Even the honest atheist will agree that a first cause, an original being, must have preceded the universe. This original cause or source is what so humbled Einstein, although he incorrectly described it as a religious experience. The questions of faith begin with how we understand this First Cause, its nature, and its relationship to us and to the universe.
The statement, “I believe there is a G‑d” is meaningless. Faith is not the ability to imagine that which does not exist. Faith is finding relevance in that which is transcendent. To believe in G‑d, then, means not that you’re of the opinion that He exists, but that you have found relevance in Him. When a person says “I believe in G‑d” what s/he really means is “G‑d is significant in my life”.
In discussing our relationship with G‑d, the question we first need to ask, is, Who cares? In what way is He relevant?
For some people, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the origins of existence. For others, G‑d is relevant because they are concerned with the afterlife, and faith is a prerequisite for getting to heaven. Finally, for others, G‑d is relevant because they believe that life has purpose.
In Judaism, particularly in Chassidism, the interest in G‑d comes from the conviction that life has meaning. The recurring question in Chassidic thought is: Why is a soul sent into the world to suffer in a physical body, for 80, 90 years? We know there is a purpose, that G‑d is the author of that purpose, and we want to know and understand it.
Chabad Chassidism teaches that the mind is the soul’s capacity to detect logic, the heart is the soul’s capacity to respond negatively or positively. The respective functions of the mind, heart and soul are often confused.
One who lives by his heart exclusively, trusts only what he feels. One who lives by his mind exclusively, trusts only what fits. But neither of these tells you the truth. The mind demands that logic be trusted, the heart demands that the emotions be trusted. Yet both can be mistaken. They do not reveal inherent truth. For that, we turn to the soul, the neshamah. Because the soul is a part of the Divine — and that is truth. When we have faith, when we find relevance in G‑d, we are trusting that instinct in the soul that tells us that G‑d is the purpose of life.
In pragmatic terms, the mind, the heart and the soul must each fulfill their function: when we know all that can be known, when we come to the edge of knowledge and logic itself tells us that we have reached its outer limits and it cannot handle what lies beyond this point, faith enters. Where the mind is no longer adequate, the soul responds to truth. This is faith.
This faith, this soul response, is necessary in the fulfillment of that category of mitzvot known as chukim, supra-rational laws, laws that do not subscribe to reason.
If someone has difficulties with these particular commandments, that is an indication that they may be relying on the mind and heart at the expense of their own capacity to react to truth — the expression of their soul. When a Jew fulfills a mitzvah before they’ve fully intellectualized it, they are allowing their neshamah to respond to truth.
It is an ability that often needs to be cultivated. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), recounts in his memoirs that as a small child, he once asked his father to explain to him why we follow a particular custom with regard to the saying of Modeh Ani upon waking in the morning. Instead of giving the answer, the Rebbe’s father led him to an elderly, simple Jew, and asked the Jew, “Why do you say Modeh Ani in this particular way?” To which the man responded, “Because that’s how my father taught me to do it.” The Rebbe’s father might have just as easily given him the rational reason for the custom. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to exercise his ability to respond with faith.
This is why in Chabad-Lubavitch it is our approach to invite a Jew — even one who claims not to believe — to do a mitzvah, before we engage them in a discussion on faith. Because in consideration of the existence of the soul, we can assume that we don’t have to convince people of life’s Divine purpose. We just have to get them started, and with each mitzvah they do, their neshama asserts itself more, and questions become answered of themselves. By way of analogy, if a woman’s maternal instinct appears to be absent, you don’t argue the philosophy of motherhood with her. Just put the baby in her lap and her maternal response will emerge.
The relevance we find in Him will differ from person to person. Being that He is everything, people will experience G‑d in every possible way. He is the G‑d of Abraham and Isaac, of Benevolence and Might. And it is also true, as G‑d says, “I am known according to my deeds.” Some will know Him as a rewarding G‑d, others as a G‑d who punishes, who provides, who saves, who enlightens, who inspires, and so on and on..
In the beginning, G‑d revealed Himself as the creator, master, king — all very impersonal roles. In Halachah (Torah law) G‑d reveals His laws, but doesn’t allow His “personal feelings” to show. Later, in the Kabbalah, G‑d makes Himself vulnerable; He shares intimate details. He is humanized in a two-way relationship. So the Halachist has great respect for the wisdom of the commandments, while the mystic sees G‑d as taking the mitzvot personally. When G‑d says, “don’t cut down fruit trees,” if we were sensitive we would not only hear a commandment, but we’d see something about G‑d. Kabbalah reveals that something. The halachot are the details; Kabbalah reads between the lines.
