Tag Archives: struggle

Locking Up Meditation

There are three forms of hitbon’nut (contemplation, meditation):

  1. Study-meditation: After mastering the concept thoroughly, one meditates on its profundity, until the intellectual element shines forth for him.
  2. Meditation before davening: This is directed toward sensing the vitality of the concept learned, in contrast to sensing the intellectual element emphasized in study-meditation.
  3. Meditation in davening: To sense the “G-dly element” in the concept learned.

These three are rungs on the ladder of sensitivity. It is only by G-d’s kindness towards us that we may occasionally sense G-dhood spontaneously, without any avoda at all. This comes about by virtue of the quality of Ultimate Essential G-dhood within the soul. For avoda by one’s own efforts, however, these three forms of meditation are essential.

“Today’s Day”
Friday, Tamuz 20, 5703
Torah lessons: Chumash: Pinchas, Shishi with Rashi.
Tehillim: 97-103.
Tanya: Precisely so (p. 357) …or articulation. (p. 357).
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.

-Author unknown

I always consider meditation to be a quiet, contemplative state. As such, I never enter into it. I know that seems completely contrary to the basic premise of this blog, but I find it very difficult to quiet my mind. About the closest I come to a conscious, meditative state is the four minutes I’m cooling down after an aerobic workout on the elliptical machine. I can close my eyes and imagine my breath going in and out as a frosty, illuminated vapor in the darkness. All I’m trying to achieve though, is to slow my heart rate down as much as I can so that when I get off the machine, it’s not still pounding away at 150+ beats per minute.

I’m not contemplating God.

Even when I do contemplate God, it’s in a sea of static and chaos. It’s difficult or impossible to enter into a space where it’s just Him and me. Frankly, I don’t know if I even want to enter into that space. God is big and scary and I’m not even sure how guys like Abraham and Moses could stand being in His presence for even one split second. The God that created the Universe and everything in it isn’t some comfortable cosmic teddy bear that you can just walk up to and then sit in His lap.

Most days, I have a really good idea what I want to blog about, but not today. I pretty much burned off all my passion in yesterday’s meditation. Today, I’m emotionally drained. Wiped out. I know it probably doesn’t look this way from the outside, but some of these mediations take a lot of energy to write.

I just saw a photo of me (thankfully, I’m way in the background) in some promotional material for where I work. Everyone else looks fresh and young and happy. I look really old and fat and worn out. While I’ve got all this dynamic energy that sparks up in most of my “morning mediations,” today I feel like that picture (believe me, you don’t want to see it). I have this horrible feeling that’s how I look all the time.

I’m kind of reminded of the character Happy Hogan who first appeared in the comic book Tales of Suspense #45 (September 1963) with Iron Man. Marvel comics has “handsomed him up” quite a bit since those days, but back then, he was created for comic relief (along with Tony Stark’s then “mousy” secretary Pepper Potts). Happy rescued Tony from a race car crash and as a reward, Tony gave the out-of-work boxer a job as his chauffeur and personal assistant. Happy was always looking completely glum and “hang-dog”. Tony commented on it early in their relationship and asked if he was depressed. Happy’s response was something like, “Nah, I look like this all the time.”

I think I look like this all the time. OK, so I’ve never been a really attractive person, but I think this is more than age and carrying around a bunch of extra tonnage. I think I get tired of fighting God or fighting life or are they both the same thing? Problem is, that sort of fight is unavoidable. You only stop fighting when you die. Until then, it seems like it’s one battle after another, hammering away at something or being hammered at by something.

I try to imagine what it would be like to not fight. To relax. To set aside responsibility and duty, not just for a few minutes, or an hour, or when I’m asleep, but to really relax. Don’t say “vacation” because vacations are anything but relaxing. In fact, they’re harder work than going to work. Besides, even the most relaxing vacation in the world has to end sometime.

Paul spoke of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) but I haven’t found it yet. I suspect I never will.

