Tag Archives: Torah Portion

Va’etchanan: Blessing God in Sorrow

Moses at NeboAnd you shall love the Lord your G-d. with all your ‘me’od’Deuteronomy 6:5

The word me’od has many meanings. It serves as the etymological root for ‘measure’ (midah), ‘thank’ ( modeh), and ‘very much’ ( me’od). Using all three meanings in its interpretation of the above verse, the Talmud states:

“A person is obligated to bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good, as it is written: ‘And you shall love the Lord your G-d. with all your me’od’ – for every measure which He measures out to you, thank Him very, very much.” -The Talmud, Brachos 54a

The name of this week’s Torah Portion, Va’etchanan means “and he pleaded”, referring to Moshe’s (Moses’) pleading with God to allow him to live and to lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Canaan, even after God had decreed that Moses should die. We learn from the Mishnah on Va’etchanan, that we should bless God for everything that happens in our lives, the good and bad alike. As we see in the following example, that’s not an easy thing to even consider, let alone perform:

A man once came to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov with a question: “The Talmud tells us that one is to ‘bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good.’ How is this humanly possible? Had our sages said that one must accept without complaint or bitterness whatever is ordained from Heaven – this I can understand. I can even accept that, ultimately, everything is for the good, and that we are to bless and thank G-d also for the seemingly negative developments in our lives. But how can a human being possibly react to what he experiences as bad in exactly the same way he responds to the perceptibly good? How can a person be as grateful for his troubles as he is for his joys?”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“A Matter of Perspective”

It’s easy to imagine being the man who is trying to get a seemingly impossible answer from the Baal Shem Tov. Whenever good happens in our lives, if we have any sense of God in our lives at all, we thank Him with all our heart and being for His goodness and His providence. When tragedy and disaster strike on the other hand, blessing God becomes much more difficult. Most of us do not respond like Job, apparently, not even Moses.

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan. Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.” –Deuteronomy 3:23-28

When we pour out our heart to God, it would seem almost cruel for God to respond in this manner. Why does He treat His faithful servant Moses this way? Why is a rebuke God’s response to this type of prayer? The following is how the Rambam describes prayer, but it seems to contradict what happened between Moses and God:

The obligation [this] commandment entails is to offer supplication and prayer every day; to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, and afterwards to petition for all one’s needs with requests and supplications, and then to give praise and thanks to G-d for the goodness that He has bestowed.

The fundamental dimension of prayer is to ask G-d for our needs. The praise and thanksgiving which precede and follow these requests is merely a supplementary element of the mitzvah. A person must realize that G-d is the true source for all sustenance and blessing, and approach Him with heartfelt requests.

Often, however, we do not content ourselves with asking for our needs. We desire bounty far beyond both our needs and our deserts. We request a boon that reflects G-d’s boundless generosity. For every Jew is as dear to G-d as is an only child born to parents in their old age. And because of that inner closeness, He grants us favors that surpass our needs and our worth.

As quoted from
“Vaes’chanan: To Plead with God”
-Rabbi Eli Touger
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, pgs. 115-117;
Vol. XXIV, p. 28ff

SorrowHowever, Rabbi Touger goes on to say that pleading “is one of the ten terms used for prayer” and that “Moshe [approached G-d] in a tone of supplication, [asking] for a free gift” demonstrating that “no created being can make demands from its Creator”. It’s one thing to pour out your heart to God with your needs and your troubles, but no man is entitled to anything from God that God Himself does not will.

I don’t say this to be unkind to Moses. Certainly he was the greatest of all the Prophets, a man who spoke to God “face-to-face”, so to speak” and the most humble of men. However, he was a man and like all men, was less than perfect in the eyes of God, as we see in the incident at Meribah (Numbers 20:1-13).

But even then, it is not so wrong for Moses or for any of us to beg that God turn aside His wrath when we pray:

There is a difference of opinion among our Sages (Rosh HaShanah 17b) as to whether prayer can have an effect after a negative decree has been issued from Above, or only beforehand. The Midrash follows the view that prayer can avert a harsh decree even after it has been issued. Therefore Moshe was able to approach G-d through one of the accepted forms of prayer.

