Tag Archives: wisdom

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

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
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

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.”


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.

Emor: Favorable Light

The Rambam writes: (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 5:1.) “Just as a wise man can be recognized through his wisdom and his character traits, for in these he stands apart from the rest of the people, so too, he should be recognized in his conduct.”

The Rambam’s intent is that the Jewish approach to knowledge must be more than theoretical. Instead, a person’s knowledge must shape his character, and more importantly, influence his behavior. This is what distinguishes him as wise.

Among the types of conduct mentioned by the Rambam as appropriate for a wise man is refined speech, as he continues: (Ibid.: 7) “A Torah scholar should not shout or shriek while speaking…. Instead, he should speak gently to all people…. He should judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.”

The wording employed by the Rambam “judging… in a favorable light” and “never mentioning anything that is shameful” imply that a Torah scholar may recognize faults within a colleague’s character. Even so, he will “speak his colleague’s praise.” When speaking to his colleague privately, he may patiently and gently rebuke him for his conduct. (See ibid., 6:7.) But when speaking to others and when viewing his colleague in his own mind he will think and speak favorably of him.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Inspiring Light”
from In the Garden of Torah
Commentary on Emor

I doubt I could be classified as a “wise man” and certainly not a “Torah scholar,” but it seems as if the Rambam (Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon) is offering advice that should be attended to by any reasonable and prudent person. Unfortunately, the Rambam didn’t anticipate the Internet and blogging and I’m sure if he could have access to the web today and review some of the religious commentaries present (including mine), he’d be appalled.

Recently, my friend Gene Shlomovich posted a blog article called Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d (oh, and if you decide to visit his blog and join the debate, please be polite and considerate). The basic issue is that a woman sent an email (I’m not sure if it was originally to Gene or not) saying that her Jewish husband has come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, but he does not accept the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus is one part of the Godhead and is God himself in living flesh.

Naturally for a Christian woman, this is of some concern (and probably most Christians reading this will be equally upset). Here;s the question: is the Jewish man who believes Jesus is Messiah but not God “saved?”

Gene asks this question (which is by definition, emotionally charged within the community of believers) as dispassionately as possible, and his interactions with people responding to his question have been measured, calm, and thoughtful. Most people responding have been pretty reasonable too, given the nature of the conversation. It hasn’t been absolutely smooth sailing, though:

Commentor 1: Did you know that the ancient Jewish followers of Yeshua Did not believe that Yeshua was G-d in the flesh?

Commentor 2 in response to 1: The original followers of Yeshua, his disciples, bowed down and worshiped him. Matthew 14. Either that’s idolatry, or Yeshua is God.

There were later groups like the Ebionites who rejected Messiah’s divinity. They also rejected Paul’s writings, and some of the gospels. Your case is weak, and not a few who have taken that path have ended up as apostates.

Gene in response to Commentor 2: You don’t have to constantly, over and over, threaten people with a boogie man of apostasy just to make your point. Over its history, Christendom has excommunicated (or worse) countless followers of Yeshua and branded them as apostates over slightest doctrinal differences. That’s why we have over 43K Christian denominations today, many condemning each other to hell. Some, perhaps many of them, would no doubt consider your Gentiles-must-observe-Mosaic-Torah beliefs as some sort of neo-Galatian heresy and would consider you as a hell-bound grace-forfeited apostate.

OK, no one is being terribly rude, but as I was reading the above-quoted commentary on this week’s Torah portion, I was wondering what Rambam would think of the transaction (the tone, not necessarily the content). Can we judge each other in “a favorable light” and still disagree, particularly on important points of theology and doctrine? Gene says the failure to treat each other favorably within the body of the Messiah has resulted in that body being fractured into over 43,000 different denominations. That’s a lot of different pieces. Imagine taking a rock and throwing it as hard as you can at a large, beautiful, pristine pane of glass. Imagine what will be left over after the rock has done its job and you’ve gone scurrying off to elude the police.

Christianity is fractured and I stand with the myriad pieces scattered around my feet declaring a “Humpty Dumpty-esque” message about the impossibility of the church’s reconstruction.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

And speaking of Kings:

I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” –Luke 18:8 (ESV)

Will the King be able to put our “humpty dumpty” church back together again? It’s assumed that he can and he will and after all, that’s his main job: to perform tikkun olam in a broken world and for a broken church.

