Tag Archives: Jesus

The Mussar of Withdrawing

Rabbi Isaac Luria proposed that man’s existence and independence became possible when God “contracted” (tzimtzum) in order to allow for the creation of the material universe and all that would exist within it. This also allowed human beings the “space” to exist, to think, and to act — in other words, it enabled free will rather than a will that is controlled or constrained by God’s very existence.

I prefer to express this thought with the language of restraint rather than contraction. God limited his power so that the material creation could exist and restrained his middah of judgment so that humans would not be destroyed upon the first sin. Within that space of God’s self-limitation, humans can choose to draw near to God or distance themselves.

-Rabbi Carl Kinbar
“Relational Adaptability”
Commentary on the middah of adaptability
Riverton Mussar

I was thrilled to discover this commentary on adaptability was written by one of my favorite people both within the Messianic Jewish movement and in general. I’ve often wished I could access more of his writing than I’ve done in the past.

I’d read before about God and the (supposed) act of tzimtzum but hadn’t seen it expressed within the current context. God restrained Himself to give humanity not only room to exist, but room to have autonomy and free will.

“Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”

-Berachot 33b

Looking back over my life, both distant events and recent ones, I sometimes wish God didn’t restrain Himself and that His thoughts automatically became my thoughts. No free will, just the will of God. Life would be so much easier, but would this then be paradise or enslavement? Without free will, we cannot sin against God but then neither can we choose Him. There’s no merit in good deeds if we follow God only because His Presence makes it impossible to reject Him.

Free will makes victory over the self sweet but the defeat is all too bitter. But while free will gives us something in common with God, we, like God, can also exercise tzimtzum, as Rabbi Kinbar states:

Professor Mordechai Rotenberg of the Rotenberg Center for Jewish Psychology applies the concept of tzimtzum to his therapeutic practice. According to Rotenberg, tzimtzum (or self-limitation) applies to all interpersonal relationships, which are based on either an “I and Thou” pattern or an “I or thou” pattern.” In the “I or thou” pattern, there are hostile relations between the “I” and the “you”. They are constantly contending for the same space at the expense of the other. In the “I and thou” pattern, “I” and the “other” act in co-existence. They demonstrate the middah of adaptability when “I” evacuates space for “thou” and “thou” is willing to expand into the evacuated space.

When one person chooses to limit himself so that the other can thrive, the other can feel free to expand into the vacated space. Thus the process of self-limitation and self-expansion exist in a dynamic process that is expressed differently in different relationships, different situations, and different times of life.

The blogosphere can be very “I” oriented, with various bloggers jockeying for position to take the upper hand in some sort of theological or other argument. I saw it just the other day in a debate on Facebook, and it’s a very familiar dynamic.

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

-Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving)
from the film The Matrix (1999)

DivorceIt seems we people have great difficulty in limiting our presence both as individuals and, if Agent Smith is correct, as a species. Given human history, frankly, I’m inclined to agree with him.

But as we see, we are designed by God to have a choice. We don’t have to possess and consume everything within our sphere of influence. We don’t have to control and dominate every situation or person we encounter. We can withdraw so that others can advance:

The middah of adaptability expresses itself in both self-limitation and self-expansion. It does not require that we limit ourselves when this is not appropriate for a healthy relationship; neither does it require us to expand simply because the other person limits himself. Instead, it requires individuals to work together in their relationships, both expressing the middah of adaptability.

I think our relationships, both face-to-face and online, would be a lot more healthy if we practiced this middah more consistently and effectively. But it’s not just between two or more people where this middah is appropriate and necessary:

We need to follow the rules, but that alone doesn’t produce virtue, which is the goal of mussar. To arrive at virtue we’ll have to adapt, to grow, to change. It occurs to me during this month of Elul (which is traditionally a time of spiritual preparation leading up to the High Holy Days) that teshuvah or repentance is the height of adaptability. It means not just adapting to this or that circumstance, but rending our hearts, not our garments, and returning to the Lord (Joel 2:13).

-Rabbi Russ Resnik
“Adaptability and Teshuvah”
Commentary on the middah of adaptability
Riverton Mussar

Teshuvah or repentance is an act of adaptability because it requires sometimes radical change to completely turn around and return to God. But it also requires that we limit ourselves and withdraw to allow more of God to advance in our lives.

You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.

John 3:28-30 (NASB)

Like John (Yochanan) the Baptist (Immerser), we must decrease to let God increase in our lives. This is necessary to accomplish the goal of Mussar which R. Resnik defines as producing virtue in our lives.

God is infinite and all-powerful and it took an act of His Will to withdraw or restrict Himself so He didn’t simply overwhelm us with everything that He is. He made a choice and thus allows us to make choices as well. To the best of my knowledge, we are unique in all of God’s Creation because He chooses not to barge into our lives. We have to invite Him in.

Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.

Revelation 3:19-21

RabbiMany Christian Pastors and teachers often take verse twenty from this letter to the community in Laodicea out of context to make it say (probably) what it doesn’t actually say. I’m doing the same thing here, but first of all, I admit it, and secondly, I’m doing so to make a point. God, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is always present and “standing” just on the other side of the door, so to speak. God (and the Kingdom of Heaven) can enter at any moment, but we are in control of when (or if) that moment will occur.

