Tag Archives: teacher

The Inescapable God

MitzvahBe as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos.Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

On the surface, the mishnah’s point is simple enough: do not weigh and categorize G-d’s commandments. But upon closer examination, its words seem fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.

Are there or are there not differences between mitzvos? The mishnah seems to saying that there aren’t, but it itself uses the terms “minor” and “major” (kaloh and chamurah) – terms which are used to categorize mitzvos in the Talmud and its commentaries and in the various codes of Torah law.

On the Essence of the Mitzvah:
Commanding Connection and Refining Deed
Sivan 13, 5771 * June 15, 2011
Chabad.org

What does it mean to obey God? What does it mean to sin? Are their big sins and little sins? Can one form of obedience be better than another?

The commentary from which I quoted above struggles with this question and the meaning of what obeying the commandments does for us and for others. And while it is true, this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, I think there is more than ample reason for Christians to take it seriously as well.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.-Mark 12:28-44

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

This isn’t to suggest that the commands issued by Jesus and applied to his non-Jewish disciples were identical to the 613 commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai, but it is clear that the grace of God did not wipe away the law of God in the world and that each of us has a responsibility to obey our Creator and to avoid rebellion against Him.

But putting aside the specific content of the commandments for a moment, why do we have those that Jesus gave to the nations and those that Moses related to Israel?  Why do we have commandments at all? It’s not as if obeying or disobeying God can add to or take away from His Holiness and perfection. Continuing with the “On the Essence of the Mitzvah” commentary, we find:

In other words, there are two dimensions to the mitzvos. On the most basic level, a mitzvah, by virtue of its being commanded by the Almighty, binds its performer (as well as the resources which he utilizes in its performance) to its Commander. In this, all mitzvos are indeed equal. A mitzvah that takes tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual development to fulfill connects us to G-d no more than one which is observed with a single, effortless act.

But G-d did more. He not only opened a channel into our lives by which we may connect to Him, He also made this path a “perfect way”, a way of life which improves and perfects those who travel it. His word not only conveys His will and command, it is also a “refined” word—a word that refines those who heed it. This is the second, “specific” dimension of the mitzvah. When we give charity, we not only fulfill a Divine command, we also develop in ourselves a sensitivity to the needs of others and learn the proper perspective on the material resources which have been entrusted to us.

This reads very much like the “two greatest commandment” I quoted above from Mark. While in one sense, commandments are equal in that they all serve God (though we cannot know their true, relative merit from a Heavenly perspective), they also differ in that some of them connect us to God exclusively while others serve this purpose, plus they make us sensitive to those around us. In other words, what we do for God, though He has no needs at all that we can satisfy, is inexorably intertwined with what we do for people (and we have a great ability to perform acts that benefit other human beings), the act of which benefits others and refines our nature.

Yet, one of the “dangers” of serving other people is that we can let that “feel good” experience when we perform kindness and charity distract us from the One who we are serving as well:

However, warns the Ethics, never lose sight of the deeper import of the mitzvos. Employ the Divine commandments to build a better self and world, thus experiencing them as an entire array of major and minor influences on your life, but remember that they all share a deeper, unified truth. Be equally careful of them all, for their true reward is beyond knowledge and experience.

Studying TorahWhat we do to connect to God, to refine our own character, and to serve the needs of others, must remain balanced within us. To bias our viewpoint in one direction or the other could mean we continue to do mercy and justice while losing sight of the unifying “why”. But even losing sight of God does not mean He loses sight of us. His Hand is still upon us, regardless of who we are or how we are behaving or thinking. How many people have lost sight of God or have never experienced Him in a deliberate and conscious manner, and yet still yearn for Him, His Justice, and His mitzvot?

I do not accept your assertion that you do not believe.

For if you truly had no concept of a Supernal Being Who created the world with purpose, then what is all this outrage of yours against the injustice of life?

The substance of the universe is not moral, nor are plants and animals. Why should it surprise you that whoever is bigger and more powerful swallows his fellow alive?

It is only due to an inner conviction in our hearts, shared by every human being, that there is a Judge, that there is right and there is wrong. And so, when we see a wrong, we demand an explanation: Why is this not the way it is supposed to be?

That itself is belief in G-d.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“True Belief”
Chabad.org

We cannot escape God. We are made in His image. Atheists cannot escape God, for even in crying out against the real and perceived injustices in the world, they unknowingly appeal to the One True Judge. We, as believers, cannot escape God either. You might imagine that, being “religious people” we only want to draw closer to Him, but we must realize that we do so only on His terms, and not on ours.

