Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who Caused This Crisis?

Our instinctive response to crisis or tragedy is to look for people to blame (including sometimes ourselves) and to think they are the sole cause of our difficulties. We say to each other, “It’s all their fault. If only they would have acted differently.” But this is a mistake.

The underlying cause behind everything is God. Things happen because God made them happen; all other causes are superficial. At least three prophets taught us this principle:

Isaiah: (Isaiah 42:24), “Who gave over Jacob to the oppressor and Israel to looters? Was it not God…?”

Jeremiah: (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?”

Amos: (Amos 3:6), “…Can there be misfortune in a city, if God had not brought it?”

This means that if you made an innocent mistake, which God forbid led to a tragedy, do not blame yourself; it was ultimately God who caused your mistake to turn into a tragedy. For how to make peace with yourself, see, “Discover Your Inner Peace.”

There are two reasons why people often have a hard time accepting that everything ultimately comes from God, even the evil acts of others. First, they think this lets people off the hook. Nothing could be further from the truth. God holds people accountable for their actions (and so should we). Nevertheless, God uses them as His tool or sword to bring about His desired result. As King David said to God (Psalms 17:13), “…Rescue my soul from the wicked one, who is Your sword.”

When wicked people’s evil acts are needed, they are successful, when not needed, they are not. This explains the countless times people have plotted to commit a crime and failed. Whether they are successful or not, because wicked people have chosen to pursue evil, they will be severely punished, either in this world, in the next or both. We do God’s work when we pursue and punish evil doers. That is what King David did and what we must continue to do.

The second reason people have difficulty with this concept is they do not understand why a loving God would cause pain. But do loving parents never cause their children pain? Sometimes, painful actions are necessary for a child’s growth or wellbeing.

God is our Father in Heaven. The whole reason He created us and put us in this world is so that we can earn the bliss of the next world through the choices we make. He is willing to do whatever is necessary to help us make the most of the opportunities of this world. The eternal benefits we receive from our difficulties far outweigh any temporary pain.

There are general principles as to how suffering elevates us and helps us earn eternal bliss (see, “5 Reasons for Suffering”). For example, suffering can remind us to increase our repentance, prayer, and charity. A key High Holiday prayer states that these three things can annul a harsh decree. Use suffering as a catalyst to repent for misdeeds, pray with greater fervor and give charity more generously.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught (Likutey Moharan 7:1), “…When faith will spread throughout the world, then the Messiah will come.” The first step to spreading faith is strengthening our own and a crisis is an opportunity to do so. (Our faith is tested when times are rough and we are hurting.) Perhaps this is one reason why the period before the Messiah comes will be a tumultuous one (Tractate Sanhedrin 98b). When we use a crisis to strengthen our faith in God and our commitment to follow His Torah as best we can, we hasten the redemption.

Understanding why specific difficulties are needed or exactly how they benefit us is beyond our ability. Because God is infinitely wise and we are not, there will be times we do not understand His ways. In fact, we never fully understand His ways. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of why events occur, other times, we do not.

Rav Chaim Volozhin taught that during times of danger, a person should focus on the phrase from Deuteronomy (4:35), “…Ein od milvado,” “…There is nothing beside Him (God).” This verse means that there is no force in the universe other than God. Nothing exists or has power outside of His will. God is the ultimate cause behind everything. By focusing on this truth, we bring special merit and protection to ourselves. We realize that no matter how strong the forces of evil may appear, they are nothing before God; in an instant He can render them powerless.

The next time you read about a crisis, say, “This is from God for our eternal benefit.” Then ask, “What can I do to help those affected? How can I use this crisis to change for the better?” (See, “How to Respond Effectively to a Crisis or Tragedy.”)

This mindset toward adversity enables us to read the news with compassion, and at times grief over a loss, but no longer worry. We no longer feel compelled to read the news obsessively, anxiously following every development. We realize God is in complete control and will not allow anything to happen to us that is not for our ultimate good. We know He will only give us challenges we can handle and that in the end, with His help, we will triumph.

When faced with a crisis, just do your best, pray, and look for ways to grow; leave the rest to God. When you do that, you will reach the level described by King David, (Psalms 112:7), “Of evil news – he is not afraid. His heart is steadfast, trusting in God.”

Trusting in God means believing He is guiding your life and doing what is best for you, even though you do not understand how. Do not be passive. Instead, make spiritual and material efforts to overcome your challenges. While making those efforts, realize God is by your side, encouraging and strengthening you, every step of the way.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Av: Enhancing Our Relationships

Dear Friends,

This is a post about the Jewish month of Av, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Av begins this Sunday night, the 27th of July, and lasts for one day. Rosh Chodesh marks the beginning of the period known as the "Nine Days."

On the ninth of this month – Tisha B’Av – we fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. We remember a time when God “hid His face” from the Jewish people and we felt distant from Him. During this month, reestablish and deepen your relationship with God through the practice of Hitbodedut – talking informally to Him in your native language.