Obviously, I’m speaking (writing) metaphorically, but as difficult as it may seem, all we really have to do is open the door and invite Him into our living room, or, speaking of eating, kitchen. It’s Chanukah. Maybe He likes latkes.

I’m at a point in life, though, in which radical change looks difficult. The pathways are worn deep and it’s hard to break out. But the prophets that we read during this season remind us that adaptability – even in its most radical form, teshuvah – is a gift, like all the middot. Hashem says “Return to me and I’ll return to you” (Zech. 1:3, Mal. 3:7) and in response we can say “Turn us back to you and we shall return” (Lam. 5:21).

-R. Resnik

OK, so maybe it’s not all that easy, even if change, by inviting God to occupy more of our lives, seems simple at its core. But as Rabbi Resnik says, change and teshuvah are a gift from God. If we return to God, He will return to us, if we invite Him in, He will enter.

The Talmud says, “The righteous are considered alive even after their death, whereas the wicked are considered dead even when they live” (Berachos 18a). The Torah considers the essence of human life to be spirituality rather than biology. Animals, too, breathe, look for food, seek shelter, reproduce and care for their young. Some show a degree of intelligence. Man is more than just an animal with greater intelligence. Man is a creature that can be master of his biology rather than a slave to it. A human being without spirituality is nothing more than an animal with intellect. He lives biologically, but is spiritually dead.

Dvar Torah based on Twerski on Chumash
written by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Aish.com

Chanukah and the Light of Love

“Rav Avraham Pam (former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas) teaches us that we see this special love of God for the whole Jewish people even though many had defected to Hellenism and then returned to Torah observance with the triumph of the Macabees. When a couple reconciles after a separation, the relationship often becomes one of peaceful coexistence, but the quality of love that they initially had for each other is rarely restored.

“Not so when Jews do teshuvah (repentance — returning to the Almighty and to ways of the Torah). Rambam says that although a sinful person distances himself from God, once he does teshuvah he is near, beloved and dear to God. It is not that God “tolerates” the baal teshuvah (returnee), but rather that He loves him as He would the greatest tzaddik (righteous person). As the prophet says, “I will remember for you the loving-kindness of your youth, when you followed Me into the desert, into a barren land” (Jeremiah 2:2). The love of yore is fully restored.

“This is the significance of the miracle of the oil. It teaches us that with proper teshuvah our relationship with God is restored, as if we had never sinned.

“This is also the message of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph did not simply forgive them and suppress his resentment for their abuse of him. Rather, he loved them and cared for them as if nothing had happened, telling them that he feels toward them as he does to Benjamin, who was not involved in his kidnapping (Rashi, Genesis 45:12).

“The celebration of Chanukah is, therefore, more than the commemoration of a miracle. We are to emulate the Divine attributes (Talmud, Shabbos 133b). Just as when God forgives, His love for us is completely restored — so must we be able to restore the love for one another when we mend our differences.

“As we watch the Chanukah candles, let us think about the light they represent: the bright light of a love that is completely restored!”

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from Shabbat Shalom Weekly for
Torah Portion Mikeitz
Aish.com

I apologize for the rather lengthy quote from Rabbi Packouz’s article, but it very much speaks to my continuing theme of sin, repentance, and return and also happens to be appropriate as a missive for this third day of Chanukah (as you read this).

One of the great difficulties in making lasting teshuvah (repentance or return to God) is the feeling of being “damaged goods”. Assuming everything R. Packouz wrote in the above-quoted passage is true about God, we still have to face, on a human level, how other people often find it difficult to receive the repentant sinner as if he or she had never sinned. Also, you or I can still feel “dirty” in our sins as we sincerely strive to repent, even though, according to the prophet, our “…sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18 NASB).

Yes, the good Rabbi is talking about Jewish repentance in his write-up, but by the merit of our Rav, Messiah Yeshua, we also are allowed to repent, turn away from our sins, and return to our God. In this I believe we too will be treated as if we had never sinned. Otherwise, we have no hope.

love-in-lightsAlthough Chanukah commemorates a specific event and miracle exclusive to the Jewish people, it has applications for the rest of us. If the lights of the Chanukah candles can represent “the bright light of a love that is completely restored” between a Jew and his God, it can have the same meaning for all of the non-Jewish disciples of the Master.

The Apostle Paul was quite clear that repentance, atonement, and forgiveness were accessible to Jew and Gentile alike through trust in the accomplished works of Messiah.

Concerning Paul’s declaration of the blessings of Messiah at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch:

When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.

Acts 13:48-49

And our Master himself said:

“I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 8:11

My family lights the Chanukah menorah for eight nights in our home because my wife and children are Jewish. But if, Heaven forbid, something should happen and I found myself living alone, I could certainly see a continued application in my kindling the Chanukah lights for the sake of the Light of the World (John 8:12).

Chag Sameach Chanukah.

Choose Hope Today

At each moment of every day, you choose your thoughts, words, and actions. You even choose your feelings by choosing your thoughts, words, and actions. So say, “Just choose wisely now.”

The more frequently you choose wisely, the more this choice will become second nature. You probably know what happens to a person who keeps making wise choices of thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. They live their life much more wisely.

“But what if I don’t always recognize the wisest choice?” Just saying, “Just choose wisely now,” won’t guarantee that you will always choose the wisest choices. But it will still be much better than saying, “Choose the stupidest choice!”

