Tag Archives: thanksgiving

As We Have Forgiven Others

God is your shadow at your right hand.

Psalms 121:5

The Baal Shem Tov taught that God acts toward individuals accordingly as they act toward other people. Thus, if people are willing to forgive those who have offended them, God will similarly overlook their misdeeds. If a person is very judgmental and reacts with anger to any offense, God will be equally strict. The meaning of, God is your shadow, is that a person’s shadow mimics his or her every action.

At a therapy session for family members of recovering alcoholics, one woman told the group that she had experienced frustration from many years of infertility and tremendous joy when she finally conceived. Her many expectations were shattered, however, when the child was born with Down’s syndrome.

“I came to love that child dearly,” she said, “but the greatest thing that child has done for me is to make me realize that if I can love him so in spite of his imperfections, then God can love me in spite of my many imperfections.”

If we wish to know how God will relate to us, the answer is simple: exactly in the same way we relate to others. If we demand perfection from others, He will demand it of us. If we can love others even though they do not measure up to our standards and expectations, then He will love us in spite of our shortcomings.

Today I shall…

…try to relate to people in the same manner I would wish God to relate to me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
from “Growing Each Day” for Kislev 3

I thought it appropriate to pause from the strife and drama that often characterizes the religious blogosphere and social media in general and take on a different tone. It is, after all, the American holiday of Thanksgiving which should, in theory, mean something more than gorging on turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

Given recent events and on which side of the fence people find themselves, it might be very difficult for some of them (us) to experience any sense of thankfulness or gratitude. In fact, the primary emotion many folks seem to be experiencing is about as far from peace and being grateful as you can get. There’s a lot of virtual yelling on the web and much, much worse going on in the real world.

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

I think it’s important to take a step back from all this and realize that how we treat each other matters.

A few days ago, Derek Leman posted a summary of his second day at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Convention in San Diego. I was pleasantly surprised by what Derek wrote. Here’s a revealing sample:

Confession time. If you’ve read my blog over the years, you’ve seen me in fight mode before. I can be combative, rude, unpleasant. I have engaged in labeling and ad hominem. It is one of my character deficiencies.

So one theme of SBL this year has been running into people I have “done combat” with and making reconciliation. Seth Postell is a brilliant scholar and he and I see eye to eye on many things (but legitimately disagree on others). I did not remember that in an angry exchange I once (this is embarrassing) said he was anti-Semitic. He reminded me, not in anger, but graciously, when I asked him, “Have we ever actually met before.”

“Oh, yes, Derek, we’ve met,” he chuckled. “Don’t you remember?” And then he kindly let me know he had no hard feelings and that we could move forward as friends. It’s great to have people like that in the world.

The next person I made peace with might surprise you, if you’ve followed me for long. Tim Hegg. He’s always here working with Accordance Bible Software. I am an Accordance user and needed some help learning how to do more in-depth Hebrew searches. I approached Tim who simply smiled and received me as a friend.

If these names don’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. The point is that Derek encountered other theologians at the conference with whom he has “sparred” in the past and who nevertheless, were gracious and approachable.

I’m convinced that in times of strife, we all need to learn to get past our emotions and see the people with whom we are arguing, not as opponents or enemies, but as other people who are just like us, people who are also children of God and made in His Holy Image. Would we dare treat a holy person with disrespect? Would we have the audacity to spit in the face of the Holy Image?

Lakanta (Tom Jackson): What do you think is sacred to us here?

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton): Maybe the necklace you’re wearing? The designs on the walls?

Lakanta: Everything is sacred to us – the buildings, the food, the sky, the dirt beneath your feet – and you. Whether you believe in your spirit or not, we believe in it. You are a sacred person here, Wesley.

Wesley Crusher: I think that’s the first time anyone’s used that particular word to describe me.

Lakanta: You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.

Wesley Crusher: Is that what you think I’ve been doing?

Lakanta: Only you can decide that.