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. –Ethics of the Fathers 2:4

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. –Luke 22:42

Know the Master you serve and then seek to do His will with all your heart.

The Messianic Tale

The Ba'al Shem TovThe third goal of the hasidic story was to rouse its hearers into action for the service of God. Several compilers of hasidic stories quoted the dictum by R. Elimelekh that ‘it is an auspicious sign for a person if, when he hears what is related regarding the virtues of the tsadikim and their faithful holy service of the Lord, may he be blessed, his heart beats at that time with the desire and very great fervour that he also merit faithfully to serve the Lord, may he be blessed; this is a good sign that the Lord is with him.’

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedaliah Nigal

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”Luke 24:28-32

Gedaliah Nigal relates to his audience the importance to the Chasidim of storytelling  about tzadikim (righteous ones), Chasidim (devoted disciples), and the deep and multi-layered influence these tales can have. As you’ve already seen, one of the purposes of Chasidic storytelling is to inspire the listeners to perform acts of righteousness and devotion for the sake of God. We also see in Luke’s Gospel, that the words of the risen Messiah did the same thing. That brings us to an interesting question: is one of the main purposes of the Bible to tell stories that inspire the reader?

I’m not really asking if the Bible is inspirational. I think most believers would say “yes”. What I’m asking is whether or not the Bible is a collection of stories designed to inspire its readers?

I’ve just implied that not everything in the Bible is literally true, a contention supported by many leading New Testament (NT) scholars, not the least of which is Bart D. Ehrman. You might be tempted to dismiss Ehrman based on the fact that he is a self-declared agnostic (though a former Christian), but other scholarly New Testament books address the question of how literally we can take the Bible, including whether or not the New Testament defines Jesus as God (see Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God as examples).

If you believe that the Bible is 100% literally true and should be read as a history, I’ve no doubt just shocked you by suggesting otherwise, yet modern NT scholars readily confirm that the Bible is less a history book and more a set of stories (based on eyewitness accounts, at least to some degree) about the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and what they mean to the nations of the world in terms of access to God, forgiveness of sins, and a life beyond the one we know. The New Testament speaks to the Jewish people but it also speaks to the non-Jewish nations about the God of Israel and the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah who brought the Good News of the Most High to all of mankind. These “stories” represent as much the perspectives and character of the  NT authors (who may not always be the people we attribute these stories to) as well as the nature of character of the Messiah.

That brings us to another purpose of these “stories”:

The very power of the hasidic tale wins adherents to hasidism. Many people, among them some outstanding individuals, have been drawn to hasidism by its stories. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, one of the leading hasidic tsadikim, said of himself that ‘he was made a hasid by an old man who told stories about the holy tasdikim’. The Ba’al Shem Tov excelled in his ability to attract new followers by this means.

Teaching of the TzadikimWhile Nigal is speaking of Jews who turn toward the teachings of Chasidic Judaism, I will admit to being attracted, as a Gentile, to these teachings when I read some of the tales of the Chasidim. It’s difficult to disregard the wisdom and compassion of the inspirational stories about the Chasidic tzadikim, but it doesn’t stop there. This, I think, is also what is so attractive about the tales of the “tzadik” Jesus. In fact, there is one Chasid who, after thoroughly investigating the Gospels, found the “stories” of John especially to be reminiscent of the tales of the Chasidim and as a result, became a lifelong disciple of the “Maggid of Nazeret”.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

If a young Chasid named Feivel Levertoff (he later changed his name to “Paul Philip”) could discover the Messiah in Jesus in the late 19th century because John’s Gospel was so much like the powerful and mystic writings on which he was raised, is it so difficult to imagine that a passionate exploration of Jesus might lead a Christian to discover an extension of his faith in Chasidic tales?

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the novel:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

In the days prior to and even after Christ’s earthly existence, it was somewhat common for non-Jews to see the beauty and wisdom in the teachings of the God of Israel, so in those days, many Gentiles converted to Judaism as the only means by which they could live a life of righteousness (though through the revelation of Christ, all people may be reconciled to God). While Christianity begins with Judaism as its root, two millennium of separation between Judaism and Christianity have made them two almost completely unrelated faiths, with only the spectre of a connection between them (most Jews would say that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a misnomer). However, if Christianity truly accepts that we follow the Jewish Messiah, who first came for the lost sheep of Israel and only afterwards for the nations, who never abandoned his people, and as the Apostle Paul taught, all of Israel will one day all be saved (Romans 11:26), then we cannot be so arrogant as to brush aside the natural branch just because we, the wild and alien olive shoot, have been grafted into the root (Romans 11:17).

