Tag Archives: Abraham

Wednesday Night in My Pastor’s Office

iron-sharpens-iron-hotWhat then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God…”

Romans 3:9-11 (NASB)

There is no person on earth so righteous, who does only good and does not sin.

Ecclesiastes 7:20

Reading the suggestions for ridding oneself of character defects, someone might say, “These are all very helpful for someone who has character defects, but I do not see anything about myself that is defective.”

In the above-cited verse, Solomon states what we should all know: no one is perfect. People who cannot easily find imperfections within themselves must have a perception so grossly distorted that they may not even be aware of major defects. By analogy, if a person cannot hear anything, it is not that the whole world has become absolutely silent, but that he or she has lost all sense of hearing and may thus not be able to hear even the loudest thunder.

In his monumental work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbeinu Bachaye quotes a wise man who told his disciples, “If you do not find defects within yourself, I am afraid you have the greatest defect of all: vanity.” In other words, people who see everything from an “I am great/right” perspective will of course believe that they do no wrong.

When people can see no faults in themselves, it is generally because they feel so inadequate that the awareness of any personal defects would be devastating. Ironically, vanity is a defense against low self-esteem. If we accept ourselves as fallible human beings and also have a sense of self-worth, we can become even better than we are.

Today I shall…

…be aware that if I do not find things within myself to correct, it may be because I am threatened by such discoveries.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day, Av 25”

Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)

Last night I met with Pastor Randy for the first time in several weeks. He has been away in Southern California as part of his Ph.D program and just returned late last week. Prior to our meeting, he sent me two PDFs as email attachments, one was a chart he had drawn as a graphic representation all the covenants, and the other was a text description of the covenants. I have to admit, I was intimidated. He was responding to something I had blogged earlier in the week. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In response and to prepare for the meeting, I sent him a link to my blog post Abraham, Jews, and Christians, since I suspected we’d be discussing the differences between how Jews and Christians are connected by covenant to God and specifically why I believe that the Torah, the conditions pertaining to the Sinai covenant, still apply to the Jewish people today.

AbrahamI hadn’t slept well the night before, so I was running on three hours rest and as much chutzpah as I could summon. All I wanted to do was to go to bed (our meeting was scheduled for 6:30 p.m., so as you can imagine, I must have been really tired), but I wanted to have this meeting, too. Armed with my hardcopy printouts and my Bible, I went to church.

Actually, it was a blast. I had a great time. When we started talking, I forgot completely about being tired. Pastor gifted me with Thomas Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, which I’ll start as soon as I finish the Septuagint book. I suspect Schreiner’s book is going to be a “challenge” to me, but that’s almost always a good way to learn. During our conversation, he suggested half a dozen other books for me, which I’m not going to reference here, so I suspect my reading list has been reserved for the next few months.

We actually agreed on most of the details of the covenant connection Christians have through Abraham and why that results in the Gentile church “bypassing” the Sinai covenant, but following a series of links from Abraham, to the New Covenant, to the “Last Supper,” to Paul’s commentary on Abraham in Galatians 3:16. The only link we Christians have through the Abrahamic covenant is stated in Genesis 12:1-3 which is the Messianic blessing on all the peoples of the earth. This was stated before the portion of the covenant requiring circumcision (which links the rest of the Abrahamic covenant directly through Isaac, through Jacob, and then to Jacob’s sons, the Patriarchs, and then the twelve tribes of Israel, and ultimately the Jewish people).

Where we disagreed was familiar territory: the duration of the Sinai covenant. Pastor believes that it should have ended at the cross with a “transitionary period” lasting until the close of the Biblical canon. My opinion is that it extends much further, well past our current age and through the Messianic Era, finally terminating at what we could consider “the end of time” as we understand it.

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 (NASB)

temple-prayersAs long as there’s a Temple in Jerusalem or the promise that it will be rebuilt (which we have in the promise of Messiah’s return), then the Torah cannot pass away from existence and neither can Israel and the Jewish people (Jeremiah 31:35-36, Matthew 5:17-19). The best one can say is that certain portions (the Laws pertaining to the Temple, the Priesthood, the Sanhedrin, and certain other ordinances regarding the Land of Israel itself) go into abeyance, a state of being temporarily set aside. When Hebrews 8:13 talks about the “Old Covenant” passing away, it describes the process of currently passing away, not having already passed away. I just happen to think that “passing away” process doesn’t end until the coming of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:10).

We also agreed on one thing that will make a lot of Christians a little nervous. We agreed that the New Covenant isn’t yet a “done deal.” In other words, not all the work was finished “on the cross.”

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NASB)

Pastor used another term, but the way I see it, God’s finger is still in the process of writing the Law within us and on our hearts. If He had already finished it with the first coming of Messiah, we would all “Know the Lord” and we don’t yet. The moving finger has not yet “writ” and thus has yet to move on. Link the still writing finger of Jeremiah 31 with the slowly passing away of the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8:13 and I think you’ll see the Torah as it currently exists will be with us for quite some time.

