Category Archives: Torah Portion

Faith and Hope Without Torah

How can we find and hold onto joy in this world without it slipping out of our hands? The holiday of Simchat Torah provides an answer. As we dance with the Torah, we bask in the unique, eternal happiness that only Torah can bring into our lives. “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).

-from “Holding onto Joy: Celebrating Simchat Torah”
Sara Debbie Gutfreund
Aish.com

Simchat TorahI don’t suppose this will be much different from many other posts I’ve authored before, but every so often, I just need to say something here.

I’ve spent this season pretty much ignoring the High Holy Days. I didn’t even build our Sukkah this year. My wife (who is Jewish) didn’t seem to have any interest, and since I’m not Jewish, it seemed at least a bit presumptuous for me, a Goy, to construct a Sukkah when my Jewish wife was unconcerned. In fact, she left town last Monday and will be coming home tonight, so she would have missed out on much of the festival anyway.

Now that the holidays are over including Sukkot, I experience a sort of relief. I don’t have to concern myself with what I should or shouldn’t do as a “Judaically-aware Gentile believer” or whatever you want to call me.

Well, they’re not quite over yet. Simchat Torah begins at sundown tonight and ends on Erev Shabbat. Oy.

Depending on who you talk to, Gentiles and especially Christians have no part in the Torah. Oh sure, I’ve heard some “Messianic Gentiles” discuss an application of Torah or some small subset that applies to us, but really the key to understanding what’s supposed to apply to us can be found in Acts 15. Maybe the Didache has applications for us and maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t give us a share in the Sinai Covenant.

So what do we have?

According to Gutfreund’s article, there are five ways the Torah brings joy to the Jewish person:

  1. It gives then higher goals
  2. It shows them how to be grateful
  3. It teaches them hope
  4. It connects them
  5. It gives them flow

As I said above, it’s my opinion that Gentile believers can’t claim the Sinai Covenant and thus we can’t claim the Torah, so what do we have?

To paraphrase Paul in one of his epistles (Romans 3:2) “Much in every way.”

Though we have no direct covenant relationship with God, He has determined that He will love us anyway and, through His mercy and grace, has allowed us to partake in the blessings of the New Covenant through our faithfulness and devotion to Rav Yeshua (and conversely by the merit of Rav Yeshua’s faithfulness to Hashem).

I know it’s been said that before Abraham, there were no Jews, so the Gentiles must always have been part of God’s plan for redemption. It’s not that simple. Before Abraham, there was no distinction between a covenant and non-covenant people. Once there was Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses, the whole playing field changed. God made a decision (well, He’d always has made, is making, and will always make that decision). He chose a people unto Himself, a special people separated to Him from the nations of the Earth.

Sucks to be the nations, huh?

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 (NASB)

This could be interpreted as including the Gentile and thus expressing God’s desire that we should not perish either.

So if we don’t have the Torah, do we have higher goals, the ability to be grateful, hope, connection, and “flow?”

Let’s take that last one first. What is “flow?”

Our happiest moments occur when we are in the “flow,” completely engaged and absorbed by an activity we are doing. We transcend our physical and emotional limitations by immersing ourselves in the energy of the moment. Torah gives us this sense of flow when we are doing a mitzvah that is challenging for us but within our grasps. We visit the sick even when hospitals make us nervous. We invite the widow from across the street to Shabbos dinner even though we aren’t in the mood for guests. We give tzedakah even though we are anxious about our finances. We choose to overcome a limitation inside of us and move forward even when we have to push ourselves to do so.

-Gutfreund (ibid)

It’s not like a Gentile believer can’t perform mitzvot, it’s just many to most of the Torah mitzvot don’t apply to us. However, I would argue, generally doing good certainly does apply to us. We can visit the sick, comfort the widow, show kindness to the orphan, give to charity, and many other things that would give us a “flow.”

Certainly, faith in God through Rav Yeshua can give us higher goals. After all, believers, Jewish and Gentile, ideally live transformed lives, lives where we are not the same people we were before becoming devoted to Hashem.

Even more than the Jews, we Gentiles should be grateful. After all, every single Jew on Earth is born automatically into a covenant relationship with God. We’re not. We have to become aware of Hashem, of Yeshua, and we have to make and then implement a choice. However, it is an avenue that Hashem has specifically created for us so that even the nations can serve Him. If you’re not grateful for that, you’ve got a problem.

That leads to hope. Without Rav Yeshua we were without hope. In fact, we didn’t even know we were without hope.

Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

Ephesians 2:11-13 (NASB)

King DavidOur hope is in him, hope in being reconciled with God, hope in the resurrection and a life in the world to come, hope in being better human beings, in being servants to the one true God.

Connection. Oh well, there always has to be a fly in the ointment, at least for me. Belonging and connection implies community. Actually, community is possible and likely for most religious Jews and believing Christians, but as my conversation with my co-worker earlier today illustrated for me again, I don’t belong in the Christian world.

He’s a nice guy. I like him. He’s a self-admitted “redneck,” and an Evangelical. I’ve tried and tried to avoid religious conversations with him, but he sent me a poem he wrote, and then a prayer he wrote, so finally I decided to lay my cards on the table and emailed him the link to Hurtado on the “Conversion” of Paul (and he’s lucky I didn’t send him Christianity Drives Me Crazy).

He actually laughed while reading it. He said that he was only interested in what the Bible said and laughed again when I told him the Bible was interpretable. He actually believes you can read the KJV Bible and that’s all you need to have a perfect understanding of the full and complete message of God (or at least enough of it to merit personal salvation).

We went back and forth for a while. He finally said that not everyone is called to be a theologian. I explained that I wasn’t a theologian or at best, I’m an interested amateur.

I was sort of hoping he’d let it go, but he sent me an essay he wrote on the nature of love (though it was critical of Barack Obama and political and social liberals).

To his credit, he did read through my commentary on Hurtado and is still occasionally peppering his dialogue with statements on some “testimony” he recently heard.

Yeah. I have about as much connection with all that as a cat at a dog convention.

Oh well, you can’t have everything, and four out of five ain’t bad.

Besides, while we Gentiles may have no claim to the Torah, we do still have the benefits Gutfreund outlined through our devotion to our Rav, and by his merit we have our hope.

For more on Sukkot and Simchat Torah, see Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s commentary on Genesis 1:1-6:8, The Faith of God.

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The Blessings of Living in Israel are for the Jews

The Jewish people, the Almighty, the Torah and Eretz Yisroel (The Land of Israel). For more than 3,300 years we’ve been bound together. Did you ever wonder what the Sages taught us about how special is the Land of Israel? Here is a compilation from The Mitzvah to Live in Eretz Israel:

“There is no love like the love for the Land of Israel” — Bamidbar Rabba 23:7.

“There is no Torah like the Torah of the Land of Israel” — Bereshit Rabba 16,7.

“The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise” — Talmud, Bava Batra 158b.

