Tag Archives: teacher

Finding Freedom

CaptureTell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.Galatians 4:21-26

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.James 2:12-13

So what is it? Does the Law take away freedom or does the law give freedom? Are we even talking about the same Law; the Torah?

I’ve often suspected that Paul and James didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. Paul was operating for years at a time in the diaspora, bringing the Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah and teaching them his ways and how to trust in God. There wasn’t a lot of oversight going on from the Jerusalem Counsel, so Paul could have gotten away with re-writing the Gospel message in his own image, diluting or even eliminating the law and replacing it a type of “grace” that is the antithesis of the law (though in reality, they are not mutually exclusive). It’s clear that James wouldn’t have agreed with that message.

However, if you read D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, you’ll see that Paul and James were more alike than unalike (though I still suspect that they had their individual perspectives). For one thing, despite the common Christian tradition of interpreting Galatians 4:21-26 as “anti-Law” (and in the plain English text, it certainly seems that’s what Paul’s saying), the issues are more complex. Lancaster interprets them this way:

The passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Old Testament against the New Testament or the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.

It means that if you are a Jewish believer , you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are part of the people, a spiritual son of Abraham, and that is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that God made to Abraham so long ago.

I’ve already written a review of Lancaster’s book and I’m not going to “reinvent the wheel”, so to speak, but I’m presenting this “extra meditation” this afternoon, in response to the following:

No one can say he is free today because yesterday he was granted freedom.

Freedom is a source of endless energy.
Freedom is the power behind this entire universe.
Freedom is the force that brings existence out of the void.

You are free when you take part in that endlessness. When you never stand still. When you are forever escaping the confines of today to create a freer tomorrow.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Perpetual Freedom”

As an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Freeman isn’t considering that the Torah is somehow slavery or bondage, even for a single moment. So how are Christians to interpret his words of freedom as well as the apparent conflict between Paul and James, both observant and devout Jews, on how they view the Torah?

It is said that the world was created for the sake of Torah and that, without the Torah, the world could not have been made. The analogous teaching we have in Christianity is this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. –John 1:1-3

TeshuvahHere, we see a sort of “fusion” or co-identity, in some mystic sense, between the Torah and the Messiah, Son of the living God. Christians know that Jesus gives us freedom from the slavery of sin and Jews know that the Torah is the gateway to God’s endless energy, the power behind the universe, and the limitless, eternal source that creates existence out of nothingness. Through Torah, God does not enslave, but provides the means by which men may know God and understand our relationship to Him. If the same can be said of Jesus, then we can all understand from where our freedom comes.

While non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are not obligated to the same “yoke of Torah” as the Jewish people (see Acts 15), we nonetheless are grafted into the root of the Tree of Life and like branches on the vine, we draw our nourishment and the ability to live a life of holiness from an identical source; God.

To do so requires more than just believing and more than just learning; we must do, we must behave, we must live out the values we understand from the Torah and how they were taught to us by the “living Torah”, the Moshiach, Jesus Christ. Part of that living is understanding where we came from, who we are, and our need to separate from sin and embrace holiness and peace. To gain freedom from sin, we must recognize the depth and despair of sin, which is what the Torah aptly defines, and only upon achieving that understanding, can we truly turn away from that sin and turn toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The Ohr Hachaim HaKadosh, zt”l, writes that one can only do teshuvah if he first recognizes the gravity of his sin.

A certain person committed a sin. When Rav Mordechai Aryeh Halevi Horowitz, zt”l, gently nudged him to repent the sinner displayed his relaxed attitude towards teshuvah. “Why repent now? Soon enough it will be Elul, the season when the shofar is sounded to remind us to do teshuvah. Can’t my teshuvah wait until then?”

Rav Horowitz rejected this attitude out of hand. “As is well known, the main element in teshuvah is havdalah, separating between what is proper and what is not. It is only by determining which actions lead to darkness and which generate light that we act as is fitting. Even if a person with understanding falls to sin chas v’shalom, he knows to repent and change his ways. But many people wait until Elul to do teshuvah. After all, isn’t that when we are aroused to repentance by the shofar as the Rambam writes?