We still went ’round a bit on the purpose and reason for the Law and finally agreed that how it is applied is largely situational (which I mentioned a few days ago). Pastor again tried to tell me that the Torah was given to show the Israelites that it was too hard for anyone to obey His Law and that they needed Messiah. I pointed to Deuteronomy 30, and he replied, Romans 4. I pointed out that one part of the Bible doesn’t cancel another and that only certain parts of Torah have been temporarily set aside as I mentioned above. I also referred back to Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 to illustrate that the Israelites didn’t experience Torah as a burden or a hardship but instead, their foremost joy.

Reading_TorahHe says the Torah does not provide salvation. I know that and I agree. It never did. When Israel violated the conditions of Torah they were ultimately exiled. And they were ultimately called back to God and restored to their Land. Why? Because of God’s love and grace. He never let them go. In that, we Christians are no different, though the nations are not corporately linked to God as is Israel. When we are disobedient, we are not abandoned but instead disciplined. When we become humbled and cry out, God brings us back, even as He has Israel. The Torah doesn’t save. It works as a specific set of conditions indicating the Jewish people are set aside for God, and the conditions apply to them alone on top of the obligations Torah applies to we Gentile believers.

Like I said in the quotes above, no one is righteous, no not even one. The Torah doesn’t confer righteousness, only our faith and God’s grace does that.

I don’t think he’s convinced, but I did the best I could to illuminate my end of the conversation. Part of the problem is Pastor’s perception of “Rabbinic Judaism,” but right then, I was only trying to show that during New Testament times, Torah continued to apply and the Torah moves forward across history. I didn’t want to even comment about the post-Biblical Rabbinic period until I created a bridge that started at Sinai and moved past the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascendance, with the Torah moving across that bridge and forward, spanning the history of the Jewish people. Jesus didn’t just observe the Law because he was born on the “wrong side of the cross,” he did so because that’s the obligation and the joy for all Jews under covenant. His death didn’t change that.

Boaz Michael puts things is proper perspective, I think:

This may sound counterintuitive to many, but the gospel—the story of Jesus’ first coming, his earthly life, his death and resurrection—is not the fulfillment or even the climax of Israel’s story. It does not complete or resolve the narrative that begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. It does not fulfill God’s promises to David in the books of the early prophets. It does not fulfill the promises of the later prophets concerning Israel’s final destiny. It does not even fulfill the Torah itself, in which God promises certain things to his people Israel after their return from exile.

The completion or resolution of Israel’s story does not and will not occur until she is redeemed from her exile, planted firmly in the land God has promised to her, and returned to a state of loving obedience to the Torah under the leadership of the Son of David, Yeshua the Messiah.

I mentioned the example of 19th century Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein who came to faith in Yeshua past the age of sixty; a person who was wholly Jewish before and after coming to Messianic faith who found that Torah was illuminated, expanded, and possessed of great joy by the Messiah. When Messiah “fulfills” the Torah, it doesn’t end, but it is shown to be truly perfect in Moshiach! Observance goes on for the Jewish believers, but it is Torah observance with much greater meaning, something that as a Gentile Christian, I can hardly even imagine.

Pastor surprised me a bit. My opinion has been that the population of Jews in Messiah dwindled more or less steadily past the Biblical period and finally extinguished completely sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries CE, and then finding a slow resurgence in the past several centuries.

Pastor contradicted me and said he believes that across the past two-thousand years, there has always been a remnant of Messianic Jews. I’d love to believe that but I need to see some evidence. He pointed me to a book called Our Jewish Friends by Louis Goldberg, which I’ll certainly have to read to see the validity of such a claim and how it could possibly be substantiated. Does Goldberg mean Jewish converts to Christianity? To me that’s not the same thing as people who live fully Jewish lives realized in Messiah. Now that would be a thrill to discover.

first-baptist-churchIn many ways, last night’s talk was one of our most productive conversations, at least for me. We won’t be able to meet again for another couple of weeks, but I’m looking forward to it. I mentioned to Pastor that the following day’s “meditation” would be called On Being a Good Christian and was based on his sermon from last Sunday. That led to my angst on ever being able to officially join a local church and the dilemma of “denominationalism” for me. We know that Paul frowned on such divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) but he told me (surprising me again) that we can’t anachronistically apply Paul to our modern church.

We agreed that at the heart of all disciples in Messiah, we must all contain a set of core beliefs, without which, we cannot call ourselves “Christians” (which in this case, would include “Messianics”). Beyond that, denominations provide additional dimensions based on social, cultural, and sometimes even ethnic similarities. I had a brief epiphany and said that denominations were not unlike the evolution of the different streams of ancient and modern Judaism including the addition of elements of culture and tradition. I don’t think Pastor expected that comparison and hopefully it will be food for thought in subsequent conversations.

But since I opened the door, our next conversation in two weeks will be on the differences in Christian denominations. I actually need this since my grasp on the topic is extremely weak. I don’t know if I’m learning to be a better Christian, but I hope I’m growing and learning to be a better child of God.

Blessings on my Pastor for his patience, his intelligence, his passion, and his friendship.



