Tag Archives: wisdom

David’s Fallen Tent in the Wilderness

The Torah states:

“And the Almighty spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).

Why does the Torah specify “the wilderness” of the Sinai desert? It would have been sufficient to say “in the Sinai desert”; everyone knows that deserts are wildernesses.

The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah comments on this verse, “Whoever does not make himself open and free like a wilderness will not be able to acquire wisdom and Torah”. This refers to having the trait of humility which allows a person to learn from everyone and to teach everyone.

An arrogant person will only be willing to learn from someone he feels is befitting his honor. A humble person is only concerned with gaining Torah knowledge and will be grateful to learn new ideas even from one who has less overall knowledge than himself.

The Midrash teaches that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai because Mt. Sinai was the lowest of all the mountains. This symbolizes that if a person wants to receive wisdom he must be humble. If he is full of himself there is little room for anything else.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Commentary on Torah Portion Bamidbar
Based on Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book
Growth Through Torah
Aish.com

Wow, speaking of arrogance and humility. Rabbi Pliskin’s message as presented by Rabbi Packouz came along at the right time.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been pondering my wife’s accusation of my being arrogant in my approach to attending church and presenting my particular (and from their point of view, unique) perspective on the Bible, the Messiah, Jewish people, and Judaism. How dare I walk into someone else’s house and tell them they should redecorate, what color to paint the walls, and that their taste in art is hideous?

Well, hopefully, I wasn’t that bad, but sometimes it feels like it.

As Ben Zoma said:

Who is one that is wise? One who learns from every person.

Pirkei Avot 4:1

I am inexorably drawn toward learning from Jewish sources, and yet when I try to enthusiastically share what I’ve learned with my fellow Christians, I feel like I’m the only guy in the room speaking Martian.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Interestingly enough, I have learned a lot by going to church. Not so much in the areas of theology or doctrine, although it’s been illuminating to capture the Evangelical perception of theology and doctrine, but in the areas of history, both Church history and the more generic kind, church social dynamics, and…brace yourself…kindness.

No matter how much of a pest I make of myself, people are still smiling at me, reaching out to me, offering to listen to my woes (should I ever share them in person), and to pray for me.

Who is wise? One who learns from every person, including every person at church. Yes, there is much to learn. I have to remember that church isn’t just theology and doctrine, it’s action. It’s the perpetual food drive I donate to every time I go to church, dedicated to feeding the hungry in our local community. It’s the missionary effort around the world, serving people who have never heard of the compassion of Christ, it’s visiting the sick, offering comfort to the grieving, providing care and education for little children.

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

-John Ruskin

Ironically, most Christians are so “works-phobic” that they don’t count their own good deeds (mitzvot) as really meaning anything in the cosmic economy of God, more’s the pity, because it’s what the Church does best.

I don’t have as much to complain about as I think:

“A child, for example, cuts his finger and screams the house down. An adult cuts his finger and gets on with life. Children live in the here and now, so a child has no context for his pain. There is no meaningful future to look forward to, just the immediacy of the pain. An adult realizes that the pain will pass and life will be good again in spite it. He doesn’t suffer. And, by the way, why is it that when you hug and kiss a child the pain seems to go? It’s not the pain that goes, it’s the suffering. You have given the child a meaningful context for the pain – the context of a parent’s love. The child still feels the pain, but with a newfound context for it, he no longer suffers.

“An adult must find his own meaning in his pain. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of a woman in labor. Sometimes it is a little harder. But when he or she can look at the pain as a means to grow, a means to develop deeper self-understanding, then the pain remains, but the suffering will be forgotten.

“Everyone goes through pain in life. But not one of us has to suffer if we do not want to.

“Again, the choice is ours.”

-Rabbi Packouz

Rebbe
Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

R. Packouz is referring to tremendous human suffering and agonizing pain, not simply being frustrated when people around me don’t take my point of view seriously. What I am experiencing isn’t as painful as even a child’s cut finger. But I still gave in to the temptation to say, “ouch.”

I’ve started reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, and in the first chapter, she relates (pg 17):

The Besht’s (the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) message was revolutionary. His followers broke with certain Jewish norms, adopting specific dress and customs and making ritual modifications, all of which horrified the Jewish establishment.

I don’t know if I’ve “horrified” anyone, but I’m certainly shaking up the establishment here and there. Fishkoff also writes of the Besht:

“I have come into this world to show man how to live by three precepts,” he said. “Love of God, love of Israel, and love of the Torah.”

If I can have a similar purpose within my own context, then it wouldn’t be just me wielding my opinion like a sword, but the will of God to teach how to love and how to focus love.

Not that my fellow Christians are ignorant about love. Many, as I’ve said above, love greatly and demonstrate that love abundantly, particularly to the Jewish people. I just want to help illustrate that there is no dissonance between loving the Jewish people, loving Israel, loving the Torah, and loving God. There is no dissonance between loving Jewish people and realizing that means accepting and approving Jewish people loving the Torah, loving Israel, and loving God, including Messianic Jewish people.

Since I frequently read material published online by Aish.com, I often come across quotes of Rabbi Pliskin’s work, such as the one I cited above. I decided it was long past due to actually purchase one of his books, so after I finish Fishkoff’s book, I’ll be consulting (since it’s a Torah commentary) Growth Through Torah.

From what I can tell about R. Pliskin from his writing, he seems to stress compassion and kindness toward others. He seems like the sort of person who desires peace in the world and peace between people, rather than always banging heads over this theological point or that.

Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones

In many ways, we are at war in the world, battling against ignorance, hostility, brutality, and indifference, but if all we do…I do is fight, then I’ve simply redoubled my efforts after forgetting my purpose (a lesson I learned from Chuck Jones when he was describing his philosophy behind creating Wile E. Coyote to a film class I once attended).

I still don’t want to be too quick in deciding what I’m going to do next, so I’m not going to hastily pursue a conclusion.

On the other hand, there is this…

Giving up is a final solution to a temporary problem.

-anonymous holocaust survivor

And this…

While most Hasidim restrict their personal dealings to Jews, and some even to Jews within their own ultra-Orthodox communities, Lubavitchers have never been insular. Their first interest is in kindling the sparks within Jewish souls, but since the early 1980s they have widened their appeal to include non-Jews, whom they urge to remain within their own religions while obeying the seven laws God gave to Noah … This is crucial because only when all God’s divine sparks are released and reunited with the Divine Oneness will God’s purpose be achieved. “Our job is to make a dwelling place for God in the lower world,” says Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic … “We try to make the world a more and more godly place, until the coming of Moshiach [the Messiah].”

-Fishkoff, pg 22

Although many Orthodox Jews, including Chabadniks, look down their noses at Gentiles and particularly Christians, here we see a perspective that acknowledges all human beings are “sparks” thrown off by the Divine Oneness, and only by all of those sparks being united with their Source can the world be prepared for the coming (return) of the King.

I’m one of those small sparks. But so is each and every individual soul at the church I attend, and each and every individual soul in all of the churches in the world. They’re just waiting for someone to discover them, reveal them, and free them, so they can fly…so they can soar.

I should take a fresh look at the blueprints for that tent again and see if God really wants me to help build it.

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What I Learned in Church Today: Knowledge vs. Wisdom

Even a fool will be considered wise if he is silent; when he seals his lips [he will be considered] understanding.

Proverbs 17:28 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

There are instances when it takes courage to remain silent. It would be easier to speak up, but the right thing to do is to be silent.

Someone insults you. You can easily say something in return that would be the equivalent of a devastating knockout punch. You don’t say a word. Your silence is an expression of courage.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #463 “Courageous Silence”
Aish.com

After a short absence, Pastor Randy picked up his sermons on the Book of Acts today and Sunday School resumed its usual schedule. The sermon and topic in Sunday School was on Acts 19:23-41. You wouldn’t think a riot in Ephesus (the featured image above is supposed to be a riot) over the teachings of Paul and his associates on “the Way” and how the result of those teachings were cutting into the prophets of the idol-making silversmiths would provide me with much theological or doctrinal angst. Really, it should all be pretty straightforward stuff.

But there’s always something.

I provided the quotes above to illustrate how often I choose being silent rather than actually speaking my mind in Sunday School, because I might end up starting a small riot of my own. Not that I really want to, but because my opinions are so at odds sometimes with the people around me in church.

There was actually quite a lot I agreed with in how Pastor Randy framed his sermon. I think people of faith are at their best when the society around them/us challenges us, and we are often at our worst in a culture or nation that completely accepts us (we tend to get lazy and assimilate into the politically correct realm). Christians aren’t really persecuted in the United States. Try being a Christian in an African nation dominated by Muslims and then you’ll see what persecution is really like. Just because someone disagrees with you and calls you names doesn’t mean you’re being persecuted. That’s the limit of “persecution” most Christians in America experience today.

But then as Pastor was speaking and later on in Sunday School, I got to thinking about who I am in the midst of the local church. Pastor Randy and I had lunch about a week and a half ago, and in the course of discussing my recent blog posts, he asked me how I can call him “my Pastor” when I disagree with just about everything he says.

Actually, I’d been thinking about that, too. I don’t really disagree with 100% of what he says and I really do learn a lot, especially about Christian history, in what he says and teaches. But it is true that even my understanding of the core of the gospel message isn’t exactly the same as how it is taught by most Pastors, including Randy (To learn more, see my review of FFOZ TV’s episode The Gospel Message, as well as what I have to say about Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited).

ChurchOf course, during a sermon, one keeps quiet by definition but in Sunday School, I have to work on it. I know I’m risking being seen as a fool (and who knows, maybe I am) by even writing this when I should just keep my hands off the keyboard, but I don’t know if anyone else like me is recording their own Tent of David experience, and I figure someone should. So here I am.

There were a lot of good things that came out of both the sermon and the Sunday School teaching. But I did catch the Sunday School teacher engaging in what I might call “Christian Midrash” by his applying the phrase “the way” as recorded in Genesis 3:24 and Psalm 1:6 to how it’s used to formally describe the community of disciples of the Master in Acts 19:23. After all, the term “the Way” used to describe followers of Christ didn’t appear in the Bible until Acts 9:2. I spoke to the teacher before class to ask about his method of constructing his lessons and he gave me permission to bring the matter up during class. Not really sure it was worthwhile, but if we are to be critical of people in Messianic Judaism inserting meaning on one part of scripture based on earlier texts where it might not really fit, shouldn’t we extend the same “courtesy” inside the local church?

But the really big deal was the discussion on idolatry. Of course there would be tension between the ever-growing body of believers in and around Ephesus and the community that was supported by the worship of the goddess Artemus (Diana), and of course it makes sense to apply this topic to modern times and discuss the idols (anything we have in our lives that is more important than God) that we let rule our lives, but having just finished reading and reviewing Dr. Roy Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus, I naturally thought of the following quote which I’ve previously cited:

Jesus has become an idol, if you will, our focus of attention, our focus of worship, and it seems that very few think of God anymore. Seldom do we hear anyone speak of the glory of God, his grandeur and mercy, the holiness of God, and the other many attributes and characteristics of God.

