Tag Archives: suffering

Where is God When We Need a Miracle?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sovereignty of God lately. There’s always the classic question that if God is all-powerful and completely good, why does He allow pain and suffering in the world?

yom kippur katanMy traditional answer is that we live in a broken world. From a Christian point of view, the world is broken because of “original sin”. From that point on, not only was every single person born automatically with a “sin nature,” the natural tendency to do evil, but the world itself was flawed and out of synch with God’s original intent.

Further, people weren’t capable of fixing themselves, let alone Creation all by themselves. Only by coming to faith in Jesus could we as individuals be saved, and only by Christ’s second coming can the world be saved.

The Jewish point of view is a bit more nuanced, at least as I’m able to understand it. From that perspective, Adam and Havah (Eve) were created with a natural tendency to do good. They could still do evil if they chose (free will) but they naturally did good. When they chose to disobey God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, their tendencies to do good and evil were balanced within them. In other words, it was just as likely for them to choose evil as to choose good (I’m sure I’m not getting this exactly right, and I expect helpful comments will be appearing by the by).

Jews also don’t believe they don’t need an intermediary to atone for them. In ancient days, when the Tabernacle, and then later the Temple stood, once a year on Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer atonement for all Israel. There was also an offering for the atonement of the seventy nations (representing all humanity).

In modern Judaism, each individual provides for his own atonement by sincere teshuvah (repentance).

(You can read more about Judaism’s views on original sin at Jewish Virtual Library and Aish.com>)

Also, while the Messiah is expected to rise, redeem Israel, conquer all her enemies, and bring a time of peace and justice for the world, the concept of Tikkun Olam or “repairing the world,” states that each human being can repair just a small part of the world by doing good. Jews do this by performing the mitzvot (commandments), and Gentiles do this by also performing the mitzvot incumbent upon us (and we have a lot fewer commandments to perform compared to Israel).

But so what?

arguing with godGod is all-powerful and He is not bound by the laws of nature or subject to any limitations at all. If He so desired, couldn’t He fix everything right now?

I suppose He could.

We’re supposed to trust Him. We are supposed to bring all of our worries and woes to Him and accept the promise that He will take care of us.

But plenty of devout Christians and Jews die of cancer every day. Plenty of devout Christians and Jews have starved to death, have been persecuted, and you can’t tell me that of the six-million Jews who died in Hitler’s Holocaust, all of them were sinful and none of them were deeply devout and devoted to Hashem.

But if that’s true, how can we depend on God? Maybe He’ll arrange for someone’s cancer to go into remission and maybe He won’t. Maybe He’ll save our loved ones from suffering and death, and maybe He won’t. How can we know?

We can’t. That’s the faith part. And even when He doesn’t help, we are supposed to trust that whatever happens is for the best? It sure doesn’t feel like the best, does it?

On the other hand, maybe we’re missing the point.

Let’s take hunger and starvation as an example. According to Action Against Hunger, 1 in 8 people worldwide won’t get enough to eat today. The number of hungry people in the world exceeds the combined populations of the U.S., Canada, and the E.U. And about one million children will die this year from hunger-related causes.

Why does God allow this horrible suffering to go on, and on, and on?

If God didn’t create humanity as sentient, self-determining beings with free will, He probably wouldn’t. He probably wouldn’t have to. The world would most likely work the way He designed it to work.

But He did create us and we are here and we all make choices.

We could choose to make hungry and starving people a priority and help them, or we could choose to believe other things are more important.

Oh sure, most of us don’t have the skill sets to even attempt to cure cancer or establish world peace, and most of us as individuals can’t stop world-wide hunger, but each individual can choose to feed just one hungry person.

We can donate time, food, and money to our local food bank. We can give money to charities who send food to nations experiencing a famine, we can choose to do a lot of things to help those less advantaged than ourselves.

jewish charity
Photo: Reuters

We can choose to do good, and even doing a little bit of good makes the world a better place. I think God expects us to do that. I think that’s why God doesn’t just transform the world into a perfect place with a miracle.

We are supposed to be the miracle. We can’t save the world, but we can help fix a small piece of it. Imagine what the world would be like if we all fixed one small piece of the world. It still wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be better.

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What I Learned in Church Today: God Suffers Our Pain With Us

Today in church (as I write this), Pastor preached on Acts 27:1-12 and Paul’s rather “stormy” trip toward his final destination (in more ways than one) Rome. What I found most useful in today’s sermon were the notes at the conclusion. Normally, this part of the sermon doesn’t “float my boat” since these notes are usually an attempt to take ancient events, spiritualize them, and anachronistically apply them to everyday life in 21st century America.

But this time, I decided to see if these notes could be applied to my life. There are three of them.

Do you believe that God is sovereign over all the storms in your life?

As opposed to what? No, really. As an abstract concept believing what I believe about God, my immediate answer has to be “yes,” but it’s more complicated than that. It’s one thing to say that “God is in control” and that “we win in the end,” and another thing entirely to receive a diagnosis of cancer (no, I don’t have cancer) or that your child was in a serious car accident and is in ICU (don’t worry, my kids are all fine).

