Tag Archives: tragedy

Christians and Tisha B’Av

I originally posted this last year, and while I’m not actively writing new material for the time being, I thought it important that we Christians consider why it is appropriate to mourn, alongside the Jewish people, the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This year. Tisha b’Av begins on Saturday at sunset and ends at sunset on Sunday.

Morning Meditations

…Should I weep in the fifth month [Av], separating myself, as I have done these so many years?

Zechariah 7:3

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month …came Nebuzaradan … and he burnt the house of the L-RD…

II Kings 25:8-9

In the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month… came Nebuzaradan … and he burnt the house of the L-RD…

Jeremiah 52:12-13

Tisha B’Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which have occurred on the ninth of Av. Tisha B’Av means “the ninth (day) of Av.” It occurs in July or August.

Tisha B’Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av (the first by the Babylonians in 586…

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Repentance and Forgiveness in the Face of Tragedy

Even if a sharp sword rests upon a man’s neck he should not desist from prayer.

Berachos 10a

In the history of the Jewish people there were many times that could be called “lost opportunities.” Such opportunities existed, for example, before the sin of the Golden Calf, before the Jewish people entered the land, as well as during the times of Kings Saul and Solomon. Yet, the opportunity faded or did not turn into what it could have been.

-by Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
from “Hezekiah: The Messiah Who Was Not”

I think just about anyone can be put in a situation where they feel helpless and hopeless. Even the most faithful Christian, Jew, or other religious person can face a crisis that tests their faith and trust. Sometimes that situation is the consequence of sin. Other times, it is just a life occurrence.

I’m reminded of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with brain cancer and chose to commit assisted suicide. Her diagnosis was terminal and she was given a scant six months to live. There have been a lot of arguments for and against her decision, however, I’m not writing to debate the choice she made. Suicide, at least in the case of an intelligent, mentally and emotionally capable individual, is often an attempt to take control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Brittany was going to die a terrible death and there was absolutely nothing she or anyone else could do about it…

…except preempt the conclusion by dying sooner and by different and more merciful means.

The sword was at her neck. But unlike the aphorism from Talmud which I quoted above, she chose to desist from prayer, if she had prayed at all, and allowed the “sword” to fall, so to speak.

Is there ever a circumstance where we are justified in giving up?

Not according to Berachos 10a which is based on the following scripture verses:

So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”

2 Samuel 24:15-17 (NASB)

Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.

Job 13:15

Even total reliance on the grace and mercy of God does not guarantee a perfect life free from stress, harm, or tragedy. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that God will remove the consequences of our errors, mistakes, and sins. It also, sadly, doesn’t mean that bad things will never happen to good people, though as the Master said no one but God is good (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).

What does it feel like when the sword is resting on the back of your neck and you know it can and probably will fall within the next few seconds? It must feel pretty desperate.

It must feel like how the Children of Israel felt when Moses discovered their sin with the Golden Calf. It must feel like how the Children of Israel felt after they refused to take the Land of Canaan and then, once God’s protection was removed, when they tried to enter Canaan only to be routed in humiliation (Numbers 14). It must have felt like how Hezekiah felt when he was told he was about to die from his illness (Isaiah 38:1-2).

deathMost rational people don’t blame a sick person for being sick. Oh, there are probably some exceptions, such as how we might feel when we hear a chronic cigarette smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer, or when we find out an alcoholic has liver disease. Even Hezekiah’s illness was a consequence of his behavior or the lack of it, at least according to Midrash (Sanhedrin 94a):

On the night of Passover, in the middle of the night, an angel smote the army of Assyria and 185,000 died from a plague (II Kings 19:35).

Imagine — the Jewish people were staring annihilation in the face. An overwhelming implacable foe completely surrounded their last stronghold. There was a constant propaganda barrage against them in their native tongue. They had doubters from within. They went to sleep Passover night with no realistic hope.

However, they woke up the morning of Passover and the threat was suddenly gone. Someone had smitten the outstretched arm of the enemy with the sword it had raised against them.

At that moment, the Talmud remarks, Hezekiah had the chance to become the Messiah. All he had to do was sing the praises of God. Moses and the people had done so after the Egyptians were drowned in the sea. Had Hezekiah done the same he would have been the Messiah and history as we know it would have proceeded differently.

However, he did not sing. That is why he was not worthy to be the Messiah. The opportunity was lost.

But although it seemed as if God’s mind were made up as far as the King’s fate was concerned, Hezekiah continued to plead:

Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Remember now, O Lord, I beseech You, how I have walked before You in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, “Go and say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of your father David, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria; and I will defend this city.”’

Isaiah 38:2-6

God listened and he relented, adding fifteen more years to Hezekiah’s life. He removed the sword from the King’s neck, so to speak, at least for another decade and a half.

Of course, Hezekiah had a “track record” of walking before God “in truth and with a whole heart.” If he had been sinful and disobedient as was Hezekiah’s father, it is unlikely that God would have spared his life.

