Tag Archives: studying

Hiatus or Something Like It

Walking outRabbi Meir Hagar of Viznitz related that one of the great chassidic rabbis was once praying with much enthusiasm. His evil inclination came to him at a moment he was praying with the height of fervor, and whispered in his ear, “How can you be so insolent as to pray in such a manner? Yesterday you did improper things. You are unworthy of such prayers.”

The righteous man was not thrown by the evil inclination and mentally replied, “It might be true that yesterday I have erred. Moreover, it is possible that tomorrow once again I might err. But right now I am in the middle of praying, so get away from me!”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Make the Highs Even Higher”

It is said that for every descent spiritually, there is an ascent. This blog and a good many other things are going into hiatus, or at least a significant slow down, for an indeterminate period of time which may be a few days to a few weeks, or even longer. Frankly, I’ve recently been reminded of my humanity and my fallibility (I came to this conclusion before my recent Nanos blog post, but the mess I caused didn’t help). I’ve always been concerned about putting my thoughts, feelings, and opinions about God, the Bible and everything out on the Internet, since I am only human, when the rest of the religious people in my space (and in all other religious spaces) in the blogosphere seem to be so “perfect” (not that anyone is perfect, of course).

I’m far from perfect. Very far.

I’ll miss the daily writing. I really enjoy it. But discussing theological issues should be less about personal enjoyment and more about enlightenment and truth. I told a friend over coffee last Sunday that I was stuck on the level of content as far as my faith goes. I like reading and writing about “stuff,” about opinions, and doctrine, and information.

But that’s not all that a life of faith is made of. A life of faith must be lived faithfully.

For however long I’m away, or however infrequently I visit, I bequeath the religious blogosphere to those of you who want it or need it. I’m going to see what life is like without living it on a daily basis. At one point, I thought blogging was a way to get closer to God, but now I see that it has become a barrier between me and Hashem, like many other things I have in my life.

Oh, just in case the “apostasy police” or anyone else is “concerned” by what my decision means, no, I haven’t lost faith or walked away from Jesus. I’m walking away from a public online discussion of my faith right now, thank you very much.

When will I be back? I don’t know exactly. I still have one more episode of First Fruits of Zion’s television program A Promise of What is to Come to review, and I know I’m going to watch it, but when will I write the review and post it for all to read? Soon I hope.

Even if I return to this blog in a few days or a few weeks, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll return to daily blogging.  It’s more likely, though nothing is decided yet, that I could just stop by every once in awhile and share a few thoughts or insights or even a review on an irregular basis. Just a brief, intermittent presence.

What will I be doing now that I’m not regularly writing online? Praying, reading, studying, pondering, meditating. Who knows what else? God knows what He wants of me. I just have to discover what that is and then do it.

Lord, Thou knowest that I am growing older.

Keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject.

Release me from the craving to straighten out everyone’s affairs.

Keep me from the recital of endless detail. Give me wings to get to the point.

Seal my lips when I am inclined to tell of my aches and pains; they are increasing with the years and my love to speak of them grows sweeter as time goes by.

Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.

Make me thoughtful but not nosy; helpful but not bossy.

With my vast store of wisdom and experience it does seem a pity not to use it all. But Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.

-found at Aish.com
“A prayer for those growing older”

Blessings on all who have shared in my journey thus far. May it continue by the will and grace of God.

Good Shabbos and Good Night.

I’m Not Who I Was

changing-courseDo not be dismayed by the hypocrisy of others, nor by your own inconsistencies. Our lives are all journeys through hills and valleys—no person’s spiritual standing is a static affair.

But the good each person achieves is eternal, as he connects to the Source of All Good, Who is infinite and everlasting. The failures, on the other hand, are transient and superficial, fleeting shadows of clouds, as stains in a garment to be washed away.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’ve written over 900 blog posts for “morning meditations” and 214 for my previous blog (which stopped being active in 2011) called Searching for the Light on the Path. That’s over 1100 blog posts that record my progressive journey of faith, attempting to discover my position along the trail that leads to God.