-from “Journey’s End,” March 26, 1994
Star Trek: The Next Generation

While the focus in this scene is directed at how Wesley has been treating himself with disrespect and thereby desecrating a holy person, if we look through the opposite side of the lens, we can see how often we treat others with disrespect, especially in our online transactions…

tom jackson
Tom Jackson

…and thus desecrating many holy people.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, and so I must accept my share of responsibility for my failures. That means I am repenting of the harsh words and attitudes I’ve expressed toward some of you and am asking for forgiveness from each of you. I also forgive anyone who has offended me. May no one be punished because of me.

But this is a lot more serious than just being rude, and even a lot more dire than committing acts of desecration. Keep my quote of Rabbi Twersky in mind as you read the following:

“Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Matthew 6:9-15 (NASB)

The Baal Shem Tov probably didn’t use Yeshua as his source material but they both seemed to think along the same lines.

When we treat others with disrespect, not only are we committing desecration against a holy person but we are inviting God to treat us with disrespect. Conversely, when we act respectfully toward another person, particularly someone with whom we previously have had “problems,” what does that say about how God will treat us, “problems” and all? When we forgive someone who has contended with us, will God not then forgive us of our contentious natures?

Here’s another example:

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:23-35

ForgivenessI hope the interpretation of the above-quoted scripture is abundantly obvious. If we expect to be forgiven our debts or offenses to God, we must forgive the debts of others and how they may have offended us. The Master’s parable about forgiveness starkly outlines the consequences for failure.

Derek presents us with a positive example of forgiveness and I encourage you to click the link to his blog I provided above and read the full content.

Once relieved of the burden of grudges, bad attitudes, and an unforgiving spirit, I suspect that you and I will be able to find many things to be grateful for today and for the days that follow.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The Lord will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forever.

Psalm 121:5-8


Happy Thanksgivukkah

WonderAmazement never ceases for the enlightened mind.

At every moment it views in astonishment the wonder of an entire world renewed out of the void, and asks, “How could it be that anything at all exists?”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

As you read this, it is Thanksgiving, an American national holiday dedicated to giving thanks for the bountiful blessings we have each received from God. At least that’s how it was originally conceived. It’s also the first full day of Chanukah (spellings vary), the Jewish holiday celebrating the miracle of the meager Jewish forces defeating the mighty Greeks, and that in sanctifying the Temple, Hashem, God of Israel, allowed one day’s worth of sanctified oil to burn for eight days, thus cleansing and dedicating the Temple for holiness.

Thankfulness and miracles. And yet how often do we fail to appreciate what God gives us, especially in a land of plenty.

I’ve been pondering my conversations with my Pastor as well as the sermons of John MacArthur and the other presenters at the Strange Fire conference. In my recent investigation into the concept (as opposed to the movement) of Christian fundamentalism, I see that at its heart, it is just the attempt to render a basic definition of the essentials of what makes a Christian. It’s the minimum set of standards, so to speak, that one must uphold to be an authentic believer.

Of course, in order to create a minimum set of essential beliefs or attributes, you have to take the vast body of information in the Bible and reduce it down to its bare bones, so to speak. You have to determine what is an absolute must about the Bible, and then consider that most of the other “stuff” is good, but not a deal making or breaking requirement.

But that’s also one of the flaws in Christian fundamentalism. It’s reductionistic. It cuts out things like miracles, and wonder, and awe, and amazement in an incredible, infinite, personal, creative God!

In establishing a core, fundamentalism must eliminate or at least set to one side, thoughts, feelings, and meditations such as those expressed in the above-quoted words of Rabbi Freeman.

Is it wrong to be astonished by God? Is it an error to be thankful for not only the tangibles of the Bible, but the sheer fact that God exists and chooses to be involved in our lives just because He loves us?

For Jewish people, awareness of God goes beyond the generic thanksgiving for the blessings of Heaven. The very fact that Jews exist in our world today after so many thousands of years of effort the world has expended in trying to exterminate them, is a very great miracle.

We say every day during Chanukah in the Shemona Esrei the Al Haneesim (on the miracles), “When the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your Will.” The order of the prayer mentions that first the Greeks wanted the Jews to forget Torah and secondly to stray from Hashem’s statutes.

The Greeks understood exactly how to undermine Judaism and expedite assimilation. How was this done? The Gemara in Hureous states that a father has an obligation to teach his son Torah from the moment he is old enough to speak. The first pasuk of Torah that a father teaches his child is,”Moshe commanded us with the Torah and this is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov.” The second pasuk a father is obligated to teach his child is the Shema – “Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem, the One and Only.” – Which asserts our belief in the unity of G-d.

-Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky
“The Light of Torah: The Torah Sustains Judaism”
Commentary on Chanukah and Torah Portion Miketz

Tefillin with RabanI know that a lot of Christians support the existence of the Jewish people and Israel, and yet devalue the practice and observance of Judaism. A lot of prejudice has been generated in Christianity against Judaism over the long centuries, and particularly the mistaken idea that much of the Torah represents not the Word of God, but the man-made traditions of the Rabbis. Further, the general (and again, mistaken) belief in the Church that God only gave the Jewish people the Torah to prove to them that no one can attain righteousness by human effort and that they must depend on the grace of Jesus for salvation, re-enforces the idea that Torah observance and therefore Judaism is a “religion of useless works.”

It is beyond imagination to most Christians how a Jew who has faith in Yeshua as Messiah and thus is saved by grace, can still desire and even demand to continue observing the mitzvot and align with the larger, non-believing Jewish community.

But, as Rabbi Kalatsky points out, or at least as I infer from his commentary, God gave the Torah to Israel to sustain Israel, to define and preserve the Jewish people. Being Jewish isn’t just a string of DNA and it’s not just a set of ethnic practices, customs, traditions, and rules, it’s an identity, a life, and a continual experience assigned to the Jewish people by God. A Jew who doesn’t observe the mitzvot is still Jewish of course, but the full blessings and apprehension of the unique relationship between Jewish people and God can only come from a life immersed in Torah and in Judaism. And Rabbi Kalatsky is hardly the only one to make such observations.

It was Judaism that provided the refuge for my parents in the disorienting passage from one society to another. My father’s rabbinic calling transcended borders. Hebrew remained the key to eternal verities. The Jewish calendar continued to govern the rhythm of our home. I never heard my parents lament the money they were forbidden to take out of (1940s) Germany, only the shipment of books from my father’s library that never made it to America.

-Ismar Schorsch
“At-Homeness,” pg 149, December 8, 2001
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

As I write all this, I find it strange and even amazing that I, a Gentile Christian, can feel so passionate about supporting a Jewish life abundantly enriched by the Torah of God.

Many Christians see Judaism in more or less the same way I see some fundamentalist Christians: as a faith made up of discrete, definable, finite, quantifiable pieces. A faith that is like listening to an auto mechanic explain what each of the parts of your car’s engine does, who takes it apart, shows you each gasket, spring, and fitting, then puts it all together right before your eyes and starts it up for you. Sure, it’s incredible and amazing, but it is also fully within the grasp of human beings.

Is that all that God is? Is He nothing more?

Consider three things, and you will not approach sin. Know whence you came, whereto you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting.

-Ethics of the Fathers 3:1

If we thought about our humble origin on the one hand, and the greatness we can achieve on the other, we would come to only one logical conclusion: the potential for such greatness could not possibly reside in the microscopic germ-cell from which we originated. This capacity for greatness can reside only in the neshamah (soul), the spirit which God instills within man.

What an extraordinary stretching of the imagination it must take to think that a single cell can develop into the grandeur which a human being can achieve! People have the power to contemplate and reflect upon infinity and eternity, concepts which are totally beyond the realm of the physical world. How could something purely finite even conceive of infinity?

Our humble origins are the greatest testimony to the presence of a Divine component within man. Once we realize this truth, we are unlikely to contaminate ourselves by behavior beneath our dignity. We have an innate resistance to ruining what we recognize to be precious and beautiful. We must realize that this is indeed what we are.

Today I shall…

…try to make my behavior conform to that which I recognize to be the essence of my being: the spirit that gives me the potential for greatness.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 20”

This too is Judaism; the recognition that it is God’s Spirit that imbues us with the ability to strive to be more than who we are right now.

Hashem, what is man that You recognize him; the son of a frail human that You reckon with him? Man is a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.

