Tag Archives: understanding

He Who Fashions Our Hearts

Rambam cites the verse in Tehillim (33:15) as proof of this principle: “He who fashions all their hearts together, Who comprehends all their deeds.” According to Radak (Tehillim ibid.), this verse is explaining why Hashem has the power to see into men’s hearts; because He alone fashioned them, He alone has the ability to truly understand them.

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” p.15
Monday’s Commentary for Parashas Shemos
A Daily Dose of Torah

I’ve always wondered just how much of human behavior God understands. After all, people can be afraid, but God is never afraid. People can be selfish, but God is never selfish. People can be weak, but God is never weak. How can God understand all of our faults and foibles when He has none of His own?

Of course, I always thought this was the answer:

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:15-16 (NASB)

That covers Yeshua (Jesus) understanding what it’s like to be tempted. The Master may not have sinned, but he did know what it was to be weak, put upon, exhausted, in need of help and comfort:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.

Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

Matthew 4:1-2, 10-11

The Master even said this:

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.

Luke 22:41-43

These are very human words uttered by our Master in prayer to the Father. I wonder if he was afraid? I wouldn’t blame him if he were. Here too he needed help, and again, an angel come to comfort or “strengthen” him.

We always assume it was physically impossible for Jesus to sin but strictly speaking is that true? I mean, it’s not really a temptation unless there’s the possibility of giving in. It’s not a true victory unless you have overcome failure. I think the Master endured these things in part to show us that we can be tempted and overcome as well, even though we are broken down, faulty, lame, miserable human flesh.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13

This was one of the first verses I was encouraged to learn when I professed my faith many years ago, and I thought Paul was being rather smug and arrogant. Sure, it’s easy for him to say that God will provide a way of escape so we can endure temptation and not sin, but it certainly didn’t (and often still doesn’t) seem obvious to me which way led out of temptation.

father and sonBut going back to the first quote above, it never occurred to me before that God understands us completely because God made us, even though He is perfect and we are imperfect, even though He is immortal and we are passing away like grass in a blast furnace. I wonder if that’s why there are so many human-like metaphors for describing God in the Bible, not because He has a face, or arms, or hands, or breath, but so that we can, on some shallow level, relate to Him, even as He completely and totally understands us.

A person is constantly beset by warring impulses. Sometimes, he will succeed and triumph over his evil impulses; other times he may fail and succumb to his baser urges. To the human observer, this behavior may seem random and inconsistent. But Hashem “fashions all their hearts together;” He alone knows of the many components that make up a person’s mind and heart. Thus, it is possible for Him to “comprehend all of their deeds.”

I don’t think this means that God approves of all of our deeds, but He does understand, and hopefully, feels compassion for all of His children, including you and me.

Moreover, we must not overlook one of the profound principles of Judaism. There is something which is far greater than my desire to pray, namely, God’s desire that I pray. There is something which is far greater than my will to believe, namely, God’s will that I believe. How insignificant is the outpouring of my soul in the midst of this great universe! Unless it is the will of God that I pray, unless God desires prayer (See Exodus Rabba, 21, 5; Midrash Tehillim, 5, 7.), how ludicrous is all my praying.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The Separation of Church and God,” p.58
Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism

On the following page, Heschel wrote, “To live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul.”

At the heart of doing teshuvah, of repenting and returning to God, is prayer. While the seven points of doing teshuvah I posted at the top of this blog post make it seem as if teshuvah is largely a matter of exercising intellect and will, in fact even our ability to make the first step, to regret and be ashamed of our sins, is because God created us with an awareness of Him; we are made in His likeness.

Prayer is a requirement of repentance, for without God how can man repent at all, how can he turn away from evil and turn toward God and make a life-altering, permanent decision to abandon the way he previously walked?

But in the agony of teshuvah, being torn away from one life and struggling to achieve another, it’s easy to drown in prayers of petition to the point of begging.

But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

Mark 9:22-24

From God we need all of the building blocks necessary to make teshuvah, then we need help putting them together, and then we need help doing everything else we are responsible for doing to return to Hashem.

In the middle of all that, where do we find the will and the strength to praise Him?

