Tag Archives: study

Chayei Sarah: Oil for the Lamp

“Now Avraham was zaken / old, well on in days, and Hashem had blessed Avraham bakol / with everything.”

Genesis 24:1

Why does our verse say that Avraham was “well on in days” rather than “well on in years”? R’ Yaakov Yosef Hakohen z”l (1710-1784; foremost disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov z”l; known by chassidim as “the Toldos” after one of his works) explains:

The Gemara (Shabbat 153a) teaches: Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die. But, since no one knows when he will die, repent every day.” King Shlomo likewise said (Kohelet 9:8), “At all times, let your clothes be white.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “This may be likened to a king who announced that he would hold a feast, but did not announce the time. The intelligent ones among his entourage dressed-up so as to be ready on a moment’s notice, while the fools did not prepare.” [Until here from the Gemara]

-Rabbi Shlomo Katz
“Beginnings and Endings”
Hamaayan, Volume 26, No. 5
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Torah.org

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

Who is wise? The motto for the Boy Scouts is “Be prepared,” so, given the lessons we see above, it would seem that we would be wise if we learned from the sages who provided those teachings. We can learn from every person, but it is better to learn from those who have something useful and edifying to say.

And yet, how often do we ignore wise teachings until it is too late? How often do you put off changing the batteries in the smoke detectors in your home? How often do you let the needle on your car’s gas gauge get down to “E” before looking for a gas station? And while it’s impossible to predict an earthquake, if you knew a hurricane was coming, how long would you wait before trying to leave for a safer location or stocking up on food and water for yourself, and batteries for your radio, and then shuttering your windows against the coming storm?

No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the victims of hurricane Sandy, but rather, I’m saying something about we Christians. How often do we take “being saved” for granted, even when we know that a “storm” is coming? How often do we take our relationship with God for granted and think we know everything we need to know about Him?

I saw this yesterday on Facebook:

Going to be a very interesting year ahead. I started going to a Bible study with a friend of mine, yesterday was our first class and let me just say complete shock. They are studying B’RESHEET (Genesis) and in the new members class the leader was telling us how she has been a Christian for over 40 years, joined this Bible study 5 years ago and it was the first time she ever read the ‘Old Testament’. Many of the other women commented that they too had not read anything other than the Psalms and had no idea where this thought of ‘twelve’ tribes came from. How very ,very sad.

Isn’t that a little like waiting until the last minute before getting oil for your lamps, and then getting locked out of the “marriage feast?”

OK, a lot of Christians don’t really consider the Old Testament to be that important. A lot of churches bill themselves as “New Testament” churches and that’s pretty much all they feel they need. However, since all of Christ’s “source material” from Scripture was before the Gospel of Matthew, it might be wise to study what he must have studied (We sort of assume that Jesus just “knew” the Bible forward and backward, but as a child and young adult, no doubt like other Jews, he attended synagogue on Shabbos, heard the sacred texts being read, and studied as would be expected of a young Jewish lad from a humble family in the Galilee).

We do know that he knew a few things and learned a few things growing up.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.

Luke 2:46-48 (ESV)

It is true that studying does not automatically assure that a person will grow wise, but lack of study will almost certainly result in a person being ignorant. Christianity and Judaism have one core document that provides us with a connection to those who established our faith and who can tell us the story of man and God: the Bible (“Bible” has different definitions depending on whether you’re Christian or Jewish).

But it’s not that simple.

To define sola scriptura without academic terminology might sound something like this: The Bible is the only authority in the believer’s life; it is never wrong about anything; it touches on every aspect of life; it needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted; it never disagrees with itself; it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence; and it applies to everyone in every situation.

-Jacob Fronczak
“The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura”
Messiah Journal, Issue 111 (pg 47)

That sounds good as far as it goes, but let’s see what else Pastor Fronczak has to say.

I only use the example of translations to illustrate the fact that in a very practical sense, the Scriptures in their original languages are, for most Christians, not enough – tools such as translations, concordances, the Masoretic vowel points, and commentaries are required in order to understand the text. Of course, the goal is to understand the original text, which in itself is not an objection to the doctrine of sola scriptura – until one realizes that every translation, every commentary, and even the textual tradition itself are all based on traditions along with the divine written revelation. It is simply impossible to get away from these traditions and study the Bible in isolation. (Fronczak, pg 52)

It seems that studying the scriptures to acquire wisdom is getting harder or at least more complicated all the time.

I’ll probably write another “meditation” sometime soon expanding on other points in Fronczak’s article, but essentially, he is saying that we cannot study the Bible in any useful manner without employing (hold on to your hats) the “traditions of the (Christian) elders.”

