Tag Archives: teacher

Where Did the Last Mentor Go?

In grammar school, you had a new teacher every year. Just when you became familiar with one teacher, it was time to move up a grade and meet the next one. As adults, we need to take a different approach. Ideally, you should find one mentor to use throughout your life.

To find the right mentor, don’t just take the nearest expert, the one on the block. “Shop” intelligently. Get references. Check credentials. See if he lives honestly and consistently with his knowledge. Test his wisdom with questions. Find out who his own mentors are. Make sure he’s part of a respected community.

The key to a good mentor is to develop strong trust and communication. Criticism is difficult to swallow, but it’s a less bitter pill when it comes from someone you trust, someone who has insight and wisdom, someone who you believe is only out for your own good. Choose someone who understands you, and who knows your background and family history.

Above all, make sure the mentor is available. Because you can have the greatest mentor in the world, but if you can’t speak with him/her, what good is it?

If you can’t find the right person, make an “interim mentor” to bounce ideas off of and be accountable to. King Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived, yet he still had a mentor. Tradition says that as long as Solomon’s mentor was alive, he never made a mistake; once the mentor died, Solomon erred. Having an objective advisor is so crucial that even if you choose someone who is “less wise” than yourself, it’s still worth it.

Always be on the lookout and don’t give up until you find the right one.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Honor the Wise Person”
Way 10 of 48 Ways to Wisdom
Aish.com

Who is wise? One who learns from every man.

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

That doesn’t help.

OK, let’s look at this suggestion.

The idea is that, rather than expecting to learn what you need to learn about life, God, and everything by some sort of trial and error process, you should seek out one or more (ideally one) SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) in your fields of interest and consult them. More accurately, you should serve them in some capacity, observe them, listen to them, and learn from them.

That’s a short description of a discipleship process, but how many of us are in a position to dedicate a few decades (or more) to disciple under a Master of some sort?

(To get a better idea of what discipleship means in both Christianity and Judaism, see Jacob Fronczak’s excellent blog post, Discipleship in Christianity and Judaism, expanded edition.)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I very often refer to us, to Christians, as “disciples of the Master,” meaning disciples of Jesus. You’re right, I do. But we don’t actually have the opportunity to sit at our Master’s feet and absorb his wisdom as did the original Apostles nearly 2,000 years ago.

The discipleship model usually requires that the Master’s wisdom is passed from teacher to student across multiple generations. Students of a Master become teachers themselves and eventually gather disciples of their own, teaching them in their own Master’s name.

That didn’t happen in Christianity because of the break between the Gentiles and the Jewish mentors of old. Christianity, as we understand the term today, has experienced a distinct disconnect from the original method, style, and interpretation of the teachings of our Master. We certainly do not have an unbroken line of teachers extending from the present all the way back to the founder of our faith, to Jesus Christ.

So what do we do?

Rabbi Weinberg also said:

Human beings like independence. We hate to admit that we need others. Most people would rather learn from their own mistakes, than learn from others. We imagine we’ll just “figure it all out” as we go along. “I know I’m smart. I can work it out.”

It is an American value to be self-reliant (that is coming under question in the current political and social climate, but I digress), independent, and to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so to speak. If we want to learn something, we buy a self-help book or take a class. I suppose the author or teacher could be considered a mentor, but not in the way Rabbi Weinstein suggests. A mentor is more than just a temporary teacher, he or she is a guide to life, a source of not only knowledge, but of wisdom, which I would take to mean the proper application of information and experience.

A Rabbi TeachingIt’s not really a bad idea, it is just a difficult model to find actually being practiced in the modern, western world.

In the world of the Chassidim for instance, it is probably a lot more common. A Jewish yeshiva student may consider the Rosh Yeshiva or one of the other Rabbis to be their mentor. However, a life of learning in that particular context is foreign to most of us, including the vast majority of Christians. Even if we wanted to find a mentor, where would we go and who would we seek out? I doubt most Christian Pastors would want such a role. Yes, they teach, but the teaching model is more akin to the modern school classroom and is limited in time, scope, and relationship. Teaching is time-limited, on a specific subject, and the students don’t achieve anything like the intimacy required in a mentorship or discipleship relationship.