But remember, Blizzard also said this:

Please understand that I am not trying to lessen the importance of Jesus. What I am trying to do is emphasize that, in all the teachings of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels, his focus is not upon himself, what he is, what he is doing, or what he is to become. Additionally, Jesus has very little to say about God and, in particular, the Worship of God.

My point is that, in the teachings of Jesus, there is not all that much emphasis upward.

It seems in the process of promoting devotion to God through the Messiah, we’ve focused our entire attention on the Messiah, the doorway (“no one comes to the Father but through Me,” from John 14:6) and forgotten that the object was to “come to the Father.”

However, can we really say there are any other “idols” in the church? That seems like an odd question to ask. I suppose you might think of the Catholic Church or the Greek Orthodox Church, both of which use iconic symbols in their worship, but as Pastor Randy pointed out, anything that we put ahead of God in our lives can be considered an idol. Can Jesus be considered an idol if we focus exclusively on him and ignore God the Father? I don’t know. Some Christian songs that focus only on Jesus kind of bother me. The exclusive focus of some churches on the gospel as a plan of personal salvation without any thought to what else the gospel message says about what you are supposed to do with a “saved” life (the focus on Dr. Blizzard’s book relative to tzedakah) or the roles of Jewish and Gentile believers in preparing the world for the coming Messianic Age (often taught by the ministry First Fruits of Zion)…can any of that be considered an “idol?” Could “getting saved” and “getting other people saved” as our sole purpose in life actually result in our missing out of serving God in the other ways He actually intends?

The church I’m at right now is very study and very service oriented, but a lot of other churches aren’t. Am I supposed to bring stuff like that up in Sunday School? If I chose to introduce Blizzard’s or McKnight’s or Boaz Michael’s perspectives (as I understand them) to the discussion at hand, what would actually happen? Probably nothing good. And so, I keep silent, except in the one place I can claim any sort of ownership over which is this blog.

One of the questions in today’s Sunday School study notes asked:

How can God’s Word have a similar irritating effect on you or me, when the Holy Spirit uses it to affect us materially, or in our religious beliefs, or our pride?

The intended answer is “when the Holy Spirit uses the scriptures to convict us of our sins,” but my immediate response (which I never uttered) was, “when we find out the Bible says something different about God and people that church doctrine never teaches.”

No, I won’t be giving that answer. I only write about it here.

SilenceBut doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose of having a Tent of David experience? Probably, but offending people isn’t going to be very helpful in convincing people of an alternative point of view, so I suppose keeping quiet is the better part of valor. Pastor Randy reads my blogs so he’s quite familiar with my beliefs. I don’t doubt that I frustrate him terribly. I’m not trying to go out of my way to do so, but am I supposed to surrender my personal convictions on what I believe the Bible is saying or at least never write about them in a public forum such as the blogosphere?

I admit not knowing what to do. This form of communication helps me process the stuff that’s going through my head. I did allow myself to make one minor comment on exegesis and eisegesis in Sunday School (not calling it that, of course) and otherwise kept my mouth shut for the majority of class.

My opinion is that Pastor Randy is frustrated with me, in part, because he believes I’m an intelligent person but that I still don’t agree with how he teaches what the Bible is saying on a number of important subjects.

I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not trying to be a troublemaker. That’s why I have to remind myself of what the Proverbs say about silence and wisdom and how that’s reinforced in the comments of Rabbi Pliskin. I also have to remind myself that being considered intelligent by someone is a far cry from being considered wise. It might be better to practice silence in order to learn wisdom (a lesson I desperately need to apprehend). It would be ironic if that were my sole purpose in the local church, but then who knows what really goes on in the mind of God when He directs His attention to your life or mine?

In the Midst of the Flaming God

in-the-midst-of-fireQuestion: The writings of Kabbalah and Chassidism speak of four worlds—Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. Where are these “worlds”? Why haven’t any of them been discovered yet?

Response: When I try to relate to these worlds, I picture each of them as another lens through which we can view reality. The higher the world, the sharper and clearer the lens—so that everything in that world is a harmonious expression of G‑d’s simple oneness. The lower the world, the more it feels otherness—as though it never had a creator to begin with. Things become fragmented, discordant, even downright ugly, as that sublime oneness is lost.

We live in the bottom-level, physical world of Asiyah—meaning “actuality”—a reality in which G‑dliness is completely hidden. Our lenses allow us to see nothing more than the end-product of all the processes that came before it. We see a table—not the divine energy that keeps it in existence. We marvel over a sunset—as though it were just another natural phenomenon, rather than a masterpiece of a Master Artist. We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d. It’s no coincidence that the word for “world” in Hebrew, olam, shares the same root as he’elem, meaning “hidden.” Everything but the most outer façade is hidden from our view.

What keeps our prescription so low?

-Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar
“Where Are All the ‘Worlds’?”
Chabad.org

I know Kabbalah isn’t for everyone and mysticism gives most Christians the nervous “shakes,” but for me, it explores the answers to certain questions that we otherwise must avoid completely. It also allows me to put into perspective the things in this world (and the next) that drive me crazy.

We live in the bottom-level, physical world…in which G‑dliness is completely hidden.

