Tikvat Israel

Messianic Jewish Shabbat Observance and the Gentile

It is appropriate for Gentile disciples of Yeshua to participate in Jewish prayer. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem is to be called “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Yeshua did not come to create a separate religion for Gentiles with different prayers.

-Aaron Eby
Chapter 2: Prayer in Jewish Space, p.33
First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer

I mentioned in my previous blog post My Personal Shabbos Project that I was planning an undertaking for two Sabbaths in November (the first is just a week away as you read this) to actually do my best to authentically observe Shabbos. The family will be away, so I’ll have the ability to construct my observance without offending anyone or intruding on “Jewish space” as a goy.

To that end, I mentioned a couple of resources I’d be studying: The Sabbath Table and Aaron Eby’s aforementioned First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer.

I’ve been looking through Eby’s book and in the second chapter, I came across a section called “Gentiles and Jewish Prayer”. The quote at the top of the page is taken from the first paragraph in that section. It sounds very supportive, encouraging, and inclusive. This is the second paragraph:

Nonetheless, there are issues and boundaries that must be considered when a Gentile chooses to participate in Jewish prayer services. In the same way, the “house of prayer for all peoples” had distinct areas through which men, women, Jews, Gentiles, and priests could enter and different ways in which they could participate.


This was certainly true in the time of Herod’s Temple, and I can imagine, relative to Gentiles, it was also true in the time of Solomon:

Also a gentile who is not of Your people Israel, but will come from a distant land, for Your Name’s sake — for they will hear of Your great Name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm — and will come and pray toward this Temple — may You hear from Heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and act accordingly to all that the gentile calls out to You…

-1 Kings 8:41-43 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

The key phrase for me is “and will come and pray toward this Temple…” I don’t have any command of the Hebrew, so I don’t know really what “toward this Temple” is supposed to indicate. Were the gentiles to stand outside the Temple and pray in its direction? King Solomon doesn’t seem to be saying that gentiles anywhere on earth could just face Jerusalem, because he speaks of gentiles traveling to Israel because of God’s great reputation.

Most Christian English language Bibles use the word “toward” although the International Standard Version says “facing,” and both the Jubilee Bible 2000 and the Douay-Rheims Bible say “in this house” and “in this place” respectively. Put together, I get the definite impression that gentiles weren’t expected to enter any part of the Temple’s grounds when Solomon was King. At least in Herod’s Temple, there was a court of the Gentiles.

About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God…

Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments…

-Acts 10:3, 30 (NASB)

Cornelius the centurion was the quintessential God-fearer. Luke says that he was a “devout” man, indicating some level of Torah observance.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Cornelius, the God-Fearer of Caesarea,” p.18
Messiah Magazine, Fall 2014 edition

Peter and Cornelius

Clearly in the days of the apostles, the God-fearing Roman Cornelius had taken it upon himself to observe some of the mitzvot including the set times of prayer. Luke places the centurion praying at the ninth hour which corresponds to between two to three p.m., a time in both the ancient and modern worlds when devout Jews pray the Minchah or afternoon prayers. Exactly what and how Cornelius was praying we’ll never know, but his devotion to God and to the Jewish people got the attention of an angel and subsequently the apostle Peter.

So I agree that Gentiles were always meant to participate in the prayers, and both in the days of Solomon and Herod, we have indications that, as Eby says, there were distinctions regarding the placement of Gentiles in Jewish space, specifically the Temple.

I find this promising and more than a little daunting, which is why, even though ideally Shabbat observance is done in community, it is better for me to observe Shabbos alone, and particularly outside of Jewish space. Frankly, for me to have any sort of “thumbprint” placed upon my Sabbath practice, it’s just easier to do so in my own home.

Not that my home isn’t “Jewish space” since I live with a Jewish wife and daughter, but one of the requirements of my project is that I be alone so that, among other things, I don’t (metaphorically speaking) stomp all over their Jewish space with my big, fat feet. I have no desire to appear more “observant” than the Jewish people I live with, Heaven forbid. My role is supposed to be to encourage them to be more Torah observant.

It should be noted that until Peter and his party of Jewish companions entered Cornelius’s home, the centurion’s environment was composed exclusively of gentiles, so whatever Jewish observances he employed were not impinging on Jewish space. Of course God-fearing Gentiles regularly attended synagogue, but I can only imagine that they didn’t simply just “mix in” with the Jewish crowd but instead, had specific seating arrangements.

Eby in his book agrees with Lancaster and believes the “text implies that Cornelius prayed in what seemed to be a Jewish way” (p.33). Further, Eby says:

There is a delicate balance when it comes to the relationship of Gentiles to Jewish prayer. If the prayer of Messianic Gentiles is to be identical to Jewish prayer, it implies that these Gentiles have become Jews or that they fit into the same legal category as Jews. This is a type of replacement theology. On the other hand, if Messianic Gentile prayer is to be completely different from Jewish prayer, it denies the concept that it is through Israel that all nations connect with God.

-Eby, pp.33-4

Next, Eby speaks of “Blessings in Vain” and “Misappropriation of Identity,” both of which the Gentile (me) encounters in many of the blessings in a standard siddur, which, as Eby states, is “written from a first-person Jewish perspective.”

Fortunately, though I’m not terribly familiar with it yet, The Sabbath Table is written in such a way that it guides the Jewish and Gentile disciples along slightly different paths in the traditional liturgy, so the Gentile doesn’t have to “think fast on his/her feet,” so to speak, when reaching a part of the prayers where the reader is identified as Israel.

I remember encountering this issue in my “Hebrew Roots” days and I eventually learned to either avoid certain “problematic” areas of the siddur, or to broadly re-interpret them as meaning I supported Israel and her people rather than I was Israel.

Aaron Eby
Aaron Eby

Eby also suggests substituting “us” with “your people Israel” as a plea for Israel rather than as a request from Israel.

I know all this is going to rub some people the wrong way, but prior to the apostolic era, it was relatively rare for Gentiles to be in Jewish space and particularly to keep the Shabbat unless they were in the process of converting to Judaism or represented that equally rare phenomena (in those days) of being a Gentile married to a Jew.

Going back much further and into the time of Moses, any Gentile who wished to become attached to Israel and be considered a “resident alien” was actually obligated to a significant number of the mitzvot, including Shabbat observance, with the understanding that they would become permanent members of the community as Gentiles and that their descendents, starting at the third generation (grandchildren), would be absorbed into an Israelite tribe and clan (probably through intermarriage) and be considered Israelites; their ties to their Gentile ancestors obliterated.