To continue Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

The above concepts relate to our Torah reading, which is called Emor. Emor is a command, telling one to speak. In the context of the Torah reading, this command has an immediate application: to communicate laws pertaining to the priesthood. Nevertheless, the fact that this term is used as the name of the reading indicates a wider significance: A person must speak.

And yet, we find our Sages counseling: “Say little,” (Pirkei Avos 1:16.) and “I… did not find anything better for one’s person than silence,” (Ibid.: 17.) implying that excessive speech is not desirable. Nor can we say that the charge emor refers to the commandment to speak words of Torah, for there is an explicit command, (Deuteronomy 6:7.) “And you shall speak of them,” encouraging us to proliferate the Torah’s words. Instead, emor refers to speaking about a colleague’s virtues, as explained above.

If speaking little is the mark of a wise man and scholar, then the blogosphere is contains an immense lack of wisdom and knowledge. Yet, in the view of Rambam, when we speak, we are to speak words of Torah (Christians can mentally translate that into “the Bible”) and to illuminate the Word of God by telling it. We have two ways to use our tongues:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. –James 3:6-9 (ESV)

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. –1 Thessalonians 5:11-15 (ESV)

The latter sounds a lot like the advice of Rambam for wise men and Torah scholars. It also sounds a lot like good advice for us. Yet we tend toward the former, more’s the pity.

Woman in fireI’m not saying we shouldn’t speak out when we disagree on important matters, but that when doing so, we should also “judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.” That’s a tall order for many religious people who feel they have a right to be confrontational, harsh, rude, and even condemning based on the outspokenness of Jesus and Paul in the Bible, as if any of us can approach the merit of Paul, let alone that of Jesus (perhaps another example of paying attention to one small piece of scripture to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible).

The tongue is fire and it is poison. We use it to bless God and to curse our neighbor and fellow believers. We are called to truth and to shun lies, but can we do so without “personalizing conflict?” I believe it’s possible, though not particularly common. But if we intend to obey the new commandment of the Master to love one another (John 13:34), then we have to start somewhere. This is particularly difficult for anyone who blogs because of the temptation to respond when someone is wrong on the Internet. Nevertheless, the purpose of studying the Word of God is not to “lord it over” those who we disagree with, but to encourage others and to share the blessings of God.

In the holy Zohar it is written that through the study of the secret wisdom, the final liberation will come with compassion. Not with judgment alone.

Now the wisdom is no longer secret. Sages and masters have found ways to make it accessible to all. Those who learn it and spread it, they are bringing divine compassion and redemption to the world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Unsecret Wisdom”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.

Light and the Lucid Crystal

Inner lightWhen a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints – for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone. For the ones who are called saints by human opinion on earth may very well be devils, and their light may very well be darkness. For as far as the light of God is concerned, we are owls. It blinds us and as soon as it strikes us we are in darkness. People who look like saints to us are very often not so, and those who do not look like saints very often are.

-Thomas Merton
Part Two, Chapter One, “With a Great Price,” pg 186
The Seven Storey Mountain

This explains a lot. It explains how people who have no faith in God in any manner and no apparent external moral compass (at least from a religious person’s point of view) can still do good and great things for others and uphold noble causes. It also explains how some “religious people,” even though they seem to have faith in God and to uphold the teachings of His prophets and apostles, can harbor evil thoughts and feelings for others and say and do heinous things, all supposedly in the name of God.

Merton further illustrates that a person who is perfect in his or her nature because he or she was made in God’s image and who allows themselves to accept and reflect and refract the light of God as does a crystal, can be perfected beyond human standards and be elevated in a relationship with God and man. This is what it is to be holy.

I was struck with these passages in Merton’s book and remembering this was written when he was a young Trappist monk, I was astonished at how closely some of his ideas and images paralleled those of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, as I often quote them from the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. These quotes, of course, are an extension of Chasidic and even Kabbalistic thought and belief, which seems an even stranger comparison for me to make to the observations and reflections of a Catholic monk writing his autobiography in the 1940s.