On top of that, it’s been suggested recently that religious instruction doesn’t really change human beings.

“Religion,” novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, “is only good for good people.” Weigh the violence of the Inquisition against the humanity of Martin Luther King or homicidal fanatics against Oxfam, and you have to suspect that religion supplies a context for justifying or motivating moral choices rather than a reason for them.

-Philip Ball
“Morals don’t come from God”
Nature.com

If we are believe that statement, then a good person in a religion would have been just as good in either a different religion or no religion at all. That would mean religious teaching imparts the specific mechanics of the religion (doctrine, dogma, and such) but not the underlying moral fabric that induces fundamental human change.

Ball’s article continues:

Thousands of people — varying widely in social background, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity — have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mainly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background”, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

The authors’ paper may annoy both religious and atheistic zealots. By taking it as a given that religion is an evolved social behaviour rather than a matter of divine revelation, it tacitly adopts an atheistic framework. Yet at the same time it assumes that religiosity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, thereby undermining those who see it as culturally imposed folly that can be erased with a cold shower of rationality.

Of course, this scientific investigation discounts any possibility that a supernatural influence could be involved, and so can hardly claim that “the leading of the Spirit” is, in any way, related to the moral behavior observed within any religion’s framework. People are good or not good, not because of what they’re taught, but because of who they are, perhaps because of an evolutionary imperative.

That would mean, by extension, that mentorship also would not be a significant factor in imparting moral change in disciples or students. So even if you find a mentor, it won’t really matter. You’ll learn a great deal about the “nuts and bolts” of your religion or philosophy, but that’s only information, not wisdom and not moral instruction and guidance.

Do you believe that?

As a person of faith, I can’t really go for it, but I certainly have to consider that it’s a possibility for a certain collection of people who only take their faith so far. We like to think that our faith makes us, not the other way around, but for some, entering a religious life is just a matter of confirming who they already are as people. In that case, they (we) don’t really want to learn anything, at least anything that would contradict their (our) already established basic moral understanding.

PrayingBut what if we really could find a true mentor, one who could take us beyond the perceptual world and into one where we are actually challenged on a fundamental level. At my age, finding a mentor is an increasingly diminishing probability, but for a much younger man or woman, it is at least still a possibility.

I know some of you Christians reading this will say that “the Lord is my mentor” or “I am guided by the Holy Spirit,” but chances are, those experiences aren’t the same as actually talking to another human being. You don’t really hear an audible voice outside of your head telling you specific information and providing concrete answers to discrete questions.

What if acquiring a mentor as Rabbi Weinberg defines the person (please read the entire article for all of the details) were indeed a possibility and even a likelihood? Let’s assume the person has to be alive today and reasonably accessible (I suppose email and instant messaging would do, but face-to-face meetings would be preferable). Who would you choose and why? I don’t mean as far as a temporarily set of interactions to learn a single topic, but an extended relationship to learn not knowledge, but wisdom, to learn about life from someone who has lived, to experience God through a true tzadik or saint.

Who would you go to? Where would you find this person? Is there anyone left who is so wise, honest, and honorable, and also who is accessible?

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Asking God Stupid Questions

On today’s daf we find one should ask questions even if he knows that people might make fun of him.

Rabbi Yirmiyah was well known for his outlandish questions that are recorded throughout shas. In Bava Basra 23 we find that he was even evicted from the beis midrash for asking a particularly peculiar question. Although he was surely laughed at, Rabbi Yirmiyah intrepidly asked many questions that superficially seem strange, and he was not deterred. We can learn the importance of asking all of one’s questions fearlessly from what Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, teaches about Rabbi Yirmiyah. “All questions asked in the heavenly mesivta are posed by Rabbi Yirmiyah. Since Rabbi Yirmiyah always asked his questions from an honest desire to know the answer, he merited to sit at the opening to the heavenly mesivta and has the distinction of asking all inquiries there.”

Rabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, points out that the desire to seek out the truth is a prerequisite to success in Torah learning. “The verse states, ‘ אם תבקשנה ככסף ,’ one must seek out Torah like he pursues money. He must be careful to attain Torah specifically through toil. His labor to uncover what the Torah means should be sweet to him—like hunting precious gems is beloved to any successful prospector. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ שש אנכיעל אמרתך כמוצא שלל רב — I rejoice over Your words like one who has found a great treasure.’ The more one feels this sweetness, the more his eyes are opened to understanding the Torah and the more Torah he is able to retain.

