Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving Day

This is a little sooner than I thought it would happen but I've been pondering creating my "next-phase-of-life" blog, I read a quote this morning from Rabbi Freeman titled Morning Meditation and then suddenly, I was on creating my new blog.

Welcome to Morning Meditations.

I hate "hello world" first blog posts, so I replaced the generic WordPress "verbage" with a blog thanking God for His abundant faithfulness to me and to all of us.

Although I'm not formally leaving my congregation and the life it represents until June 18th, my transition is happening in stages. Moving from the blog you're on now to my new blog is one of those stages.

At first, my content on the new blog will probably be fairly close to what you're used to reading here, but eventually, as my transition progresses, those changes will be reflected in what I write. I've already changed the wording of the "about me" page at the new blog to illustrate my evolving perspective:
I’m just a guy humbly walking a path of faith and trying to understand my relationship with God. I’m a Christian husband married to a Jewish wife. Part of this blog has to do with the joys and challenges of being intermarried. A lot of this blog has to do with how a Christian can look through a Jewish lens and get a better perspective on life, love, and the God who made us all.
How things will look after a month or a few months or a year, I can't say. All I can say is that I'm slowly closing the door on one part of my life and at the same time, opening the door on another. That doesn't mean I'm closing the door on the people. I want you to come along. I want you to participate. If we are friends (and I really want my friends to continue to talk with me and share my experiences) or if you just consider me kind of interesting, please, follow me along the path and see what happens next.

I decided to leave the current blog up rather than deleting it. I won't post any new content here. This is the very last post for "Searching". However, there are quite a few blog posts that receive a lot of hits, so apparently folks out there are interested in some of the things I've written. As long as those stories are useful, then they should remain available.

Leaving this blog active does bother me a little, since I've changed since last July and some of the ideas and angst I expressed in my early writings no longer quite tell the tale about who I am. On the other hand, they are mileposts along the road, marking my progress from who I was to who I am becoming in faith, grace, and trust.

For those of you who are following this blog via blogger and for anyone who just peeks in occasionally or happens to surf in, if you're interested in what I'm going to be doing or how my journey is progressing, please bookmark Morning Meditations or put the URL in your favorite RSS reader.

Feel free to comment here on my last blog post if you like or better yet, comment on my Meditations blog, since that's where I'll be "living" from now on.

Thank you. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read what I've written. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time, the energy, the thoughtfulness, and the passion to comment about something I've chronicled. As a writer, what I put in a blog doesn't mean much unless someone reads it, though I do get some benefit from the writing. Of course, feedback is like gold, even if it's to say "I think what you said is totally wrong". I'm not here just to spew out thoughts and feelings, I'm here to communicate, interact, and learn.

Thanks most of all to God who is faithful and who has been with me, even when I've felt alone, traveling in the dark. May He continue to travel with me on my journey to draw closer to Him and may He be with you all.

When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.

Are you looking for me? Find me at Morning Meditations.

The Mysteries of Truth and Faith

There is no Truth without Faith. There is no Truth unless first there be a Faith on which it may be based.

-Milton Steinberg
As a Driven Leaf

The Torah was given to us in the barren, ownerless desert to emphasize that no man may claim any superior right to the word of G-d. It is equally the heritage of every Jew, man, woman, and child, equally accessible to the accomplished scholar and the most simple of Jews.

-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory
As related by Rabbi Yanki Tauber at

Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.

-Pirkei Avot 5:21

What is truth and where do you find it? I suppose the answer to that depends on the individual. In Yossi Halevi's book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, we learn that holiness can be found in many unexpected places. It was certainly surprising to Halevi, the son of Holocaust survivors and an Israeli (he made Aliyah from New York in 1982) journalist to find holiness equally displayed among Muslim sages and Christian monks. Each of us, in our own way, searches for the Divine, some by gazing into the cosmos and others by searching the core of our souls.

I am seeking the part of God that dwells in me. Each person is created in the image of God and encapsulates a mystic spark from beyond the limits of Creation. It's as if that spark is continually trying to return to its Source. Jewish mystics believe that when we die, the animal or earthly part of our souls dies with us but the spark of the Divine flies upward and rejoins God.

Milton Steinberg says that we can find no truth unless it is based on faith. This crashes head-on into the typical secular understanding of "truth" based on facts and the belief that faith is irrelevant (or at least unspoken), but there can be no relationship with God without faith. Only God holds the truth of our existence in His hands.