I wonder if men from such different cultural and religious backgrounds aren’t on some level joined together by the light of God?

But if this unlikely and wonderful parallel between two men of such divergent faiths exists, how much more tragic that there are so many others in the religious and spiritual arena (and particularly in the blogosphere) who claim the title “saint” or “prophet” but who Merton would definitely classify as “devil?”

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling of lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands.

For example, the very thought of an imprimatur on the front of a book – the approbation of a bishop, allowing the book to be printed on the grounds that it contains safe doctrine – is something that drives some people almost out of their minds with indignation.

-Merton, pg 187

I’m not a big fan of censorship and I’m probably one of those people who would be driven out of my mind with indignation if someone should hand me a book that was declared “safe” by the Catholic church. But in reading these sentences and the ones that followed, I began to draw a comparison to what Merton could not possibly have anticipated – the proliferation of information on the world wide web.

The Internet isn’t filtered and in my humble opinion, it never should be, but the danger in this is that anyone who can create a website or blog (and this includes everyone nowadays) will create a website or blog, and they’ll spew their opinions all over the Internet so that anyone with web access can find them and read them.

If you are reasonably well educated from other sources, (such as books and reliable teachers) you can probably make your way through the maze of good content and bad, but there are so many would-be “saints” in the world who unknowingly fall into the teachings of a “devil” out of sheer ignorance.

I was once teaching a class at a congregation and was confronted with a strange thought by one of the students. In the course of the conversation, she said the oddest thing. I believe we were talking about the Tetragrammaton; the most holy and unpronounceable name of God, which many people express as “YHWH,” and she said that the reason the Jewish people were exiled was that they refused to reveal the pronunciation of “the Name” to the world and thus, lost all knowledge of the pronunciation as an additional punishment.


Yes, that sounds crazy to me, too.

I don’t remember all of the details and I probably wouldn’t publish them if I did, but apparently, there was some sort of “teacher” on the Internet who was spreading this kind of information. She gave me the URL to his site and I looked him up.

Oh my!

There were years and years and years worth of articles on his site (I really don’t remember his name) and it would have been impossible to go through all of his stuff. I searched for the information on the “Sacred Name” but didn’t find it. I looked through some random web articles and some of it was relatively sane and a lot of it wasn’t. The guy seemed like he was intelligent and even educated, but his conclusions were highly suspect.

With that memory fully recalled and in reading Merton’s book, I’m beginning to develop a new respect for the “imprimatur” concept. Not in terms of consuming data that is only acceptable to the Catholic church, but with the idea of separating the “wheat from the chafe” relative to sound versus unsound religious “research”. If I want to buy a book, I can always go to Amazon and read the reviews to get some sort of idea if the book is any good or not (although sometimes even that litmus test fails). For random craziness on the web, there often is not litmus test except keeping yourself educated with valid sources and knowing when something looks suspicious.

Even with that, some otherwise reliable and well-educated blog authors can become overly-enamored with their own self-importance, just because they get a lot of attention and some local notoriety. The curse of even marginally “famous” believers is that the temptation to forget that God is the focus can be really strong.

I occasionally get “spammed” by folks who tell me that they’ve got a direct line to the Holy Spirit of God who whispers in their ears and helps them not rely on their own intellectual prowess. That kind of makes it hard for me to say that God should be our final litmus test on information when any sort of supernatural revelation is, by its very nature, totally subjective. We can say that revelations of the Spirit should only be considered on the up and up if they jive with Scripture, but interpretation of Scripture is also extremely variable, depending on who you read, who you talk to, and who you believe. Seems like a vicious circle.

Ultimately, we each take some sort of stand and say that “this religion” or “this denomination” or “this sect” or “this viewpoint” is what we consider foundational, and we proceed from that point. None of us have it completely “right” but then perhaps none of us have it completely “wrong” either. In the intellectual “holy wars” on the web, regardless of our differing opinions, we can still rely on the words of the Master that are not ambiguous:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I am also reminded of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

And although not a prophet as we understand the term, Thomas Merton managed to crystallize something important:

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.