(from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: “Conversations With Yourself”, p.139) [Artscroll.com])

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Daily Lift #185: Just Choose Wisely Now
Aish.com

As I’ve mentioned before, the path of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption is not a straight line where one walks along each day making steady progress. I’ve used metaphors to describe this process such as birds and ladders but it can also be a lot like one step forward and two steps back, or maybe like running on a string of spaghetti all curled and twisted in a bowl…in the dark. Sometimes you can’t even make heads or tails of where you are or how you’re doing. You just know you’re running (and sometimes, running scared).

But every step you take whether straight and narrow or to the left or right requires a choice, even if it doesn’t seem that way. As Rabbi Pliskin writes in the above quoted set of paragraphs, you may have made bad choices in the past but you can make a wise choice now. That doesn’t erase the past, but nothing can do that. You can’t change what has happened but you can change the future by acting in the present.

But it’s not easy. It is said (supposedly by Samuel L.Clemens [Mark Twain]) that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” This is true up to a point but it doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of change. It’s easy to tell yourself that your future will be what your past has been. But if that’s the case, is there hope?

“In whatever way a person chooses, therein is he led” (Makkos 10b).

We tend to disown those thoughts, feelings, and actions that we dislike. Something we saw, read, or heard upset us, we like to think, and caused us to think, feel, or act in a certain way. We forget that we have considerable say in what we choose to see or hear.

Psychiatry and psychology have contributed to this abdication of responsibility. Their emphasis on the impact of early-life events on our emotions has been taken to mean that these factors determine our psyche, and that we are but helpless victims of our past.

We forget that if someone puts trash on our doorstep, we do not have to take it in; even if it was put into the house and filled it with an odor, we have the option to throw it out and clean up. Similarly, even if early-life experiences have an impact, the effects are not cast in stone; we can take steps to overcome them.

A man once complained to his rabbi that alien thoughts were interfering with his prayer and meditation. The rabbi shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know why you refer to them as alien,” he said. “They are your own.”

If we stop disowning feelings and actions, we may be able to do something about them.

Today I shall…

…try to avoid exposing myself to those influences that are likely to stimulate feelings and behavior that I think are wrong.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
Growing Each Day for Kislev 13
Aish.com

I guess that means the first step in the journey is to own up to the thoughts, feelings, and actions that resulted in our current situation and need for repentance. We can’t very well take out the trash if we don’t admit that we created it in the first place. Well, I guess we could, but we’d always by “mystified” by the fact that no matter how often we take out “someone else’s” garbage, more shows up in our trash can.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

So connecting what Rabbi Twersky said to the statement made by Rabbi Pliskin, we need to make different choices, first by admitting that our prior choices are our own, and then changing the choices we make now, eliminating “those influences that are likely to stimulate feelings and behavior that” we think are wrong.

And if not now, then when? (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14).

Hillel’s famous statement is a bit enigmatic. The simple answer is, “Later.” Why can’t we take care of whatever it is some other time? Granted that procrastination is not a virtue, why does Hillel imply that if not now, then it will never be?

The Rabbi of Gur explained that if I do something later, it may indeed get done, but I will have missed the current “now.” The present “now” has but a momentary existence, and whether used or not, it will never return. Later will be a different “now.”

King Solomon dedicates seven famous verses of Ecclesiastes to his principle that everything has its specific time. His point comes across clearly: I can put off doing a good deed for someone until tomorrow, but will that deed, done exactly as I would have done it today, carry the same impact?

The wisdom that I learn at this moment belongs to this moment. The good deed that I do at this moment belongs to this moment. Of course I can do them later, but they will belong to the later moments. What I can do that belongs to this moment is only that which I do now.

Today I shall…

…try to value each moment. I must realize that my mission is not only to get something done, but to get things done in their proper time, and the proper time may be now.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
Growing Each Day for Kislev 14
Aish.com

You’ve probably heard the saying, “There’s no time like the present,” attributed to Georgia Byng and that seems to be what both of these esteemed Ravs are telling us. Once you’ve recognized that you are the one making decisions in your life, that they are bad decisions, and that they are causing harm, the next step is to determine what good decisions are and start making them right now.

Jeff stood before the Wall, and made up an atheist’s prayer. He looked at the stones and said:

“God, I don’t believe in You. As far as I know, You don’t exist. But I do feel something. So if I’m making a mistake, I want You to know, God, I have no quarrel against You. It’s just that I don’t know that You exist. But God, just in case You’re really there and I’m making a mistake, get me an introduction.”

Jeff finished his prayer, and one of the yeshiva students who happened to be at the Wall, saw Jeff and thought, “Perhaps he’d be interested in learning some Torah.”

He tapped Jeff on the shoulder, startling him so much that he jumped three feet in the air. Jeff whirled around and shouted,

“What in the blankety-blank-dash-bang do you want?!”

“I’m sorry. I just want to know if you’d like to learn about God.”

That question hit Jeff like a 2-by-4 right between the eyes. He had just finished asking God for an introduction, and immediately someone was offering to introduce him to God.

“Prayer of an Atheist”
from the Ask the Rabbi column
Aish.com

I encourage you to click the link above to get the full context of the article, but I included this quote to illustrate just how powerful prayer, even one uttered by an atheist, can be to remediate a person’s life.

The young Jewish fellow in question studied Torah in Jerusalem for the next six weeks following his encounter at the Kotel, continued his studies and coming to faith after returning to his home in the United States, and eventually married a devout Jewish woman.

