Tag Archives: Vayetzei

Vayetzei: The Mosaic of God

Jacobs_LadderJacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely, God is present in this place and I did not know!”

Genesis 28:16

What was the source of Jacob’s surprise? Jacob realized that he can relate to God even during sleep.

The Talmud (Berachos 63a) says that there is a brief passage upon which the entire body of Torah is dependent: “In all your ways know God” (Proverbs 3:6). Rambam and countless other commentaries refer to this statement, saying that one should serve God not only with the actual performance of mitzvos, but with all of one’s daily activities.

Dvar Torah for Vayetzei
based on Twerski on Chumash by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish.com

Yesterday, I quoted another Aish source, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who suggests we should act the way we want to be. This was in part, to support how in serving God, we need to bring both a sense of justice and mercy to the table, so to speak. We need not to be severely biased in one direction or the other, though according to some areas of Jewish thinking, even God created the world with a very slight leaning toward mercy.

In his commentary on Torah Portion Vayetzei, Rabbi Packouz presents an interesting and related challenge.

What is true spirituality? My beloved friend, Rabbi Avraham Goldhar, who has a revolutionary approach to helping kids get better grades with less study time in both secular and Jewish studies, came up with the following paradigm of attributes to clarify the definition of spirituality.

  1. Emotion — Intellect
  2. Kindness — Justice
  3. Community — Solitude
  4. God — Nature
  5. Serenity — Challenge

Put a check mark by one attribute from each pair that you think is more spiritual.

Now, if you want to try something interesting, put an “x” mark by each attribute that you associate with the Jewish people.

Here’s the point Rabbi Packouz is making, a point that dovetails nicely with what I was saying in yesterday’s morning meditation:

What is fascinating is that most people associate spirituality with emotion, kindness, solitude, nature and serenity … and the Jewish people with intellect, justice, community, God and challenge. The reason is that we have an Eastern notion of spirituality — an all encompassing emotional bliss connecting with the universe. The Jewish approach to spirituality is based on fulfilling a purpose, to fix the world (tikun olom)– which requires intellect, justice, community, God and challenge.

For the Jew, intellect is to be channeled into emotion — emotions can’t rule you; you must do the right thing. Justice provides for a world of kindness. A society has to be willing to identify rights and wrongs and stand up to evil. If not, one can attempt to do kindness, but end up enabling evil. Community provides you with an understanding of who you are – a member of a people – even when you are alone, you are still part of something more. Realizing that there is a Creator and having a relationship with the Creator makes the natural much more profound. This world is a veiled reality with the Creator behind it. People can only receive serenity when they live up to their challenges; otherwise, they are tormented in their pursuit of serenity by not living up to their potential.

mosaicYou cannot lead with any one side of the equation, so to speak. You can’t even lead with just a few different but specific attributes. And yet people in religion do this all the time, usually to the detriment of the faith. In reading Rabbi Packouz, I get the impression, at least in the ideal, that Judaism strikes the desirable balance between emotion and intellect, between mercy and justice. Of course, the idea that the universe was created by God with these two elements is also a Jewish idea.

Don’t get me wrong, this probably isn’t literal and factual in terms of the process of Creation, but as a metaphor, it tells an important tale, one that we need to learn in order to truly serve God.

Rabbi Twerski ends his Dvar Torah like this:

A person should eat and sleep with the intent that food and rest are essential to have a healthy body, which enables one to do the mitzvos properly. Someone who is weak and exhausted cannot concentrate on Torah study or do mitzvos properly.

One engages in work and business to provide the needs for one’s family, and to acquire the means to do the mitzvos. Money is necessary to give tzedakah, to purchase tefillin and tzitzis, to build a succah, to pay for an esrog and for matzoh, to pay tuition and fulfill all of the mitzvos. If one partakes of world goods for the purpose of being able to serve God properly, then all of one’s actions become part and parcel of Torah and mitzvos.

If I may take a few liberties here, I’ll add that we should use every aspect of who we are in the service of God, not just a few. It is true that each of us has talents or areas where we excel. For some, it’s compassion, and so they serve God by being compassionate helpers. For some it’s intellect, and so they serve God as teachers and as students, always learning and passing on what they’ve learned.