“We find in the Mishnah in Chulin 26 that whenever the Shofar is sounded we do not say havdalah. Conversely, whenever we say havdalah we do not sound the shofar. Although on a simple level this is a sign for when they would blow the shofar to signify the onset of Shabbos or Yom Tov, this statement also teaches a lesson about teshuvah. When one feels justified waiting to do teshuvah until the shofar is sounded during Elul, this shows he lacks understanding. He does not comprehend the gravity of sins since this leads to havdalah, healthy separation between what is right and what is wrong. One who has fitting discrimination between good and bad doesn’t wait to hear the shofar to repent!”

Dam Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Time for Repentance”
Chullin 26

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:8-9

Good Shabbos

As If Considering Angels

Broken AngelFor this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Peter 1:5-8

Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated “A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.” And it says: “And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets” ; read not “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (chairut)—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, “And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.”Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

I know these two quotes may not seem to go together, but consider this. Peter says that we should add faith to goodness and then add goodness to knowledge. What knowledge? Where does this knowledge come from? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi implies that knowledge comes from Torah by expressing the inverse that one who does not occupy himself with Torah “is considered an outcast” and is like a “golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason”.

Sounds pretty harsh, but then, so does Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. –2 Peter 2:10-12

I’ve been involved in a series of online discussions lately that have been critical of Talmud study among Christians. Specifically, the allegation is that the sages who documented the Oral law and established a system of rulings for the Jewish people, were the inheritors of the tradition of the Pharisees and that Jesus had nothing good to say about the Pharisees, citing examples such as this:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. –Matthew 23:1-7

This is just one of the examples in the Gospels which cast all Pharisees everywhere in a particularly bad light, but as I commented recently, Jesus is upset with this group of Pharisees, not because they taught bad things, but because they didn’t practice what they taught! Keep that in mind. If the Pharisees had behaved consistently with their teachings, Jesus wouldn’t have had a problem with them at all. His only beef with the Pharisees is that they were hypocrites, not false teachers.

Think about it. If, as some have stated, the Talmudic scholars and sages have inherited the mantle of the Pharisees and they behaved consistently with their own teachings, then it is quite possible that the “Rebbe of Nazaret” wouldn’t have any problem with them either.

I know there are a lot of variables to consider and we won’t know for sure until Jesus returns to us, but based on this small bit of simple logic, we cannot reasonably discard or disdain anything in the Talmud based on the behavior of a collection of hypocritical religious authorities that operated in Roman-Judea in the time of Jesus. We can’t also reasonably apply the following to the Rabbis of the Talmud:

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.” –Isaiah 29:13-14

I know it’s enormously tempting to apply the words of the Prophet not only to the Pharisees but to the Talmudic sages as well. Certainly, if we think of the Talmudic writings as only the rules of men with no Biblical source, then we might be justified in doing so, but taken out of context, we don’t know if Isaiah is even considering the Oral Law (which he would have seen as Torah) or the Rabbinic commentaries and rulings on said-Oral Law (and Written Law), which are recorded in the Talmud. The rulings of the Rabbis don’t overwrite and contradict Torah, but rather, are intended to interpret and make sense of the Written and Oral Law for each generation of Jews as they met new challenges in applying a Torah lifestyle in an ever-changing world.

Here’s something else to consider:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. –Matthew 11:25-26

Taken together with some portions of the quote from Isaiah 29:13-14, these words of the Master might suggest that it’s bad to be intelligent, well-read, and educated. Why bother to learn how to read at all if intelligence is not to be trusted and if it’s better to be ignorant and untaught? I don’t think this is what the Master means here, but rather, he’s saying you don’t have to be a scholar to have access to the grace of God. Of course, he’s not saying grace is denied the learned sage, either.

It’s been suggested that Rabbinic judgments and rulings are not to be trusted and that the wisdom of the average individual, as guided by the Spirit, reading the Bible in English and outside of its history, culture, and other contexts, is far preferable to trusting and learning from people who have spent all of their lives pouring over Scripture and striving to master the teachings of God.

And yet Peter was critical “of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority”. Further, he said that “First of all, understand this; no prophecy of Scripture is to be interpreted by an individual on his own, for never has prophecy come as a result of human willing – on the contrary, people moved by the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) spoke the message from God”. (2 Peter 1:20-21 [CJB]).

Cutting BranchesWe could be tempted to say Peter is confirming that all a person; any person, needs is the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible, but he’s also speaking of Prophets like Isaiah, not the average guy on the street. We read the prophecies of Isaiah because he was a prophet of God and we’re not. We read the teachings of Jesus because he’s the Messiah and we’re not. Also, lest we forget, Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and the key to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the world, was a very well-educated man…in fact, far more educated than many of Christ’s inner circle who were what we would consider today as blue-collar workers and laborers.