So too it is with us.

defeatNo, not all of our woes involve terminal illness, but when we plead and beg God to take the pressure off, He is under no obligation whatsoever to do so, especially if we are still unrepentant of our sins. Keep in mind, even a perfectly repentant person, if there is such a thing, may still pray to God for mercy in relieving their illness or other problems and God may, for His own sovereign reasons, not provide the desired answer to prayer.

But how would you like to face tragedy and disaster in life, whether you deserve it or not…with a conscience right with God or still buried in your own iniquity?

I’m not preaching to you or being judgmental. I’m as human as anyone and I make plenty of mistakes. I’m writing this as much for me as for anyone else.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

That quote has been attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, and Ian MacLaren among others, but the words are very true. Most of us don’t show any outward sign of the battles we fight every day and when we do, it usually means we’ve come to the end of our rope. I mentioned the other day about the importance of forgiveness and gratitude, and this is like it.

When you are tempted to “drop the hammer” or “lay down the law” on someone, even if they deserve it, stop for a moment and get in touch with your own “hard battle,” and then try to realize that the other person is also fighting as hard as they can. If you expect forgiveness from God for your own sins, then forgive the other person if it is at all possible.

But before all that, repent of your own sins and ask for forgiveness from your Heavenly Father. It requires being forgiven in order to forgive.

Be very, very humble.

-Ethics of the Fathers 4:4

Rabbi Raphael of Bershed complained bitterly to his teacher, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, that he was unable to eradicate feelings of vanity.

Rabbi Pinchas tried to help him by suggesting different methods, but Rabbi Raphael replied that he had already tried every one without success. He then pleaded with his mentor to do something to extirpate these egotistical feelings. Rabbi Pinchas then rebuked his disciple. “What is it with you, Raphael, that you expect instant perfection? Character development does not come overnight, regardless of how much effort you exert. Eradication of stubborn character traits takes time as well as effort. Today you achieve a little, and tomorrow you will achieve a bit more.

“You are frustrated and disappointed because you have not achieved character perfection as quickly as you had wished.

“Continue to work on yourself. Pray to God to help you with your character perfection. It will come in due time, but you must be patient.”

The Talmud states, “Be very, very humble,” to indicate that true self-betterment is a gradual process. We achieve a bit today, and a little more tomorrow.

Today I shall…

..try to be patient with myself. While I will do my utmost to rid myself of undesirable character traits, I will not become frustrated if I do not achieve instant perfection.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Kislev 7

praying aloneIf you aren’t patient with yourself and you don’t believe you can repent and be forgiven by God (and even if you know that although God may forgive you, some people never will), then you will cease to pray when you feel the sword rest on your neck or even when you see it coming. You won’t trust God that somehow, in some way, this too is for the good. Remember my previous quote of Rabbi Twersky who was quoting the Baal Shem Tov:

The Baal Shem Tov taught that God acts toward individuals accordingly as they act toward other people.

I think that includes how you act toward yourself. If you give up and won’t forgive yourself, how will God forgive you?

Why do parents love their children?
Because the lower world reflects the higher world. And above, there is a Parent and He loves His children.

Why do parents of an only child have such unbounded love for their child?
Because this is the truest reflection of the world above: Above, each one of us is an only child, and His love to us is unbounded.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Only Child”

Shemot: Trusting God

trust2In this week’s Torah portion the Torah tells us “There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” There is a disagreement whether it was truly a new king or whether the king (Pharaoh) chose to ignore any debt of gratitude to Joseph and his people for saving Egypt and the world from the 7 year famine. Obviously, trusting in people — especially heads of governments — is problematic. Who do you trust? Who can you trust?

In my youth there was a television show entitled, “Who Do You Trust?” The show was not entitled “Is There Anyone You Trust?,” because, in the end all of us trust in someone or something. People trust in their intelligence, their power, their charm, their knowledge, their connections, their political candidate, and in their wealth. For those who trust (or trusted…) in their wealth, it is ironic that on the American dollar bill it advises “In God We Trust.”

Ultimately, what will help all of us to weather these difficult times is strengthening our trust in God. Trust in God gives a person peace of mind, the ability to relax and to be free of stress and worry. It helps one to deal with frustrations and difficulties.

Like all intelligent discussions, we first have to start with a definition. Trust in God is believing, knowing, internalizing that all that the Almighty does for us if for our good. It is knowing that the Almighty loves us greater than any love one human being can have for another person. He totally knows and understands us and our personal situations. Only the Almighty has the power to impact your situation. He has a track record. You can rely on Him. Everything the Almighty does for you is a gift; there are no strings attached.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Who Do You Trust?”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemot

That sounds fine as far as it goes, but it’s not as simple as all that. Trusting in God does not mean that you are guaranteed a problem-free life. In fact, as we’ve recently seen, Many people suffer horrible tragedy and tremendous loss regardless of their trust, or lack thereof, in God. The hurricane devastates the righteous and unrighteous alike and loss of a child will break anyone’s heart.