But as Gentile disciples of Yeshua, we are not considered gerim as such (since Israel is no longer tribal), nor God-fearing Noahides, since all the nations of the earth are obligated to the basic laws of Noah, but we benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant, the promise of the resurrection, the giving of the Spirit (see Acts 10), and the life in the world to come.

Paul’s vision, his “gospel” included Gentiles in Jewish social and religious space and he staunchly defended his position, even in the face of James and the Apostolic Council (see Acts 15), and while his vision died with him, it has been reborn in modern Messianic Judaism.

Boaz Michael, President and Founder of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), defines Messianic Judaism in part by saying:

To me, Messianic Judaism is not just a Jewish-flavored version of Christianity. If I was asked to define Messianic Judaism, I would say, “Messianic Judaism is the practice of Judaism coupled with the realization that Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, the New Testament is true, and the kingdom is at hand.”

-Boaz Michael
“Defining Messianic Judaism”
from the Director’s Letter, p.10
Messiah Journal, issue 117, Fall 2014

Boaz didn’t mention Gentiles in his definition of Messianic Judaism, but on pages 7 and 8, he states:

In many ways, the Messianic movement seems to be stuck in a rut, unable to resolve its most basic identity questions. Like one of those endless Messianic circle-dances, we are continually circling around the same sets of questions: Jewish identity, effective evangelism strategies, the role of tradition, the role of liturgy…and especially the role of Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish movement. (emph. mine)

I don’t know if the question of the role of the “Messianic Gentile” in Messianic Judaism is a problem in Messianic Judaism or just my own personal issue. I suppose I’m more sensitive to these matters than most because I’m intermarried, and particularly to a non-Messianic Jew. The divide between me being a Christian and her being Jewish is a well-defined line of demarcation.

Which brings me back to observing Shabbat individually and the “problem” of me being a Gentile and the Shabbat prayers being Jewish.

For example, one line in the traditional after-meal blessing offers thanks to God “for the covenant that [he] sealed in our flesh.” It seems problematic for a Messianic Gentile to say this. But should someone who is not Jewish then say “for the covenant that you have written on our hearts?” To do so would imply that Messianic Jews have only a fleshly covenant, whereas the new covenant that is written on hearts belongs only to Messianic Gentiles, God forbid.

-Eby, p.36

As my long-suffering wife would say, “Oy!”

Eby goes on to say that prayers in a Messianic Jewish synagogue should not be homogenized across the Jewish and Gentile population, and I agree, but that also would introduce a certain amount of “clashing” with one group saying one thing and another saying something completely different at the same time.

I can see the attraction of church only because it is homogenized. Everyone is the same, though I feel sorry for the “Christian Hebrews” in attendance since it is my firm belief that they aren’t “cookie cutter identical” to the Gentile Christian congregation in which they are embedded (I also can see the attraction of a homogenized [Jewish] synagogue environment for Messianic Jews and for the same reasons).

I don’t know how Paul did it. I wish he’d left more detailed instructions.

beth immanuel
Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship

I remember feeling this sense of dissonance the second time I attended the Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship. Although it advertises itself as “Messianic Judaism for the Nations,” within its walls, I experienced a severe case of identity confusion, probably because at that time, I had returned to regular church attendance and didn’t know if I was “fish or fowl”. How could I totally commit to church and still “feel” like a “Messianic Gentile?”

The dissonance damaged my Shavout experience and a few relationships along with it, much to my regret, and ultimately resulted in me bouncing back out of church since in the end, I didn’t have a single thing in common with the people there, at least in terms of theology and doctrine.

But “shoehorning” my way back into Messianic Judaism hasn’t proven particularly easy, either. When I’m just me, studying alone, praying alone (though I haven’t touched my siddur for months now), it’s just me and God and problems of identity and relationship aren’t a problem. God knows who I am and who I am created to be. I don’t know what He’ll think of all my preparations for Shabbat. Maybe He thinks they’re all foolish. I don’t know. If I’m doing this just for me, then I’m doing it in vain. Shabbat only means something if my intent is to honor God.

But dodging through this minefield of a Gentile and Jewish prayer and a Gentile and Jewish Shabbat observance makes me glad I’m doing all this in the privacy of my own home. If I slip or, Heaven forbid, get a little bit to “liberal” with the prayers, the only person who’ll be offended is God, and I’m hoping He’s more forgiving of me than I am of myself.

The Shabbat is supposed to be a delight. So why do I have a feeling of impending dread?

Actually, here’s part of the answer:

Don’t confuse God’s commandments with the traditions of men. Does God actually want such “extra effort” to do things He has never commanded?

Why was Jesus challenged so many times about what He did on the Sabbath? Was it because He was breaking God’s law? Or was it because His actions contravened the traditions men had ADDED to God’s commandments about the Sabbath?

What did Jesus actually mean by “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.

I just find something ludicrous in the fact that a refrigerator light can cause such concern and is that kind of thing REALLY what the Sabbath is about? Would applying duct tape to the switch (or disconnecting the light some other way) be pleasing to God or would leaving the light to shine displease Him ?

This is a recent comment on another blog post and it highlights one side of the argument. The other side is me trying to be sensitive to Jewish requirements as a non-Jew choosing to observe one or two Sabbaths using the only template I have available: a Jewish template. In trying to navigate the competing priorities of human beings, I’m letting them suck the joy out of what should be a joyous occasion. Really guys, I’m going to be alone so how I choose to observe Shabbos should be between me and God.

If I were in someone else’s house or in someone’s synagogue, I’d follow the requirements of my host, but in any real sense, my “host” will be God. Like I said, I’m following Jewish tradition to some degree because it’s the template I have available to me, and frankly, Jews have been observing the Shabbat for untold centuries before there were any Christians. You’d think we goyim would recognize by now that the Jewish people are the experts on Shabbat.

I probably won’t be perfect in my observance or meet everyone’s expectations, Jewish or Christian, but why should this be any different than anything else I’ve done or written about?



Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul

I have a question concerning playing music on Shabbat. My uncle is a wonderful guitar player and singer. He writes many songs and aspires to share his music with the world one day. On a recent Shabbat, we were at a friend’s house where many people were singing. I asked him to play, but he declined, saying it was against Jewish law.