In all that time and in all those blog posts, my opinions and beliefs have shifted a bit; perhaps more than just a bit in some areas. I’ve explored and opened myself up to some concepts and investigated and shut down others. Some people who were my friends or who were at least friendly to me have dropped me like a hot rock as I’ve developed my understanding of God, the Messiah, and the Bible in directions that oppose their belief systems. Other people have opened up to me and shared their highly valuable insights when seeing that I am not trying to impose my will on others, but seeking to discover God’s will for me and the world around me.

I suppose that last part sounds a bit narcissistic but then again, no one blogs except from their own perspective and as a means of presenting that perspective to anyone with Internet access.

I haven’t been directly accused of this, but I remember one blogger accusing another of hypocrisy based on the changing of the second blogger’s perspectives over time.

But aren’t we supposed to change? Aren’t we supposed to grow? What would happen if you learned basic arithmetic but never progressed beyond that point? What would have happened if no one anywhere across history ever developed algebra, calculus, or trigonometry? What would have happened if the best telescope we had in the world was still on the level of the one created by Galileo? What if our best medical technology for curing fevers and multiple other ailments was to apply leaches to human beings?

Are you a hypocrite if you learn something new and it changes how you see things and how you think?

As Rabbi Freeman said above, “Our lives are all journeys through hills and valleys—no person’s spiritual standing is a static affair.”

It’s interesting that a religious person should be the one to say that because, at least in Christianity, after achieving a certain level of knowledge, the expectation (this is just my opinion, of course) is that we should stay “static” with “the truth.” I’m not denying that there is Divine and eternal truth in our universe. Our universe was created by such truth. But that hardly means we know everything that there is to know about God or faith or that we even know enough. Is it enough to answer some altar call or to raise your hand in church as a profession of your faith in Jesus Christ? Is it enough to be saved?

It seems that a lot of Christian Bible studies and Sunday school classes aren’t really designed to teach people new ideas or to help people explore uncharted territory in theology, but to continue confirming what everyone already knows. Earlier today, I reviewed a television episode produced by First Fruits of Zion describing the meaning behind the name “Jesus.” However, the information presented, though very basic from my point of view, was designed to be new and even a tad bit “revolutionary” to the traditional conservative Christian audience targeted by these programs.

iam-not-a-numberIf someone who had been raised and educated spiritually in a “typical,” “ordinary” American church saw this or some other episode of FFOZ TV, they would very likely encounter what for them would be brand new information about topics they thought they knew completely.

I recently reviewed Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. In the book, McKnight recounts a conversation he had with another Pastor about the meaning of the gospel. That Pastor too had stopped learning a long time ago and if he was studying at all, it was for the purpose of maintaining the pattern and level of knowledge he already possessed:

I replied, “A book about the meaning of gospel.”

“That’s easy,” he said, “justification by faith.” After hearing that quick-and-easy answer, I decided to push further, so I asked him Piper’s question: “Did Jesus preach the gospel?”

His answer made me gulp. “Nope,” he said, “Jesus couldn’t have. No one understood the gospel until Paul. No one could understand the gospel until after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost.” “Not even Jesus?” I asked.

“Nope. Not possible,” he affirmed. I wanted to add an old cheeky line I’ve often used: “Poor Jesus, born on the wrong side of the cross, didn’t get to preach the gospel.”

In my weekly conversations with my Pastor, I find myself challenged by a person who does study a great deal and who presents me with information I don’t possess which, in my case, is how traditional Christian theology, doctrine, and dogma works. For a Christian, I don’t know very much about how the formal “church” conceptualizes things. I often reference Jewish sources for my studies, both because I’m drawn to them and because they challenge my “Gentile” way of understanding God and faith. Both my Pastor and my studying help me grow, at least a little bit at a time.

We’re supposed to grow and we’re supposed to help other people grow. In the church (and in other Gentile-driven religious contexts based on the Bible), we have adopted a philosophy, not of growth, but of comfort. We want to be comfortable in what we think, feel, and believe. We don’t want to be challenged. Our day-to-day lives are challenging enough. We want to spend our Sunday services and Bible studies with people who think just like us, discussing things that we all understand in exactly the same way.