If we open ourselves to Him, we are the breath of God. When we love others, then we are breathing, then we are alive.

Develop your awe of heaven and you will diminish your fear of human beings.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
to a Jewish activist in a dangerous Arab land

The Resolute and Supple Reed

“Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
-Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)

Throughout the existence of the Jewish people, we have long been enamored with intelligence. Just look at the disproportionate amount of Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. However, intelligence by itself is not a supreme value; it can be used for either good or evil. Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all. Furthermore, Ben Zoma’s excerpt from Pirkei Avot alludes to the fact that while a person’s intellectual capacity is innately limited, wisdom can be attained by anyone. A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.

“Who is Wise”
Lev Echad blog

I didn’t create this “morning meditation” blog to simply spew out answers but rather to ask hard questions. I don’t pretend to have some special insight into God or religion or faith. I only have my experience as I continue and grow in my relationship with God. I chronicle the developments of that relationship here in a variety of forms, including commentary on the Bible and occasionally reviews of related publications. I’m not really here to teach but to learn, and I learn from every person who talks to me in this blog. I think that’s how we all learn…by communicating.

It’s not always easy. As I’m sure you’ve discovered by participating in or just reading the comments on this blog, a lot of disagreement and sometimes heated debate happens. Occasionally, tempers flare, though I do my best to try and contain the “emotionalism” of our debates. The goal, as I see it, is not to try to prove who is right and who is wrong, but to pursue realization and truth. Truth, as I’ve said before, is not the same as fact, and thus truth can take on more than one form.

As Asher said in the quote I posted above, “A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.” He also said this:

Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all.

The goal Asher describes is similar to mine. The point of being intelligent isn’t to “be right” but to “bring about repentance and good deeds.” We’re supposed to study and explore and debate and discuss, not to exalt ourselves and to prove we’re the “smarter guy,” but to become better people through a greater understanding of our relationship with God. From a Jewish point of view, that also involves doing and not just thinking or saying, so “good deeds” are a vital part of that process as is repentance of our sins before man and God.

Does that mean a truly wise person is always a doormat who never takes a strong stand on a moral principle? Not at all.

On today’s daf we find that the Beis HaMikdash was purposely destroyed either before or after Shemittah, since bad things happen during times that are already difficult.

Keeping Shemittah in Israel was a big conflict not too long ago. Hardly anyone was doing it—even otherwise religious farmers—and those who were willing were often intimidated by their peers. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, wrote a beautiful letter of encouragement to those farmers who were willing to consider sacrificing what appeared to be their advantage in order to keep the letter of the law.

“I am a farmer who makes his living through the work of my hands. It is now almost Shemittah and a riveting thought has gotten into my head: I want to keep the laws of Shemittah with courage and boldness. I am alone and unaided, a joke to all of my neighbors. ‘How could it be?’ they asked when I began. ‘You won’t plant and you won’t harvest? You can’t fight against reality!’

“But my chutzpah stood me well and despite the indisputable fact that anyone with intelligence knows that it is physically impossible to keep these halachos unless one has a silo filled with grain for three years—since Shemittah is obviously impossible to fulfill in our times without enough grain before the seventh year. Now isn’t like it used to be, they say; you cannot rely on miracles. Yet the year is already halfway over and it looks like one can keep Shemittah after all. I planted everything before Rosh Hashannah, while it was still the sixth year, and during the seventh year I have not worked my field. I am careful to treat the produce which overlaps from the sixth year to the seventh with holiness and I hope to make peace with reality—or that reality should mete out what is good for me.

“My neighbors mock me—yet the weather mocks them. It works out to be good for one who planted early, but not for their crops planted during Shemittah. Only my early-planted crops have survived!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Time of Challenge”
Arachin 12

It seems obvious that if we are in the right in an argument or dispute, we should stand our ground, even against overwhelming odds, including that of “popular public opinion.” The question is, how can you know that you are always right? If you are a reasonable person and honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you can never be “always right”. That’s where learning from others comes in. Even a genius cannot know everything if that genius is in isolation. Only by discourse with the rest of the world, including a world that is fundamentally different from you, can real learning ever take place. The trick is to differentiate between being resolute in your principles and being mule-headed stubborn, even in the face of great evidence that discounts the validity of your arguments.