“There are 10 portions of Torah in the world: 9 in the Land of Israel and 1 in the rest of the world” — Esther Rabba 1.

“If you desire to see the Shechina (Divine Presence) in this world, study Torah in the Land of Israel” — Midrash Tehillim 105.

“Living in the Land of Israel is the equivalent to all the mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah” — Sifrei, Parshat Re’eh, Tosefta Avoda Zara 5).

The Ramban, Nachmanides, writes that “We are commanded to take possession of the Land God gave to our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). We must not leave it to others or in desolation, as God told them, ‘And you will take possession of the land, for I gave the Land to you to possess and you will settle the Land which I promised to your fathers’ (Deut. 17:14, 26:1).”

Israel is far more than just a country or a refuge for the Jewish people — it is an integral part of our spiritual destiny!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary for Torah Portion Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
Aish.com

It’s quite clear Rabbi Packouz is addressing a Jewish audience. After all, what other people have ever been commanded to take possession of and live in the Land of Israel? Only the Jews, the modern descendants of the ancient Hebrews, the Israelites who wandered the desert for forty years prior to coming into their inheritance.

But I know more than a few non-Jewish Talmidei Yeshua who are envious and also desire the blessings listed above (I only quoted part of Rabbi Packouz’s article, so please click the link I provided above to read the full write-up).

I suppose we should be a little envious. After all there are tremendous blessings accorded the Jewish people for living in Israel that cannot be apprehended by anyone who isn’t Jewish. Further, except for maybe some exceptional cases, in Messianic Days, Israel will be filled with all or most of the world’s Jewish population. Imagine the prophesies finally being fulfilled.

“For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
“Since you are precious in My sight,
Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life.
“Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
And gather you from the west.
“I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring My sons from afar
And My daughters from the ends of the earth,
Everyone who is called by My name,
And whom I have created for My glory,
Whom I have formed, even whom I have made.”

Isaiah 43:3-7 (NASB)

MessiahAccording to Judaism 101:

The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing us back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).

All of this is part of the Jewish argument that Jesus (Yeshua) couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because during his earthly life in the late Second Temple period, he did none of these things and then he died.

Christians believe that he was resurrected, ascended into Heaven, is our High Priest in the Heavenly Court, and in due time, will return.

Most Christians don’t believe Jesus will politically and spiritually redeem the Jewish people upon his return, although they probably would agree that if Jews converted to Christianity, they would receive spiritual redemption (I don’t think the Church would go for the idea of Israel being an actual political entity under Jesus, let alone the Kingdom that would rule all the other nations of the world, even though the Bible states this).

I know a lot of Christians who would vehemently oppose any idea that Jesus would rebuild the Temple and re-establish the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices, let alone restore the Sanhedrin court system.

But if we set aside Christianity’s traditions as they steer the Church’s doctrinal teachings, and if we accept the fact that non-Jews do not have a portion in the Land of Israel, just what do we Goyim have as far as Israel goes?

Thus says the Lord God,

“Behold, I will lift up My hand to the nations
And set up My standard to the peoples;
And they will bring your sons in their bosom,
And your daughters will be carried on their shoulders.
“Kings will be your guardians,
And their princesses your nurses.
They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth
And lick the dust of your feet;
And you will know that I am the Lord;
Those who hopefully wait for Me will not be put to shame.”

Isaiah 49:22-23

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
“For behold, darkness will cover the earth
And deep darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will rise upon you
And His glory will appear upon you.
“Nations will come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
“Lift up your eyes round about and see;
They all gather together, they come to you.
Your sons will come from afar,
And your daughters will be carried in the arms.

Isaiah 60:1-4

New arrivals at Ben Gurion airport
New arrivals at Ben Gurion airport

It seems our job is to facilitate the return of the Jewish people to Israel, to not just “surrender” them from our lands, but to take an active part in the Messiah’s mission to return each and every Jewish man, woman, and child to the bosom of their nation Israel, for the Jews are the nation of Israel. I’ve tried looking for information regarding what, if any, inheritance Gentiles may expect regarding Israel, but there’s nothing clearcut.

But something called ElijahNet.net suggests that the Gentiles who join themselves to Israel will indeed have a portion:

Will the Gentiles who have joined themselves to the Lord be separate from His people? The God of Israel says, “No. They will be part of My household, My family.” Will the Gentiles who join themselves to the Lord be excluded from the holy place and service of the Lord? God says, “No. They will worship Me in My house, along with those of the dispersed of Israel whom I have gathered. They will be gathered to the remnant of Israel.”

“In the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills: and all the goyim will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths, for the law [Torah] will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ And He will judge between the goyim, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.” (Is. 2:2-3, Mic. 4:1-3)

God gave Ezekiel visions of a time to come when living, healing water would flow out of Jerusalem. (Ezek. 47:1-12) The Lord told Ezekiel that the alien in the midst of Israel will be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. (Ezek. 47:21-23)

I should point out that from a Jewish point of view, Ezekiel 47:21-23 isn’t about giving Gentiles part of the Land of Israel.

A more apparently Christian source has this to say:

Question: Are we as “gentile Christians” part of Israel (Rom 11:17)? Do any of the promises made to Israel as a nation apply to us, for example Deuteronomy 28 (I’ve often heard this one used by prosperity teachers although they never read past the fourteenth verse).

Answer (in part): Regarding your first question, I would say that “no” we are not “part of Israel” as gentile Christians. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians today make up the “Church” the “body of Christ” or “one new man” which Paul discusses in Ephesians 2. We, as Gentiles, were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), but now we have been brought near through Christ. But notice that we are not said to be “part of Israel” or a “new Israel.” Instead, both Jews and Gentiles are said to be joined into a new spiritual body, the one new man (Eph. 2:15). Another evidence that we are not “part of Israel” is found by carefully examining Paul’s use of the term “Israel” in Romans 9-11, and especially chapter 11. There, it will be found that “Israel” still refers to Jews.

Regarding your second question, “Do any of the promises made to Israel as a nation apply to us, for example Deuteronomy 28 . . .”

Moses at SinaiWhile there are principles in Deu. 28 which apply in general (e.g., God will bless a nation which is devoted to Him and follows His will, He will turn away from a nation—such as ours—which forsakes Him), the context of the passage is very clearly specific to the nation Israel. It includes curses which make absolutely no sense when applied to Gentiles (believers or otherwise). For example, the promise of worldwide scattering in judgment of disbelief: yet Gentiles (non-Jews) have always been scattered all over the world.

Whereas all scripture is written for our learning (Rom. 15:4), it is not all written specifically to us—and this is the case in Deuteronomy 28. Both the blessings and curses stated there apply to Israel, as the phrase “wandering Jew” and history abundantly prove.

Concerning the blessings which come to believing Gentiles, this is best understood by studying the relationship between the New Covenant (given to Israel in Jeremiah 31) and the Church.

Of course, there are a seemingly endless collection of Jewish and Christian information sources on the web, so this is only a very tiny sampling.