I know that sounds cynical, but it’s actually very human. All people who identify with a group that thinks, feels, and acts in a particular way relative to the larger environment want that. Christians want that, and religious Jews want that, and Hebrew Roots people want that, and progressives want that, and atheists want that, and everyone else wants that, too.

God is transcendent. He doesn’t fit in the little boxes we try to put Him in (if we are people who believe that God exists at all). Our hope, our goal, our journey should all be pointed in the direction of transcendence. We can never completely know the infinite God all in all, but we are tasked with approaching Him as closely as we can, knowing that it won’t be incredibly close.

Instead, we’ve reached an area of comfortable equilibrium and there we stay. It’s like two married people who behave more like roommates, including sleeping in separate bedrooms. It may be comfortable, but you’ll never experience passion that way.

The Rebbe would sit down with his students and say, time and time again:

The Baal Shem Tov taught that from every thing a person hears or sees in this world he must find a teaching in how Man should serve G‑d. In truth, this is the whole meaning of service of G‑d.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“All the World is My Teacher”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

icarus-seeking-lightIn Greek mythology, the wings of Icarus melted when he flew too close to the Sun and he fell, but we will freeze into complete inaction and be totally ineffectual if we stay away from the flames of wisdom and knowledge. Challenge involves risk and risk feels dangerous. Sometimes we accept a challenge and the danger and then we (seemingly) fail and fall, ending up not getting what we want. Moses accepted the challenge of leading the Jewish people through a desert for forty years at the behest of God, and in the end, he was denied entry into Israel. He failed the challenge.

Or was it a failure?

Chassidic teaching explains that this is the deeper reason why Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel. If Moses would have settled us in the Land, we could never have been exiled from it. If Moses would have built the Holy Temple, it could never had been destroyed. If Moses would have established the people of Israel in their homeland as a “light unto the nations,” that light could never have been dimmed.

If Moses would have crossed the Jordan, that would have been the end: the end of the struggle, the end of history.

G-d wasn’t ready for the end yet. So He decreed that Moses remain in the desert. But He did allow him to see the Land. And because Moses saw it, and because the effect of everything Moses did is everlasting, we, too, can see it.

At all times, and under all conditions, we have the power to ascend a summit within us and see the Promised Land. No matter how distant the end-goal of creation may seem, we have the power to see its reality, to know its truth with absolute clarity and absolute conviction.

We are still in the midst of the struggle. It is a difficult, oft-times painful struggle; but it is not a blind struggle. Moses has seen to that.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Land and See”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

building-the-templeAll that isn’t in the Bible, but let’s go with it for now. If Moses had entered the Land, would the Messiah have come? What would have happened to the people of the nations of the world? Would we all have been drawn to the light of Israel in the days of Moses? What would that have meant? Becoming gerim, “resident aliens” and then having our descendants being assimilated and absorbed into tribal Israel? That would mean anyone outside of the original Israelites and their descendants would have had to ultimately become part of tribal Israel to become Holy unto God. But what about the rest of us?

God wasn’t ready for the end, perhaps not because of what it would have meant for Israel but because of what it would have meant for the majority of the world. All those things midrash says Moses would have done will actually be performed by Messiah, Son of David. But Israel had to suffer because Moses didn’t enter the Land and instead died in the desert. That’s a horrible realization; not comfortable at all.

We won’t come to learn the reality of our existence in a world created by God if we allow ourselves to remain in a comfortable place. Moses died, and Joshua was challenged with conquering a nation. David founded Jerusalem but the task of building the Temple was left to Solomon. Israel fell into exile on multiple occasions, her Temple destroyed, her Land lost for centuries. The Messiah came and died. Then he rose. Then he ascended. And then he didn’t come back. Human history has been spinning out of control ever since, or so it appears.

What can we do? We can stop being comfortable. “Comfortable” is not the condition of our current world. We need to read, to study, to challenge ourselves, to change as we encounter each new spark of the Divine that has been left here for us by the Source of that fire. We’re meant to grow, to develop, and to act. How else can we prepare the way for the return of the King?