My “morning meditations” are really more like “morning encounters” or “morning contemplations” or even “morning conflicts”. I sleep. Wake up. Drink coffee. Go to the gym with my son. Eat breakfast. Take a shower. Go to work. Somewhere in the rest of the day, the next morning’s meditation gets written depending on my available time and what I’m thinking about. I eat dinner. Go to sleep. And the cycle starts all over again.

If someone has this lovey-dovey, floating on clouds, easy-peasy relationship with God and faith that keeps them in a semi-divine state as they slowly sail through each day, I’d like to know about it. I’m probably not a good candidate for such a state, even if it exists, but sometimes, as fluffy as it all sounds, I think I’d like a piece of it.

We are representatives of Above. And as such, live two lives at once:

We are free-thinking, independent beings.

And we are no more than messengers of Above.

It is a play of opposites in a single being. An impossibility realized in true-life drama. Just the sort of thing in which the Impossible One Above delights.

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

Rabbi Freeman presents an idealized view of the thoughts and expressions of the Rebbe and thus of the Chabad, but I know there’s a reality behind Crown Heights in Brooklyn that isn’t anywhere near as pretty. That’s not to say anything against the Chabad as such, but to acknowledge that humans are humans and we can make a mess of things on the inside, even if the outside looks good.

My insides and my outsides seem to look the same, that is rather threadbare and lumpy. All the religious and motivational stuff on the web often seems empty to me because all of that “feel good” material seems so phony and unrealistic. Life is a struggle. You fight hard every day. You can only hope that food and sleep will rejuvenate you enough to face another day just like the one that came before. Somewhere in there, God is present, but who knows exactly where or when or if He’ll make Himself known or intervene in any meaningful way?

Between the “free-thinking, independent being” and the “messenger of Above,” there’s an ordinary (or sometimes I feel, sub-standard) human being who is just trying to stay alive and make sense the events of each passing moment. Making sense of life and contemplating the nature of God doesn’t happen as much as you’d think.

I get tired. Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing all this. I’ve also just been reminded again of how many Jews see Christians so…gee whiz.

Time for another cup of coffee and then back to work…

..and to try to find that last key that will open the lock to…who knows what?

Struggling with the World, Part 1

I’m not arguing for either the superiority or the necessity of a covenantal orientation to life for the realization of human responsibility and dignity. In thinking about Judaism, I cannot ignore the fact that atheists act with moral dignity and compassion in the world. I believe, in contrast to many contemporary religious thinkers, that secular humanism is a viable and morally coherent position. What I am claiming is only that neither the critique of halakhic Judaism found in the Christian tradition nor the moral critique found in Spinoza is convincing. There are many different approaches to human life that encourage initiative, intellectual freedom, responsibility, and the sense of personal adequacy and dignity. I am not arguing that faith is necessary in order to have these values, but only that faith in a covenantal God of Judaism does not have to contradict or undermine them.

The God of Sinai does not merely hand over responsibility for the mitzvot to Israel and then take His leave. He also commits Himself to permanent involvement in the history of the community…

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 8: “Rabbinic Responses to Suffering”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

I hadn’t intended to turn this into a series, but I find myself continuing to compare the relative merits of the moral and ethical positions of Christianity and, if not atheism as such, progressive secular humanism, which is the predominant philosophy of modern western culture. My previous missives on this topic are Collision, which is my introduction into why atheism holds such animosity toward Christians and Repairing Life which suggests one possible response.

That should have been the end of my reflections on “Religion vs. Atheism,” and it was from a Christian point of view, but I neglected to discuss how Judaism considers this dynamic. As with many things, there’s no single Jewish viewpoint (and I’m probably not qualified to write about this but I will anyway) so I’ll try to offer two: one from Rabbi Hartman’s above-quoted book and the other from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and Chabad.org.

Whenever someone asks me a question, I first have to think, “What kind of a box has this guy trapped me in?” Then I can deconstruct the box. If the box dissolves, there goes the question. If it doesn’t dissolve, I better listen up. The guy’s got a point.

Here comes one now:
“Rabbi, what was the Rebbe’s response to modernity?”