OK, I say that with the understanding that most people don’t change once they’ve made up their minds. But if change were impossible, then no one would come to realize that the God of Abraham is the Maker of the Universe. If we could not humble ourselves and admit that we were wrong, no one would come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, our Lord, Savior, and King.

But our greatest adversary doesn’t exist outside of us in some other group or church or synagogue or even in the supernatural realm. Our greatest enemy is who we are.

There are times you must be like a reed in the wind. And there are times you must face it like an iron wall.

When it comes to matters that lie at the surface, then “I hold like this” and “my opinion is like this” stand in the way of harmony and peace. Every such “I” is the very root and source of evil.

But when it comes to matters that touch your essence and core, the purpose for which you were placed in this world, then you must be an iron wall. Then you must say, “On this, I cannot budge.”

Liberated from its thick shell of ego, empowered and emboldened, the essential self breaks through the concrete, blossoms and flourishes.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“I Versus I”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Although “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), we must not “dull” ourselves by always seeking resistance. To “sharpen” a human being requires debate, disagreement, and discourse, and then an experience of contrition before God to help us understand when it is time to stand our ground like an iron wall, and when it is time to be supple like the reed before the wind.

In the midst of our human storms, we must never forget that what matters most is to seek His Face.

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, LORD, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples. –Psalm 108:1-3

Vayishlah: The Running Shliach

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip.Genesis 32:23-32 (JPS Tanakh)

As he prepared to face Esau, Jacob experienced a strange mystical encounter with God. He had sent his family, his servants and his possessions across a river ahead of him. He was about to follow when he was suddenly attacked by an assailant. Jacob wrestled the man through the night. The attacker turned out to be none other than the angel of the LORD.

“A Life-Changing Encounter”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on
Torah Portion Vayishlah

I know. Everybody teaches and writes on Jacob wrestling with the angel. It gets a little cliche’ after awhile. Who was the angel? Was it Jesus? Was it God? Was it Jacob’s “evil inclination?” Was it the angel embodying the spirit of Esau? All of the above, some of the above, none of the above? Who knows?

And what does it have to do with us?

The FFOZ commentary goes on to say that the name change of Jacob to Israel, as a result of the patriarch’s encounter with the Divine, altered the course of his life, changing his nature from “trickery and deceit” to one who is “authorized to receive the blessing.” The commentary concludes with this:

A genuine encounter with God is life-changing. It is a sort of wrestling match. The apostles teach us that, through faith in Yeshua, we are born again as new creations. In Messiah we have a whole new identity. Paul speaks of our old identity as the “old self.” He declares that, for the believer, the “old self was crucified with [Messiah], in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). “Therefore if anyone is in Messiah, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The commentary assumes, like Abraham before him (Genesis 17:5), that Jacob’s name was changed immediately and permanently and that “Israel” would never be referred to as “Jacob” again.

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to transport him; and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan. Thus Jacob and all his offspring with him came to Egypt: he brought with him to Egypt his sons and grandsons, his daughters and granddaughters — all his offspring.

These are the names of the Israelites, Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt. –Genesis 46:1-8

As you can see here, the names “Jacob” and “Israel” seem to be used interchangeably. Unlike Abraham who was never called “Abram” again after his name was changed, Jacob seemed to exist as both “Jacob” and “Israel” depending on the situation or the role he was playing. Someone once told me that the patriarch was called “Jacob” when he was being referred to as an ordinary person and “Israel” when he was fulfilling his prophetic and “national” role. I have no idea if this is correct or not, but it seems to fit what we read in the Torah.

But what does this have to do with us and encountering God as if we were meeting a stranger along our path? How are we changed by that meeting and what is the nature of the change?

From a personal point of view, I feel the “aftermath” of my personal encounter with God (coming to faith) is more like Jacob’s than Abraham’s. I feel like my “name change” isn’t quite permanent, and that I toggle back and forth between one nature and the other. I know you probably think that’s a terrible thing to say. After all, who can deny that once we come to faith in Jesus, that we are changed to a “new man” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that we’ve left our old sin nature completely behind us. Of course, my struggle could be an indication that I’m “double-minded” (James 1:8) which is certainly not a good thing.