I couldn’t find anything at AskNoah.org about what sort of connection there could possibly be between a righteous Gentile and the Land of Israel.

I did find something on their view of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, as well as whether or not Noahides will worship at the Third Temple. From the latter article:

Gentiles were welcomed to bring their sacrificial offerings for G-d to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and they will participate even more at the Third Temple – especially during the festival of Sukkot (Zechariah 14:16).

Also…

In his commentary on the Torah section beginning with Genesis 12:1, Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote:

“Even in the time of Joshua, … the Gentiles knew that this place was the most august of all, that it was at the center of the inhabited world; and [Torah] Tradition had taught them that it corresponds in this world to the celestial Temple where Divine Majesty, called (righteousness), resides.”

And…

When the First Temple was inaugurated by King Solomon, he beseeched G-d with an eloquent prayer that included the following words (Kings I, 8:41-43) (which show that in the past, Gentiles were welcomed to the First and Second Temples, and that they will participate even more in the Third Temple)…

And finally, the article quotes from Isaiah 2:2-3 regarding the participation of Gentiles in the Temple:

“And it will come to pass at the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established, even higher than the peaks, and all the peoples will flow toward it as a river. And many nations will go and will cry, ‘Let us go up toward the mountain of G-d’s House, to the House of the L-rd of Jacob, and we will learn from His ways and walk in His paths, for out of Zion goes forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.’ “

Of course, participation in the Temple rites is not the same as having any portion in the Land. Isaiah 56 aside, I can’t find a legitimate Jewish commentary saying that any Gentiles will have a permanent home in the Land of Israel at all. It seems that we can certainly visit, and if intermarried, the Gentile would probably live in Israel with the Jewish spouse, but that’s about it.

christian-tourists-in-israel
Christian tourists in Israel

Is that such a bad thing? I know some people who operate in the Hebrew Roots space who most likely would think so. I think some of those non-Jews somehow believe they have “rights” not only to the Land of Israel, but to the Torah mitzvot as well. It’s been a long-standing argument. The relationship between Gentiles and the Land of Israel is probably something like how Jews traditionally accept Gentiles visiting the synagogue:

Non-Jews are always welcome to attend services in a synagogue, so long as they behave as proper guests. Proselytizing and “witnessing” to the congregation are not proper guest behavior.

When going to a synagogue, you should dress as you would for church: nicely, formally, and modestly. A man should wear a yarmulke (skullcap) if Jewish men in the congregation do so; yarmulkes are available at the entrance for those who do not have one. In some synagogues, married women should also wear a head covering. A piece of lace sometimes called a “chapel hat” is generally provided for this purpose in synagogues where this is required. Non-Jews should not, however, wear a tallit (prayer shawl) or tefillin, because these items are signs of our obligation to observe Jewish law.

During services, non-Jews can follow along with the English, which is normally printed side-by-side with the Hebrew in the prayerbook. You may join in with as much or as little of the prayer service as you feel comfortable participating in. You may wish to review Jewish Liturgy before attending the service, to gain a better understanding of what is going on.

Non-Jews should stand whenever the Ark is open and when the Torah is carried to or from the Ark, as a sign of respect for the Torah and for G-d. At any other time where worshippers stand, non-Jews may stand or sit.

When we non-Jews are in Israel, we are guests and we are expected to treat our hosts with proper respect, just as if we were visiting someone else’s house. You wouldn’t go into someone else’s home and act as if you lived there, would you?

In Rabbi Moshe Weiner’s Passover message to all Noahides, he states:

One of the wonders of the future redemption is the revelation of the Divine light that will shine onto the whole world, to all humanity (Isaiah 60:3). From the power of this light, all people will recognize the true existence of the Master of the world, Who fills the whole world, as stated by the prophet Isaiah (52:8-10): “with their own eyes they will see that G-d returns to Zion. Burst out, sing glad song in unison, O ruins of Jerusalem together, for G-d will have comforted His people; He will have redeemed Jerusalem. G-d has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; all ends of the earth will see the salvation of our G-d.”

Just as Moses our teacher at Mount Sinai began to repair the world, including all the Children of Noah by giving the Seven Commandments that were commanded to them, so too, the Messiah will teach and show the world (but in a more wondrous manner) the same recognition in the truth of the Creator of the universe which began to be revealed by Moses.

It is a great merit for each and every one of us to bring himself and his community to the faith and anticipation of this future freedom for the whole world. This will be freedom from evil and falsehood, and a redemption by which we will merit to go out from darkness to a great and true light.

Toward the lightCertainly it seems, the righteous Gentiles are included in many of the blessings of Messiah and that both Jew and Gentile will “go out from darkness to a great and true light.”

But that’s as far as I can understand it. All of those blessings Rabbi Packouz mentions that are received by those living in the Land of Israel are only received by the Jews living in the Land of Israel. For the Gentiles, not so much.

I can only imagine that Gentiles are still blessed in some manner when they/we visit Israel, but we’re visitors and guests, not residents. We may be associated with Israel as citizens of the vassal nations, subservient to our King, and we may have been brought near to her (see Ephesians 2:13) so that there is to be peace between Israel and we people of the nations (although I suspect that peace won’t be truly realized until the Messiah establishes his reign as King in Israel over the world), but none of that means that we are Israel, nor that we have rights to any of her real estate (at least as far as I can discover).

I guess in the resurrection, just like right now, I’ll have to be satisfied with my own little corner of Idaho.

My (Jewish) wife did surprise me again the other day. Out of a proverbial “clear blue sky,” she asked me if I’d given up on any plans to visit Israel. I didn’t know what to say. One circumstance or the other has gotten in the way and I haven’t even been thinking of it lately. I also am concerned about expenses for a number of complicated (and private) reasons, so thought maybe my long-suffering wife would appreciate it if I didn’t spend thousands of dollars playing tourist in the middle east.

I don’t know.

Blogger Ro Pinto wrote multiple blog posts about her recent trip to Israel including this summary, and it is abundantly obvious that she has a tremendous love of and devotion to the God of Israel, His people, and their Land. Some of her spiritual insights border on spectacular, which is a realm that has always eluded me.

Compared to how she related to Israel during her trip, I can’t imagine achieving anywhere near such experiences and insights. I think a visit to Israel is supposed to be as much about what you bring to the table spiritually as what you expect to receive.

Visiting Israel as a Gentile is not like traveling to any other nation on Earth. Jerusalem is the only city on the planet where God has put His Holy Name. Every time I seriously think of traveling to the Holy Land, I feel humbled and chagrined. Who am I compared the men and women of the Bible who trod that ancient Land, the Prophets, the Kings, the warriors, the scholars?

Every time I read or hear from some non-Jewish person who lays claim to Israel or the Torah, I’m astonished at the “Obama-like” audacity they exhibit. The feeling of being able to do anything you want, regardless of the (in this case Biblical) Law, without so much as a “by your leave”. You can’t bypass the God of Israel with a pen and a phone.