For to Thee Lord our God, God of our fathers, are due songs and praise, hymn and psalm, power and dominion, victory, grandeur, might, homage, beauty, holiness, kingship, blessings, thanksgiving

-from the daily liturgy
quoted in Heschel, p.64

prayerWe can’t “flatter” God into responding to our requests and He certainly doesn’t need us to praise Him because He lacks anything, but as Heschel said before, we pray not because our prayers are powerful or worthy, but because God desires that we pray, and I might add, for our own sakes. For we need God more than He needs us, if He needs anything at all. God is waiting only for us to whisper our tiny prayers to Him so He can call out and draw us to Him.

As much as the human soul yearns to rise up and merge within the light of its Creator, so much more so does the Infinite Creator yearn to be found within the human soul.

If so, what force could stand between them? What could hold back the Creator’s infinite light?

Only His desire that this union occur with our consent, that we be the ones to crack open the door.

“Open for me just as wide as a pinhole,” G‑d pleads with us, “and I will open for you a vast, unbounded portal to My very core of being.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Open for Me”
Chabad.org

I know I’ve quoted this before but it’s a good quote. A number of people commented on these words (click the link above to read the comments) including someone named Harley A:

And 12-Step groups call this “Willingness.”
Wow – I keep seeing how the 12-step recovery coincides with Judaism, it is beautiful.

Someone named Ezra commented:

When G-d created the world he did it with the attributes of Mercy and Justice (female and male qualities). And if you look in Genesis 1:27 you see again that G-d created us in His image (male and female).

G-d made everything with its opposite, up down , left right front back, day night. We can not have one without the other, that’s just how G-d made everything.

We need the Shechina simple because without her, our lives would not only be incomplete but also out of balance. We would only know G-d as a god of vengeance and never have that opportunity to repent. That would be frightening. When G-d remembered our frailty He even gave us cities of refuge. HE IS SO GOOD!!

Enjoy His Sabbath and rest a while with Her.

Life is difficult. We are all fighting a hard battle every single day. God does not desire that we fight this battle alone. If we cry out to Him, if we repent, if we pray for the strength to repent and the endurance to see it through, He will respond in an instant, whether we’re always aware of it or not, and rescue us, and even if we aren’t aware of that either, we will merit a place in the resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven where our sure reward is waiting:

“…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:4

Yes, Lord come. Maranatha.

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The Signpost Up Ahead

waiting-for-a-signMay it be Your will … that You lead us toward peace … and enable us to reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace.

-Prayer of the Traveler

Before we take a long trip in a car, we first consult a map to determine the best route. If we know people who have already made that particular trip, we ask them whether there are certain spots to avoid, where the best stopovers are, etc. Only a fool would start out without any plan, and stop at each hamlet to figure out the best way to get to the next hamlet.

It is strange that we do not apply this same logic in our journey through life. Once we reach the age of reason, we should think of a goal in life, and then plan how to get there. Since many people have already made the trip, they can tell us in advance which path is the smoothest, what the obstacles are, and where we can find help if we get into trouble.

Few things are as distressful as finding oneself lost on the road with no signposts and no one to ask directions. Still, many people live their lives as though they are lost in the thicket. Yet, they are not even aware that they are lost. They travel from hamlet to hamlet and often find that after seventy years of travel, they have essentially reached nowhere.

The Prayer of the Traveler applies to our daily lives as well as to a trip.

Today I shall…

…see what kind of goals I have set for myself and how I plan to reach these goals.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Iyar 21”
Aish.com

I can see the point Rabbi Twerski is making with this, but he missed a few things. When the first European explorers were sailing their tiny ships to the west and south across the unknown vastness of the ocean, they had no maps at all to guide them, and even those who went after them probably had maps that were woefully inadequate to the task of surely guiding their voyages. Exploring ships would be gone for years at a time and some of them never came back, making it difficult for those who wanted to follow to repeat their journeys with any sort of accuracy. Sailing uncharted waters doesn’t allow for consulting a map first to determine the best route. It’s a voyage into the unknown. Here be dragons.

I know life isn’t exactly like that but there are similarities. While we can consult our parents and other people whom we feel would be good “guides” for our journey in life, no two people live exactly the same life, so there are going to be “blank spots.” My son David served in the United States Marine Corps and I’ve never been a member of the Armed Forces. Before he entered the Corps and during his service, I had no way to guide him through many of his experiences. Even now that he has been honorably discharged for several years, there are things I can’t relate to because I didn’t live the life he did. Only others who have also served could understand what David went through.