When Rabbi Schneerson says that the Torah was given to us in the barren, ownerless desert to emphasize that no man may claim any superior right to the word of G-d, he is specifically speaking of the Jewish nation and that the Torah belongs equally to the Prince and the pauper; to the Priest and the woodcutter, yet it is also said:
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
-Isaiah 2:3

Listen to me, my people;
hear me, my nation:
Instruction will go out from me;
my justice will become a light to the nations.
-Isaiah 51:4
If we can believe the words of God as related through the prophet Isaiah, then we can add another meaning to Rabbi Schneerson's comments and say that the giving of the Torah in the desert may apply also to all of humanity. I'm not contradicting my position on how the Torah applies in a different manner to the Jew and the non-Jew, but I am saying that God is One and His Word is One. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He is the God of Adam and Noah, too. He is the God of the Jewish Messiah, of the Apostle Paul, and of all the Jews and non-Jews to whom the Apostle taught the way of salvation and the path of Jesus.

How the Torah is applied to the Jewish people may seem obvious, depending on your viewpoint and tradition, but how the nations are supposed to understand the Torah as it "goes forth from Zion" isn't always clear. Certainly not all of you reading this blog will agree on how or perhaps even if the Law or any part of it is accessible to the non-Jewish nations:
Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company. -Pirkei Avot 5:17
While discussions between Jews and non-Jews over matters of Torah may not be accurately compared to the debates between Hillel and Shammai, I will be so bold as to say that our exchanges are still "for the sake of Heaven". While many Jews will agree that Hashem is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, they will apply the Noahide Laws as the obligation the nations are bound to in relation to God. Yet as I confirmed recently, from the teachings of the Jewish Messiah, we can allow the non-Jewish disciples to access more. How much more is a point of conjecture, but part of my personal journey is to pursue these questions and to attempt to live out the answers.

To paraphrase Ben Hei Hei, "it won't be easy".

Yet I don't believe my interest in the wisdom of the sages or the teachings of the man some have called "the Maggid of Nazeret" is the result of a random collision of interests. God is purposeful and His Creation is designed; nothing is truly irrelevant.
You ask me, “Why did G-d allow it to happen?”

You recognize that everything in this world has purpose and meaning. Examine any aspect of His vast Creation, from the cosmos to the workings of the atom, and you will see there must be a plan.

And so you ask, where does this fit into the plan?
How could it?

I can only answer, painfully, G-d alone knows.

But what I cannot know, I need not know.

I need not know in order to fulfill
that which my Creator has created me to do.

And that is, to change the world
so this could never happen again.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Tragic events, such as the horrible effects of the recent storms in the midwest, the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Japan, and the struggle to serve the needy in Haiti are all a part of God's plan that completely eludes us. We live in a broken world where people are scared and hurt and dying.

My modest seeking of God's "face", so to speak, from the writings of such men as Maimonides and Steinberg and Schneerson is just as much a part of God's plan, perhaps just as mysterious, and completely purposeful. I live a human life in a broken world, but I'm seeking the means by which I can repair my small corner of it.

Soon, I will launch a new blog (I'll provide a link) and begin a new journey. I invite you all to join me.
"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought." -Matsuo Basho, Japanese poet

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Searching for Trust on an Empty Sea

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." -Matthew 6:25-29

Perhaps the most difficult middah to acquire is bitachon, real trust in Hashem that is expressed in action. The Mishnah Berurah writes that we recite the Torah portion detailing the arrival of the manna every day, “so that one should believe that all of his sustenance comes from Hashem’s providence. As the verse writes regarding the manna, ‘And the one who added did not gain, and the one who depleted did not lack.’”

from Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
The Thanksgiving Offering
Menachos 76

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called Getting in the Wheelbarrow, which pointed to the significant difference between having faith in God and having trust in God. Most religious people have the first but that is no promise that they practice the second.

After a journey that ultimately started two years ago and particularly ramped up last year, I have finally tendered my formal resignation from the congregation where I've worshiped and taught for over five years. I previously mentioned my intention to do so and explained my reasons a number of times on this blog, including in the post A Far, Far Better Thing. That intention is now a reality. My last day in my current worship group is on Shabbat, June the 18th. After that, I will be "unaffiliated", at least in terms of a specific group membership.