Exactly. And yet often we behave as if our “bargain basement world” has all the answers we’ll ever need to understand God and who we are in Him. I’m not suggesting that we all start taking “mystic trips” into the upper regions of reality and attempt to experience God in His own realm, but we should consider that we don’t know as much as we think we know.

I don’t think that the Bible has all the answers, either. I do think, however, that it has sufficient answers for us. If it had all the answers, humanity (or at least Christianity and Judaism) wouldn’t have such a thing as a mystic tradition.

Some would say that the “worlds” Rabbi Cotlar is discussing have an objective reality on other planes of existence, and others, most others probably, believe that these “worlds” are just mental abstractions we use to discuss what otherwise couldn’t be discussed because we have no language and no conceptualization of what it is to exist beyond what our five senses can detect.

I know I’ll be criticized for even mentioning the “K” (Kabbalah) word, but think about it. If you are a religious Jew or Christian, by definition, you’ve taken on board certain beliefs about the spiritual and supernatural worlds. You believe in angels, and archangels, and (if you’re Christian) God being able to manifest Himself in human form (though that is not His totality according to Derek Leman).

We attribute financial success to smart business tactics—not to the blessings of G‑d.

I bet you never thought that was a “mystic” statement, did you? Most of us, even those of us who are “religious,” tend to pat ourselves on the back when we do well in business, get a raise, start and run a successful business, or pump up the number of “zeros” in our annual income. And yet, every morsel of food we consume, every breath we take, every beat of our heart, every day that dawns, would never occur apart from the will of our Father.

How can we not believe in other realms beyond our own?

But then again, it isn’t the belief in other mystic realms that’s the problem, but the thought that any human being should know anything about them, aside from what we read in the Bible. That’s typically what hangs most people up.

The basics of the teachings of the kabbalah – upon which all these texts expound and elaborate – were not invented by the human mind. They are teachings that were orally passed down through the generations, from teacher to disciple, dating back to Moses himself.

And Moses did go there and back. He spent months on Mount Sinai wandering through the various spiritual worlds and then communicated his findings back to us. That which he didn’t personally experience was revealed to him by the Creator of all these spiritual worlds—together with the rest of the Written and Oral Torah. Even after he descended the mountain, he continued to learn directly from G‑d for the next forty years.

-Rabbi Menachem Posner
“How can any human claim to know of ‘other worlds’?”
Chabad.org

That won’t be very convincing to most Christians not to mention a lot of Jews. But how about this?

Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 24:18

So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 34:28

lost-in-the-fogThat might not be convincing either if you just think Moses and God sat together for forty days and forty nights around a really big campfire on the top of a mountain. But did God come down or Moses go up…or something in between? Whatever it was, Moses entered into the presence of the living God, His Divine Presence, and was not consumed by fire and could live in God’s presence and not die, and could do without either food or water for well over a month.

If you believe that actually happened and isn’t just some metaphor or fable, then you believe in the spiritual, the supernatural, the mystic encounter of man with God.

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

Ezekiel 1:1

Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.

Daniel 7:2-3

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

Revelation 1:9-10, 12, 13-17

Each of these experiences stretches, pushes, pulls, and distorts the experience of “reality” of each of the human beings involved beyond what we would consider “normal.” Moses, Ezekiel, Paul, and John each had their own mystic encounters with the realm of Heaven in ways that could not be fully explained to the rest of us who have (presumably) not shared such experiences.

If such is recorded in the Bible we know (as well as we can know the Bible, that is), what mystic experiences have human beings encountered that have not been recorded or that have been recorded in what we consider less than reliable texts?

Who knows?

My point is not to sell you on mysticism. I’m hardly a mystic. I make no claim to otherworldly journeys. I’m only suggesting that no matter what you have learned, no matter how well you are educated, no matter how much you pat yourself on the back for your erudite understanding of the Scriptures, and no matter what sort of “Holy Spirit high” you believe you are on, you really don’t know as much as you think you do. I know I don’t.

sky-above-you-god1To reduce God down to what we can read in the Bible, even if we believe that the Holy Spirit is giving us personal instruction and whispering little “secrets” of interpretation in our ears, is arrogant in the extreme.

It’s understandable that in feeling small before God and probably in the midst of other people, we should want to exalt ourselves. But this reductionist thinking also makes God small, like we are, and all but eliminates any sense of awe, wonder, and majesty at even the contemplation of the awesome, wonderful, infinite, exalted, measureless, Ein Sof, Radically One, creative God.

The Ancient of Days is above all things and beyond human sight and comprehension. But the One like a Son of Man shares his nature fully, being One with him. The Ancient of Days sends the Son of Man into created things to rule from within. The Ancient of Days is transcendent completely but the Son of Man is immanent and is with us. The unity of the Father and Son is absolute, so we cannot say the Son is “part of God,” for God has no parts.

-Derek Leman

Trying to discuss the Divinity of Jesus “is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse,” to quote a certain Scottish engineer from the twenty-third century. In other words, it’s at least extremely difficult if not darn near impossible.

And yet, how can we not try to talk about and even to comprehend that which surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together with Him?

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

Luke 9:28-36

What do you do, as a simple fisherman who is learning from a rural, itinerant teacher, when your teacher suddenly starts glowing bright white and mysteriously is joined by the two greatest Prophets in the history of your people (and you have no idea how you recognize these two men who lived many centuries before you were born…and there are no photos or paintings of them anywhere), and these two great men start speaking to your teacher in a close and intimate manner….and then a voice from Heaven tells you that your teacher is the Son of God and commands you to listen to him?