There’s no problem with who Jesus chose to be close to him as being, relatively speaking, uneducated, because, as I’ve already mentioned, the love of Christ isn’t primarily accessed through “book-learning”. But on the other hand, the fact that Paul was chosen by Jesus says that education and authority isn’t a problem either. Certainly, being learned and possessing authority requires that such a position be used with justice, honor, and humility. The Ethics of the Fathers 6:5 speaks to this:

Do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor. More than you study, do. Desire not the table of kings, for your table is greater than theirs, and your crown is greater than theirs, and faithful is your Employer to pay you the rewards of your work.

In fact, from the same chapter (Chapter 6:6), we find that study of Torah (which includes Talmud in this context) yields people who have qualities such as:

love of G-d, love of humanity, love of charity, love of justice, love of rebuke, fleeing from honor, lack of arrogance in learning, reluctance to hand down rulings, participating in the burden of one’s fellow, judging him to the side of merit, correcting him, bringing him to a peaceful resolution [of his disputes], deliberation in study, asking and answering, listening and illuminating, learning in order to teach, learning in order to observe, wising one’s teacher, exactness in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker.

As long as the teacher behaves consistently with these, and the other teachings in the Torah and Talmud, what problem could this present? What problem could it present for any person of faith and good will who wishes to devote time to pondering this wisdom?

We see that taking Scripture out of context and applying an overly simple interpretation to what may turn out to be very complex matters of principle actually results in a disservice to the Prophets and Apostles, as well as to the later sages, and finally to Jesus and to God the Father.

We should all be very, very careful how we interpret and apply Scripture, especially if we use it to malign our teachers and scholars and, by inference, every religious Jew who has ever lived or will live, for they too revere the sages and attempt to live their lives by the principles of Torah, which have been established and interpreted across the ages.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” –Genesis 12:3

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.” –Sanhedrin 11:1

for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. –Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

Do not denigrate the root, lest your branch be cut off from it.

The Supernatural Life

SupernaturalWhen G-d makes a miracle, it is so that afterwards we may look at the natural order and say, “I recognize this. This is not what it appears to be. This, too, is a miracle.”

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”Matthew 14:27-31

What was the greater miracle, that Jesus walked on water or that Peter did? I’d have to say “Peter”. After all, we expect Jesus Christ to perform miracles. He is the Son of God, the living Messiah, our High Priest in the Heavenly Court. We’ve become quite used to Jesus performing miracles. Jesus turns water into wine. Jesus makes the blind see and the deaf hear. Jesus calms the raging storm. He does miracles. We expect it.

But miracles don’t happen today, do they? Why not?

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. –John 14:12-14

So do you believe him? If so, what miracles have you done lately? Have you tried walking across a lake or even a swimming pool? If you tried, did you walk like Peter or sink like Peter once he got scared and forgot to have faith?

No miracles, huh? Then what was Jesus talking about? What was the Rebbe talking about when he said we’d look at the natural order of things and say, “This, too, is a miracle.”?

I’m not going to answer that question yet, but I will tell you another small story from Rabbi Freeman’s book about the Rebbe:

G-d can do anything. He could even, as the saying goes, “fit an elephant through the eye of a needle.”

So, how would He do it? Would He make the elephant smaller? Or would He expand the eye of the needle?

Neither. The elephant would remain big, the eye of the needle small. And He would fit the elephant through the eye of the needle.

Illogical? True. But logic is just another of His creations. He who created logic is permitted to disregard it.

That’s a little like saying that the world exists simply because we believe it exists. If we started doubting the reality of the world then, “poof”, the world goes away. Does the universe exist simply because God believes it does?

The Master had something similar to say about large animals and needles:

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” –Matthew 19:24

Not very logical, is it?

Teaching of the TzadikimPeter made a miracle, but it went away when he started having doubts and became afraid. Miracles are hard for some people to understand because they aren’t logical or we spend time trying to figure out how they work or what they mean. I’ve heard some people say that when Jesus referred to “the eye of a needle”, he wasn’t being literal about the needle but rather, referencing a specific gate that is narrow and where it’s difficult to get a camel to pass through. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. Who knows?