Revisiting Calvin and the Gift of Choice

infinite_pathsHe predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will…

Ephesians 1:5 (NASB)

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

2 Peter 3:14-18 (NASB)

I thought I was through addressing the Arminianism vs. Calvinism debate, having explored it extensively in my multi-part blog series and topping it off with the rather metaphysical Schrödinger’s Free Will and God’s Sovereignty. Then we had a guest speaker give the sermon at church last Sunday. He covered the first eighteen verses of Ephesians 1 and spent considerable time supporting his belief in the Calvinistic argument. He had to make God subject to linear time to do it, and otherwise said pretty much what I’ve heard before.

Then, in Sunday school class, we studied part of 2 Peter 3 including the above-quoted verses and I started to wonder. If the names of those chosen by God for salvation are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and we have no choice in the matter, then why did Peter write what he wrote? He’s encouraging believers (supposedly people already chosen and “sealed”) to be “diligent…spotless and blameless.” He also cautions his readers to “be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness.”

What? How is that possible. I thought once chosen, no one could “fall” from “steadfastness.”

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

John 10:27-29 (NASB)

Can you have it both ways? Can you be “unsnatchable,” so to speak, and still be able to fall from steadfastness?

Actually, during the sermon, I thought about the whole idea of being chosen. Israel was chosen as a nation. God chose corporate, national Israel, not each individual Israelites.

Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

Exodus 19:3-6 (NASB)

But now listen, O Jacob, My servant, And Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus says the Lord who made you And formed you from the womb, who will help you, ‘Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

Isaiah 44:1-2 (NASB)

I don’t think anyone can argue that the act of God choosing Israel and Israel’s acceptance of God’s choosing involved corporate Israel, not each individual Israelite. That means all of the Israelites present at Sinai and all of their descendents were and are chosen by God and members of the covenant beyond any “unchoosing.”

Well, of course, there is this:

For whoever eats the fat of the animal from which an offering by fire is offered to the Lord, even the person who eats shall be cut off from his people. You are not to eat any blood, either of bird or animal, in any of your dwellings. Any person who eats any blood, even that person shall be cut off from his people.

Leviticus 7:25-27 (NASB)

DespairNo one is exactly sure what it meant for an Israelite to be “cut off from his people,” but I found an interesting discussion on the topic at Biblical Hermeneutics. It may not mean that the guilty individual would be removed from the covenant. According to Jewish Virtual Library, it could mean a premature death “at the hand if heaven” (Rashi, Ket. 30b, et al.), however there are other opinions. The upshot, as I understand it though, is that even the Israelite who has committed a sin so severe as to be “cut off” is still, on some level, accountable for the conditions of the covenant, including the curses, just because that person is an Israelite.

Ancient Israelites and modern Jewish people are born into the covenant and are responsible to God whether they want to be or not. They have been chosen because they belong to a group. That seems to be a permanent condition, as I read the Bible:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:17-18 (NASB)

And as you may have noticed, heaven and earth are still here, so the Torah is still in force for the Jewish people…all of them.

But what about us? What about the Gentiles who are called by His Name? If Israel was chosen corporately, why, according to Calvinism, are we chosen individually?

One reason might be the vast number of nations on the earth. Could God choose some nations (besides Israel) and not others? I suppose, but by what criteria would He choose? Of course, we can ask the same question about why He would choose one individual and not another. It’s certainly not by merit or anything we have done or could do. That’s the same for Israel, as I understand it. Midrash aside, God did not choose Israel because of her merit, either:

The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 7:7-8 (NASB)

God didn’t choose Israel because of her merit but in order to keep His promises. What promises?

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:4-6 (NASB)

God made His promise to Abram (Abraham) in a vision after the encounter with the Priest-King of Salem, Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:17-20, though in actuality, God first directly interacted with Abram and promised to make him a great nation at the beginning of Genesis 12). The text seems to indicate that it was Abram’s faith that was the key factor in God making a covenant with him, but if we accept that as fact, then we have to admit that Abram had a part in his being chosen by God. If that’s so, following the inevitable logic, then God renewed His promises to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and then to the Children of Israel through Moses, all of which culminated at Sinai.

abraham1This choosing echoes down through history and will ripple even further and into the Messianic Age (all this is summarized in The Jesus Covenant: Building My Model). I can’t seem to find a way to pry the Jewish people or even one single, individual Jewish person out of the covenant promises that started with Abraham, continued into Sinai, and that were renewed for the future in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36.

Non-Jewish believers are attached as one of the conditions of the Abrahamic Covenant (but only one, not the whole thing), which, if we were to apply the same “logic” to us as we do to how the Israelites were “chosen” by God, seems to indicate that faith is also the “glue” connects us to God.

But how does God choosing Abraham filter down to God choosing Gentiles?

… and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

Acts 16:30-34 (NASB)

That seems pretty simple. But if the jailer and his household were “pre-chosen,” so to speak, why would he even ask that question? He’s been pre-selected. He has just come to the point where he has realized it. What if he wasn’t one of the chosen and he asked that question? Would Paul have said, “Sorry, pal. You aren’t one of the elect. You are out of luck”?

Probably not, but then I don’t think we have an example in the Bible of a person asking how to be saved who wasn’t going to be saved. Oh wait!