“The traditions of the elders” has received a lot of “bad press” in Christianity because of the perception that both ancient and modern Jews allow “the traditions of men” to have authority equal to or even greater than the Bible. The Christian response, particularly among Protestants, is to say, “let scripture interpret scripture,” which is the short definition of sola scriptura. That means, “no traditions are allowed,” just the Bible itself. However, Fronczak’s article makes it abundantly clear that the early church fathers employed a great deal of tradition in even canonizing the books of the New Testament, and Catholicism, even to this day, states that the Bible can only be understood through its traditions.

Imagine the shock of realizing that the same is true among all modern-day Protestant churches as well. We just don’t choose to say it in those words.

Remember that quote from Pirkei Avot about a person being wise if they learn from everyone?

And what about the commentary on Abraham and its apparent companion lesson about the ten virgins? How can we learn from everyone and how can we be prepared to learn what we need to learn in order to comprehend what the Master is teaching us, and thus draw closer to God?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

-Yoda (Frank Oz – voice)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In some sense, learning what’s important and what takes us on the path toward wisdom means “unlearning” concepts and doctrines that we discover aren’t useful in our lives. That isn’t always easy when such information is directly attached to words like “sacred” and “holy” and “divine revelation.” It would be like a person who learned as a child that God was a giant, old man with a long white beard who sits on a huge golden throne on a cloud in the sky. Now imagine that child is Jewish and then he grows up and learns that according to Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, God doesn’t even have a body and is not to be considered a corporeal being? If the fellow was still young enough, that might come as quite a jolt.

Now imagine being a woman of middle age who has been a Christian for forty years reading from the book of Genesis for the first time. Taking it a step further, imagine the same woman in a group of women studying the Old Testament, accessing the classic interpretations for Genesis to try to understand anything at all about who Abraham was, where he came from, why God made a covenant with him, and what that covenant means to both Jews and Christians today.

If we are to take the lesson from Avot at face value, then our class of women might want to “unlearn” a few things about the Old Testament and learn, not only from extra-Biblical Christian commentaries about Genesis, but from a few Jewish ones as well.

Certainly Jesus understood Abraham from a completely Jewish context and framework. If we want to understand Jesus, we must understand what he understood.

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

-Matsuo Basho

So we unlearn what is not useful to us and then start learning from a wide variety of sources, seeking to understand God (as best we can) and who we are in Him. How do we know when we’re “prepared enough?” Five of the ten virgins kept “flasks of oil” with them for their lamps so that when the bridegroom came, they were ready to light them, even if it was at midnight. How do we know when we’ve studied enough so that we have “flasks of oil” at hand?

Let’s look at it another way. Studying, learning, understanding, are all active processes. You can’t bottle the stuff and put it on a shelf for a rainy day. It’s like continually replenishing the oil in lamps that continually must be burning. This makes sense when compared to another parable of the Master about we Christians being the light of the world (see Matthew 5:14-16) and how our light must be placed where everyone can see it burning all the time.

Our “lamps” will never be filled to 100% capacity where we can then stop tending to them. We are prepared when we’re always preparing; when we’re always studying, and learning, and discussing, and pondering, and repenting, and praying, and…you get the idea.

In each journey of your life you must be where you are. You may only be passing through on your way to somewhere else seemingly more important—nevertheless, there is purpose in where you are right now.

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

Or in the words of my generation, “Wherever you go there you are.” We should all consider ourselves “a work on progress.” We’ll never be complete. We’ll never be “finished” or “done” or “perfect.” As long as we live, we must move forward. As long as we’re breathing, there’s someplace else to go, something else to learn, another person we need to meet.

And God will always be with us, as long as we continually seek him, and walk by the light of our lamp.

Good Shabbos.

Va’etchanan: Love, Live, Pray

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

Deuteronomy 3:23-25 (JPS Tanakh)

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:1.) explains that when God fulfills a person’s prayer, it can be either by virtue of their merits or, if they have no merits, He does so gratuitously. Even though Moses was certainly righteous and could have supplicated God by virtue of his good deeds and Torah study, he chose not to. Instead he pleaded that God not judge him as He judges the righteous (indeed, Moses did not consider himself to be worthy at all), but rather, that he fulfill his wish of entering the Holy Land only as a gratis gift.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“The gift of prayer”
Wonders From Your Torah

How religiously observant Jews view prayer can seem very different from the Christian perspective. We Christians don’t have the concept of having “merits” or praying by the “merit” of our ancestors or our historic holy men and saints (except perhaps in Catholicism, but I’m hardly an expert). Generally, we are taught that when we pray, we all pray for God not to judge us but to be merciful and gracious to us out of His kindness and compassion, just as Rabbi Ginsburgh says Moses prayed.

However, without realizing it, we in fact do pray in the merit of just one holy man, our great tzaddik, and we were taught to do so.

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. –John 14:13-14 (ESV)

A too literal interpretation of this verse has sometimes resulted in some Christians engaging in the so-called “name it and claim it” theology and then wondering why praying in the name of Jesus Christ didn’t give them everything they named on their wish list.

