God and the World

In this installment of short blogs that highlight 18 special ideas of great Jewish thinkers, we will turn to the magnificent 19th century scholar/rabbi, Solomon Schechter. His classic Aspects of Rabbinic Theology can be roughly divided into three parts: God and the World; God’s Instruction; and Holiness, Sin, Repentance, and Return.

Here, in less than 850 words, we’ll see how Schechter answers questions (though not in the gender-neutral terms we now prefer) that matter a lot to us with respect to the subject of God and the World. How can the distant God of the heavens also be a God intimate with us in the world? What’s the nature of our relationship with the Divine? What is the Kingdom God seeks to create, and what’s our role in it?

GOD IN THE WORLD

 1. How puzzling and wonderful it is that the God who some say is far off, King of the Universe, Father in heaven, “too high for the mind,” is also “a personal God” who is “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows” (Psalm 78), a God who is “near in every kind of nearness.” Jer. Berachot 13a

 2. “God was at one and the same time above, beyond, and within the world, its soul and its life.”

GOD AND THE PEOPLE

3. “The intimacy of relationship is reciprocal.” “God needs us even as we need Him.”

4. “The recognition of…fatherhood is all that God wants from Israel.” “Israel loves Him and loves His house…and so does the Holy One, blessed be He, love them.” “He wants to hear Israel’s voice…and is anxious for them to listen unto His voice.”

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

5. “God is king and hence claiming authority; the king is God, and therefore the manifestation and assertion of this authority are the subject of people’s prayers and solicitations.”

6. “The invisible kingdom is mainly spiritual, expressive of a certain attitude of mind…” in which one desires “to receive upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”

7. Central is the love of God. “It is the man with such a purpose (aiming towards bringing about the perfect unity to the exclusion of self) who is called the lover of God.”

8. Lovers of God “desire only to accomplish the will of God and to lead others to righteousness, to sanctify His name and to deliver up his soul for the sake of His love…”

9. “An anonymous author…says ‘those who believe that works are the main thing are mistaken. The most important matter is the heart. Works and words are only intended as preparatory actions to the devotion of the heart. The essence of all the commandments is to love God with all the heart…’”

10. “The Rabbis often speak of the reward awaiting the righteous after their death of consisting …in reveling in the divine glory…But such a vision…is wisely confined to the next world…In this world, “the world of activity,” the righteous have no such peace; they have to labor and to suffer with their fellow-creatures.”

11. When God teaches that “these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6), the Divine means that we should “place these words upon thy heart, for through them thou wilt learn to know the Holy One, blessed be He, and cleave unto His ways.” Sifre, 74a. “And these ways, as we will see, concern this world.”

12. “The best control is thus to work towards establishing the visible kingdom of God in the present world. This (is) the highest goal religion can strive to reach.”

THE UNIVERSALITY OF GOD’S KINGDOM

13. “God wants to reign over free agents, and it is their obedience he desires to obtain.”

14. Before Abraham, God had only been…king of the heavens, but since Abraham, “he has become also the God and King of the earth.” After the patriarchs, “his kingdom became based on mankind’s knowledge of Him, and their realization of His nearness.”

15. …”the kingdom of God is in this world.” “…nearness of God to man means the knowledge of God’s ways to do righteousness and judgment.”

“In other words, it is the sense of duty and responsibility to the heavenly king who is concerned in and superintends our actions.”

16. “…you are my lovers and friends when you walk in My ways…As the Omnipresent is merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness, so ye be…feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, ransoming the captives, and marrying the orphans.”

17. “If… the essence of their preaching was righteousness and justice, and…if the kingdom does not mean a hierarchy, but any form of government conducted on the principles of righteousness, holiness, justice, and charitableness, then we may safely maintain that the kingdom of God…is universal in its aims.”

18. This is the promise the prophet made for the future: “And all the children of flesh will call upon thy name…” “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.”

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The Fruit of Tending a Tree

“Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, as one who keeps his master will be honored.” Proverbs 27:18

I love this analogy.

While I haven’t done it much in my life, I do know a bit about what it is like to tend to a fruit-bearing tree. There’s the planting, the proper watering, the needed pruning and cutting, the guarding and protecting from harm, and, of course, the timely cultivation. For the most part, the yield of such good tending, as was the case with the wonderful peach tree in the backyard of my childhood home, is fresh and delicious fruit.