Kabbalah gives us a very different perspective on G‑d’s “anthropomorphic” behavior. It reminds us that Torah comes to teach us about G‑d, and that expressions such as “G‑d spoke,” “G‑d’s hand,” “G‑d’s anger,” need to be considered from Torah’s or G‑d’s perspective. We are not the reference point for G‑d’s behavior; G‑d should serve as a reference for our behavior. He created the world. Speech, hand, anger, jealousy — these are all His creations, these are all Divine rights. Our speech, our hand, our anger, our jealousy — these are only metaphors for the real thing, not the other way around. When we read that “G‑d raises His hand” and splits the sea, we need to measure our own hand against that. When we raise it, what happens? Nothing. We learn then that we are not quite as powerful as G‑d. When we read that G‑d gets angry and punishes because He created a world with a Divine purpose, and that purpose is frustrated, we ought to measure our own anger against that. What have we created? Nothing. We may not, therefore, get angry and punish as G‑d does. Considering G‑d’s anger and other attributes in this way brings us to a humbling recognition. Only when our anger or jealousy is an expression of moral indignation does it reflect true, Divine qualities. Only then, may we exercise such expressions. Whatever truth there is in anything in us, it is the extent to which we embody what it is He tells us about Himself.
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When a man and woman are together in a room, and the door closes, that is a sexual event. Not because of what is going to happen, but what has already happened. It may not be something to make novels of, but it is a sexual occurrence, because male and female is what sexuality used to be all about.
It is true that in our world today, in the “free world” certainly, people have, on the whole, stopped thinking in these terms. What happened was that we started putting up all these defenses, getting steeled, inured, against the constant exposure and stimulation of men and women sharing all sorts of activities—coeducational school, camps, gyms—is that we started blocking out groups of people. We can’t be as naturally sexual as G‑d created us to be. When a man says, “I have a woman friend, but we’re just friends, nothing more, I’m not attracted to her in any sexual way, she’s not my type,” you’ve got to ask yourself what is really going on here. Is this a disciplined person? Or is this a person who has died a little bit?
What does he mean, “She’s not my type?” When did all this “typing” come into existence? It’s all artificial. It’s not true to human sexuality. And it really isn’t even true in this particular context, because given a slight change of circumstance, you could very easily be attracted. After all, you are a male, she’s a female. How many times does a relationship begin that is casual, neighborly, and then suddenly becomes intimate? The great awakening of this boy and girl who are running around, doing all sorts of things, sharing all sorts of activities, and lo and behold, they realize—what drama, what drama—that they are attracted to each other. These are grownups, intelligent human beings, and it caught them by surprise. It’s kind of silly.
So, closing a door should be recognized as a sexual event. And you need to ask yourself: Are you prepared for this? Is it permissible? Is it proper? If not, leave the door open. Should men and women shake hands? Should it be seen as an intimate gesture? Should any physical contact that is friendly be considered intimate? Hopefully, it should.
These laws are not guarantees against sin. They have never completely prevented it. There are people who dress very modestly. They cover everything. They sin. It’s a little more cumbersome, but they manage. All these laws are not just there to lessen the possibility of someone doing something wrong. They also preserve sexuality—because human sexuality is what G‑d wants. He gave us these laws to preserve it, to enhance it—and make sure it’s focused to the right places and circumstances—not to stifle it.
We have become callous about our sexuality. Even in marriage, a kiss on the run cheapens it, makes it callous—then we run to the therapist for advice. And do you know what the therapist who charges $200 an hour for his advice says? He tells the couple not to touch each other for two weeks. Judaism tells you that, free of charge. Yes, there are two weeks each month during which a husband and wife don’t touch. This therapy has been around for 3000 years. And it still works. It’s a wonderful idea.
When you don’t close the door on yourself and that other person, you are recognizing your own sexuality. You are acknowledging the sexuality of the other person. Being modest, recognizing our borders, knowing where intimacy begins and not waiting until it is so intimate that we’re too far gone, is a very healthy way of living. It doesn’t change your lifestyle dramatically, but enhances it dramatically, and you come away more capable of relaxing, better able to be spontaneous, because you know that you can trust yourself. You’ve defined your borders. Now you can be free. It takes a load off your mind, and it makes you a much more lovable person.
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Some say that so much evil has been done in the name of religion, that religion is clearly dangerous to society. Looking back at history, one has to admit there is indeed a point in such criticism. Which begs the question: how is that possible? How can it be that any evil can come from religion, which ought to be about G-d and about morality?