James, the brother of the Master, said we don’t have because we don’t ask God (James 4:2) but maybe we don’t have miracles because we don’t live life expecting them. When you read the miracles of Jesus, he does these incredible things that defy nature, transmute substances, performs the impossible by all known physical laws. Yet the Rebbe said that we have these outstanding miracles so that we will recognize the other miracles that are in our lives; miracles that are, so to speak, right under our noses.

What miracles? Look around.

Your life is a miracle. It is said that God wills each beat of your heart and that without His will, your life would come to an abrupt end. We speak of things like “the miracle of birth” and how miraculous it is that we can plant a seed and, with a little dirt, water, and sun, it turns into a plant. Yet these things happen every day.

I guess that means miracles happen everyday, all around us, in every corner of the world.

Why don’t we see them? Are we blind?

Maybe so.

We don’t see miracles because we don’t expect to see miracles in the world around us, occurring through ordinary, everyday events…and yet if we open our eyes, they’re there, right in front of us.

One last teaching of the Rebbe via Rabbi Freeman’s book in this morning’s meditation:

Lead a supernatural life and G-d will provide the miracles.

I based the purpose and philosophy of this blog on the following teaching of Rabbi Freeman:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

You can see an adaptation of this quote near the top of the blog. Now let those words to sink in for a bit. Pour yourself another cup of coffee and take a moment to meditate on living a supernatural life. Don’t move away from the computer too fast. Take an extra minute or two to imagine what life would be like if you thought you’d see a miracle today. Once you have that thought firmly in place, close your web browser and get up. Go over the list of what you plan to do today. Add one thing to the top of the list. Make it the first item, before you consider anything else.

Let that first item on your agenda today be, “Expect miracles.”

Live a supernatural life. It might not be as difficult as you imagine.

Who Are Our Teachers?

A Rabbi TeachingIf King David, who learned nothing from Achitofel except for two things alone, nevertheless referred to him as his “master,” “guide,” and “intimate,” it certainly goes without saying that one who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter of Torah, is obligated to revere him.

-Ethics Of The Fathers, 6:3

Our sages tell us, “There are three partners to the creation of man: G-d, his father, and his mother.” The capacity to procreate is, in essence, a distinctly Divine nature…The same is true regarding the “regenerative power” contained in a teaching: when G-d is a partner to their endeavor, the teacher-student relationship yields an infinite progeny.

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers: Chapter 6
Tammuz 11, 5771 * July 13, 2011
“Fertile Wisdom”

I’ve mentioned before that the student-teacher relationship can yield enormous benefits, assuming an honest, knowledgeable, and inspired teacher and a student willing to be open. However, as we see from the quotes above, the teacher isn’t necessarily the most important partner in the transaction, which is good, since human beings are fallible. God is always present when Torah is taught and learned, which makes the act of study not only educational but holy. The Creator is the indispensable element in the room whenever people come together to learn the Word of God.

Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated: “The Almighty stands in the community of G-d.” And from where do we know that such is also the case with five? From the verse, “He established his band on earth.” And three? From the verse, “He renders judgment in the midst of judges.” And two? From the verse, “Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard.” And from where do we know that such is the case even with a single individual? From the verse, “Every place where I have My name mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” –Ethics of The Fathers 3:6

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” –Matthew 18:20 (NASB)

But from who can we learn? It’s desirable to find a worthy teacher; one we can call our “Rebbe”, but there are problems with this. There are many unworthy teachers out there who are anxious to gather a following out of their own ambition, men and women who believe they have a special insight and who are entitled to share their particular “theological axe” which they desire to “grind”. From these “teachers” we learn there are those who are not to be trusted. Also, Christian tradition, unlike Judaism, doesn’t have a history of “Rebbes” or exalted teachers who pass their knowledge, wisdom, and compassion from one generation of disciples to the next. We are (often rightly) suspicious of gurus, cult leaders, and false teachers who ultimately lead people away from God. Christians even distrust the study of Torah and Talmud from valid and worthy Jewish Rabbis for fear this will lead the Christian away from Jesus.