What does this mean? My congregation (soon not to be "mine") were relieved when I told them that I was not abandoning my faith in Jesus. I think they assumed I would automatically transition into worshiping with my wife every week in synagogue on Shabbat. The latter isn't true, at least in the short run, and I have no idea what's going to happen next. On the one hand, I could be acting foolishly as a sort of "bird in the hand vs. two in the bush" example. On the other hand, I could be learning to trust God.

Trusting God isn't easy. Don't believe me? Read the rest of "The Thanksgiving Offering" from the Daf for Menachos 76:
Yet the Zohar uses the manna as a paradigm of an even higher level of bitachon - the person who is so aware that everything he has is from Hashem that he doesn’t keep food in his possession from one day to the next. It is well known that the Baal Shem Tov, zy”a, never kept any extra money in his possession overnight. He would give it all away to the poor on the day that it came to his hands, relying on Hashem that he would have enough for the next day. Although this is a very great level, the Meorah Shel Torah writes that there was a time when a similar level was demanded of one who brings a sacrifice.

He wrote, “We may wonder why the breads of the korban todah may not be left over to be eaten the next day. One who brings a thanksgiving offering must be emotionally moved to closeness to Hashem since the todah is an admission of His amazing providence. One who truly appreciates that Hashem has made a miracle for him must redouble his bitachon. It is not appropriate to leave over from this sacrifice because this shows a lack of faith that Hashem will provide for him the next day. This is forbidden; holding over the todah breads is a demonstration of a lack of bitachon that contradicts the very meaning of the offering and blemishes it.”
Now pause a moment and before reading on. Go and check your refrigerators and pantries to see how they're stocked for food (assuming you're at home). Now open your wallets to make sure your credit and debit cards are still there. Unless you're an unusual person (or someone who doesn't live in a "developed" country), chances are you have food to spare and there is an abundant amount of "plastic" in your wallet.

Does this mean you don't trust God for all of your needs? Probably not. Most of us would consider it foolish to live from day-to-day and from hand-to-mouth without having some reserves. Most of us wouldn't be considered wise unless we maintained some sort of savings account or investments to meet our future needs. So does this mean the statement, "the most difficult middah to acquire is bitachon, real trust in Hashem that is expressed in action" is correct?


I'm working on trusting God. I don't know what's going to happen next. I don't even have a plan about what I want to happen next, at least not a really firm plan. I'm like a man who has stepped off of a ship at sea wearing a life vest and who then casts himself away from the ship, leaving everything behind. All I have is the ocean, the life vest, and myself.

And God.

Of course, I still have my wife, my children, my home, my job, and a bunch of other stuff, so it's not like I'm absolutely isolated, but for the first time in a long time, I'll be functioning without a faith community. I am trusting that God will see my need, that He will see and understand what I did and why I did it, and that He will act upon my decision because He realizes that I'm trying to do the right thing (using what is most likely flawed human reasoning).

What will God do now? I don't know. I have faith that God is there and that He hears me. I have trust that God will respond to me and take care of me. Until He acts, like Jonah, I'm adrift at sea and waiting for a miracle.

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Anointed One Hanging on a Yod

Our Hebrew Bibles represent the Massoretic Text (MT), a traditional rabbinic text deriving from certain scholarly families who lived in the Galilee, in Tiberius on the shores of Lake Galilee, from the sixth to the tenth centuries CE. The oldest extant codices of their traditions are the Aleppo Codex (ca. 930 CE) and Codex Leningradenisis (1008 CE).

To step from the tenth or early eleventh centuries CE back to the first or even second centuries BCE is truly amazing. Among this astounding discovery are some twenty-one partial copies or fragments of the book of the prophet Isaiah, as well as a scroll of the entire book, called the Great Isaiah Scroll or 1QIsa. 1QIsa denotes Cave One near Qumran and the first manuscript of the book of Isaiah that was found.

from Isaiah's Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll
by Steven P. Lancaster and James M. Monson
for Messiah Journal 107

The discovery of what we refer to as the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 near the ruins of Qumran has revolutionized our thinking about the Bible we have today and even now is rewriting our understanding of many things including God and the "suffering servant" in Isaiah. While Christianity believes Isaiah's suffering servant was the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, modern Jewish thought considers this servant to be all of Israel. For the purposes of this review, we will be assuming the traditional Christian understanding, though other material in this issue of Messiah Journal addresses the Jewish understanding.