As our sages say on the verse, ‘ דעתלנפשך ינעם ’, a person should learn material that his heart desires to learn.”

-Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Seeking the Torah’s Truth”
Niddah 27

If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know I’m a great one for asking questions. But giving answers, not so much. I don’t always find a lot of rock solid answers in theological realms. I’m not talking about doubt in basic faith particularly, but all of the little, annoying details we tend to argue about in the religious blogosphere. And then, there’s the problem of looking stupid.

At one point or another in our school experience, we’ve probably struggled with whether or not to ask a “dumb question.” You know what I mean. The teacher is talking about something. Everyone else in the room is nodding their heads up and down sagely in agreement with what the teacher is saying. You haven’t the faintest idea what the teacher is talking about.

Should you raise your hand and ask for clarification? Everyone else in the room seems to know what the topic is all about except you. If you ask the teacher to explain what he or she is saying, everyone will think you’re some kind of special moron and laugh. You’ll be embarrassed. You’ll be humiliated. You’ll look and feel like a fool.

Nevermind that more than a few people in class are probably feeling exactly the way you do and thinking the same thing you are. They may not know what the teacher is talking about either, but they’re too afraid to ask, just like you. They’re just better at faking it and acting like the subject is old news to them. If you summon the courage to raise your hand and ask “the question,” you’ll not only get the information you need, but you’ll be the hero to everyone who wants to ask but can’t work up the nerve (even though they’ll never admit it to you). And the teacher will congratulate you for being wise enough to ask the right question.

Probably.

No one laughs when I ask questions here. Well, it is my blog so why shouldn’t I ask? On the other hand, I do sometimes get in trouble for delving into areas where I’m particularly ignorant. I don’t get laughed at exactly, but I do occasionally get a public or private chiding. Our story off the Daf paints a particularly meritorious picture of people who ask “stupid questions” but this is midrash, not real life.

We have Thomas Gray’s poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College to thank for the common expression, “if ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise.” (not an exact quote). I think the statement is supposed to be ironic, but there’s a lot of truth in those words, especially in the 21st century where our public information sources are not exactly uncontrolled. And we like it that way.

Life, the economy, politics, health care, raising a family, and so on and so forth, are all terribly depressing, or they can be at times. Why do I need to know more than I already do, especially if I might have to think and feel as a result?

The same is true in some (most?) religious venues. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, or so the song lyrics go, but how do you really know? What does it mean? And what’s love got to do with it anyway? Aren’t we talking about obeying the will of God? Who is God? Is He judge, ruler, King, teacher, companion, and could He also be a man and a spirit?

Troubling questions, and a lot of people don’t want to ask troubling questions. They just want to believe what they’re told and have it start and stop there.

I suppose that’s cynical, but I’m one of those people who can’t stop asking questions, especially the stupid ones. No, I never had to nerve to ask stupid questions when I was in school, so I’m making up for lost time now. But if God is the teacher then at once, no question can be stupid and all questions are stupid because no human being can know anything about God. If we don’t ask all these dumb questions, we die in ignorance.

Sometimes I ask questions and people get angry. Sometimes people ask questions about what I said and my own ignorance is exposed for the world to see. No wonder we argue and fuss with each other so much on the Internet. Half the time we’re offended and the other half, we’re embarrassed.

The nature of a human being is to simply react, to throw back at others the medicine they mete out to you.

This is what Rava, the Babylonian Jewish sage, would advise: Ignore the urge to return bad with bad, hurt with hurt, scorn with scorn—and the heavens will ignore your scorning, your hurting, your acts that were less than good.

G‑d shadows man. Go beyond your nature with others and He will do the same with you.

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

But between the questions, the answers, and the audience of offended, embarrassed, and challenged human beings, there is a God and a teacher and a Father who watches and waits and hopes we’ll overlook each other’s faults as He chooses to overlook ours. He’s hoping that we will choose to be more like Him and display grace and forgiveness toward each other. If we call Jesus our Lord, Messiah, Savior and Rabbi (teacher) and we say we want to be more like him, then as his students, we should learn that the best answers to our questions aren’t just the words “mercy,” “grace,” “compassion,” and “forgiveness,” but living out the answers by showing people what the lesson really means.