But up until he prayed that one prayer at the Kotel, his life was heading in a very different direction.

Of course Jeff’s decision to pray at that moment wasn’t random:

Jeff had been in Norway, visiting his Norwegian fiancée. And he decided it was now or never: either he is going to come to Israel or he’ll never make it.

So he headed for Jerusalem and the Western Wall. He figured he would stop by the Wall to see some old stones. Yet upon his arrival he was amazed. He felt something heavy. He was moved.

Jeff stood before the Wall, and made up an atheist’s prayer. He looked at the stones and said…

white-pigeon-kotelSomething about being a Jew in Jerusalem and at the Kotel got through to Jeff. More accurately put, God got through to Jeff using the holiness of Jerusalem as a catalyst.

God uses all manner of events and circumstances to motivate human beings, Jews and everyone else. Although I’ve been quoting from Jewish sources throughout this blog post, the advice is just as applicable to the rest of us. If the Jewish people are supposed to be a light to the nations, then this is one way they are accomplishing their mission.

Jesus (Yeshua) said that he was the light of the world (John 8:12), which I take to mean that he is the living embodiment of Israel’s mission to the nations, the best personal example of Israel shining a light on the path allowing the people of the nations to find God. But he also said to his disciples that they were the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16) indicating that they were to assume his mission and continue to shine the light for the rest of us to follow. Eventually, we Gentiles become that light as well, but only once we have achieved a level of spiritual achievement and discipline to live a life worthy of that light.

It all comes down to the choices we make. It also means that even if we make bad choices, they don’t have to determine the course of the rest of our lives. We have free will. We can make different choices. We can choose differently now, today, this morning.

I always like the “I’ll be back” line because it is a great philosophy for life. Life isn’t all successes, it is also defeats. But you can always be back. No matter what, just like the Terminator. You’re not a loser when you fall. You’re only a loser if you don’t get up. Winners get up and come back.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Get this straight: The secret behind success is knowing how to fail. Failures are people who fail once. Successes are people who fail thousands of times—and pick themselves back up each time. Like little kids learning to walk. Like Babe Ruth, who held the world record for home runs—and also held the record for strike-outs.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

For more on this topic, please read On Choosing God.

Making Sense of the Messiah as the Keystone of Creation

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.

2 Timothy 1:8-11 (NASB)

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

1 John 4:15-18

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine last Sunday afternoon. Toward the end of our time together, he haltingly asked me something he obviously thought would offend me. I can’t recall his exact words, but he was wondering if I realized the centrality of Jesus as the Lord and Savior of my life. I guess he thought I was getting a little too lost in Judaism or in attempting to engage my faith through a sort of “Jewish lens”.

This lead to a rather lengthy and repetitive monologue on my part and I hope I made some sort of sense. In order to organize my thoughts better, I decided to write them out and share them in a more public venue.

One of the Jewish arguments against Jesus being the Messiah, especially as conceptualized by organized Christianity and as recorded (apparently) in the New Testament, is that Jesus appears to be a tremendous departure from anything that God had done before. I don’t mean that God did something new, but that He did something incredibly different, as if he switched from “plan A” to “plan B”.

There’s no real mention of a Messiah in the Tanakh (Old Testament) particularly as Christianity understands the role, and let’s face it: Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance until the last third of the Biblical narrative. If he’s so important, why didn’t he show up sooner?

Actually, some people think he did:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

He gave him a tenth of all.

Genesis 14:18-20

Given the mention of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7, most Christians and many in Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism think that Melchizedek is the “pre-incarnate Jesus”. There are a number of other places where Christians exchange their “exegesis” of the Old Testament to “I see Jesus” in the Tanakh, in part to solve the “problem” of why Jesus didn’t put in an appearance before the end of Matthew 1.

D. Thomas Lancaster in his sermon on Melchizedek for the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series which I reviewed, does a good job at refuting the idea that Melchizedek was literally Yeshua (Jesus), but there are plenty of other occasions where some people believe Jesus “beamed” into early Biblical history like some sort of “Star Trek” character.

Gateway to EdenAfter all, who walked in the garden with Adam (Genesis 3:8), wrestled with Jacob (Genesis 32:22-31, and who was the angel God sent ahead of the Children of Israel (Exodus 23:20)?

Frankly, I think attempting to force scripture to have Jesus show up bodily before he’s actually born actually cheapens the miracle and significance of Messiah’s birth by woman and all that he accomplished in his physical, human experience.

But we have this problem of when Jesus appears. If he’s the cornerstone, how can you build the first two-thirds of the Bible without him? Or are we missing the point?

One of our biggest problems with understanding the Bible and the centrality of the Messiah is time. By definition, we are beings who live in linear time. We are born, we live, we die. We have yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That’s how we think. It’s difficult to imagine a universe without time, and we forget that when God created everything, He created time, too.

When I was a little kid, I tried to imagine what God’s “environment” must have been like before He created everything. I pictured an old man with a big white beard and long, shaggy white hair, dressed in a robe and sitting on a golden throne floating in infinite blackness. I thought of the universe as just stars and galaxies not imagining that it’s also space and time.

It’s difficult if not impossible for a human being to even perceive a sliver of God’s point of view. What does God see when He looks at the universe? Who knows? How can God exist outside of time? If time doesn’t pass for God at all, what is that like?