Then, no matter how much you “think” God is sovereign over every single detail of your existence, suddenly the pit of your stomach drops out and at least momentarily, panic sets in with the vengeance of a really angry Grizzly Bear. Sure, given enough time, you can regain your emotional equilibrium and refocus on God, but for those first few seconds or minutes (or longer), unless you are a terrifically spiritual person and always totally in tune with God, you’re going to lose it.

Here’s the first thing I wrote down in my notes when Pastor asked the question:

Yes, but that doesn’t mean I still won’t drown.

Here’s the second thing I wrote down.

We don’t have an absolute view into God’s plans for us as individuals.

God can be absolutely sovereign over the storms in our lives and we can still lose a leg in a car crash. We can still end up with a child in intensive care. We can still die a long, lingering, painful death.

God’s sovereignty contains no guarantee at all that our lives won’t be painful and end tragically. When we think of God being “in control,” we really mean that God would never let anything bad happen to us. But just look at Paul’s life. God let everything bad happen to Paul.

But the key is, no matter what happened, Paul still served God faithfully, with an almost supernatural focus (I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek here) on Yeshua (Jesus) as the author of his faith and the “perfecter” of his existence, both in this world and the one beyond.

Which brings us to Pastor’s second question:

What are you doing to learn to trust God in the storms of life?

I remember a scene from the film Finding Nemo (2003). Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) and Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) are inside of a whale, basically hitching a ride to Sydney, Australia. The water inside the whale starts to drain. As usual, Marlin senses disaster while Dory is willing to trust. Marlin is hanging onto some part of the whale’s insides to keep from falling back into the throat. Dory translates the message from the whale.

It’s time to let go.

praying at the kotelI think that’s what trusting God is about, but it’s best to learn to trust him before your life turns to dog poop. While you still have the time, pray with an especially focused Kavanah for an encounter with God. Strive to draw nearer to Him and plead that He reveals Himself to you before you need Him. I promise that if you don’t do this now, you will be doing it once you need God’s help more than anything you’ve ever needed in your life.

Last question:

Do you realize that God is able to use the storms in your life to give guidance to others?

As first, I didn’t read the to give guidance to others part and just saw the question as asking if I realized God could use the storms in my life. Then I realized what was really going on.

Had they trusted in God and followed Moshe, the entire nation would have gone into Eretz Israel led by him. The Holy Temple would have been built, never to be destroyed; the people would have sat, every man under his grape vine and under his fig tree, never to be exiled; and the still longed for, final redemption under God’s chosen anointed would have come. But they didn’t trust and they didn’t obey. So the exodus from Egypt remained eternal, but the entry into the Land was to be transitory.

-Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz
Megillas Eichach (Lamentations), pg 34

If all of the twelve spies Moses sent into Canaan (Numbers 13, 14) had given a positive report instead of just two, obeyed Moses, and obeyed God, the history of Israel would have been written quite differently.

But they didn’t and history unfolded as it did.

The same is true of Israel in the days of Jesus:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Matthew 23:17-39 (NASB)

If Israel had repented in the days of Herod’s Temple, Yeshua would have initiated the Messianic Kingdom immediately, the Romans would have been defeated, the Temple would have been preserved, there would have been no exile, and King Messiah’s reign of peace, mercy, and justice over all of the world would have started and be with us to this very day.

But they didn’t, and untold suffering has resulted.

In the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) gave this sage piece of advice to Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley):

How you face death is at least as important as how you face life.

Regardless of how God provides and what God allows and how God disciplines, your circumstances are less important than how you respond to them. Consider how Israel is responding, not to just all of the rockets Hamas keeps throwing at her, but how the rest of the world is mistreating Israel, believing she is disproportionately responding to these terrorist acts simply by defending herself.

The whole world is watching Israel and waiting for her to blink. So it is true when anyone who professes faith in Christ, especially when we are under duress.

Fortunately, Pastor said that he’s hardly perfect in this area and that there have been plenty of occasions when he’s been stressed and yet taken it out on his family rather than having greater trust in God. There’s a sort of myth, both inside the Church and outside of it, that says when a Christian is having a particularly tough time of it, he or she should be completely calm if their faith in Jesus is solid. Only a failure of faith results in a Christian who cries or yells or begs.

Like I said, it’s a myth.

Father, if you’re willing, take this cup from me…

Luke 22:42 (NASB)

This is Jesus at Gethsemane pleading with God the Father to take away the cup of his crucifixion, his agony, his desperate suffering from him.

This is Jesus saying this. This is Jesus not wanting to suffer. This is Jesus acting just like the rest of us. But the second half of the sentence tells the tale.

…yet not my will but Yours be done.

But he still begged. Flesh and blood, human right down to his DNA Jesus still begged that the cup be taken from him.

There’s no shame in anguish as long as there’s also trust.