Mishpatim: The Boundaries of Knowing God

At the conclusion of Mishpatim – after almost an entire Torah portion that addresses matters not directly related to Mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah – Moshe is told: “Go up to G-d.” (Shmos 24:1) Rashi explains (Commentary of Rashi ibid.) that this took place on the fourth of Sivan, prior to Mattan Torah.

The Midrash notes (Shmos Rabbah 12:3; Tanchuma, Va’eira 15) that at the time of Mattan Torah , two things were accomplished: “Those Above descended below” – “G-d descended on Mt. Sinai,” (Shmos 19:20) ; and “Those below ascended Above” – “And to Moshe He said: ‘Ascend to G-d.’ ” (Ibid. 24:1) Man ascended to G-dliness.

“A Tale of Two Portions”
Commentary on Torah Portion Mishpatim
The Chassidic Dimension

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”

When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. The Presence of the Lord abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.Exodus 24:12-18 (JPS Tanakh)

Regardless of the differences between the world’s wide spectrum of religious disciplines, they share one, basic, common goal: to understand God. How we conceive of God and the mechanics and meaning behind the process of finding Him (or her, depending on your tradition) varies tremendously across different cultures and across the panorama of history, but in the end, we want and even need to connect to something that is larger than us, and to find out why we are here and where our place is in a universe.

In Judaism, this process has two parts: God descending to man and man ascending to God. Both of these parts happen at the end of Mishpatim, and the climactic moment of this week’s parashah, in some sense, mirrors the desires of every person of faith. This is why we study the actions of the Creator: to learn the nature of God. It is also why we study people who have had personal encounters with the Creator…because those people have learned something of the nature of God. I like how Rabbi Tzvi Freeman expresses the thoughts of the Rebbe in this matter:

Science is the study of those things G-d thinks about,
by one of His thoughts.

Torah is the study of G-d thinking.

We do not have the privilege of ascending Sinai as God has descended upon it, and the ability to encounter God within the smoke and the flames, but like my previous description of how Moses encountered God, we also have two parts to our own process of approaching an understanding of Him: we can study the universe and we can study the Torah. As Rabbi Freeman points out, the first is studying what God thinks about and the second is studying God as He thinks.

I’m not discounting prayer at all and prayer is a vital component in establishing and developing our relationship with the Creator, but we are not only called to experience God in a spiritual and emotional sense, we are also called to experience Him in thinking. We need to understand, at least to the limits God built into the human mind.

This is why the Torah has manifested as a document or series of documents that is tangible and lends itself to study and multiple layers of interpretation. It’s why humanity has spent countless centuries pouring over every tiny bit of text and arguing with ourselves and each other over meanings both obvious and arcane. This is why the Bible can be read in your native language, pointing the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and still allow God to be a complete mystery in every single aspect.

God seeks to dwell among mankind, but our ability to “know God” is something we struggle with all our lives. As human beings, we often make the mistake of thinking that God is knowable in the same way his creations are knowable. We mistake how we can learn what God’s thinking about by studying His universe (which we don’t understand all that well, either) with understanding the process of God thinking by studying the Bible. And even in studying God’s “thought process,” our ability to truly comprehend more than a tiny fraction of anything at all regarding God, is extremely limited. The world is filled with commentaries (including this one), in bookstores, in libraries, in seminaries, and particularly on the Internet, with a stream of endless text purporting to explain the nature and character of God, including that which is secret and that which may only be known to a favored few “prophets”.

But what do we know?