Throughout this special supplement to First Fruits of Zion's (FFOZ's) Messiah Journal, Lancaster and Monson present a detailed analysis and comparison between the Massoretic texts (MT), which form the current basis of our Old Testament (Tanakh) including the Book of Isaiah, and the equivalent material found in 1QIsa, known otherwise for our purposes as "the scroll".

I'm not quite halfway through the 65 pages of the supplement which is comprised of a series of articles that make up this analysis, but in general, what I am getting from this presentation thus far is a new understanding of the "servant" not as "suffering", but as "the Appointed One". You see, in some ways, it all hangs on a yod.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. -Matthew 5:18 (ASV)

One jot - The word "jot," or yod (' y), is the name of the Hebrew letter I, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. -Barnes' Notes on the Bible
The significance of the Hebrew letter "yod" as it applies to this blog post will become apparent in a bit. For now, let's compare the common translation of Isaiah 52:14 which we get from MT to the same phrase found in 1QIsa 44:2:
So His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men.
This is where we get our picture of Jesus as the "suffering servant". I don't mean to say that he didn't suffer. We know he certainly did. But are we reading what Isaiah actually intended to say? Remember, we're working from the oldest existing text which is from the late tenth or early eleventh century C.E. In the world of Bible scholars, older is considered better or more accurate when working with source material, and 1QIsa dates back to before the birth of Christ. Was Isaiah's intent to communicate the disfigurement or repugnant appearance of the "servant"?

Here's the 1QIsa 44:2 rendition:
It is certain! I have appointed! -from a man his appearance, -and his figure from the sons of "the Adam".
What changed?

This isn't just a different translation of the same text. The actual Hebrew (OK, the Great Isaiah Scroll was written in the square, Aramaic script) is subtly different. However those small changes result in a significant shifting of meaning.
Scholars debate the MT form above (without the yod), but most claim that this unique occurrence is a noun based on the root shachat ("go to ruin") and means "disfigurement" or "being marred." For many this reading sets the tone of much of the song, focusing on how repugnant the servant appears, but doing so forces incorrect interpretations throughout. On the other hand, the additional yod points to a well-known verbal form from the root mashach ("to anoint with oil"). The verb appears in the "perfect" aspect, often interpreted as a completed action.

In short, the small yod solves the difficulty encountered in the MT and makes the passage read, "I anointed with oil."
Our "disfigured" or "suffering" servant becomes a servant "anointed with oil" "for a specific task which he will achieve with great wisdom", as the article continues to read.

This not only presents a radically different picture of Isaiah's description of the Messiah, but it allows us to see how the 1QIsa version connects more completely with many of the Apostolic scriptures describing the Messiah, including the following:
Prophets searched diligently and inquired about this salvation, the very ones who prophesied about this grace for you were inquiring about whom or what time the spirit of the Anointed One within them was indicating when he predicted the suffering of the Anointed One and the glory after these things. It was revealed to them that they did not serve themselves but you. -1 Peter 1:10-12 (translation by the article's author)
This review cannot do justice to even the single article from which I'm working, let alone the entire Messiah Journal supplement on the Great Isaiah Scroll, but I hope I have whetted your appetite for more. Messiah Journal issue 107 will become available soon. I encourage you to have a closer look at this, and the other materials it contains. You never know when your whole understanding of the Jewish Messiah may be turned to a different direction by virtue of a simple yod.

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Radiating God

Though the prophets, the greatest of whom was Moses, achieved a superior understanding of God, this understanding does not concern God as He is in Himself but His consequences or effects. In the Middle Ages, philosophers like Maimonides claimed that God's consequences or effects emanate from Him. It is as if God were like an eternal and inexhaustible source of light whose energy is so vast that it nourishes and illuminates everything around us. But even the best scientific theories cannot explain how that light is generated. All we know is that the light makes it possible everything we see and do. On the other hand, the light is so brilliant that no person can look at it directly.

Kenneth Seeskin
from Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” -Exodus 33:18-20

I don't believe in philosophy. I believe in ideas that change people.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
"Real Ideas"

Rambam (Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides) was a superb philosopher and theologian and his writings are considered classic among Jewish scholars and lay people to this very day. I recently reviewed Seeskin's book Maimonidies: A Guide for Today's Perplexed (and am posting the link here so you can be a little background about the topic of today's blog) and through Seeskin's book, gained a greater insight into how this amazing Jewish scholar perceived God.

