Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Adversity + Humility + Acceptance = Transcendence

We do not know exactly why God gives us our challenges. But many have noticed that difficulties can refine us and help us get in touch with our spiritual side. How does that work?

Our life’s purpose is to develop a relationship with our Creator; that's why He created us. Even though our soul urges us to do this, we are distracted by our ego, the self-centered, materialistic perspective rooted in the body. The ego rejects having to listen to anyone – even our Creator. The ego pressures us to let it have free rein to pursue physical pleasure and materialism. When we listen to our ego at the expense of our soul, we are led off course. This causes pain to our soul as its intended destination – coming close to God – recedes into the distance.

Challenges help us get back on track by deflating the ego; we are humbled when we admit that we were not able to prevent or quickly remedy a troubling situation. With the distracting bravado of the ego suppressed, we can better hear the voice of our soul, which calls out to us to return to God.

Nobody goes through life – or even a single day – without difficulties. The question is do we learn from our challenges how desperately we need God? Do we humble ourselves before Him and ask for His help?

Do not wait until you have exhausted all other venues. As soon as you have a challenge, ask God for help. Just the act of expressing to Him your pain and asking for His guidance, will bring you closer to Him.

Learning humility from adversity is only the first step to coming closer to God. The second is using humility to unconditionally accept His will. With humility – knowing our limitations – we acknowledge that only our Creator knows what we need to fulfill our life’s purpose. Since we do not know what is truly good for us and He does, we unconditionally accept His will.

Accepting the will of our Creator means trusting that God, who is guiding our lives, is doing what is best for us even though we do not understand how. We do not resign ourselves to a situation; rather, with total confidence in Him, we make peace with the way things are, even as we work toward a better tomorrow.

The seeming senselessness of a difficulty or tragedy can hinder accepting a situation. In truth, there is a Divine reason behind everything. Even though you do not understand the reason behind challenges, make adversity meaningful for you by using difficulties as a catalyst for lasting change. Use the pain in your life and in the lives of others as a reminder to go beyond the ego and self-centered behavior, to (A) alleviate pain, and (B) become a force of healing:

Between you and your fellow man: (A) Alleviate the pain you may have caused others – emotional or financial – by apologizing and making amends. (B) Bring healing, by reaching out with emotional and material support to those who are struggling.

Between you and God: (A) Alleviate the pain of your soul by letting go of pursuits which pull you away from God. (B) Bring healing, by coming closer to your Creator through fervent prayer, Torah study, and living His Torah as best you can.

While maintaining hope in God’s infinite ability to turn around even a dire situation, cultivate an attitude of unconditionally accepting His will. Rely on God and trust that the way your life is right now is exactly the way it is currently meant to be. Allow yourself to let go of resisting or rejecting your challenges and ease into a state of accepting your difficulties the way they are. When you have this mindset regarding a life challenge, you trust that:

The challenge is from God for your eternal benefit.

Part of fulfilling your life’s purpose is doing what you can to overcome and grow from the difficulty.

God is with you, giving you the strength and courage you need to triumph.

Acceptance building exercise

Think of a challenging issue – start with a mild one – and tune into any resistance you feel to having this issue. Say or think to yourself, “This is from God for my eternal benefit.” Then think while slowly breathing in, “This is God’s will” and while slowly breathing out, “I let go of resistance” or, “I accept this.” Do this for a few breath cycles until you feel calmer and more accepting of the situation.

The irony is that reaching a state of acceptance – surrendering to and embracing God’s will – unlocks the gates of our personal redemption. Perhaps not in the way we imagined, but at that point, the specific outcome no longer matters; we will feel swept up into our Father’s arms and carried by Him. The weight of our previous concerns will have melted away. “Cast your burden on God, and He will carry you…(Psalms 55:23)” We never know where, but God will carry us; where, is no longer a concern, because, “God is with me, I have no fear…(Psalms 118:6).”

There is an exquisite dynamic God uses to bring us closer to Him, if we are willing. When we allow our challenges to change us, then adversity will lead to humility, which will lead to accepting God’s will, which will lead to transcendence – finding refuge in the shelter of God’s protection.

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity

On Mount Sinai, the Jewish people chose to embody the teachings in God’s Torah and show the world what it means to live elevated lives. Observing the laws in the Torah, which entails avoiding sin and doing mitzvot, keeps spiritual pollution out and nurtures the sanctity of our people.