For at least two hundred years, Jews scrambled to find a response to modernity.

Today, there’s no longer much scrambling. Movements have stopped moving, firmly entrenched. But there was a time when Jewish creative genius generated a cacophony of responses to modernity: Reform, Orthodoxy, Zionism, Religious Zionism, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, Modern Orthodoxy, Renewal and more. Each movement had leaders who spent their years zealously articulating and re-articulating their particular response to the progressive, liberal, enlightened, modern world that came rushing down upon us, particularly after France beheaded its kings and smokestacks started belching into the sky.

Now, in Brooklyn sat a Jewish leader who built up a powerhouse movement that has transformed the face of Jewry worldwide. What was his response to modernity?

Gotcha. Neat little box. But it doesn’t work. What doesn’t work? The box: “Response.”

Again, as I mentioned in my other blog posts on this subject, I’m not trying to “prove” that religion is right and atheism is wrong or even to say that one group possesses an inherently greater moral response to life than the other (although from my point of view, religion should have the greater moral response).

I want to show that the issue can be as simple as how much or how little of themselves people choose to invest in their particular belief systems and and also demonstrate that these matters are far more complex than what we think of as mere “right and wrong.”

Rabbi Hartman’s position might be considered the more progressive of the two based on the quote I used to open this “extra meditation.” Rabbi Freeman represents the more conservative view. He suggests that historically, Judaism has responded to modernity by generating multiple variations of Judaism to adapt to the demands of progressiveness, but currently seems to be digging its heels in, so to speak, as representative of the Orthodox. But as we see from continuing to review Rabbi Freeman’s commentary, even this isn’t as two-dimensional as it appears.

Rabbi Freeman uses the dilemma of Children of Israel trapped between an advancing and vengeful Egyptian army and the uncrossable barrier of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14) as a metaphor for the struggle of Judaism to respond to liberal modernity.

The Children of Israel are stuck at the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian army is closing in fast. The Jews divide into four parties—four opposing responses to one situation, perfectly summarizing the orthodox responses of the modern era: The Just-Go-Back-to-Egypt response, the I’d-Rather-Drown-Myself response, the Get-Up-And-Fight response and the Get-Down-And-Pray response.

Response Today
Self-Drowning Immerse in a ghetto of Torah, and pretend the world does not exist.
Back to Egypt Give up on the world, on the future, or on trying to change anything. Just do what you have to do because G‑d says so.
Fighting Prove that we are right and they are wrong.
Praying Rely on G‑d to bring Moshiach real soon.

G‑d’s response? You’re all wrong.

“Why are you crying out to me?” G‑d demands of Moses. “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to keep going forward!”

No response. No reaction. Proaction. Take charge. You have a purpose, you’re going somewhere. Keep going.

According to Rabbi Freeman, the response of Israel to the demands of progressionism is to progress. Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning the covenant of Sinai and blending into the general cultural herd, which for a Jew would basically mean assimilation, but it doesn’t mean hiding or freezing in place, either. If the world moves, move with it, but don’t forget to take who you are with you and particularly, don’t forget to take God.

But the world of faith is always vulnerable, not just to tragedy and evil, but to how those elements of life are interpreted, and on some occasions, used against religious people by not only the atheists who blame all the world’s woes on religion (as if humanity weren’t capable of doing harm without a religious belief system to depend upon), but on our own doubts when “bad things happen to good people,” or when God is otherwise incomprehensible.

Rabbi Hartman continues on this point:

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of evil, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks. It is to identify the cluster of beliefs that supports a person’s will to persist in the face of tragedy and suffering. If the world I live in requires that I become overly vigilant because of the threat of danger striking at any moment, then how can I sustain commitment to a way fo life predicated on God’s covenantal love and justice?

How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s relational partners?