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NASB)

If Jesus wasn’t immune, certainly Paul wasn’t either. How many of his Psalms did David dedicate to his own pain and suffering, withering before a Holy God with his flesh melting and his bones turning to dust?

Save me, O God,
For the waters have threatened my life.
I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched;
My eyes fail while I wait for my God.
Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head;
Those who would destroy me are powerful, being wrongfully my enemies;
What I did not steal, I then have to restore.

Psalm 69:1-4 (NASB)

We struggle all our lives between our faith and our humanity, between Divine glory and human weakness. The spirit is willing but flesh…oh the flesh is very weak. Even the best of us, when put to the test, are like a snow cone in a blast furnace.

anguishTo know that God is sovereign and to trust in Him in adversity doesn’t mean you have to be superhuman and it doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. It means when 99% of you is in full panic mode, some tiny voice in the back of your consciousness is still crying out to God, not in terror but in faith, that even if you should drown or be incinerated in the next half-second, if you are not supposed to live (in this life) with God, then you will certainly die in His Presence and live with Him in the resurrection.

Living with God in suffering is like being a terminally ill child. You know you are going to die and you know your Mom and Dad love you very much. But you also know they can’t save your life. You’re still scared and you still don’t want to be away from them, but you know as long as they love you, you’re not alone.

God’s sovereignty in our lives when we suffer doesn’t (necessarily) mean God will stop the suffering. It means He will never abandon us as we are suffering and in some sense, He suffers, too.

The night when hope was enveloped in darkness was about to begin, so God came to Jacob ‘in the visions of the night’ to show him that Jews might be exiled from their land, but they could never be exiled from their God.

-R. Zlotowitz, pp 46-7

When they were exiled to Babylon, the Divine Presence was with them.

-Megillah 29a

And so He is with us.

Waking Up Alive

In school, from an early age, Joe learned how stuff works. Joe learned how pulleys work, how electrical circuits work, how cells divide and how neurons process thoughts. He learned that the whole world is a big machine, and we are all little machines inside it.

Joe graduated college, got a job, got married, had kids.

Then Joe had a crisis. He needed help. He picked up books of today’s most popular genre—self-help. Lots of them. The books told him he has a soul, he has purpose, that’s there’s something beyond just being a pleasure-seeking machine.

Joe felt better. He was able to go back to work, keep his marriage and enjoy his kids.

There are many things the world needs. It needs nothing more than a soul.

Joe needed to know he has a soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why the World Needs a Soul”
from the “Chassidic Thought” series
Chabad.org

Some people don’t know this. Some people will never learn this. Even for people who do know that they have a soul and that life has a broader purpose beyond the day-to-day grind, any pain that is strong enough or lasts long enough will knock that information right out of awareness.

And all that you’ll be about to think or feel is the pain.

Fortunately, Joe was able to overcome that, as were the equally fictional Julie and Sasha in Rabbi Freeman’s tale (which I highly encourage you to read in its entirety since it makes many good points).

Yesterday, I talked about how experiencing chronic emotional and spiritual pain can make it very difficult to connect to your purpose and to cling to the awareness of your soul in any meaningful way. Actually, that kind of pain makes it hard to even get up in the morning and care about whether you have a purpose or not. No matter how hard the soul strives to reach its Creator, the weight of a thousand, thousand failures, disappointments and criticisms presses the soul back into the dirt like the hand of a thoughtless child crushing a bug.

Yesterday, I also said this:

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?

Is God watching when we’re about to surrender to the final abyss and does He see how tiny and fragile the flicking spark of our soul is under the oppression of darkness and hopelessness? Is He waiting for our ascent after the descent as well? Is He waiting in vain?

It is said “that which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.” But that assumes whatever is trying to kill you will succeed. What if it just hurts instead?

“What is unique about a Jewish martyr,” wrote Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, “is that he would rather stay alive.”

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

You feel the Divine spark growing weaker within you. The light dims. Suddenly, you realize that you are in complete darkness. Your lungs labor for air and then there is none and your chest sucks in only dirt and dust and gravel. You close your eyes in anguish one last time welcoming a final oblivion.

But the next morning you wake up and realize you’re alive. On days like that, I still say:

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for restoring my soul to me with compassion.

Abundant is Your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

Somehow, the weight is still there but it’s lighter, just light enough to allow my chest to expand, let my lungs fill with air, let me exhale, and then inhale again. I open my eyes and I can see light. I sit up in bed, put my feet on the floor. And I can stand.

Why am I thanking God for being alive?

Because I have a soul and regardless of what the rest of me feels like, my soul is part of God and she (in Hebrew, words have gender and the Hebrew word for soul is feminine) thanks her maker for the restoration of life and the ability to continue in the service of the King.

Regardless of what the rest of me feels.

The need for meaning in our personal lives, the sense of responsibility for the ecology of our planet and the respect for the dignity of every human life—all these are sacrosanct today. Which is a good thing, because without them we would have destroyed ourselves in the century just past.

Yet they are entirely hollow. More than that: they are in utter conflict with the materialist concept of reality that we are taught in school and practice in the laboratory.

