Tag Archives: spirituality

Building and Rebuilding the Tabernacle

Ever watch a child learning to walk? While strolling along confidently, albeit a bit wobbly, he’ll suddenly drop to the floor. With admirable persistence, he’ll usually pick himself right back up on his feet and continue on as if nothing had happened.

The Midrash (Tanchuma 11) says that throughout the seven inaugural days of the Holy Tabernacle, the portable dwelling place built for G-d’s Holy Presence, Moses would construct and disassemble it two or three times each day. The Tabernacle, of course, was a large and extremely heavy structure. Many of its parts were solid wood and gold, and it was tens of feet high. To build and dismantle the entire structure 14 times, or more, in one week must have been incredibly taxing to Moses! Why didn’t he just assemble it the first day, and then leave it standing until the next time G-d instructed the nation to travel?

There was a deeper meaning, however, to the construction of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the efforts of a person committed to spiritual growth. That person drafts a model of holiness, an ideal setting for rising above material and selfish pursuits, insuring the appropriate goals and safeguards are set. As he takes his first few steps of growth, he feels a sense of pride and serenity, assuring himself that he’s on the proper course. But soon, it all crumbles. The habits of the past return, and his best-laid plans for the future appear unattainable.

The continuous building and dismantling of the Tabernacle throughout the inauguration tells us that holy structures are designed to be built and rebuilt before they are completed. The nature of spiritual growth is to move forward and fall back, repeatedly, akin to the toddler’s efforts to walk. Although a toddler first falls immediately, after just a few steps, his strength, balance, and ability improve exponentially. Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come — if we get right back up and keep trying!

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org
“Pick Yourself Up, Brush Yourself Off”
Commentary on Torah Portion VayakhelPekudei
Based on Nesivos Shalom, Pikudei, 279

In keeping with my previous blog posts based on Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s A Multimedia Guide to Jewish Prayer series, I read the next installment in sequence, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder prior to writing this “morning meditation”. Unfortunately, the “Jacob’s Ladder” piece just didn’t inspire me as I had hoped. However, Rabbi Dixler’s commentary did.

Here I am, still sitting at the bottom of the dark, dusty abyss, looking at the ladder that has been placed before me by God, as an invitation to a dance, so to speak. As Rabbi Freeman commented in his Jacob’s Ladder article, What was that ladder? According to the Zohar, it’s the ladder of prayer. That’s what I thought when I wrote another of my morning mediations as well. But then how do I climb?

That reminds me of an old joke:

A tourist from an Iowa farm decides to visit New York City. He’s having fun seeing the sights, visiting the Statue of Liberty, stopping off at Times Square and such, but he’s bought a ticket for a Broadway play and it starts in an hour. Trouble is, he doesn’t know how to find where the play is going to be performed.

He stops a person who appears to be a local and asks, “How do I get to Broadway.”

The gruff New Yorker replies, “Practice.”

How do you climb the ladder of prayer? The answer is the same. Practice.

I know I’ve said something like this before but it can use repeating, which is also part of practicing.

Look at Rabbi Dixler’s story again. In a way, Moses needed the “practice” in putting up and taking down “holiness.” Chances are, the story isn’t literally true, but it is a metaphor that communicates something important to me. In fact, here’s the part that especially speaks to me.

There was a deeper meaning, however, to the construction of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the efforts of a person committed to spiritual growth. That person drafts a model of holiness, an ideal setting for rising above material and selfish pursuits, insuring the appropriate goals and safeguards are set. As he takes his first few steps of growth, he feels a sense of pride and serenity, assuring himself that he’s on the proper course. But soon, it all crumbles. The habits of the past return, and his best-laid plans for the future appear unattainable.

I have better days and worse days, probably just like everyone else. I have better days and worse days in relation to God, too. Sometimes reading the Bible is very uplifting and other times, the messages I read carry nothing but discouragement. The trick for me, in having fallen down again, is figuring out a way to keep discouragement from having the last word.