Who among the Gentile Talmidei Yeshua hasn’t felt the call of Israel at one point of another in our lives? Who hasn’t, at some time in our existence, wanted to bathe in the glow of the blessings Rabbi Packouz outlined in his “Shabbat Shalom Weekly” article?

Up to JerusalemBut it’s like being a kid and watching the boy or girl next door receive a shiny new bicycle for their birthday. Just because you want to ride on that bike too, doesn’t mean it belongs to you.

The Lessons of Failure

Few of us like tests. However, what if your child comes home from school and tells you that he has the greatest science teacher this year — he’s too busy to grade tests, so there won’t be any tests the whole year! Likely, you’d be heading for the phone to call the principal. Why? Tests ensure that your child pays attention to the material, does the assignments and achieves the ultimate that he can achieve in the subject. No tests, the child will likely slack off and learn little.

However, when WE get a test in life — be it health, economic, interpersonal — we ask “Why is this happening to me?” Why does the Almighty send us a test? Because He loves us and He wants us to get the most out of life, to develop ourselves and our character, to have the greatest life possible and to achieve our potential. The Talmud tells us that the Almighty does not send us a test that we cannot handle.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from the Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary on Torah Portion Ve’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Aish.com

So the Talmud says that the Almighty does not send a test the person being tested cannot handle. I’ve heard something similar in Christian circles and I’m not sure I agree with either source. I think there are plenty of Christians and Jews (and lots of others) who have encountered horrifying experiences that completely overwhelmed them.

How many Jews didn’t survive the Holocaust, and even of those who lived, how many did not survive with their emotional and physical health intact?

While I don’t believe Christians are persecuted in the United States, there are plenty in other countries run by oppressive and anti-Christian regimes where Christians are beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered for their faith. Sure, just like in examples of Holocaust survivors, we hear miraculous testimonies from Christians who have been terrifically brutalized, but who endured nonetheless with their faith and other facilities remaining whole.

But what about the stories we’ll never hear because they’re unpopular, of Jews and Christians who were totally broken by these tests and trials, those who never recovered, those who lost faith?

What about things that we don’t see as persecution? What of the Christian father who loses his five-year old little girl in a car accident and turns to alcohol instead of God? What about the Jewish mother whose baby boy dies of SIDS and she responds by ceasing to ever again speak to Hashem in prayer?

God provides the tests, but their’s no guarantee we’ll pass.

failureWhat happens when we fail? I don’t think Rabbi Packouz’s commentary is very helpful here:

How do you know it’s a test? If it’s hard. Test are tailored made for each individual. It may be hard for one person, but not for another. Know that the choice you make will determine whether you get closer to reaching your potential or further away. Think back to a difficult situation. Beforehand you might have thought that you couldn’t handle it, yet you did — and you grew tremendously from it. We only grow from that which is difficult and challenging. We draw upon something inside of us that we didn’t know we had.

That’s assuming we have whatever it takes inside in the first place. But then there’s this:

People think that they are being punished with bad things. The Torah teaches us that ultimate reward and punishment are not in this world, but in the next world, the World to Come (Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, ch.1). In this world, it is not punishment; He’s teaching you a lesson, giving you a message. If you gave tzedakah (charity) and your stocks went up — it’s not a reward, but a message that you are using your money properly and here’s more to use wisely. Likewise, if you misused your wealth and your stocks declined.

It is important to understand that what happens to you may be bitter, painful, but it is not necessarily bad. It depends on how you view what happens and how you respond to it. Bad is what takes you away from a connection with the Almighty.

The flip side is what happens when something good happens to us, something really good? Imagine you win the lottery and win big. Suddenly, you’re set for life. You now can devote much more time and resources to charity, prayer, and Bible study because you don’t have to work, you can hire others to clean your house and take care of your yard, and free you from all the “ordinary” tasks in life.

Just like “bad” tests, “good” tests don’t always have the desired result.

“But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You are grown fat, thick, and sleek—
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation.

“They made Him jealous with strange gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.

“They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.

“You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Deuteronomy 32:15-18 (NASB)

moses mount neboJust as in difficult tests, there’s no promise we will respond as God desires when He makes life easier for us, there’s no guarantee we’ll come closer to Him either.

I hate tests. I’m not very good at them, at least the ones Hashem provides. It’s disappointing. I sometimes wish for things that would make my life easier, at least from my point of view, rather than having to endure all of God’s “tests.” All this occurred to me again as I was pouring a cup of coffee this morning in an effort to wake up my brain.

It also occurred to me that, just like the test a young student has to take in school, what I receive or don’t receive from God is for my own (ultimate) good, even if I don’t see it that way. If I don’t win the lottery, for example, while that means I still have to work and struggle to save for an eventual retirement, there is something “good” about that. I don’t know what it is, but God must.

And of all the tests Hashem puts in my path that I find uncomfortable or even downright painful, even though I don’t see the “good” in them, it must be there. I have to believe that if I have faith and trust in God. Otherwise, life is just random and meaningless and we have no support from God when we suffer…we simply suffer.

How empty and vain a life is that?

But it’s not easy. Rabbi Packouz teaches us what we learn when we pass a test, but what do we learn when we fail?

Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.

-Napoleon Hill

Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.

-Henry Ward Beecher

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

You can Google “failure quotes” and find a seemingly endless supply of inspirational statements about learning from failure. Of course, the quotes of famous people don’t necessarily reflect the viewpoint of God on the matter.

Having arrested Him, they led Him away and brought Him to the house of the high priest; but Peter was following at a distance. After they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter was sitting among them. And a servant-girl, seeing him as he sat in the firelight and looking intently at him, said, “This man was with Him too.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.” A little later, another saw him and said, “You are one of them too!” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” After about an hour had passed, another man began to insist, saying, “Certainly this man also was with Him, for he is a Galilean too.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:54-62

peters-denialPeter’s failure. But it wasn’t the end, even though the failure was great.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”  He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.

John 21:15-17

Rav Yeshua gave Peter (Kefa) another chance to show how he loved his Master. Peter recovered from his failure and recovered well.

But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!” And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God; and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Acts 3:4-10

This is just one small example of Peter the empowered Apostle and the result of his recovery from failure. He’d never be perfect and sometimes he’d make mistakes, but he never denied his Master again.

But what about us? We could attribute Peter’s boldness to his having received the Holy Spirit in the Acts 2 as opposed to his deliberately choosing to pass God’s tests rather than fail them. He was an Apostle full of the Holy Spirit of God. What about us? What about we poor, dim, ordinary human beings?

As Acts 10 attests, we Gentile Yeshua Talmidei are also supposed to possess the Spirit of the Almighty. Where is our greatness? Why aren’t we like the Apostles? What’s the difference between them and us?

Why do we continue to fail, what does that mean, and what do we learn, if anything at all?