Rambam, a consummate rationalist, did not believe people could experience God in any manner or fashion but rather, thought we could only experience the results or effects of God. This is like saying that a person cannot look at a solar eclipse with the unaided eye but instead, must use a device to see an approximation of the effects. I also previously used the analogy of experiencing a fire by the effects or results, such as ash and smoke, rather than knowing the fire as it truly is.

We see in the above-quote from Exodus 33, that Moses "knew" or "experienced" God as the Divine Presence or the Shekhinah, God's manifestation in our universe, in a manner as close as possible to experiencing God's effects without actually experiencing God (seeing His "face"). But what did God "emanate" or "radiate" that Moses could "see"?

What did Jesus radiate?

I know that making a comparison between Seeskin's description of Rambam's understanding of experiencing the "effects" of God and the life of Jesus may seem like quite a conceptual leap, but stay with me here because I think the connection exists:
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”

Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
-Luke 8:43-48
Look at one small bit of this narrative recorded in verse 46:
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”
We generally think that when Jesus performed a healing or a miracle, there had to be some sort of intent on his part. That is, he had to want to perform a miracle and had to have an intention as to what form the miracle would take. However we see in the case of the "woman with the issue of blood", that Jesus had no intention of healing whatsoever and in fact, didn't even know about the woman until the moment when she touched the hem (tzitzit?) of his garment and "power went out of him" to heal the woman.

Maimonides believes that we can only observe and benefit from the effects of God as they radiate from Him. Here we see an example of a person benefiting from the effects of what "radiates" from Jesus. Neither effect necessarily requires a specific intent of the "radiator" and this brings up an incredibly interesting question.

Do we benefit from the good effects of God upon our lives because God intents good toward us or do we reap these benefits simply because God is good and what He radiates (unintentionally) is good?

If we answer "yes" to the latter, we have to answer an additional question such as we see illustrated in the following:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. -Genesis 50:20

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. -Jeremiah 29:11-12
Here we see that not only does God specifically intend to do good but that good will result from our prayers to God for aid and assistance. The Master said the same thing:
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” -Luke 11:11-13
Maimonides still doesn't have to be wrong here. God can intend to "radiate" what he radiates and direct His actions along intended lines. But how does this explain what we read in Luke 8:43-48? Of course, if you discount that Jesus and God have to be identical in the "mechanics" of how they "work", then you don't have to explain it, but when I was reading Seeskin's description of how Maimonides viewed God, the comparison between God and Jesus seemed a natural one.

There may be one other factor though. Let's go back to Luke 8 for a moment and specifically verse 48:
Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Jesus said something like this on more than one occasion. He didn't say I have healed you. He said your faith has healed you, even under circumstances where Jesus was aware of the person's request to be healed and he intended to heal them (in Matthew 12:13, he heals the withered hand of a man who hadn't asked to be healed, but presumably the man wanted his hand healed and, in the larger context of the event, the man knew Jesus was discussing healing on the Shabbat with the Pharisees).

God can do good for us even if we don't ask Him (and even if we are not aware of Him), but we know that He will respond to us (though not always as we imagine) when we ask. Yet perhaps an effect of God is that He radiates His goodness throughout Creation so that we experience His benefits, just as the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). There's no reason why God can't specifically intend to do good to a person and then that good happens and that God's very existence causes beneficial effects within His creation that we experience. There's also no reason why Jesus, during his time on earth, couldn't have intended to do good to others, but that his very nature, being a Divine representation of God's on earth, couldn't also have affected his environment, even to the point of healing a woman who touched his garment and who had faith that she would be healed.

At the beginning of this blog post, I quoted Rabbi Freeman when he said, I don't believe in philosophy. I believe in ideas that change people. This seems to draw a distinction between thinking and philosophy as represented by Maimonides, and a specific intent or set of ideas that result in a demonstrable change in human beings, but there may be no difference. We tend to get a picture of Maimonides as a cold, unfeeling thinker who spent his life in an ivory tower pondering arcane thoughts about God and the Torah, but he was also a physician who healed people and who advocated for justice, kindness, and mercy. In the case of the Rambam, his thoughts, feelings, and actions were all connected to living out the life God designed him to live. There was intention of both God and Maimonides and there were observable effects of the existence of both.