I feel this may be stretching the restrictions. For me, I believe that Shabbat is a time to share joy with family and friends. Music is a wonderful way to do this.

I am not seeking to criticize my uncle. I just want to get a better grasp on the concepts, so that I can discuss this point with him in a more educated manner.

From the “Ask the Rabbi” column at

It’s not the question that I’m so much interested in as the detailed answer conveyed by the Aish Rabbi. It speaks very much to my Shabbos Project and the associated feelings of insecurity I’ve been experiencing as the days pass by. The Rabbi’s answer, although not directly addressing non-Jews observing the Shabbat, does tell a beautiful story toward the end, and at the beginning of his response, he explains why Jews observe Shabbat the way that they do. It’s a helpful reply to those who criticize the Jewish people for “man-made traditions.”

I’m copying the Rabbi’s entire response here so you get the full experience of his words. I’ll italicize the quote to make it more readable rather than putting it between “blockquote” tags. Also, as I write this, the Aish website seems to default to “mobile=yes”, so if you’re not on a smartphone or tablet and click the link I provided, the text on their web page will look a little odd.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I appreciate the sincerity of your question. Of course there are many beautiful aspects of Shabbat — the candles, the challah, the wine, and the opportunity for family and friends to be together.

Yet these aesthetic elements must not obscure the essence of Shabbat. It is a commemoration of the Creation of the world. Since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, in our effort to emulate God we likewise work for six days and rest on the seventh.

The Talmud (Shabbat 73a) describes 39 categories of “creative acts” which we refrain from on Shabbat. These are the 39 powers of creation that exist in the world, corresponding to those acts performed by God (so to speak) in creating the world. Just as God refrained from creative activity on the seventh day, we do likewise. And when we refrain from that which is prohibited on Shabbat, we are, in the truest sense, being God-like.

The job of protecting the Shabbat (as well as other mitzvot) was entrusted to the wisest and most dedicated leaders of the Jewish people, the members of the Sanhedrin. These leaders made certain enactments to protect the uniqueness of the Shabbat experience. One enactment is to not play a musical instrument on Shabbat. This is due to a concern that playing an instrument on Shabbat could lead to fixing an instrument in a way that infringes on one of the 39 types of activity.

If these laws are not respected, then the Shabbat experience is ultimately diminished. And since Shabbat is a cornerstone of Jewish life, this measure was taken to ensure that observance of Shabbat is maintained for all. Further, the enactment was approved and accepted by the entire Jewish nation.

Further, the Sages made no distinction between string and wind instruments. Frequently the Sages will enact a decree that way, because otherwise many people would get confused about what is permitted and what is not.

Music that involves only the body — e.g. singing and whistling — are permitted on Shabbat. All instruments are not.

NishmatI would like to share with you a story from pre-War Europe:

In the city of Dinov, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech would sing the Shabbat morning prayers. As he would sing, he would gaze through the window and see the lush green rolling hills, the flowers splashing color against the deep blue sky. All this would move him to sing with great emotion the “Nishmat” prayer:

“If our mouths were filled with song like the sea is full of water, and our tongues as full of joyous song as the sea has waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky, and our feet swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently.”

Week after week, the non-Jewish shepherds would hear this song wafting over the country plain. They would stop their work to listen attentively, and many would even walk to the synagogue to hear the rabbi sing.

When the rabbi died, the congregation felt a rupture in their hearts. All week long they mourned, but on Shabbat, which is a time for happiness, they tried to restrain themselves. Yet the cantor, when he reached the “Nishmat” prayer, stopped to swallow a tear.

Suddenly, the entire congregation heard the rabbi’s melody filling the synagogue! Everyone looked out the window to see the non-Jewish shepherds singing the rabbi’s song. (from “Tales of the Chassidic Soul”)

Indeed, music is a great part of Shabbat. That’s why there is a rich heritage of Jewish melodies which add to the Shabbat atmosphere. Many of these songs are printed in the standard Siddur. So while you may miss your uncle’s guitar playing one day a week, remember that he is keeping the Shabbat experience fully alive, as Jews have done, for thousands of years.

I don’t know how to access “Tales of the Chassidic Soul,” but if the story shared by the Aish Rabbi is any indication, it must be a wonderful work and I’d love to get a hold of a copy (Googling and searching Amazon produced nothing).

The effect of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech singing the Nishmat prayer on the non-Jewish shepherds is, I believe, the exact response many Christians have when hearing the Hebrew prayers, and certainly it speaks to my soul. I remember the first time I visited Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship during their annual Shavuot conference. I arrived early for the event one morning and heard from the rooms in the back, beautiful Hebrew singing. I felt myself drawn to the voices and realized that the men were davening the Shacharit or “morning prayers” in one of the upstairs rooms. I found myself standing beneath the room just listening, not understanding the language, but letting the prayers wash over my spirit. In some ways, it was the highlight of my entire Shavuot celebration that year.

ShabbatThat’s what I’m hoping will happen in some small measure as I attempt to observe a proper Shabbat. As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no command of the Hebrew and I sing like a frog, so I can’t produce anything like the same result as that one morning in Hudson, Wisconsin, but in the absence of any talent on my part, I’m hoping God will fill what is missing inside of me, even as the singing of Rabbi Elimelech filled something inside the shepherds toiling outside the synagogue in Dinov.

The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Hashem our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King.

-from the Nishmat prayer


A Review of the Sinai Ethic: The Ethic of Election

In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

-Exodus 19:1-6 (NASB)

The Sinai Ethic was originally presented by Rabbi Russ Resnik, executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), during the annual First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavu’ot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. Shavu’ot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and the pouring out of the Spirit, is a holy and deeply spiritual time that provides a reverent connection with the people of God who heard the words of the LORD spoken from the fire at Mount Sinai. These teachings, given in three sessions during the festival, focus on the moral and ethical mandates that the giving of the Torah established for the Jewish people and all nations.

-from the back cover of the CD for the audio teaching, “The Sinai Ethic”

Session Two: The Ethic of Election

It’s been over three weeks since I reviewed Part One of Rabbi Resnik’s three-part series. I haven’t had much time to sit down and listen to the audio CD graciously provided by FFOZ but admittedly, I’ve been kind of dreading continuing with the series. Part One was difficult for me to get a handle on, and when I did, I found I didn’t always agree with what R. Resnik said.

