Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Why can’t we all just get along?
by Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman

My congregation is in Cape Coral, Florida, part of the greater Fort Myers area.  There are four other Messianic congregations in our area.  Most people are loyal to their particular congregation.  There are a few people who bounce back and forth, visiting different congregations.

The congregations are all different, and all small.  One congregation focuses mainly on worship music and dancing.  They have a Torah scroll, take it out, and parade it around, but don’t open it up or read it.  Another congregation is made up of Hispanics and the service is in Spanish.  Another congregation is very charismatic in their worship style, and the other two are more traditional, with different emphases.

At our congregational meeting, I had a woman ask why we can’t all just get together, and wondered why we can’t just come together and be one.  Its a question that most people wonder about our movement in general.  To most people, style of worship is really important.  Some people really want a more Charismatic service.  Others don’t care for it at all, but would prefer a more traditional Jewish service.  Some want dancing, while others don’t think its appropriate for worship.  Some want more liturgy, some want more heart.   These are all good things, but everyone feels differently about how to worship the Holy One.

Historically, there has been a lot of water thats gone under the bridge.  People left one congregation and started another.  Bad memories of conflict and feeling betrayed persist.  If we all tried to get together even once, there would be arguments about who’s congregation we would go to?  Who would be in charge?  Who would set the agenda? What would the service look like?   Getting together in such a setting would just remind us why we have five congregations.

The reality is, its not a bad thing that we have different congregations.  We all have different needs.  Its not one size fits all, or my way or the highway.  God allowed the different congregations to form and develop so we would have a place to go where we could worship feeling connected.  Thats not a bad thing. The important thing is not that we all get together in one congregation, but that we learn to accept one another as sister congregations, and view one another as family.  People don’t need to do the same things I do for me to get along with them.  People don’t have to be in my congregation for me to care about them.  We need to have an attitude of cooperation and mutual support.

One of the other congregations in our area was holding a concert.  They asked us to advertise it to our people. I was put off at first, because they have never really been supportive of things we do, and I had approached the artist performing the concert some months ago to come to our congregation, and I never heard from him.  I was feeling slighted. After all, I am human.

After I got over the idea that I don’t want my people going there, lest they skip my precious bible study, I thought better of it, and placed a message on our congregational page that our sister congregation was hosting a concert and suggested to our members that they might want to check it out.  I wasn’t worried I would lose people,  because if my people wanted to be there, they would be.  Meanwhile, they can go and enjoy a good concert.  I called them our sister congregation because that is exactly the relationship I would like us to have with them, as well as the other congregations in our area.  First we have to think it, then we have to say it, and hopefully, we can become it.  I am praying that their concert will be a great success.  Our congregations may never become one congregation, but I have hopes, that we can one day have an all Lee County, Messianic Picnic.  There is unity in diversity.

The Torah of Love

The Torah Of Love

By Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman

When people think about the Torah, they think of rituals and commandments; a system of “do’s” and “don’ts.” For them, the Torah is something negative and oppressive, especially in a society that tells us we should do whatever we want, or whatever comes naturally. I have always been fond of a line from the classic film, “African Queen.” Humphrey Bogart makes a romantic play for Katherine Hepburn. She rebuffs him. He says, “Sorry Ma’am, but it’s only natural.” Katherine Hepburn responds, with great indignation and tells him, “Nature … is what we were put in this world to rise above.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. Either we struggle with our inner natures, or we have given up and just follow it with the excuse that it’s just natural. The scriptures teach us we need to rise above our base natures, that everything we want is not necessarily right.

The world view of post-Modernism tells us that there really is no ultimate right or wrong, but that anything can be right or wrong for us in a given situation. The Holy Scriptures teach us that there is right and wrong, and that we need to choose the good and reject what is bad. This does not seem to be an attractive message to people today.  We want to do what we want, and will say whatever comes to mind to justify our actions.  The scriptures refer to this as “tickling” our ears, or in other words, we do what is right in our own eyes.  The problem is, when you do what is right in your own eyes, you can justify anything no matter how bad it may be.  The Nazis murdered millions of innocent people, but it was right in their eyes.  They rejected the standard set by Scripture.  What they had left was evil.