The Torah states:

“And Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moses and Aaron. He said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Almighty is righteous. I and my people are wicked! … I will let you leave. You will not be delayed again.’ ”

Shortly thereafter, Pharaoh refused to let them leave.

Why did Pharaoh change his mind once the pressure of the plague was removed? Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of the Mir Yeshiva explained that Pharaoh viewed suffering as a punishment. That is why he said, “The Almighty is a righteous judge and His punishment is fair because I have done evil.”

The reality is that there is a strong element of kindness in the suffering that the Almighty sends to us. In part, it is a divine message that we have something to improve. The goal of suffering is to motivate a person to improve his behavior. Pharaoh viewed suffering only as a punishment. Therefore, as soon as the punishment was over, he changed his mind and refused to let them leave.

Our lesson: View suffering as a means to elevate yourself and you will find meaning in your suffering. Try to accept it with love and appreciation. Even though there is still pain involved, it is much easier to cope. Whenever you find yourself suffering, ask yourself, “How can I use this as a tool for self-improvement?”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’eira
from Growth Through Torah

runI think that’s what we learn from failure. If we see our failures as a punishment from God or some sort of inherent quality in ourselves we can never overcome, we will continue to fail. If, however, we choose to consider our failures as tests, they point to the areas in our lives where we need to improve. They show us a target to aim at, a goal to achieve, they illuminate a sort of “finish line” in a race.

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.

Hebrews 12:1-3

We fail, but as long as we persevere and do not give up, we will never be defeated.

I know, easier said than done, but as people of faith, every time we are knocked down, we must either get up again, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward, or we surrender our faith, give up on God, and go off in our own direction, becoming truly lost.

Passing God’s tests strengthens us, brings us closer to God, and shows us that God has built within us more persistence and empowerment than we realized we had. In fact, without tests, we’d never know just who God has made us to be. Even if we fail and fail often, as long as we keep trying, we never lose our way or step off the path God has placed before us.

Even in abject failure, abandoned by everyone we ever thought loved us, we are never alone.

When you have nothing left but God, you become aware that God is enough.

―A. Maude Royden

May this always be true of each of us.

Perfecting Humanity

This week’s Torah portion is Noah — the story of the world being destroyed by a flood because of the way people treated each other (see Dvar Torah). It is a lesson that we all need to take to heart. Did you ever ask yourself, “What would it take to create a perfect world and perfect humanity?” Here’s my list. These are all ideas culled from the Torah, the Instruction Book for Life.

10 Rules for Perfecting Humanity

  1. Speak Properly
  2. Act with Honesty and Integrity
  3. Respect Others
  4. Be Kind to Others
  5. Study Wisdom
  6. Work for a Cause
  7. Be Humble
  8. Pray
  9. Make a Daily Accounting
  10. Be Real with God and Life

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Shabbat Shalom Weekly
Aish.com

NoahGiven that I’m reasonably “settled” in what I have to do and how I have to do it in having a relationship with God while also being “Judaicly aware” (not that I’m very good at doing it all), I haven’t expected to write much more on this blog, or at least I thought I wouldn’t write very often.

But since the Torah Portion for this week is Noah, the story of a righteous Gentile, and that Judaism considers Hashem’s covenant with Noah (all living things, really) to be binding on all non-Jewish humanity even to this day, I thought I should draw some attention to the Rabbi’s commentary.

Notice that the list above are 10 rules for perfecting humanity not just Jewish people. Of course, Rabbi Packouz is writing to a Jewish audience, but I don’t think that invalidates the application of his advice to the rest of us. Also notice that the advice applicable to the Gentile was derived from the Torah.

Someone (a non-Jewish believer) commented on this recent blog post that the Torah is universal. He meant that every detail and every mitzvah is universally applied to all human beings who are either Jewish or Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus).

Well, of course the Torah is universal. Rabbi Packouz’s list illustrates this perfectly. However, that there are principles and even praxis in the Torah that are equally relevant to the Jew and Gentile doesn’t mean that all of Torah is equally applicable.

But let’s take what we’ve got in the list above.

First, go to the original article and read how R. Packouz “fleshes out” each item on the list.

Next, let’s consider how well each of us does on a daily basis in fulfilling every one of the ten items above.

Do we speak properly? This pretty much means not engaging in gossip or idle chatter about other people, even though there are some folks who get an emotional charge out of tearing someone else down, especially when that someone else has made mistakes and is reaping the consequences.

That sort of goes along with item 4: Be Kind to Others. No matter how unappealing or even sinful a person looks on the outside, first remember that none of us is perfect either, and then realize that everyone is fighting a hard battle, not just you.

cookie jarDo we act with honesty and integrity? As disciples of Rav Yeshua, I hope so, but let’s face it, more than one religious person, Christian and Jew, has been caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar. Sometimes how we recover from a mistake tells more about our character than never making one.

Do we respect others? I guess I should have put this one in with items 1 and 4, since our respecting all other people based on them also being created in the image of the Almighty would probably eliminate the vast majority of unkind and improper behavior in the world.

Study Wisdom. In this case R. Packouz cites both Torah and Pirke Avot, but I find it interesting that Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” Clearly, both Packouz and Roosevelt are saying very similar things. Acts 15:21 also seems to imply that the non-Jew can benefit from being grounded in Torah study (the Christian Bible obviously didn’t exist at that point in time) and there’s a lot to gain for a non-Jew studying Torah besides merely learning to imitate Jewish praxis.

Work for a Cause. They say charity begins at home but it doesn’t end there. Even if we sometimes question exactly what our mission is on Earth from God’s point of view, it’s pretty easy to look around our community and see needs. Find one you can fulfill.

Be Humble. That’s hard to do in the blogosphere. You’d think religious bloggers would be experts at this one, but often the exact opposite is true. R. Packouz says that wisdom only enters a humble person, so item 5 does nothing for you unless you also practice item 7.

Pray. Again, hopefully we are all doing this every day…maybe even every hour depending on what’s happening in our lives. These aren’t just petitions to fulfill personal needs, although this too is appropriate in prayer. Many of the personal prayers we find in the Bible are praise to God. Also, praying goes along with items 3, 4, and 6. When we pray for others, we integrate them into our thoughts and emotions, and out of that, we can act to be the answer to their prayers.

Make a Daily Accounting. This is an ugly one. Oh sure, if you’re a saint and you never sin, then this accounting is your personal victory list for the day. However, if you are a human being, there are bound to be at least a little bit of red on your ledger that needs to be wiped clean.

waiting-for-godBeing real with God would be easy, you’d think. He knows everything, after all. You can lie to others convincingly, but you can’t lie to God (no matter how much you might want to sometimes). Being real with God is baring your soul to Him. Being real with life is applying your relationship with God to your lived experience and connections to other people.

So, you’ve been through the 10 rules for perfecting human beings. You don’t have to say how you did. I’m certainly not going to share the gruesome details about my performance on the list.

But you can share it with God and see how He can help you and me be better tomorrow than we’ve been today.