The nature of spiritual growth is to move forward and fall back, repeatedly, akin to the toddler’s efforts to walk. Although a toddler first falls immediately, after just a few steps, his strength, balance, and ability improve exponentially. Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come — if we get right back up and keep trying!

Why does a toddler, who falls down more times than we can count, continue getting back up? Why does the child, who falls, and falls, and falls, keep trying to walk again? Why doesn’t he get to the point of saying, “I’ll never be able to walk,” and then just keep on crawling as a means of locomotion?

I don’t know.

I suppose there’s something built into every child, a sort of developmental “map,” that drives the boy or girl to keep on trying to walk, keep on building blocks, keep on learning their ABCs, keep on trying to read, to write, to count, to dress themselves, to reach a little higher, then a little higher, then a little higher…

You get the idea. If little kids gave up anytime something was difficult, they’d never develop, become bigger, more sophisticated kids, then teens, and finally adults. They’d always be stuck at being toddlers.

Somewhere along the line, we learn that it’s possible to give up. For most of us, that doesn’t prevent us from hitting all of the usual developmental milestones. Most of us keep on trying and today, we’re able to walk, talk, write, read, count, get dressed, feed ourselves, even drive, get a job, have friends, get married, and raise children of our own. But we also learn we can give up on things and sometimes we do. Some of us learn that we can have a relationship with God and other people give up without even trying, “reasoning” that God doesn’t exist.

I think we have a “developmental need” to seek out God, even as we have developmental needs to learn to walk, feed ourselves, and read. All of those developmental milestones I listed require enormous amounts of practice and the more we practice, the better we get at mastering those skills. The more you read (usually), the better reader you become. The same goes for driving a car, fixing a leaky faucet, or playing a musical instrument (it should be noted though, that some people can practice certain skills forever and still not get very good at them).

But while most of us won’t become world-famous classical guitarists, unless we have a significant disability, we will all learn how to walk, talk, read, count, eat, and get dressed, because (unlike playing a musical instrument or performing heart surgery) they are all basic human skills. But they still all take lots of practice. Is having a relationship with God a basic (rather than an advanced) human skill?

I think so. But it’s one that we are able to abandon even before we ever learn it. Even after learning the basic steps of that relationship, we can still lose skills through lack of practice or lack of confidence. We may at one point have climbed the ladder well and then later, for whatever reason, find we are even afraid of trying. Maybe we fell off the ladder and got hurt. Maybe we failed at some other related skill and we don’t have the nerve to face the ladder again.

So here I sit at the bottom of the well, looking at the first rung of the ladder. Perhaps I fell off the ladder or maybe I never started to climb in the first place. Regardless, here I am, like a toddler who tried to walk and landed on his butt. According to Rabbi Dixler, I need to stand and fall and stand and fall, like Moses building and unbuilding the Mishkan, hour after hour, day after day, until I can stand a little longer, walk a little further, and climb the first rung of the ladder.

Don’t be afraid when experiencing setbacks on the road to spiritual growth, because we are promised that the results will come.

PrayingThe mystical aspects of Jewish prayer are enormously complex and well beyond my limited comprehension and abilities. I’m still trying to climb onto the first rung of the ladder and not become discouraged when I fall back off. But just like a toddler learning how to walk, it’s not something someone else can teach me or even help me with. You can’t walk for someone else, they have to learn it on their own.

But after everything I just said about being able to pray and to forge a relationship with God being a “basic human skill” that anyone can learn, why do I still doubt that I’m ever going to be any good at it? Maybe I’ve just been “plain old me” for too long, sitting here staring at the ladder. It goes up awfully high…and you know what happened to Icarus.

Getting to where you need to be is an important step. But nothing is as important as getting out of where you’re at right now.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hit the Road”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

He erected the Courtyard all around the Tabernacle and the Altar, and he emplaced the curtain of the gate of the Courtyard. So Moses completed the work.