The reason the Torah seems to bring a negative message is not even the Torah itself. It’s the negative and oppressive views people read into it. The Torah teaches good, and offers a life of Godliness. The Torah says, … I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed; to love the LORD your God, to obey his voice, and to cleave to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days;…”   (Deuteronomy 30:19-20

I have observed people say that the Torah was given so Israel would have an impossible standard they could never keep. People say this to dismiss any obligation to do what it says. For them, they are free from God’s instruction and can do whatever they think best. The problem with this view is that it makes our lives subjective. It was the same situation that existed in the days of the Judges, when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) Today many believers do what is right in their own eyes. Some try to find a bible verse to justify them selves, but others just claim they heard from God that whatever they want to do is justified. The result is that people are doing everything and anything in the Name of God’s leading. They justify doing some pretty bad things, and it results in God’s Name being profaned because we are his people, and what we do reflects on Him. When we do whatever we want, we are saying the God of the Bible, is not our God, but our own lusts and desires are our God. Why are we shocked then, when God does not bless it?

God gave His Torah for good and for life, and as He invited us to do, we need to choose life. By living the Torah in love, we can transform the world.  In a world that sells its fallen values to our children, the Torah gives us light and life.

Entering 2016

Entering 2016

By Dr. Michael Schiffman

On the morning of January 1, 2016, I sat on my lanai (a Floridian word for patio), smoking a cigar, drinking a cup of coffee, watching a bald eagle in its nest, while the eagle watched me.  Its my morning ritual.  As I thought about the eagle, standing on its solitary perch, watching for what comes its way, I identify with it.  I have come through a lot this past year, but I look toward the future.

Saying goodbye to 2015 leaves me with mixed feelings. There were some very good things and some very difficult things I went through. My father died.  That was difficult.  Taking care of my mom has not been easy, but I feel good about it.

We started our congregation, Tikvat Shalom, in 2015, which has been a great blessing to us.  Its hard to start a new congregation; its like building a house; you start with one brick, and add the others.  In our impatience, we want to see a finished building, but we only just started.  Our congregation is not “built,” and is not everything we want it to be, but we are moving in a good steady direction, and look forward to seeing what God will accomplish.  As things stand, I love our congregation and everyone is a blessing.

The important thing about 2016, is that I’m not going it alone.  I treasure my friendships.  My cigar friends mean a lot to me, and have been with me through difficult times.  My friends and congregants have been there for me, just as I have been there for them.  Its important to be with people, not just when things are easy.  One of the most helpful things we can do for one another is to just be there; not giving words of wisdom. Just being there.

I don’t make New Years resolutions, because no one keeps them, including me.  I do intend to treat others the way I wish to be treated, and to be kind to people.  I do intend to be there for people, even when its uncomfortable to do so.  Being there is really all I have to offer.

I hope to see our congregation grow.  Every Shabbat, I think what a good service we had.  I just wish more people were there to enjoy it.  Even if more people don’t come, I have the confidence of what we are doing is good, and we are being blessed.

I look at Chevra USA, our humanitarian work in Eastern Europe and Israel, and am thankful for the opportunity to help the Jewish poor. I hope and pray more people will support our work so we can do more to be a blessing to those in need.  Being a very small ministry, we don’t have the funds to accomplish all we could do, but we do what we can.

Life is complex.  We make our plans, but things happen that change our plans.  Our job is to make the best of it, for ourselves, as well as for others.  The people around us affect us.  I plan to avoid people who are always negative; who drain the joy from my life, and spend more time with people who are happy and like others to be happy as well.

Mostly, I want my life to be a blessing.  When people think of me, I want the thought to bring a smile to their faces.  For that to happen, I need to be the kind of person who makes that happen.  I am thankful for my life and its blessings.  I pray others will be blessed as well.




Being Taken For Granted

Being Taken For Granted

by Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman

I am a rabbi.  I’m a takenforgrantedpeople helper by definition.  Being a rabbi is more than just being a teacher; Its being a shepherd, someone who cares for his sheep.  I am there for people in good times and bad, to laugh with them, rejoice with them, and comfort them in difficult moments.  Mainly, its being there for people.  Emotionally, being a rabbi can be a draining experience, and it leaves me emotionally exhausted.  I love what I do, making a difference in people’s lives, but I do get tired in the work.

Sometimes I feel that people take me for granted.  I extend myself for people, not just my own congregants, but people who visit our congregation, as well as people I know outside our community.  They usually thank me and tell me how much they appreciate what I do, yet, when it comes to my needs, I don’t feel like anyone really cares. People thank me for what I do, yet when I need them, they are not there.  When people don’t show up for services, I feel like I spent all day cooking a great meal, and then they don’t show up.  They don’t realize how much it means to me for them to be there.  Its not like they “owe me,” but where does being there for me come in?