However, Rabbi Packouz provides a handy list of 7 Principles for Trusting in God for our review. Here they are:

  1. The Creator of the universe loves me more than anybody else in the world possibly can.
  2. The Almighty is aware of all my struggles, desires and dreams. All I need is to ask Him for help.
  3. The Almighty has the power to give me anything I want.
  4. There is no other power in the universe other than the Almighty. Only He can grant me success and give me what I want.
  5. The Almighty has a track record for giving me more than I am asking for.
  6. The Almighty gives with no strings attached. I don’t need to earn it or deserve it. He will give it to me anyway.
  7. The Almighty knows what is best for me and everything He does is only for my good.

Although Christianity and Judaism are two different religions (with a common root), I think the list above can be applied just as well to the non-Jewish believer as to the Jewish person.

Does God love you more than anybody else in the world can? The New Testament is full of comments about God’s love, the most obvious being John 3:16. Yes, God does love you and He loves me, and He loves all Christians, and all Jews, and all Muslims, and all Buddhists, and all human beings who have ever lived and who will ever lived.

And yet disaster can strike at any moment and human history is replete with tragedies and disasters. The road of our lives and the lives of all who came before us is littered with broken bodies and broken hearts and broken spirits.

Certainly God is aware of all our needs and struggles since nothing is hidden from Him, but point two suggests that all we have to do to be relieved of our pain is to ask Him for help. Does everyone who has a sincere faith and prays to God receive immediate relief from suffering? Ask the parents of those children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary school.

God really does have the power to give you, me, and everyone else anything we want, but that doesn’t mean He will grant us anything we want. In fact, it is very likely that God will not grant us anything we really want most of the time.

From a Christian’s, Jew’s, or Muslim’s point of view, there is only one power in the universe: God. Only God can grant success and comfort. But as I already said, there’s a difference between what He can do and what He will do.

Does God have a track record of giving us more than what we ask for? I’m not even sure how to measure such a thing. I think that’s probably true in some cases, but not in others. Ask six million Jews who died during the Holocaust while praying for God to grant them mercy. Was death the only mercy He decided to give?

no-strings-attachedGod gives with no strings attached. Hmmm. Is that true? Probably in more cases than not, but there’s a presupposition that even in giving, God is trying to get our attention, especially if those receiving His gifts do not have faith. On the other hand, referring back to John 3:16, God is the grand master of unconditional love, so who am I to talk?

God knows what is best for me. I can’t argue against that and this seventh point could be used to explain the other six. We may ask for something and not get it and then conclude that we didn’t get what we wanted because it wasn’t good for us. On the other hand, the parents of 26 murdered children only want this all to be a bad dream and for their precious little ones to be restored to them. Is that not “good for them?”

No, I’m not trying to be a downer and “diss” trusting in God, but such an abiding trust is difficult to come by.

Blessed are You, O God … Who has provided me my every needs.


One of the great tzaddikim lived in abject poverty, yet always had a happy disposition. He was asked how he managed to maintain so pleasant an attitude in the face of such adverse conditions.

“Each day I pray to God to provide all my needs,” he said. “If I am poor, that means that one of my needs is poverty. Why should I be unhappy if I have whatever I need?”

Tzaddikim are great people and we are little people who may not always be able to achieve the intensity of trust in God that would allow us to accept adversity with joy. But even if we cannot attain it to the highest degree, we should be able to develop some sincere trust.

When our children are little, we as parents know what they need. They might prefer a diet of sweets, but we give them nourishing foods. They certainly despise receiving painful injections that immunize them against dreadful diseases, but we forcibly subject them to these procedures because we know what is good for them.

Some people do not believe in God. But to those that do, why not realize that He knows our needs better than we do, and that even some very unpleasant experiences are actually for our own betterment?”

Today I shall…

try to bear adversity with less anger and resentment, remembering that God is a compassionate Father, and that He gives me that which He knows, far better than I, that I truly need.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 20”

The Hebrew word bitachon is typically translated as “trust” in English, but that hardly does it justice. Trusting God isn’t about God always giving us what we want or us experiencing God as always doing what we think of as good. It’s the realization that God is always good regardless of our experiences.

Consider any of the “holy men” you may admire and revere from the Bible. From Abraham to Paul, they all led less than perfect lives. Yes, God granted them many gifts, but He also allowed much hardship. Abraham and Sarah were childless and without an heir for most of their lives and into extreme old age until God granted them Isaac. Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, kept in virtual slavery by his relative Laban for twenty years, his daughter was raped and held captive, his favorite son Joseph was lost and presumed dead. Another son Judah married outside of the Hebrews and two of his three sons died. Joseph was a slave and a prisoner for years in a strange land before being elevated to great power, but only on the condition that he conceal his identity, even from his own brothers. When Joseph died, every one of his descendants for generations was kept as slaves in Egypt. Even their rescuer Moses was unable to lead his people into Canaan and instead wandered with them in the desolate wilderness for forty years until finally dying with almost everyone else in his generation without walking in Israel for himself.

Dietrich BonhoefferThe “saints” of the New Testament fared no better. Consider the stoning of Stephen, the harsh life of Paul leading only to death in Rome, and the martyrdom of Peter and every other Apostle. No, trust and faith did not result in comfort of life.