That doesn’t mean my understanding and “sage” advice to him is useless…but there are limits.

Which brings me to the Bible.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the Bible is the perfect guide for a person’s life, and that it anticipates every detail for good or bad that we could possibly encounter.

Well, that’s not entirely true (Note: I wrote this before reading a chapter from John F. MacArthur’s (editor) book Think Biblically called “Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture,” a photocopy of which was given to me by Pastor Randy…more on that in a later blog post). In the Aish.com Ask the Rabbi pages, someone asked the following question:

How do we know that the Torah we have today is the same text given on Mount Sinai? Maybe it’s all just a game of “broken telephone.”

This is part of the Rabbi’s answer:

The Torah was originally dictated from God to Moses, letter for letter. From there, the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 9:4) tells us:

Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (along with the Tablets). If anyone would come and attempt to rewrite or falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark would “testify” against him.

Similarly, an authentic “proof text” was always kept in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, against which all other scrolls were checked. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Sages would periodically perform global checks to guard against any scribal errors.

reading-a-mapMost Christian and Jewish Torah scholars and academics will likely disagree with this explanation, since it’s based more on Midrash than on historical record or other academic and scientific investigation. The Rabbi also neglects to mention the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and what would have happened to the Ark and the Torah scroll it contained (assuming Midrash is correct and the scrolls ever existed in the first place). When ten of the twelve tribes went into the diaspora, what happened to their Torah scrolls? Do any of those original scrolls exist today? If not, how do we know the level of fidelity of the Torah we have today to those earlier copies (and this is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such in incredible find because they allow us to check much of our current Bible against much earlier manuscripts)?

Even within the scholarly study of the New Testament, experts such as Larry Hurtado often have differences of opinion with other academics in the field. These aren’t bad people, inexperienced people, or unintelligent people…they are educated believers who are experts in their field, and who, based on their studies, continue to disagree with each other, even on important aspects of the Gospels and Epistles.

That, of course, leads to different conclusions, at least to some degree, on the nature of Jesus Christ and what was being taught to the first century CE Jewish and Gentile believers.

It’s not just having a roadmap and it’s not just having an accurately translated roadmap, it’s interpreting the roadmap in one way or another. It’s also important to remember that interpretation starts right at the first step: translating the ancient text into a language we can understand.

I know what you’re thinking. What about the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit of God supposed to guide us in all truth and to help us correctly understand the Bible? In theory, yes. In practicality, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Otherwise, all believers would have an identical understanding of the Bible and that would be that.

So what gets in the way? Our humanity. Our need to be “right.” Our trust in our own intelligence over the trust in God’s “intelligence.” So of all the different Christians and all the different Christian interpretations of the Bible, how do we know who is fully “trusting the Spirit” and who isn’t? Are we just supposed to “check our brains at the door” and let the Spirit “beam” understanding into our skulls?

They think self-surrender means to say, “I have no mind. I have no heart. I only believe and follow, for I am nothing.”

This is not self-surrender—this is denial of the truth. For it is saying there is a place where G–dliness cannot be—namely your mind and your heart.

G‑d did not give you a brain that you should abandon it, or a personality that you should ignore it. These are the building materials from which you may forge a sanctuary for Him, to bring the Divine Presence into the physical realm.

Don’t run from the self with which G‑d has entrusted you. Connect your entire being to its Essential Source. Permeate every cell with the light of self-surrender.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Self-Surrender”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

If we are to believe Rabbi Freeman, then God doesn’t expect us to abandon the use of our brains and expect us to just “sense” what the Bible, the world, and everything else means. Understanding and exploring our life is a partnership between the ordinary and the Divine, between man and God.

rabbis-talmud-debateHowever, because the trust and faith of a human being is never perfect, then our understanding is never perfect. We fill in the gaps with our own personalities, our own biases, our own intellect, and that’s what has resulted in about a billion different translations and interpretations of the Bible, and thus the differences we experience in our understanding of God…and the differences we experience in understanding ourselves and other human beings. That’s one reason (to use an extreme example) why some believers are completely delighted that NBA center Jason Collins came out as gay and other believers express concerns.