I lead a small congregation, and don’t get paid to lead it, so I don’t have the appreciation that an actual salary can represent, and I often wonder if anyone really appreciates what I do.  When people say thank you, in the back of my head, I hear a voice saying, “Talk is cheap.”  Where are they when I really need them?  Nothing is more demoralizing than the feeling that people just don’t care.

In a sense, its probably a good thing that people take me for granted.  It means I’m doing my job.  They come to me because they see me as their spiritual leader, and not just as a contractor or hireling.  I’m supposed to be the person someone looks to when they need spiritual or emotional help.  I just need a way to deal with my own feelings.

I appreciate when people give me gifts like cigars, or a book.  It represents care and appreciation and it means so much to me.

Some of my work involves putting out fires between people who quarrel with one another.  It involves people who are either upset with me or others over things that, in the grand scheme of things are not that important, although they feel they are. If I don’t support them, they get angry with me.  When people complain about things they don’t like, its like a slap in the face.  Its like everything I do isn’t enough or doesn’t really matter.  I try to not take it personally, but its hard not to.

So how am I supposed to deal with these feelings?  I think about the people who appreciate what I do.  I try to make time for myself in the midst of a busy schedule.  I try to be myself.  Mostly, I try to remember why I do what I do.  I’m not here to have people be appreciative or make them feel beholden to me.  I’m here to serve God, and I try to be his hands and his heart to the people who need it.  Its not for them, but for Him that I serve.  If I couldn’t serve, I’d go out of my mind.  I am grateful for the opportunities to serve Him by serving His people.  It makes all the difference.

Embracing Sukkot

I have to admit, that I have always had a certain ambivalence toward the holiday of Sukkot.  It is called tFeatured imagehe season of our Joy, and I’ve watched people over the years build their sukkahs, shake their Lulavs, and do all the things we do on Sukkot, but it has been a difficult thing for me to enter into.

There are several reason this has been a difficult holiday for me.  First, I come from a family that didn’t build a sukkah.  My grandparents came from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they lived in tenements, and only the very religious built sukkahs on their fire escapes.  Most people there went to the local synagogue and used the congregational Sukkah.  My parents came from the Bronx, where people lived in apartment buildings and instead of building sukkahs, they also went to the local synagogue.  When my family moved to Long Island, we had the room to build a sukkah, but we went to the local synagogue and used theirs.  Later, when I raised my family, I built sukkahs when my kids were young, but to be honest, construction was not my thing, and it got cold by then, so sitting in a poorly constructed (sometimes they fell apart, and sometimes they blew down) sukkah in the cold and sometimes rain, did not give me the feeling of Joy. I did not experience warmth or Joy on this holiday.

Secondly, Sukkot comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, which immediately follows Rosh HaShana, not to mention Slichas (repentance).  By the time Sukkot comes around, I’m holiday’d out.  I’m tired.  Then to have to build a sukkah in a few days, just seems like too much.

I spent several years attending Hasidic Sukkot celebrations, and they were fun, and I enjoyed it very much.  I was glad they did it, and was glad to be a part of it, but if I built my own collapsing sukkah, it would not be the same.  I was following the same pattern as my parents and grandparents.  I was just going to someone else’s sukkah.

Another aspect was the “season of Joy” aspect of the holiday.  I always felt it was a bit contrived.  I always felt Joy was an emotion you felt spontaneously.  It was not supposed to be planned.  It always gave me the feeling of it being forced.  I’m not one to “fake it till you make it.”

This year, with only a few days until Sukkot, once again, I found myself without the physical and emotional strength to build a sukkah.  Some good friends from our congregation were building one, so I figured I’d just go to their house and use theirs.  I got my lulav and esrog, and we gathered with other people from the congregation.  We were not a large group, but we had a great pot luck meal, we went into the sukkah, lit holiday candles, made kiddush, and shook our lulavs and esrogs.  We sat around for 5 hours, enjoying our time together.  Everyone got along with one another, and there was a fellowship that I could only describe as “sweet.”  It was at that moment that I embraced Sukkot.  Not just the rituals, but in the midst of the rituals as our setting, after all the stress of the preceding holidays, there was Joy.  It was not contrived.  It was not forced.  It happened, and it was beautiful.  Next year, I build a sukkah!

Connecting With The Dead

Featured imageThere are a lot of con men out there who make a fortune from people who miss their departed loved ones, and want to communicate with them.  They are only too happy to relieve people of their money so they can supposedly communicate with their departed relatives.  They speak in generalizations, and people wanting to believe, latch onto whatever they say, in hopes of hearing words of comfort.  Taking advantage of people and exploiting their grief is unconscionable in my opinion.