No, trust in God cannot be based on experience with God because if it were, none of these people would have been able to trust Him. In fact it seems that one must trust God in spite of our life experience. Rabbi Packouz’s list does little good, since God does not perform good on command. Knowing that God can spare us pain and suffering doesn’t help and is a bitter irony when God doesn’t spare us pain and suffering. Job’s most famous line (for me) illustrates what it is to trust in God.

Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.

Job 13:15 (ESV)

This gives us a picture of the Jewish method of trusting God, since it doesn’t preclude telling God how we feel about what’s happening to us.

Rabbi Twerski tells us that only a great tzaddik, a very holy and spiritual person, can truly trust God at the level I’m talking about here. But he also says that it’s not impossible for we “ordinary folk” to trust God, either. In his own declaration on the matter, Rabbi Twerski states, Today I shall try to bear adversity with less anger and resentment, remembering that God is a compassionate Father, and that He gives me that which He knows, far better than I, that I truly need.

In our own times of hardship and anguish, maybe this is the best we can do as well.

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12 (ESV)

Good Shabbos.

No Guarantees

NoGuaranteesDue to the widespread famine in Canaan, Jacob and his family descended to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. Before the journey, G-d appeared to Jacob and said “Don’t fear going down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you and I will also take you out (Gen. 46:3).” Wouldn’t this move to Egypt prove to be the beginning of hundreds of years of painful enslavement under ruthless taskmasters? Jacob knew of Abraham ‘s prophecy that his offspring would endure slavery and oppression in a foreign land for hundreds of years (Gen. 15:13). Why shouldn’t he have feared this impending horror?

The truth is that yes, Jacob had reason to fear. But G-d’s promise — that He would be with Jacob’s children all along and that ultimately they would emerge a great nation — gave Jacob the strength to overcome it. G-d, in His Wisdom, sent the Jewish people to Egypt to build them into a great nation. Life in Egypt would be difficult, torturous and deadly at times, but our Father swore to never let go of our hands throughout the surgery. He promised that the Jewish People would leave with new strength and a promising future. A nation committed to G-d, one that would introduce and instill spiritual purpose into the world, would come out at the other end.

Pain is commonplace, and it’s our Egypt. “That’s life!” as they say, but it’s far too glib. Take a moment to consider some of the difficulties you’ve gone through, where the pain has now subsided. Did that experience change the way you look at and value life, your family, or your community? Did you grow or learn from the trying times? Jacob learned the importance of remembering that G-d is with us throughout our suffering, and to focus on the rewards on the other side. We often merit seeing the blessing hidden in the sorrow, if we take a moment to appreciate it.

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Living in Fear”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
and the Sandy Hook School Shootings

Experiencing continual anxiety and fear is a terrible thing. According to Rabbi Dixler, we should look back on some crisis we’ve experienced in life and see how we made it through it all, and then determine how we changed and grew as a result. Difficult times are often a “hidden blessing.” Yes, I suppose that’s true. But if we take the example of Jacob and God as we see in Genesis 46:3, even though Jacob knew that his family; his descendents would suffer slavery and oppression in Egypt for centuries, he had God’s direct assurance that they would rise up out of Egypt and become a great nation.

But what happens when you are the one facing a challenge in your life or in your family? God rarely gives us, as individual believers, His personal assurance as to how things will turn out. The vast majority of the time, we don’t have a clue what’s going to happen from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Did the parents of those 26 children murdered at their school in Newtown, Connecticut have any idea at all that when they sent their precious ones off on that fateful Friday morning, they’d never see them alive again?

Of course not. If they did, the parents would never have let them go.

We don’t know what’s going to happen an hour from now, a day from now, a year from now. When tragedy strikes or even threatens to strike, such as an ambiguous and disturbing medical test result requiring a visit to a specialist in the near future, you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen and how it’s going to turn out. So you live with the concern and anxiety of not knowing, sitting on proverbial “pins and needles.” Rabbi Dixler has a suggestion for how we are to endure tragedy and I suppose, the threat of future tragedy as well.

It’s now just a week since the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, and we’re all afflicted with new fears and feelings of helplessness. We don’t know why this had to happen, but perhaps there’s one thought that can give us strength: Someone Who loves us is holding our hand, and the hands of our precious children. Turn to Him for reassurance. May we soon see the other end of this pain, and may we all find new strength and a more promising future.

In other words, there are no guarantees from God that we won’t suffer from tragedy and pain. The only promise is that God loves us and will stand with us, holding our hand, so to speak, while going through the anguish with us.

Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment of their captivity in Egypt. Supposedly, that’s exactly what God did with His people Israel every moment during the Holocaust. And yet millions suffered and died, including many, many innocent children.

job_sufferingI’ve been reading the book of Job for the past couple of weeks and in the midst of all of his quite undeserved suffering, he had no idea what was happening to him or why. He was completely bewildered about why God should allow such terrible things to happen to him, since he could figure out no reason for it. His friends, on the other hand, were quite content to blame Job, most likely sincerely believing that the reason for Job’s pain and anguish was because of some sin. I haven’t gotten to the end of the book yet and I read Job very infrequently, but as I recall, it was only at the very end that God “explained Himself” and He also explained that “He who makes the universe also makes the rules.” In other words, you don’t get to question God. Sometimes God just “happens.”