Part Two was a pleasant departure from that experience, and I found The Ethic of Election to be straightforward, easy to follow, and to be what I expected it to be. It also provided me with some new perspectives on crucial parts of the Torah record and the story of Israel.

Resnik began his lecture with sort of a joke, kind of like a story about different siblings get together and find out they all thought that Mom loved them the best, as if each one of them were especially “chosen” or “elect” in relation to their Mom (“But I thought Mom loved me best”).

It gets uncomfortable when you think you’re the favorite in the family only to discover that all of your other family members think they’re the favorite, too. But more so, and especially in our egalitarian culture, where in order to avoid any losers having their feelings hurt, we’ve created a society where “everyone’s a winner,” Resnik says it’s a “scandalous idea” that any one person or group could be chosen, because it means other people and groups are not. It’s even worse when God made a choice and that choice of a people was an ethnic group. We don’t like any one ethnic group to be considered more, better, or special than any other group.

I quoted Exodus 19:1-6 above since Resnik read it to his audience, but he also read the following:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

-1 Peter 2:9

Landron Paule_Histoire Sainte_Première Alliance_Droguet Ardant_Limoges 1991This came up in a previous blog post some weeks ago when I naively thought Peter must have been addressing a non-Jewish audience using the “chosen” language of Exodus 19, but it was pointed out to me that the apostle could have been as easily addressing Jewish disciples of the Master.

That said, Resnik acts as if Peter were addressing Gentiles and he (Rabbi Resnik) was using the verse to highlight the dynamic tension between all Israel being chosen by God and a remnant of the people of the nations also being chosen by God, and their being no contradiction between these two choices.

Resnik referenced his previous lecture, particularly the part about conditional and unconditional covenant elements, to highlight that the nature of Israel being chosen is unconditional. Exodus 19:5 makes Israel’s being chosen seem conditional on whether or not they obey the Torah, which is how most Christians read it, but verse 4 tells us that Israel being chosen is totally unconditional. What’s conditional is the role Israel plays and whether or not they will live out that role in a completely realized way, which they can only do if they obey God by observing the conditions of the covenant, the Torah mitzvot.

So God doesn’t “unchoose” Israel when they stumble, they just lose key elements in their role, such as living in the Land of Israel, being free vs. being slaves, and so on.

Resnik compares God as impartial judge to God as father. We all think we want God to be an impartial judge because that eliminates any preference of a particular population over all the people on earth. But while that may sound like a good idea, it also eliminates a father’s love for his children. Yes, all fathers love all of their children, but truth be told, any father will admit when pressed, that he usually relates better to one of his children than to the others.

Do you see where this is going? Relating better to one child does not remove the father’s love from any of the other kids, but because he’s human (this is a metaphor so don’t get too literal on me), he’s naturally going to connect to one kid’s personality more than the others for some reason.

This is God the Father in relation to Israel, His chosen one.

Christianity, and particularly what we call “Hebrew Roots,” regularly struggles with Israel’s chosen and special status because they think it means “God loves the Jewish people best” and to the exclusion of the Gentiles, but that’s not what Resnik is getting at here.

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine… (emph. mine)

-Exodus 19:5

What a strange statement to stick in that sentence: “for all the earth is Mine.” What does it mean? According to Resnik, it could have one of two possible interpretations:

  1. It could mean “all the earth is mine anyway, so I’ve got every right to choose you (Israel) among all the nations.”
  2. It could also mean “all the earth is mine, and so I’m choosing you (Israel) on behalf of all the nations.”

Resnik prefers the second interpretation. It’s not a matter of Israel being chosen and the rest of the nations are out of luck, Israel is chosen for a unique role of service to the rest of the world and to God. It’s one way to understand the two most important commandments, loving God with all your (Israel’s) resources by loving your neighbor (the rest of the world) as yourself.

You ever wonder why the story of Joseph takes up so much of the book of Genesis? I never did until Resnik brought it up.

Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the records of the generations of Jacob.

Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.

-Genesis 37:1-4

joseph-the-slaveThe “varicolored tunic” or “coat of many colors” doesn’t have a direct translation from Hebrew into English, but Resnik thinks of it as a “princely robe,” a sign of status, a sign of Joseph’s “election” by his father Jacob. It wasn’t that Jacob didn’t have a right to have a favorite among his sons. I mention above that this is kind of normal for human fathers (and for God). But his mistake, and Joseph’s, was rubbing the noses of the other brothers in it. While the brothers were supposed to support and endorse the election of Joseph, they never accepted it, so much so that when they got a chance, they tried to kill Joseph.

But first, they stripped off the sign of his election, ripped it to shreds, dipped it in blood, and threw it at their father’s feet as if to say, “This is what we think of your election of Joseph.” That’s not how it literally played out, but the symbolism is enough to give one pause, especially if we expand the metaphor into the history of the Jewish people in exile and how they have been mistreated and even murdered for the sake of our Gentile/Christian resentment of Israel’s election.

They say “the clothes make the man” and Joseph’s life seems to mirror that because his role changes as often as he changes clothes. He’s transformed from a slave into a prisoner when Potipher’s wife grabs his robe after her failed attempt to seduce him, and he is transformed from a prisoner to a prince when Pharaoh, King of Egypt, puts a signet ring on Joseph’s hand, clothes him in garments of fine linen, and puts a gold necklace around his neck (Genesis 41:42).

I never thought of Joseph subsequently testing his brothers as a test of whether or not they’d accept Jacob’s election of Benjamin as the favored son. After Joseph’s (perceived) death, all Jacob had left of Rachel was Benjamin. That’s why Jacob didn’t send Benjamin down to Egypt for food with the other brothers and why, when the brothers tell him what Joseph (as the Egyptian prince) did to them in demanding Benjamin’s presence, he resisted sending Benjamin to Egypt for months.

In the end, when given gifts of clothing and food by Joseph in Egypt, Benjamin always got bigger and better portions, and Judah passed the test on behalf of his brothers by guaranteeing his safety.

There’s an obvious comparison between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus) in revealing the “mystery of election.” I said before that the clothes make the man, but it’s not just the clothes. Joseph didn’t really come into his own until he was stripped, not once but twice, and when he stopped being arrogant and learned to be a servant, only then were the robes of a King restored to him.