-from Rabbi Touger’s commentary

No, for all his humanity and doubtless, all his frustration, Moses prayed the way any of us would pray, that God would relent and spare him what he no doubt saw as the most anguished of consequences. In the end, did Moses bless God for not being allowed into the Land? For most of his address to the Children of Israel, Moses pleads with them, he warns them, he begs them not to disobey God. Only minutes from death, he continues to do what he has done for the past 40 years, protect the people from their own folly, from their own sin, from their own desire for destruction, with every bit of his effort. Deuteronomy 33 is his blessing to Israel and in the following and final chapter of the Torah, Moses quietly obeys, passing the mantle of leadership on to Joshua.

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. –Deuteronomy 34:1-5

How very much like the one who came after him, how like the death of “The Prophet”.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. –Isaiah 53:7

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. –Acts 8:31-35

We can hardly blame Moses for his plea to God. We certainly don’t blame Jesus:

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” –Mark 14:35-36

Praising GodBut Jesus did not stop at pleading with God but rather bowed to His will in all things, even suffering and death.

But what about those of us who are less than Prophets; we “ordinary people”. What about the man and his question of the Baal Shem Tov?

In this matter, the Baal Shem Tov sent the man to his disciple, Reb Zusha of Anipoli for the answer to the man’s question. Here’s the remainder of Rabbi Tauber’s narrative and the lesson we can take from Va’etchanan:

Reb Zusha received his guest warmly, and invited him to make himself at home. The visitor decided to observe Reb Zusha’s conduct before posing his question and before long concluded that his host truly exemplified the talmudic dictum which so puzzled him. He couldn’t think of anyone who suffered more hardship in his life than did Reb Zusha. A frightful pauper, there was never enough to eat in Reb Zusha’s home, and his family was beset with all sorts of afflictions and illnesses. Yet the man was forever good-humored and cheerful, and constantly expressing his gratitude to the Almighty for all His kindness.

But what was is his secret? How does he do it? The visitor finally decided to pose his question.

So one day, he said to his host: “I wish to ask you something. In fact, this is the purpose of my visit to you – our Rebbe advised me that you can provide me with the answer.”

“What is your question?” asked Reb Zusha.

The visitor repeated what he had asked of the Baal Shem Tov. “You know,” said Reb Zusha, “come to think of it, you raise a good point. But why did the Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering…”

The disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, many centuries later, demonstrated the lessons learned by the disciple of Jesus of Nazereth:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:11-13

In all of our circumstances God is there. He is the source of everything both good and bad. We can hardly fail to acknowledge Him, both in our utmost joy and in abject and bitter sorrow. Yet Rabbi Tzvi Freeman records the wisdom of the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson as perhaps the best way to look at how we may bless God no matter what is happening to us as he says in Open Eyes:

After 33 centuries, all that’s needed has been done. The table is set, the feast of Moshiach is being served with the Ancient Wine, the Leviathan and the Wild Ox—and we are sitting at it.

All that’s left is to open our eyes and see.

Regardless of our happiness or pain, let us strive to bless the Lord that we may one day take our places “at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Good Shabbos.

Devarim: One Man’s Story

MosesThis week’s Torah reading begins: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire Jewish people.” Noting the distinction between this book and the previous four, which are all “the word of G-d,” our Sages explain that Moshe recited the Book of Deuteronomy “on his own initiative.”

Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
“A Mortal Mouth Speaking G-d’s Word”
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1087ff; Vol. XIX, p. 9ff

For most Christians, who don’t have a conservative evangelical view like the one I had, these textual facts can be interesting, but there is nothing in them to challenge their faith, which is built on something other than having the very words that God inspired in the Bible. And I certainly never intended to lead anyone away from the Christian faith; critics who have suggested that I myself stopped being a Christian once I realized there were differences among our manuscripts are simply wrong and being ridiculous.

Author and New Testament Scholar
Bart D. Ehrman in his book
Jesus, Interrupted

Today’s “extra” meditation and my commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Devarim.