An atheist can dismiss such questions by dismissing God. The presence of tragedy, suffering, and evil can be accepted as conditions of a natural world filled with imperfect human beings. It can also be a world that, while imperfect, is struggling to develop toward a higher moral and ethical reality as indeed, progressivism strongly believes. Human beings then, establish and revise the foundations of our own morality, sometimes radically, as time advances and the concepts of rightness, mercy, and justice continue to evolve in societal consciousness.

But what about the covenantal Jew? How does he resolve or at least address this problem? We’ll pursue the answer to that and other questions in Part 2.

Splinters in the Soul

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”Genesis 32:23-29 (JPS Tanakh)

I wrote The Difference Between Night and Day as today’s “morning meditation” but I’m really dissatisfied with it. It’s too long, too unfocused, and just doesn’t say what I want it to say. In fact, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until I started reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ book God Was Not in the Fire this morning. Then in finishing up the first chapter, I read this:

The Jewish tradition recognizes that to be a human being is to perpetually ask questions, to wonder without ever fully satisfying our wondering. Frustrating though many of our deepest and most personal questions are, we cannot put them aside, no matter how hard we try. Judaism teaches, in fact, that we ought to not even try. Jewish tradition suggests that to be human is to wonder and to ask, to dream and to cry. To be human means resigning ourselves to the inevitability of not completely understanding the world in which we live, but at the same time committing ourselves to persisting in trying. Judaism does not demand that we have the answers; instead, it validates our struggles and encourages us never to give up.

Rabbi Gordis is defining not only Judaism but admittedly, humanity. Ironically, this isn’t how I experience Christianity. Christianity is the arrival at the answer that Jesus Christ ends all of our struggles of faith. In becoming “saved”, we are supposed to lay our burden down at the base of the cross and let Jesus pick it up for us. There is no weight upon our shoulders (supposedly) as believers and the church is the answer to everything.

I’ve never found that particularly satisfying. The church might say the reason Rabbi Gordis defines Judaism as he does is because Jews are without Jesus and without Jesus, they will always be missing something. However, I believe that even with faith in Christ, the church engages in a type of denial of experience and pretends that struggles of faith never happen to the “true believer”. If a Christian ever is tempted to “wrestle with God”, it is because our faith is weak and we have not taken our sorrows to the cross and “bathed them in prayer”.

And yet my entire existence as a person of faith is completely captured by Rabbi Gordis’ description, as the proverbial fly in amber (and this isn’t the first time I’ve used Jacob’s wrestling match to illustrate my thoughts). He continues:

Rather, being a Jew is about struggling to understand our place in the world, working to become more fulfilled human beings, and recognizing throughout that the process may be more important than the final product.

I suppose another way of saying that is the old traveling adage, “getting there is half the fun.” Actually, it’s like getting there is the whole point. Arriving will take care of itself. Even Paul, near the end of his life, said:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. –1 Timothy 4:6-7

He goes on to speak of the “crown of righteousness” that is awaiting him, but the whole point of his life wasn’t the final reward, but the race he ran against history and religion to carve an indelible notch in the substance of time that would allow the commandment of the Master to make the nations into disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) to be fulfilled. Although Paul’s struggle ended in Rome and he is now at peace, he paved the way for the endless struggles of countless generations of the peoples of the world to become reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.

Anyone who has an encounter with God in any fashion carries on that struggle today as we wrestle with God to try and understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and what we can do about it. The minute you arrive at a final conclusion and say, “this is it” and put down the burden, you have lost something. Sure, you may have established your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, go to church on Sunday, and celebrate Christmas and Easter, but you more than likely have a stale and lifeless existence. It’s like getting married, settling down into a pattern of life, and then completely ignoring your spouse, except for the niceities of asking for the salt across the dinner table or what movie you should see together on Saturday night.

If Christianity could more fit the description of Judaism offered by Rabbi Gordis, would that constitute “revival?” Rabbi Gordis in his book, attempts to re-energize “spiritual Judaism” but I read it as re-energizing “spiritual humanity”.

We are all struggling to find God and for those of us who believe we have had that encounter, we must never stop struggling. It’s the “wrestling match” that defines us, not who happened to win the match on any given day.