And yet we are commanded to obey our leaders and teachers in the community of faith:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. –Hebrews 13:17

We also see from David’s example with Achitofel that we are to honor a person who teaches us “a single chapter, a law, a verse, a saying, or even a single letter of Torah.” While we can seek to learn the teachings of an honored Rebbe such as Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory (and I’m learning much from his teachings as related by Rabbi Tzvi Freemen in the book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth), we see from the following that a good teaching can come from even a bad source:

It is possible to utilize for G-d’s service, [in a manner] according to Torah, all behavior-traits. This includes those traits that are unwholesome, and even those that are evil, as their names and descriptions indicate. For example, the tzadik Rabbi Meshulam Zushya of Anipoli, of blessed memory, learned [from his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch] a number of ways of serving G-d from [the ways of] a thief:

  1. He works quietly without others knowing.
  2. He is ready to place himself in danger.
  3. The smallest detail is of great importance to him.
  4. He labors with great toil
  5. [and] Enthusiasm.
  6. He is confident and optimistic.
  7. If he did not succeed the first time, he tries again and again.

-[From HaYom Yom by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, translated by Uri Kaploun (Kehot)].
found at Chabad.org

This shouldn’t be so surprising, since the Master, our own great Rebbe in Christianity told us this:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. –Matthew 23:1-4

Look at what Jesus is saying. He’s not telling his audience to ignore or disregard the teachings of the Pharisees. He’s saying “you must be careful to do everything they tell you”. What? Aren’t Pharisees hypocrites, liars, untrustworthy, and “under the Law”? Don’t they deny the true teachings of God and the grace of Jesus Christ? Why did Jesus tell his disciples to obey everything the Pharisees told them to do?

It’s because what the Pharisees taught was correct and consistent with the Torah, however the Pharisees of that day were corrupt and indeed, they were hypocrites who, under the Roman occupation, exalted themselves and did not “practice what they preached”, so to speak.

But what they actually taught was worthy of being learned and obeyed.

It’s also important to realize that not every single Pharisee was corrupt and no good. After all, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and he ended up becoming a disciple of Jesus. After the crucifixion of the Master, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, approached Pilate and asked permission to bury the Master’s body before the Sabbath began (we aren’t quite clear as to whether this was the eve of Passover or the weekly Sabbath). Not all Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin were evil and corrupt, so we shouldn’t paint them all with the same broad brush.

KindergartenLook at the teaching of the Rebbe about how to learn from a thief. He doesn’t say the thief is a good and worthy teacher and that we must devote our lives to learning at the feet of a criminal. He says that, by simply observing the thief, there are habits we can learn and adapt to a life of holiness. The same is true of learning from anyone, even if they are unworthy, a hypocrite, or a thief, simply by watching them and listening to them, we can learn much, as long as we continue to use our powers of discernment and to view everything through the lens of the Bible and the Spirit of God.

Remember, in any transaction between two people, one being a teacher and the other being the student, God is there as the indispensable partner in the exchange. Being a student and disciple does not mean being a mindless sponge with no will of your own. In fact, your will, your judgment, and your questioning nature is as necessary to being a student as your attention, openness, and eagerness to learn. You cannot be taught corruption if you are paying attention and you do not have to take anything at face value without asking questions. Even the Bereans didn’t take Paul at his word and checked everything he taught against scripture (Acts 17:10-12). If you feel you have been lead astray by a teacher, look to yourself when asking the question, “how did this happen?”.

I’m sure you’ve heard or read the list compiled by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. From this, we learn that small children can teach us something. Even the Prophet Isaiah said “and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6).

The Maggid also taught Rabbi Zushya, his disciple that we can learn three things from a child:

  • Never for a moment is he idle.
  • When he needs something, he demands it vigorously.
  • He is merry for no particular reason.

-[From The House of Rizhin by Rabbi Menachem Brayer [Mesorah].]

The Pirkei Avot; The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that a life of learning and performing Torah yields many rewards:

The sages expounded in the language of the Mishnah (blessed is He who chose them and their learning):
Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called friend, beloved, lover of G-d, lover of humanity, rejoicer of G-d, rejoicer of humanity. The Torah enclothes him with humility and awe; makes him fit to be righteous, a chassid, correct and faithful; distances him from sin and brings him close to merit. From him, people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and power, as is stated, “Mine are counsel and wisdom, I am understanding, mine is power.” The Torah grants him sovereignty, dominion, and jurisprudence. The Torah’s secrets are revealed to him, and he becomes as an ever-increasing wellspring and as an unceasing river. He becomes modest, patient and forgiving of insults. The Torah uplifts him and makes him greater than all creations. –The Ethics of the Fathers 6:1

Being a student, a disciple, and a person of faith is not a passive activity. Learning isn’t something you only do sitting at someone’s feet or taking notes in a classroom. It’s not always accomplished by reading a book or by visiting inspirational websites. A disciple is always moving, always asking questions, always observing, always sharing their insights with others and asking for feedback. Most importantly, in any learning situation (which is to say, in every waking moment of our lives), we are always turning to the “silent” voice in the room, the indispensable partner in the teaching of Torah. God is with us and He sent us a counselor who will teach us all things (John 14:26). Even when reading the Bible by ourselves at night, we are never alone.

