Tag Archives: teaching

Learning God

davening_morningIn the early period of his leadership the Alter Rebbe taught: “The footsteps of man are directed by G-d.”(Tehillim 37:23) When a Jew comes to a particular place it is for an (inner Divine) intent and purpose – to perform a mitzva, whether a mitzva between man and G-d or a mitzva between man and his fellow-man. A Jew is G-d’s messenger.

Wherever a messenger (shaliach) may be, he represents the power of the meshalei’ach, the one who sent him. The superior quality that souls possess, higher than the angels (who are also “messengers”), is that souls are messengers by virtue of Torah.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Tamuz 10, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

If you know something worthwhile, share it. By reaching others, you will reach yourself.

Whatever you learn – from books, lectures, or life experience – do so with the goal of sharing with others. If it was fascinating, how did it change you? What did it teach you about living? And how can you transfer that insight to others?

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Way #46: Learn In Order To Teach”s

Sharing life experiences? Rabbi Weinberg is talking my language.

The past two “morning meditations” were my commentary on a teaching given by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) President and Founder Boaz Michael called Moses in Matthew. One of the essential points I tried to get across is that not all of the information “encoded” in the gospels (or the rest of the Bible for that matter) can be accessed and understood apart from a Jewish context. That context includes not only understanding the original languages and the cultural and historical framework of the time in which the Bible writers were operating, but the philosophical, religious, and midrashic material that would have been in the minds of those writers and their immediate audiences.

While the Bible is truly the inspired word of God, the Bible writers most likely had no idea that what they penned would be translated into hundreds of languages and consumed by nations and cultures all over the planet, two-thousand or more years into the future. In their intent, they were writing to people like them, people they knew or knew about, a specific and contemporary  readership.

Localization, when applied to language, is the process of writing a document in one language with the specific purpose that it be (more or less) easily translated into other languages. That requires the original document be written as “generically” as possible, employing no slang, idiom, or other language forms that are difficult to translate literally into other languages.

But one of the things we know or should know, is that the Bible writers used a lot of word play, symbolism, imagery, idiom, slang, and nicknames that were extremely specific to not only the original languages but to the time and culture in which these writers were living. To make matters worse, the Greek of the New Testament can seem extremely awkward at communicating thoughts and ideas that the Hebrew thinking/speaking writers were attempting to communicate.

My Pastor, who is fluent in Hebrew, agrees that some of the New Testament phrases written in Greek are worded in a very difficult manner, but they become much clearer when “retro-translated” into Hebrew (which is one of the reasons why the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels are extremely helpful).

man_risingThe quote from “Today’s Day” at the top of this blog post says in part that “A Jew is G-d’s messenger. Wherever a messenger (shaliach) may be, he represents the power of the meshalei’ach, the one who sent him.” That’s quite true but as disciples of the Jewish Messiah, even we Gentiles are messengers of God and we also represent the one who sent us.

Rabbi Weinberg says that the purpose of learning is to teach, not that we must all take on the role of a formal teacher, but any time we communicate something we have learned to another, we are teaching them what we learned. That’s what I’m doing with this blog.

The interesting thing is that, based on everything I’ve written over the past several days (and long before that), as Christians, we can’t really learn the Bible beyond a certain point until we learn to read it “Jewishly.” Therefore, we can’t really teach what we’ve learned about the Bible beyond a particular limit until we’ve learned to teach it “Jewishly.”

This isn’t to say that we Gentile Christians will ever learn to conceptualize the world in the same way as someone who was born into a Jewish home, raised and educated within a fully cultural and religious Jewish context, and as someone who lives a life that is halachically Jewish. I live with a Jewish wife and have three Jewish children and I don’t come anywhere near understanding my world from the Jewish perspective, let alone writing from that perspective.

But hopefully I’ve learned enough to add a bit of an “accent” to my language…to communicate from a different perspective, presenting my understanding of the Bible (limited though it may be) in a way that appears new or at least different from what most Christians teach and comprehend.

According to Rabbi Weinberg, you don’t have to be perfect to teach. That’s a lesson I know all too well:

The best teachers make mistakes; more at the beginning, less later on. It’s like riding a bike or driving a car – the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Nobody ever became a great teacher without flopping a few times.

The first time, you’ll probably be laughed at. But don’t be discouraged. (Be glad they didn’t curse you!) Try again. The second time they’ll argue with you. That’s a good sign already; you’ve got them engaged. The third time they’ll thank you. That makes all the previous efforts worth it.