But then, they weren’t thinking about how Jews conceptualize prayer and praying as disciples in the merit of their…of our Master.

And as we know from the situation of Moses, not all prayers are answered, at least in the way we want them to be answered.

Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain — the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated. And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days. –Deuteronomy 34:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)

It is said that when God ended the life of Moses, He did it very gently, as one might kiss a friend, and so God was with Moses all his life and to the end of his life, and beyond.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, at that place and time where Moses was praying to God to be allowed to enter into the Land of Israel at the head of the tribes, that it didn’t occur to him that he could have “supplicated God by virtue of his good deeds and Torah study.” I believe (and this is just my humble opinion) that Moses pleaded to God for His grace and mercy, asking for a gift and realizing that, in the face of an Almighty, Infinite, and Ultimately Creative God, that Moses had no merits at all to offer. He was as humble (Numbers 12:3) as all human beings are in the presence of the Throne of God.

And God answers us as He answered Moses, not only by His mercy and grace but by His justice and His will, for God is God and we are but His servants.

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. –Job 1:21-22 (ESV)

How many of us could have everything taken away from us; everyone we have ever loved, and still “not sin or charge God with wrong?”

It’s a crazy world and sometimes I let it get to me. I pray for a saner world and one in which, if it doesn’t understand a life of faith, will at least tolerate it. It seems like the prayers of Moses, that my prayers are in vain.

But that’s unfair since, like Moses, I can’t see the really big, big picture. I have no control of what happens outside of my one, small life and certainly will have no control over anything that happens once my life ends.

But it is important for me to stay on course, if for no other reason than for the sake of my sanity. That’s part of why we pray…so we don’t lose our way amid the seemingly endless distractions that are constantly screaming at us.

But from a Jewish point of view, that’s also why we should study.

The Vayechi Yosef of Pupa, zt”l, would rouse people in his own special way to focus on making set times to learn and keeping to them. “Just like the body needs to eat regularly and cannot maintain a healthy existence without food, so too the soul must have regular learning which is what gives it nourishment and vitality. This can be compared to a city where a rampant disease begins to spread. The medical establishment quickly vaccinates everyone in the city from the disease. In this manner the problem is neutralized. Similarly, Torah is a spiritual elixir of life. One who learns Torah every day vaccinates himself from being dragged down by all the negative influences of his day. Both the impurity he must deal with at work and what is in our streets can be overcome only through dedicated Torah learning. There is no other way to overcome the yetzer hara.

“This explains the statement in Niddah 73 that one should not read ‘halichos,’ goings, but rather ‘halachos,’ laws. As is well known, whenever the Talmud tells us not to read in a particular manner, this means that for some reason the verse cannot be read that way. The Gemara is telling us that one cannot read ‘halichos,’ that is he cannot manage in his daily comings and goings—his mundane business and interactions—without ‘halachos.’ It is only one who learns Torah and especially halachah every day that can get along in everyday life without being dragged down.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Comings and Goings”
Niddah 73

Rabbi Ginsburgh connects, through means that are highly esoteric, praying for a gift from God to entering the Holy Land to the Mashiach finally being “able to pass over the Jordan and enter the Holy Land to complete his mission of redeeming the Jewish people.” Although as Christians, we cannot arrive at the same set of conclusions based on the scriptures, it’s not a bad connection and perhaps there is some hidden merit in his words (I base this on the meditations Redeeming the Heart of Israel, Part 1 and Part 2).

What we can see is that the end of our prayers and even the end of our lives isn’t the end of God’s interaction with the world and His plan for the redemption of Israel and the nations. I don’t know that I’ll be around to see it all happen, but I do know that I have some small part of the plan (though I can’t imagine what it is right now). If I can borrow my direction from both Christianity and Judaism, in order to keep my focus, my compass must point to some very simple things. To study, to love, and to pray.

It’s not about what God does and doesn’t give us or how the world seems to be developing in the short run, it’s about God being with us as a companion on a journey. It’s about taking the time to enjoy the scenery, to breathe, to let ourselves feel His presence and indulge in His providence.

For just like Moses from the viewpoint of Rabbi Ginsburgh, someday we’ll cross the Jordan and enter our land of promise; our land of love, life, and peace.

Good Shabbos.

Questions You Can Never Ask In Church

There is a Yiddish saying that is familiar to many: “One doesn’t die from asking a question.” This expression is a pithy way to explain to someone who has questions that having a question — or many — is no big deal.

As one gets older and wiser, he has a broader perspective and realizes that questions are a part of life and that we make choices despite questions all the time.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Missing Husband”
Kereisos 11-1

I had coffee after work with a couple of guys yesterday. That’s actually kind of unusual for me since I don’t socialize very often, but this was a somewhat unusual situation. Those of you who have been following my blog for awhile know that one of my “issues” is my lack of fellowship with like-minded believers. You have probably read my discussion about why I don’t go to church. These two fellows are more or less in the same boat as I am. We are all believers, but through one process or another, we find ourselves without a congregation to which we can belong. Maybe we’re too independent or idiosyncratic or something.