Our teachers can be anyone. Our teachers can be anywhere. We just have to be paying attention to where we are and what we’re doing.

“A brilliant mind without faith is like a beautiful face without eyes.” -Shalom Cohen

Good Shabbos

Tasty Chazir

Plane FoodEach person is responsible to interpret and apply the Scriptures to their own lives.

No person standing before God will get a pass because he was just following the [big religious group X] interpretation of Scripture.

That isn’t being prideful toward either Jewish or Catholic traditions. Rather, it’s being responsible for your own walk before God.

Judah Gabriel Himango
from one of his comments on his blog post
A Warnng to Those Who Follow Yeshua
Kineti L’Tziyon

There’s a rather spirited debate going on over at Judah’s blog considering whether or not studying Talmud and other Jewish texts leads Christians and “Messianics” away from faith in Jesus. The Jewish texts are taking a rather heavy beating from some of the commenters (as I write this, there are 105 comments and growing) but a few defenders of Talmud study are weighing in, including me.

I’ve already commented on a number of occasions, but the question of authority has come up. While I agree that we, as individuals, are responsible to God for our behavior and how we have sanctified or desecrated His Name, I also believe we are not expected to be solely responsible for understanding God or His Bible. It’s OK to have teachers and authorities that we agree to follow and it’s OK to let ourselves learn from these teachers.

I found the following commentary on a Daf I was studying and I thought it was an appropriate illustration of the dynamic between an individual’s interpretation of the Bible (in this case, a Torah mitzvah) and a Rabbinic ruling that modifies the person’s beliefs. As a bonus, the story shows a typically human response to this new information, even after agreeing that we’ve changed our opinion.

Enjoy today’s “extra” meditation.

On today’s daf we find that even pork was permitted during the seven-year conquest of Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shabsi Yudelevitz recounted that on one plane trip he was seated next to a well-known Israeli zoologist. While the two spoke, the airline meal came and the professor began to partake of his bacon with obvious relish.

Rav Yudelovitz painfully remarked, “How could you eat that? Aren’t you a Jew?”

The professor was nonplussed. “Why does what Moshe said four thousand years ago obligate me?”

Rav Yudelevitz was not impressed, however, with this answer. “Rasha! God said what is written in the Torah, and He is alive and well!”

The professor tried to mollify the offended rabbi. “Rebbi, don’t get upset. If you can prove that God said what meat to eat, I will do teshuvah. But I must say that I had an argument with a certain rav for four hours and he failed to convince me of anything.”

“Four hours? I only need about four minutes,” was Rav Yudelevitz’s confident reply.

The professor opened his eyes wide and said, “Four minutes? Really?”

“Yes. Just listen. The Torah tells us that there are only four species that have one sign of kashrus but not the other: they all either have split hooves or chew their cud, but not both. The Gemara in Chulin 60 wonders how Moshe could have possibly known this. It’s not as though he was a hunter or zoologist! He never went hunting and how could any human at that time possibly know all the many species of animals, even on the savannah of Africa? So how would he dare say that there are only four such anomalies unless God told him so?”

The professor turned white.

But a moment later he said, “I will just finish eating and then I will do teshuvah…”

Rav Yudelevitz commented later about the incident. “What a pity. The professor simply cannot wean himself away from his tasty chazir. He is convinced of the truth but will just wait to finish eating. Sadly, by then it is already too late…”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Logical Inconsistency”
Chullin 17

Top Hat and Shoes

Top Hat and ShoesAbsolute truth is hard to come by. Many gedolim made it their life goal to speak and act only in accordance with their true level. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, gave an interesting explanation of why one should not act above his level.