What do you do when your reality experiences a direct intersection with the mystic realm of God?

I don’t know. But one thing I do know. If you have any sort of sense at all, you realize just how small you are and that, in fact, you don’t know anything close to what you thought you did.

I don’t either.

When’s the last time you were sitting in the midst of the flaming God on a mountain?

147 days.

Being Light in the Darkness

light_from_withinHe explains there that tzaddikim are classified in two general categories. The first is that of the “complete tzaddik,” also known as the “ tzaddik who possesses (only) good.” Such a tzaddik has succeeded in completely transforming the evil of his animal soul to good and holiness. A tzaddik of the second category, that of the “incomplete tzaddik,” or the “ tzaddik who possesses evil,” is one who has not yet completely converted his animal soul to good; he still retains a vestige of its native evil. This remaining fragment of evil, however, is completely nullified within the far greater proportion of good.

from “Today’s Tanya Lesson”
Likutei Amarim, Chapter 11
Lessons in Tanya
Chabad.org

A certain individual was condemned to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi as a hypocrite. “He has such a high opinion of himself,” the rebbe was told, “and has assumed all sorts of pious customs and practices. He acts like a real holy fellow. But it’s all superficial: on the inside, his character is as coarse and unrefined as ever.”

“Well,” said the rebbe, “in that case, may he meet the end that the Talmud predicts for such people.”

The informers were taken aback. They had merely desired to “warn” the rebbe about this individual. But now, what sort of calamity had the chassidic master called down upon him?

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained: At the end of Tractate Pe’ah, the Talmud discusses the criteria for a pauper to be eligible to receive charity. The section concludes with the warning: “One who is not in need, but takes . . . one who is not lame or blind but makes himself as such, will not die of old age until he is indeed as such.”

“In the same vein,” concluded the rebbe, “one who makes of himself more than he is in matters of righteousness and piety ‘will not die of old age until he is indeed as such.’ Acting like a better person will eventually make him a better person.”

“Make Believe”
Translated/adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber
in “Once Upon a Chassid” (Kehot, 1994)
Chabad.org

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

-Gautama Siddharta

Setting the mystic aspects of the quotes above to one side, I have to say that I know all this. I’m supposed to know all this. But knowledge and insight aren’t the same as integrated wisdom. What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.”

-Sandra Carey

This is hardly the first time I’ve pursued such a question, but it means something more or at least something different then what it did before. I’m not sure I want to tell you the whole story yet, but part of it has to do with a recent encounter both with a friend and with God. But before getting on to that, I suppose I should review my own previously stated understanding of knowledge and wisdom.

There is knowledge and then there is wisdom. Studying will provide knowledge and knowledge, in and of itself, isn’t always “good” or “bad”, but sometimes it is “relevant” and “irrelevant”. Wisdom tells us how or if that knowledge can be applied to us. The “path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world” is not a path that Christians can readily follow and even if somehow we can, it’s not a path we are always called to walk. As Rabbi Freeman points out, “Every wise person prefaces his pursuit of wisdom by acknowledging, ‘This I will not be able to explain. This will remain in wonder.’”

what-you-thinkI suppose putting all that together and using Rabbi Tauber’s commentary as a guide, to gain wisdom, we must behave out of our knowledge of what is good, desirable, and pious, even if it’s not who we really are or what we can readily pursue, until it becomes integrated into the very fabric of our being. Then we may become wise and not just a “bucket” containing information.

Then we will become who we really are.

I’ve been standing on a threshold for a long time. Not that I’m a total facade, but I know I’m not the person I’m supposed to be, and probably not the person most people reading this blog believe me to be.

The quote from Siddharta can be condensed down into the simple phrase, “you are what you think.” But despite the Bible’s proscription to gain control of our very thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5) it’s not all that easy to manage what we think about habitually. There’s a reason that anxiety and anxiety control meditations are a tremendous part of the medical and psychopharmaceutical fields today.

But our thoughts and worries are also addressed in abundance in other realms as well.

The reason you have a business is to reconnect all these fragments back to their Creator. And the gauge of your success is your attitude.

If you see yourself as a victim of circumstance, of competitors, markets and trends, that your bread is in the hands of flesh and blood . . .

. . . then your world is still something separate from your G‑d.

But if you have the confidence that He is always with you in whatever you do, and the only one who has the power to change your destiny is you yourself through your own acts of goodness . . .

. . . then your earth is tied to the heavens, and since in the heavens nothing is lacking, so too it shall be in your world.

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

Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on the Rebbe’s advice deals specifically with earning a livelihood, which is very important of course, but what about things that are even more basic?

We all have a constant flow of thoughts and mental pictures in our minds.

These mental creations have a tremendous impact on how we feel, what we say and how we say it, and what we do and don’t do.

People who are self-confident have very different mental pictures and thoughts than people who lack self-confidence. People who feel very insecure feel that way because of what they say to themselves and what they picture about the past and the future. When they upgrade their self-talk and their mental images, they experience life very differently.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #680, Your Mind Impacts Every Experience”
Aish.com

blind2Supposedly, it’s not really what happens to you that matters, but the story that you tell yourself about what happens to you. Three people can undergo the same experience, the first can tell himself that things are a disaster and he’ll never recover, the second can say that it’s an interesting experience, but he won’t let it change him, and the third can say that it was an enlightening experience and that it will impact him for the better…

…regardless of what the experience happens to be.