Occasionally people ask why most of the book of Deuteronomy (in Hebrew, “Devarim”) even exists. It seems to do little more than repeat and summarize the events in the first four books of the Torah. The answer can be a little disturbing to some Christians and even to some Jews. Our understanding is that the first four books of the Bible were the words of God as dictated to Moses and Deuteronomy is in Moses’ own words.

Does that mean Deuteronomy is completely human in origin and without the influence of God? Let’s return to Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

This does not…mean that the Book of Deuteronomy is merely a mortal invention. Our Rabbis immediately clarify that Moshe delivered his words “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, when the Rambam defines the category of “those who deny the Torah,” he includes: “a person who says that the Torah even one verse or one word does not emanate from G-d. If one would say, ‘Moshe made these statements independently,’ he is denying the Torah.”

Not a single commentator maintains that there is a difference in this regard between the Book of Deuteronomy and the four preceding books.

For the Book of Deuteronomy are merely Moshe’s words. Moshe’s identification with G-dliness was so great that when he states: “I will grant the rain of your land in its season,” he speaks in the first person although the pronoun “I” clearly refers to G-d. “The Divine Presence spoke from his mouth.”

The origin of the Bible and exactly how it was written and codified is complex and more than a little mysterious. The simple belief among many Christians is that each author wrote under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit and what they wrote originally is exactly what we have in our Bibles today (translated into the language we prefer to read). I included the quote from Bart Ehrman’s book to illustrate that even among modern Bible scholars, there is some doubt as to whether or not we can read the Bible as if it were a history book, newspaper, and court reporter’s record all rolled into one. In fact, we can’t.

The Bible is as much a human document as a document of the Divine. It’s a series of “stories” that illustrate something about God and His interactions with humanity. That it contains internal inconsistencies and historic flaws in no way disqualifies its moral and mystic significance among the community of faith. The stories tell us what we need to know, not as a history lesson, but as a guide to righteous living and as a doorway into domains that leave our mortal plane and allow us to glimpse the Throne of God.

In referring to Midrash Tehillim to 90:4; Bereishis Rabbah 8:2, we see that the Sages believe that “The Torah preceded the world” and when we read John 1:1, we see that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. From this, we understand that only part of the Bible’s function is to act as a record and a document. Beyond the scroll in the Ark or the book on our hand, it exists in transition between our world and the next.

Rabbi Touger continues:

Here, the concept of precedence is not chronological, for time like space is a creation, relevant only after G-d brought existence into being. Rather the intent is that the Torah is on a level of spiritual truth which transcends our material frame of reference. Although the Torah “descends” and “enclothes itself” in our world, speaking of seemingly ordinary matters such as agricultural laws, codes for fair business practice, and the proper structure for marriage and family relations, this is not its essence. The essence of the Torah is “G-d’s will and His wisdom,” united with Him in perfect unity (see Tanya, ch. 4).

The Amazon.com product description for Ehrman’s book states that “the New Testament is riddled with contradictory views about who Jesus was and the significance of his life”, yet from a mystic point of view, this doesn’t present a problem.

The Ba'al Shem TovWhen I was reading The Hasidic Tale by Gedaliah Nigal, I wrote several commentaries about what I gained from the text including The Messianic Tale and Stories are Miracles. From these, we see that the stories of the Chasidim are less a series of historical facts and more a collection of mystic and allegorical tales designed to reveal something about ourselves, about holiness, and about God. How much of each story is factually accurate isn’t particularly relevant, because one does not approach the tales of the Chasidim that way. What we are looking for is something that will peel away the covers from the world of the supernatural and give us a peek at what lies around the next bend on our path of faith.

We can apply that commentary back to the Bible thus.

Jorge Quinonez, in his book “Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader” Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34 (quoted in Love and the Messianic Age) describes Levertoff, a Chasidic Jew and devoted disciple of Jesus, this way:

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.

This perhaps, is what scholars like Bart Ehrman miss when they study and criticize the Bible for not reading like a story posted at CNN. Divinity and humanity collide, meld, mesh, and blend within the pages of the Bible and we are not always meant to be able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…or if that division is even possible.

Rabbi Touger states:

But why is the Book of Deuteronomy necessary? Enclothing the Torah in human intellect seemingly does nothing but lower its spiritual content. What purpose is served?