The same way a budding artist needs to study under the masters, a teacher needs to study the methods of great educators. If you have a favorite teacher (or journalist, actor, etc.) be conscious of their techniques for communicating the message.

But don’t wait until you’re perfect – because that’s a long way off! Just get started and teach as best you can. It will do wonders to help clarify your own viewpoint.

Of course, no one will ever become a perfect teacher and some people are more naturally gifted in that role than others. One of the reasons I write is to clarify what I’m learning within myself. Sometimes presenting that to others helps me learn as well. If the Jewish people were called to be a light to the nations, then Messiah has taught us that we need to be a light, too. We are learning things from our Master that are well worth sharing, but as he said, a light cannot shine if it is hidden under a basket.

GardeningLearning and teaching is a living, organic process. We know we’re alive when we are interacting, not only with other human beings, but with God. We are fulfilling the purpose of our existence. We are exercising the reason for our design.

We don’t have to be perfect and we don’t even always have to be all that good. We do have to do, though. If we are sincere, and motivated, and acting in His Name, we will move forward, we will learn, we will teach, and with the help of God, a few people will actually understand, then learn, and then teach too.

People think that to attain truth you have to pulverize boulders, move mountains and turn the world upside-down. It’s not so. Truth is found in the little things.

On the other hand, to move a mountain takes some dynamite and a few bulldozers. To do one of those little things can take a lifetime of working on yourself.

You do what you can: Learn and meditate and pray and improve yourself in the ways you know how—and He will help that what you do will be with Truth.

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

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

-Helen Keller, American writer and political activist

The Master said (Luke 21:15), “…for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” While that may not always seem true given the amount of ridicule believers receive from various members of our society, we are not abandoned and alone, either. Learn and keep on learning, but information kept to yourself only helps you. You are only serving God when you share it and Him.

What Do You Know?

Man, like all creatures . . . possesses both a body and a soul. And just as there are those who are poor in body and bodily needs, so, too, are there paupers in spirit and spiritual needs. Thus, the mitzvah of charity includes both physical charity and spiritual charity. In the words of our sages: “[It is written:] ‘If you see a naked person, you should cover him.’ What is the meaning of this? If you see a person who is naked of the words of Torah, take him into your home, teach him to read the Shema and pray, teach him… and enjoin him regarding the mitzvot….”

Regarding material charity, the law is that the material pauper is also obligated [to give], for even the most impoverished person can find a way to help his fellow pauper. The same applies to spiritual charity. There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews and bring them closer to the fear of Heaven, the Torah and the mitzvot.

Freely translated excerpt from the very first “public letter” written by the Rebbe
dated Elul 18, 5710 (August 31, 1950)
Printed in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, pg. 463-4.
As quoted from “A Poor Man’s Gift”
in the “What the Rebbe Taught Me” series

When I attended my former One Law congregation, it used to bother me a little to teach. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved to teach. I used to craft a lesson the way I write blogs. I’d find inspiration everywhere. I couldn’t read the Bible without getting ideas for future lessons.

But there’s a problem.

I have absolutely no formal educational or vocational background in teaching on Biblical and religious topics. I’m kind of a blockhead that way. I tend to teach as I write; not so much on the nuts and bolts facts, translations, and Greek or Hebrew “wordplay” you see on so many other religious blogs, but on the themes raised by the text and the moral and ethical lessons we can glean from the Word.

It still bothers me to blog for pretty much the same reasons it bothered me to teach. At least now, I’m only representing myself and not a congregation or organization. I don’t have to be worried that what I say and my personal opinions will reflect poorly on others. Now, when I (virtually) shoot off my big mouth, it only reflects poorly (or otherwise) on me.

Well, that’s not absolutely true. As a disciple of Jesus and a worshiper of the God of Abraham, anything I say or do, for good or for ill, reflects upon my Creator. That’s hardly to be taken lightly, but on the other hand, with so many religious bloggers out there, one or two others are probably going to make a few mistakes, too. That’s no excuse of course, but I have to plead that I’m only human. My mistakes are my own, not God’s.

Just in case you were wondering, just how many blogs and bloggers are out there, (I can’t drill down to the specific number of religious blogs, alas) according to nielsen.com, at the end of 2011, there were “over 181 million blogs around the world, up from 36 million only five years earlier.”


That’s pretty humbling.

If you’re one of those bloggers and you think your blog is really cool beans, just remember that no matter what you write and how important it is to you, there are almost 200 million other bloggers out there who feel the same way about their messages. Talk about a drop in a bucket.