That’s kind of simplistic since there are events that would overwhelm just about anyone, either with uplifting joy or abject sorrow. But over time, once the person adjusts to the emotional impact, they can tell themselves a story, sometimes telling it in different ways, until whatever the event is can be seen in a useful and positive light.

Obviously, things that happen to us that are good aren’t that hard to adapt to a positive story, but in the news lately, we’ve seen things happen that can only lead to tremendous pain.

You and I can face immense hardships and sorrow in our lives, and yet we see others who have suffered much worse and continued to go on, sometimes achieving true greatness.

In 1944, Simon Wiesenthal barely escaped death at the Janwska concentration camp. Wiesenthal had been imprisoned in a total of 12 concentration camps, and at the time of his liberation from Mauthausen in May 1945, his six-foot frame weighed just 99 pounds. Nearly all of Wiesenthal’s close relatives were murdered by the Nazis, and after the war he worked for the U.S. Army gathering documentation for Nazi war crimes trials. Wiesenthal continued this work privately, and became known as the “Nazi hunter” whose research led to capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, and dozens of other war criminals including Karl Silberbauer, the Gestapo officer responsible for the arrest of Anne Frank. Wiesenthal said: “When history looks back I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which operates the Museums of Tolerance, is named in his honor. In 1981, the Center’s film, “Genocide,” won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Wiesenthal died at age 96 in Vienna and was buried in Herzliya, Israel.

Tevet 13
This Day in Jewish History
Aish.com

This isn’t to minimize difficult experiences for the rest of us who didn’t have to endure the Holocaust, but it shows us that it’s possible to survive and even to achieve great things after suffering terribly. Others besides Simon Wiesenthal survived the camps and continued to have a life for decades afterward, but perhaps not all of the survivors told themselves the same “story” about what it all meant to them. It would be understandable to give up, to surrender to depression or rage after such an experience, and no one would fail to have compassion, but the story Simon Wiesenthal told himself lead to a different path.

light-has-dawnedCertainly, this can be the path to holiness and a closer relationship with God, but there must also be a story that leads to a better relationship with yourself. Ultimately, I believe that both paths and both goals yield the same result, but what happens when you are injured and even devastated. You find yourself sitting in a very dark place, feeling yourself sink lower, hovering at the edge of the endlessly deepening abyss. How do you find your path when everything you are, particularly your thoughts and feelings, lead downward into the waiting embrace of oblivion?

Where a lantern is placed, those who seek light gather around – for light attracts.

Likutei Sichot, Vol. 10, p. 294.
from “Today’s Day”
Monday, Tevet 13, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Knowledge is like consuming the writings of the great sages, and it illuminates like a lantern or a small candle shining in the darkness. Wisdom is letting your thoughts and feelings not just experience the light, but absorb and become the light.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

-Basho, Matsuo

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)

Instead of sinking down and becoming the darkness, you can rise up with the sparks and become light, even if you continue to be surrounded by darkness.

Chayei Sarah: Oil for the Lamp

“Now Avraham was zaken / old, well on in days, and Hashem had blessed Avraham bakol / with everything.”

Genesis 24:1

Why does our verse say that Avraham was “well on in days” rather than “well on in years”? R’ Yaakov Yosef Hakohen z”l (1710-1784; foremost disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov z”l; known by chassidim as “the Toldos” after one of his works) explains:

The Gemara (Shabbat 153a) teaches: Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die. But, since no one knows when he will die, repent every day.” King Shlomo likewise said (Kohelet 9:8), “At all times, let your clothes be white.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “This may be likened to a king who announced that he would hold a feast, but did not announce the time. The intelligent ones among his entourage dressed-up so as to be ready on a moment’s notice, while the fools did not prepare.” [Until here from the Gemara]

-Rabbi Shlomo Katz
“Beginnings and Endings”
Hamaayan, Volume 26, No. 5
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Torah.org

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

Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

Who is wise? The motto for the Boy Scouts is “Be prepared,” so, given the lessons we see above, it would seem that we would be wise if we learned from the sages who provided those teachings. We can learn from every person, but it is better to learn from those who have something useful and edifying to say.

And yet, how often do we ignore wise teachings until it is too late? How often do you put off changing the batteries in the smoke detectors in your home? How often do you let the needle on your car’s gas gauge get down to “E” before looking for a gas station? And while it’s impossible to predict an earthquake, if you knew a hurricane was coming, how long would you wait before trying to leave for a safer location or stocking up on food and water for yourself, and batteries for your radio, and then shuttering your windows against the coming storm?

No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the victims of hurricane Sandy, but rather, I’m saying something about we Christians. How often do we take “being saved” for granted, even when we know that a “storm” is coming? How often do we take our relationship with God for granted and think we know everything we need to know about Him?

I saw this yesterday on Facebook:

Going to be a very interesting year ahead. I started going to a Bible study with a friend of mine, yesterday was our first class and let me just say complete shock. They are studying B’RESHEET (Genesis) and in the new members class the leader was telling us how she has been a Christian for over 40 years, joined this Bible study 5 years ago and it was the first time she ever read the ‘Old Testament’. Many of the other women commented that they too had not read anything other than the Psalms and had no idea where this thought of ‘twelve’ tribes came from. How very ,very sad.

Isn’t that a little like waiting until the last minute before getting oil for your lamps, and then getting locked out of the “marriage feast?”