One of the key ways the Jewish people maintain their holiness is by observing the laws governing moral behavior. As the morality of the culture around us plummets and temptations reach new peaks, our mission to live elevated lives is more difficult than ever. God knows this and does not expect perfection. All He asks is that we do the best we can.

King Solomon taught (Proverbs 4:23), “More than you guard anything, guard your heart…” When we guard our moral purity, we are guarding our heart.

We recite daily in the morning prayers, “My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.” We have to do whatever we can to safeguard the holy of holies within, our Creator’s priceless gift. Then, we can say to Him with satisfaction and pride, “I have done my best to keep the soul you placed within me pure.”

Answering Moses’ call

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw people worshiping the Golden Calf, he wanted those who had shielded themselves from sin to pledge total allegiance to God. He cried out, (Exodus 32:26), “…Mi Lashem Elai!” “Whoever is for God, join me!” This was not a onetime plea; he is speaking to each one of us, every day of our lives. He is urging us to flee from sin and cling tenaciously to God.

The Vilna Gaon, the renowned eighteenth century scholar, discussed the period before the Messiah (as quoted by Rabbi Yechiel Weitzman in his book, The Ishmaelite Exile). The Vilna Gaon wrote that the number of people who are of average conduct will slowly decrease, until society becomes polarized: One group following the elevated path toward greater closeness to God, with the other group breaking away and sinking to the depths of evil.

Be brutally honest with yourself and ask, “Which group am I in? Am I growing spiritually and striving to live an elevated life, or am I declining and worshiping the golden calves of Western society (one of which is immorality)?”

In the face of indecency, we have a choice: We can either let ourselves be enticed and pulled down by it or we can set firm redlines and say, “No! I will not be a part of this.” We must flee from sin as if running from a fire. When we make sacrifices to observe the Torah, we do our part to ensure the survival of our people as His holy nation.

Here are four steps you can take to preserve or restore your moral purity:

1. Learn the laws.
For example, laws of forbidden seclusion – yichud – and forbidden contact – negiah – keep those who uphold them far away from forbidden relations. Author Gila Manolson addresses some of these areas in her books and articles available at http://www.gila-manolson.com. For further details on these laws, ask your rabbi and/or study Nidchei Yisrael by the Chofetz Chaim. (It is available in English for free by clicking on the title. Some of the sections are strongly worded; if that approach does not work for you, speak to your mentor for alternatives.)

Also study chapter 11 of The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. In it is an eye-opening discussion on commandments which many are not fully aware of, including those relating to morality. This work is available in English by either Feldheim or Artscroll (the latter edition includes a commentary and is entitled, Mesillas Yesharim: Way of the Upright).

Living a life of moral purity is not all or nothing. At one end of the spectrum is complete moral purity – where one guards what they look at and think about. At the other end of the spectrum is extreme sinful behavior, avoiding which one is obligated to give up one’s life, such as committing adultery. The behavior of each one of us exists somewhere on this spectrum. Set redlines you will not cross, so your behavior will not slide toward the side of immorality, and make a commitment to move your behavior one notch toward the side of purity.

Decide in advance how you will deal with challenging situations, so you are not caught off guard and give in to pressure or temptation. Preferably, speak to your rabbi, rebbetzin, or spiritual mentor for advice.

Do not become disheartened if you struggle with some forms of prohibited behavior. Do the best you can, fill your mind with purifying Torah thoughts, avoid temptations whenever possible, ask God for help, and when you lapse, immediately repent and get back on track. No matter how many times you fall, pick yourself up, repent, and begin again with a fresh start.

2. Use the internet with caution. The internet is perhaps the greatest source of spiritual pollution in our generation. Like fire, the internet can accomplish great good, or can become an inferno causing great harm. Even if by the grace of God you are not among those caught in a web of contamination, protect yourself and your family. Allowing access to an unfiltered internet on your computer or smart-phone is like leaving a loaded gun lying around your house. It is possible no one will get hurt, but do you want to take the chance?

Many mistakenly think that the websites they visit are private. But there are a number of companies who track the sites you visit, such as your browser and internet service provider among others. One can easily imagine someone illicitly accessing that information and posting people’s browsing habits online for all to see. It brings a new perspective to the words of the Sages, “An eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1).”

There are a number of options for internet filters for phones, tablets and computers; some are more comprehensive than others. In addition to filtering software, one can also get separate reporting software, which has the capability of emailing to a third-party a log of websites visited.