In short, we suffer an aching disconnect between our brains and our soul.

Our soul believes life has purpose and meaning, while our brains consider our bodies to be no more than a walking water-bottle of biochemical reactions. We teach small children to cry over the future of the elephants, the pandas and the blue whale, that they have a responsibility to save the planet and sustain it, and then we teach them that all this arrived due to a big bang and a series of accidents. We will not tolerate any voice that suggests the superiority of one family of human beings over another, all the while reducing this creature to a string of DNA in which serious differences have already been uncovered.

Nothing could be more precarious.

The world, existence, everything, is more than just how we feel at any given moment. No matter how much life can sometimes hurt, who we are and that we’re alive is more than just our circumstances, our history, our “excess baggage,” and how we perceive our lives. The world needs a soul because it needs a purpose. God built that into each and every human being, whether we choose to recognize that fact or not. Once we do, we’re “trapped” with that knowledge and we become aware of the Divine that lives within our secular, ordinary flesh. We are more and different than the sum of our wetware and our programming. The part of us that thanks God every morning for waking up alive means we can suffer what we think will kill us but still arise the next morning a living martyr.

Life means more than getting our way or winning or losing the endless arguments we find in the blogosphere and in social networking venues. It’s important to step away from the monitor and the keyboard and to realise that life doesn’t primarily occur in the Internet. It occurs in the connection between man and God, even if we only cry out to Him that it hurts, oh my does it hurt.

I recently read an article written by a fellow named Dr. Harlan Weisman called My 11 Months of Kaddish. It’s too long to quote the whole thing here, but it’s the story of a man who, in saying Kaddish for his deceased father everyday for 11 months, discovered himself, who he is as a Jew, and ultimately the relationship between his soul and God.

But he couldn’t do it until his father died and he began his bitter grief. However, Dr. Weisman didn’t really start to live again until the eleven months of saying Kaddish were over:

Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.

I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions.

I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.

In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.

Sadness, grief, regret, self-loathing, depression…something’s trying to kill us, but our soul won’t let us die. We’ll just continue to suffer under the weight of a life we never wanted and cannot control. But something has to die for us to live again. Something must be extinguished, and we must let go of it before we realize that it is time for it to end.

Someday, we’ll pray to God, not just because we need Him, but because we want Him, too. Because being with God is the most natural and normal thing for us to do…like waking up in the morning, like breathing.

Our soul will never stop needing God. But we must realize that the rest of us needs and wants Him, too. Then we can stop simply existing in our suffering silence. Then we can begin to wake up alive.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart

Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem is the One and Only. You shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources. And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart.

Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (Stone Edition Chumash)

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

While many Christians firmly believe that the teachings of Jesus replaced the teachings of Moses, we see here a clear and compelling illustration that not only did Jesus draw what he taught from the Torah, he created the rock-solid foundation of everything he taught from the Torah and specifically the Shema, the most holy of all the Jewish prayers.

I’ve written about this before. I’ve written that loving God cannot be divorced from loving other people and if we say that we do love God with all of our hearts, then we must love other people in tangible ways, providing for the needy, feeding the hungry, showing compassion for the grieving.

But is behavior all that God commands?

This week’s reading contains “Shema Yisrael” — “Hear, oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” [Deut. 6:4] And what is the next verse? “And you will love HaShem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The commentaries explain that this commands every Jewish person to be so consumed by love of G-d that he or she is prepared to give up his or her last penny, or, in fact, his or her life…

But how can the Torah demand that a person love? How do you require emotion?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“For the Love of G-d”
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’ethanan
ProjectGenesis.org

How can God command us to experience an emotion for Him? How can God actually command us to love Him? I can see how He can command us to exhibit various behaviors or refrain from other behaviors. Feed the hungry. Don’t carry a grudge. But love? We know when we love someone, but it’s not as if my wife or children can actually order me to love them. I just do.

One answer is to consider “love as a verb.” That is, instead of focusing on that warm and fuzzy feeling that is sometimes associated with romantic love for example, we can focus on what we do that results from that feeling. Now take it a step further. Don’t wait for the feeling. Just start behaving in a loving manner by doing all of the things that indicate love.

Rabbi Menken continues:

There are two ways to develop an emotion like love. The first is to appreciate everything that has been given to you. Gratitude towards a person, such as a parent or spouse, makes you love them more, and so to with G-d.

The other goes still deeper — and, at its root, offers one reason why Judaism involves so many Commandments. When you do something for someone, that in and of itself instills love for that person in your own heart. Parents, especially, see every day that love in the heart is enhanced by love in action, by investing energy and effort into a child.

Whether between man and man or man and G-d, each and every day we are offered countless opportunities to choose to follow G-d’s Will. And when we follow His Will with a deep understanding of His love for us, and motivated by our love for Him, then that causes us to love Him more.

How do we love God? As it turns out, the feeling may not always come before the action. Yes, we may experience a sense of gratitude when we realize all that God has done for us and in turn, respond by experiencing the feeling of “love” for Him. More often though, our response to God is not a feeling but an action. In this case, since there’s nothing we can really do for God since He has no needs and for God, nothing is missing, we show love for God by showing love for people.