So over coffee at Moxie Java, we discussed why we were meeting in the first place. We hadn’t brought our Bibles and we didn’t have a specific plan or agenda for our meeting. The most we had settled on before getting together yesterday was that we wanted to have a meeting and talk. But what about?

We came up with a number of reasons why we were more alike than unalike, and why we don’t seem to fit into a traditional church setting. One of the reasons was that we ask a lot of questions.

You might not think this is a big deal, but I know from my own experience that it’s not a good idea to ask a lot of questions in church, or at least, you shouldn’t ask questions that don’t have canned, pre-programmed, Christian answers. But we were discussing things like the Deity (or lack thereof) of Jesus and whether or not there really is a Trinity, and whether the third Temple would be a real, physical structure built by men (I think so, but someone else didn’t) or something more “spiritual.” These are questions that would probably raise a few eyebrows if you discussed them in adult Sunday school after services. They might even get you quickly escorted to the door by a couple of ushers with a strong “suggestion” never to return.

That’s the difference between how I see Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is about always having the right answers and only asking questions that map to those answers. Judaism is about always asking all kinds of questions and then struggling with the answers, maybe coming up with half a dozen possible responses, and then arguing all of them around back and forth. There’s no sin in wondering exactly what makes Jesus divine and what his relationship is with “God the Father,” but you might not get that feeling if you asked those kind of questions in a church.

But if you don’t ask questions, then you don’t learn. And if you don’t learn, then your relationship with God drops into a deadend rut and never goes anywhere for years and years.

The rebellious child who questions everything sits in a place beyond the one who has nothing to ask.

If the rebellious child questions, it is because it touches him, it says something to him. Perhaps it even bothers him.

But a perfectly capable human being who has no questions about Torah and G-d — he is stuck in his place. Perhaps he is a good religious Jew who does good deeds and never sins. But there is no sense of the spirit, of the meaning of life, of transcendence.

He is stuck in Egypt and knows of nothing higher.

—at the second Seder, 1965

Chronicled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inquisitively Challenged”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I was discussing this matter with a Pastor on his blog the other day, and his response was that the issue wasn’t Christianity vs. Judaism, but west vs. east. He said that the eastern churches tended to very much encourage question asking and wrestling over difficult issues. The western church tends to be more “goal-oriented” and likes conclusions rather than conundrums. That may well be true. I don’t know. I do know that the traditional Yeshiva model of learning is to argue opposing positions and “posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes.” (from the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man)

broken-crossSo there we were, three guys sitting around drinking mediocre coffee and occasionally having our conversation being drowned out by the latte machine, asking questions, posing problems, and generally discussing matters that would “cross a Pastor’s eyes.”

But it felt good.

Part of getting close to God is meditating upon Him and His awesome, mighty works and wonders. Part of getting close to God is prayer. Part of getting close to God is reading the Bible and studying the Torah commentaries of the ancient Jewish sages.

And part of knowing God is getting together with a few other guys in a coffee shop in southwestern Idaho and talking about Him, asking all the questions we can’t ask other people, and hoping we get at a few answers, or better yet, a few more questions, that surprise and challenge us.

Because if we can’t find a way to get closer to Him, we’ll always be too far away.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. –Psalm 73:25-28 (ESV)

We’ll get together again next Thursday after work and see how it goes. Maybe, I’ll have a good question to ask. I hope no one comes up with just one answer.

Practicing Stillness

On the other side of ecstasy lies a painful emptiness. On the other side of bitterness lies joy. Where one goes, the other must follow.

In the ecstasy of understanding lies the gnawing pain of a new frontier of ignorance.

In the agony of yearning lies the ecstasy of love.

In the ecstasy of prayer lies the agony of smallness and distance before the infinite light.

There is no sweet song that is not equally bitter, save that which is shallow and meaningless.

He formed His world from delight, and so must share in its bitterness. Until the time when darkness will shine.

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

In yesterday’s morning meditation, I started to change the direction of the theme I had been addressing: one of fellowship and community. In my previous blogspot, the overarching theme I addressed was questioning my religious assumptions. I had been immersed in a One Law congregation, but a number of questions had come up as to whether or not this theology was valid in relation to the Bible and the will of God. For myself, I determined it was not, but it took a year of active and sometimes painful research, reading, and writing to come to that conclusion.

Now here I am again, questioning my assumptions.

One of the assumptions I built this current blog upon was the one that said I needed a different community of faith and that it should include my wife. As I have already said, that assumption proved to be false in part, and I’ve had to abandon it. Now, I’ve decided to accept whatever condition I am in relative to a life of faith as the one where God wants me and not try to force my wants, needs, or desires on my situation. So here I am beginning day two of “learning acceptance.”