Some cynics say that religion is a crutch for people who fear death. That may sometimes be the case, but it certainly does not apply to those who study Torah. The Torah does not say much about life after death. It’s really not a book about how to go to heaven or what happens after we die. The Torah is more concerned with how we live in this lifetime, not the next. It is possible to read the entire Torah and conclude that there is no afterlife or resurrection from the dead. In the days of the apostles, a sect of Judaism called the Sadducees did exactly that. They read the Torah, did not see anything about an afterlife, and concluded that there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, no resurrection from the dead.

“Resurrection in the Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

There isn’t even the promise of life after death, at least as far as a plain reading of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) is concerned, which is what led the Sadducees to their conclusion. However, as the FFOZ commentator points out, a study of the Torah tells us more about how to live than how to die, or more accurately, it is a study of how to live in this life not the next one.

But now we have a puzzle. If the foundation of the Bible is a lesson on how to live our lives as we exist in this world and there are no guarantees as to how this life will turn out for us, shouldn’t we continually be in fear, trembling all of the time about what apparently random circumstance is going to happen next? It’s either that or live in denial of everything I just said and either pretend that we have control of our lives or that God, being in control, will never, ever let anything bad happen to us.

Death would almost be preferable, because then, there’s no uncertainty, no fear, no pain (assuming there is no life after death). Just an end and nothingness.

But the FFOZ commentator continues.

Once, a Pharisee named Rabbi Simai was arguing with the Sadducees. They asked him to prove from the Torah that the dead would be raised.

Rabbi Simai said, “From where in Torah do we learn the resurrection of the dead? From the verse, ‘I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan.’ It doesn’t say ‘[to give] you’; it says ‘to give them.’ Therefore [since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob haven’t yet received the land] the resurrection of the dead is proved from the Torah.” (b.Sanhedrin 90b, quoting Exodus 6:4)

Rabbi Simai’s point is that God promised to give the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—not just to their descendents. Yet, as the writer of the book of Hebrews points out, the patriarchs “died in faith, without receiving the promises” (Hebrews 11:13). God must keep His promise, but in order to do so, He will have to raise the patriarchs from the dead. This explains why Jacob was so adamant about being buried in the tomb of his fathers in the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Simai’s argument with the Sadducees sounds similar to Yeshua’s. When the Sadducees asked Yeshua to prove from the Torah that the dead are raised, He pointed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Mark 12:26–27, quoting Exodus 3:6)

There is a hope of a life after this one, both in Jewish and Christian tradition. Sure, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge and we don’t really know exactly how it all works, but I guess that’s where faith and trust comes in.

always-hopeFaith and trust also “fills in the gaps” of our lives in this world and this life as well. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Life is a mystery and not always in an exciting and fun way. The mystery can be horrifying and terrible. Disaster has struck. We tell ourselves we can only go up from the bottom, but what if the bottom drops out? We can still fall further. We can still suffer more. After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey, it’s not like everything got immediately better for the victims. Many are still struggling to recover. It may take years for some people to restore everything they lost. Maybe some of them never will.

Where is God?

I ask that question a lot. If Rabbi Dixler’s interpretation is correct, then God is with us all the time, even in the midst of hideous pain and suffering. According to Rabbi Dixler, God is not just an impassive observer, watching us as we writhe in agony or shiver in fear. He’s an active if unseen (and unfelt) participant in our pain, experiencing it with us, expressing compassion, demonstrating love, though we may not be consciously aware of it.

We just have to believe He is there and that He somehow helps. We just have to somehow trust in His presence and His concern, that He will not leave us alone, even though we can feel very much alone.

Not a great message to start out your week with, especially since this is Christmas Eve (for those of you who celebrate Christmas). A message of uncertainly with only faith to hang on to in a season most Christians believe is one of ultimate hope, joy, and glory.

That’s the “official story” of Christianity at this time of year. I didn’t go to church again this Sunday. I have my reasons, but basically, I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like listening to and singing Christmas Caroles, hearing the “oh boy, isn’t it great that Christmas is almost here” messages, and “joy, joy, joy to the world” and all that jazz.

God, I would love some “joy, joy, joy” in my life and in the world, but I’ll settle for the knowledge and assuredness that no matter what I and my family must face now and in the future, that you will truly be with us all, strengthening us and comforting us in the bad times, and rejoicing with us in the good times.


Inspiring Hope

moshiach-ben-yosefThe Jewish people believe in what’s called the End of Days. This isn’t the final end of the world – but merely the end of history as we know it. After the End of Days the world will continue as usual, with the big exception that there will be world peace.