On the Occasion of Ha’azinu and Building a Sukkah

As I write this, I put our little sukkah kit together several hours ago. It’s only a 4 x 6 foot sukkah and the frame snaps together, but it still took me a little over an hour. The canvas is the hardest part to handle, especially alone. Then there is improvising the roof supports so I can roll the bamboo (yes, it came with the kit and is certified kosher) mat across the top. Hanging the lights is usually pretty easy, though this year I used some masking tape to hold the connecting electrical cord in place.

I’ve got a couple of plastic chairs in the small structure, but since the holiday doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening, I decided not to have lunch inside (not that there’s any particular commandment for me to do so, at least as far as I can find).

All of my family had to go to work today, so I’m alone right now. Given that my major “honey do” task after the lawn was constructing the sukkah, I decided, that done, I’d read the Bible.

For the past several years, I’ve been using the same Bible reading plan to go through the Bible in a year. It’s one of the few things I took from my former church experience. The plan actually will take you through the Bible cover-to-cover in 222 days, but I like to build in some “wiggle room.”

That said, I stopped following my plan months ago, as my “slump” deepened, my faith in religion waned, and I decided to focus on other, less spiritual priorities.

Four days ago (again, as I write this), I downloaded a new plan, printed it, and have started reading again. It felt appropriate given my attempt at “starting over” in returning to God.

Since I’d also abandoned my traditional reading and studying the weekly Torah portion, and still having uninterrupted time on my hands, I decided to brush the dust off my Chumash (metaphorically speaking, of course) and pick up with Torah Portion Ha’azinu, including the haftarah readings and readings from Psalms and the Gospels.

I have to admit, it felt good. It’s a pleasant afternoon, and I decided to do my reading on the back patio with a cup of coffee and glass of water, within just a few feet of the wee sukkah I constructed earlier.

And, in defiance of my desire to not rely so heavily on Jewish sources, I also read the commentary on today’s Torah portion from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Growth Through Torah.

Even though Rabbi Pliskin is writing for a Jewish audience, I must confess most of what he has authored in this book makes so much sense to me on a personal and moral level. I’ll return to that in a bit. I want to present something to you first.

As part of my Bible reading plan so far, I’ve read the first four chapters of Matthew. Being back in the Gospels reminds me that Gentiles do, from time to time, appear in those pages. I think it’s important to consider how Rav Yeshua interacted with them and I’ll explain why in a minute.

And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 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; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NASB)

Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

Matthew 15:21-28

MessiahHere we have Rav Yeshua demonstrating two very different attitudes towards non-Jewish people. In the first case, Jesus was actually amazed at the faith in which the Roman Centurion had in Yeshua’s power to heal (and presumably faith in Hashem, the source of all healing). In fact, verses 11 and 12 seem to state that in Messianic Days, many non-Jews, because of their faith, “will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is contrasted with a statement about the “sons of the kingdom,” which in this context, I can only presume are Jewish people, “will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” most likely due to lack of faith.

I’m sure these verses have been misused by Christians for centuries to support the old idea that God replaced the Jews with the Gentiles (the Church) in His love and in the covenant promises. While I do not believe this to be true in any sense, there appears to be some support for the idea the Gentile faith in Messianic days, through the merit of Messiah, will at least metaphorically, allow a number of them to “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

That’s pretty exciting.

But what about Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman?

A lot of Christian commentators (I can’t cite references, but I do remember this explanation being served up to me more than once) believe that Jesus really wasn’t referring to this person, pleading for her daughter’s life, as a “dog,” and that this was just a test of her humility and faith.

But given the traditional social relationship between Jews and Canaanites in those days, that’s pretty much how he, and most other Jewish people, would have thought of her. Even his disciples implored Rav Yeshua to send the woman away, fully knowing that her daughter was “cruelly demon-possessed.” Not the sort of kindness and compassion we’d expect from students of Jesus Christ.

And it’s almost as if Yeshua provided the healing in spite of his feelings for this woman and her people. Yet it was her great faith that seemed to touch the Rav and transcended their usual social roles.

We know Yeshua himself said that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), so the Gentiles weren’t particularly any concern of his, and Yeshua’s interactions with them were an extreme exception rather than the rule.

Yet in John’s highly mystical Gospel, as he is declaring himself the Good Shepherd of Israel, he does make one small admission:

I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

John 10:16

We presume that these “other sheep” are the Gentiles who will eventually come to faith in the God of Israel through the merit of Messiah, but that must have been a confusing statement to his Jewish audience, since in verses 19 through 21, they accused him of being demon-possessed.

We really don’t find a good example of Gentile Yeshua-devotion in the Gospels, largely because having come to the “lost sheep of Israel,” the Rav wasn’t seeking out, nor did he direct his disciples to seek out, the Gentiles.

In fact, in spite of Matthew 28:18-20, even Yeshua’s closest companions had no expectation that they should actively search out Gentile devotees and make them into disciples. From their point of view, it’s likely that if they had chosen that direction, they would have obeyed their directive by having interested Gentiles convert to Judaism through the proselyte rite.

Peter's visionIt wasn’t until about fifteen years later by some estimates, that Peter was more or less forced to witness a righteous Gentile and his household be the objects of God’s acceptance of faith by allowing them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Acts 10:44-48

If you read the full context of Acts 10, you’ll see that Peter was pretty reluctant to make the journey to the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. Peter’s famous rooftop vision, recorded earlier in the chapter, was Hashem’s effort to convince this apostle that associating with Gentiles, even to the point of entering a Gentile’s home and breaking bread with him, was not going to ritually defile Peter and his Jewish companions (no, it’s not about food…it was never about food).

Just as with Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, it was a matter of social roles and the perceived “spirituality” of pagan Romans vs. Jewish worshipers of Hashem that kept them apart.

But while Cornelius was a God-fearer and had made many acts of tzedakah (charity) on behalf of the Jewish people, as well as continually praying to Hashem, he was not a disciple of Rav Yeshua until God directed Peter to visit the Centurion’s home and teach him.

It was only then that Cornelius and all the Gentiles in his household received the Holy Spirit of God in the manner of the Jewish disciples as we witnessed in Acts 2.

After this astonishing revelation, Peter had some explaining to do to the “apostles and the brethren” about why he spent several days in a Roman Centurion’s home.

After relating the supernatural circumstances that resulted in Peter visiting Cornelius, he concluded:

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:15-18

It seems that the leaders of the Messianic sect of Judaism once known as “the Way” never anticipated this possibility. They never expected Gentiles to receive the Spirit and to have the ability to repent “that leads to life.”

I believe this is some sort of indication of the qualitative difference between Cornelius’ status before Hashem as a God-fearer and later, as a disciple of Rav Yeshua. Only by Yeshua’s faithfulness and in the merit of Messiah may a Gentile become a disciple, one who is more or at least different from the God-fearer Cornelius had been before, and repent in a manner that “leads to life,” the resurrection, and have life in the world to come.