Before we go any further, though, let’s recognize that tending to a fruit tree is itself a metaphor. This could be tending to one’s work and doing it well. Or it could be performing a charity assignment with diligence and effectiveness. In these and other such activities of life, we’re given the delight and enjoyment of stewardship.

So, now that we have both the work and the benefit of “tending a tree” firmly in our minds, let’s ask: what’s the proverb’s analogue, and what does it mean?

We’re taught to keep one’s master as one tends to the tree, and that doing so brings honor. Who’s the master, and what’s the keeping?

While a master could surely be a superior at work, I think first of fine teachers. Do we select them carefully and give them a prominent place in our lives?  Do we listen to and learn from them? Do we engage, perhaps even argue constructively, with them, and honor them and what they teach? Do we protect and keep them and their teachings in our hearts and minds as we go through life?

If we do, it could be said that we benefit from their “fruit” and are honored.

I also see as a “master” those fundamental principles that guide the conduct of our lives. This could be Divine guidance in the Bible. It could be the principles that characterize the best of American traditions. It could be the best standards of our culture – in its art, its ethics, and so forth. When we live by and keep to these principles, we share in the ongoing “fruit of the tree,” and are honored.

I certainly see God as Master. When we keep to God’s ways, I have faith that God blesses us.

Finally, I believe we have a “master” in the duties we bear. Don’t we feel a deep and abiding sense of honor when we serve, as a matter of duty, to fulfill our most vital obligations? I certainly felt honor when I lived out to the best of my ability a son’s duty during my mother’s final days of life.

Speaking of honor, I want to close with an insight that may fascinate you. The Hebrew root word that is translated as honor is kavod. This word does mean honor, but it also means burden.

It is indeed a burden to do the hard work of tending to a tree, as it is to serving those people and values we hold dear. Yet, in bearing this burden, we are also honored with peace and contentment, its sweetest fruit.

Handling the Most Important Work of Our Lives

“Iron yahad to iron; so a man yahad with the penai of his fellow.” Proverbs 27:17

I know. You must be asking: what the heck is he doing with the words of the verse? Two non-English words are used and italicized. Why? What does it mean?

Here’s the story. The Hebrew word, yahad, has several different meanings. And the use of each gives the proverb an entirely different meaning. To add to the complexity, this is also true with the Hebrew word, penai. The really cool part is that each resulting meaning is wonderful and has great value. In my view, this aspect of Proverbs – the capacity of certain verses to have many but different meanings – is one of the Book’s greatest attractions.

Let’s see how.

One meaning of yahad is “joins” or is “together.” So, we learn that just as iron joins to iron, a person joins with the face of his/her fellow.

We see this powerful idea expressed in many places throughout the Bible.

God meets Moses panim el panim, face to face. In other words, Moses sees the Divine attributes, and God sees in Moses human ways and capacities. Through this encounter, we find the essential basis for relationship.

Isn’t this true as well when we encounter each other? One could say that Jacob encountered both God and Esau in this way on that fateful day of wrestling. Looking into the face of another is indeed like looking into the face of God.

It is this relational reality, I think, that forms the basis of Martin Buber’s magnificent thinking about I-Thou. We must live true to the ideal that we see and act toward each other, Subject to Subject, as if we are relating to the Divine in each other.

So, back to the proverb, just as appropriate as it is for iron to join with iron is our joining with the face of our fellows, through relating to each other, panim el panim.

However, other interpreters see yahad as rooted in chadad, that is, “sharpens.” Here, we would then have: just as iron sharpens iron (as a knife sharpens another knife), a person sharpens the face of his/her fellow.

Since face has also been interpreted as “wits,” this verse could be teaching us that just as iron can be used to sharpen iron, we can, through wisdom, sharpen each other’s wits to lead better lives, by, for example, living truer to God’s ethical expectations.

Or, as R’ Hirsch teaches, it could simply be that our thinking is sharpened through the exchange of thoughts with others. One who relies only on oneself is likely to formulate erroneous ideas or simply be stagnant in thought. Thus, we could be taught here that just as it is better to have a sharpened knife, it is better to have a mind that is sharpened by dialogue in study with others.

Let me tickle you with another possibility.