My quote from Rabbi Freeman paints a picture of dualities. With ecstasy comes pain. With bitterness comes joy. With understanding comes ignorance. I’ve been trying to fight, and claw, and punch my way through what I saw as the barriers between me and what I thought God wanted, but like so many other religious people, I confused what I want with what God wants. Sometimes you just have to be still, and know that God is God. (Psalm 46:10) I suppose there are times to fight, but this probably isn’t one of them.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. –Matthew 5:38-42 (ESV)

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. –Romans 12:18 (ESV)

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. –Philippians 4:12-13 (ESV)

I used to think all of the “peace” being discussed in these lessons was invoked through supernatural means. I’ve known almost no one in the community of faith who has such a peace, at least sustained over the course of their life. Sure, I’ve seen people have a momentary calmness, but it was always possible to disrupt it given a sufficient amount of stress. Even I have had two identifiable moments in my own life when I knew God had given me a kind of peace that was absolutely amazing, as if peace were a blanket and I could just wrap myself up inside of it. And each time, it lasted about a minute.

PrayerRecently though, I’ve been told that I need to find a way to let go of the worries and the anguish over the things I can’t control and the things that, when looked at objectively, don’t really matter. I know, easier said than done. How can I tell what really matters and what doesn’t? That’s practically a full time job. And even being able to determine that, how do I stop worrying about these things?

I know what you’re thinking.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. –Matthew 6:25-33 (ESV)

Religious platitudes aside, this is also easier said than done. How does one operationalize “stop worrying?” Just “do it?” That’s a great advertizing slogan for Nike shoes, but it’s a little more difficult to put into day-to-day practice. Of course, some Christians out there will use this opportunity to say that I don’t have faith, as if they were wielding a blunt instrument and gleefully striking me about the head and shoulders. I suppose that might be satisfying to those folks who don’t let themselves be anxious, (or who pretend that they don’t worry so they look cool to others) but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to me.

But let’s look at the lesson of the Master, and what was taught by the emissary Paul from another point of view. Let’s assume it’s not just a matter of faith and an effect of the supernatural. Let’s assume (yeah, I do that a lot) that it’s a matter of practice, too. In the world of psychology, it’s called cognitive restructuring or “you are what you think.” The Bible says this as well.

For as he thinks in his heart, so is he… –Proverbs 23:7 (AKJV)

There are all manner of ways to learn to stop worrying over the things that don’t matter, and they all require a certain amount of practice and discipline. If I get upset over how people drive around me as I commute to and from work, it doesn’t help because I can’t control the other drivers. All that happens is I get myself worked up. If I get upset over my lack of community among the people of faith, it doesn’t help because I can’t control other people in other communities. All that happens is I get myself worked up and I write a lot of blogs. If I have no control over a situation, does worrying help? According to the Master as he taught in Matthew 6, no. As he said (v 34), “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Maybe being alone with God is not such a bad thing:

God is a refuge of strength for us, a help in distress, very accessible. –Psalm 46:2 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

I spent some time in the Psalms this morning and realized, in the end, all people all over the world will acknowledge God’s Sovereignty, no matter who we are or where we happen to live.

Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah

God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a maskil!

God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted! –Psalm 47 (ESV)

Solomon, son of David, wrote of his own laments in Ecclesiastes, so I’m not the first to confront my faith with my humanity. He also provided this conclusion.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. –Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (ESV)

The prophet Micah said it like this:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Since this is a morning mediation, I think it’s appropriate to end this message of hope thus:

This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. –Psalm 118:24 (ESV)

Amen.

Understanding the Infinite Scroll

One year there was a drought and the price for food rose exorbitantly. In Frankfurt, some Jews literally could not put bread on their table. Rav Avraham Avish, the Av Beis Din of Frankfurt, zt”l, literally gave every penny he owned to help the destitute during that year. One student wondered how this could be halachically permitted. “Didn’t we learn that it is forbidden to give over twenty percent of one’s property to charity?” he asked.

Rav Avraham Avish rejected this claim out of hand. “Although you have learned you still do not grasp how to understand a sugya in depth. It is true that in general one who gives over a fifth of his property to tzedakah violates a rabbinic prohibition, but that is irrelevant in a year where there is no food and people are endangered. To save a life, we even desecrate Shabbos which is much more stringent than any rabbinic decree!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Not more than a Fifth”
Arachin 28

For the Christians reading this, and perhaps for some Jews, the meaning of my quote “off the Daf” today may not seem very relevant, but I posted it above for a single, important reason. There’s a sentence that teaches us something we need to constantly keep in the forefront of our thoughts:

Although you have learned you still do not grasp how to understand a sugya in depth.