It would seem that while we’re all using the same roadmap, what it tells us is radically different depending on who we are. Taken to an extreme, we can get caught up in revising our understanding of the Bible to the point where we believe we can “reinvent” or “overrule” what it says for the sake of adapting to the current cultural context.

Where does that leave us as travelers on a journey? Are we “lost on the road with no signposts,” or are we making up the road and the signposts as we go along?

143 days.

Yitro: Walking with Israel

Har_SinaiOn the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.

Exodus 19:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)

Did you ever get angry about what someone did and say, “I would have never done that if I were him!”? Probably most of us have said that one time or another.

I’ve got news for you! You would have done EXACTLY what he did if you were him. If you had his genes, his upbringing, his education and philosophy on life along with his desires and attitudes … you would have done precisely what he did. The proof is … that’s what HE did! The difference is that you are not him and you think that with all that you are, that you would have acted differently. Hopefully, if you were in his situation, you would not do what he did.

What we have here is a failure to judge our fellow human being favorably.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Yitro
Aish.com

This week’s Torah Portion is kind of a big deal. It’s the parashah where we see the Children of Israel “as one man” receiving the Torah from God! This is the defining moment when Israel truly becomes a nation before God and it also is what, more than any other single event, defines the Jewish people today, in spite of what some people may say about Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

But we have a problem, at least on the surface. The Children of Israel stood before Moses and before God and said as a single group, as a nation, that “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” That response is not only the agreement of all the people who were actually there, but for all of their descendants across the ages as well. Israel said that they would do everything that God had spoken, all of His laws, all of His ordinances, everything.

Did they? Do they?

I won’t go through a lengthy list of quotes from the Tanakh, but the simple answer is “no.” That first generation out of Israel did not enter the Land and take it at the command of God. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also forty years of struggling with God as well as Moses and Aaron struggling with God to preserve the People from their own disobedience and grumbling.

Even after Joshua led the next generation to take the Land (and Moses was also disobedient and as a consequence, was not allowed to enter Israel), there were problems. In fact, reading through the Tanakh reveals a significant history of Israel and her Kings, even David and Solomon, disobeying God and failing to do all that the Lord had said.

joshua-in-israelNo, I’m not going out of my way to “Jew bash,” simply stating what we all know. Does that mean the Torah is useless, the Israelites weak and disobedient, and the modern Jewish people are followers of a “dead religion?”

Absolutely not. What it means is that they are human.

I’ve sat in a Bible study in church (not the church I go to now…this was many years ago) and heard a man, a retired Pastor (normally a very nice guy) say point-blank that “we Christians” would never disobey God the way the Israelites did.

Oh really?

Remember what Rabbi Packouz said above?

If we were living in those days, had experienced what they experienced, had lived through slavery, were suddenly thrust into a brand new world, even experienced the amazing, awesome, unimaginable presence of God among us, yes we too would have said and done all the things the Children of Israel did.

Sorry to say.

There is a saying in Pirke Avos 2:5 (“Ethics of the Fathers”), “Hillel says, ‘Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place.” It is upon us to try to put ourselves in someone else’s situation before passing judgment.

Also in Pirke Avos 4:3, Ben Azai says, “Do not scorn any person, nor be disdainful of any thing for there is no person who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place.”

The Torah source for this mitzvah, commandment, is “You shall judge your fellow human being with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15). This verse obligates us to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we see him performing an action that could be interpreted in his favor.

The Torah also teaches us, “Love your fellow human being as yourself …” (Leviticus 19:18). The Baal Shem Tov used to say, “Love others as yourself. You know that you have many faults, nevertheless, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel toward your friend. Despite his faults, love him” (Likutai Abraham, p. 221).

Setting aside Rabbi Packouz, what can we learn from another “Rav” with whom we Christians might be more familiar?

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

old-city-jerusalemAll week long, I’ve been writing blog post after blog post presenting some rather unusual ideas about the Torah, the instructions to the Israelites from God, and how it is lived out in Judaism and sometimes within Christianity. My friend Boaz Michael says that the weightier matters of the Torah are also taught in church, such as love of kindness, feeding the hungry, compassion for the widow, and so on. Granted when we get into the area of halachah and how the Jewish community will walk before God, things become complicated, but lately, I’ve been encouraged to see halachah as the communal conversation and response of the Jewish people to the Torah and to God. It’s a living, interactive process by which Jews seek to obey God and live their lives before God as Jews. By definition, Christians, who are taught to conceptualize God and the Bible in fundamentally different ways, are going to have a tough time with this (even some Jewish people have a tough time with this).