In my conversation on Sunday, I used a metaphor. I said that from God’s viewpoint, all of creation must be like a painting hung on a wall. In the painting is every event that has ever occurred and will ever would occur in our universe from start to finish. It’s like everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen across the entire line of history is all occurring inside that painting simultaneously. God can take in time, the universe, and everything at a glance.

Now imagine that in the very center of the painting is a stone archway. Now imagine that all of the other stones in the stone archway are balanced against a single, critical keystone. If this keystone were removed, the entire arch would collapse into rubble. When the keystone is in place, the other stones and the archway itself are completely immovable.

Guess who the keystone is?

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22 (emph. mine)

Granted, Paul is using the cornerstone metaphor in terms of the structure of the ekklesia or assembly of Messiah, but I think it still works (see also Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, and Acts 4:11). I always wondered how you could build anything else in the redemptive plan of God across human history without first laying the cornerstone, or in the case of the previous metaphor I used, the keystone. Now I think I know, but the explanation is a little metaphysical.

Messiah is central to the plan of God because he’s always been central. He’s just not apparently central when we consider the appearance and work of Yeshua in linear time. This is also why Jewish objections to a first and second coming of Messiah and why Yeshua didn’t finish the work he started in the first advent don’t really matter. It’s because linear time doesn’t determine how and why Messiah is the lynchpin of God’s redemptive plan for humanity.

If it’s possible to use the word “before” in terms of a timeless God, then even before God created the universe, He knew the consequences of creating human beings with free will would result in the universe turning out the way it did. That is, God knew that giving human beings free will would lead to our disobeying Him with the result of changing the very nature of the universe from perfect to damaged.

CreationSo when God created the universe, He also created a plan for restoring it which means the very nature and character of the Messiah is built into creation, that everything rests on Messiah’s shoulders, so to speak, and that without the Messiah (for whatever reason) the universe can never be redeemed.

I know that’s dicey language to use in relation to God since nothing is impossible for Him, but God’s “solution” to the problem of human free will and its consequences is Messiah. It’s as if God created not just all of the universe all at once (well, in six “days”), but all of human history from beginning to end, and then placed that history upon the cornerstone, which is Messiah.

No, I can’t prove any of this from scripture beyond what I’ve already quoted, but it’s the only way I can make sense of God, the role of Messiah, and the narrative of the Bible including God’s plan for redeeming His creation.

Let me know if this makes sense to you.

Christians, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic Gentiles: Commentary on Caleb Hegg’s Blog

I’m not going to lie. It was difficult for me to transition from the church to the synagogue. While my father worked out his theology concerning the Torah, it struck me that perhaps the Christian church was wrong. To be honest, I felt a little lied to. I felt like the church was wrong, and had been feeding me a string of lies my entire life. I felt like they were leading people astray, and it made me mad! By the time I left for Israel in 1999 (I was eighteen), I wanted nothing to do with the church. I had gone to the other end of the spectrum, wearing mostly black and white, growing out peyot, and desperately longing to study Torah at a hasidic yeshiva (at that time I was unaware of how off base the hasidic faith is). Needless to say, the church had left a bad taste in my mouth, and I openly and abrasively stood in opposition to it.

-Caleb Hegg
“I don’t hold to ‘Christian’ doctrine, I’m a ‘Messianic’!”
calebhegg.blogspot.com

If you know any of the names I’m about to mention, then you’ll realize that Caleb Hegg and I, along with his father Tim Hegg, don’t have a lot in common theologically, at least on certain specific matters. However, when I saw a mutual friend had posted this to Facebook, I decided to give it a read. I must admit, Caleb says some interesting things (Note that I’ve copied the text from Hegg’s blog “as is,” so any spelling, capitalization, or other errors are his…just sayin’).

I suppose I should mention that once upon a time, I met Tim Hegg. In fact, I met him more than once when he was still associated with First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). Some years ago, when I was still with my former Hebrew Roots congregation, a number of us visited his group in Tacoma, Washington, and I even spent Erev Shabbat in the Hegg home. As I recall, I was treated very well and the Hegg family was gracious and charming.

So there’s nothing personal in any disagreement or differences of opinion that are between the Heggs and me, it’s just that we’ve taken different paths.

But speaking of path’s, Caleb’s description of his path in the above-quoted paragraph seemed so familiar to me. Not that I exactly felt like he did, but I can’t think of hardly anyone I met when I was involved in Hebrew Roots that didn’t have those same feelings of being betrayed by the Church and becoming somewhat to excessively enamored with all things Jewish.

I think it’s a developmental stage most non-Jews go through when they become involved in either the Hebrew Roots (including One Law/One Torah and Two-House) or the Messianic Jewish movements. They/we become convinced that the Bible has been at least somewhat erroneously interpreted by the Gentile Church, starting with the early Church fathers, as an attempt to separate from their Jewish teachers and mentors, and we come to believe that only a “Judaic” or “Hebraic” interpretation yields the true message of the Bible.

That’s not entirely a wrong idea, but as Hegg points out, what is wrong is any effort on our part to “demonize” Christians and Christianity, portraying them as bad, wrong, apostate, “Babylon,” and anti-Bible (or at least anti-Torah).