Jesus too was stripped and given the robes of a King and a crown (of thorns) but only to mock him. The Romans played at bowing to him, but it was to humiliate him. As a teenage boy, Joseph dreamed his brothers and father would bow to him and they resented it, but decades later it became the literal truth. We also know the literal truth that someday, every knee will bow to our King (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Both Joseph and Jesus were chosen by their fathers, rejected by their brothers, handed over to Gentiles, went down into a pit (of literal death in Jesus’ case), were dressed as Kings (as a form of mocking in Jesus’ case). Yet we know that one day Messiah will come back and assume the throne as our King, as ruler, and as servant.

And that’s the secret, that’s the missing ingredient, that’s what it took Joseph many years to learn, and that’s the secret of Israel’s election as well.

While Jacob may have chosen Joseph as his elect and dressed him up for the role, the seventeen year old kid had a lot to learn. He thought of the robe as a status symbol and as long as he did, he failed. Only when he learned to be a servant to people and to God did he realize the “princely robe” is really a servant’s apron. Only when his life was transformed was he worthy of election. Our Master taught us the same thing:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

-Mark 10:45

Joseph of EgyptWhen the chosen Israel is obedient to God and of service to the world, she prospers in her “servant’s apron,” chosen of God on behalf of the nations of the earth. She is special and she wears the robes indicating their status, not as rulers but as especially responsible to God and to the world. When she’s disobedient, she is not “unchosen,” but like Joseph, she experiences “reversals” such as being slaves or prisoners, and Israel’s history is replete with such experiences. When she sees the robes of her election as a status symbol, they become twisted around her, trapping her.

When she understands their true nature, she is free, free to serve God and to realize her role in the world.

What Do I Think?

R. Resnik didn’t take it this far, though I suspect he might in his third and final lecture, but let’s see if I can anticipate him a little. As we saw in Joseph’s example, simply dressing up in a “princely robe” doesn’t make you a prince. If you’re a spoiled brat before putting on the robe, you’ll be a spoiled brat after you put it on, too. If you think you are deserving, special, and it’s your right to have that robe, then you risk having it stripped from you and worse.

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

-Luke 14:7-11

I quote these verses with some regularity and with good reason. There are plenty of well-meaning non-Jewish believers who are authentically convinced that they are equally chosen along with all Israel and that they deserve to wear the princely robe along with them. Problem is, they see it as a status symbol, sort of like the BMW of robes, rather than the clothing of servants who are expected to “go the extra mile,” so to speak, in the service of the world and of service to God.

It was God who gave, among the other Torah mitzvot, the commandment of the tzitzit to Israel. One might think of a tallit as Joseph’s “princely robe,” but then again, the Shabbat, which is the actual sign of the Sinai covenant, kosher, the festivals, they all could be considered as those robes of servanthood.

Joseph eventually revealed his true identity to his brothers and his father and they were all brought down to Egypt and given land on which to live. Pharaoh was excited to hear that Joseph had brothers. If one Joseph could save Egypt and the rest of the civilized world from famine, think what a dozen “Josephs” could do.

But they never did. None of Joseph’s brothers were elevated to a position anywhere near what Joseph had achieved. None of them became “princes in Egypt” or anywhere else. Joseph was Jacob’s elect and he served and ruled until his dying day. His brothers were pale shadows by comparison. Yes, Jacob loved all his sons, but he rightly recognized that Joseph was special and chose him accordingly as was his right.

God chose Israel as is His right, not because of any quality Israel possessed, but simply because it was God’s desire to do so. He doesn’t have to have a reason, at least one we understand.

Joseph was chosen on a larger scale to save his family (Israel) and the rest of the world from famine and he did it. Jesus was also chosen by his Father to save Israel and the rest of the world, and in one sense, it was accomplished on the cross. But in a larger sense, the process is still ongoing and won’t be complete until he returns. Israel, national Israel and all the Jewish people, are chosen to prepare the world for the redemption of their nation and through them, the entire world.

tallit-prayerIf we, like Joseph’s brothers, choose to reject that election, and metaphorically speaking, rip up Israel’s robes (or Messiah’s), dip them in blood, and throw the gory mess at the feet of God (and how often has that already happened?), we will also suffer as the brothers did. We’ll still be part of the family, but we will forfeit much of our special role in the service of God. You cannot say you love God if you hate Israel and the Jewish people and covet their princely robe.

You also can’t simply crawl under the robe with Joseph like a small child of yesteryear would crawl under his mother’s skirts.

I don’t know if this is anywhere near where Resnik is going, but it’s what came to mind as I was listening to the lecture.

I didn’t want to go here but it seems to be the inevitable destination of “The Ethic of Election.”

Addendum: I know my review and commentary is likely to inspire some pushback from “the usual suspects” (if you’ll pardon my rather tongue-in-check expression), but I read something written by NT scholar Larry Hurtado, just a brief sentence fragment, that I thought relevant:

“Scholars really can’t be expected to agree all the time, and he and I have disagreed occasionally on this or that… (but) I also have enormous respect for Bagnall’s work overall…”

If Bible scholars can’t be expected to agree all the time about the message of the Bible, at least in the details, how much more so can we expect some disagreement between different groups of believers in relation to observing mitzvoth and the distinctive differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master?

great cloud

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

The Bible says “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Are the biblical saints of old watching us live our lives like characters in a bad reality TV show?

Hebrews 11 presents the Bible’s hall of fame of faith: The book of faith and hope. The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to the biblical saints as “a great cloud of witnesses.” What does that term imply? Study Hebrews 12:1-4.

To hear more teachings from Hebrews 11, listen to “The Book of Faith and Hope.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty-one: A Great Cloud of Witnesses
Originally presented on February 1, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin…

-Hebrews 12:1-4 (NASB)

In last week’s sermon review, Lancaster blew through Hebrews 11 faster than I imagined, especially given how detail-oriented he’s been in addressing the other chapters so far. Of course, he’s devoted an entirely different sermon series to that one chapter, but I’ll have to listen to those fourteen sermons another time.