Psalm 144:3-4 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

sky-above-you-god1David, a King, a man after God’s own heart, gazed up in wonder that God took any notice of human beings at all. Why don’t we do the same? Why can’t we turn our hearts away from our trivial pursuits and in thanksgiving, awe, and wonder, turn to the majesty and magnificence of the One true King of the Universe, Lord and Master of Eternity, and the lover of our very souls? For as much as the food on our tables, and our jobs, and our families, and all that God’s providence has placed in our lives, wonder too is a gift of God.

And when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide we find ourselves doubly blessed. We will be able to offer thanks to God on the same day for both our spiritual and material blessings. Let us delight in this extremely rare opportunity to bless God for the food for our bodies as well as the survival of our faith that grants us spiritual sustenance for our souls.

-Rabbi Benjamin Blech

I’m writing this a full week before you’ll read it. Perhaps you’ll wake up early on Thanksgiving morning and read this “meditation” with your first cup of coffee, or while the turkey is baking and there’s a lull in the kitchen activity, or later, after the meal and the football games are over, as the pumpkin pie is settling in your stomach and you hold a glass of wine in your hand, but I have a hope for the day you read this. I hope that you’ll take a moment, turn away from your computer, maybe close your eyes or turn your gaze to Heaven, and know that you are in front of the Throne of God, a God who loves you, a God you provides, not only for your body, but for everything you can imagine, and for everything you can’t.

Happy Thanksgivukkah.

Tasting Chicken Soup

chicken-soup-with-matzah-ballsPicture the scene: Dead, feathered birds are lying on the kitchen counter; a bag of flour has spilled onto the floor, along with a orange juice—and so, the two-year-old is having a lovely time creating edible mud pies from the mix. From upstairs, a scream shakes the house—it’s the little one furious at the big one for making her bathtub too hot. Meanwhile, the big one is kvetching at the top of her voice because “there’s nothing for me to wear.” The father of the house is hiding somewhere, in full knowledge that if he shows his head, he’ll be sent out again on another urgent, last-minute errand.

At this point, the doorbell rings. It’s the nudnik guest, delivering his gift bottle of wine in advance, certain that the lady of the house has nothing better to do this afternoon than stand at the door and chat. She is careful to open the door only a slight 20 degrees, wedging herself into the space—first, so that the guest won’t see the state of affairs within; but also to prevent the little one who has just escaped from his hot tub from running out naked into the street.

The guest sniffs the air, and sighs, “Ahhh . . . Shabbos!”

Shabbos? Shabbos is a day of rest! Of peace! Of harmony! This is a total disaster zone!

But the guest smells what is coming. And the inhabitants of this house know as well. They know the dead birds will become a sumptuous chicken soup, the remainder of the flour will become fresh-baked challah, the children will be neatly dressed in their finest clothes, the father will turn up again, and they will all sit together at the table, singing in harmony and telling the stories and words of Torah they learned in school that week.

When you know the story, the scene becomes a different scene. The gadget in your pocket, the news on the tab before this one, the financial chaos and the promises of technological breakthrough, the void of leadership and the medical miracles that keep failing to come—think of those as the dead, feathered birds on the kitchen counter, soon to become a sumptuous chicken soup.

Science has opened our eyes to the awesome harmony of our world. The Kabbalah of the Ari, explained in the language of Chabad, can open anyone’s eyes to the G‑dliness behind that harmony. Shortly, we will sit at the Shabbos table with Moshiach, who will show how the earthly wisdom and the heavenly wisdom complement one another. While we are yearning for that knowledge, what is stopping us from tasting a spoonful of the soup right now?

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Last Day of History”

This is the climax to a rather lengthy and challenging article my wife shared with me the other day. I must admit to having skimmed over much of the content, but this portion is not only straightforward but rather the point of it all. I don’t mean that it’s the point of the article, although I suppose it is, I mean that it’s the point of everything.

For we who have believed enter that rest…

Hebrews 4:3 (ESV)

The writer of Hebrews and Rabbi Freeman seem to be drawing their respective audiences to the same point: that we will one day enter into that final rest with the Messiah. What is especially attractive about Rabbi Freeman’s perspective is that a foretaste of that rest exists right now. Jews experience a small sampling from the “menu” of the Messiah’s table every Shabbat. Some Christians who are attached to the traditional Jewish community, Messianic Judaism, or Hebrew Roots, also have the opportunity to experience that “rest” and sample from the “menu” to varying degrees.