And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he *said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man *said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

Matthew 19:16-22 (NASB)

But then again, the rich young ruler was Jewish and was already chosen by God because of Sinai. I’m not even sure how that’s supposed to work relative to the Jewish Messiah except that anyone who would come to the Father has to go through the Son. Did the young fellow lose salvation because his wealth meant more to him than obedience?

terror-keepers-of-the-faithQuestions remain. First of all, the idea of being chosen is rather “mushy.” Why was Israel chosen corporately but the rest of us must be chosen individually? Can any Israelite lose their chosenness? Evidence seems to say not, but my exploration of that area was hardly exhaustive. If a non-Jew is chosen can he or she lose that chosen status? Depending on which verses you read in the New Testament, the answer varies. What was the mechanism or process by which God chose Abraham and does that process apply to Gentiles since it is through Abraham that we are attached to the Messiah and thus to God?

Faith seems to play a part in both the choosing of Abraham and of the rest of us.

…and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Romans 4:21-25 (NASB)

Ephesians 2:8 says that even faith is a gift from God, so we can’t say that our faith is what we bring to the table, so to speak. God gives us the faith we need in order to be chosen by Him. But then, I found a counter-argument to this point at faithalone.org:

From a cursory reading of this verse, it appears that the relative pronoun that (v 8b) has faith (v 8a) as its grammatical antecedent. However, in its Greek construction that is a demonstrative pronoun with adverbial force used in an explanatory phrase. This particular construction uses a fixed neuter singular pronoun (that) which refers neither to faith, which is feminine in Greek, nor to any immediate word which follows. (See Blass, Debrunner, Funk, 132, 2.) What all this means is that the little phrase and that (kai touto in Greek) explains that salvation is of God’s grace and not of human effort. Understood accordingly, Ephesians 2:8 could well be translated: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, that is to say, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Moreover, there is a parallelism between not of yourselves in v 8b and not of works in v 9. This parallelism serves as a commentary to v 8a (“For by grace you have been saved through faith”) which speaks of salvation in its entirety. It is difficult to see how faith, if it is the gift of God, harmonizes with not of works of v 9. We must conclude, then, that in Ephesians 2:8 salvation is the gift of God.

You can click the link I provided above to read the entire explanation, but if this analysis holds water, then I can say that faith is what we bring to the table. Salvation is the gift which we cannot earn through works so we cannot boast.

I know that nothing I’ve said here will convince a hard-core Calvinist that the whole “election” thing is wrong, but I think, once again, I’ve thrown enough monkey wrenches into the machine to keep Calvin and his supporters from thinking they’ve made a “slam dunk” with their arguments. Yes, the guest speaker at my church last Sunday provided a number of Bible verses that seem to support the “divine election” position, but there are just as many other parts of the Bible that support the idea that God, in His sovereignty, mercy, and love, has allowed human beings to participate in their own salvation by faith (or lack thereof, sadly).

schrodingers-cat-in-a-boxGod chose Abraham for a wonderful destiny, both as an individual and as the Father of the Hebrews. That promise passed down to Isaac, to Jacob, to Jacob’s twelve sons, to the twelve tribes, and ultimately to the Jewish people corporately. Non-Jews are grafted into a single condition, the promise of the Messiah, in the Abrahamic covenant, through faith, just as Abraham had faith, and that is our link to being chosen.

We’re chosen because of faith. Salvation is the resulting gift. I believe God loves human beings in a unique way, and out of that love, He chooses to allow us room in the universe to make independent decisions, much like a father will allow a child to make choices, even when the father knows some of those choices won’t be for the good.

There are times when love can kill. There are times when you love someone so much, you cannot allow him to breathe. He must do things the way you understand is best for him—because you cannot bear that one you love so much should be in any way distant from the truth as you know it.

“After all,” you imagine, “I must do for him what I would have done for myself!”

But true love makes room for the one you love.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Love in Not Doing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

As for how God can write names in a book “before” Creation if both the book and God exist outside Creation and thus outside of time, you’ll have to see a certain cat in a box for the paradoxical answer.

Balak: Disciples of Abraham and Bilaam

Moses at NeboThis week’s portion is one of the most fascinating psychologically-revealing portions in the whole Torah! Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, was granted a level of prophecy close to Moshe’s level of prophecy. The Almighty gave Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some point in the future, “If we had a prophet like Moshe, we too would have accepted the Torah and would have lived according to it.” Bilaam is an intriguing character — honor-driven, arrogant and self-serving. Unfortunately, not too unique amongst mankind.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak

Interesting commentary, but don’t the Gentiles also have a prophet in Jesus Christ? Well, not exactly. Not as a “stand-alone” Gentile prophet. However the Jews have a greater prophet than Moses, and therein lies a tale:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Deuteronomy 18:15 (NRSV)

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.’

Acts 3:19-22

Moses announced that a prophet like him would arise in later days and Peter announced that Yeshua (Jesus) was that prophet. That is good news, very good news for the Jewish people, but what about the Gentiles? Don’t we still have the right to say that if we had a prophet like Moses, we too would have repented? How can you compare Bilaam to Moses? Rabbi Packouz characterizes Bilaam as “arrogant and self-serving” while we know that Moses was the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3).