Laughing with God

Deeper than the wisdom to create is the wisdom to repair.

And so, G-d built failure into His world, so that He could give Man His deepest wisdom. To repair.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Repair”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Chabad.org

How is repair deeper than creation?

-Posted by Avi

If you have unlimited resources–like G-d does–it’s much easier to throw out the broken pieces and start all over again than to keep them and get them to work.

That’s what Torah is–the ability to sustain the world while repairing it.

-Posted by Rabbi Freeman in response to Avi

God did that once. Destroy the world because it was easier than fixing it.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” –Genesis 6:5-7 (ESV)

Fortunately afterwards, God has told us that, even though it’s easier to destroy and start creation all over again, He will take another path from now on.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” –Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17 (ESV)

And while the sign of God’s covenant with Noah has been appropriated for everything from rainbow ponies to the LGBT movement, it remains for me the promise that even though it is easier to destroy and recreate than to maintain, God has promised to continue to “sustain the world while repairing it.”

But what about individual human beings? Can and will God sustain us while we’re “under repair?”

Recently, I’ve commented about the seeming randomness of the purpose of individual lives as well as how faith can wane and leave each of us feeling isolated and alienated from God. While God may wait for us to return to Him, will He wait forever?

I guess since the human lifespan is finite, the literal answer must be, “No.”

On the other hand:

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:6-14 (ESV)

We rely on God’s mercy outweighing His judgment for if it didn’t, then how could anyone survive, even for an instant?

But that doesn’t really answer the question. It’s not as if sin doesn’t have it’s effect.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. –Isaiah 59:1-2 (ESV)

If God doesn’t seem to be paying attention to us, it’s because we have shut the door between us, not Him.

On the other hand, does arguing with God cause a separation? We have seen times when confronting God has actually been beneficial, such as when Abraham interceded for Sodom, when Jacob wrestled with God, and when Moses pleaded for Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf.

And yet, when God told Abraham to sacrifice the life of Isaac, Abraham didn’t say a word.

So I’m at a loss. How do you know when it is appropriate to contend with God and when you should remain silent and accept what He has said as final?

I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows. I only know that a relationship between a human being and an infinite and Almighty God either requires the human to be completely terrified all of the time and to say and do nothing, or the human must have the freedom to interact and even challenge God at times for there to be a relationship at all.

We are awfully casual with God at times. I suppose we rely on not only His mercy, but on His desire to have intimacy with us. To be intimate requires the ability to not only converse, but to argue, debate, struggle, and even yell. But God isn’t a human being, so how we relate to Him can’t really be the same as how we relate to our spouse or other loved ones.

Yes, I know that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware and that people are worth more to Him than sparrows. I also know anything we ask in Christ’s name will be done for us (though not anything asked frivolously or against the will of God), so we have these as indications of God’s great love for us.

But exactly where is the line that you cannot cross without permanent and irreversible consequences?

Maybe these are questions that should be left unasked or at least unanswered.

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post describing God as a teacher, a “bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding,” as opposed to a harsh and punitive judge who elicits only fear from us. Maybe we only receive from God that which we look for, or to put it another way:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. –Galatians 6:6-10 (ESV)

We can choose to fear God and obey Him out of that fear, and perhaps that’s where we all start out, or we can choose to see God as our great teacher who shows us the lessons for good. I suppose like in a yeshiva setting, we sometimes learn by debating our teacher, but only as a mechanism by which we burn away the inconsistencies and “dross” from our understanding.

In the end, we never doubt that what He says and does is for ultimate benefit. And we never doubt that even in our hottest anger or our darkest fears, that He always loves us. And He has taught us that we should always sustain the world while repairing it. That includes repairing who we are as individuals and repairing our relationship with God, sustaining it and not destroying it…and not destroying us.

Imagine a father tutoring his child, as any tutor will teach a student.

The child does well, and the father returns a smile of approval, as any good tutor would do.

Then the father laughs, slapping his child affectionately on the back, and they both laugh together, as only a father and child could do, the father saying in his laugh, “I always have this pride, this delight in you, that you are my child. Now is just my opportunity to show it.”