Has the Messianic faith come to an enlightened understanding of theology that the Christian church has missed for two thousand years? To be blunt, absolutely not! Is it true that those who uphold the Torah in the life of all believers are reading the Scriptures as they are written, and that those pushing against Torah are holding to church doctrine that goes back to the second century? Yes. But what I see happening is Messianics believing that since “the church” is wrong on SOME laws of Torah, they must be wrong on everything else too. I say SOME laws of Torah, because quite often we as Messianics tend to forget that our Christian brothers and sisters keep a whole lot of Torah, even if they don’t like calling it that. While kosher laws, festivals and the Sabbath are a important part of the Torah, other things such as loving your neighbor as yourself, taking care of widows and orphans, not gossiping and other such torah commands are practiced every day by Christians.

ChurchI think Hegg is including any congregation to which he is affiliated and his personal theological identification as “Messianic Judaism” or “Messianic” and it gets kind of “messy,” actually.

I tend to separate Hebrew Roots from Messianic Judaism since, in my opinion, they actually describe two different group identities. I realize that many/most/all Hebrew Roots groups call themselves “Messianic Judaism,” but while the “Messianic” part is more or less correct, I can’t say that they are a “Judaism” if for no other reason than few if any actual Jewish people are involved. Beyond that, although the ritual practices resemble a “Judaism,” the underlying collective history and group identity does not.

A little over three months ago, I wrote a two-part blog post called Acting Jewishly but not Jewish (the link goes to part one) based on a paper by Mark D. Nanos called ‘Paul’s Non-Jews Do Not Become “Jews,” But Do They Become “Jewish”?: Reading Romans 2:25-29 Within Judaism, Alongside Josephus’ (free PDF download) which drew a bit of attention centered around Judaism and Jewish identity in the Messianic realm. It becomes somewhat ambiguous as to who or what one encounters when you enter a prayer service and the majority of people davening with siddurim, wearing kippot and tallitot (the men, anyway) are not Jewish. Is that a “Judaism” or Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah acting “Jewishly”?

I’m not writing all this to start another online argument. Frankly, I’d like to avoid it. I know how they go and they never end well. But I do want to point out something I think Hegg was saying. We non-Jews in Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism sometimes lose our focus. In this sense, I think traditional Christians may have the upper hand. They know who the center of their faith is and that center is not a “movement”. It’s not putting on a kippah before prayer, and it’s not saying prayers in Hebrew, and it’s not even wearing tzitzit. It’s Jesus, that is Yeshua HaMashiach.

In that, Hegg sounded more like a Christian than a Hebrew Roots follower and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, although he also admitted that at one point in his history, he even denied being a Christian, though he didn’t mean to deny his faith in Christ.

We are used to defining ourselves in terms of being different or distinct from other people and groups and unfortunately, we can easily slide into an “us vs. them” mindset. It’s one of the reasons I was hesitant to even write this blog post, because even if Caleb Hegg or his father don’t take offense (and I hope they don’t because none is intended), probably someone who follows their teachings will.

The one thing that Hegg’s pro-Church commentary reminded me of was the tone expressed in Boaz Michael’s book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile.

Now I know I just offended one-hundred percent of my regular readers by making that comparison, and probably “ticked off” almost everyone else involved in any part of Hebrew Roots or Messianic Judaism. However, hear me out.

Boaz also made a very pro-Church statement in his book and focused at different points on the commonalities between the traditional Christian and the “Messianic Gentile”. He even mentioned, as did Hegg, that Christians observe many of the Torah mitzvot, even though they don’t call it “Torah”. Much righteous and holy behavior can be learned in Church.

Granted, there still are distinctions of course, and I don’t doubt that there are differences between how Caleb Hegg sees himself and how he sees most mainstream Christians. That isn’t a bad thing, but if the differences are all we see, then we don’t allow ourselves any common ground with our Christian brothers and sisters.

For two years, I participated in a self-assigned “project” or “experiment” in attending a local Baptist church. I hadn’t regularly attended a church in years and frankly, the prospect was intimidating.

But I learned a great many things, was befriended by the head Pastor, and met a number of very devout, kind, knowledgable, and generous people. If things had worked out differently, I’d probably still be going there. Unfortunately, the dynamic tension between the Pastor’s views and mine came to a head and I had to make a hard decision about whether I was an asset or a nuisance, and sadly it turned out to be the latter.

multicultural-celebrationI can’t pretend there aren’t differences, important ones, that separate me from the viewpoint of most Christians, but that shouldn’t lead to enmity of any kind. There are differences within the Messianic Jewish movement and I don’t agree with everything all of the sub-groups believe or teach. The same goes for the different branches of mainstream Judaism. None of that means I experience any hostility toward them. We don’t have to personalize disagreements and turn them into conflicts.

Hegg’s blog post focused on differences between how some Messianic (or Hebrew Roots) groups see the Divinity of Messiah vs. more traditional Christian doctrine, but I’m not going to speak to that. If you want a Messianic Jewish opinion on the subject, it can be found on Derek Leman’s blog, and it’s possible that Hegg and Leman have more in common, at least on that particular topic, than either of them realize.

That’s the point of reading each other’s stuff. Yeah, we disagree and if we want to, we can get into some sort of spitting contest over it. On the other hand, we all have experiences in common, we’re all human beings, we are all disciples of the Master, and we are all children of God. Let’s start with that.