This week the focus is on how Chapter 11 affects the current material, namely Hebrews 12:1-4, but let’s stay with Chapter 11 for a little bit longer, particularly verse 2:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

The New American Standard Bible translates the Greek word martus as “approval” and other English translations include “commended,” “their commendation,” “good report,” and “testimony.” The best word we could use in English though is “witness.”

legal witnessLancaster goes through the original meaning of this word which is where we get the English word “martyr.” Today, we all think of a martyr as someone who dies for his or her religion, but back when the Epistle to the Hebrews was being written, it meant a witness in a legal proceeding. You might think of the early believers being taken before a Roman tribunal and directed to renounce their faith, blaspheme the name of Jesus, and to worship a pagan idol. The actual testimony of the believing witness, if they were true to their faith, was to affirm their trust in Messiah and belief in the coming resurrection and Kingdom of God. The consequence for that affirmation was to be executed, hence the eventual change in meaning of the word “martyr” (so, no, some suicide bomber blowing himself up to kill a bunch of innocent people is not a “martyr”).

The readers of the Hebrews letter were in a similar position, but not relative to the Romans. The Sadducees, who were in control of the Temple, were after these Jewish disciples of the Master to renounce their faith in the resurrection and the life in the world to come, since Sadducees believed in none of that (see Acts 23:6-8).

This has applications for us today as disciples. First of all, the “witness” of our faith in terms of Evangelical Christianity is not really a witness at all. A bunch of teens from a church youth group ambushing people at a shopping mall with religious tracts is not a witness. Being a witness is being directly challenged to renounce your faith and yet holding fast to it anyway.

There are many Christians in atheist nations like China or in various Muslim countries who are witnesses, who can only save themselves from being put in prison or killed if they renounce their faith and, like the ancient believers before Roman tribunals, they hold fast and faithfully suffer and even die rather than betray Yeshua.

Compared to that, no one in the western nations, including the U.S., has their witness challenged significantly.

Or is that true?

Lancaster says our challenges are much more subtle:

  • Embarrassment
  • Social pressure
  • Moral relativism
  • Materialism
  • Sensuality
  • Self-indulgence

The world around us attempts to get us to renounce our faith by encouraging us to conform to progressive and politically correct standards. In fact, this manipulation is so subtle that you don’t even have to stop calling yourself a “Christian,” you can continue to go to church (at least certain denominations), and yet still conform to every single standard valued by progressive secular society.

michaelsonI couldn’t help but think of Jay Michaelson’s book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality and the methods he employed to convince his readers that his understanding of the Bible, one that affirms and supports “loving same-sex couples” and “marriage equality” in the church and synagogue, is the correct and desired one.

If you remove the strong emotional components from the Michaelson book and look at it in terms of strategies and tactics, then it’s possible to view a parallel between the content of the book and what Lancaster says about how the Adversary seeks to remove, dilute, or delete our witness as Christians, to convince us to denounce Jesus so we can be just like everyone else.

Lancaster said in his sermon that one witness to our faith is lifelong, male-female, monogamous marriage, and he says the world laughs at this witness. Besides the issues involved in Michaelson’s book, how many couples, even Christian couples, have sexual relationships before marriage or outside of marriage, and have children outside of marriage? This is something of the norm in secular society and it seems the only people who actually want to get married are gays and lesbians, and that only because it’s still illegal in a dwindling number of states in our nation.

The world does work against us in many ways, challenging us, and demanding a witness to our faith. We need to look back to Hebrews 11, which is all about the many, many role models we have to look up to who were also challenged and yet never wavered:

…and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

-Hebrews 11:36-40

If we think we have problems living Holy lives, look at the people, in this case, the prophets of old, who suffered, were tortured, murdered, lived desperate and difficult lives, and all of them who had gained a good witness of their faith, even though they did not receive anything they were promised by God, so that we too could be included in the promises of the future resurrection.

What Did I Learn?

The sufferings of the faithful we read about in Chapter 11 were their witness, their faith testified about them and still does every time we read the Bible. The “great cloud of witnesses” doesn’t mean the saints are sitting around in Heaven spying on our lives as if we’re part of a bad reality TV show. They aren’t witnessing us, their lives are a witness to us.

long-distance-runnerWe are like runners in a race. Those faithful witnesses have already run that race and won. We are still facing the challenges they overcame. They are our heroes and our guides. Their lives are our inspiration.

The central message of the sermon is “Don’t give up. You aren’t alone. Others have crossed the finish line — you can too.”

When my kids were young, we used to watch a variety of different cartoons including one about a group of martial artists who trained in weighted clothing in order to increase their strength.

Verse one of Hebrews chapter 12 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance (weight) and the sin which so easily entangles us…” If you’re going to run a race and your life, your eternal life, depends on successfully crossing the finish line, you need to be as light and strong as you can. “Weighted clothing” or the weight of sin will just slow you (and me) down. We need to endure because it’s a long race, not a sprint. And there are many “stumbling blocks” along the way, which is why we need to keep our eye on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith.”

No one’s perfect. No one’s faith is perfect, but then again, it doesn’t have to be. We are broken, just like the world around us, but the perfecter of the world is also the perfecter of our faith. If we keep our eyes on him, we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to keep paying attention and not to waver.

That bullet point list I posted above is a list of items designed to distract us and to change our focus. If we start paying attention to all that and let our attention wander, it’s easy to become very discouraged and even to give up. Even if we don’t think we’ve given up, it’s easy to slip into some model of “Christianity” that says we’re doing the right thing by ignoring the standards of God, difficult as they seem to be, and embracing the standards of people and of the culture in which we live. We may still believe we’re part of the “community of faith” and that we are doing good and showing compassion, but in fact, we have exited Yeshua-faith and joined the ranks of a faithless society more concerned about present appearances than future and eternal glory.

burdenA life of faith seems to be very weighty sometimes. I’ve felt it pressing down on me, and often the tonnage seems triggered by religious rather than secular people. But they can really do nothing if faith is strong. If you feel discouragement and are tempted to give up or even just lighten up, don’t blame the world, look to your own heart, your own faith, and your own stamina. Call on God to strengthen you and to see you through to the end of the race.


My Personal Shabbos Project

This past Shabbat, thousands of people experienced the beauty of Shabbat for their first time. I’m sure many were touched, perhaps transformed by the experience. But it will fade unless we transform the inspiration into action.

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“After the Shabbat Project”

My husband and I spent the Shabbos Project in Venice. It was great to see a different community. Tali’s enthusiasm was great. Attached is a picture from candle lighting…

-Batsheva Jassinowsky, Johannesburg
from the Shabbos Project’s website

This is just a sample of the many commentaries available about last weekend’s Shabbos Project which I previously blogged about. I took some online criticism from well-meaning but less than compassionate individuals who believe that everything in the covenant conditions God gave to Israel at Sinai now belongs to any non-Jew who is a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), including the Shabbat.

