Tuesday, June 23, 2009

God’s Perfectly Imperfect Plan

For those of us who believe in God, we must face a serious question, one that philosophers have been wresting with since the beginning of theological debate.

If God is perfect, why are we, God’s creations, so imperfect?

We expect a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinite to create beings that reflect some aspect of those qualities. Yet no one can claim even one of them. The divide between us and God appears too vast. Could such a God create something so imperfect? One could wonder if this Creator exists after all.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the eighteenth century Italian Kabbalist, teaches that God desires to bestow the best possible good. One might think that creating perfect human beings would satisfy that criteria.

But not so; the greatest good was creating humanity with imperfections, and then empowering us through Torah and mitzvot to fix them. This allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment for the work that we have done, as opposed to feelings of shame like a beggar who receives sustenance with no toil.

This can also allow us to accept our flaws, and the flaws of others. Those imperfect cracks are the places where God is most revealed. Those blemishes empower us to work on our character traits and our service to God, and it is through this work that we actualize our true potential.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Does God Want Mitzvot?

As a young adult I started asking existential questions about the meaning of life, spirituality, and God. After finishing college I came to Israel in order to take a deeper look into the Jewish tradition for answers.

After an introduction to the intricacies of halacha (Jewish law) I was disturbed by several issues. First of all, traditional Judaism related to a mitzvah as an absolute requirement, not as a good deed as I had been taught in my Reform upbringing. This sounded very imposing.

Secondly, why must the halachic system dictate each and every daily activity? Where is the autonomy? And most importantly, where is the spirituality that I was seeking? Where was the God amidst all this halacha?

I found a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 44) that helped me begin to formulate an answer to these issues.

The midrash asks: Does God really care if I do the ritual slaughter from the front of the neck or the back of the neck?

In other words, does God care about all the halachic hair-splitting found in the Talmud?

The midrash answers: The mitzvot were only given to refine us.

The mitzvot are not for God, but rather for us. They are a divinely orchestrated spiritual system designed to help us reach our maximum potential. Each mitzvah in its own unique way can move our consciousness from selfishness to selflessness, from craving to caring. Every aspect of life, even the most seemingly mundane acts, can become a tool for growth and connection.

This work is incumbent on all of us; we were created in order to better the world, not to destroy it. Halacha, from the word “to walk,” guides us on a path towards God’s ultimate desire for humanity. This is the path of Jewish spirituality.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Holy Fire of Faith

Much of my after-school elementary Jewish education focused on the Holocaust. We visited the Holocaust Memorial in Miami, we heard stories from survivors, and we watched the movie “Escape from Sobibor.” But never did we speak about maintaining faith in the face of evil.

It wasn’t until I opened up “Aish Kodesh,” (Holy Fire) by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, that I was able to learn this message.

His insights into the infamous story of the scouts that we read in Parshat Shelach offer a powerful model for faith under duress.

The spies return from Canaan and give their report to the waiting nation: The people living there are too strong for us; we saw giants, and the walls of their city are too high!

Calev, himself a member of the scouts, gives a simple rebuttal: We can do it.

Asks the Rebbe: The spies had a logical concern about entering the land. Why didn’t Calev give a pointed response to their report, instead of just saying, “Let’s go”?

There are times when logic challenges faith. But the point at which no rational hope exists should not be the end of one’s faith; this is the time for its deepest expression. God is above the realm of natural law, and in a second our salvation can come. We cannot let our intellect barricade real faith.

This is Calev’s message to the nation: true, logically we are militarily outmatched; but this is not a time for intellectual calculations; this is a time to act on faith according to the word of God. We can do it.

The Rebbe’s words take a different tone when we consider them in the context of the death and destruction he faced. However, the message is one we can relate to in our daily lives. Logic should certainly be our guiding principle, yet there comes a point when we must recognize its limitations and embrace simple faith.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Searching for that Real Love

Over the past few months two different friends informed me that they are getting divorced. In both cases I was surprised, and both times a little heartbroken. The news made me grateful for my marriage, but also reminded me how it requires continual work. Part of that means learning what makes a good marriage, and Judaism certainly has many pearls of wisdom on this issue.

The first time the Torah uses the word “love” in reference to a couple is in the story of Yitzhak and Rivkah. We learn that first Yitzhak and Rivkah were married, and then, only after marriage, does the text say that he loves her. But shouldn’t it have been the opposite? Doesn’t love precede marriage?

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, one of the Polish Chasidic Masters, explains regarding this verse that there are two types of love. The first type of love is that which is based on fulfilling one’s emotional or physical needs. That type of love is nothing more than self-love, and is bound to dissipate.

But there is a higher type of love: that which relates to marriage as a mitzvah. A mitzvah is an act that reveals G-d’s presence in the world. Yitzhak and Rivkah wanted their marriage to act as a vessel to achieve this exalted goal. The story records Yitzhak’s love for Rivkah after marriage to teach that their relationship was founded on this higher love, a love of mitzvah, and not self-fulfillment.

A relationship that places God at the center changes the entire dynamic; the couple does not ask, “What have you done for me lately?” but rather, “How can we bring the presence of Hashem into our home?” It is this type of love that the Torah outlines as a foundation for a successful marriage.

Though this paradigm is a difficult one, for me it serves as an ultimate goal. A marriage based on such high ideals, even if it never reaches them, is already a big step!