The Talmud gives the characteristics of the disciples of Abraham: a benevolent eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul. The traits of the disciples of Bilaam are: an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:2
from Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski’s Dvar Torah on Balak

If Jesus was the prophet and Messiah for the Jewish people only, then we Gentiles have no hope. The best we can aspire to is being God-fearing Gentiles or Noahides, non-Jewish people who adhere to the seven laws of Noah as codified by Orthodox Judaism.

But what more can we say for ourselves?

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Romans 4:9-12

Apostle-PaulSo Abraham was the father of the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the Jews and the Gentiles, and all through faith, not works. Does this not make us sons of Abraham even as the Jews are his sons? Do we also not have faith, though we are not Jewish?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 9:15-17

It seems fairly straightforward then, that the “prophet greater than Moses,” the Jewish Messiah King is also the prophet to the Gentiles, specifically assigning Saul (Paul) to take the good news which is good news to the Jews, and declare it also good news to the Gentiles.

Yes, there were prophets among the Gentiles, and depending on how you view Abraham pre-circumcision, you may think of him as a Gentile, but we are sons of Abraham by adoption and disciples of Messiah, the great Jewish tzaddik and prophet and Moshiach, not of such men like Bilaam…that is unless we choose such a path, Heaven forbid.

Even Bilaam could not disobey the word of God by speaking ill of Israel, but his heart was not pure and where is “magic” failed, his evil schemes succeeded. But he spoke with God. Balak talked and God answered him. How can such a thing be?

“Bilaam spoke up and said, ‘Whatever God puts in my mouth, that I must take heed to speak” (Numbers 23:12). Are these not the words of a tzaddik (a righteous person)? Anyone hearing Bilaam might conclude that he is a very God-fearing person.

-Rabbi Twerski

The Almighty allowed Bilaam to go to Balak (cautioning him to only say what God told him). The Almighty gives every person free-will and allows us to go in the direction that we choose. Three times Bilaam tried to curse us and three times the Almighty placed blessings in his mouth. Balak was furious! So, Bilaam gave him advice with hopes of collecting his fee — “If you want to destroy the Jewish people, entice the men with Moabite women and tell the women not to submit until the men bow down to an idol.” Balak followed the advice and consequently the Almighty brought a plague against the Jewish people because the men fell for Bilaam’s plot.

-Rabbi Packouz

Though a prophet, Bilaam was wholly evil and disobeyed God whenever the Almighty would permit such a thing. Although Moses was not a perfect man, he was dedicated to preserving the Children of Israel and obeying God in guiding them through the wilderness for forty years and making sure they arrived at the Jordan and the threshold of the promise.

ancient_jerusalemWhat can we learn from all this? The important lesson is that we Gentiles, those of the nations who are called by His Name, have no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven or relationship with the God of Israel without Israel, her promises and her prophets and especially the prophet, the Holy One, the Tzaddik, Yeshua (Jesus), the Messiah. There is no “Gentilized” allegory or process that paints us into God’s picture. We enter the Kingdom through Israel or we enter it not at all.

To say that we accept Jesus while disdaining Israel makes us disciples of Bilaam and not Moshiach.

And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Genesis 12:3

If we curse Israel, even as we bless Jesus, we are also cursed. Maybe those Christians who curse Israel are among the following:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Matthew 7:21-23

Good Shabbos.

96 days.

Taking the Fork in the Road: Discussing Arminianism and Calvinism, Part 4

pass-failThe Arminian, whether strict, or moderate like Thiessen, will say that man is elect because he believes. The Calvinist asserts that man believes because he is elect. As long as Acts 13:48 and John 10:26 are part of the Bible, the Arminian definition of election which bases that election upon God’s foreknowledge of faith can never be maintained.

-Manfred E. Kober, Th.D.
“Chapter 4: The Demarcation of Modified Calvinism and Historic Baptist Beliefs,” pg 44
Divine Election or Human Effort?

Since they are both short, I blew through the last two chapters of Dr. Kober’s paper just to see how it was going to all get wrapped up. Not only does it come out as “Calvinists are right, Arminians are wrong,” but what’s more, Baptists are at the top of the heap.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a little, but it seems like what we’re really looking at is the continual disagreement between the two Protestant theories on the nature of election and salvation, created four-hundred years ago (sixteen-hundred years or more from the New Testament writers), and tinkered with ever since. Really, are these two perspectives the only way to read and interpret the Bible on this topic? Have we given up actually trying to understand how Paul might have really understood his own letters?

According to Kober and his supporting documentation, both Jesus and Paul were “Calvinists,” but like the doctrine of the rapture, we have to ask ourselves if the original apostolic authors understood the scriptures in an identical manner as latter-day Christian scholars? Remember, many latter-day Christian scholars also support supersessionism and predict that Jewish people have no place in the world to come unless they give up all Jewish practices and convert into Gentile Christians. Somewhere along the line, some Christians have missed a step or two.

I don’t have the theological chops to totally refute Calvinism (really, the whole Calvinism/Arminianism constructed framework), but hopefully, I’ve managed to punch a few holes in it and generated even a little bit of reasonable doubt.