But do we judge the ancient Israelites, the more recent Jewish population who lived in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and the modern Jewish community, particularly those in the Messianic space, by our own Gentile Christian standards, given that those standards do not have much of a basis in common with Judaism? Have we walked a mile in the shoes of a Jew?

Even if you are a Christian who has spent a lot of time with the Jewish community, either here in the U.S. or even in Israel, while you may have some insights into Jews and Judaism that many Christians lack, there’s still a long road between living with Jews and being Jewish. Even converts to Judaism will struggle to make up the distance, the lack of a Jewish childhood, the lack of Jewish parents and growing up in a Jewish community.

There’s a lot of judgement and disdain of Jews by Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots community, but upon what is it based? It is especially surprising and disappointing that a Gentile Christian can say they are “observing Torah,” wear a kippah and tallit katan in their daily lives, daven with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keep Leviticus 11 “kosher,” and claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, and yet still judge and reject everything it is to be Jewish and to live as a Jew. Sometimes, I think it’s even worse for some of those same Gentiles who style themselves as “academic” or “resource institute” experts to treat the Jewish people as a “thing” or an “object” for study (and it’s easier to throw away an object than a human being), rather than as living, breathing, people.

You don’t have to agree with how Jewish people conceptualize their world, but then again, you don’t have to attempt to live as a Jew either, if that is your opinion.

It’s been a busy and difficult week in this little corner of the blogosphere. I don’t usually spend so much time and effort on a single topic across an entire week, but this theme took over my thoughts and emotions and I had to write (and write and write) about it.

I don’t claim to bear any great wisdom or insights, but writing is what I do when I want to explore and I’m trying to understand. Blog comment contributor “ProclaimLiberty” has suggested that halachah is akin to the Jewish communal conversation with God and the sages. Writing is part of what I do as an individual when I’m trying to talk to God. I just share the conversation (my end of it, anyway) with the Internet.

PleadThe Children of Israel failed God because we all fail God! If God’s grace wasn’t with humanity from the very beginning, we never would have survived, and there would be no human population in the world today. God is gracious and we know this, but we cannot even begin to comprehend the extent, scope, and vastness of His graciousness to us all, and especially to Israel, the apple of His eye, His treasured, splendorous people.

The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens…

Exodus 20:19 (JPS Tanakh)

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34 (ESV)

God speaks to us all but we don’t always understand. It would have been amazing if we could have been there among Israel to actually see and hear God speak from the very heavens, but God gives us enough. And yet we don’t always know what we’re doing, including when we curse rather than bless Israel. We should try to understand Israel and understand God.

The first positive mitzva is, in the words of Rambam, (Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 1:1.) “To know that there is a First Being, who caused the existence of all beings…The knowledge of this principle is a positive command, as it is said, I am the Eternal your G-d.”

This is a Mitzva relating to mind and intellect. True, every one of Israel believes in G-d with a simple faith, and his heart is whole with G-d; still it is the duty of the mind and intellect to bring this faith to a level of knowledge and comprehension. This is the meaning of “To know that there is a First Being;” the Mitzva specifies comprehension and intellectual grasp, as written in Torah: “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him with a whole heart” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9.) and it is also written, “know this day etc.” (Devarim 4:9.)

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Sh’vat 19, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

If we don’t understand Israel perhaps it is because we don’t really understand God, and we should spend some time in Jewish shoes; standing in their place. Failing that, we should seek God’s wisdom and particularly, we should repent and seek His forgiveness.

Erev Shabbat is coming. This would be a good time.

Good Shabbos.

Vayeishev: Understanding, Living, and Courage

walking-side-by-side Recognize, please, to whom these belong…

Genesis 38:25

The arrival of a letter, adorned with official-looking stamps and seals, was quite an event at the small wayside tavern somewhere in the backwoods of White Russia. The simple tavern-keeper, who had never quite mastered the written word, ran to find the melamed he kept to teach his children.

As the teacher read the letter, the tavern-keeper turned white, uttered a small cry, and collapsed in a dead faint. For the letter contained most shocking and tragic news for this simple, good-hearted Jew: his beloved father had passed away.