Nevertheless, this is G-d’s intent in giving the Torah: that it permeate mortal thought and thus elevate man’s understanding. Whenever a person studies Torah, regardless of his spiritual level, he is making its infinite truth part of his personal nature.

Were there to have been only four books in the Torah, it would have been impossible for our powers of understanding to unite completely with the Torah. It was only by having the Book of Deuteronomy pass through Moshe’s intellect that this goal accomplished. Moreover, Moshe’s review of the Torah in he Book of Deuteronomy gives us the capacity to understand the previous four books in a similar fashion.

Enclothing the Torah in mortal intellect does not merely grant man the opportunity for advancement, it also introduces a higher quality to the Torah itself, as it were. For clothing limitless spirituality in the confines of mortal intellect represents a fusion of opposites that is possible only through the influence of G-d’s essence. Because His essence transcends both finiteness and infinity, it can weld the two together, bringing the spiritual truth of the Torah within the grasp of mortals.

TranscendentWho we are and who God is in us requires that we leave behind some of our attachment to what we call “reality” and allow ourselves to stand transcendent at the uncomfortable and mystic threshold between Heaven and Earth. We don’t have to rely on the Bible to be a book of facts but rather a book of truth.

Consider this:

These are the words which Moses spoke to the children of Israel, across the Jordan, in the desert, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiroth, and Di-Zahav –Devarim 1:1

All these “places” are allusions to sins committed by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert. Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as not to embarrass them.

-Rashi’s commentary

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch once delivered a scathing critique of a certain type of outlook and behavior. Later, one of those present complained to him: “Rebbe, why did you rebuke me in public? Could you not have privately made me aware of my negative traits, without embarrassing me in front of everyone?”

Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel: “Did I mean you? Obviously, I did. You see, I am a hat-maker. The hat-maker fashions a hat and places it in his window. People come in and try it on, until someone finds that it suits his head perfectly. Whom did he have in mind when he made this hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that it fits him!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Commentary of Torah Portion Devarim
“The Discreet Hatter”

The Bible serves many purposes in our lives, not the least of which is to reveal the nature of who we are, for good or for ill. It is a book that condemns but also encourages. It shows us the goodness of God and where we fall short of that goodness (Romans 3:10). Let the Bible be what God intended it to be and let God be who He is. Listen to the words of Moses and his “Chasidic” tale of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, of his own journey with God, of the approach to the end of his life, and in listening to him, learn something about yourself.

Good Shabbos.

Masei: In the Desert

The Sinai DesertThe Torah portion Masei begins by stating: “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt..” (Numbers 33:1) The Torah then goes on to recount all the places where the Jews resided during their 40-year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Our Sages (in Alshich ibid. See also Klei Yakar and Orach Chayim ibid.) ask: By recounting the places where the Jewish people camped rather than the journeys themselves, the Torah is indicating that the resting places are more important than the journeys. This being so, the verse should have stated: “These are the encampments .,” rather than “These are the journeys .” Especially so, since the Jews spent the majority of these 40 years in their encampments, and not in travel.

The ultimate purpose of both the Jews’ travels and encampments was, of course, to enter Eretz Yisrael. The encampments were therefore also termed “journeys,” for they served no purpose in and of themselves.

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson for Torah Portion Masei

These concepts are reflected in this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Masei. Masei means “journeys,” and the reading enumerates the 42 different stages in the journey of the newborn Jewish nation from the land of Egypt until its entry into Eretz Yisrael. The Baal Shem Tov explains (As quoted in Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Masei) that these 42 stages in our people’s journey are mirrored in the life of every individual as he proceeds from birth his personal “exodus from Egypt” until his entry into “the Land of Life” the spiritual counterpart of Eretz Yisrael.

This entire journey through the wilderness (and through life) is intended to reflect continual spiritual growth. Even those stages which are associated with negative events have a positive impetus at their source.