Of course, as I said before, I think there’s a certain amount of justification for non-Jews observing the Shabbat in some fashion based both on Genesis 2 in honoring God as Creator, and Isaiah 56 which predicts world-wide Shabbat observance in the Messianic Kingdom. Additionally, based on D. Thomas Lancaster’s interpretation of The Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, we disciples of the Master can and perhaps should behave as if the Messianic Era is already upon us, even though our world is still ruled by darkness; we can behave as partisans or freedom fighters, holding onto our own until the return of the King.

Thus there seems to be more than sufficient support for Gentiles in the present world participating in Sabbath observance. My personal caveat is that if you are not observing Shabbat in a Jewish environment by invitation or are not part of a Jewish family, as a Gentiles, please try not to behave in a heavy-handed manner and claim “all your Sabbaths belong to us,” to borrow from a popular meme.

I know a convenient excuse for anti-Semitism used by some folks is that the Bible says we don’t have to be respecters of men but only of God (Acts 4:19, 5:29). But we also know from the Master’s teaching not to usurp the place of honor at the banquet, but rather, we should wait to be invited before we are elevated and esteemed (Luke 14:7-15).

However, I’m not writing this to be (deliberately) provocative today. I have a unique opportunity in early November when I will be “home alone” for two Sabbaths. That means, among other things, that I can make 100% of the decisions about how I spend my time on those occasions, and I’ve decided to conduct a small, personal, “Shabbos Project” of my very own.

shabbatIt may surprise you to know that I’ve never really observed a proper Shabbat sundown to sundown, Friday to Saturday. My (Jewish) family has never been very observant, so about the best they do is lighting the Shabbos candles and even that doesn’t happen every week.

When we were all doing “Hebrew Roots” many years ago, even then, none of us were as observant as we liked to believe. We drove to the Hebrew Roots congregation, and while we often used crock pots for our food, a certain amount of turning on electrical devices occurred. Naturally, we turned lights on and off, we opened and closed refrigerator doors (causing the light to go on and off), we wrote, and no doubt we participated in some or most of the other thirty-nine melachah or types of work forbidden on the Shabbat.

It’s sort of like our “keeping kosher” was. We avoided specific types of food but that was that. The so-called “Biblical commandments” without the “man-made” interpretations of said-commandments.

But I wonder what it would be like, for me, the goy, to actually attempt to approach observing Shabbat for real. I have two weekends to try it out. I won’t be part of a “project” and in fact, I’ll be the opposite. Where the Shabbos Project attempted to bring together as many Jews as possible from all over the world, I’ll be flying solo, just me and the Shabbat.

I’m not a baker, so Challah will have to be purchased, and I think there’s a couple of local stores that sell it. Wine is not problem obviously since I can buy that anywhere. We’ve got plenty of Shabbat candles and the candlesticks on hand, and I have copies of The Sabbath Table and First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer to study in preparation.

This means no driving, no cooking, no watching TV, no using the computer (thus, no Internet), no opening the fridge (which will be interesting since I’ll probably need to keep some of the food I plan on eating cold), timing whatever cooking I do for Friday night such that it’s all done in time and there’s no clean up (or I can tolerate a mess until Saturday night).

It also means planning out my Friday night and Saturday. There are no services within walking distance of my house and in any event, I don’t think it would be appropriate to inflict myself on one of the two synagogues in town. That means I can stay at home and still pray the Sabbath prayers, read the Torah portion (which I do anyway), read Torah commentaries (which I do anyway) and so on.

I don’t read Hebrew and I sing like a cement mixer, so the prayers will be in English and I won’t be singing Shabbos songs after Erev Shabbat dinner.

Then there’s Havdalah to consider. I don’t have one of “those” candles lying around but I guess I can perform the rest of the rituals (assuming I can remember them, it’s been years).

I’m probably missing a lot. I could “Google” something like “how to observe Shabbos” and come up with the basics. In reading A Daily Dose of Torah, some sections mention the melachah, but the commentary seems so involved that I don’t think I could memorize all of the specifics. I think you have to live a lifetime of that level of observance to really “get it down” and as far as I know, there may be times when even a highly observant Jew misses a step or two.

Shabbat candlesOf course, as a goy, I don’t have to observe Shabbat to the level of an Orthodox Jew, so there’s no real pressure to do so. On the other hand, I would like to approach this and accomplish something I’ve never done before, not because I think it would make me a “big deal” and not because I’m somehow claiming my “rights” or “heritage,” but for the reasons I mentioned before, because I want to spend at least one Shabbat honoring God as Creator and summoning, at least in some tiny fashion, a taste of the Messianic future.

If you’ve got any ideas, now’s the time. I’ll have two shots at this. The first can be a trial run to help me work out all the kinks, so I can have a better Shabbat a week later. As you read this, I have about ten days until my first go at it. Suggestions?

Addendum: Relative to the differences in obligation to the mitzvot of Jews and non-Jews in Messiah (and this seems relevant given the topic is Shabbat observance), I found this excellent commentary at Aish.com:

Imagine two people who are very different from each other. This needn’t be a source of conflict. Rather, if each one focuses on how to help the other, then the differences between them will actually make their personalities complementary.

Not only will they like each other despite their differences, but rather, because of them. They will even become closer, because their differences provide more opportunities to be of service to each other.

Contrast this to those who focus on what he can take from the other. They will quarrel frequently and eventually end up hating one another.

(see Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler – Michtav MaiEliyahu, vol.3, pp.33-4; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Consulting the Wise”)

meditation labyrinth

Slow Approach to Mussar

Someone asked me to write about my experiences with mussar so I guess this is it.

Humility is about seeking a level playing field between all people. In displaying this trait, one does not seek to degrade or puff up oneself or others. Mashiach Yeshua says, “The greatest among you shall be to you as a servant. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought low, but everyone who lowers himself will be lifted up.” (Matthew 23 : 11-12, DHE). Humility out of balance can appear two ways. One extreme displays haughtiness, while the other extreme displays groveling and self-deprecation. The obvious middle is where humility shines.

Humility: Middah for the week of October 19th
Riverton Mussar

I received this a week ago Sunday and got the Meditation for the Week in my email inbox the following Tuesday. I read through the material but I treated them like any other email…I read them and moved on to the next item.