This is how God can command us to love Him and this is why Jesus fused the two commandments of loving God and loving others together in such a way that they are always joined.

The more we obey the commandments, the more we show love for other people, and thus, the more we show love for God, using our emotions, our spirit, and our tangible resources.

A few days ago, I mentioned that for a Jew, studying Torah was an act of loving God and as Rabbi Menken says:

The Sages tell us that “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” When we study G-d’s Torah, we observe His Commandment to do so, we perceive His incredible wisdom, and by doing so with love, we increase our love of G-d and His Torah at the same time.

While Christians do study the Bible as a way to learn more about our faith and to draw closer to God, we don’t typically conceptualize the act of study, either alone or with a group, as an act of love.

Maybe that’s a good idea since if we did, we might be less motivated to actually get away from our books and our computers, and actually do something for somebody else. And after all, there are enough pundits, religious and otherwise, spouting off in the blogosphere or in social networking venues such as twitter and Facebook (and gosh, did I just describe myself?).

On the other hand, studying is by far, the safer option. Here’s why.

At times there is so much suffering in the world that a sensitive person finds it difficult to tolerate. The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik, applied the following Talmudic statement as his advice for such people in such times: “He who wants to live should act as if he were dead.”

There are times when human suffering is so great that a person who feels the suffering of others will simply not be able to continue living. While we have an obligation to feel the suffering of others, we should protect ourselves from overdoing it and destroying ourselves.

At times, said the Brisker Rav, we should adopt an attitude as if we were no longer alive and only then will we be able to exist.

-Moadim U’zmanim
Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.257
Aish.com

HomelessIt isn’t easy to suffer. It’s also not easy to watch someone else suffer. Yes, there are things that we can and must do to alleviate the suffering of others, but let’s face it, we can’t always help. If someone is suffering from terrible cancer and the sometimes worse effects of chemotherapy treatment, what can we do? We can clean their house, cook food for them, do their yardwork, drive them to medical appointments, but we can’t miraculously cure their cancer or make the hideous side effects of chemo go away. We can pray and pray with all of our heart and soul that God will provide a complete physical and spiritual healing from Heaven for this person, but often, we don’t see that healing arriving anytime soon or at all, at least not in the matter that we desire.

So we should stop feeling? We should stop caring? Even if we could do that, and even if that would protect our own emotions, it would also stop us from expressing our concern for the living and the dying. How can we do that, just go through the motions of helping as if we were a machine?

Should we then stop helping because it is too painful or, Heaven forbid, because we might feel that our help isn’t appreciated enough?

Don’t regret good deeds when you end up suffering. In every business there are negative aspects. When you do acts of kindness, realize in advance there are likely to be some unpleasant aspects and accept them.

Realize that when you help others you are helping yourself. You will find it easier to tolerate difficulties.

-Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch
Shiurey Da’as, p.116
Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.254
Aish.com

How ironic that this all comes full circle. We desire to love God, so we love others by helping them. Now we learn that by helping another person, even when providing that help causes us to suffer as well, we are also helping ourselves. So to love God is to love others…and to love ourselves. Maybe that’s why the commandment for loving others says, “and you should love your neighbor as yourself.”

I sometimes regret that saying the Shema twice daily is only for the Jews. At one time, I also recited the Shema, but that was another lifetime, so to speak. That was when I believed that God opened the doorway to the Sinai covenant so wide, that everyone was supposed to walk through. Now I realize that my doorway to God is provided exclusively by Jesus Christ and it is through Him and what I think of as the “Messianic covenant” that I am alive in the Lord.

But that doesn’t make me a Jew.

However, it does make me a disciple of the Master and as I continue learning how to love God, I realize that He loves me too, and far, far more than I could ever be able to love Him.

As a father is merciful towards his children, so has Hashem shown mercy to those who fear Him. For He knew our nature; He is mindful that we are dust. Frail man, his days are like grass; like a sprout of the field, so he sprouts. When a wind passes over it, it is gone, and its place recognizes it no more. But the kindness of Hashem is forever and ever upon those who fear Him, and His righteousness is upon children’s children, to those who keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commands to fulfill them. –Psalm 103:13-18 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

PrayingOf course, the Psalmist was writing about the ancient Israelites and the commandments of the Torah, so perhaps I’m taking liberties in applying his words to we Christians and particularly to myself. But the teachings of Jesus are replete with words of love for his disciples and indeed for humanity, as the famously quoted John 3:16 attests. I have no fear that by God loving the Jewish people, He loves everybody else any less, for God’s love is as infinite as His Being.

And so as He loves, we should also love, or at least we should love to the limits of our human abilities. We are commanded to love Him and we are commanded to love each other. By this we realize that God loves us and that we are more than just grass and dust, though our lives are just as fragile.