I do believe, like Maimonides, that we cannot experience or observe the totality of God as He exists objectively in what mystics describe as the Ayn Sof (although some people may have mystically encountered more of God's nature than we can within the limits of Creation), but I do believe that God has an intention for us and that He demonstrates that intention on an ongoing basis in ways we can experience. I also believe that people can benefit from God's existence and intentions, both the righteous and unrighteous, but the righteous in their awareness of God through faith and trust, can struggle to draw nearer to God and to do His will and reap additional blessings. This doesn't mean that we have more money, or trouble-free lives, or are smarter and wiser than other people, but it does mean we can be deliberately aware of God and what He is doing in the world and as a result, we can be a part of what He is doing. We can have faith and learn to trust God as we "see" what He does and more over, we can be a reflection of what He "emanates" in what we say and do and in some small way, we can show the rest of the world our how we experience a real and living God.

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Small Chasidic Insights into God

Why has God created the world and mankind, and for what purpose? Why has the soul descended into the body? (The preexistence of the soul was assumed in Chasidism.) Is there a more ideal world than the divine world in which the soul previously existed? Is there a greater joy than when man rejoices in God?

-Paul Philip Levertoff
as published in "The Love of God"
Messiah Journal issue 107

I previously reviewed Love and the Messianic Age written by early 20th century Chasidic sage Paul Philip Levertoff and as I am sure you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Levertoff's insights into the teachings of the Jewish Messiah as written in the Gospels and filtered through Chasidic mysticism are fascinating. I am pleased that Vine of David is publishing installments of Levertoff's classic study Die religiose Denkweise der Chassidim (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs 1918) translated into English.

However, a plain reading of Levertoff isn't always sufficient to comprehend the underlying concepts and history swimming below the surface of his text. In the footnotes to this very brief section of Chapter 1 of Levertoff's work, we discover several things that might not be apparent, including the association between the "birth pangs of the Messiah" (Matthew 24:8), the present age being like a pregnancy, the unborn child being like the "congregation of God", and the Messianic Age being the day of the child's birth.

We also get a glimse in the footnotes, of "Moses the Mystic":
The Prophet Isaiah saw God, when he was being ordained as a prophet (Isaiah 6), yet only according to his revelation of himself in the creation, but not in his true essence (how God actually is in himself, independent of his creation). Only Moses had a vision of God's essence.
We don't normally think of Moses in mystic terms, but he did see God in His "glory" in a manner no other man has beheld (Exodus 33:12-23). Also, in the mystic view of the Chasidim, we see that God's greatest ability is His being able to lower Himself to the level of a human being. This is no more evident than in the projection of the Divine Presence into the existence of the Jewish Messiah among men (John 1:1-18).

This brief taste of Levertoff and the equally fascinating footnotes accompanying the article, are only one small sample of the spring issue of First Fruits of Zion's (FFOZ's) Messiah Journal.

Over the course of the next week or two, I'll post other reviews and comments about Messiah Journal, which includes a special supplement on Isaiah's Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll. I've read everything in the current issue except the special supplement and I haven't been disappointed yet.

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Bridge Between Heaven and Earth

In Pesachim, Rashi points out that the opinion of R’ Meir and R’ Yehuda is that the people of Yericho did not pause during Shema, meaning that they did not allow a break between the end of the sentence of Shema (the word "va-ed") and the beginning of the paragraph of V'a-hav-ta. The halacha is that one must pause at this point, in order to allow a break between the first sentence, which is one’s acceptance of the yoke of heaven, and the next paragraph, which is one’s acceptance of the yoke of mitzvos.

from Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight: "Improper reading of the Shema"
Menachos 71

Some would like to be like the sun, aloof from this world. Whatever material matters they accomplish during their stay occur as if by chance, with no real involvement of their own.

Others become entirely wrapped up in all the fetters and chains of life. They suffer its scars and bruises, delight in its offerings, thirst for its rewards and tremble at its pain.

True tzaddikim emulate their Creator. To them, every detail of life has meaning and purpose - every step is a decision, every move is deliberate. And yet, they remain above it all.

What is their secret?

They remember they are not the body, but the soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
"Better Than the Sun"

I know the two quotes from above might not seem connected, but bear with me, their association will become apparent.

I was talking with my wife this morning before I left for work. Like me, she appreciates the writings of Rabbi Freeman at and we both gain illumination from his insights as we receive them in our email inboxes each day.