But do we abruptly change? Really?

Poof! All at once, you came to faith and transformed into a completely new human being that has absolutely no resemblance to the person you were ten seconds before? Really?

It didn’t happen that way for me. Not by a long shot.

After I came to faith and even after I was baptized in the Boise River, I didn’t suddenly feel like an emotional and spiritual stranger to my “former self”. In fact, I was disappointed to discover that I felt and thought in exactly the same way as I did the day before. What a let down. I was expecting this mystical transformative experience, but it didn’t happen that way.

In fact, over many, many years, my life has gone through various twists and turns, some of which were extremely unpleasant, and looking back, I can see that my way of looking at things and reacting to my surroundings and to people has very gradually begun to change. In fact, the process is still going on today, although at a pace that would make a glacier’s movement seem like the electric speed of “Lightning McQueen” in the Pixar film Cars (2006).

There are times when I experience my life as truly different than it was before I came to faith. Sadly, there are times when I still feel like that flawed and limited human being I was before I even considered the idea that there is a God. In fact, I don’t ever think I’ve felt “perfect” in anything (Matthew 5:48).

What happened?

I don’t think “perfection” is something we achieve and then rest on our laurels but rather, I think a life of faith and unity in God is a goal was always strive for. Some days are better than others. Some days can be just lousy. Occasionally, we are magnificent, but I think for most of us (especially me), those days are rare.

There are times when I just want to know it all and to be it all but it’s sort of like my goals at the gym. No matter how much I psych myself up for a workout, when I actually hit the machines, I can only lift so much weight so many times, and then I run out of gas. Sometimes I exceed my expectations, sometimes I fail miserably, and most of the time, I break even. Kind of disappointing to shoot for the stars and to land in the mud.

Tear off a piece of your bread before you eat. You cannot fit it all into your mouth.

Do the same with wisdom. For Truth does not begin with Mind.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Wisdom and Bread”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. –1 Corinthians 9:24

I’ve always been such a terrible runner. I don’t know if that means I’m not really “in Christ” and thus I never transformed into that mystical, magical “new creature,” or if this is what most believers experience (or would admit to if it is their experience) most of the time. From where I sit in the mud, having fallen down in my race in the rain for the ten-thousandth time, a life of faith is lived one day at a time and the bread is eaten one chunk at a time. In the end, God will make the judgment about whether or not I’m good enough for what comes next. All I can do is drag my sweaty, out-of-shape body out of the mud hole one more time, and try to force my dead, lead-heavy legs to run for one more mile. As I rise to run the race again, I strain to see if the sages understand this puzzle.

As we apply ourselves to our mission, we also internalize it. Not only do we effect changes in the world, we ourselves change. Just as an agent must be identified with his principal, we must give ourselves over to G-d’s will and identify with it.

There are tzaddikim, righteous men, whose commitment to G-dliness dominates their personality; every aspect of their being is permeated with G-dliness. Their thoughts and even their will and their pleasure reflect G-d’s.

This, however, is a rung which most people cannot attain. But the second level in which each person remains an independent entity although his deeds are not his own is within the reach of more individuals. For the mitzvos we perform are not human acts; they are G-dly, so a person who performs them selflessly expresses their inner G-dly power.

There are individuals at an even lower level; they are not concerned with the G-dly nature of the mitzvos they perform. Nevertheless, they perform mitzvos for even “the sinners of Israel are filled with mitzvos as a pomegranate is filled with seeds” and the consequences of the deeds they perform represent an expression of G-d’s will. Thus they also contribute toward the transformation of the world.

Regardless of the differences between individuals, all mankind possesses a fundamental commonalty: we are all G-d’s agents, charged with various dimensions of a shared mission. The setting in which each individual functions, the task he is given, and the intent with which he performs it may differ, but the goal is the same.

This is the message of Parshas Vayishlach : that every one of us is a shliach, an agent of G-d.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayishlach
“Changing Ourselves as We Change the World”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, pgs. 323-324;
Sefer HaSichos 5748, p. 138ff;
Sichos Simchas Torah, 5748

We are each an agent of God. We are sent. We run. We fall. We get up and run again.