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: Ani Ma’amin (I believe)

What do Maimonides and the book of Hebrews have in common? Find out how the Talmud and the book of Hebrews intersect when it comes to the question of faith in Messiah. The book of Hebrews continues with a call to hold fast to faith in the coming of the Messiah.

References Hebrews 10:32-39; Isaiah 30:18; Habakkuk 2:3-4.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty: Ani Ma’amin (I believe)
Originally presented on January 25, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him.

Isaiah 30:18 (NASB)

Lancaster’s sermon took a different route this week, the long way around to Hebrews 10:32-39 through the above-referenced prophets, the Talmudic writings, and Mosheh ben Maimon otherwise known as Moses Maimonides or the Rambam.

Lancaster states that the above verse from the prophet Isaiah is very important as a Messianic prophesy. The Talmud interprets “How blessed are all those who long for Him” or “wait for Him” as those among the righteous waiting for the redemption of the Messiah.

Verse 20 says “your Teacher will no longer hide Himself, but your eyes will behold your Teacher,” indicating that our Teacher, that is, Messiah, is currently hidden from us (or from Isaiah’s audience, the Jewish people) but that in the coming age, he will be revealed. Verse 21 continues “Your ears will hear a word behind you, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ whenever you turn to the right or to the left,” speaking of walking in the Holy Spirit (the “word behind you”).

But when it says “therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you,” this isn’t speaking of Messiah, but of Hashem, of the God of Israel, for He waits for the Messiah, too…at least according to the Talmud.

Why would God have to wait? You’ll see in a bit.

Lancaster then shifted gears and started quoting from Tractate Sanhedrin about a 3rd century CE Rabbi who came across a Gentile who had discovered a scroll in the Roman treasury. Without going into all the details, the scroll seemed to likely have been looted from Jerusalem by the Romans, perhaps from the Temple itself.

The Rabbi, who believed the scroll to be an authentic Jewish Holy writing, purchased the scroll and discovered it predicted the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah in the year 4291 from Creation, with the final renewal of the world being accomplished in the year 7000.

ancient scrollsProblem is, the Jewish year 4291 corresponds to 531 C.E. which has long since come and gone.

The Talmud uses this story to issue a stern warning against attempting to calculate the dates related to Messiah coming and an admonition against those who insist on calculating such dates. Thus far, everyone who has attempted to predict the return (or coming) of Messiah has been wrong.

This is where Habakkuk comes in:

I will stand on my guard post
And station myself on the rampart;
And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me,
And how I may reply when I am reproved.
Then the Lord answered me and said,
“Record the vision
And inscribe it on tablets,
That the one who reads it may run.
“For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.
“Behold, as for the proud one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous will live by his faith.”

Habakkuk 2:1-4

Within the context of Habakkuk, this does not seem to have anything to do with Messiah. Habakkuk had just heard from God that the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem was at hand because of their many sins. Habakkuk was upset, not that God had ordered the destruction, but that He had chosen an instrument for that destruction much more evil than Judah and Jerusalem. So he sat in a guard post and waited (probably for a long time) for God to answer his objection.

That said, the Talmudic sages interpret, especially verses 3 and 4, as very much having a Messianic application, and Lancaster agrees, specifically since the Talmud interprets this portion of scripture as stating the date of Messiah’s coming is hidden. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of Lancaster’s explanation. The link to the recording is at the top of this missive so you can listen to the forty minute sermon for yourself.

But then we get back to why is even God waiting for Messiah? Why should God wait? Why not send Messiah now?

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

God’s justice (and I believe mercy as well) demands that He wait because those of us who also wait receive a blessing by the merit of the act of waiting, for as it says “Though he tarries, wait for it” (the Hebrew pronoun can also be “him”), and again, “the righteous will live by faith”, and as it says in Isaiah, “Blessed are all those who wait for Him” (Isaiah 30:18 NKJV).

Rambam
Mosheh ben Maimon, the Rambam

Many have been born, lived, and died waiting for Messiah and he didn’t come, yet their waiting wasn’t in vain, for by the merit of their faith, they gained eternal life in the resurrection.

I mentioned the Rambam above. He codified what is known as The Thirteen Principles of Faith, the twelfth of which states:

I believe with a complete faith in the coming of Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I believe that he will come.

This is also known as Ani Ma’amin (I believe) and is traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Shacharit or Morning prayers. The Talmud states that such a lived faith in the coming of the Messiah equals performing all of the 613 commandments (and the version we have today was also organized by Rambam). Yes, it’s that important.

However, when Habakkuk says that “the righteous will live by faith,” he doesn’t just mean that they live a life of faith, but that they will merit life, eternal life in the resurrection, by clinging to their faith in the coming redemption of Messiah. This is an essential principle in Judaism, according to Lancaster, and not only do we see it in the prophets and the Talmud (and Hebrews), but the Apostle Paul referenced it in Romans 1 and Galatians 3. Instead of trying to figure out when Messiah will come (return) and only expecting him then, always expect him today and every day; always live a life of daily expectancy.

Then Lancaster (apparently) switches tracks and talks about how the passage from Habakkuk is very different in the Greek. Why is that important? Because Jewish teachers used the Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament) or Septuagint, when teaching Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. The writer of Hebrews was addressing Greek-speaking Jews living in or near Jerusalem.

For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
But My righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.