On pages 46 and 47, Kober marries the Calvinist perspective with the “Creeds of the Baptists.” This is one reason why I’ll most likely never join a Christian denomination. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to study and understand the Bible in all its colors and moods. How could I possibly accept the partitioned cardboard box into which any denomination forces the Bible and God?

So much for Chapter 4.

This paper opened with the duty of the theologian and it closes with an exhortation to the expositor of God’s Word. What is the expositor’s task in light of this awesome doctrine?

-Kober, “Chapter 5: The Demand Upon the Expositor”, pg 49

“Awesome doctrine?” Sure, if you’re a die-hard Calvinist and “winner of the game,” you can say it’s “awesome,” but some of us might call it something else. Take the following quote from Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), p. 345:

In the minds of some people, election is a choice that God makes for which we can see no reason and which we can hardly harmonize with His justice…We are asked to accept the theory…which does (not) commend itself to our sense of justice.

Kober goes on to say that Thiessen self-admittedly creates his doctrine as much out of his emotions as any form of Bible study and scholarship, but he ignores the words of Thiessen he quoted. The argument, as presented in the quote, isn’t Election vs. man’s compassion, but Election vs. Justice.

I said in a prior blog post that man very much does have a stake in holding God to His own standard of justice:

So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Genesis 18:22-33 (NRSV)

plead1Abraham may have been “buttering his own bread” by pleading for Sodom since he knew that his nephew Lot and Lot’s family lived there, but on the other hand, he may really have been begging God to exercise His own standard of justice in not executing the good with the bad. God relented (or appeared to) when He said that He would spare Sodom if ten righteous men were to be found in the city. God was willing to be just for the sake of ten human beings.

Continuing to support his position, Kober quotes Romans 11:33:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

However, taken out of context, this verse could be applied both ways. Can either Arminianist or Calvinist search the inscrutable judgments of God? What, besides a series of short quotes from different bits and pieces of the Bible and then strung together as if on a piece of fishing line, makes the Calvinist so sure that God must agree with their analysis of how election and salvation works in the Bible? Are you really sure?

Did Kober forget that in the same chapter of Romans, Paul also said, “all of Israel will be saved?” This is based on the idea that all Israel is elected by God, but even Paul laments that Jews who are lost for not knowing Christ, so how does that work?

On page 50, Kober says something curious.

It is never right to misrepresent an opposing view in order that a person’s position may be enhanced. The God of the Calvinist is not an arbitrary God but one who in His infinite wisdom plans every detail of the universe. Neither is the God of the Calvinist a hard God. The Calvinist is quite convinced that a merciful God will redeem as many sinners as is possible without violating His justice and righteousness.

Now who is limiting God’s power, sovereignty, mercy, and justice? As many sinners as possible? I thought all things were possible with God (Matthew 19:26). Kober seems to be saying that there are some things that are not possible with God and that, in order to make them possible, He has to violate His own principles. It is that, or is the concern that if God did make it possible (has made it possible), it would violate Calvinist theory?

I don’t say that God is hard (although He is hard to understand sometimes), but I don’t accept that the Calvinist has one God and the Arminianist has another. God is God. If something has gone haywire, we can’t blame God but we can blame human reasoning and understanding (or the lack thereof).

On page 51, Kober quotes from the preface of Perry Fitzwater’s book, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), p. 7.

There is no mediating position between Calvinism and Arminianism. We shall not vacillate but oscillate between them. Sometimes the viewpoint will be that of a high Calvinist and sometimes that of a low Arminian.

I’ve said before, “Is it too much to ask for both?”

Actually, in my recent blog posts where I look at the Bible from rather different and difficult perspectives, I’m trying to introduce the idea that we can look at the Calvinism-Arminianism debate from a meta point of view, rising above and outside the context of the argument itself so we can observe, not one side or the other as opposing perspectives, but as a unified dynamic that exists as a single entity.

(Speaking of meta, if I attempt to take on Calvinism or Arminianism on their own home grounds, I’d probably “lose” so I choose to meet them outside their usual context. I know that sounds like cheating, but it’s also the only way David beat Goliath. If David and put on armor and carried a sword and shield into battle against the giant, he’d have lost and Israel’s greatest King – this side of Messiah – would never have ascended the throne. David stepped outside the entire context and framework of military battle and, treating Goliath like an invading lion trying to devour his sheep, the young shepherd won the day.)

Within the traditional context which Kober presents, one doesn’t talk of Calvinism without speaking or Arminianism and vice versa. As I’ve also said before, I don’t accept the “either-or-ness” of the argument because both sides are trying to contain God within their own construct rather than letting God be God as sovereign.

I know the Calvinists think they’re letting God be sovereign but only on their own terms. Different Christian denominations do more or less the same thing, defining God in relation to their own theology and doctrine, not imagining that God exists in a way that cannot be “boxed up”.

This last part on page 52 was a real capper for me.

Unfortunately, many pastors shy away from the doctrine of election, so that most Christians have never been clearly instructed in this precious truth.

Precious truth? It may be precious to Kober who no doubt believes he’s among the elect and doesn’t appear to generate a great deal of concern for those who are not. I’ve read all the defenses of Calvinism but here’s what it comes down to if preached from the pulpit (this is just my imagination):

Some of you are saved and others will burn in hell and there’s nothing you can do about it one way or the other.

unworthyKober ends his paper saying there’s no harmful effects to Calvinism but I can tell you that it hasn’t done me a world of good.