It means that you can be smart and even well educated, and still not be able to look at something in the way that’s necessary or in sufficient depth to be able to understand it. We see this all the time in the various sciences, especially as we examine the history of scientific discoveries and knowledge. First the Earth is flat and now it’s round. First the Earth is the center of the universe, and all heavenly bodies revolve around us, now Earth revolves around a mediocre star off to one side of our huge galaxy. First you cure a fever by applying leeches to drain bodily fluids, now you give the person antibiotics to cure their infection.

As we investigate our world, we learn, but at each point in our journey of discovery across the long stretch of history, we thought we knew exactly what we were doing and what was going on. We couldn’t have possibly imagined that the world wasn’t flat or that applying blood-sucking parasites to our bodies really wouldn’t cure a fever or other types of ailments.

And although a student of Rav Avraham Avish understood that the general principle is to give only up to one-fifth of your income to charity to avoid bankrupting yourself and failing to support the needs of your own family, he still didn’t understand the underlying foundation behind the principle that would allow the Rav to contribute his very last dime to starving people, and still not violate halacha.

But what’s all that got to do with us?

Has it ever occurred to you that you could be wrong?

It probably has, especially on those occasions when you were sure you were correct in some matter of judgment, or thought you could spell the word “Mediterranean” without looking it up. OK, we’re human and we can make mistakes. It happens to the best of us and most people have learned to admit it.

Almost.

The conversation in my extra meditation from yesterday turned into a mini-debate on the letter to the Hebrews found in the New Testament. Since this letter has always been a bit of a puzzle to me, I’ve found that I’ve been at sort of a loss as to how to respond to the traditional supersessionist interpretation of it. Fortunately, many people have responded to me, both in blog comments and via email, to suggest different references, and even have sent me information to help illuminate my path in this particular direction. One such piece of illumination is as follows:

Unique among all the scholars I consulted, Charles P. Anderson sees Hebrews in a Jewish communal context. It is as if all the other commentators have been wearing sunglasses, and only he is wearing clear lenses. All the others see the recipients of Hebrews as Christian individuals of Jewish background rather than as a group of Jews who see themselves in the context of their community with each other, with the wider Jewish world, and with their people throughout time. His perspective is in my view the right one, his argument convincing and illuminating. Throughout my research on Hebrews I was longing to find someone who saw things this way. Finally, toward the end of my research, I found Anderson’s brief chapter.

Charles P. Anderson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I am reproducing here a large body of quotations from his article ” Who are the Heirs of the New Age in the Epistle to the Hebrews?” Especially when read against the background of common assumptions concerning the Letter to the Hebrews, his perspective stands out as something fresh, and to me, thrilling. I would hope that all who read his article and these quotations from it would be moved to say, “Why didn’t I see this before?” The answer to that question is “Because of the Christian exegetical tradition.”

-from a paper presented by Stuart Dauermann
commenting on Charles P. Anderson’s article
“Who are the Heirs of the New Age in the Epistle to the Hebrews?”

Carl Kinbar was kind enough to send me a PDF of the appendix to Dauerman’s paper which includes the above-quoted statement. This is the point I’m trying to drive home, both about understanding Hebrews and understanding the broader Biblical context.

It’s not that easy.

We may think it is easy because we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of years of traditional Christian interpretations to fall back on, and we’ve concluded that the correct way of understanding Hebrews is to say (gasp) that the Law of Moses was replaced by the Grace of Christ.

Period.

But like anyone who gets into a particular habit that may once have been helpful, we have to ask ourselves if the “habit” of our traditional way of understanding Hebrews (or any part of the Bible) really the best way we’ve got right now?

That’s a tough one. It’s difficult for me to say there is one and only one correct way for to understand the Biblical text. True, from God’s point of view, there probably is one correct, objective understanding, but we are mere humans and don’t enjoy God’s infinite wisdom and vision. It’s also possible that at least some parts of the Bible were never intended to mean the same things to all populations across all generations. After all, the Jews don’t keep slaves any more, so are the laws in the Torah about slavery still “eternal truths?”

This is what bothers me a little about blog posts that are titled Reading Acts 15:21 Correctly. While Derek Leman no doubt believes how he interprets this passage in the New Testament is the correct interpretation (and I don’t necessarily disagree with him), it’s obvious from reading the different comments in response to his blog post, that not everyone sees the same thing in that single verse of the Bible. If we can disagree about a the meaning of a single sentence in the Bible, how much more do we all disagree on the letters of Paul and the product of our dear letter writer to the Hebrews? How can any one person say, “this is what such-and-thus means in the Bible, forever and ever?”