As the End of the Days approach, there are two paths that the world could take. The first is filled with kindness and miracles, with the Messiah “given dominion, honor and kinship so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him; his dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass, and his kingship would never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14) This scenario could be brought at any moment, if we’d just get our act together!

The other path is described as Messiah coming “humble and riding upon a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). In this scenario, nature will take its course, and society will undergo a slow painful deterioration, with much suffering. God’s presence will be hidden, and his guidance will not be perceivable.

According to this second path, there will be a valueless society in which religion will not only be chided, it will be used to promote immorality. Young people will not respect the old, and governments will become godless. This is why the Midrash says, “One third of the world’s woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah.” (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Handbook of Jewish Thought”)

“End of Days”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

This probably sounds a little different than how Christians understand the “end times,” particularly the interpretation of Zechariah 9:9, but if you click the link I provided and continue to read, you’ll see there are a lot of similarities between the Jewish and Christian “end times scenario.” One thing I’m particularly interested in is that, from the Jewish perspective, the “End of Days” isn’t the end of the world. Some Christians I’ve talked to believe that when Jesus comes, and after all of the stuff that happens in the Book of Revelation, the Earth will be destroyed, all the Christians will go to Heaven, and everyone else will burn eternally in Hell.

But the Jewish point of view reads more like how I understand John’s revelation. The people of God don’t go to Heaven, “Heaven” comes down to them (us).

Another interesting thing (for me, anyway) is how we seem to have a choice as to which road to take. A world filled with kind and just people who give Messiah “dominion, honor, and kinship” and with “all peoples, nations and languages” serving him, will merit a world of everlasting dominion by the Messiah, but only “if we’d just get our act together!”

That doesn’t seem very likely. The alternate choice seems to be the one we see unfolding before us at the moment:

According to this second path, there will be a valueless society in which religion will not only be chided, it will be used to promote immorality. Young people will not respect the old, and governments will become godless. This is why the Midrash says, “One third of the world’s woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah.”

That is a very good description of the world we live in today…and it is also the world that we merit by our action or rather, our lack of action. However, the Aish Rabbi also provides a message of hope.

Despite the gloom, the world does seem headed toward redemption. One apparent sign is that the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel and made it bloom again. Additionally, a major movement is afoot of young Jews returning to Torah tradition.

By the way, Maimonides states that the popularity of Christianity and Islam is part of God’s plan to spread the ideals of Torah throughout the world. This moves society closer to a perfected state of morality and toward a greater understanding of God. All this is in preparation for the Messianic age.

The Messiah can come at any moment, and it all depends on our actions. God is ready when we are. For as King David says: “Redemption will come today – if you hearken to His voice.”

We have hope for the redemption yes, but what will rouse us out of our world of darkness and despair into that light and hope?

Just as when the world was created — it was first dark, followed by light.

-Shabbos 77b

Reb Tzadok HaKohen (.‫ (צדקת הצדיק – קע‬elaborates upon the theme of this Gemara. When Hashem wants to shower a person with goodness and blessings, He waits for the person to daven and to ask for this benefit. In order to motivate the person to call out in prayer, Hashem will direct a certain element of distress or some sort of fear in his direction in order for the person to call out to Him.

light-ohrDaf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
Commentary on Shabbos 77b

It would certainly seem as if Hashem, as if God were directing elements of distress or fear into our world and waiting for us to daven, to pray, to call out to Him. How can we, as people of faith, conclude otherwise?

But a word of caution.

what does pres mean Gd has called the children home. their place is w/ their parents not at the heavenly throne. we must object 2 suffering

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
on twitter

Some Christians have given in to the temptation to use tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to say some hurtful things. They say these children were murdered to punish our nation for various sins, including some states allowing gay people to marry, that God “isn’t allowed in our schools,” and because abortion is legal in our country.

On the other hand, Rabbi Boteach is telling us that the death of innocent children makes no sense, is not desired by God, and must be resisted and objected to with every last bit of our strength, will, and compassion.

Frankly, given the choice, I’d rather go with Rabbi Boteach’s interpretation than what some of these Christians have said (including our President).

I was thrilled yesterday to get an email from my reclusive friend, Daniel Lancaster. Many of you know him from his books and especially as the author of the massively popular Torah Club volumes. He is a great writer and leader. His congregation, Beth Immanuel in Hudson, Wisconsin, has launched a new initiative acting with tangible love for Messiah to repair one broken place and assist in the lives of some people whose world is splintered and needs mending.

Beth Immanuel has adopted a worker, a Messianic Jewish woman who is putting her life on the line and her love into action in Uganda: Emily Dwyer.

They have launched a website and a plan to raise support to sustain Emily’s work in Uganda. They are baking challah bread, with Emily’s own recipe, as an ongoing fundraiser.

Recently, Emily spoke at Beth Immanuel and two of her messages are posted online. You can hear Emily Dwyer speak at this link (and be inspired — she is a speaker worth listening to).

You can see more about “Acts for Messiah,” the partnership between Beth Immanuel, some other affiliate congregations, and Emily Dwyer’s community in Uganda at ActsForMessiah.org.