Said the mashpiah Reb Michael of Aptask:

An outside observer witnessing the events described above may wonder: why does the tavern-keeper react so dramatically to the letter while the teacher is relatively unmoved? Who among the two better grasps and comprehends its contents if not the learned teacher? The other cannot even read and write!

Obviously, this is a ridiculous question. What if the teacher has a better appreciation of the vocabulary, sentence structure, and artful calligraphy with which the letter is composed? What if he better understands the background, the circumstances, the nuances of the event described? It is not his father who died!

True, Reb Michael would concluded, it is important to learn, to study, to comprehend. And the more one understands, the deeper one delves into the nature of his own existence, the world about him, and his relationship with his Creator, the better equipped he is to fulfill his mission in life. But objective knowledge alone is worthless. Unless one sees himself in the picture, the most profound of theories will yield no meaningful results. Unless one sees the subject matter as ‘his father’, a lifetime of study and discovery will have little bearing on life itself.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Theory and the Father”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Chabad.org

Apparently, I’m a hypocrite. I don’t believe that I’m a hypocrite, but two individuals have called me one in the past few days. Here are a couple of examples from recent comments on my blog. The first one I present is pretty benign:

…since you are a gentile, dabbling in Messianic Judaism, “which is for Jews”, is a bit of a contradiction, technically you are muddying the waters, so to speak. Would you not agree?

The second example, on the other hand…

I will tell you that you are a hypocrite in your face. I don’t play nicely nicely with the truth. I have to chastise one who does not play with a full deck…You fell for false teaching and with your blog you are causing people to stumble…Go home……

Supposedly, because I advocate for the Jews having a unique covenant relationship with God and that they have a special role beyond any other people or religious group, including Gentile Christians, I have a problem. Actually, the problem is supposed to stem from the fact that I advocate for the above and yet I also involve myself, as a Christian, in the affairs of Messianic Judaism by writing commentaries on the movement. I suppose the fact that I very often quote from Jewish religious and educational sources just adds to my “problem.”

But does that make me a hypocrite?

Just a few days ago I said:

We serve One God and we have one Messiah King who will return to rule over all of Creation. As servants and sons, we each have our roles and duties. We can’t afford to let our limitations, biases, and human ambitions restrict who we are and who God created us to be…both the Jew and the Gentile. Christian support of Israel does not mean taking control of the process of defining Israel. It’s allowing the Jewish people and nation the space to define themselves, and supporting them in this effort through whatever means are at our disposal. That is a Christian’s unique role and purpose in life. It’s time we start living it.

jewish-christianI tried to the best of my ability in the paragraph above to synthesize Christian and Jewish interactions and roles relative to mutual discipleship under the Messiah. Apparently, I failed, at least with the two people who objected to my blog post. I know most of you must be wondering why I’m even writing this. After all, only a few people (publicly) object to me while a much larger number seem to be more encouraging. Why express angst over just a couple of people who question my motives?

I’ve said time and again on this blog that I want to be fair. I want to consider other people’s viewpoints. If someone has a grudge or a beef with me, I have to ask myself if there is anything I’ve done to contribute to it. If there is, then there’s something within me that I need to change. If not, then at least I’ve looked in the mirror and asked myself a few hard questions before moving on.

It’s not that I expect everyone to agree with me all of the time, but it’s difficult for me to comprehend how even my critics can miss what I’m trying to say. It’s one thing to understand my message and to say, “I disagree,” and another thing entirely to misunderstand me to the point what I’m considered to be advocating one position while living out the opposite. Saying that I support Jewish covenant and identity uniqueness is not the same as saying that Jews must be walled up inside their compounds and have nothing to do with the Christians, particularly those of us who are involved with Jews and Jewish community. In my case, I’m married to a Jew. Are we supposed to divorce and live separately? Does my involvement with my Jewish spouse make me a hypocrite? The criticism doesn’t make sense.

I quoted Rabbi Tauber’s story above because it illustrates the relationship and the differences between knowing and understanding; between information and lived experience. The teacher understood the letters, words, and sentences contained in the message but the tavern-keeper experienced the true meaning and impact of what the letter actually said, including the importance of relationship and context. The teacher “knew” the letter while the tavern-keeper “lived” out the meaning and consequences.