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem filled the Tabernacle. –Exodus 40:33-34 (Stone Edition Chumash)

May it ever be so for you…and for me.

Expecting Something Wonderful

To help reduce this tension which seems to dominate our people everywhere, you can start by reducing your own pace. To do that you will need to slow down, quiet down. Do not fume. Do not fret. Practice being peaceful. Practice “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) Then note the quiet power sense that wells up within you.

-Norman Vincent Peale
“Chapter 6: Stop Fuming and Fretting”
The Power of Positive Thinking

Up until Peale mentioned “quiet power sense,” he was actually saying just about the first thing that made any sort of sense to me in this entire book thus far.

Peace is a difficult concept to apply universally across a person’s life, mine or anyone else’s. We all want some sort of “peace” but we can’t be totally relaxed and at ease twenty-four hours a day. Frankly, there are times when we really need to be focused, or excited, or agitated, or even angry. But as I was reading this chapter over my lunch hour, I realized that I don’t allow myself a great deal of peace, even when I’m supposedly relaxing. More to the point, I don’t really allow myself the time and the luxury of being at peace in the presence of God.

However, as much as I can argue about the various circumstances in my life and the relative amount of control I do or don’t have over them, I do have some sort of control over finding the time and the place to be alone and uninterrupted with God so I can have a “peaceful” conversation with Him (I say this with the caveat that, living with other people doesn’t mean I can always guarantee I will be uninterrupted).

But I can try. I’ve said in previous blogs that I didn’t find Peale the sort of writer who matches my “style” or “metaphors,” but I’ve been trying to find ways of translating some of his more hokey stories and comments into a language I can relate to. He actually told a story (I don’t know if it’s about an actual, factual event or not) that I found brilliant.

Peale relates the tale of a baseball team who just couldn’t seem to do anything right. Although they were originally the favorites to carry the season, the team ended up losing 17 of their first 20 games. Naturally, team morale was at a low ebb and they weren’t expecting to score significantly and they absolutely didn’t expect to win any of their future games.

And they almost didn’t.

It so happened that a preacher named Schlater was popular in that neighborhood at that time. He claimed to be a faith healer and apparently was getting some astounding results. Throngs crowded to hear him and most everybody had confidence in him. Perhaps the fact that they did believe in his power enabled Schlater to achieve results.

O’Reilly (the team owner) asked each player to lend him his two best bats. Then he asked the members of the team to stay in the clubhouse until he returned. He put the bats in a wheelbarrow and went off with them. He was gone for an hour. He returned jubilantly to tell the players that Schlater, the preacher, had blessed the bats and that these bats now contained a power that could not be overcome. The players were astounded and delighted.

The next day they overwhelmed Dallas, getting 37 base hits and 20 runs. They hammered their way through the league to a championship, and Hugh Fullerton (a famous sports writer when Peale was a youth, according to the book) said that for years in the Southwest, a player would pay a large sum for a “Schlater bat.”

Actually, it’s O’Reilly who was brilliant for what he pulled off. Peale was only brilliant for relating the tale (unless he made the whole thing up, then Peale really was brilliant). The “faith healing powers” of Schlater were irrelevant. The team didn’t even have to meet him. All they knew is what O’Reilly told them…that Schlater blessed the bats with a special power. As long as the team believed the bats were powerful, then they would behave out of that belief. Nothing else had to change.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right.

All I (or anyone) have to do is believe in my relationship with God and my own worth in God’s eyes and my own. Nothing else has to change in order for me to start rising up out of the bottom of the well. All I have to do is to believe that I don’t require a faith community in order to be free of the emotional requirement. The whole point of books like Peale’s is to convince their audience to believe in some sort of special power. That’s why Peale presents various passages from the Bible as he does. If his primary audience believes in Jesus or God, and they don’t mind taking Bible verses woefully out of context, then the book will have the desired effect.