-Derek Leman
“An MJ Congregation Acts for Messiah”
Messianic Jewish Musings

We can resist. We can fight back. We can strive for goodness in our world and promote hope in the people around us, regardless of where we may find ourselves. This message is also reflected in the commentary of the Aish Rabbi.

In many ways, the world is a depressing place. But life is like medicine. Imagine a person with a serious internal disease. Taking the right medication will detoxify the body by pushing all the impurities to the surface of the skin. The patient may look deathly ill – all covered in sores. But in truth, those surface sores are a positive sign of deeper healing.

The key is to maintain the hope of redemption.

How can we hasten the coming of the Messiah? The best way is to love all humanity generously, to keep the mitzvot of the Torah (as best we can), and to encourage others to do so as well.

HopeTo promote hope, we must have hope. To inspire the will to do good, we must possess that will and we must do good. This is the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. God has allowed a world of darkness and we are responsible for lighting it up.

“Know the G-d of your fathers and serve Him with a whole heart.” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9) Every sort of Torah knowledge and comprehension, even the most profound, must be expressed in avoda. I.e. the intellectual attainment must bring about an actual refinement and improvement of character traits, and must be translated into a deep-rooted inward attachment (to G-d) – all of which is what the Chassidic lexicon calls”avoda”.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Tevet 6, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

I can’t tell you why bad things happen. Sure, sometimes God may be trying to get our attention, but my radar into God’s motivations isn’t particularly accurate or insightful. I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful to point fingers and place blame upon political parties, advocacy groups, or any other folks. Yes, I’ll probably still complain about politics and people from time to time, but when I actually want to do the will of my Father who is in Heaven, then I must actually do for other people.

James, the brother of the Master, famously said that faith without works is dead. If that’s true, then complaining about the inequities, hardships, and tragedies of life, with or without faith, is also deader than a doornail.

Choose doing. Choose life. Inspire hope. If we continue to help repair the world, the “end of days” and coming of Messiah will take care of themselves.

Long After the Storm

There are a plethora of websites, blogs, and news sites that have addressed the tragedy of the Sandy “superstorm” and the broken and struggling lives it has left behind in New York and New Jersey, so I didn’t intend on writing about it. I thought that I couldn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said and with far more eloquence and compassion by the many others who have already spoken.

But then I read “A Lesson From the Storm” on Shmarya Rosenberg’s blog FailedMessiah.com. I follow Rosenberg’s blog regularly but never comment and I am periodically dubious as to his bias against the Chabad community. Nevertheless, I couldn’t ignore the call for understanding and the challenge to extend myself beyond my usual limits.

One of the new facts of life in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is that tens of thousands of people are now reliant on some form of assistance, be that help from FEMA or the Red Cross or from smaller local organizations like churches and synagogues.

People who never before had to ask for or accept charity now are forced by circumstances to stand in lines at ad hoc soup kitchens and sleep at the homes of family, friends or even strangers or shelters while some form of temporary housing is found for them.

In some ways, they are now living the lives of America’s poorest citizens, never knowing if they will have a roof over their heads tomorrow or food to eat.

The very poor and homeless we are used to seeing are often mentally ill or drug addicted, and it is easy for us to blame their poverty on their own behavior or on being crazy.

But what we don’t see are the thousands of very poor Americans who have been priced out of the housing market and who sleep in shelters or on friends’ couches, go to work at low paying jobs with no benefits, and who rush back to those shelters before their early evening closing, often hungry, just so that they don’t get locked out.

We don’t see the very poor who became impoverished because of a severe illness, who had to choose between getting a very ill child to regular therapy appointments and their jobs.

We don’t see the families, ravaged by job loss, job erosion and by employers who cut or eliminate employee benefits, often by cutting employees’ hours to just below the full-time threshold, families whose regular dinners consist of ramen soup and whose breakfasts are often nonexistent.

As horrible as it is right now in some Jewish areas of New York City, just blocks away outside them it is often far worse, because these already poor communities lack the financial resources and fundraising expertise to supplement the assistance the government can give.

I’m politically and fiscally conservative and so I don’t believe that all social ills can be “solved” simply by creating a program and then throwing tax dollars at it. Also, having worked as a family counselor and social worker in both the San Francisco Bay Area and in Orange County (Calif.), I know about the struggles of the mentally ill and the limits of any social system in perfecting a “solution” for prejudice, homelessness, poverty, and the pull between the need for help and the illness that drives such a vulnerable population away from hope. In my time as a child abuse investigator for Child Protective Services in Southern Califonia, I met with many families on welfare (since they are disproportionately reported to “the system”), but in all that time, I found only one family who was using public funds as a temporary aid while they tried to remediate their circumstances. All of the others treated welfare like a multi-generational lifestyle and “worked” the system the way other people worked at jobs.

I say all of that to help you understand my perspective on the politics behind economic and social assistance programs and their relative effectiveness in changing “temporary” aid into a permanent institution. Often, those attitudes are in conflict with a greater imperative.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

Decades ago, I read a statistic saying that most Americans are only one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Given the massive amount of debt most individuals carry, I don’t doubt the statement to be just as true today as it was back then. Probably more so.