As far as I can tell, most Christians don’t.

Shabbat-Made-Easy-paintingI think that “Christ’s rest” is something that is more conceptual within Christianity. Most Christians anticipate being “raptured” and going up to Heaven of course, but there’s no idea that you can get a preview of the event before the event, at least not very frequently. There’s no manner of experiencing such an event in the material world because the “Messiah’s rest” is thought to be wholly spiritual.

More’s the pity.

I miss even the tiniest sliver of Shabbos observance in which my family used to participate. Hopefully, by God’s mercy, my wife will desire to observe the Shabbat again as her life calms down, and our home will be illuminated and warmed by the Shabbos candles once more.

I’m sure what I’m saying seems totally alien to most Christians. How can we experience the return of Jesus Christ before he returns? It must seem ridiculous.

But think about it.

In the U.S., we’ve recently celebrated Thanksgiving and most Christians are anticipating Christmas in just a few weeks. One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is the aroma of delicious foods in the kitchen. I traditionally barbecue the turkey in a Weber on the back patio, so in tending to it, I get to enjoy the smells of the slowly roasting bird as the smoke curls into the air. These smells all by themselves are highly pleasurable and also herald the grand feast that is to come.

And that is Shabbat. We know the feast will come but we also have a role in preparing for the feast. How many “feast” metaphors did Jesus use to describe the preparations for his own return and King and Bridegroom? Here’s just one of them.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-14 (ESV)

There’s preparation. There’s work to be done. There’s waiting. And then finally, sometimes unexpectedly, the Prince arrives and the feast begins.

But in cooking a meal, how many chefs manage to taste a bit here and a bit there, making sure the seasoning is just right, adding a spice or an herb to enhance the flavor?

I suppose that’s what Christmas is to most Christians…celebrating the birth of Jesus and his first entry into the world in anticipation of the second. That’s probably why Easter is also observed with such zeal (and a meal), to rejoice over the risen Jesus and to pray that he returns soon.

But while Judaism also has its great festivals, they also have Shabbos, the weekly reminder. Going to church on Sunday just doesn’t compare.

challahFor a Jew, six days of the week are spent in pursuit of the mundane, taking care of business, and sometimes letting life take over or overwhelm. Shabbos is bringing order to chaos and peace to turmoil. Even the preparations for Shabbos can seem maddening, much like life itself, but the result is wonderful, much like Messiah’s coming.

In God’s wisdom, He gave the Shabbat to the Jewish people as a sign of His covenant with them. Alas, it did not transfer to we Christians when we were brought into the fold. But sometimes you need rest and refreshment in order to summon courage for what is to come and to lay down the burden of what’s already happened. I don’t observe Shabbat these days, but I hope I will again. You may not observe Shabbat either, but it’s something you can access if you choose.

Messiah may come today, tomorrow, next year, or a thousand years hence. But Shabbos comes every week. Why wait? The Challah is rising in the oven and pots are steaming and bubbling on the stove. Have a taste of chicken soup now. It’s delicious.

39 Days: I’m Alive and Doing Fine

If you feel discouraged about lack of progress in Torah study or spiritual growth, look back a few years and see how much you have grown from when you began. (Pachad Yitzchok, Igros Uksovim, p.218)

This experiential proof will supply you with an indisputable refutation to the premise that you cannot grow. Since you already have progressed, you have a good basis for believing that you can continue to improve.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #644, Experiential Proof of Progress”

On the other hand, I just got done quoting Yoda when he said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I’m still trying to decide whether or not what I already know is a good or bad thing relative to reconciling with church and traditional Christianity. If I, as Rabbi Pliskin suggests, review my history in order to see my growth in response to my current discouragement and frustration, will that necessarily lead to the correct path for me?

Of course, Rabbi Pliskin also writes:

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz used to say that studying mussar (ethical writings) properly does not prevent one from being happy. Just the opposite, the proper study of mussar speaks to the soul. A person begins to identify with his soul and acquires a greater awareness of his Creator. He becomes enlightened, which brings true joy.

Sadness comes from not being satisfied with your present level of behavior, but still not wanting to work on improving. When someone sincerely strives to improve himself, he will feel joy.