There are too many times when Abraham, Moses, or some other prophet or holy person has begged God to uphold justice and mercy and not exterminate people, even when they deserve it. In the majority of cases, God has agreed even though it’s within His rights to wipe everyone out whenever He pleases and start all over again (He did that once by flooding as you may recall). God seems to be OK with humans begging Him to show compassion to other humans and I think it’s something He’s encouraging in us.

Calvinists can come up with many Biblical justifications for their theory and why their opponents are bad Biblical scholars, but I will not let Calvinists and Arminians force me into a choice that flies in the face of thousands of years of God’s interactions with humanity where He has been merciful as well as just, forgiving and relenting as well as sovereign over all.

I’ve talked before about Talmud and Quantum Physics which is a very strange way to approach the Bible, but its one in which people can engage God, talk to God, even struggle with God on difficult moral and ethical issues. God is sovereign. I fully believe that. To believe otherwise is to deny that God is God and that He has the power to be Creator and compassionate savior. But somewhere in the space between the Heavenly Court and the dust of a lowly humanity, God allows us to encounter Him in a place we can’t quite understand and that may not always follow the simple “A, B, C, D” sequencing of a Calvinist. It’s a space where God is absolute and sovereign and where human beings have the opportunity to bring our case before the King and the Judge…and where we know He will listen because He is also a loving Father and supportive Teacher.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…

Romans 8:26

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

At the end of my days, God will judge me and He will mete out whatever consequences, for good or for ill, that it is His pleasure to deliver. I pray for a favorable outcome, but as I look at myself, there’s no guarantee. What man knows if His name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life until it is read aloud by the Lamb himself?

If the Calvinists are right about God, then I may have been conceived and born in hopelessness and everything I’ve said or done is in vain. But if God allows His mercy to even slightly outweigh His justice, then it may still be possible for man to relent, to turn from sin, beg forgiveness, and step into the light.

I pray that can be true for me. I pray that can be true for all of us.

Vayera: Miraculous

abrahams visitorsThe Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)

When Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch was a child of four or five, he entered into the room of his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, and burst into tears. His teacher in cheder had taught the verse “And G-d revealed himself to Abraham…” “Why,” wept the child, “doesn’t G-d reveal Himself to me?!”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “When a Jew, a tzaddik, realizes at the age of 99 that he must circumcise himself, that he must continue to perfect himself, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Tears of a Child”

This is a well-known commentary on this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera and I’m hardly in a position to add to what a great many sages and spiritual luminaries have already stated regarding this portion of the Torah. But in studying the Torah Club commentary (volume 6) for this week on Acts 4:32-5:42, I discovered what could be a tangentially related issue.

Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Acts 5:12-16 (ESV)

D. Thomas Lancaster’s lesson on these verses, both in the written text of his commentary and in the Torah Club audio teaching, speaks about “the age of miracles” and whether or not we have miracles today. As we read passages such as the one I quoted above, we Christians may be hard pressed to explain why 2,000 years ago, severely ill and disabled people could be cured simply by having Peter’s shadow fall across them, while today our most fervent prayers and petitions to God fail to prevent a loved one from dying of cancer. Why don’t we see miraculous signs, wonders, and healings in today’s church?

Some say that we do, but because we live in the 21st century, many events that a person 2,000 years ago would have called a miracle, today might be explained as some other phenomena. Even in the church, we are sometimes hesitant to say something is a miracle for fear of appearing foolish. On other occasions, the claims of miraculous events from some seem to be so common that the credibility of witnesses is brought into question.

While I do believe that sometimes miracles do happen today, they don’t seem to be “predictable,” which I guess stands to reason, but they also don’t seem to be predictably produced by an identifiable individual or group of individuals, such as the apostles. When we read about Peter, John, and the other apostles in the early chapters of Acts, it’s as if they’re doing miracles all the time.

One explanation, as Lancaster points out, is that the book of Acts compresses 35 years of history into about two hours worth of reading. It’s easy to get the impression that Peter was healing the sick through miracles every day and several times a day. This is probably untrue and only the “highlights” of the “Acts of the Apostles” were recorded by Luke. All of the other more mundane occurrences in their lives over three and a half decades went unchronicled and passed away into the shadows of history.

But there’s another reason we may not see miracles today the way we see them in Acts.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:1-4 (ESV)

This is the day when the apostles of Christ (and only the apostles of Christ) received the Holy Spirit. Most Christians think this event is identical to what happens to all people everywhere when they receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (although I’ve yet to hear a modern Christian tell me that they received the Spirit on tongues of fire). But what if this isn’t exactly true?

We know that in Acts 10:44-45 the Roman Centurion Cornelius and his entire household also received the Holy Spirit, but to the best of our knowledge, none of them went on, after the initial event, to perform miraculous healings, signs, and wonders. What’s the difference between Cornelius and Peter? Were the Jews the only ones with the Spirit able to perform miracles, or was something else going on?