And now you see why we need to work in a body. No one of us has the capacity to serve God in all areas. If we imagine that we do, then everyone around us will get a limited and probably inaccurate image of who God is, what God does, and what God expects of human beings. If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally merciful, we may think of God as loving and permissive in the extreme, but having few behavioral expectations, limits, or discipline, like some sort of “cosmic teddy bear.” If all we know of God is from someone who is exceptionally just, we may think of God as harsh, cruel, rule-bound, inflexible, and blind.

Look back at the numbered list I posted above. God possesses all of those qualities. He exists along all points of all continuums, from emotion to intellect, from kindness to justice, from community to solitude. There is no place where God does not exist, and there is no person God cannot comprehend.

But no human being lives with the same infinite set of perceptions and qualities as God. We are limited. We are finite. We have biases. We lean in one direction or another. No one of us gives anyone else an accurate picture of the attributes of God. That’s why we need to operate in a body. That’s why we need community, either physical or (if an approprite physical community of faith is not accessible) virtual. Because only together, as a body, can we balance and guide each other. It takes all of us, like the bits and pieces that make up a mosaic, to be the image of God.

alone-desertSometimes you’ll encounter someone, a person of faith, perhaps a leader, Pastor, teacher, or writer, and they gather a great deal of attention to themselves. When you encounter this person, remember that he or she is only one person. If that person is not tempered, guided, and corrected by a balanced community (plenty of “religious leaders” exist in an unbalanced community, made up of only people who think and feel just like they do), and I don’t care how powerful they are or believe themselves to be, then that person, all by himself or herself, cannot possibly represent God in all that God is.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that he or she can be such a “holistic” representative, even if that person thinks of themselves that way. Alone, a person is just one, and only God is complete as One. It takes a “village,” not only to raise a child, but to be a community in the image of God.

I shall praise God among a multitude.

Psalms 26:12

While the prayer and performance of a mitzvah are always praiseworthy, it is especially meritorious when an entire community participates in it, as the Sages teach, “The prayer of a multitude is never turned away.”

-from Devarim Rabbah 2

Good Shabbos.

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Dayenu

When Ephraim spoke piety, He was exalted in Israel; But he incurred guilt through Baal, And so he died. And now they go on sinning; They have made them molten images, Idols, by their skill, from their silver, Wholly the work of craftsmen. Yet for these they appoint men to sacrifice; They are wont to kiss calves!

Assuredly, They shall be like morning clouds, Like dew so early gone; Like chaff whirled away from the threshing floor. And like smoke from a lattice. Only I the Lord have been your God Ever since the land of Egypt; You have never known a [true] God but Me, You have never had a helper other than Me. I looked after you in the desert, In a thirsty land. When they grazed, they were sated; When they were sated, they grew haughty; And so they forgot Me. So I am become like a lion to them, Like a leopard I lurk on the way; Like a bear robbed of her young I attack them And rip open the casing of their hearts; I will devour them there like a lion, The beasts of the field shall mangle them.

You are undone, O Israel! You had no help but Me.Hosea 13:1-9 (JPS Tanakh)

I was reading the haftarah portion for Vayeitzei on Shabbat and realized something about the Jewish people and the rest of us. I think many Christians but particularly those who have attached themselves to some portions of the “Messianic” movement, feel a little bit envious of all the blessings God has bestowed upon Israel. I think this is one of the reasons why the early Church chose to apply a supersessionist theology, stating that Gentile Christianity has replaced the Jews in all of God’s covenant promises. We just can’t stand the idea that “salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) so we must find a way to steal what the Jews have and pretend it belongs only to us.

I’ve probably always known this, but when reading the above-quoted passages from Hosea 13, it came into absolute clarity within me that as much as God has blessed the Jewish people, He has also designed ghastly curses for them in times of disobediance and rebellion, much more than we can see for people who are not Jewish, including Christians. I’m not saying that Christians haven’t been persecuted for their faith over the course of the past 2,000 years, but as we see in many of the exclamations of the ancient prophets, God is exceedingly determined to hold Israel accountable for any failure to the covenant they have with Him.