As far as the Bible is concerned, we never hear of Cornelius again and have no clue as to how he led his life after these events.

But I do believe that the various incidents I’ve referred to so far provide some interesting perspectives as to the encounters of non-Jews with Messiah or with faith in Messiah.

In all of these examples, faith seems to be the common element. It’s faith that transcends the ethnic and national barriers that “contain” God within Judaism and allow the rest of the world to turn to Him. This faith even impressed the Rav, and it was proof of this faith that convinced Peter, and through him, the rest of the leaders of the Way, that Gentiles could receive the Spirit, could repent, could merit the promise of life in the world to come, just as the Jews had.

But what does that mean for we non-Jewish disciples today who don’t find an identity or role in the traditional Church and who do not find it convenient or even warranted, to, in some fashion, imitate Jewish praxis?

My teachings should come down to you as rain.

Deuteronomy 32:2

Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz used to cite the Vilna Gaon on this verse that rain helps things grow. But what grows? Only what is there from before. If someone has vegetables and fruits that are healthy and delicious, rain will help them develop. But if there are poisonous mushrooms, rain will help them grow too. Similarly, Torah study makes one grow. But it depends on one’s character traits what one will become. A person who has elevated traits will become a greatly elevated person. But if a person has faulty character traits, the more Torah he studies the greater menace he will become.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azenu, p.464
Growth Through Torah

the crowdI suppose this is why we have such a diversity of “characters” in the religious space, particularly among the more learned. But if Bible study only amplifies who you already are, then how do you, Jew or Gentile, truly become a better person? More to the point, what path must the “Judaically aware” Gentile take (on a metaphoric deserted island) beyond Bible study, in changing one’s character and becoming more conformed to the expectations of God?

I’ll continue to explore these questions in future “meditations.”

Are Messianic Gentiles Korach?

Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehas, the son of Levi, separated himself.

Bamidbar/Numbers 16:1

This verse begins the passage that deals with the rebellion of Korach, who sought to overthrow Moshe and Aharon from their positions as leaders of the Jews. The verse stresses that Korach took himself apart — that is, he deliberately sought to develop machlokes, strife between the Jews and their leaders.

-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.2
Sunday’s commentary on Torah Portion Korach
A Daily Dose of Torah

Over two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called What Am I, Chopped Liver?, in which I attempted to illustrate that non-Jews who are somehow associated with the Messianic Jewish movement are not an afterthought of God or a devalued population without a role in God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the nations simply because we’re not Jewish.

I could never have predicted what happened next. As I write this (Monday afternoon) that fifteen day old blog post has collected 191 comments and counting. Apparently, I struck a nerve, a really sensitive one.

I’ve written several posts since then, but none has gained the traction of “Chopped Liver,” which is just fine.

But then I started studying for the coming week’s Torah Portion Korach.

Rashi explains that Korach wished to make the point that there was no reason for Moshe and Aharon to be seen as greater than the rest of the Jews, for all of them had been spoken to by God at Sinai. thus their assuming leadership represented a selfish act of self-promotion…

…No matter how holy the Jews, they still needed leaders — and Hashem had ordained that those leaders were to be Moshe and Aharon. Sadly, Korach refused to see the obvious answer, and came to his terrible end as a result.

ibid, pp.2-3

We need to look at Korach and his 250 followers in context. The failure of the ten spies had just occurred (see Shelah) and the Children of Israel, bewailing their fate, refused to enter the Land and conquer it. Instead, they begged for a new leader to guide them back to Egypt. Even the next morning when the people realized their error, it was too late. Hashem had already decreed that the current generation wander the desert for forty years, until the last one of them expired.

Not listening to Hashem again, the Israelites attempted to take the Land. Hashem was not with them and the local Canaanite armies easily routed Israel, sending her packing, so to speak.

From Korach’s point of view, this might all seem to be the fault of Moses and Aaron. Midrash states that Korach and his companions believed Moses had appointed himself and Aaron as leaders, and that their positions of authority did not come from Hashem. If Korach were right, then there was no absolute divine source that appointed Moses as the Leader and Prophet of Israel and he might be opposed, overthrown, and replaced. This was Korach’s intent.

Although Korach was dead wrong (literally as it turns out) and Hashem decreed his demise, I can’t think too harshly of Korach. Yes, he was misguided and confused, probably tortured by the humiliating defeat in Canaan, and the dreaded prospect of the Israelites spending the rest of their days wandering the desert of Sinai. But assuming he wasn’t just greedy for power, he probably thought he was doing the right thing, the only thing he could think of to save his people.

korach rebellionBut he lacked Moses’ perspective and his apprehension of the will of Hashem for Israel.

It is commonly thought that Korach’s sin was one of attempting to usurp the roles of Moses and Aaron and to make himself the leader and High Priest (a bit if hypocrisy if he really thought that all Israelites were complete equals).

But we “Messianic Gentiles” (or whatever you want to call us) are also trying to figure out our roles relative to Messianic Jews and within the context of Messianic Judaism. Can we Gentiles be compared to those involved in the Korach rebellion?

First of all, let’s understand how I’m using the term “Messianic Gentiles.” Why don’t I just call us “Christians?”

Well, in the most generic way of speaking, we are Christians. That is, anyone who follows Christ (Messiah) as a disciple can be called a Christian (and my Jewish wife calls me a Christian). I make the differentiation for two reasons.

The first is that, in modern times, there are a number of Jews who choose to follow the traditions of their Sages in how they observe the Torah, living like many, many other observant Jews all over the world…and yet they are also disciples of Yeshua, recognizing him as Moshiach and the coming Jewish King.

Calling them “Christians” would be a gross injustice because historically, Christianity has been directly opposed to Jews observing Torah, studying Talmud, gathering in synagogues on Shabbos, and honoring the traditions of the Sages.

The closest analog to modern Messianic Jews are the very early Jewish disciples of the Master we find in the Apostolic Scriptures, but we also have to remember that nearly two-thousand years of Judaism stand in between these two groups of Jews. And certainly by any comparison, those ancient and our modern Messianic Jews in no way resemble today’s Evangelical Christians.

The second reason is similar to the first. We Gentiles in Messiah, who associate ourselves with Messianic Judaism in terms of how we understand and study the Bible and the function of the New Covenant, are not opposed to Jews practicing Judaism in the manner of their forefathers. We have a different vision of the primacy of Israel in the current age and into the Messianic Era. We know that Yeshua is the center of God’s plan of redemption, that God’s redemption emanates from Yeshua to Israel, and only then, from Israel to the nations.

This understanding is only rarely found in any corner of mainstream Christianity, thus I refer to us as Messianic Gentiles to communicate the distinction, not to deliberately separate ourselves from the (much) larger ekklesia of Christ among the Gentiles, that is, the Christian Church.

So are we Messianic Gentiles guilty of the rebellion of Korach in seeking a role in Messianic Judaism?