“Sadness comes from not being satisfied with your present level of behavior, but still not wanting to work on improving.” So I don’t want to change. That goes without saying. No one wants to change. I suppose only my presumptive arrogance made me believe that church would change for me rather than the other way around. But Rabbi Pliskin is talking about joy and happiness as if they are the goals of a relationship with God. Are they? For that matter, is the goal to have a relationship with God the same or even necessarily compatible with the goal of having a relationship with other Christians?

I go to services, try to sing the Christian hymns (I sing like a frog), put money in the little plate when it is passed around, listen to uplifting Christian music, listen to a scripture reading, listen to a sermon. It’s pretty typical Christian fare but it’s not particularly “me.” But I wonder if being in community is all about being who you are but rather who the community needs you to be?

This thing is too new for me to have any idea what the community needs that would be uniquely within my skill sets to provide. I keep getting the feeling that everyone is waiting for me to do something before the ice breaks and I can get “in,” but I have no idea what that something is. I feel like I’m waiting too, but I don’t know what for.

Although I’m writing this ahead of time, I plan to press the “Publish” button on Thanksgiving morning (my parents will be here for the holiday and so I won’t have much time to write while they’re here). I’ve been thinking if I should somehow include a “thanks” component to this missive. Given that a lot of what I create could be interpreted as complaining, maybe cultivating a bit of gratitude wouldn’t hurt.

Last year we were at a hotel next to the Ramon crater in Israel. I was standing at the edge of the crater at sunset, watching the light bathe the red rocks with an ethereal glow. It looked like the world must have looked like at the beginning of time; just the Creator and the space to create a crater. The horizon melted into the earth as the night began to fall.

Then someone a few steps away from me said loudly into her phone, “There’s nothing to do here! I am bored out of my mind.”

How do we break free from the ‘there’s-nothing-to-see-here’ syndrome?

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“Five Ways to Be Grateful”

Modeh AniYou can click the link I just provided to read all of Gutfreund’s article, but I’ll include just one of her five ways to be grateful:

“I have what I need.” This is a blessing we say every morning: Thank You for providing me with everything that I need. But how many of us really mean it? On the days that I think about the words carefully, I am astounded by their truth. God provides me with my every need, with each part of my life designed to enable me to grow and give and fulfill my purpose in this world. I may want a hundred other things. But those are wants, not needs. Don’t make your wants into needs.

This one particularly struck me because my very first meditation for this blog was based on the modeh ani blessing, which I still recite every morning when I first wake up:

“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”

Like most blessings, you only get out of it what you put into it, and as I’m still quite groggy when I first wake up, often having been jolted awake by the sound of the alarm, I’m not sure how much gratitude I am really feeling or expressing.

But what about church, anyway?

Am I grateful to be there?

Well, they haven’t thrown me out yet, so I’m grateful for that. Sometimes I’m grateful when I get back to my car after services and Sunday school are over, because I tend to find social events among a group of people I don’t know to require a lot of energy. Often, I need to go off, have lunch, and recharge my emotional batteries afterward.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Gutfreund writes another “thanksgiving” related article called 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, and although her focus is on marriage, I think her list of dysfunctions could apply to my approach to church as well. Here’s the list without the accompanying commentary:

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

Actually, Gutfreund is applying principles from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable to marriage, so I’m applying a metaphor of a metaphor onto my relationship with church. It should be interesting.

Gutfreund writes:

“You know that you two are complete opposites, right?” my rabbi said to us two weeks before our wedding. My future husband and I looked at each other. We hadn’t really thought about it. But now that he’d pointed it out, I could see there were some minor differences between us. My fiance was laid back. I was intense. He was a logical and concrete thinker. I was the abstract, creative type. I loved the city. He loved the country. But so what?

“And the two of you will make a great team – not despite, but because of your differences. The Torah is made of black letters against a white page. Without the white, you can’t see the black letters. And without the letters, the white has no content. Do you see what I mean?” We nodded, but I’m not sure either one of us completely understood.

“As long as you appreciate each other’s personalities, you’ll be okay. Focus on how each of your unique personalities contributes toward your shared goals. Don’t tolerate. Appreciate.”