Above, our Father awaits His opportunity to laugh with us.

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

Imagine a God and teacher who so loves us that we can also laugh with Him.

God as a Teacher

Talmud StudyThe metaphor of God as teacher and human beings as His pupils, a metaphor that gains prominence in the rabbinic period, is also an apt means of describing the covenantal relationship. God as teacher encourages His pupils to think for themselves and assume intellectual responsibility for the way Torah is to be understood and practiced. The fact that the rabbis not only declared that the age of prophecy had ended, but insisted also that the talmudic sage ranked higher than the prophet, seems to suggest that the community has a higher appreciation of its covenantal relationship to God when it sees Him as its teacher than when it sees Him as an authoritarian voice dictating His will through the prophets.

God as a loving husband and the devoted teacher do not require reward and punishment to play a significant role in the covenantal relationship. They are not frameworks of absolute power of one covenantal partner over the other, but frameworks in which the integrity of both partners is recognized and the human partner is enabled to feel personal dignity and to develop the capabilities of responsibility.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Introduction of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Are you a God-fearing man, Senator? That is such a strange phrase. I’ve always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding.

-Erik Lehnsheer/Magneto (played by Ian McKellen)
X-Men (2000)

I just did two strange and different things, at least from a Christian point of view. I used Rabbi Hartman’s quote to describe God as primarily a teacher, and I quoted a comic book movie to do the same thing. Strange. Interestingly enough, the character of Eric (Magneto) Lehnsheer is portrayed as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so his perspectives may have a place in today’s “meditation.”

It’s not as if Judaism doesn’t see God as a Judge, but He is not only a Judge (and I need to be careful here, since I’ve mischaracterized aspects of Judaism before). The Bible is replete with “marriage metaphors” in which God is portrayed as a loving husband to a sometimes faithless Israel. While this metaphor is occasionally used by Christianity to justify the supersessionist view that the church (the loyal wife) has replaced Israel (the faithless wife), in fact, God has also said that He will take back Israel when she turns back to Him and that He will never permanently abandon her.

However, I’m less interested in discussing the topic of supersessionism and more interested in exploring God as our teacher. As Rabbi Hartman seems to say, this casts God in a completely different light than the one by which we are accustomed to viewing Him. It also nicely fits into how Judaism sees the role of human authority within the realm of faith. I continue now with Hartman as he speaks in his book’s Introduction.

When Christian ministers ask me at what age or on what occasion I received my calling as a rabbi, I often find myself hesitating over how to respond. If I answer it began when I entered yeshivah at age five to study Bible and Talmud, they might believe that I am likening myself to Jeremiah, who received his prophetic calling as a child. If I tell them that I never received a calling but was ordained after my teachers concluded that I was intellectually capable of rendering competent decisions regarding what is prohibited and permitted by Jewish law, they might be shocked at meeting a modern version of a Pharisee. They could perhaps find confirmation for the allegation that legalism had replaced the living guidance of God.

…Yet, as a traditional halakhic Jew, I know that a rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellectual understanding of the Jewish tradition and commitment to the Jewish people. A direct call from God is not required to legitimize activity as a rabbi in Israel.

I can only imagine that the confusion Rabbi Hartman expects of the Christian ministers he references is reflected in the minds and hearts of any Christians reading this missive. Indeed, Judaism is often seen as a legalistic, works-based, and spiritually “dead” faith for exactly the reasons Rabbi Hartman states. And yet he also says that a “rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellect understanding of the Jewish tradition,” presupposing that rabbis actually have spiritual roles in Judaism. So where is the spirituality?

What is spirituality?

According to Wikipedia, spirituality “refers to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” That’s probably not a very helpful definition, but spirituality is difficult to define, largely because the spirit cannot be conclusively demonstrated in a material world.

In some branches of Christianity, spirituality is considered synonymous with emotion, or more specifically, an emotional experience that is inspired by a spiritual encounter with God (or one that bypasses God and focuses specifically on Jesus Christ). We tend to think of spirituality as a “feeling.” Most Christians don’t tend to relate to spirituality as a thought or as something that happens when we study and learn from a teacher or rabbi.