Many years ago, I heard a teaching counselor use the phrase “the trickster healer.” It sounds a little suspicious, since you want people who are healers (doctors, psychologists, etc…) to be forthright and honest, but as we see in the story about O’Reilly and the “Schlater bats,” just telling someone what their problem is doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to “convince” them in other ways that don’t require them to make a conscious, rational decision. Sometimes they just have to believe.

Unfortunately, knowing about the “trick” robs it of its power, so in being aware of the “trick” and writing about it, I can’t also “con” myself into believing in the personal equivalent of a “Schlater bat.”

But I can try to believe in God.

I realize that, based on most of what I’ve said so far, it is practically beside the point whether or not God even exists as long as I believe He exists. This is probably why Peale’s book works even with atheists if they choose to believe in some other internal or external source of “power” instead of God.

I am convinced of the existence of the God of the Bible, however the presence of God isn’t always enough. If God didn’t require my cooperation or involvement in solving my little dilemma, He could just invoke some supernatural power and *poof* my perspective would be different and my paradigm would be shifted. End of story.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Maybe God doesn’t answer the majority of prayers using supernatural means. Maybe, most of the time, He just allows our faith and our trust in Him do most of the work. I’ll talk more about my journey in prayer while sitting at the bottom of my well in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.” In the meantime, the first lesson I’ll need to continue to learn is to be at peace right where I am, expecting nothing, before I can learn to believe and then expect something.

Heywood Floyd: What? What’s going to happen?
Dave Bowman: Something wonderful.

-from the film 2010 (1984)

Fixing a Broken Connection

How will you repair a soul?

Blind yourself to the shell of mud. Dig deeply and deeper yet, sift through the darkened embers, search for a spark that still shines. Fan that spark until a flame appears, fall in love with the flame and despise the evil that encrusts it. Until all is consumed in the warmth of that flame.

For empathy is the redeemer of love and the liberator of deeds that shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Soul Repair”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

This is part of my Finding My Metaphor project which I guess started when I wrote Learning Acceptance. I didn’t realize how difficult this would all be or rather, I didn’t realize when I started this line of questioning, that it would lead in such a difficult direction. Certainly starting to openly question whether or not I trust God is a difficult direction. So where do you go from the bottom of the well?

Actually, even before writing Acceptance, I wrote Waiting in a Minefield, which presents an image of trying to proceed on a spiritual journey but being afraid to move. Then I wrote Waiting for Hope in the Abyss, which is where I return to when I get stuck. If I just sit down at the bottom of the well, I can’t fall any further, can I?

So what now? I can just sit here and hope nothing falls on me, or hope that the bottom of the well doesn’t give way. Or I can try to get up and risk the walls of the well collapsing on top of me, burying me even deeper…or maybe actually getting out of here, but that’s a long shot. Actually, I kind of like it here in the dark. It’s quiet and peaceful and it’s easy on the eyes and nerves. I can just take deep, slow breaths and watch the dust swirling around in the air, caught in the beam of light filtering down from the top of the well.

But I can’t wait down here forever, can I?

Rabbi Freeman wrote in the introduction to A Multimedia guide to Jewish Prayer:

A mitzvah is an opportunity to act out your inner soul. A thought of Torah is an opportunity to hear it speaking. But when do you have an opportunity to experience that soul? When, other than at prayer?

To pray comes as naturally to the human being as breathing—where there is an openness to something greater, something beyond, naturally we cry out to it from within. Nevertheless, there is a ladder, a set of skills and techniques that can be learned. With knowledge, with practice and with persistence, we can all learn to excel at the art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.

So I’m sitting at the bottom of my well, and then I realize there is a ladder down here with me that leads to the “art of dialogue between that breath of the divine within us and her Beloved Above.” What have I got to lose?

Is prayer normal?

Anybody who has watched the standard morning minyan knows that Jewish prayer is not normal. It is not normal to wrap yourself in a white woolen sheet, strap leather boxes containing ancient scrolls on your arm and head, sway back and forth with your cohorts chanting Hebrew incantations and reading from a parchment scroll. It is not normal to stand before a wall and appear to be speaking to it. It is not normal in this day and age and may never have been normal in any era.