A general internet tip: Be careful when clicking on search results or links to other sites. Many are to so-called news or health sites, which can be filled with inappropriate articles and images. Best to stick to sites you know are OK. Also, keeping a picture of a revered ancestor or rabbi by your computer, can be helpful.

A website devoted to this topic and recommended by Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski, MD is http://www.guardyoureyes.org.

3. Engage in spiritual spring cleaning. The Torah warns us (Deuteronomy 7: 26), “Do not bring an abomination into your house since you will become accursed like it; you should utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.”

To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity. Be more discerning what websites and videos you expose your soul to. If you wouldn’t show it to a teenager, you probably shouldn’t be watching it either. Go through your wardrobe and donate to charity clothing that is unbecoming for you. Staying away from temptation and impurity will enable you to have a closer relationship with the ultimate source of holiness and purity – God Himself.

4. Talk to your kids. Children can be exposed to spiritual pollution in many different venues. We have to do our best to shield them and beseech God to protect them. Our children should join in this effort and not feel it is us against them. Talk to your children, perhaps read this chapter with them and go through the above steps. Work together to keep them out of harm’s way. Explain that this is a struggle we are all engaged in; while as an adult we are responsible to protect ourselves, as parents we are responsible to help our children protect themselves.

We have to be role models for our children and let them know what we do to safeguard ourselves; we cannot expect them to be more vigilant than we are.

Protecting our moral purity will entail making sacrifices. When we remind ourselves that we are safeguarding our eternal soul, we will realize that it is well worth the sacrifice. What could be more important than our soul – our very essence?

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Does God Want from Me?

Have you ever asked, “What does God want from me? Why did He create me?”

In Deuteronomy, Moses answers this very question and outlines our Creator’s five requests (10:12-13). “And now, Israel, What does Hashem, your God, request of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to follow all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul; to observe Hashem’s commandments and statutes, which I command you today, for your benefit.”

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his classic, The Path of the Just, distills from these verses the five essential components of Judaism:

A. To fear God.

B. To walk in His ways.

C. To love Him.

D. To serve Him wholeheartedly.

E. To observe His commandments.

God makes these requests not for His benefit, rather, as Moses points out, “…for your benefit (ibid).” By fulfilling these requests, we develop a relationship with our Creator and infuse our lives with meaning and fulfillment.

Below, is an exploration of each of the five requests. Fulfilling them is not all or nothing; it is a lifelong journey. Keep climbing to even higher levels of fulfilling these requests. As you do, you will come even closer to God.

A. To fear God.
This means to be in awe of His exaltedness and aware of His constant presence. The first step in developing a relationship with God is to remind yourself that He exists and that He is with you at all times.

Rabbi Luzzatto outlines three steps to do this:

(1) Throughout the day, bring to mind that God’s glory fills the world – His presence is in every cell and atom. Realize you are standing before God at all times. Shift your awareness, from inward – centered on your thoughts – to outward, tuning in to God’s presence which surrounds you always. This will help you feel deep awe and reverence before Him.

(2) Think about God’s awesomeness. He is the Creator and sustainer of the entire universe, as well as countless spiritual worlds.

(3) Contemplate how lowly you are compared to God; you are completely dependent on Him and cannot do anything without His help.

Guideposts: You will know you are on track toward achieving awe of God, when you are able to refrain from – or at least greatly limit – talking during the prayer service. You will sense, sitting in God’s house, speaking to Him, that it is not appropriate to turn away to schmooze with a friend. You also find that your modesty and humility have increased. In addition, when faced with temptation, you remind yourself of God’s awesomeness and His all-encompassing presence, and you feel ashamed to sin before your Creator.

B. To walk in God’s ways. After contemplating His greatness, we will be motivated to emulate Him, as best we can. God is completely good. His every act is a manifestation of His goodness, (although we do not understand how). We walk in our Father in Heaven’s footsteps by being a source of goodness to others. When we help others, our Father is channeling His light of goodness through us. When we harm others, we sever that special connection to Him and spread darkness.

Every interaction you have with another person gives you an opportunity to be a force of goodness. When you are friendly, considerate, helpful and show an interest in others, you transform a mundane interaction into a sacred experience.

Guideposts: You will know you are on track toward achieving walking in God’s ways, when, faced with uncertainty you ask, “What is the elevated, Godly way to act? How does my Father in Heaven want me to act?” In addition, when meeting people, instead of considering, “What can they do for me?” You consider, “What can I do for them?” Lastly, you are careful not to even inconvenience others, certainly not to harm them emotionally or financially.