And yet, Rabbi Hartman seems to be saying that learning Torah and Talmud is a spiritual experience. I don’t know if that’s what he’s actually saying, but I think I can make a case for it. I think that in Judaism (this is just my opinion, of course), the sense of a Jew’s identity is inexorably tied to Jewish history, traditional Jewish thought, Talmudic study, midrash, halachah, and understanding. You might even think of the passionate debates that occur in yeshivah as a metaphor for a Jew “wrestling with God.” (Genesis 32:22-32)

The concept of wrestling or debating with God may seem alien and even sacrilegious to a Christian, even though we have ample examples from the Bible. Look at Abraham boldly debating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and Moses pleading with God to spare the Children of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. (Exodus 32:9-14). Can a Christian even understand this the way a Jew can?

That said, Rabbi Hartman doesn’t see a complete dissonance between Jews and Christians.

…those early experiences were given profound intellectual and philosophical support in the years of my graduate study at Fordham University. Living with the Jesuits, sensing the intellectual and spiritual integrity of my teachers, observing how our different faiths were reciprocally enriched through our encounters – these were experiences that I could not ignore in developing my own appreciation of what it is to stand as a covenantal Jew before God.

I can’t say that all Jews will agree with Rabbi Hartman’s statements and I’m sure not all Christians will either. We see, based on everything I’ve written and quoted up to this point, that Christianity and Judaism conceptualize themselves and their relationship with God on a spiritual level in fundamentally different ways. We see God and how we are supposed to connect to Him from two totally different directions. And yet there are the occasional glimmers when, if we try hard enough, we just might be able to understand that we have a few things in common, as Rabbi Hartman pointed out in his description of his time among the Jesuits.

But God is One. He is the God of the Jews and the nations. He makes the rains descend on not only Jews and Christians, but on the righteous and unrighteous alike. He sent His “only begotten son” “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:0 ESV)

If God is our teacher, is He providing two wholly dissimilar lessons, one for the Jews and the other for everyone else? Christianity doesn’t think so, but their (our) solution is to replace the original lesson God taught at Sinai with the one taught by Jesus at Calvary. Traditional Jews believe that God teaches a larger lesson (the Torah) to the Jews and a subset of that lesson (the Noahide laws) to the nations.

I don’t agree with either viewpoint and believe that it is God’s intention to ultimately reconcile Israel with the nations as co-existing covenant members, Sinai and Messianic, standing side-by-side in front of the throne of God. I don’t know how to completely articulate this relationship yet, especially in terms of our mutually dependent roles being described in scripture, but I believe it is well worth pursuing.

We see that at the end of all things, the ” throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it (the city), and his servants will worship him.” (Revelation 22:3 ESV) I believe those servants are both Israel and we from among the nations who have demonstrated an enduring faith, who have “fought the good fight,” and “have finished the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

If God is speaking to both the Jew and the Christian (and indeed, to the entire world), we must discover what the lesson is and what our teacher wants us to learn. Jesus was rightly called “teacher” and “rabbi” and he taught as did the other rabbis during the late Second Temple period in Israel. This was an experience that his disciples found to be completely consistent with how other disciples learned from their rabbis. From what we see in the Bible, it was also consistent with how we Christians experience spirituality, love, compassion, and truth.

Some Jewish thinkers believe that the Second Temple was destroyed, not because of general faithlessness among the Jews, but because of the sin of baseless hatred between one Jew and another. The counterpoint to this sin, and what some believe will aid in the coming of the Messiah, is for Jews to show unrestrained love by…

reaching out to another person – any other person – and showing him care, consideration, and concern. Do a favor for someone else, not because there is a reason to do so, but because you care for him.

“Keeping In Touch: The Three Weeks”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Adapted by Rabbi Eli Touger
Chabad.org

If we are trying to hear the lessons being taught by our rabbi and Master, perhaps reaching out to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, with care, consideration, and concern, might be a good place to start.

A river of life flows through the inner worlds, emerging from there into your own, carrying with it all your needs.

You need to know about that river, for it carries upstream as well.

When you celebrate that river with a blessing for your food, out loud and with joy, then your voice echoes back with even greater force, replenishing all the higher worlds through which the river passes on its way. The channels of life are widened and their currents grow strong.

Take care of your river. Invest in it and reap the dividends.