HumbleThere are a lot of reasons why I continually entertain the thought that I should just quit. Especially after a “bad day” online, I brood a bit and figure I’ll set a date to stop blogging, delete my Facebook and twitter accounts, and let the rest of the world duke it out in cyberspace. I’m sure there are a lot of other things I could do with my time besides blogging a ridiculous amount in the Christian/Jewish/Messianic blogosphere. Besides, it’s not as if my one little online contribution could possibly make any sort of difference in the greater scheme of things.

But remember that I quoted from the Rebbe’s letter at the start of this particular missive.

Often, I use my blog as a platform to encourage and support giving tzedakah in a variety of forms, including material, emotional, and spiritual. But Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson in this commentary presents another idea:

What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts, ignorant minds, misguided spirits, and stagnant souls.

While a now-famous Jewish teaching states, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” according to one Talmudic master, “He who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son is regarded by Scripture as though he created him.”

But wouldn’t that presuppose being a competent Torah teacher? I mean, it’s not like just anyone can teach Torah or, to put it in more “Christian” terms, it’s not like just anybody can be a Bible teacher.

According to our aforementioned commentary, the Rebbe was fond of quoting the following:

“If only you know aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) – teach aleph!”

-Old Chassidic Proverb

I suppose that’s sort of like saying, “if you only know the ABCs, teach the ABCs.” But what does that have to do with teaching the Bible or blogging about religious topics, particularly if you are untrained and uneducated?

Herb Brin, a noted author and the editor of four newspapers, met with the Rebbe after becoming editor of the L.A.-based Jewish newspaper Heritage. The private audience lasted six hours. At some point, the following exchange took place:

“Rebbe, I recently became editor of a Jewish publication. The problem is, I know very little about my people and their heritage. Do I have the right to make sensitive editorial judgments as I do not understand Hebrew, my Jewish education was truncated, and I only know fragments of Yiddish?”

Looking him in the eye, the Rebbe said, “Do you have the right to withhold that which you do know?”

OK, that was only a longer and slightly more detailed commentary on what Rabbi Kalmenson said a moment earlier, so not much more was illuminated.

There are actually two problems here. The first is that you should teach only what you are competent to teach. That can be a tough one because human beings are notorious for grossly overestimating what they know and how far their skill sets can take them. The blogosphere is replete with self-appointed “experts” in their fields, particularly when the field is religion, so it would be easy for someone with limited qualifications, or even a reasonably well-educated person, but with a serious ax to grind, to use Rabbi Kalmenson’s lesson as tacit permission to rattle off whatever “teachings” they feel capable of presenting to a spiritually hungry and needy audience.

I can’t speak for all bloggers everywhere, but for my own part, I make every effort to teach and write within the boundaries of my knowledge. I also have a trusted friend or two who, behind the scenes, lets me know when I’ve gone a bit too far.

But what about the second problem?

Say that as a student, I have the right, even the obligation, to teach, to inform, to educate, to share information with those uninformed; but how dare I encourage others when it comes to Jewish observance? How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with?

That is an absolutely excellent question, and one that we should all consider when consulting the various blogs out there (including mine) that suggest how to go about living a moral, ethical, and spiritual lifestyle. How can you know if the author is living up to the standards he or she is teaching to others?

The Rebbe had an answer for that one, too.

A college student once approached the Rebbe in the middle of a chassidic gathering to greet him with a l’chaim. The Rebbe turned and asked him if he was involved with encouraging and helping his fellow students to put on tefillin every day.”But Rebbe,” admitted the young man, “I myself don’t put on tefillin every day!”

“Why is that their fault…?” replied the Rebbe, with a smile.

In sum, Judaism teaches that you don’t have to be rich to give to the poor, you don’t have to be a scholar in order to teach the ignorant, and you don’t have to be perfect in order to help others perfect themselves.

That’s absolutely amazing and explains why the poor can give to the poorer or sometimes, even to the rich. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a perfect religious or spiritual walk. Granted, I don’t think the Rebbe was suggesting that it’s OK to be a phony, a hypocrite, or a charlatan, but it is OK to be an honest and well-meaning person with a limited skill set and who struggles with their walk of faith and to still teach what they know and what you know to others. I guess on that basis, I’ll continue to blog for a bit longer. You never know what might happen as a result.

What can the poor man give? The answer is, whatever he has. Jesus talked about this too, but he used more concrete terms in his parable.

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Now imagine that instead of material funds, the Master was talking about what you know, how you encourage, and your example of living out your faith.

What do you have to give? What do I?