I can “know” the “letters, words, and sentences” of the Torah, the mitzvot, and something of the Jewish writings to the limits of my education, but I can never “live” out the experiences, the meaning, the fabric of what it is to be Jewish, whether it is within the context of Messianic discipleship or otherwise. In saying, Recognize, please, to whom these belong, Tamar was calling Judah to acknowledge his unique identity as the father of her children (she was pregnant with twins) and (without realizing it) as the forefather of the Messiah.

I don’t believe that we Christians who stand alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Messiah are hypocrites, either for actually standing by them or by discussing our relationship with each other. If such were the case, a great many writers and teachers, far more knowledgable and talented than I, would have to suffer the same accusation of “hypocrite” and, to serve the honor of Messiah, adjust our behavior accordingly.

contemplating-jumpingBut that would be psychotic.

Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master are still united by one Messiah and one God. While Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman may say that Messianic Judaism and Christianity are two different and separate religions, he also said this:

I also believe Yeshua will bless those gentiles who truly love him. We acknowledge that the gentiles in Yeshua have a place in God’s heart. It makes them our brethren, just as our fellow Jews are our brethren. We are related to other Yeshua followers, just as we are related to other Jews. Nevertheless, Messianic Judaism and Christianity remain two separate religions, yet we have the same Messiah, Yeshua. That being the case, rather than beating each other up with statements of faith we require each other to affirm, it would be good if we just began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another. I have always been more happy affirming people than doctrinal statements.

That certainly doesn’t sound like he’s requiring isolation between Christians and Messianic Jews. How could he advocate for a complete separatist philosophy and still say that Christians and Jews should “began by treating each other as brethren, loving and supporting one another?” That seems to go along with a “Daily Lift” of Rabbi Zelig Pliskin:

When you build up your own courage, you will be able to serve as a coach to others. Some of the best courage coaches are those who had to struggle to attain the courage they now have. Since it didn’t come easy to them, they know what it’s like to lack the courage to do what others consider easy.

If you don’t yet have the courage you would like, let the knowledge that you will inevitably be able to help others serve as a further motivation to increase your own courage.

Recently, I’ve been encouraged and reminded that in writing this series of “morning meditations,” I’m encouraging others. These are words and actions we are supposed to live by.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (ESV)

Good Shabbos.

Looking Through a Dark Window

The Alter Rebbe explained in the previous chapter that the light of the Shechinah, an illumination utterly transcending the realm of the world, must have a “garment” which enables it to radiate there. The “garment” of the Shechinah is Torah.

…As explained earlier, for this reason the Torah is able to act as a “garment” that does not become nullified in the light of the Shechinah which garbs itself in it — since its source is higher than the Shechinah. However, in order for Torah to act as a concealing “garment” it must descend lower than the level of the Shechinah, thereby enabling the light of the Shechinah to be received by created beings.

However, as Torah descended into the Ten Commandments engraved on the Tablets, it did not do so in a manner that would make it similar to other physical things. Rather, as will soon be explained, it remained on a level which is higher than the previously mentioned upper Worlds.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 53
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun
Chabad.org

OK, so you’re not into Kabbalah or other mystic experiences and the Tanya as a source of information is completely lost to you. Hang in there, you can still learn something from today’s “meditation.” What is Rabbi Zalman saying? Here’s another point of view.

Torah is the interface between the Infinite and creation. On the outside, it speaks the language of humankind. On the inside, its depth is without end.

Grasp either end and you have nothing. Grasp both and you have G-d Himself.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Interface”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I hope my quote from Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe helped you because it did a lot for me. It’s saying what I’ve said before and what I’ve believed for quite some time. It’s saying that everything we use to try to connect to God is an interface and not a direct connection. Let me explain.

If you’re reading this, you’re using some sort of a computer. It could be a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, whatever. Most people relate to their computer they way they relate to their car. They don’t really know how it works, they just turn it on and expect it to work. But when you turn your computer on and use it, your aren’t really directly interacting with the computer hardware or software. You are using a graphical user interface (GUI) to execute commands that are passed on to the computer via the operating system. It’s more complicated than that, and you are actually working through several layers of abstraction every time you read an email, surf the web, create a document, or whatever other activities you perform to get things done on your device.