I guess I didn’t want too get to invested in the Mussar program until I had a chance to talk it over with my friend Tom and to be sure it’s a commitment we both wanted to make. He had to cancel our usual Sunday afternoon coffee meeting due to family obligations, so I won’t be able to talk with him about this for another two weeks.

There are times when I get excited about studying mussar, especially with someone, and then times when I encounter my own resistance. Mussar is about changing habits and change is hard, even when it’s beneficial.

A person who tends to feel unhappy and discouraged should be cautious about working on humility. Such a person needs to focus on his virtues and strengths. Focusing on his faults and shortcomings is likely to destroy the small amount of joy he does have.

(Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe – “Alai Shur,” vol. 1, p.65; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness,” p.117)
Quoted at Aish.com

When we have conceit, we fill a room with our enormous presence when we enter. There is no room for anyone else, there is no space for anyone to flourish.

When we are self-deprecating and degrade ourselves, we lack proper humility as well. We are a wallflower and cannot be found in a room. Our potential almost ceases to exist as we view our gifts and abilities as useless.

In order to gain a proper perspective of who we are, we need to be honest with ourselves. We have to express through our behaviors and actions that we are not more than we are, and we are not less than we truly are.

-Rabbetzin Malkah
“Humility as Honesty”
Humility: Meditation for the Week
Riverton Mussar

That’s just it, though. Depending on the circumstance, I can waffle one way or the other. The trick is finding that middle ground and staying there.

Here’s another trick, a bigger one. It’s one I discovered, though never mastered, years ago when I was reading Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness. It’s going to take a lot longer than a week to master any of the middot in question, especially when studying “part-time”. That’s another trick, too: making the time to study and meditate.

mussarSo there are three “tricks” involved: mastering any given middah, doing so in a week, finding the time during that week to study and meditate, hoping that the week will “do it.”

Of course, I haven’t availed myself of the other resources Riverton Mussar has to offer, so I don’t know if my assessment is correct. Maybe you keep working on one middah while taking another on board, and then another, and another and…

Which brings me to the middar for this week: patience.

Patience is a means not only to inner peace but outer peace. It is the ability to endure situations of all kinds and to remain level-headed. Patience out of balance can appear two ways. One extreme displays frustration, rage, and aggravation, while the other extreme displays apathy and indifference. Patience displayed in balance helps relationships and situations through rough spots and promotes healthy growth.

I seem to lean more on the frustration and aggravation end of the scale than the apathy part, although I can see how that would work out, too.

The introduction to the meditation on humility states:

As a means of keeping a more balanced perspective of self, practice this simple meditation in action if find your humility starting to falter…

I have problems with trying to meditate, probably because of the same difficulties I experience when considering worship in the manner of Pentecostals and/or charismatics. It seems just a little too “warm and fuzzy” for me. I guess I’m just the guy who likes to “do” stuff, like put my hands on a keyboard and start typing.

The meditation says in part:

While this verse is typically used to bring us before Hashem in humility and induce proper kavanah (focus) for prayer, it can also help us to guard ourselves in front of others—for they too are made in the image of Hashem.

Proper kavanah or focus for me is writing. True, one does not write a prayer to Hashem (Well, that’s not true, people write prayers all the time and insert them into the Kotel), but I guess there’s no reason not to. It’s not like prayer gives God new information He didn’t have before. Prayer is supposed to change the person praying, not God, by, among other things, facilitating our connection to our Creator.

I’m writing to you (whoever’s going to read this), not God, at least not directly, but in a strange way, I’m also writing to myself and for myself. Things seem more “real” when I can see them than when they’re just stuck in my head.

I guess that’s why it’s hard for me to meditate. Stuff is just stuck in my head. It doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Writing is doing something (though I’m sure a lot of people would disagree), but I don’t know how to do mussar by writing.

Well, that’s not true exactly either. There’s a six-month mussar journal I’m supposed to buy. I’ve put it off because I wanted to get in synch with my partner first, but it looks like one can “write” mussar as well as meditate on the middot.

Rebbetzin Malkah wrote something called “Patience as a Spoke on a Wheel.” Some of it goes:

Take a bike as an example. If one wheel has a flat or is broken, one cannot ride it. But what about a wheel that is wobbly, or has several broken spokes? Can one ride it? Surely it might be possible, but it can also be considered dangerous if one were to ride it.

If we were presented with the bike with the broken wheel, most of us would not even argue over riding it. There would be nowhere to go on something so out of commission. But what about a bike with a compromised wheel? Some people wouldn’t hesitate to hop on this bike and take a chance, or ride it until the wheel completely breaks down. Others, however, would find this bike to be too risky and unpleasant at best to even ride.

Except unlike having a choice between riding a broken bike or choosing another mode of transportation, I only have one “me” and broken or not, I have to be “me” to get anywhere or do anything. I can’t wait for “me” to be fixed and restored to (or created in) perfect working order. Repairs have to be made on the fly while the “unit” is operating in the field.

I checked on the Riverton Mussar site and found 434 middot listed. That’s a lot of character traits to work on.

I can see why working with a partner is considered desirable. It’s like the person who decides to get in shape and buys an exercise machine or a gym membership. He starts out enthusiastic but then experiences how hard the work is and how results don’t seem to happen right away or change is imperceptible. Most people quit after a few weeks and let their membership lapse or let their workout equipment start gathering dust.

weightliftingI used to be pretty hit and miss about going to the gym, but then one of my sons encouraged me and said we could work out together. He organized a workout program for us and because he was going with me, I didn’t want to disappoint him by bailing.

I saw some initial progress but then got stalled. I saw he was getting results, but he was not just working out but also changing his diet, something I dreaded. Finally, I had to admit that his system was working and mine wasn’t. I changed my diet and started doing some online research on more diverse weightlifting routines.

Finally, I broke through the plateau and started seeing positive changes in the mirror and on the bathroom scale. My son doesn’t go with me to the gym much anymore having found a different workout program, but by now, going to the gym is a habit. I go five to six times a week and in fact, I can’t imagine not going.

But I needed a partner and encouragement to get started and stay on the program long enough for me to become “addicted”.

I guess mussar must be like that, too. It’s hard work, results may not come right away or as expected, you get out of it what you put into it, and having a partner helps. Also, you have to change more than just one thing in your life to make anything change at all.

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


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