Recently I went to grief counseling at the local hospice where my dad passed away.  The counselor was trained and comforting. I told her that I am unable to express my grief at home because I don’t want to upset my mom, and that when I do express grief, my mom says that my grief is not as bad as hers.  The counselor pointed out that my grief is mine, and my mom’s is my mom’s, and hers does not negate mine.  When someone grieves, no one can say their’s is worse, and therefore yours doesn’t matter.  Each one feels the loss in their own way, and they can’t be compared or say one person’s is worse than another’s.  I own my grief, and my mom owns hers.  The idea was freeing in a way.

I was surprised when she asked me how I “connect” with my dad.  I told her that I only pray to God, not to deceased relatives. She said that was not what she meant.  She meant in what ways to I remember my dad.  I told her that I I have been blogging about my grief, and it has been an outlet to express my pain.  I also share about my dad in anecdotes when I’m speaking.  She said writing is a good way to express my feelings, but when I share stories about my dad, I’m connecting with him.  I’m recalling memories of him and in some way, and its a connection.  I realized that when I share about my grandparents, I am also connecting with them.  The comment also helped me understand my mom.

Since my father passed away, my mom talks constantly about my dad.  Not just her expressions of missing him and wishing she died with him, but she constantly is sharing stories of their lives together;  when they were young and first married;  when I was born, or when we went somewhere on vacation.  My mom was using these memories to connect with my dad.  By recalling the past, she was holding on to him; comforting herself with a time when he was here, and how happy she was.

Stories can be powerful tools to teach values and ethics, but they can also be comforting tools to bring us to another time, when we were with people we loved.  Up until now, I tried to get my mom’s mind off the past, but I now realize that was not helping her.  I let her tell her stories, so she might comfort herself with her memories.  I probably will use some of them in my messages, partly because I’ve heard them over and over, and partly because they make my dad more alive to me.  The book of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.”  In the House of Mourning, we find wisdom and comfort.  The best way to bring comfort is to listen to those who mourn.

Eishet Chayal, The Woman of Valor

Featured imageA woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and nothing shall he lack. She renders him good and not evil all the days of her life. She opens her hand to the needy, and extends her hand to the poor. She is robed in strength and dignity, and cheerfully faces whatever may come. She opens her mouth with wisdom. Her tongue is guided by kindness. She tends to the affairs of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness. Her children come forward and bless her. Her husband too, and he praises her. Many women have done superbly, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a God-fearing woman is much to be praised. Place before her the fruit of her hands. Wherever people gather, her deeds speak her praise.

This passage from proverbs 31 is read every Shabbat at dinner.  It describes a godly woman.  Surely, not all women measure up to the standards of the passage. But the point is, it describes a strong, capable woman.  It does not describe a mindless, weak woman who is no more than a rubber stamp for her husband.  A godly woman is a capable, formidable woman.  She is robed in strength and dignity.  She is charitable and extends her hand to the needy.  It was these qualities that I saw in my wife when I was courting her.

It also describes her husband.  It says that he has full confidence in her, and she renders him good and not evil.  This is the part that’s difficult for me.  Husbands always think they know better than their wives.  We are wired differently and approach problems differently.  I always think I know better, and that she should have done things differently or said things differently.  I found that I need to have full confidence in my wife’s many good abilities.  I need to trust her to do the right thing; not based on wishful thinking, but based on the good abilities I know she has.  When I don’t do this, it leads to frustration for us both.  Its a hard lesson for me.  I always want to orchestrate things.  Sometimes you have to let people be themselves and not push them to do things the way you think they should go.  I am a blessed man to be married to my wife.  As the scripture says, I am rising up and calling her blessed.

I’m my father’s son, and my dad, who was a wonderful man, dominated my mom.  I need to not be so domineering. I wind up arguing with my wife about what she does or says instead of trusting her good sense.   I need to learn to trust my wife to do the right thing, because I know that she renders me good and not evil all the days of my life.  These aren’t just words; they are a struggle for me to put into practice.  I struggle because I have been burned in the past.  It’s not my wife’s fault, its my struggle to overcome my relationships before her.  I am grateful that my wife is a strong woman, as well as a kind woman.  She is patient with me as I struggle with my past.  I look to God to help me always see my wife for who she is; a righteous woman who is a wife of noble character.