-from a Commentary by Rabbi Eli Touger
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 348;
Vol. VI, p. 111ff, 235ff; Vol. XXIII, p. 224

About twelve years ago, I found myself “between careers” and the only job I could find was a temporary position with the Postal Service. I worked from 11 p.m. until sometimes 11 a.m. at a big, mail processing plant, doing just about any kind of manual labor that anyone required of me. I barely saw my family. I only saw the sun as I was driving home after work to go to sleep. I didn’t make very much of an income…but thank Hashem that He provided me with the means to continue to support my family during a difficult period.

Back then, it was easy to complain to myself and to God about my work situation and conditions, but one of the supervisors at “the plant”, who was a Christian, told me this was my “wilderness period”. He turned out to be right.

I learned a great deal doing different kinds of jobs as a “casual” for the Postal Service during the several years I was with them. I don’t mean just the technical aspects of the different assignments I was given, but I learned a lot about patience, humility, respect, tolerance, and graciousness. I performed tasks that I didn’t think I was physically capable of and learned organizational skills I’d never needed before.

All the while, I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to deliver me from the wilderness…and eventually He did. But before that, He took away my ability to rest on the Shabbat (because of the necessity for me to work Saturdays) so I would appreciate the Shabbat. He taught me to cherish every day I had a day off because I could enjoy the light of day and the companionship of my wife and children. And He actually got me into really good physical shape.

The Baal Shem Tov characterizes our life, our experiences between birth and death as “the wilderness”, but within that great desert expanse, I believe we have more definite “wanderings”, challenges, and “dry parts” of our life that God provides so that we will learn something we desperately need in order to draw closer to Him and to be a better servant and child of the Father.

Now look again that the two quotes I inserted at the top of this blog post. It’s the 40 years of traveling and the 42 individual encampments that God used to hone and shape the vessel that was the Children of Israel so when the time came, they would be ready to enter into and possess the Land of Canaan. We saw that the generation which came out of Egypt was not ready (with a few exceptions) and they were not able to make the transition from a people enslaved to a free nation. It took 40 years and the next generation to take that crucial step.

Night RoadAs the Baal Shem Tov states, the journey of Bnei Yisrael can also be thought of as the journey we take as individuals along our path of faith. We wander. Our path isn’t linear. Sometimes we backtrack and revisit old haunts and habits. Every step, every “encampment” along the way, we learn something we need to know; we have an experience that gives us a vital skill, even if we don’t realize it at the time. The Children of Israel knew they would be wandering for 40 years, but we don’t usually know how long it will be for us. As I said, within the “desert” of our lifetimes, we encounter paths that are more rocky and desolate. Often the length of time we wander depends on whether we learn quickly and dilgently the lessons God has provided, or whether we resist and cling stubbornly to our past, our sins, our frustrations, our sorrows, and our “slavery”.

If we are obedient, we finally arrive, but that’s only the beginning. Once they crossed the Jordan, the Children of Israel went on to conquer a nation. Once we are finished wandering, we must conquer the greater desert of ourselves and more.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Romans 8:37-39

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –2 Corinthians 10:3-6

“On the move” means there is no comparison between a person’s former state and his present one – the individual has totally departed from his previous level.

The verse therefore emphasizes “the journeys ,” indicating that a Jew should never be satisfied with moving from one level to a comparable one. Rather, he must constantly “journey” in a manner whereby his next stage is infinitely higher than his current one.

This latter manner of “travel” contains two elements: departing from the previous level and attaining the infinitely higher one. As long as there has not been a complete departure from the former level, the higher level cannot be attained.

This, then, is the meaning of “These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who left Egypt ..” Why was it necessary for there to be many “journeys” in order to leave Egypt; it would seem that with the first journey the Jewish people already departed Egypt?

Egypt is symbolic of spiritual limitations. Thus, the “encampments” – the spiritual achievements en route – did not constitute complete redemption from “Egypt.” In order to arrive at the Promised Land, there had to be a total departure from previous “encampments,” for each stopping – no matter how lofty the waystation – itself represented a lingering within the state of “Egypt.”

-Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXIII, pp. 224-227.

Let us finally leave “Egypt” and may the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob grant us a swift and safe journey to our own “Promised Land”, a place within us where we find His glory and peace.