Some sages, looking at the use of the root word, chadad, in Habakkuk 1:8, see it as to be “fierce.” This may be especially interesting, given the fact that the “face” in Lamentations 4:16 appears angry. So, it could be: just as iron can make iron fiercer, a person’s anger can kindle the anger of his fellow. It is human nature to respond to anger with anger. (Meiri)

Wow. How do we wrap this up? Are we just to leave the study, sated but confused? Or, should we see the experience simply as having gotten five pieces of wisdom for the price of one?!

Or, based purely on the fact that we’ve been given the possibility of so many fine interpretations, is there a special gem we shouldn’t miss?

Perhaps it would be this: Just as we are to show great care in the many ways we handle powerful metals, we should be diligent in the diverse ways we face the most important work of our lives – handling our relationships with each other, and with God.

Do It Today!

“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you know not what a day may bring.” Proverbs 27:1

 

Let’s begin our exploration of this wisdom by first understanding what it does not mean.

It does not mean we shouldn’t plan for tomorrow. There is abundant, helpful advice in Proverbs about the importance of thinking out the consequences of what we do and acting in the right and best ways. We have seen time and time again in both these wisdom sayings and in our experience that, generally, we will be in a better place – now and in the future – if we plan and live virtuously.

But, as our proverb teaches, we are not guaranteed any certain kind of tomorrow, even in the wake of precise planning and effort. However promising our situation might be, we’re in no position to be so confident of a shining future that we can boast of it. Nor can we be so sure our worst fears will play out such that the morrow will turn out badly.

There may be a change of circumstances, caused by any of a number of factors, which can seriously re-direct the trajectory of our lives. Boasting with certainty about the morrow reveals a failure to appreciate this reality and an unwillingness to acknowledge all that can happen to upend our expectations. Further, acting like we possess God’s powers, we may allot ourselves the capacity of premonition, which is not ours to do.

Rather, the attitude that the Book of Proverbs encourages is the approach of the woman of valor. “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” Proverbs 31:25. In other words, she prepares fully and beautifully for the future, but she is ready, with humility, grace, and faith in God, for whatever may come her way.

Isn’t it true, too, that many of tomorrow’s tasks can best be addressed tomorrow? We want to be prepared, yes, but much of what we encounter will require a new look and a fresh approach. Being too sure of tomorrow may deter us from giving its challenges the apt and effective attention that they warrant.

Yet, I think there is a deeper lesson in today’s verse. When we refuse to bow down to the speculation and false certainty of tomorrow, we receive a remarkable gift. And that gift is the readiness to give this day – today – its proper due by allowing us to live fully within the moment.

If we have important work or study ahead of us, we should avoid postponing it, and instead do it today. If we want to fulfill a promise or a vow, we should do it now. If we want to provide charity and help others, we should do it now.

If we have a confession to make and repair and repentance to do, we should begin it today. It may be too late tomorrow. Maybe most important, if we feel love that should be declared, we should do it today.

Bringing Joy Into Our Faith Lives

On chabad.org, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes about the joyous teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the great 18th century mystical rabbi who is considered the founder of the Hasidic Movement.

 For this installment of short, accessible blogs on the wisdom of great Jewish sages, here’s an abridged version of Freeman’s account of these magnificent teachings.

 Should you want to to read the full article, it is here:

 https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1391822/jewish/18-Joyous-Teachings.htm

 

One: Trust and Celebrate

Envision that the Creator, whose glory fills the earth, He and His presence are continually with you…

Rejoice constantly. Ponder and believe with complete faith that the Divine Presence is with you and protecting you… —Tzava’at Harivash 137

Two: Sincerity and Joy

Above all, always ensure that you serve your Creator with no ulterior motives…Stay far away from depression. Let your heart rejoice in G‑d. —Tzava’at Harivash 15

Three: Rescue By Celebration

By celebrating that G‑d will come to your rescue, you have already provided the remedy. —Keter Shem Tov, Appendix, #234.

Four: Joyous Studies

Study with energy and great joy. That will reduce disturbing thoughts. —Tzava’at Harivash 51

Five: Reverence and Happiness

Serve G‑d with reverence and with happiness. They are two companions, complementing one another… —Tzava’at Harivash 110.

Six: The Ultimate Reward

In the Teachings of the Fathers, we learn, “The reward of a mitzvah (living true to G-d’s expectation) is a mitzvah.” Meaning that there is no greater reward than the delight you get out of doing a mitzvah happily… —Keter Shem Tov 129.