Christianity sometimes mistakes the level of accountability to which God holds the Jews as an eternal curse upon Israel, but even as God curses, so in the next moment, He blesses them abundantly.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, For you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you And return to the Lord. Say to Him: “Forgive all guilt And accept what is good; Instead of bulls we will pay [The offering of] our lips. Assyria shall not save us, No more will we ride on steeds; Nor ever again will we call Our handiwork our god, Since in You alone orphans find pity!”

I will heal their affliction, Generously will I take them back in love; For My anger has turned away from them. I will be to Israel like dew; He shall blossom like the lily, He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree. His boughs shall spread out far, His beauty shall be like the olive tree’s, His fragrance like that of Lebanon. They who sit in his shade shall be revived: They shall bring to life new grain, They shall blossom like the vine; His scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim [shall say]: “What more have I to do with idols? When I respond and look to Him, I become like a verdant cypress.” Your fruit is provided by Me. –Hosea 14:2-9 (JPS Tanakh)

Dancing with GodIsrael’s special place in the heart of God is undeniable, but our God is a jealous God. As much as He loves, He also chastises. As much as He has compassion, He also gives discipline. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

I realized with great certainty when reading the words of the prophet Hosea that in many ways, we non-Jews are “blessed” that we don’t carry the responsibilities of our Jewish brothers. Some of us would be more than willing to bear the full burden of the mitzvot but many, many of us do not realize the dread consequences of that desire. This is one of the reasons that Judaism is reluctant to allow Gentiles to convert; out of the fear that once faced with everything it is to be a Jew, for good and for ill, that some of the converts would abandon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as the people of the Book.

There isn’t always a consistent interpretation of the meaning of the “Jerusalem letter” issued by the Council of Apostles and Elders as recorded in Acts 15. Some say it limits the “Torah responsibility” of Gentile Christians to just those restrictions literally recorded, while others say it is merely a starting point for non-Jews who have come to the faith to begin learning the full ways of the Torah. Yet we see that upon receipt of the letter, the non-Jewish disciples were “strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (Acts 16:5 – NASB), indicating that there was some expression of relief and even joy that the non-Jews would not be expected to take on the full yoke of Torah. Paul’s letter to the Galatians also makes it quite clear not only that the non-Jewish disciples weren’t expected to take on all of the Torah mitzvot unless they converted to Judaism, but that the duties expected of them if they converted would be far and above what was (and is) required of a Gentile follower of the Messiah.

While Christians and Jews continue to debate the exact blessings and responsibilities assigned by God to each covenant group, it is readily apparent that Christians are not simply “Jews without the Talmud”. We are attached to God by the Messianic covenant and not only are we not obligated to the Mosaic covenant, we probably should be glad we do not carry upon ourselves the Torah of Moses. For with all the special attention and devotion God lavishes upon the descendents of the Children of Israel, they also embrace a tremendous responsibility with consequences to freeze the blood. Like Peter when he swore to follow the Master, even unto death, we should not be so quick to make oaths that we are not be able to keep, and as the Master urges us, we should let our “yes” to him be just “yes” and our “no” to him (if such be the case) be just “no”. We have been given a extraordinarily special gift as the result of the death and subsequent life of the Messiah. This must be sufficient for us without coveting what belongs to our Jewish neighbors (Exodus 20:17). Is not the love of God through Jesus Christ enough for any of us? Do we tempt God and throw the blood of Christ back in the Master’s face by wanting more?

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. –2 Corinthians 12:9 (NASB)

One of my favorite Passover songs is Dayenu, which seems an appropriate title given the theme of this wee missive.

Dayenu is a song that is part of the Jewish holiday of Passover. The word “Dayenu” means approximately, “it would have been enough for us”, “it would have been sufficient”, or “it would have sufficed.” –Wikipedia

Of the various lyrics to this song, the following stands out as particularly relevant here.

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah – Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

Adapted for we Christians, I think it should go more like this:

If He had given us His only begotten Son so that the world might be saved, and had not given us the Torah – Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

It has sufficed us. By Christ, we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) of the sins in our hearts. We don’t need to be more than this. As Christians, we are sufficient in His love. We are good enough.