The Tefillin and the Shoemaker

Praying with TefillinAnd they (Korach and his following) converged upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! Every one of the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G-d?”Numbers 16:3

There are those who maintain that they have no need of a mentor to guide them through life. They claim, as did Korach, that each and every individual can forge his relationship with G-d unaided. They argue that since the Jewish faith rejects the concept of an intermediary between man and G-d, they have no use for a rebbe or master.

They fail to understand that the entire Jewish people are a single entity, that every individual soul is, in truth, but a limb or organ of the soul of Israel. Just as each limb and organ of the human body has its function at which it excels, so, too, every soul has its role and mission, as well as its limitations. The ‘loftiest’ of souls is dependent upon the ‘lowliest’ for the attainment of the single, unified goal. And were any limb to strike out on its own, detaching itself from the ‘head’ which provides the entire body with vitality and direction – the results are self-understood.

Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch: “When an individual adapts the attitude that he can do it all on his own, he reminds me of the story told about the peasant and the tefillin. Once, a Jew noticed a pair of tefillin in the house of a gentile peasant. Upon seeing a holy object in such a place he began to inquire about the tefillin, wishing to purchase them from the goy. The peasant, who had looted the tefillin in a recent pogrom, grew agitated and defensive. “What do you mean, where did I get them?” he blurted out. “Why, I made them myself! I myself am a shoemaker!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Once Upon a Chasid
“Jack of all Trades”
Chabad.org commentary on Torah Portion Korach

Paul explained that he received the gospel through a revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). He claimed that the gospel message he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel. It was not the normal gospel message. He received a different gospel. This is an important point – a critical point – for understanding Paul. The message of the gospel that Paul proclaimed was not precisely the same message of the gospel that the rest of the apostolic community proclaimed. In other places, Paul specifically refers to this unique gospel as “my gospel” (see Romans 2:15-16, Romans 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8-9).

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Three: Paul’s Gospel (Galatians 1:11-24)”
pp 35-6

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:8 (NASB)

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary on the previous week’s Torah Portion Korach, I saw an inevitable collision with the above-quoted portion of Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. Although Korach and his co-conspirators claimed authority because all of Israel was holy to God, while Paul claimed authority based on his personal revelation from Jesus (see Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 26:15-18), they both set themselves (apparently) in opposition to the established authority representing God, Moses in the case of Korach, and the Jerusalem Council, in the case of Paul.

We know that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 who were with them came to a bad end (Numbers 16:28-35) and their story is sometimes told in congregations as a cautionary tale not to go against the established leadership, but what about Paul? Does Paul’s receiving a personal revelation and mission from Jesus exempt him from respecting and obeying properly established authority? Lancaster says, “no”:

Despite the dismissive air, Paul submitted to their authority. He had already conceded that, if they had rejected his gospel of Gentile inclusion, he would have been running his race in vain. They had the power to utterly discredit the gospel message he had been presenting. Therefore, he certainly did respect their authority. But he seems less than reverently respectful in Galatians 2:5.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Seven: Remember the Pour (Galatians 2:6-10)”
pg 71

While Paul could be opinionated and “outspoken”, he nevertheless realized that he was a man under not only the Master’s authority, but under the authorities established by God in Jerusalem, which included James, Peter, and John. But he had to approach these “pillars”, present his position based on the Master’s revelation to him, and hope they’d see things his way. Fortunately for Paul (and the Gentiles), they did. Otherwise Christianity, as we understand it, probably wouldn’t exist today. In that case, any person not born a Jew who wanted to enter into a full covenant relationship with God would have to convert to Judaism (for the sake of this blog, I will define Gentile Noahides -in contrast to Christians – as meriting a place in the world to come but not enjoying a full covenant relationship with God on par with the Jews).

The example of Paul presents a problem, though. His experience was entirely subjective. No one else saw or heard the details of his visions and so no one could verify independently, that he was telling the truth. In theory, he could have made the whole thing up in order to further some personal agenda he had in relation to Gentiles becoming “Messianic” disciples. If we accept the Biblical record on faith as well as reason, we accept that his visions were real and his authority was real.

But what about “authorities” today?