If you are Jewish and you are observant, you already have a siddur and pray the Shema twice a day in accordance with the commandment. If you are Christian, you probably have never even seen a siddur; a Jewish prayer book, and up until today, you may not have even heard of the Shema. If you have the opportunity, just once, find a siddur, open to the portion that contains the Shema, and read it to yourself and perhaps just once, even read it to God. Although we are not Israel, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God by the merit of our Master and King and by His merit, we are commanded to…

…love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources. Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.

from the Shema

Love in Exile

In the previous chapters the Alter Rebbe explained how a Jew can perform Torah and mitzvot “with his heart” — with a love and fear of G-d. When a Jew is motivated by love and by a desire to cleave to the Almighty, his Torah and mitzvot will then surely be lishmah, i.e., with the most purely focused intentions. This, in turn, will add vitality to his endeavors. It is also possible, as explained in the previous chapter, that his love for G-d is such that he is motivated in his Torah and mitzvot by the desire to cause G-d gratification, just as a son strives to do all he possibly can for his father, so that his father may derive pleasure from his actions.

Love and fear of G-d stem from the two attributes of kindness (Chesed) and severity (Gevurah). The attribute of kindness and love is that exemplified by our forefather Abraham, who is described (Yeshayahu 41:8) as “Abraham who loves me.” The attribute of severity and fear is that of our forefather Isaac; the Patriarch Jacob refers to the G-d of his father (Bereishit 31:42) as the “Fear of Isaac.”

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 45
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)
founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:34-35 (ESV)

In yesterday’s meditation I talked about this new commandment of Jesus and how we don’t seem to obey it very well. While most Christians believe that the Law has been done away with and wholly replaced by grace, that doesn’t explain why they (we) should disregard this new “Law” of Christ as if it too were “nailed to the cross.”

As far as people in the Hebrew Roots/Messianic movement (in all its varied forms and expressions) are concerned, since most of them pride themselves on their total obedience to the commandments of Torah, how can they still blatantly disobey this one new commandment of the Messiah by openly expressing displeasure and even hostility toward people in the church?

As we see in the quote from the Tanya which I posted above, as well as other similar quotes I’ve used from this source over the past week or so, most people tend to obey God for one of two reasons: love and fear.

But if we are aware of God, believe in God, understand God is real, and realize that God has the ability to enforce His edicts, why then do we continue to disobey Him, even in the commandment to love one another? The explanation is also in this commentary on the Tanya:

For the soul had to descend from its source, from the most lofty of spiritual heights, to the nethermost level, in order to garb itself in a body whose life-force derives from kelipot, and is as distant as possible from G-d. This is all the more so if the individual caused the “Exile of the Shechinah” through improper thoughts, speech or deeds.

The Rebbe notes that this word alludes to ch. 36, where the Alter Rebbe concludes that this world is “lowest in degree; there is none lower than it in terms of concealment of His light; [a world of] doubled and redoubled darkness, so much so that it is filled with kelipot and sitra achra, which actually oppose G-d.”

Since the Divine spark of the soul is clothed in a body which is animated by the kelipat nogah of this world, it is removed at the farthest possible distance from G-d.

It gets worse.

The body is referred to as a skin, since it serves as a garment to the soul, as the verse states (Iyov 10:11), “You have garbed me with skin and flesh.” This is moreover the skin of a “snake”, since the body in its unrefined state is loathesome, as explained in ch. 31.3 The Divine spark must enter into such a body…

Welcome to exile in the farthest part of the universe away from God, clothed in a body of “snake skin.” Sounds repulsive, doesn’t it? However it explains a good many things, including the current and historical state of humanity, all of the crime, all of the wars, all of the day-to-day cruelty people engage in against each other. Just watch a local or national news broadcast on TV for half an hour and you’ll see what I mean.

It also explains, sadly enough, why we who claim the name of Christ continue to fail in obeying even one, simple commandment to love those who all belong to the same flock and who hear the voice of the same shepherd.

Oh sure, we may love most (or some) of the people in the congregation where we worship, but is that really obeying the commandment to love each other?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” –Matthew 5:43-47 (ESV)

Oops. Guess that doesn’t work.

So how do we manage to love at all?

A Jew’s sin causes his soul to be exiled within the domain of the kelipot. This in turn (so to speak) exiles the Shechinah, the source of his soul, too. Pondering this matter will awaken within a Jew a profound feeling of compassion for his soul and for its source. This compassion, as the Alter Rebbe will now point out, should be utilized in one’s study of Torah and performance of mitzvot. This will elevate his soul, enabling it to reunite with its source, the blessed Ein Sof.

Even when Jews are (heaven forfend) in an unclean spiritual state, the Divine Name dwells among them. This arousal of compassion towards the Divine Name is what is alluded to in the previous phrase: “And let him return to G-d,” the stimulus for his repentance being one’s “mercy upon Him,” i.e., the Divine Name, the source of Jewish souls, inasmuch as Jews are part of the Divine Name.