In the end, you get your work completed, but you haven’t really “touched” the raw “guts” of the computer. You’ve used an interface to work with the computer it make what you want to do happen on your terms. Using an interface means you don’t have to learn how to speak the computer’s “language.”

On various Christian blogs I sometimes see statements such as “let’s go directly to the Word rather than relying on human understanding” and “let the Holy Spirit interpret Scripture and not the knowledge of men.”

Huh?

How are you going to do that? Folks who say such things act as if they have direct and unfiltered access to the original, raw meaning and context of the Bible, as if they were standing right there while Matthew, John, Paul, and scores of others were putting pen to paper, listening to these men explain (in plain, 21st century English no less) what they were thinking and what they really meant as they created their books and letters.

We know we don’t have that kind of insight available to us. We realize that the Bible was written over a period of thousands of years by dozens of writers using variations of languages most of us don’t understand. We realize that the Bible was written within a foreign and ancient national, cultural, and ethnic context that is completely alien to us. And yet we behave as if all of that doesn’t matter.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking something like this:

…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. –1 Corinthians 2:11-13 (ESV)

You’re thinking that the Holy Spirit, which you possess if you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over your life, will automatically interpret what the Bible is saying to you as you are reading it.

Well, maybe you’re not thinking exactly those thoughts, but that’s as close as I can come to understanding what we Christians expect to happen when we read the Bible and attempt to comprehend its content. We seem to believe that whatever we come up with by way of an interpretation must be from the Holy Spirit just by virtue of the fact that we’re Christians.

But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t act like an automatic pilot and just routinely guide us to the correct conclusions every time we pick up a Bible and read a few verses? What if other stuff gets in the way?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. –1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Seems simple enough until you try to do it. If you come up with a particular interpretation of the Bible and you believe you arrived at your understanding through the Spirit, do you just call out, “Hey Spirit! Do you confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God?” The Spirit would have to say “yes” or “no” before you could determine the validity of your Bible interpretation. Does that happen to you very often?

How about this?

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. –Acts 17:10-11 (ESV)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. –1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (ESV)

Paul advocates for asking lots of questions. Don’t take anything at face value. Test even the spirits. Lots of false prophets are selling their wares out there, especially on the Internet.

But it also says to “not quench the Spirit” which I suppose means not to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t be so skeptical that you close the door to spiritual learning and interpretation. Just don’t believe everything your hear or feel, either.

The Bible doesn’t put it into so many words, but I believe that one of the big factors inhibiting our understanding of the Word of God is our own emotional and intellectual wants, needs, and desires. Once we’ve made up our mind about something the Bible says, we believe that is that. The Spirit has spoken. This is how it is. But is what we believe about our interpretation the way it is as defined by God’s Spirit, or just the way we want things to be because it “feels right” to us?

I don’t have an absolute answer for you, but this is one of the great challenges and mysteries about understanding God and our purpose in life using supernatural means. We have to constantly pay attention to what we believe and why we believe it and not take anything for granted.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

Even at his best, Paul says that we can only see “in a mirror dimly” but only later “face to face” the things of God. Once we become too sure about our own theology and our own doctrine and stop asking the tough questions we can’t always find answers to, we start having a problem. We start worshiping our own self-assured “image of God” as we’ve created Him in our hearts and minds, and not the unknowable, unfathomable, insurmountable, infinite, unique One God. We have to “grab” both ends of the Bible, so to speak; the spiritual end and the material end. We have to rely on the Spirit and we have to use our understanding and education. Even then, we aren’t absolutely sure of what we’re doing.

“It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”

-H.L. Mencken, American journalist and essayist

The Bible, sermons, lessons, even prayer, are only interfaces; the “garments” God must put on to allow us to even dimly view His existence, as through a mirror darkly. Keep searching the darkness. Look for the light.

Notice! By the time you read this, I’ll have left home and be traveling to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) 2012 Shavuot Conference in Hudson, WI. Part of what that means is I’ll have limited access to the Internet. I’ll still be posting “meditations” every morning except for Shabbat and Shavuot (Sunday) but I won’t be able to respond to comments and emails, at least not very effectively. I also probably won’t be able to post links to my meditations on Facebook, Google+ and twitter like I usually do. Please feel free to comment but realize I may be slow in getting back to you, which includes approving first-time comments. God be willing, I’ll be back home very late on Monday night. Thanks for your patience.