in the world.

Am I pursuing the mystery or is the mystery pursuing me?

This will be the last blog post where I’ll directly reference presentations from the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot conference. I’ve pretty much exhausted my notes, the ones I can still read, anyway. I may, from time to time, refer to the conference or some of the speakers or attendees again, but not in any depth. I hope you enjoyed what I shared from my experiences. I sincerely meant to present my own point of view about the conference and do not represent First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) in any way. At some point FFOZ will no doubt produce an audio CD of the presentations given at the conference. I encourage you to acquire a copy if my renditions of the events there has piqued your interest.

The road

Was it something I said or something I did
Did my words not come out right

-Lyrics by Bret Michaels
Every Rose Has Its Thorn (1988)
Recorded by Poison

The Road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

115 days.