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

Our Teacher Moshe the Shepherd

The Baal Shem Tov was once shown from heaven that a certain simple man called Moshe the Shepherd served G‑d, blessed be He, better than he did. He longed to meet this shepherd, so he ordered his horses harnessed to his coach, and traveled, with a few of his disciples, to the place where he was told the shepherd lived.

They stopped in a field at the foot of a hill, and saw, on the hillside above them, a shepherd who was blowing his horn to call his flock. After the sheep gathered to him, he led them to a nearby trough to water them. While they were drinking, he looked up to heaven and began to call out loudly, “Master of the world, You are so great! You created heaven and earth, and everything else! I’m a simple man; I’m ignorant and unlearned, and I don’t know how to serve You or praise You. I was orphaned as a child and raised among gentiles, so I never learned any Torah. But I can blow on my shepherd’s horn like a shofar, with all my strength, and call out, ‘The L-rd is G‑d!’” After blowing with all his might on the horn, he collapsed to the ground, without an ounce of energy, and lay there motionless until his strength returned.

Then he got up and said, “Master of the world, I’m just a simple shepherd; I don’t know any Torah, and I don’t know how to pray. What can I do for You? The only thing I know is to sing shepherds’ songs!” He then began to sing loudly and fervently with all his strength until, again, he fell to the earth, exhausted, without an ounce of energy.

-Yitzchak Buxbaum
“The Shepherd”
from his book, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov
quoted from Chabad.org

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Deuteronomy 6:5 (ESV)

Buxbaum goes on to describe the shepherd’s further efforts to love and please God, some which may sound almost ludicrous, such as standing on his head and waving his feet wildly in the air, but we can learn a lesson from this shepherd and this tale of the Baal Shem Tov.

In all likelihood, no such shepherd ever existed and God never showed the Baal Shem Tov how to find him, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn something about us and about God and about how we’re supposed to connect our lives to Him. That’s what Chassidic tales are all about.

In our tale, the shepherd, who God tells the Baal Shem Tov worships Him better than the venerated Chassidic sage, is a Jew who was raised among Gentiles and who has absolutely no grasp of Torah, Talmud, or even the most basic understanding of halachah. He has no formal education in any of the mitzvot and although the shepherd knows he is to honor, worship, and give glory to God, he doesn’t know the first thing about how a Jew is supposed accomplish this.

Interesting, isn’t it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t study and learn and strive to comprehend what God expects of us, but the information seems to be secondary to the desire, the will, and the intent of the person in worship. Moshe the Shepherd knew nothing but in a sense, he knew everything. He knew to take care of his sheep just as shepherds such as Moshe the Prophet, David the King, and our “good shepherd” Jesus the Rabbi knew how to take care of their sheep, even to the point of laying down their lives.

Moshe the Shepherd called to his sheep by blowing his horn which he compared to a shofar, and since the sheep responded by going to him, it shows he had certainly earned their trust. He gathered his sheep and watered them, and while watering them, cried out to God, blew his horn for Him, sang shepherd’s songs for Him, acknowledged God’s might and glory in the loudest voice he could muster, and he did all this with such zeal and energy that he collapsed, exhausted upon the ground.

And after seeing Moshe the Shepherd do this over and over again to the point of total collapse, we reach the dramatic conclusion of our tale:

What more can I do to serve You?” After pausing to reflect, he said, “Yesterday, the nobleman who owns the flock made a feast for his servants, and when it ended, he gave each of us a silver coin. I’m giving that coin to You as a gift, O G‑d, because You created everything and You feed all Your creatures, including me, Moshe the little shepherd!” Saying this, he threw the coin upward.

At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand reach out from heaven to receive the coin. He said to his disciples, “This shepherd has taught me how to fulfill the verse: ‘You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’”

What does God want from you? The answer is amazingly simple:

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)

Without studying the Bible, Moshe the Shepherd knew what pleased God and he worshiped and pleased God with all his strength. How much more should we who study the Bible know and then do what pleases God. But do we try to please Him with all our might as did Moshe the Shepherd?

Torah is not about getting to the truth. When you are immersed in Torah, even while pondering the question, even while struggling to make sense of it all, you are at truth already.

Torah is about being truth.

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

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.