In our times, people who murder in the name of religion are called terrorists, fanatics, and extremists. But these labels are misleading; using them confuses the discussion and will not help us get a handle on how to respond to the reality of their acts.
Is there really such a thing as a terrorist? Of course not, just ask around. Nobody will claim the name. Nobody raises their kid to be a terrorist; parents raise their children to believe and follow doctrine. It’s just that some grow up to be such fervent believers that they decide to use terror to “persuade” others of the truth of their faith. Their drive is their faith, the terrorism their tool.
Westerners, many of whom have only a superficial understanding of religion, seem completely baffled by such fervent belief. Extremists, they call them, as if to say, a small amount or a moderate amount of faith is acceptable, but believing too much, that’s extreme. Believe, but believe just a bit. More than that and you will come to evil. If we take moderation to mean restraint of passion, then the suggested standard is live a religious life that you don’t get so excited about. How tempting does that sound?
Does this make any sense? After all, what is wrong with being extreme? Nobody criticizes Mother Theresa for living her life the way she that did; her extreme example seems to be acceptable. A school fires a teacher because the teacher refused to call a little girl in the classroom by the boy’s name she had chosen and the same people who criticized religious extremism see nothing extreme about the firing. Clearly, one person’s extremism is to another nothing but the logical end of a cherished belief. After all, if one’s cause is just, why not be an extremist? If one knows something to be true and good, how can one have too much of it? How can good become too much good? On the other hand, a cause that is not just or true or good is not just or true or good even in moderation. A little bit of evil is still evil.
If someone’s beliefs lead him to commit evil acts, then there must be something in the belief that is itself false and the beginning of evil. This is true of communism, it’s true of criminal codes of behavior and it is also true of religious beliefs. In the case of religion, the most dangerous belief of all is, that if one is a truly devoted follower one will go to Heaven.
On the face of it, this sounds spiritual. It sounds noble. Truly religious. But really, it’s evil. At base, this belief belies the attitude that this world is not a great place to be, and that Heaven is going to be much better. So religions prescribe all manner of paths for escaping this world. Achieve nirvana, which is meditational escape. Choose a redemptive belief that will score you a good seat in Heaven. Or maybe, take down a large building and that will get you straight to Paradise.
It’s not that Jews don’t appreciate self-sacrifice; simply that our conception of it was never about spurning this world. The great examples of mesiras nefesh that we exalt are stories of people who clung to mitzvos, the fulfillment of which is only possible here in this world. Heaven is a great place, but there will be no opportunities there for the free choice to serve G-d by doing His mitzvos. From the Jews under Greek rule before the Chashmanayim revolt to the Jews in Soviet Russia, our history abounds with stories of heroic Jews who fearlessly kept the mitzvos and paid for it with their lives. However, all those heroes who died would have wanted to stay here, in this world, even for only more day, just to be able to do a few more mitzvos. They did not seek death or Heaven, what they sought was not to be divided from mitzvos. It was their enemies who sought their deaths.
When violence fell upon the shluchim in Mumbai, the whole world recognized the noble self-sacrifice of this young couple. But in case anyone misunderstands, the mesiras nefesh of the Holtzbergs was not that they were willing to go live in a dangerous place, but that they were going to do mitzvos in this place. Their mesiras nefesh was demonstrated over and over again before they lost their lives, by the chessed they did each day, the Torah they unceasingly taught, and the mitzvos they directed Jews in. They were vitally engaged in this world, not the next one. That was their mesiras nefesh.
Thank God, we are not called upon to make such sacrifices. But the good for which those people were willing to die, that we still have. And we have the ability and opportunity to be extremely devoted to that good. Fanatically. Passionately. Confidently. Joyfully.
Jews are to be a light unto the nations. In a time of darkness such as ours is now, we will not bring more light in the world by congratulating ourselves at how moderate we have remained. Moderation is not progress; instead progress is judged by how clearly people are able to see the difference between right and wrong, and how devotedly they choose to pursue it.
There is nothing wrong with being extremely devoted to good. The world needs more of that. There are enough people around who believe that this world is evil. The most effective antidote to this mistaken idea, its most compelling refutation, is the counter-belief that this world has much good in it and has the potential for much more.
Rambam says: It should not enter your mind that Moshiach will perform miracles or that nature will change when Moshaich comes. Miracles are necessary only when nature doesn’t cooperate with good and the G-dly. When Moshiach comes, nature itself will have become holy through our Torah study and performance of Mitzvot and the miracles will not be necessary. Let us seek to work here, to sacrifice our lives in making it a world of goodness and of light.