If we try to apply this to the larger body of disciples in the Master, the lesson seems to be telling us that we can learn to love each other by feeling compassion for a “suffering God” who is in exile with us and within us. He is in exile with us in our “snake skin bodies” because we were all created in His image and the Divine spark dwells in each of us. But that includes every human being who has ever lived, including atheists and those of other religious traditions.

But what about we Christians having compassion for the suffering Messiah? He was tortured and killed for our sake because God had compassion on us and refused to let us live out lives without hope. If, upon becoming disciples of the Master, the Spirit of God entered into us, whispered words of love and faith to us, and empowered us to surrender our sin to oblivion and surrender our souls to our Creator, can we not muster up enough of the compassion God has for humanity and express it to each other as “kindred spirits?”

Christian, Hebrew Roots person, Messianic, or whatever you call yourself. You who say you are saved by grace. You who say you flawlessly obey the Torah. You who exalt yourself in whatever manner you choose as attached to God in His Heaven. Do you love, not just the believer who is exactly like you, but those who also have a sincere devotion to the Master and who may look and act nothing like you? If not, what value is your so-called salvation? What light is shining out of the windows to your soul?

Our souls are windows for the world to receive light, pours through which it breathes, channels to its supernal source. There is no function more vital to our universe, nothing more essential to its fulfillment, since for this it was formed.

When we do good, speak words of kindness and teach wisdom, those windows open wide. When we fail, they cloud over and shut tight.

It is such a shame, this loss of light, this lost breath of fresh air. A stain can be washed away, but a moment of life, how can it be returned?

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

 

 

Tazria-Metzora: Suffering at the Touch of God

Our Sages ask: “What is Mashiach’s name?” and reply “The leper of the House of Rebbi.” This is very difficult to understand. Mashiach will initiate the Redemption, and is associated with the pinnacle of life and vitality. How can his name be linked with leprosy (tzaraas), which is identified with death and exile?

This difficulty can be resolved based on the statements of Likkutei Torah, which explain that a person affected by tzaraas will be:

A man of great stature, of consummate perfection…. Although such a person’s conduct is desirable, and he has corrected everything,… it is still possible that on the flesh of his skin there will be lower levels on which evil has not been refined. This will result in physical signs on his flesh, in a way which transcends the natural order….

Since the filth on the periphery of his garments has not been refined, therefore [blemishes] appear on his skin…. Moreover, these blemishes reflect very high levels, as indicated by the fact that they are not considered impure until they have been designated as such by a priest.

The passage implies that there are sublime spiritual influences which, because of the lack of appropriate vessels (as evidenced by the “filth on the periphery”), can produce negative effects. For when powerful energy is released without being harnessed, it can cause injury. This is the reason for the tzaraas with which Mashiach is afflicted.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Mashiach’s Name”
Commentary on Torah Portion Metzora
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VII, p. 100ff;
Vol. XXII, p. 77ff; Parshas Tazria, 5751;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 491ff
Chabad.org

In Hebrew, leprosy is given the unlikely name nega – literally “a touch” – which means a leper is someone touched by God.

In light of this, when the names of Messiah are discussed in the tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, each school names Messiah after its own Rabbi. So for example, to the students of Yanai, Messiah will be called Yinnon (Psalm 72:17; the English says “shall continue”) and to the students of Shila, Messiah’s name is Shiloh (Genesis 49:10). In the same way, Messiah is called Leper after Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, who either suffered greatly or was in fact a leper. To support their claim that the Messiah is called Chivra, the students of Rabbi Yehudah say, “His name is Chivera after the house of Rabbi, since it says, ‘We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted'” (b.Sanhedrin 98b).

-Tsvi Sadan
from the chapter “Leper,” pp86-87
The Concealed Light

You find the Messiah in some pretty odd places and doing some pretty unusual things…such as suffering and even dying. But who is suffering and dying? Rabbi Touger’s commentary continues:

The Jewish people as a whole are compared to a human body. This applies within every generation, and also to the entire nation throughout history. All Jews those of the past, present, and future are part of a single organic whole.

This is to be compared to something I just read:

Jews have never found it easy to accept each other. Whether Ashkenaz or Sephard, religious or secular, liberal or conservative, Jews of all stripes have had a difficult time tolerating those with whom they differ. Of course, this isn’t unique to Jews. Human nature compels members of any group to focus on all the differences that exist between one another. Nevertheless, a Jew is a Jew – regardless of the additional descriptive words. Although it sounds oxymoronic, the Jewish people are not a monolithic group and yet we are one. Go figure.

-Asher
“We Are One”
Lev Echad

My friend Yahnatan on his blog Gathering Sparks pointed me (well, anyone who has read his blog post, actually) to a review of Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels written by New Testament scholar Joel Willitts. It says in part:

Now Boyarin’s chapter is quite dense, although accessible. His position is based on a view that Daniel 7 is “a house divided against itself” because it leaves a reader with contrary information: the Son of Man is both a second divine figure and a collective earthly figure, the faithful of Israel.