He said, “This can be compared to a person who wears a luxurious top hat but is absolutely barefoot. Surely all who see him will remark at the inappropriateness of such an imbalance in this man’s apparel! The same is true in spiritual matters. One must first put on his shoes, which are the foundation middos. Then he can aim for higher.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Perhaps He is Not His Father…”
Chullin 11

I’m immediately reminded of two other stories; the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, and Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The former tells a tale of self-delusion which others are willing to buy into, and the latter assures us that the Torah was given so that even the most mundane acts in our lives can be seen as holy.

Besides the clothing motif, what do they have in common? Let me explain.

Rav Levovitz shows us that, as people of faith, we strive to achieve higher spiritual goals. If we are at all connected with God and we’re on speaking terms, we “know” that we can be closer to Him and we can be better people. We can be the people God designed us to be. However, it’s not that easy.

Have you ever set a goal for yourself that, in retrospect, you realized was unrealistically high. Have you ever aimed at achieving something lofty before doing the ground work and laying a foundation for what comes next? I know I have. I believe it’s a fairly common human behavior. We fail, not because we are lazy or don’t have high aspirations, but because we don’t look at the entire sequence of events between where we are and where we want to go. We try to jump from “A” to “Z”, without going through the intervening letters of the alphabet. We fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have to.

Rabbi Ginsburgh puts what we need to do very simply and elegantly:

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it.

Hans Christian Andersen shows us what happens when we cut corners and don’t pay attention to the difference between fantasy and reality.

If you feel like you’re in a rut in your church life, in your synagogue life, in your prayer life, in your spirituality…it’s probably because you are.

A relationship with God is like being married. When you first get married, it’s all exciting and romantic and thrilling. Then five years go by. Ten. Fifteen. Suddenly, you realize you’ve been married for almost thirty years and sometimes, life at home seems pretty boring. Not much romance is going on. No thrills have happened for months, maybe years. Is this the goal you were shooting for?

Let’s go through that story again with a slight twist. You’ve been married for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years. Some days are better than others. The “magic” in the marriage comes and goes, waxes and wanes. It’s sometimes pretty good and sometimes not so good, but in the end, you find that nothing really gets better or more intimate. Stuck in a rut again.

Let’s apply that back to your relationship with God.

You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. –James 4:2-3

In marriages, sometimes a breakdown in communication makes it difficult to understand your spouse. Since God always understands us, the breakdown in our relationship with Him can only come from us. We don’t know what to ask or we ask with bad motives. Who am I? Who is God? What do we have in common? How can we communicate? How can I get closer to Him? I put on my best top hat, but I forget to put on socks and shoes. What can I do? Maybe Rav Yerucham has the answer:

In Kotz, a certain chassid who served God with his entire heart once exclaimed while praying, “Oy, Tatte! Oh, Father!”

A fellow Kotzker heard this and quoted a statement on today”s daf, “And maybe he is not his father…”

This shook the chassid up quite a bit and pushed him to consult with the Kotzker Rebbe. Although the rebbe gave many short shrift, he gave this man encouragement. The rebbe said, “You need to cry out, ‘Oy, Tatte,’ so much that He becomes truly like a father to you!”

That sounds almost like:

I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. –Psalm 2:7

Going to GodA few days ago, I wrote about how a spiritual leader can profoundly affect our lives, not just by what he teaches or by his example, but by inspiring us to be better people. It is said that the Rebbe who is head of a Yeshiva is like a father to his students. Indeed, the Rebbe is considered even more of a father than the student’s actual father. A father brings physical life to a child but a Rabbi and teacher brings the student to the Torah and to God, which gives life beyond measure.

Both in Judaism and in Christianity, we call God “Father”, but we don’t recognize Him as our Father until we desperately cry out to Him with all our strength. At that moment, He becomes our Father and we become sons and daughters. All people were created in God’s own image, so regardless of your religious tradition or even if you have no faith at all, you are still God’s child. You only need to recognize that fact and call out to Him.

For those of you who know you are sons and daughters, but who seem to be spinning your wheels in your relationship with Him, cry out to Him. Tell Him you need Him (He knows this, but you might have to remind yourself). Whether you call out “God” or “Father” or “Abba”, you are calling Him. As Christians we are told that what we pray to God in the name of Christ, will be heard in Heaven and answered.

It’s time to move out of apathy and into action. It’s time to reach new heights in your relationship with Him, or perhaps develop a relationship with Him for the first time. Go to God. Put on your finest clothes for the occasion. Just remember to put on your shoes so you can keep your balance.