However, in any romantic relationship, there is an attraction and a bond that has to be established before the relationship gets to the point of struggling with the differences and then learning to appreciate them. You usually have a young couple who, for whatever reason, find each other initially but superficially (how much can you know about someone just by looking at them) attractive. The attraction is enough to inspire some sort of “first contact.” There’s a conversation. Perhaps a few pleasant sparks fly. There are meetings, dates, encounters, all of which continue to strengthen the bond. Whatever differences that exist between the couple are temporarily beside the point as romantic love and the first stages of what you might call commitment begin to form.

Can I apply that to church? After all, so far I’ve noticed mostly differences and few similarities.

Really, I approached going back to church with the same emotional enthusiasm as a root canal: necessary, but to be avoided if at all possible. I went back to church as a perceived necessity and a duty, not because I was falling in love with church.

Have you ever fulfilled a mitzvot (I guess this question can only apply to Jews by definition) that you performed out of a sense of duty but not love?

Surprisingly, over 10% of the 271 mitzvot that are applicable in our times require consciously choosing our thoughts and feelings. For example, the mitzvah not to harbor hatred in one’s heart toward another person [Lev. 19:18] means that even if you were treated shabbily by your erstwhile friend, you are not supposed to nurse any grievance in your heart. But how is the aggrieved party able to accomplish this feat when his iPod shuffle mind is blaring the “She Hurt Me Blues”? He can drown out that destructive tune with the oldie-but-goodies “She’s Doing the Best She Can With What She Has,” “I Can Rise Above This” and “I Forgave Her, God, So Please Forgive Me.”

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“The iPod Shuffle: The Zen of Judaism”

Is engaging in religious community a mitzvot; a commandment of God?

Apparently not, at least not in so many words. That is, a quick Google search doesn’t seem to yield a specific scripture that says, “Thou shalt meet with thy brethren weekly,” or something like that. I did find the usual, “Don’t go to church, be the church,” but that’s a platitude or principle, not something that God specifically said to us. Also, and I’ve mentioned this before, I can hardly take a commandment directed specifically at the Jews and somehow magically apply it to Christianity, unless there’s a very clear trail of connections leading from Torah to the commandments of Messiah to the Gentile disciples.

I’m not saying that community is a bad idea, I’m just asking if it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, an act of kindness and charity in the service of God? Does anybody know?

If it is, should I approach a mitzvah with reluctance (and remember, Christians can’t actually fulfill the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews)?

Or thanksgiving?

My general belief system tells me I should believe the latter. That any opportunity to serve God, assuming going to church is serving God, should be done with joy and gratitude. After all, it’s a tremendous honor to serve the Creator of the Universe, the King of all existence. Don’t even the angels sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty?”

Beyond all of my internal debates and struggles (which are almost always externalized here), this is what I’m looking for:

When a parent loves a child,

he stoops down to the child, with such love,
he leaves his language to speak the language of the child,
he leaves his place to play the games of the child,
he leaves his entire world and all the maturity he has gained in thirty, forty years or more to become excited, sincerely excited, by those things that excite the child, to react as the child reacts, to live with the child in the child’s world with all his being…

So too, G‑d feels our pain and our joy. He lives intimately with us in our world. Yet He is infinite, beyond all things—even as He is here with us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“G-d Involved”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Being grateful doesn’t require a perfect life, or a perfect world, or a perfect gift. It doesn’t even require a perfect church or a perfect synagogue. While the writings of the Chabad bring me great comfort and even occasionally joy, I am abundantly aware, at least based on Shmarya Rosenberg’s record of experiences with the Chabad and Orthodox Judaism, that they aren’t a perfect community, either.

Gratitude doesn’t require perfection, it doesn’t even require satisfaction of wants and needs. It just requires an awareness of God and what He has done, including His allowing us to be alive. There’s a blessing that is said by observant Jews at certain special occasions:

O Lord our God, King of the universe
who has kept us in life, sustained us and brought us to this season.

Interestingly enough, a man named Les Emmerson wrote a song over forty years ago called Signs that says something quite similar:

And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all,
I didn’t have a penny to pay,
so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine

Return and Reconciliation

“We will thank You and declare Your praise for our lives, which are entrusted into Your hand; for our souls, which are placed in Your Charge; for Your miracles which are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favors at all times, evening, morning, and midday.”