OK, a lot of Christians don’t really consider the Old Testament to be that important. A lot of churches bill themselves as “New Testament” churches and that’s pretty much all they feel they need. However, since all of Christ’s “source material” from Scripture was before the Gospel of Matthew, it might be wise to study what he must have studied (We sort of assume that Jesus just “knew” the Bible forward and backward, but as a child and young adult, no doubt like other Jews, he attended synagogue on Shabbos, heard the sacred texts being read, and studied as would be expected of a young Jewish lad from a humble family in the Galilee).

We do know that he knew a few things and learned a few things growing up.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.

Luke 2:46-48 (ESV)

It is true that studying does not automatically assure that a person will grow wise, but lack of study will almost certainly result in a person being ignorant. Christianity and Judaism have one core document that provides us with a connection to those who established our faith and who can tell us the story of man and God: the Bible (“Bible” has different definitions depending on whether you’re Christian or Jewish).

But it’s not that simple.

To define sola scriptura without academic terminology might sound something like this: The Bible is the only authority in the believer’s life; it is never wrong about anything; it touches on every aspect of life; it needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted; it never disagrees with itself; it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence; and it applies to everyone in every situation.

-Jacob Fronczak
“The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura”
Messiah Journal, Issue 111 (pg 47)

That sounds good as far as it goes, but let’s see what else Pastor Fronczak has to say.

I only use the example of translations to illustrate the fact that in a very practical sense, the Scriptures in their original languages are, for most Christians, not enough – tools such as translations, concordances, the Masoretic vowel points, and commentaries are required in order to understand the text. Of course, the goal is to understand the original text, which in itself is not an objection to the doctrine of sola scriptura – until one realizes that every translation, every commentary, and even the textual tradition itself are all based on traditions along with the divine written revelation. It is simply impossible to get away from these traditions and study the Bible in isolation. (Fronczak, pg 52)

It seems that studying the scriptures to acquire wisdom is getting harder or at least more complicated all the time.

I’ll probably write another “meditation” sometime soon expanding on other points in Fronczak’s article, but essentially, he is saying that we cannot study the Bible in any useful manner without employing (hold on to your hats) the “traditions of the (Christian) elders.”

“The traditions of the elders” has received a lot of “bad press” in Christianity because of the perception that both ancient and modern Jews allow “the traditions of men” to have authority equal to or even greater than the Bible. The Christian response, particularly among Protestants, is to say, “let scripture interpret scripture,” which is the short definition of sola scriptura. That means, “no traditions are allowed,” just the Bible itself. However, Fronczak’s article makes it abundantly clear that the early church fathers employed a great deal of tradition in even canonizing the books of the New Testament, and Catholicism, even to this day, states that the Bible can only be understood through its traditions.

Imagine the shock of realizing that the same is true among all modern-day Protestant churches as well. We just don’t choose to say it in those words.

Remember that quote from Pirkei Avot about a person being wise if they learn from everyone?

And what about the commentary on Abraham and its apparent companion lesson about the ten virgins? How can we learn from everyone and how can we be prepared to learn what we need to learn in order to comprehend what the Master is teaching us, and thus draw closer to God?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

-Yoda (Frank Oz – voice)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In some sense, learning what’s important and what takes us on the path toward wisdom means “unlearning” concepts and doctrines that we discover aren’t useful in our lives. That isn’t always easy when such information is directly attached to words like “sacred” and “holy” and “divine revelation.” It would be like a person who learned as a child that God was a giant, old man with a long white beard who sits on a huge golden throne on a cloud in the sky. Now imagine that child is Jewish and then he grows up and learns that according to Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, God doesn’t even have a body and is not to be considered a corporeal being? If the fellow was still young enough, that might come as quite a jolt.

Now imagine being a woman of middle age who has been a Christian for forty years reading from the book of Genesis for the first time. Taking it a step further, imagine the same woman in a group of women studying the Old Testament, accessing the classic interpretations for Genesis to try to understand anything at all about who Abraham was, where he came from, why God made a covenant with him, and what that covenant means to both Jews and Christians today.

If we are to take the lesson from Avot at face value, then our class of women might want to “unlearn” a few things about the Old Testament and learn, not only from extra-Biblical Christian commentaries about Genesis, but from a few Jewish ones as well.

Certainly Jesus understood Abraham from a completely Jewish context and framework. If we want to understand Jesus, we must understand what he understood.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

-Matsuo Basho

So we unlearn what is not useful to us and then start learning from a wide variety of sources, seeking to understand God (as best we can) and who we are in Him. How do we know when we’re “prepared enough?” Five of the ten virgins kept “flasks of oil” with them for their lamps so that when the bridegroom came, they were ready to light them, even if it was at midnight. How do we know when we’ve studied enough so that we have “flasks of oil” at hand?

Let’s look at it another way. Studying, learning, understanding, are all active processes. You can’t bottle the stuff and put it on a shelf for a rainy day. It’s like continually replenishing the oil in lamps that continually must be burning. This makes sense when compared to another parable of the Master about we Christians being the light of the world (see Matthew 5:14-16) and how our light must be placed where everyone can see it burning all the time.

Our “lamps” will never be filled to 100% capacity where we can then stop tending to them. We are prepared when we’re always preparing; when we’re always studying, and learning, and discussing, and pondering, and repenting, and praying, and…you get the idea.

In each journey of your life you must be where you are. You may only be passing through on your way to somewhere else seemingly more important—nevertheless, there is purpose in where you are right now.