“Normal” is whatever you’re used to in your day-to-day life and, not being Jewish and certainly having never prayed in a minyan, the type of prayer Rabbi Freeman describes above is not “normal” for me. But I did say a few days ago that I would have to restructure the metaphors I feel closest to in order to derive a meaning that makes sense to me.

Even Rabbi Freeman admits that prayer is somewhat “absurd” in acknowledging that we believe God is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Beneficent. After all, God doesn’t need us to tell Him who and what He is. The classic answer to why we pray when God doesn’t need our prayers is because we need to pray. Prayer changes us, not God. God is God. He is immutable, unchangeable, eternal.

We’re not. I’m certainly not.

I mentioned previously that Freeman tells us the word “tefillah,” which we translate into English as “prayer,” “is etymologically related to the root word tofel—meaning reconnect or bond.” When Jews pray three times a day to God, they are reconnecting or “sticking” themselves back to their (our?) Original Source above. In this sense, “prayer” doesn’t mean beseeching, imploring, or appealing to God for something, but instead, it means reconnecting, reattaching, rebonding to the source of our lives and souls.

A fairly inaccurate but still apt analogy would be plugging your dead cell phone into the recharger to restore electricity to its drained battery…sort of.

But we don’t really do that when we pray, do we?

We do not suffice with standing there and acknowledging, “Yes, you are the Omnipotent King and we owe everything to you.” We continue by petitioning, pleading and begging that He change the situation. We repeat again and again, “Let it be Your will…”—directly implying that what we are requesting is not currently His will and we are out to change that.

We are quite frankly creating a revolution: Those at the bottom are dictating to the One Above. Our prayers are definitively not passive—we are taking a real nudnik, back-seat driver role.

And this is a mitzvah—He told us to do this!

The ideal is to reconnect to our source and to restore the Divine spark within us, but in any practical, real-life manner, we ask and plead and beg and implore God to help, help, help us with the mess of our lives.

And in Judaism, this is a mitzvah? Is it a “mitzvah”, an obedient act of righteousness and charity, if a Christian does this?

Judaism interprets the commandment, “You shall serve the LORD your God” (Exodus 23:25, Deuteronomy 6:13) as a positive commandment to pray daily. According to Maimonides:

…this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1)

The Apostolic Scriptures also frame prayer as a positive commandment, making it accessible to the Christian as well as to the Jew:

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. –Colossians 4:2-4

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

That’s hardly a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Continue praying. Pray without ceasing. Pray for others. Pray that the word declaring the “mystery of Christ” continues to be preached. Give thanks in all circumstances…even when sitting at the bottom of the well, because praying is “the will of God in Christ Jesus.”

When Paul writes, “for you” at the end of verse 18, I have to assume he’s referring to the non-Jewish believers, so that God’s will for me personally is to pray as I’ve described above.

Paul makes prayer sound so noble and selfless, but that’s hardly how most people pray. We pray asking for what we think we need and want. We pray when we’re upset or in pain. We pray with life isn’t going our way. And we have the audacity to ask God to change things around to the way we want them to be. Rabbi Freeman puts it this way:

The question returns: Why would the Ultimate Driver of the Universe want a nudnik, back seat driver?

So, when I pray, am I a pest? How is this repairing my soul? How does this help me relate to God?

Until after the final redeemer arrives, there is no person on earth without some fault. Where this person fails on one count, another fails elsewhere.

We don’t appreciate someone else prying into our faults and underlining each one with a red pencil. So we know it is not right to emphasize and magnify the faults of another.

This is the way all people should relate to one another.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Ignoring Faults”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”

-Elbert Hubbard
American writer, artist and philosopher

I’m far from perfect God, but I want to trust you. Should I put my foot on the first rung of the ladder?