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts as related in the Ethics of the Fathers (Avot Pirkei). I won’t recount the entire story (you can click on the link I just provided and read it for yourself), but it does illustrate the drive and passion among some of the Gentiles to truly understand what it is to be a Jew and to have that special covenant relationship with God. While Hillel and Shammai died perhaps only within a few years of the birth of Christ, they each established great schools of Jewish learning and their disciples, native Jews and converts, carried on their teachings and traditions for generations and eventually, ensured that their stories would be recorded for all time so that we have them with us even today.

The “Chasidim” of Jesus also made sure the stories of their Master were passed on from generation to generation, eventually being recorded and passed on to the future…to us.

Paul Philip Levertoff thought that the teachings of Jesus read like a collection of Chasdic tales. Perhaps as Gentile Christians reading tales of the Chasidim, we can also find a connection to the Messiah, the Prophet, and the greatest Tzadik, whose own death atoned for not just a few, but for all.

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

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.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”
Chabad.org

Rebuke of the Master

Master and disciplesAnd He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?Mark 9:19 (NAS)

A certain man once asked the Chavos Yair, zt”l, about a surprising comment found on today’s daf. “In many places we find various insults various lumineries hurled at each other. For example, in Menachos 80 we find that Rebbi tells Levi, ‘I don’t believe he has a brain in his head…’ How could he say such a sharp insult??

“Why do we find in Yevamos 9a that Rebbi says that Rav Levi has no brain in his head? Isn’t that a little harsh? What about the verse, the words of the wise, spoken gently, are heard?” And the Mishnah: The honor of your friend should be as dear to you as your own?”

Daf Yomi Digest
Menachos 80
Stories off the Daf
“The Words of the Wise”

We are supposed to love each other. The words of the Prophets and the Savior Jesus tell us this (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31). So how can the Chavos Yair justify insults between the ancient sages in Judaism? How can you say you honor God, love your neighbor, and then still say that ‘I don’t believe he has a brain in his head…’ to a fellow teacher or to a student?

How could Jesus, a man who has been called “the Maggid of Nazeret” and who is acknowledged as a great Rebbe and who is lifted very high as Messiah, insult his own disciples?

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. –Matthew 16:8-12

If Jesus is supposed to be all “meek and mild” and so full of love and grace, couldn’t he have made his point a better way? Couldn’t he have addressed his disciples; his students, without making them feel two inches tall?

Maybe his insults were the point, however. Look at the rest of the commentary for Menachos 80:

The Chavos Yair responded, “It was from here that the Rambam learned that a rav must show anger with his disciple if he feels that the student’s failure to understand is due to a lack of diligence and care in his learning. Since Rebbi felt that his student was careless, showing anger was a means to goad him to be more diligent in the future.”

When Rav Eliezer Schlesinger, zt”l, was asked to explain this he made a strong point. “It is true that Rebbi insulted Rav Levi. Yet you must consider that this is the best way to develop his student. It is important to note that we also find Rebbi complimenting Levi, for example, in Zevachim 30. Surely this was done in a properly balanced manner to educate Rav Levi in the best possible way.”

It’s important to note that what’s being advocated here isn’t insulting a person for lack of capacity or ability. This teaching is illustrating that the student, or the Master being addressed in such a harsh fashion should have known better. When serving a great Master and when serving God, we don’t get to be lazy about it. We were given gifts and skills that we are expected to use to our fullest. After all, we have been taught to love God with everything we’ve got (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Mark 12:30), so shouldn’t we serve Him to the absolute limits of who we are and what we can do?

While it is pleasant to be taught by a sage or an instructor who addresses us only with kindness, gentleness, and patience, as human beings, we often take advantage of such a teacher and only produce enough effort to “get by”. This is not the way of a disciple of a true sage and certainly not what is expected by the God we serve.

Do not limit yourself. Love God with all your heart. Serve God with all your effort. If you choose not to, be prepared to be discipled and humbled by the One who knows your very soul.

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in. –Proverbs 3:11-12