Addendum: Rabbi Joshua posts a more conventional interpretation of this Torah reading at Yinon Blog.

Good Shabbos.

Wisdom’s Mystery

The author of the Likutei Yehudah, zt”l, recounted an inspiring Torah he heard from his grandfather, the illustrious Chidushei Harim, zt”l, “Every person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes. In the merit of this singular aspect we are afforded life and vitality from the Source of all life. But what we naturally believe gives God pleasure is often not the correct attribute. With our limited understanding, how can we possibly know what is truly important on high?

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Importance of Appreciation”
Bechoros 21

The mind that demands all things enter its realm will contain nothing. The mind that allows for knowledge beyond mind will contain everything.

Every theory has a premise, every explanation an assumption. Every wise person prefaces his pursuit of wisdom by acknowledging, “This I will not be able to explain. This will remain in wonder.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Conquest Through Surrender”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We strive to know God for in knowing God, we also know ourselves. To look into the mirror and to see our reflection as God sees us is beautiful and startling. A word of caution though: it is also dismaying, because as accomplished and learned as we may believe we are, in fact, we are “but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27). We know nothing. Realizing this puts us one step closer to the truth about ourselves and about us in God but there is another truth that we find in both the Daf for Bechoros 21 and in Rabbi Freeman’s teaching. We find that we do not even know what truth is important and what knowledge to pursue. What we consider vital in our lives may, from a Heavenly perspective, be trivial, ridiculous, or even completely forbidden for us.

The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, found his son, Reb Leib, zt”l, learning Moreh Nevuchim a number of times, and on each occasion he reprimanded him. When the Chofetz Chaim eventually took the sefer away, Reb Leib protested. “But I don’t understand what the problem is! Don’t chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu came to belief in God through philosophical speculation?”

The Chofetz Chaim replied, “You cannot use Avraham Avinu as proof since he lived in a generation of idolaters and had to find his own way to true emunah. Rambam wrote his book for those already influenced by the non-Jewish philosophers. This is the reason for the name of the work, the Moreh Nevuchim—it is a guide for those who are already confused!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“One Type Finds its Match”
Bechoros 22

Here we discover that some sources of learned wisdom do not apply to everyone who wishes to gain knowledge of God. The experiences of Abraham for example, aren’t always appropriate for all other people because the circumstances are different. As Derek Leman points out on his blog:

The Torah contains a mixed set of laws dealing with different spheres of life. Some Torah laws were not perfect, they were accommodations to the broken world in which God called Israel…

Torah is interpreted in Judaism differently for the needs of each generation and even within a single generation, it is interpreted differently depending on the Jewish individual, their class, their responsibilities, and even where in the world they live. When applied outside of the Jewish context, Torah wisdom is substantially more difficult to comprehend and sometimes impossible to apply.

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.'” Since I seem to exist in a dual world, my “wisdom” is challenged daily in my attempt to know what is knowledge I can achieve and apply to my life, and what will always remain shrouded in mystery behind the veil of wonder. Whatever God does grant that I understand, arrives through that part of me that is open to Him.

Bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s literal meaning in Hebrew is “house.” It is the feminine aspect, as compared to aleph, which is male. Bet is the first letter of the first word in the Torah – Bereshit. (In the beginning…) Notice the shape, which is like a house. Meditate on its meaning. Imagine the world is a house.

Hebrew FireNotice that one side is open to G-d, and the remaining three are closed. In the same way, knowledge of the beginning is closed to us – it is unknowable. Bet is the second letter, corresponding to the second day of creation, when G-d divided the waters into two realms. Think about the two realms of consciousness – higher and lower.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Meditation on the Letter Bet” (pg 97)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

As human beings, we are encompassed by our mortal lives with only limited access to the infinite. Depending on who we are within the human realm and who we perceive ourselves to be, we limit ourselves even more. God provided a window in our otherwise closed and locked house through which we can see Him. Whatever He wants us to see is waiting for us when we are ready to look outside. The rest is in the mystery of the Ein Sof.