I’m fortunate to have a job today. It has benefits including medical insurance. I live in a house with my family. I drive a car in good operating condition to and from work each day. I sleep in a comfortable bed and I don’t have to worry about not getting enough food, being too warm or too cold, or doing without all of the basic necessities and many of the comforts.

But I’ve also been unemployed. I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve been depressed, frustrated, angry, and desperate. I’ve worked low paying full-time jobs while going to school full-time just to support my family and try to rebuild my life. I’ve been hurt and sick with no medical benefits, so I just had to put up with being hurt and sick. There were months when I barely saw my family let alone talked to them. Sleep was all but an illusion. I was a middle-aged man burning the candle at both ends because I had to and there was no one to help me except me.

And God.

Which is why, in spite of the fact that I’m always dubious of a political solution to a human problem, I find that we must show compassion and render assistance to people who need assistance. If we are to err, let’s err on the side of generosity rather than stinginess. Consider the following, which is a comment made by a Katrina victim in response to Rosenberg’s blog post:

I can speak to this. One day I was comfortably (upper) middle class, living in a 2400 sq ft house filled with stuff, much of it of sentimental, as well as monetary, value: artwork, heirlooms, antiques, rare books, and so on. The next day I was homeless with only the clothes on my back and the contents of a small carry-on. Although I tried to, I got no help from the Federation or the Red Cross, and I did not get all that I was supposed to from FEMA. For months my job was wrangling on the phone with two insurance companies trying to get the reimbursements that my policies called for–with limited success. If I hadn’t worked in the insurance industry and didn’t know what my policies really provided, I would have gotten even less. Fortunately I had some assistance from my son (logistical, not financial) and some savings, or I do not know what would have become of me. With my own resources I was able to survive, have a roof over my head, food on the table and other necessities. In the general atmosphere of no help I do have to thank a group of Jewish volunteers from North Carolina who cleaned out the contents of my flooded house (a disgusting job) and another group of Southern Baptists who gutted my house–and the US tax code which allowed me to deduct portions of my $300,000 worth of uninsured losses. In addition I lost my whole circle of friends and acquaintances, health care providers, etc., etc. These social ties were extremely difficult, in some cases impossible, to reproduce in my new life.

In addition I have suffered psychological trauma that I don’t think will ever pass. A heavy rain (even here in the desert) makes me very nervous, and I am very distressed whenever there is a hurricane on the loose, although there are no hurricanes possible in Arizona. At an event marking the fifth anniversary of Katrina, I met a friend, neighbor, and colleague who also relocated to Arizona. She told me that she didn’t have enough clothes or furnishings because she was afraid that if she acquired anything, she would lose it. I told her that I have a ridiculously excessive wardrobe, because I am afraid of being left again with nothing but the clothes on my back. Eerily three weeks after this conversation, my friend’s new home was burned to the ground by an arsonist. One of my best friends was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter just before a looter, carrying a gun, was about to enter her home. She continues to have post-traumatic emotional problems.

When we look at the news, we see unknown figures and hear nameless statistics. When we encounter the homeless and the mentally ill on our streets, we automatically think “bum,” or “panhandler,” “addict,” or “nutcase.” We don’t see the human faces. We don’t hear the human voices. But they’re there and they’re real. Like most of humanity, we tend not to care about a problem until it becomes our problem. It rarely has an emotional impact on us and even more rarely inspires us to offer assistance until it becomes personal; until it happens to us, or to a relative, or to a friend, or maybe because someone we care about also cares about the victims.

Five hundred years ago or so, a man named John Donne penned these words:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

No Man is an Island
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

If we are indeed “involved in mankind,” then whatever happens to another human being, happens to us. As Christ said, whenever we help the least of all human creatures, we have helped the author of our souls.

Most of all, and this is important, we don’t have to assume that once the initial crisis has passed that everyone is going to be fine and we can go about our usual lives. We don’t have to return to being unconcerned for those whose lives will take years to recover, if they ever will recover completely. Do you ever wonder about the victims of the earthquake in Haiti? Do you still recall those lives devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Do you ever, ever wonder what all of those people are doing right now?

The victim of Katrina suffers years after the disaster. His heart, his feelings, his life is still being damaged by the storm. And yet, as painful as I can only imagine that might be, the greater injury is done by uncaring neighbors, by unfeeling humanity who asks “for whom the bell tolls,” and then not recognizing the name, shuts out the sound of a small shattered voice, softly crying in the background.

Only the hurricane has passed. The storm of anguish and need is still raging, its call, unanswered and unheeded.

EDIT: Unfortunately, the nor’easter that interrupted recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy pulled away from New York and New Jersey Thursday morning, leaving a blanket of thick, wet snow, and triggering even more anxiety and despair among those people still in the first stages of trying to recover.

To help victims of Sandy, donations to the American Red Cross can be made by visiting Red Cross disaster relief, or you can text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.