Hebrews 10:37-38 quoting Habakkuk 2:3-4

Especially the last line seems quite odd: And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Lancaster says this speaks of one who shrinks back or loses his faith, specifically in the coming of Messiah, for if one loses his faith in Messiah, he loses God’s favor.

But “My righteous one shall live by faith” in that even if Messiah does not come when expected or even in your lifetime or mine, we must live by faith so that we will live in the resurrection and not lose our place in the world to come. We must seek first the Kingdom as our focus.

Now (finally) Lancaster turns to Hebrews 10:32-39.

He gives a very brief summary of the Hebrews epistle, an exhortation to Jewish believers who because of their faith in Messiah, have been denied access to the Temple and the Priesthood, and who, for that reason, are strongly tempted to renounce their Messianic faith. The Hebrews writer is encouraging them to remain faithful because they always have access to the Heavenly Temple and Priesthood through Messiah as High Priest, and warning them of the consequences of losing faith.

“But remember in former days” is a reference to the early persecutions (read the beginning chapters of Luke’s Book of Acts including the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8) and the “murderous threats” of Saul (the beginning of Acts 9). They were persecuted in many ways and yet “accepted joyfully” those hardships, enduring in the faith. “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence” for in doing so, they would also throw away their reward. They needed to endure as they did before.

Hebrews then quotes the Greek version of Habakkuk, and you should see at this point how well it fits the flow of this part of the letter, and concludes (well, not really…it just concludes the artificial division of chapters):

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

Hebrews 10:39

But there’s more. I didn’t expect Lancaster to cover Chapter 11 as well, but when he did, it clicked right into place:

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

Hebrews 11:1-2

faithThis is the so-called “faith chapter” of the Apostolic Scriptures and Christians often cite it as a “stand alone” definition of what “faith” is, without considering how it fits into the overall message of the epistle.

The writer of the epistle has been encouraging his readers to maintain their faith in the Messiah’s coming, to not abandon that faith, even under the tremendous pressure of not being able to offer korban in obedience to the commandments, for in renouncing Messiah, they would also be renouncing their reward in the Kingdom.

The rest of chapter 11 is a list of examples of people of faith who maintained that faith even though they never saw the promised rewards in their lifetimes. Abraham was promised the Land but died never receiving the promise. So too did Isaac and Jacob. Read the chapter for yourself and see what it looks like now that you have the context Lancaster constructed around it.

Lancaster concludes his sermon by reading verses 32 through 40, but I’ll just quote a portion:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Hebrews 11:32-34

“And what more shall I say? For time will fail me…” The list of the faithful is endless, or seemingly so. It’s not like the writer of Hebrews is asking for the impossible, as if no one who came before ever exhibited such a faith, maintaining it even to the death. While modern religious Judaism doesn’t emphasize the Messiah’s coming all that much, in ancient days, the days of the prophets, the days of the apostles, and the days of the writers of the Talmud, it was much clearer that faith in the coming (return) of Messiah was the lynchpin of Jewish faith in God and the coming New Covenant times.

What Did I Learn?

I’ll never be a Talmud scholar, so all of the tie-ins from Talmud back into scripture are a revelation to me. Lancaster said that the writer of Hebrews and the other apostles read Habakkuk exactly the same way as the sages of the Talmud. This is a very important point because it re-enforces my emphasis that you cannot know or understand having faith in the Messiah unless you study Judaism! This is why I study from within a Messianic Jewish framework.

I hate to slam Christian studies and teachings because I have high regard for those people I know in the Church, but traditional Christian doctrine compared to Messianic Jewish (and other Jewish) studies is like the difference between an eighty-year old frayed black and white still photo and the latest vibrantly colored 3D motion picture in surround sound.

I hope I’m not overstating the metaphor, but a lot of these teachings in Messianic Judaism hit me like someone opened up my skull and poured in a couple of quarts of “Ah Ha! That’s what that means!”

I was also pleasantly surprised when Lancaster mentioned having read the biography of Brother Yun, an evangelist in Communist China who suffered terribly for his faith. I also read the book at the urging of a friend, and as a reminder that I can get tremendously caught up in the “head knowledge” of the Bible at the expense of a living faith in Messiah.

The message of the epistle to the Hebrews is also a message to us nearly two-thousand years later. The Jewish believers reading this letter had a faith in the return of the Messiah who had died, was resurrected, and ascended to Heaven about thirty years prior, within the living memory of a generation, and yet they were tempted to abandon that faith. We have possession of the same faith almost twenty-centuries after the event, and no one alive on earth is a direct witness today. If they were tempted living so close in time to the flesh and blood Jesus, how much more so will we be tempted, especially in a culture of atheism, humanism, and progressiveness, to be lured into abandoning our faith in the return of Messiah?

Which is why we can’t. Which is why Hebrews 11 is so important to us as an example of living and dying and yet not receiving the promise of his return.

For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?

Romans 11:15

lightIf some of the Jews in Paul’s generation not coming to faith in Messiah is compared to death, but their coming to faith is compared to the resurrection. So it is with us. For those who have never come to faith and possibly never will, we can have pity, but we must mourn tragically for those who once had faith and deliberately set it aside for whatever they thought was better, perhaps under some form of social pressure to do so.

I mourn for those every day and I know more than one. Pray that they haven’t shut up their ears permanently, and that they will go from being “cast away” by their own decision, to “acceptance” once again and “life from the dead.”