Adding to this puzzle is the concept in Judaism that the Bible can only be interpreted correctly using accepted tradition. Sure, as the Daf above explains, there are endless ways to “dig deeper” into the text, but you don’t just “shoot from the hip” as far as understanding Biblical or Rabbinic halacha is concerned. I suppose Christians could say the same thing about their (our) standard interpretive traditions, but we have a problem (technically, so does traditional Judaism, but I’ll set that part aside for another time). Our problem is that our entire perspective on interpreting the Bible completely ignores the viewpoint and mindset of the original writers, who were first century Jews, steeped in “the hashkafah of the Tanakh.” Without said-viewpoint based on a first century Jewish worldview, it is likely we may have missed a step or two over the past 2,000 years in terms of New Testament scholarship.

The deal is, we who call ourselves Christians might need to stop and consider for a moment what we believe about the Jews and why. If our perspective on Jews and Judaism includes the necessity to declare Jews, Judaism, and the Torah of Sinai obsolete, and results in us believing that Jews who continue to worship and live within a classical Jewish framework are being rebellious and sinful, we should think about the possibility of a reasonable alternate explanation. The explanation should be one that would make sense to our first century writers and scholars and should not require that God abrogate His promise that the Hebrews would be a “peculiar people” before Him forever.

I say “reasonable” because there are just billions of “pop” theologies out there on the web that “tickle the ears” but have little substance or validity (although they can weave a multi-layered tapestry of mashed up Biblical cross-connections confused enough to “cross a Rabbi’s eyes”). They’re like cotton candy for the brain; tastes really sweet and initially invigorating, but containing zero nutritional value. However, as my little snippet from the paper written by Stuart Dauermann shows, solid Biblical research, although unconventional from a traditional Christian viewpoint, exists and provides a valid and compelling alternate interpretation to understanding the New Testament text, including the Book of Hebrews.

Obviously, I’m in no position to present that alternate interpretation of Hebrews in any detail at the moment, but I just wanted to show that it exists and should be seriously considered by any Christian who has an honest desire to place truth and a correct understanding of the intent of God and the Apostolic writers ahead of our old, comfortable, Gentile-friendly theologies. I’ll be writing on this topic again in the months that follow.

Oh, in case you were curious how our “Story Off the Daf” ends up, here’s the rest. It’s also an interesting “test” in terms of determining the identity of the Messiah.

In Yemen nine centuries ago, life was especially hard due to harsh decrees. In the middle of these challenges to the community one man secretly claimed to be Moshiach, soon to bring the longawaited redemption. Although many Jews were convinced, others were unsure and put the matter to the Rambam, zt”l. The Rambam sent students to test this man and discern if he could possibly be Moshiach. When they returned they began to tell the Rambam everything that they had observed. “This man disburses every cent he has on charity.”

The moment the Rambam heard this he immediately interjected that this man cannot be Moshiach. “It is clear that a person who violates our sages’ command not to give more than a fifth to charity is not our redeemer. Although it is permitted to give more to redeem one’s sins, Moshiach should not have any sins to redeem!”

I’ll wrap this up by quoting from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s interpretation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which illustrates an additional challenge we encounter in understanding the Word of God.

This Torah we were given is not of the world, nor is it something extraneous to it. Rather, it is the hidden essence, the primal thought from which all the cosmos and each thing within it extends. It is not about the world, it is the world—the world as its Creator sees it and knows it to be.

The sages of the Talmud told us that the Torah is the blueprint G-d used to design His creation. There is not a thing that cannot be found there. Even more, they told us, G-d and His Torah are one, for His thoughts are not outside of Him as our thoughts are.

But He took that infinite wisdom and condensed it a thousandfold, a billionfold, and more, into finite, earthly terms that we could grasp—yet without losing a drop of its purity, its intimate bond with Him. Then He put it into our hands to learn, to explore and to extend.

So now, when our mind grasps a thought of Torah, thoroughly, with utter clarity, we grasp that inner wisdom. And at the time we are completely absorbed in the process of thought, comprehension and application, our self and being is absorbed in that infinite wisdom which is the essence of all things. We have grasped it, and it grasps us. In truth, we become that essence.

studying-talmudThis is a very mystical understanding of the “life” of the Torah and how in Chasidic Judaism, it transcends the physical scroll and exists as both the blueprint of the Universe and the means of its creation. Since we in Christianity understand that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and that through the living Word, “things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,” (John 1:3) we also have a mystical understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and creation, so perhaps the simple text on paper we see when we read our Bible and try to interpret it is not so simple after all. More than that, perhaps we cannot allow ourselves to limit that Word or that Messiah to what our Christian tradition says it all means, even if it makes us uncomfortable and stretches our understanding.

To drink “new wine,” we must prepare “new wine skins.”

Good Shabbos.

The Sufficient Summit

Today’s amud discusses one who saw a dream and was unsure what it means.