We were talking about the differences between Christian and Jewish viewpoints concerning the purpose of human beings and why we are here. Often, I encounter Christians who are very future-oriented and who can't wait to "go home to Jesus". By contrast, Judaism produces almost nothing in terms of commentary regarding the World to Come and I've never heard an observant Jew say that they can't wait for the arrival of the World to Come.

What's the difference? Weren't we born for a reason? Is our life on earth a meaningless prelude to a heavenly joy? If what we do here doesn't matter, why didn't God just "cut to the chase" and create our existence in Heaven immediately?

I know I'm being unfair. There are a great many Christians who dedicate their lives to the service and well-being of others, yet this doesn't always seem to be the emphasis of the church or the "average" Christian. It seems like, as Rabbi Freeman writes, some folks "would like to be like the sun, aloof from this world. Whatever material matters they accomplish during their stay occur as if by chance, with no real involvement of their own". Christians say they want to become more like Jesus which is very much in line with Freeman's statement that true "tzaddikim emulate their Creator". Yet if "every detail of life has meaning and purpose - every step is a decision, every move is deliberate", then the "fruit" of every Christian in the here-and-now should be sweet.

Is it always?

In my previous quote from the Daf, the commentary describes a pause between the formal Shema and V'ahavta which signifies the transition between accepting the "yoke of heaven" and accepting the "yoke of mitzvos" or the commandments. The Master put it like this:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” -Mark 12:29-30
As human beings, we act as a "bridge" between heaven and earth. We perceive the will of God for through our faith and trust in the Creator and then we act out that will in the world with our minds and our hearts and our hands. Our service to God is not just in the contemplation or Him and not just in the doing good to others, it is in the marriage of one to the other. In the "Stories off the Daf" commentary for Menachos 71, The Shem MiShmuel, zt"l offers this analysis:
“To explain, we must first understand that every human being is a microcosm, as we find in the Midrash. Our heads parallel the upper world while our bodies mirror the lower world. One’s intellect alludes to the sun, while his heart is like the moon which receives its light from the sun. Like the sun, one’s intellect should be used to illuminate proper conduct. His heart should only desire that which his intellect knows is fitting.

“It is impossible to be a whole person without these two faculties working in concert. If the intellect knows what is good but the heart is drawn in the opposite direction, it would be better for him not to have intellect at all. In Mishlei we find that such a person is compared to a pig with a golden nose ring - a valuable adornment graces an unworthy object. The same is true when the heart follows the directives of the mind when that mind is crooked. This is why in ancient times people clung to idolatry. Their hearts followed their intellects, but their minds confused light for darkness and darkness for light. This is worse than those whose intellect is straight but their hearts do not follow its directives.”

The Shem MiShmuel then explained the connection with the practice of the people of Yericho. “The first verse of Shema straightens the intellect, since the very word Shema means to listen carefully and understand. V’ahavta clearly refers to the heart, as the verse continues, ‘…upon your heart.’ The people of Yericho didn’t pause at the juncture in order to deepen their awareness that the heart must follow after the well-guided mind. The sages, on the other hand, would pause to remind themselves that without toil it is easy to disconnect the heart from the intellect.

He concluded, “Although the way of Chazal was more correct, the sages did not protest against the practice of the people of Yericho because, in essence, their meaning was the same.”
The key to this teaching, at least as far as I see it, is captured with these two phrases:
Our heads parallel the upper world while our bodies mirror the lower world. One’s intellect alludes to the sun, while his heart is like the moon which receives its light from the sun. Like the sun, one’s intellect should be used to illuminate proper conduct. His heart should only desire that which his intellect knows is fitting.

The first verse of Shema straightens the intellect, since the very word Shema means to listen carefully and understand. V’ahavta clearly refers to the heart, as the verse continues, ‘…upon your heart.’
This is what warms me when I hear the Shema and perhaps why reciting the Shema is required of every Jew twice daily. It reminds us of who we are in the here-and-now and how we are to set our purpose in life. We're not here just to sit around and wait for the bus to Heaven. We are to emulate our Master as worthy disciples and to do the will of our Father in Heaven with every living moment of our existence. This is why we were born and why God "chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless" (Ephesians 1:4).

I recently quoted from the Prophet Micah, but it seems a fitting way to end today's blog post:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
-Micah 6:8
Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Yaakov would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world. -Pirkei Avot 4:17