Seven: 7. The Happy Ascetic

Let’s say a fantasy falls into your mind, a craving for something of this world. Take your mind far away from it. Despise this craving until it is hateful and repugnant to you. Enrage your urge for good against the urge for bad and against this craving, and conquer it in that way.

Celebrate that you are privileged to subdue your desires for the honor of the Creator, blessed be He! —Tzava’at Harivash 9.

Eight: Better Happy Than Strict

Don’t get carried away with excessive details in everything you do. This is your evil impulse working against you. —Tzava’at Harivash 46.

Nine: Better Smart Than Sad

Sometimes the evil impulse will deceive you, blaming you for a major transgression when really all you’ve done is neglect an extra detail, or perhaps not committed any transgression at all. Its intent? To make you miserable, and in your misery you will desist from serving your Creator.

…Be as wary of sadness as possible. —Tzava’at Harivash 44.

Ten: Bad Tears, Good Tears

Crying is very bad; one must serve G‑d with joy. The only exception is when you cry from joy and bonding with G‑d. Then it is very good. —Tzava’at Harivash 45.

Eleven: In All Ways

Serve G‑d, may He be blessed, with every facet of your being. Everything is for the sake of the One Above, for G‑d desires to be served in all ways… —Tzava’at Harivash 3.

 Twelve: Ask With Joy

Prayer with much joy is certainly better received by G‑d than prayer with sorrow and tears… —Tzava’at Harivash 107.

Thirteen: Gd In Your Words

When you pray, visualize that G‑d is invested within the letters of the prayers…

You see, words are clothing for thoughts. Put all your strength into those words, for this way you will attain oneness with Him… Since your energy is in your articulations of each letter, and in each letter G‑d dwells, in this way you have become one with Him. —Tzava’at Harivash 108.

Fourteen: Pray With Joy

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.” The word ark in Hebrew is teivah, which also means “a word.” A tzohar is something that shines. So the verse could mean, “Make each word you say shine.”…The words come out shining because you say them to provide pleasure to your Creator… —Tzava’at Harivash 75.

 Fifteen: The Two Jesters

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Beroka, who stood with Elijah the prophet in the market and asked, “Is there anyone here who belongs in the World to Come?” Elijah pointed out two brothers. So Rabbi Beroka ran after the two brothers and asked them what their business was.

They replied, “We are jesters. We make sad people laugh. And when we see two people in a quarrel, we use some humor to make peace between them.” —Keter Shem Tov 272.

Sixteen: Joy Sweetens Judgment

 …This is the power of love and joy: When they prevail, they cause anger and fury to ascend upward toward their root. This is part of the secret knowledge, that these forces of anger and strict judgment are mollified only when they reach their origin, since at its origin, all is pure goodness. It comes out that anger and fury are healed and mollified through love and joy. —Tzava’at Harivash 132.

Seventeen: Embracing Pain With Joy

The reason there is suffering and tribulation in this world is because the world was created through…a restriction of light that is called tzimtzum. These troubles are therefore like a body to the soul and to the spiritual life within them, restricting the expression of that light as the body restricts the soul.

When you accept that suffering with the spiritual energy of love and joy, you draw close, tie and bond the body to the soul—meaning the physical affliction to that inner spirituality—and in this way, the ordeal vanishes.

If…you do the opposite, you push the body away from that spiritual energy, causing yet greater restriction… —Keter Shem Tov 412; from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, p. 630b.

Eighteen: Medicine As Sweet As Honey

The Baal Shem Tov taught that in every word you speak, you should intend to subdue, distinguish and sweeten…

The key is to abandon sadness and embrace joy. Our master, R’ Nachman of Horodenka, told me about the dream he had…He was told that although there are many doctors who medicate their patients with bitter potions, yet the better doctor heals through medicine as sweet as honey…

…where even as you notice the faults of another, you realize that this is for your own self-improvement. This is healing as sweet as honey, awakening compassion for the world and for every person… —Keter Shem Tov 302; from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, p. 731b.

Words Can Be Treasured Jewels

“Apples of gold in engravings of silver: a word spoken in the right way. A ring of gold and an ornament of fine gold: a wise man giving a rebuke to a listening ear.” Proverbs 25:11-12

Do you recall hearing a word spoken in the right way?

Did you, perhaps young and idealistic, hear President Kennedy speak inspiring words of challenge in his inaugural address? For those who are older, do you remember President Roosevelt comforting a fearful nation with just a few well-spoken words that actually diminished the force of the fear itself? Or, did you hear President Reagan’s touching words of tribute and consolation after the terrible Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?