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

Or in the words of my generation, “Wherever you go there you are.” We should all consider ourselves “a work on progress.” We’ll never be complete. We’ll never be “finished” or “done” or “perfect.” As long as we live, we must move forward. As long as we’re breathing, there’s someplace else to go, something else to learn, another person we need to meet.

And God will always be with us, as long as we continually seek him, and walk by the light of our lamp.

Good Shabbos.

Wisdom and Doubt

When someone is angry at you, organize wisely what you wish to say. Begin speaking in a manner that is likely to have a calming effect. For example, begin by admitting your own mistakes. When you start off in an appeasing manner, the person will pay more attention to your words, and this will prevent him from causing you harm or loss.

We find an example when Abigail successfully calmed down King David, who was furious at her husband (see Shmuel 1, 25:25). She began by admitting that she herself had made an error. Only then did she present her arguments to King David. When you concede that you are wrong, others calm down.

When someone is angry at you, and you start out by either blaming him or denying it, you will usually increase the person’s anger. If you want someone’s anger to escalate, the best way to do this is to either say: “It’s your fault, not mine.”

It takes courage to admit your own mistakes. Even if you are only responsible in a small way, it is still best to start off by saying something like, “Yes, I could (or should) have done differently. I’m sorry for any pain or inconvenience I have caused you.”

This will put the other person in a calmer state, and he will then be much more likely to listen to what you have to say in your own defense.

-see Ralbag – Shaar hapiyus, no.1;
Rabbi Pliskin – Consulting the Wise, pp.58-9
quoted from Aish.com

Just a few days ago I quoted from another Aish.com missive that said:

Only when a person has peace of mind can he really feel love for humanity. Lack of peace of mind leads to animosity towards others. Peace of mind leads to love.

The reality of the situation is that if we wait until we’ve achieved perfect peace of mind before we start interacting with other people, we’ll never interact with other people. Since that’s impossible for most of us, we’ll need another strategy.

What if you’re wrong? Ever thought about that? I think about it all the time, but then again, that’s just me. Maybe I’m insecure or something.

Or something.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell
British philosopher, logician, and mathematician

I hope that means that I’m on the path to wisdom, but I’d hate to delude myself or elevate myself beyond my true position. But I think it was Socrates who said, “the beginning of wisdom is the discovery of one’s own ignorance,” so I suppose I’m in good company whenever I answer a question with the statement, “I don’t know.”

That’s not the same as giving an answer and then discovering that you’re wrong, but it’s related. In the world of the Internet, everybody seems to feel like they must have the “right” answer to all questions and debates all of the time. In that sense, I must be some sort of anomaly for having more questions than answers.

But back to the topic at hand. What if you’re wrong?

I’ve already been wrong in public including in the blogosphere, so it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but I get the impression that it just terrifies others who blog, comment, or otherwise express their opinion online. Some people can’t admit it. Some people would feel like a failure to admit they made a mistake.

I suspect that it’s closer to the truth to say that people already feel like failures or carry around a great burden of hurt and pain when they find themselves in a position where they can’t back down, they won’t recant, and they refuse to admit that they could have made a mistake and overstated their position.

That’s horrible.

That means you are totally locked out of being able to enter into a conversation with someone you’ve hurt or offended and to, as Abigail did, calm down that person and then try to make amends. It also means that even if the other person were wrong as well in some way, you’ll never get to the point in the discussion where they’ll feel free to hear your gentle criticisms. That’s because you’ll still be too busy defending your own “rightness” and challenging the other person’s opinion.

More’s the pity.

You don’t have to possess peace of mind, and you don’t have to even feel compassionate love for humanity to begin to fix this. You do however, need to be able to make claim to just a small bit of wisdom and humility. The Proverbs we find in the Bible are replete with examples of those who disdained wisdom in favor of their own self-directed council.

Those people, no matter how certain of themselves they may seem, are very often completely insecure and uncertain and indeed, not asserting knowledge and facts, but desperately defending an increasingly disintegrating ego. The other day, I called such a person a nudnik. Today, I’m saying that like any hurt and injured human being, they should be pitied and if possible, they should be helped.

Was it something I said or something I did
Did my words not come out right
Though I tried not to hurt you
Though I tried
But I guess that’s why they say

Every rose has it’s thorn
Just like every night has it’s dawn
Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song
Every rose has it’s thorn

-lyrics by Bret Michaels
from the ballad Every Rose Has It’s Thorn (1988)
Recorded by Poison

But even if we are injured, hurting, humiliated, and emotionally bleeding, we can’t always wait for all that to stop before trying to right what is wrong. If we still possess a modicum of mercy, grace, and justice within us and we don’t want to live long enough to see ourselves become the villain, then we have to take who we are and do the best we can with ourselves. No one enters life a perfect person and no one leaves life perfect either. Sure, during whatever lifetime we are granted, we are given many opportunities to learn, to become wise, and to elevate ourselves spiritually, but in the end, we are who we are. We take all of that and do our best with it and with us.

If it is permissible, we must use it for good. If it can be elevated, we cannot leave it behind.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Leave Nothing Behind”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

If you can be a better person today than you were yesterday, then you must make every effort to be that better person. Better to admit that you can be wrong and risk looking foolish than to always demand that you’re right and prove you really are unwise.

Just ask yourself, “what does God want me to do in order to honor Him and to avoid disgracing myself?”

Through love, all pain will turn to medicine. –Rumi

Please don’t destroy yourself. Please don’t try to destroy others because you feel they hurt or maligned you. God is the author of love and life, not hate and destruction.