Most mainstream churches and synagogues are lead by a Pastor or Rabbi (respectively) who has received the education required to be ordained by their branch of faith and they have been appointed to a specific congregation upon the approval of that congregation’s board of directors. The board, and its various committees, have the authority to set the specific duties of the clergy, approve and renew their contractual relationship, and even fire the clergyperson if necessary. While the Pastor or Rabbi is the “face” and “voice” of the congregation in many ways, he or she can hardly act with total autonomy or impunity and are held accountable to the standards and authority of the congregation and their overseeing denomination or sect.

Sadly, not all religious groups and leaders operate on this principle. Paul’s “example” of receiving a personal revelation can be and has been terribly misused and misappropriated by many so-called “leaders” and “prophets” to set themselves up as the sole and individual authority over their congregations. If anyone complains about the “leader” and his or her lack of accountability to others, Paul’s example is cited and then the dissenters are accused of being like Korach and his band (implying that the dissenters will suffer a similar fate if they don’t withdraw their objections).

I know such a ploy may sound improbable and even silly to some of you reading this blog post, but the power of cult leaders over large groups of “believers” can be formidable to those who have made a commitment and who believe their “leader” is the “real meal deal”; the one and only person anointed by God to spread a special “message” to the “remnant” of the faithful.

I’m sure you are thinking about some of the infamous and extreme examples of what I’m describing, such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, but there are probably thousands of other religious groups out there that operate below our radar, so to speak. Certainly a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement, function under the sole authority of the “Rabbi” in charge, acknowledging only his (in the vast majority of these cases, the leader is male) “right” to make decisions and pronouncements for the congregation, based on the leader’s self-described “anointing” from God.

(I want to make it clear at this point, that there are many MJ congregations that do operate on a board of directors model and that do receive authority from a central, overseeing organization which does provide a series of checks and balances for congregational leadership – I’m not painting “Messianic Judaism” as such with a single, broad brush – however, because “the movement” is largely unregulated, some people -usually not Jewish- just put on a kippah and a tallit, declare themselves a “Messianic Rabbi”, and proceed to gather a “flock”. Then they go about sharpening whatever theological ax they have to grind, which much of the time, has only a faint resemblance to anything Jewish).

Everything I’ve said up to this point certainly could make you doubtful or concerned if you find yourself in a “one-man show” type of congregation or even one where you might suspect (correctly or not) that the the congregation’s board is pretty much “rubber-stamping” the clergy’s decisions. On the other hand, we are taught to respect authority:

Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. -Pirkei Avot 3:12

It’s confusing. However, anyone, leader or otherwise, should recall this:

Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. -Pirkei Avot 3:1

There is a Heavenly authority who holds us all accountable for what we say and do. Examples like Paul’s vision are extremely rare. They were extremely rare in Paul’s day and perhaps they may not even occur in the common era. Judaism has a long tradition of centralized authority but generally, that authority is not held by a single individual. The great sages often disagreed and it was through those debates and dialogues that justice and mercy was distilled throughout the centuries and applied to the devout in response to the unique needs of their communities and the time in which they lived.

Some respond to religious leadership concerns by refusing to affiliate with any faith group, but we all come under some sort of authority, including our employers, and local and national governments. Meeting with our congregations is how we prevent ourselves from entering into individual error (though I’m hardly one to talk at this point):

Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, “Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.” But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d’s table, as is stated, “And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.’ ”

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life. -Pirkei Avot 3:3-4

We are charged to test the validity of a leader as the Bereans tested the validity of Paul’s teachings (see Acts 17:10-12). We also know that valid and righteous leaders are established by God for the good of the world:

It was for this reason that actual peace in the world was brought about through Aharon, who descended to all creatures and elevated them to Torah.

-From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 103-107

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. –Psalm 29:11

Faith and history have established the relative authority of Korach and Paul and God’s justice and mercy was enacted in both lives in accordance with the actions of these men. Our lives are the same. We serve the same God. We all benefit from His providence. We are all accountable to His justice and we all rely on His mercy. We should not take the Name of God or His authority lightly. In the end, God prevails:

If you play for your own glory and not God’s you have no place here. -a Maggid

Rabbi Akivah would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, `”For in the image of G-d, He made man.” -Pirkei Avot 3:14

A man’s soul is the light of God. –Proverbs 20:27

Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.