One who is unqualified can never assume that he understands the depths of halachah like a genuine posek. It is astounding how even the most apparently obvious halachos can sometimes be much more complex than they appear on the surface.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Transfer of Holiness”
Siman 153 Seif 1

A certain man was assumed to be a kohen for many years and redeemed many bechoros. One day he was confronted with an unexpected visitor to town who claimed upon his arrival that this kohen was really no kohen at all! To the surprise of everyone in the town, the man who had been assumed to be a kohen for so many years admitted that he was not a kohen. People wondered what the halachah was in such a case. Was this man still considered a kohen? Did all the many bechoros that he had redeemed need a new pidyon? Although they figured he was now like a yisrael in every regard since presumably he had nothing to gain by accepting this man’s testimony — and this is the halachah whenever
someone believes one witness—they decided to consult with a competent posek.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The False Kohen”
Arachim 34

Studying TorahHere we see two things. We see that not everyone is qualified to interpret the Bible and, even more so, to plum the depths of halacha related to Jewish understanding and ritual observance, and we also learn that one may successfully misrepresent himself as a person who has a special religious or teaching authority when in fact, he does not. Beyond the fact that there are false prophets, charlatans, and religious hucksters in the world who have some sort of religious ax to grind, there are also people who are seemingly well-meaning and sincere, but who are also naive or just plain ignorant about how complicated it is to study the text and arrive at meaningful conclusions. There are people who feel they have a special calling to arrive at these “meaningful conclusions” and to teach them to others, perhaps because of some emotional need, when that special calling is only an illusion. Anyone can create a web site or a blog (even me).

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from honest study and exploration on the path that leads to holiness, (which is, after all, what I’m trying to do) but there’s a difference between being one pilgrim on the road who asks questions and reaches for the Heavens, and someone who is a true posek and tzaddik who has spent all of his or her life and resources in acquiring the knowledge to fulfill a position that only God can assign.

I am the former and not the latter, but I still need to ask the questions, record my observations and, if necessary, accept (hopefully) gentle rebukes from those who are authentically learned (as opposed to the scores of folks out there who only think they are) as to where I’ve made my mistakes.

And I’ve made mistakes.

And I will no doubt continue to make mistakes as I attempt to learn, throughout the rest of my life.

But it’s worth it if, in the end, I am allowed to even approach the tiniest thread trailing from the hem of the garment of God.

But, as I said, there are limits.

The above allows for an extended interpretation of a famous statement of our Rabbis: (Bechinos Olam, sec. 8, ch. 2; Ikarim, Discourse II, ch. 30; Shaloh 191b.) “The ultimate of knowledge is not to know You.” The simple meaning of this statement is that a person should realize the limits of his intellect, and therefore understand that knowing G-d is impossible, for He transcends all limits. There is, however, an allusion to the concept that when a person has fully developed his mind, he appreciates that even the concepts which he knows possess an inner dimension which transcends intellect. And going further, one can infer dimensions of G-d that are infinite, internalizing this knowledge to the point that it shapes our personalities.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
After Sinai; Making the Torah a Part of Ourselves
Commentary on Mishpatim
“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 896ff; Vol. XVI, p. 242ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 243ff.

As I’ve already mentioned, our limits are built in, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal we can learn, as long as we are mindful that we do have limits and know where those limits are set. Some men are great scholars, while others will only rise to the level of a humble and seeking student. Some women have been appointed by God to be learned sages, while others may only reach the most elementary levels of Torah comprehension. This does not make one of us better than another in God’s eyes, or make the learned more loved and cherished by the Creator than the struggling disciple. It only means that we have our roles and our boundaries which have been set for us as God has set the limits to the sea and the sky.

Of course, we must make certain that the limits we acknowledge are those set by God and not by us. Just as an overly ambitious or arrogant person can elevate himself to a station higher than God intended (and eventually fall an equally great distance into a spectacular abyss of defeat), so can a person fail to rise to the level God has apportioned for them, not recognizing that they can seek and learn and understand more than they have imagined (or more than someone else told them they were allowed). Seek the level that God has set; learn to see when you still have miles to go on the trail and when you have reached the point where God has said, “no further”.

But even when you have reached that limit, realize that it’s not truly the end.

Knowledge of G-d in this manner anticipates and precipitates the coming of the Redemption, the era when “A man will no longer teach his friend…, for all will know Me, from the small to the great.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

“Knowing, and Not Knowing”
-Rabbi Touger

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

-John Muir, Scottish-American environmentalist and writer

Good Shabbos.