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The most contentious, the most watched, and yes, the craziest election in recent history has come to an end. There is now only one question that needs to be answered. Not how many emails were deleted, or how much tax was paid – but how many lessons have we learned? As a nation, as individuals and as Jews; what is the takeaway? Think about this: Is it possible that the election was actually an indicator of what is going on in our homes and in our own lives? We want a President who is virtuous, selfless, loyal, patriotic, and self-sacrificing. But do we actually practice all of that in our private lives? Aren’t we just being a little hypocritical here? Wishful thinking will not give us a great president. The way we live is what will produce the kind of leader we want. On Yom Kippur we recited the “Ashamnu” prayer where we list 22 sins we need to atone for. It’s an alphabetical list and includes all kinds of character flaws and outright sins. Sometimes we wonder if it’s possible for one human being to have all of these faults. We think of course not, and then,…wait for it…we see that there are men and women with more than their share of these flaws, and guess what? They’re running for president of the free world. But here’s the thing; we are upset that the candidates are narcissistic, that they look out for themselves and put themselves first. But it’s our own fault. We created a philosophy based on ‘looking out for number one.’ We were raising our children to look out only for themselves, to succeed at all costs, and to take legal advantage of the system. Our children were quick learners who have turned into narcissitic kids – and now they’re running for president. What is Narcissism? Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s own attributes. The term originated from Greek Mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. He could not tear himself away from it and starved to death. That’s narcissism. I am so full of myself that I won’t do what I need to do, even if it kills me. And it’s definitely killing us. Each generation before us probably felt a lack of leadership. But we are now a generation without any leadership at all. We are leaderless on every level, in every culture and in every institution. Few and far between are leaders whom we would like our children to emulate. “The way we live is what will produce the kind of leaders we want.” The Topsy-Turvy Prophecy
The prophet Malachi closes the era of prophecy by telling us that there will come a time when ‘children will lead their parents.’ A time when children will bring their parents back to their own traditions. Wow! It doesn’t seem possible; but that’s exactly what we are seeing today. We are a leaderless generation and that’s where this prophecy begins. When we have true leaders, we look to them for morality and goodness and we are sure to find it. When we have the elite, the righteous, the truly holy people, we expect all goodness to come from them. Even if we learn from them, and try to emulate them, they become the repository of holiness and that’s not good enough.
There has to come a time when every person on the planet will find the morality and truth that makes the world go round within themselves! We are being told quite clearly, ‘stop looking for a leader; stop looking for someone who represents the truth. Those days are over. Find the truth within yourself.’ We can no longer look to holiness in individuals. It has to be everywhere. To such an extent that our children could be closer to the truth than their parents. And ordinary citizens may have more integrity than their presidents or their kings or their prime ministers. Real Democracy means that ‘we the people’ decide and our leaders follow. One of the prophesies for the time before the coming of Moshiach, is that our leaders will be like dogs. We always learned that as a negative statement; but here is why it’s not. Most animals that travel in packs have real leaders; the alpha male leads and the others follow. But with dogs it’s different. Even as a dog is running out of the pack, he keeps looking back to see if the other dogs are following him. If they are not, he will go where they’re going. In other words, he is really following and not leading. That is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact that’s a good description of democracy. By the people, of the people, for the people., You don’t lead us. You enforce what we want enforced. You give us the lifestyle that we choose. So the days of leadership, the age of leadership is over and it is now up to each of us to find the truth. That’s good news.
Look At The Passion
The lesson that we can learn from all of this is to look at the passion. Look at the passion of those of us who took sides in the election. We were not indifferent, we got very, very passionate, The question is, what are we using this passion for? What are we saving it for? If we could channel all of that passion into the proper direction for holiness and G-dliness, we would definitely make not only America, but the entire world, great again! If we want to make America great, let’s just be great. So all is not lost, don’t give up the ship just yet. The world is not going to be over if your candidate doesn’t win. I believe we are all going to come out of this election more committed to morality and decency, because it’s shocking how far we are removed from it. Hopefully it will sober us up and we will become a little more honest and a little more chaste and a little more focused. We have just demonstrated that we are indeed a passionate people and we will give all of our passions an outlet for good.
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The story of how Avraham and Sarah were visited by an angel and delivered the news that they were to have a child is an old familiar one. Looking deeply into the story, there is much more to learn from it than the typical superficial reading would reveal. Let’s take another look.
This message of a baby truly was big news, a blessing historic not only for its miraculous nature (Avraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety) but for the child born from the blessing, Yitzchak, the second of the patriarchs of the book of Bereshit (Genesis). Weighty though the news was, Sarah heard it and laughed.