When Rav Raphael of Barshad first began to search for the ideal way to serve Hashem, he heard that learning the Zohar Hakadosh was a great segulah for attaining fear of heaven. He began learning a great deal of Zohar but when he reached towards the end of the Zohar Chadash, he was dismayed. The Zohar warns there against being like Bilaam, who was a complete fool despite his great knowledge of serving Hashem.

Rav Raphael said to himself, “If one can know so much and still be a fool, perhaps I should focus instead on the Shulchan Aruch so that my study will bring me to action.”

He started learning the Shulchan Aruch in depth, but when he got to Orach Chaim #231, “All of one’s acts should be for the sake of heaven,” he again felt that something was missing.

“Are all of my actions really l’shem shomayim? Perhaps I should spend more time on mussar?” Rav Rafael therefore added study of the Shelah HaKadosh to his schedule.

He was so immersed in the Shelah that he would learn it at every opportunity. But after a while he again felt as if something was missing. So he traveled to the famous Rav Pinchas of Koretz for advice.

Rav Rafael poured out his heart. “I want to serve Hashem in truth, but everything I have tried has been insufficient!” He was so distressed that he actually fainted.

When he came to, Rav Pinchas said, “If you stay with me, you will come to truth.”

Three years later, Rav Rafael dreamed that he was playing cards. Although his hand started out with black cards, they all turned white in the end. When he shared his dream with Rav Pinchas, he was given a positive interpretation.

“When you first came to me, you were blackened with worry and chumros, and this prevented you from serving Hashem in truth. But now you are white with virtue and purity!”

Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Magnificient Dream”
Siman 130 Seif 1

This sequence of events reminds me of Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation which we’ve recently read about in Genesis 40:5-23 and particularly in Genesis 41:1-32. In both instances, the interpretation of dreams changed the course of people’s lives. When Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the ultimate result was that Joseph was transformed from prisoner to ruler, the civilized world was saved from starvation, and the Children of Israel were gathered to Goshen in Egypt to sojourn in peace…and after Joseph’s death, to become slaves.

But what does the dream of Rav Raphael of Barshad tell us? Even the interpretation of Rav Pinchas of Koretz does not reveal exactly why Rav Raphael went from being “blackened” to “white with virtue and purity”. Was there something wrong with what he was studying or was he just studying too much? Some Christians might use this parable to say that the Jews in general study too much outside the realm of the Bible and that all we need is the Holy Spirit and the Gospels to guide us. However, if that’s true, then why do Christians study the Bible at all? If true, then why is there such a vast body of Christian Biblical scholarship available? Maybe it’s not the studying at all, as we’re about to discover.

Yesterday, I wrote a very short and simple meditation called God is in the Backyard. Not that God is literally hanging out beside the flower bed or the swing set, but that He is near at hand to all who call upon him.

The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them. –Psalm 145:18-19

By using the quotes above, I’m not disdaining serious study. Quite the opposite. I advocate a life of peering into the Word as well as the wisdom of the Sages in order to gain a clearer glimpse of the glory of God. In a sense, that was the goal of Moses as well. Moses, more than anything, wanted a greater understanding of God (according to the Sages, he didn’t literally want to see God’s face) and God granted Moses as much as a human being could comprehend.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23

Studying is one way we get to know God better. It’s not a perfect way, as Rav Raphael discovered. Sometimes study can take on a life of its own and is unknowingly substituted for the target at which we are aiming. Rav Raphael was afraid he was missing out. He tried to create a comprehensive lifestyle of study that would “cover all the bases” but he was never satisfied. Rav Pinchas showed him that there is more to our desire to know God than can be found in study (though the parable does not say exactly what transpired between Rav Raphael and Rav Pinchas during the three years described). Perhaps it wasn’t the course of study at all but Rav Raphael’s worry and anxiety over not being sufficient. Maybe his course of study never changed, but his attitude toward it (and toward God) did.

We are all insufficient in our relationship to God. Not that we shouldn’t continue striving for greater closeness, but we must come to accept that our own efforts will never be enough to close the gap. For some, this is an excuse to stop trying and to let God do all the work. For others, it is the motivation to try and obey God “just right”, as if the commandments in the Bible were some sort of checklist, but that may be what caused Rav Raphael’s problem in the first place (and if so, Rav Raphael had the wisdom to realize this wasn’t working). Neither approach is the true answer. The answer I believe Rav Raphael discovered was to let his effort be his effort and to let God be God. Release the anxiety surrounding whether or not you are doing enough or doing it just right, and just do what you can do. How can we feel the joy of a relationship with God if we are constantly fretting over all the tiny details? I believe in seeking His joy, we will sail to ever greater heights, though I doubt we’ll recognize it until after we’ve arrived.

We all struggle as we climb a difficult trail but the reward of reaching the summit, as we will someday, is worth the cost. However during the effort of the journey, there are rewards enough as well if we take the time to look for them. Let every day be the summit and the reward in reaching the final destination will take care of itself. Another way of saying it is Dayenu.