Speak to God for at least five to fifteen minutes, unburdening yourself to Him. Try this practice at least once, although preferably for a week or month and see how it can help you feel closer to God and to fortifying yourself with His comfort and support.

Continue last month’s focus on forgiveness and letting go of bitterness from the past. What is a step you can take to reduce or resolve an interpersonal conflict in your life? How can you bring more peace and acceptance to your relationships? How can you keep a disagreement from deteriorating into personal animosity?

We are a small nation surrounded by enemies bent on our destruction, as we see clearly with the fighting going on in Gaza. To defeat the hatred against our people, we need to defeat the hatred within our people. Between now and Tisha B’Av, go out of your way to be forgiving and overlook the faults of others. Go out of your way to be kind and loving to others.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What Happens to Our Seemingly Unanswered Prayers?

We pray because we believe that prayer works, that God hears our prayers and will help us. Yet, what are we to believe when we pray for something and there is no change in the difficulty, or the person we were praying for passes away? What happens to those seemingly unanswered prayers?

1. God’s love is stronger than our prayers. Some Divine decrees can be rescinded through prayer, others cannot. This is not a sign of the weakness of prayer; it is a sign of the strength of God’s love for us. Certain hardships need to happen for our eternal benefit, for reasons we do not understand. Those difficulties will occur, even if we pray.

As an analogy, if a child needs to undergo a painful medical procedure, no amount of pleading will change the parent’s minds; not because they do not care, precisely because they do care. Although they will insist the child undergo the procedure, they will do whatever they can to support and comfort the child.

So too with God, our Father in Heaven, if something is for our highest good, it will happen, even if it is painful for us and even if we plead with Him. He will though, use our prayers to ensure that we receive the support, strength and comfort we need to get through the challenge.

When you pray to God and ask for His help, know that whatever happens will be God’s will and for your highest good. Know that good will come from your prayer; it may be in a manner you did not expect, at a later date, in another area of your life or benefit a loved one.

2. We will eventually receive what is truly good for us. When we pray for something which does not occur, either the right time has not yet arrived or God has decided that it is not for our highest good. Many of us can think of prayers we said which were eventually answered, at a time and manner God deemed optimal. We might also be able to recall prayers we are glad God did not fulfill, as we see in hindsight how it would not have been beneficial to us.

At times, God decides that it is best if we do not receive a certain blessing and that we endure a particular hardship. Even for those areas – the ones we cry over – when the Messiah comes, God will heal them. The prophet Isaiah tells us that during the Messianic era (Isaiah 25:8), “…The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…”

In the meantime, while we continue to pray to God for what is lacking in our lives, we must be patient and accept His will. We must make the most of what we have and realize that right now – without any change in our life circumstance – we can still live a meaningful life.

3. The purpose of prayer is not to change God, it is to change us. The Sages teach that God is always sending us blessing. If we or the world in general are not fit to receive this blessing, we experience it as a difficulty. When we pray, we change ourselves, making ourselves better able to receive the blessing God sends us. (Because of this, as long as the possibility exists for a particular prayer to be answered, we should continue to pray and enhance our ability to receive that blessing.)

There are times when we have to experience hardship (see, “5 Reasons for Suffering”). In those cases, our prayers will not transform the difficulty; instead, they will transform us. Fervent prayer transforms us by strengthening our faith that everything comes from God and that He can do anything. Intense prayer lowers our attachment to materialism and raises our spiritualty. It uplifts our souls, bringing us closer to God. Through prayer, we can come so close to God that during challenging times, we feel enveloped in the safety of His embrace.

4. We build a crown for God. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes that each of us is a crown for God (Likutey Moharan 6:15). We are His crown in the sense that as His children, when we lead exemplary lives, we bring Him glory. In light of this teaching, when we pray for others, we are adding precious gems to their personal crown for God. If they pass away, after countless prayers have been said on their behalf, they carry with them this shining crown to Heaven. There, they present this crown, bedecked with countless gems, to their Father in Heaven; it is a crown He wears with special pride.

The same goes for ourselves; when we pray for ourselves, we enhance our own crown for God and reveal an even more intense level of His glory to the world.

Address your challenges from three different angles: (1) Pray, (2) Make reasonable efforts to overcome the difficulty and (3) Look for ways to grow and make the most of the situation. This way, whatever happens is win-win: Even if you do not see tangible results from your prayers and material efforts, you still use the challenge as a catalyst for growth. You still draw strength from the knowledge that in the end, you will receive what is truly good for you. With this perspective, you can be accepting of your challenges, even as you work to improve your difficulties.

Bottom line: Do not pray solely to receive a specific outcome; only God knows what is best. Pray because you’re hurting; pray because your Father in Heaven wants to soothe your pain; pray because through prayer you can feel His embrace.
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