This laughter has puzzled scholars down through the ages. Sarah was a great prophetess by her own rights, a thoroughly righteous person whose belief in G-d was untarnished. She had accompanied her husband from the land of her birth to the land of Canaan where she worked with him to teach people that there is only one G-d in the world. Thus the puzzlement; how could Sarah, a woman of such stature, have laughed at G-d’s blessing?
It appears that Sarah divined a nuance to this blessing that her husband, the incomparable Avraham, had missed. Her reaction to the event was, to put it in our words: the angel could have told Avraham that he is to have a child, or he could have spoken to me and told me that I am to have a child, but in actuality he told Avraham that I am to have a child. This order of events whispered to Sarah of a blessing with a tacit limitation. She read between the lines and understood that the blessing of a child would be temporary.
Avraham was a visionary, he “saw” transcendence, meaning, and coming events, that others around him just couldn’t perceive; this was the strength of his prophetic gift. Indeed nearby passages to this one are replete with examples of such sight; Avraham “lifted up his eyes and saw”; he saw three men (the angels) approach, he saw the place where he was to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, and he saw the ram that was to replace Yitzchak, entangled in the bushes. Sarah’s gift however, was in hearing, a gift so important that G-d cautioned Avraham after this that, “Everything Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” Those who have the gift of hearing hear what others miss, so much so that they can hear “between the lines”, or to put it another way, they can hear what is not being said. With Sarah’s gift she intuited that the angel was giving her a temporary blessing, limited time with the promised child.
Nowadays, in the synagogue, when the cohen’s blessing is recited, the congregation, though they avert their eyes from looking directly at the kohanim, must directly face them. Applying this principle to her present situation Sarah knew that for a blessing to be permanent it needed to be face-to-face and thus this blessing was limited.
Her response was laughter, as if to say, give me a real blessing, a son who will live a long life. In response, the angel promised her that the blessing would be permanent, saying, “Is anything hidden from the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.” It appears that even before Sarah had conceived her son, she had already successfully lobbied to lengthen his life.
The proof of this came years later when Avraham brought Yitzchak up to the top of Mount Moriah and prepared to slaughter him as a sacrifice, as he had been told to do by G-d. An angel appeared who stayed his hand, the same angel who had promised Sarah that Yitzchak’s life would be a full one. Right after this, the Torah tells of Sarah’s death. It is a common interpretation to say she died of shock at hearing that Yitzchak had been slated for slaughter, but it is just as proper to say that in fact she died after he had been saved, satisfied that the promise of the angel had been kept and that her son would live long. She could now die in peace.
On the Shabbos when we read a portion of the Torah in synagogue, it is customary to read a parallel story from the Prophets; in the case of this portion, the parallel passage comes from II Kings, in which the prophet Elisha blesses a prominent woman from Shunem with a child. The wording of the blessing: “At this time next year, when you will be alive like now, you will be embracing a son.” Like Sarah before her, the woman heard between the lines. Embracing? What does that mean? How long can a child be embraced? Not too long. And thus she protested, “No, my lord, O man of God, do not fail your maidservant.” She wanted a real blessing, for a child who would survive. Later, when the child was indeed born and had grown a bit, he died, whereupon his determined mother headed straight for the prophet. Arriving there she exclaimed to Elisha, “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not mislead me?’ The prophet’s response was to make good on his promise by resurrecting the child.
A mother often bears the unique ability to hear rather than see, the “lay of the land”, and in so doing to intuit what will ensure the life and safety of her children. Sarah laughed, procuring a blessing that would save her child’s life; even before he was born she was protecting him. When the Shunamit woman protested, she procured a blessing that would eventually protect and revive her child, even after his death. Such is the love of mothers, that it extends beyond the edges of their children’s lives to protect them.
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It’s no secret that Chabad has been incredibly successful. But how? What is it about Chabad that is so attractive to hundreds of thousand of people – Jews and non Jews – all over the world? This is a question being asked by thinkers and philosophers as well as all kinds of organizations looking to better themselves.
One answer given is that while other orthodox Jewish groups are too judgmental, Chabad is not. Chabad – they say – is “Non-Judgmental.”
The problem with this theory is that Chabad is very judgmental! We have opinions about everything! Chabad will tell you what you may and may not eat, that you need a Mezuzah on your door, that you need Tefilin, all kinds of stuff! There is nothing that Chabad does not have a firmly held opinion about.
Chabad is an intellectual movement going back 250 years, and after all those years of deep study and contemplation, we have come to the firm judgement that every single person is necessary. No one is unimportant. If you exist, it means that there is something God needs that only you can give.
That’s why we value every individual. That’s why we care about you no matter who you are. It’s because we are so judgmental.