If you heard these words, you’ve experienced the richness of words spoken in the right way.

You may also be able to bring to mind a sense of the glory of words by remembering what was said in a marriage proposal, during moments of mourning, or at times of encouragement when down or in praise of a deed well done.

Even in the everyday, we can recall instances when a choice of words was so moving it actually changed the mind or turned the heart.

So, yes, a word spoken in the right way can be exceedingly valuable. But what’s the meaning of its comparison to apples of gold in engravings of silver?

Let’s consider eloquent responses from some of the great sages.

First, the comparison simply suggests something of real beauty. The setting of a golden apple against a background of silver is aesthetically pleasing. (Rashi)

The allusion indicates speech that is properly guarded, as golden apples are when encased within a silver sheath. (Ibn Ezra)

Just as the silver sheath allows the gold to shine forth, effective words express real meaning and help reveal true intent. (R’Hirsch)

Also, there’s the idea that the silver setting represents an introduction that compellingly attracts the interest of the listener/reader, and the golden apples are the wisdom of the message itself. (Alshich)

Thus, in verse 11, we learn a keen lesson. But, without verse 12, the more valuable teaching would be missed.

Let’s look at the metaphorical objects that are mentioned in verse 12. A golden ring and an ornament of fine gold would generally be more valued than golden apples engraved in silver because gold is more prized than silver. Thus, the words that are praised in the second verse are more valuable than those in the first.

Why?

Why might we treasure a rebuke from a wise person? While a rebuke might feel unpleasant for an instant, nothing compares in unhappiness to being off track and in the wrong. When we’re straying in unproductive and unworthy directions, there’s nothing better than for a loving and wise friend to speak words that steer us back to the right place.

As worthy as this wisdom is, it gets better. While the golden ring is likened to the rebuke, the ornament of fine gold is likened to the “listening ear.” A wise person’s words of rebuke are indeed valuable. But the two jewels together – a wise person’s rebuke and another person’s willingness to hear and heed it – are the most valuable of all.

What We Can’t Know, But What We Can Do

“It is the honor of God to conceal a matter; but it is the honor of kings to search out a matter. The heavens for height, the earth for depth, and the hearts of kings cannot be fathomed.” Proverbs 25:2-3

 

Wow. Theology, the nature of humanity and the world, and our purpose in life – all are sublimely addressed in a few verses of sacred text. This makes Bible study exciting and worthwhile, don’t you think?

Let’s search for meaning by progressing carefully through these verses.

The first notion is that God’s matters are generally cloaked from us in mystery. Though we often have a sense of God’s attributes and actions, we should be humble in our claims of theological certainty. As to the face and nature of God, God knows, and we don’t. As we learn from Deuteronomy 29:28, “the concealed things belong to the Lord our God.”

Importantly, however, that verse goes on to say “…but those things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever that we may do all the words that we’ve been instructed.” This wisdom is essential for our understanding the next idea in the proverb.

Before we go there, though, let’s clarify the identity of “kings.” Clearly, among other things, the word “kings” means kings. I think it means more. It likely refers as well to those who work in the king’s court. It also has been read to include rabbis who issue “edicts,” as do sovereigns. But, even more, I believe the word could and should be extended to all of us, all who live to extend God’s sovereignty in the world.

We are indeed the “kings” of our own lives. We seek and act on choices, and, thus, like a king, are rulers in our personal realms.

Thus, it is our honor, as the proverb says, “to search out a matter.” In Deuteronomy’s terms, this means we’re to search out God’s revelation so that we may do what we’ve been instructed.

In thinking about the proverb’s second verse, we know there is much we can learn and benefit from science. We can know a lot about the heavens and the earth, as well as the heart of man. But, we cannot reach to the end of those unfathomable territories. I take these limits principally to mean that, out of humility, we should avoid being enslaved by the idea, or governed by the ambition, that we can fully comprehend all such things.

So, where does this leave us?

We cannot know all God’s matters; nor can we really know the heart of others. Therefore, we should avoid excessive use of time, spirit, and resources in believing otherwise.

Rather, it is both our honor and burden to “search out matters” from divinely revealed words to live in accord with God’s Instruction, and, thus, make the world a more righteous, just, and equitable place.