C. To love God. Awed by His grandeur and inspired by His goodness, you will come to love Him. An aspect of loving God is being grateful for the blessings He has given you. In addition, think about who God is to you: He is your Creator, who brought you into existence to benefit you. He is your Father, who loves you unconditionally. He is your protector, who ensures you only experience what is for your eternal good. He is your provider, who gives you exactly what you need for each moment. He never stops thinking of you, caring for you, loving you. Now ask, “Do I love God?” Speak to Him and express to Him your love.

Guideposts: You will know you are on track toward achieving love of God, when you look forward to doing mitzvot, even at great sacrifice, demonstrating to God your love and appreciation. You delight in the opportunity to come close to Him, through prayer, fulfilling and studying His Torah and helping His children. In addition, you flee from sin, to avoid any act which would distance you from your Father in Heaven and be a sign of ingratitude.

D. To serve God wholeheartedly. This means serving Him with pure intent. Fueled by your reverence and love for God, you will want to serve Him solely to fulfill His will, without ulterior motives. As King David says in Psalms (40:9), “To do Your will, my God, is my desire...” When mitzvot are done for this reason, they serve as a bridge, uniting you with God.

Rabbi Luzzatto mentions another aspect of purity of intent: Serving God mindfully. Before doing a commandment, ask, “What am I about to do and why? Before whom am I going to do it?” You perform the commandments before God to fulfill His will and through them you draw closer to Him.

Guideposts: You will know you are on track toward achieving serving God wholeheartedly, when you perform mitzvot with the same intensity and fervor regardless of whether you are in a public or private setting. (This shows that your mitzvah performance is not driven by wanting public approval.) In addition, every day you perform mindfully at least one mitzvah. Start with prayer and pick at least one section to focus on its meaning. You can also be mindful while saying blessings on food.

E. To observe God’s commandments. In addition to serving God wholeheartedly, in your awe and love for Him, you will also want to fulfill His every request.

In order to observe the commandments we need to learn the laws. Find a class or book geared toward your level of observance. If you learn a law that seems too difficult for you, remember that God only asks you to do what you can. Tell yourself, “Right now I’m not sure if I can do this, but it’s important to know that this is the goal to work towards. All God asks is that I do my best, and I will.”

If possible, speak to your rabbi about how to fulfill the law in your situation. You will likely discover that either the law is more manageable than you initially thought, or that in your case, there are leniencies upon which you can rely. After all, the Torah, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness…(Proverbs 3:17)”

God wants our efforts, whether we are successful or not is out of our hands. Put in your best effort and ask your Father in Heaven for help. Often, you will discover that with His assistance, you were able to fulfill the observance after all. As the Sages teach, “One who seeks to be purified is assisted (Tractate Shabbat 104a).”

Guideposts: You will know you are on track toward achieving observing God’s commandments, when you choose a rabbi to whom you ask religious questions and advice on how to upgrade your observance. In addition, you study the laws daily to ensure you fulfill the will of your Creator. One who studies the laws every day is assured a place in the next world (Tractate Niddah 73a). Lastly, if you stumble in one of the Torah’s guidelines, you repent right away and get back on track.

God highlights four aspects of our relationship with Him (Hoshea 2:21-22), “(1) I will betroth you to Me forever, and (2) I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness and with mercy. (3) And I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and (4) you will know Hashem.” Perhaps these four aspects align with God’s five requests.

The first aspect, parallels fulfilling His commandments, as it is through them that we earn eternal bliss – basking in the Divine Presence forever. The second aspect, gives examples of walking in His ways. The third aspect, fidelity, parallels serving Him wholeheartedly, not adulterating our service with ulterior motives or by acting by rote. The fourth aspect, to know God, is to revere and love Him (we come to know God, each on our own level, by studying His Torah). By fulfilling your Creator’s five requests, you consummate your betrothal to Him, creating an eternal bond with God.

The greatest achievement possible in life is coming close to the Ultimate good – our Creator. When we fulfill the five requests every day, we live our lives with our Creator as our constant companion and guide. God did not create us to live just any life: He wants us to live the best life possible and discover the Ultimate good. How about you, what kind of life do you want to live?

Which one of the five requests will you focus on fulfilling to an even greater extent?

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