Setting aside any interpretation of the Deity of the Messiah in the Willitts blog post, we see that in this interpretation and in traditional Judaism, the Messiah and Israel are virtually interchangeable or perhaps inexorably intertwined. Messiah is Israel.

And Israel is touched by God and Israel suffers.

No, I’m not necessarily talking about the modern, geographical and national entity called the nation of Israel (though I suppose I could say a few words on that subject) but rather the historical, spiritual, mystical, people/group/nation of Israel who were forged at the foot of that fiery anvil we call Sinai, and who throughout the panorama of time, have continued to burn at the touch of God while awaiting the comfort and rescue of the Messiah (not unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego…see Daniel 3), may he come soon and in our day.

But what does that have to do with Christians?

Seen from the perspective of everything I’ve said so far, that’s a hard question to answer and one that is very uncomfortable for the church. I can see why supersessionism exists in the church and, within the Hebrew Roots movement, I can see why the non-Jews are desperate to lay claim to Torah “obligation” and “spiritual Judaism,” if only to be able to have a share in the Jewish King; the Son of Man, who is also Chivra; “touched by God.”

We want to be “touched by God” too, which is strange, since it means that we among the nations, the Gentile disciples of Jesus, must also suffer.

…and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. –Romans 8:17-18 (ESV)

We Christians say we want to “be like Jesus” but do we really know what that means? In Hebrew Roots, the Gentiles say they want to be “one with Israel” and to share the obligations of Torah and God, but do we really know what that means?

We see from the tale in Matthew 20 that the mother of the sons of Zebedee asked that her two sons sit on the left hand and on the right of Jesus in his kingdom, but this was not an easy request to grant:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” –Matthew 20:20-28 (ESV)

If you say you are ready to share in the Messiah, are you ready to share his burden, his suffering, his slavery? Are you ready to be “touched by God” as the leper?

As the old saying goes, “be careful what you ask for…you just may get it.”

Tsvi Sadan’s description of the Messiah as a leper in his book (pg 87) tells us what to expect when we, his disciples, share the cup of the Messiah:

“Leper Messiah” is found in Jewish legends such as the one in the above Talmudic passage. This legend describes an encounter of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a student of Shimon bar Yochai, with Messiah. On a quest to find out when Messiah would come, Rabbi Joshua ends up in Rome, where he sees one leper amongst the poor and the sick who is tying and untying his bandages (b.Sanhedrin 98a). Rabbi Joshua identifies this leper as Messiah and asks him when he will come. Messiah answers him with a single word “Today!” Waiting in vain till the day was over, Rabbi Joshua complains to his teacher that Messiah lied to him. Rabbi Shimon replies to his disappointed student: “[He will only come] today, if you will hear His voice” (Psalm 95:7).

In some sense, because he is Israel, the Messiah suffers because his people suffer. If we among the nations choose to be grafted in, while it doesn’t make us inheritors of Sinai, we must agree to drink from the cup of the Messiah and to suffer with him and to bear the burden of Israel’s suffering as well. This is why part of our duty as disciples is to support and uplift the Jewish people and to affirm the Jewish right to their national and Biblical homeland: Israel.

I find it ironic and all too human that when some among the Gentiles demand the “right” to be “obligated” to the Torah and to share in a Jewish lifestyle (but without making the actual commitment to be a Jew), they focus on the honor and glory and joy of Judaism; the lighting of candles on Shabbos, an aliyah to the bimah to read Torah, the wearing of tzitzit, and so forth. The stark reality is that anyone who chooses to be called by the name of Christ, whether you call yourself “Christian” or “Hebraic” or “Messianic,” is called to be a leper, to live among lepers, to tie and untie the bandages of the sick and dying…and to be sick and dying. The world didn’t esteem our Master, nor if we are really his disciples, will it esteem us.

Are you sure you are ready to drink from that cup?

Rabbi Shimon interprets the words of the Messiah to mean that he will come today only if the Jewish people are worthy and will “hear His voice.” In my arrogance, I’m going to suggest an alternate explanation (this is only my opinion so if you disagree, I’m the responsible party to complain to). I think the Messiah didn’t lie to Rabbi Joshua. I think the Messiah did come “today.” I think the Messiah has come yesterday and he will come today again and, God be willing, he will also come tomorrow. I think the Messiah comes every day that someone who is suffering and dying ties and unties the bandages of someone else who is suffering and dying.

Whenever we suffer for His sake and yet in our suffering, live among others who are hurt and sick and dying, and we minister to them, not thinking of ourselves, but serve them for their sake and God’s, then the Messiah has come, and he is coming right now, and he will come tomorrow…because he lives in us.

Yes, someday he will come with the clouds of heaven, in might and power, as one like the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13) and he will heal a broken world and his suffering people, but if we are who we say we are, we will not idly wait for him. We will drink his cup, take up our cross (Luke 9:23), and follow him. We will allow God to touch us and we will be like lepers. If we aren’t willing to suffer with him and with Israel, as Paul said in his letter to the Romans, then we also will not be glorified with him, and all of our words are in vain.

Good Shabbos.