Based on the initial criteria I cited at the top of this blog post, that Korach deliberately separated himself from his Israelite fellows in order to cause strife (at least according to Midrash), how can we say we have separated ourselves from Messianic Judaism if our intent is to join them, albeit as Gentiles and not Jews?

It seems more apparent that we’ve separated ourselves from the local church and from historical Christianity so it’s very likely if we are rebelling, it is against the Christian Church, not Messianic Judaism.

Mount SinaiBut what about the supposition I’m adapting from Korach, that we Gentiles are every bit as Holy to God as are the Jewish people, thus no role possessed by Jews should be denied us?

It’s difficult to make a direct comparison because Korach and his group were Levites and Israelites, so they had that in common with Moses and Aaron. We Gentiles don’t have tribe and ethnic identity in common with the Jews in Messianic Judaism. We can’t separate ourselves from something we never were in the first place.

That’s an important point because the Sinai Covenant, and for that matter the New Covenant, are both made exclusively with the Jewish people. The disciples from the nations aren’t named subjects to those covenants. It’s only by the mercy and grace of God that he has preordained “every knee will bow” and indeed, that Gentiles turning to Hashem en masse, is a rock-solid indication, based on scripture, that the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven into our world is imminent (but “imminent” in the timing of God, not necessary by the human calendar).

So if any Gentile were to claim equal rights to the Sinai and New Covenants as members and citizens of Israel, it would be the height of hubris, and indeed, pride and arrogance are things that Korach has been accused of throughout the ages. If any of we Messianic Gentiles made such a demand, we’d be on par with Korach, cut from the same cloth.

But that’s not what most of us are trying to do. We’re not claiming the Torah for our own. We are not calling Moses our Father and maybe not even our Teacher (apart from the veiled implications of Acts 15:21).

What we do want to know is, given our particular orientation as Gentiles standing on the foundation of the Jewish Bible, who are we, where do we belong, and what should we be doing?

Of course, as part of the exceptionally long dialogue on my aforementioned blog post and particularly my conversation with Rabbi Kinbar, our “place at the table” may have to be self-defined. The various leading organizations that can truly be termed “Messianic Judaism” have their hands far too full managing their own definition, identity, and role.

Korach disputed the validity of Moses and Aaron as God-assigned leaders of the Children of Israel. Are we Messianic Gentiles questioning the leadership of Jews in Messianic Judaism? Can there be a Judaism without Jews? If we non-Jews want to be part of Messianic Judaism, are the Jewish people our leaders and are we trying to “take over” Messianic Judaism from them?

Those are a lot of loaded questions.

If there are Messianic Jewish synagogues that are by and for Jews in Messiah only, then we don’t have a seat at that table and we don’t belong. If we don’t belong, they can hardly be our leaders.

If there are Messianic Jewish synagogues that welcome non-Jews as adjunct members or resident visitors and if those synagogues are led by a majority Jewish board of directors, then the board are our leaders.

synagogueThat gets a little complicated since, for instance, the local combined Reform/Conservative shul in my corner of Idaho has both Jews and Gentiles on the board, although, of course, the Rabbi is Jewish.

In a comment made by Rabbi Carl Kinbar recently:

At the same time, MJ leaders share the responsibility. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that few congregations made up preponderantly of Messianic Jews will grow large enough to support their leader full-time.

Virtually all Messianic congregations where individuals (Jew or Gentile) simply walk in the door and stay, are largely (sometimes almost completely) Gentile in make-up. This is especially true of congregations in areas where there are few Jews to begin with. Jewish practices are usually, or perhaps inevitably, reconfigured to the point of being somewhat unrecognizable. Most MJs who take their Judaism seriously feel quite alienated in that kind of environment. They also feel the need to guard themselves lest they speak or act “too Jewish” and thus offend the Gentiles (and some other Jews, too). As a traveling speaker, I have experienced enough Messianic congregations to know what I’m talking about.

That said, no congregation that walls itself in can be spiritually healthy. Congregations that have a distinct vision must have a strong and persistent determination to maintain living relationships with those who have a different vision, theology, or idea of congregational fabric.

P.S., I also believe that it is not viable, in the long term, for largely MG congregations to restrict leadership positions to Jews even when there are equally or more qualified MGs. It will not work sociologically or psychologically. A large percentage of MG children who mature in that kind of environment will leave as soon as they can. (emph. mine)

I can only imagine the matter of leadership is managed on a community-by-community basis. Thus the question of who leads and who follows is highly variable depending on whatever congregation you are attending. Synagogues with a majority non-Jewish membership will likely have a significant Gentile presence on the board, while Messianic Jewish shuls made up of a majority of Jews with only a few Gentiles (non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members perhaps) might have few to no Gentiles on the board and most certainly a Jewish person in the role of Rabbi.

In any congregation, there has to be a method of leadership whereby the members feel they are represented by such leadership. In many churches and synagogues, board members are elected by popular vote, and it is the board that hires the Pastor or Rabbi, who then is an employee of the institution and who can even be fired by the board if necessary (or their contract can simply not be renewed once it becomes due).

I’ve been in a congregation, a very organizationally unsophisticated one, where there were multiple attempts, some successful, to lead a hostile takeover, a sort of bloodless coup, either deposing the previous leader out of hand or causing a split in the group.

This is not uncommon among small but growing Hebrew Roots congregations, but it’s also been known to happen in full-fledged Christian churches (I have no idea if splits happen in mainstream Jewish synagogues since I have no direct experience).

It’s always ugly and never serves to sanctify the Name of God.

messianic judaism for the nationsSo are we Messianic Gentiles rebels with or without a cause?

I would say no. Not if we aren’t intending to take control of something that isn’t ours, that is, the covenant inheritance of the Jewish people. We have a right to seek out our own identity and role as long as the identity and role we desire doesn’t already belong to another group.

I think this is why some within Messianic Judaism would rather the Gentiles all stay in the Church, because it solves this pesky problem by using the already existing identity for Gentile believers as Christians within the Church and Jewish disciples as Jews within Judaism.

But not all Jews in Messiah agree, and as far as my experience goes, most Messianic Jewish groups in the United States have a large if not a majority Gentile population.

So I suppose as long as we Messianic Gentiles aren’t plotting to overtly or covertly take over whatever Messianic congregations we are attending, then we aren’t rebels. Of course, any group in a congregation that attempts a takeover of said-congregation outside of the formal rules would be considered rebels, regardless of the ethnic make up of the house of worship.

So if we’re not taking over Jewish synagogues and we’re not claiming the Torah and Israel to be who we are equally along with the Jews, then no, we aren’t rebels, usurpers, or thieves. We are just pilgrims on a trail, traveling a path, searching for who we are in Hashem and in Messiah.

We may never find out who we are in Messianic Judaism or in direct relation with Messianic Jews. But as I wrote just recently, we have every likelihood of discovering who we are in Messiah, and then helping and supporting Jewish Torah observance and community in anticipation of the return of Messiah and the establishment of his Kingdom in Israel and among us all.