Thanksgiving blessing
Shaharit for Shabbat
Koren Siddur, pg 488

I once heard it said, “Coincidences are miracles in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”

If we were to carefully scrutinize everything that occurs in our daily lives, we would find many such “coincidences.” Sometimes we may not be aware of the significance of a particular occurrence until much later, when we may have forgotten how or why we think it occurred, and so we just write it off to chance. Other times, we notice that things seem to “just happen at the right time.” And in some instances, the likelihood of the desired occurrence being chance is statistically so remote that it may penetrate the skepticism of even the most confirmed non-believer.

Why don’t people see the Divine hand in so many things? Could it be that being aware would require them to be thankful to God, because it is unconscionable to be an ingrate (and if one has difficulty with feelings of gratitude, it is simply easier to deny the awareness of the Divine favor)? Could it be that the awareness that God is looking after them would obligate them to live according to the Divine will, and since that might entail some inconveniences and restrictions on their behavior, it is more comfortable to believe that “God does not care”?

Psychologists have great respect for the human capacity to rationalize, to convince oneself of the absolute truth of whatever it is that one wishes to believe or not believe. How much wiser we would be to divest ourselves of such self-deceptions.

Today I shall…

scrutinize my daily happenings with an alertness to how many favorable “coincidences” have occurred in my life.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 8”

You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16 (ESV)

It’s not just the miracles, signs, and wonders for which we should thank and praise God, but for every good thing we experience in our lives. As Rabbi Twerski said, those events we consider “coincidences” are most likely also from God, and even if they aren’t, we should thank Him anyway, for the very fact that we are alive to encounter all goodness.

Of course, we’re also alive to encounter “all badness,” too.

I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the Lord, who does all these things. –Isaiah 45:7 (ESV)

The word that the ESV translates as “calamity” is translated as “evil” by the King James Bible, the American Standard Version, and the Barby Bible Translation, to name a few. Not a comforting thought, but if God is to be considered sovereign over all, then He must create all.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)

Paul doesn’t say to give thanks to God only when things go your way and God gives you what you want and need, does he? That’s the tough part. We are always ready to thank God when good things happen, but true faith and trust thanks in all circumstances, good and bad alike. Being thankful doesn’t happen just when you’re happy and satisfied, but at all times, because good and bad both come from God, in all circumstances, God is with us.

I know. I must be crazy, right? I mean, who can thank God when disaster and calamity strike? Only a saint or a fool (or are they the same thing?). Not too long ago, I talked about trusting God, not just in good times or bad, but in uncertain times; during events or when pondering mysteries that you aren’t very sure about. Who is God? What is salvation? When we pray, is God listening?

Rabbi Twerski recommends “scrutinizing your daily happenings with an alertness to how many favorable “coincidences” have occurred in your lives.” I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice because it helps make us aware of all of the good God does for us that we take for granted, but that’s not the end of it. In every bad time, in every time of uncertainty or doubt, even when doubting God, give thanks that He remains with you and with me. Give thanks that, unlike a human being, He won’t abandon us or doubt us, just because we sometimes doubt Him and at least temporarily, withdraw from His presence. He is not like a person. He’s not like us, and for that, we should be infinitely grateful.

It is ridiculous how some people are concerned about trivial aspects of “honor.” For example, a person may refuse to visit a friend or relative, because they feel the other person should come to him first. Or they become angry if they visit someone and that person does not repay the visit.

Focus on being practical. If you would like to speak to someone, what does it matter if he did not come to you first?

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #559

As long as we’re thanking God for his faithfulness when we are faithless, we might as well take the next step and try to emulate Him just a bit. If there is a friend or family member who we have refused to speak with or visit because of our pride or a matter of “honor,” consider how God is not affected by how we’ve offended Him and remains with us, even in our most foul and dark moods. In the month of Elul, observant Jews make an effort to repair damaged friendships and to overcome the emotional barriers that have caused these rifts.

“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

-Lady Dorothy Nevill, British writer

You can do this, too. You can extend yourself in humility and in gratefulness to God and approach an estranged loved one. Remember, God is always waiting for you to return to Him as well.