It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Hebrews 2:3-4 (ESV)

Take a closer look at this verse. According to Lancaster, “those who heard”, that is, those who were direct witnesses of the Messiah, were the apostles. Only the apostles were able to be witnesses of the validity of Jesus “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his (God’s) will.”

The idea, in this particular explanation, is that during the so-called “age of miracles,” God did not use everyone to perform miracles, and miracles did not occur for just any old reason at all. The miracles were a witness that occurred through those who actually walked and talked with the Master, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.

The apostles could be compared to Abraham as we re-examine the brief Chasidic tale recorded by Rabbi Tauber above. They were “tzaddikim” (Righteous Ones) who were assigned by God to fulfill a specific mission and purpose; to witness to the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. Their tools for doing so, in addition to what they taught, were signs and wonders.

I know this viewpoint could be questioned and disbelieved, but I think we should at least consider the possibility. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t do miracles today, and it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use “ordinary Christians” to perform said-miracles today. It does mean however, that God does miracles “according to His will” and not our will. It also may mean, as we see in Rabbi Tauber’s tale, that when someone, a tzaddik, realizes he must perform the equivalent of “circumcising himself at the age of 99 years, he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”

It’s an imperfect theory and it certainly could be wrong, but we’re an imperfect people and God, and His reasons for doing anything, are perfect. Whether we understand the nature of miracles happening in the past as opposed to happening the present or not, we can certainly acknowledge that miracles seem to occur in the world from time to time, at the will of God and for His own purposes, but we must not depend on them. Should God choose to intervene in our lives with a miracle, it is good, but if He chooses not to, it is good as well.

We depend, not on miracles to sustain us or to be a witness to the Messiah, but on our faith and trust in God. These are the stones with which God builds the path we walk upon as we journey each day, as we follow Him, reaching out to touch the hem of his garment, flourishing in the glow of His holiness, and then reflecting that light into the world. Perhaps that is miracle enough, for the light of God is His healing of the world.

It is a Divine kindness that His mercies are endless.

Lamentations 3:22

Another way to translate this verse is, “It is a Divine kindness that we are never finished.”

The Maggid of Koznitz was extremely frail and sickly as a child. It was not thought that he would survive to adulthood. Much of his life was spent sick in bed, and he was so weak that he was often unable to sit up to meet visitors. Still, he lived to an advanced age.

The Maggid once revealed the secret of his longevity. “I never allowed myself to be without an assignment or a task to perform,” he said. “People are taken from this world only when their missions here are completed. Whenever I was just about to finish one task, I would start another; hence, I could not be removed from this world if my assignment was not completed.”

Even from a purely physiological aspect, the Maggid’s concept is valid. Some think that the healthiest thing for us is rest and relaxation. Not so. In reality, unused muscles tend to atrophy, while muscles that are exercised and stimulated are strengthened.

The same principle applies to the entire person. If we constantly stimulate ourselves to achieve new goals, we avoid the apathy that leads to atrophy.

Today I shall…

try to take on a new spiritual goal, and stimulate myself to greater achievement in serving God and being of help to other people.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 16”

I’ll be away from the computer for the day and won’t be available to respond to or approve comments. If I am unable to attend to them before Shabbat begins, then I will do so on Saturday after sundown.

Good Shabbos.

Lech Lecha: The Course of My Spiritual Travels

abrahams-servantIn the course of one’s spiritual travels, a person encounters situations which can only be overcome with a struggle, and which may even cause one to fall. Nevertheless, since all phases of life’s journey are guided by Divine Providence, we must realize that the purpose of every experience is positive. Even when we fall, we are being given an opportunity to borrow an expression from our Sages (Cf. Makkos 8a.) to descend in order to ascend.

Why must a person face such challenges? Two reasons are given:

a) To bring out the power of one’s soul. As long as a person remains untested, he can “get by” without having to tap his core. When, by contrast, one faces a fundamental challenge, it becomes necessary to call upon one’s spiritual resources in order to succeed.

b) In the process of overcoming a challenge, a person recognizes and thus elevates the sparks of G-dliness contained therein. For all existence is maintained by G-d’s creative energy; that energy is hidden within the world’s material substance. As a result of this “hiddeness,” challenges arise. By overcoming these challenges, a human reveals the true G-dly nature of existence.

Avraham’s spiritual journey contained such challenges. Shortly after he entered Eretz Yisrael, he was forced to descend to Egypt, described as “the nakedness of the land.” (Cf. Genesis 42:9, 12.) The very name of the land, mitzrayim, is related to the word meitzarim, meaning “boundaries” or “limitations.” (Torah Or, Va’eira, p. 57b ff.)

And yet even Avraham’s descent brought him blessing. He left Egypt “very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold.” (Genesis 13:2.) Moreover, this wealth came from spiritual effort; Avraham had elevated some of the sparks of G-dliness invested in that country.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Journey To One’s True Self: Avraham’s Odyssey As A Lesson For His Descendants”
Commentary on Torah Portion Lech Lecha; Genesis 12:1-17:27

Four mornings during the work week, I get up at 4 a.m. and by five, I’m picking up my son David at his place so we can go to the gym together and work out for 60 or 70 minutes before getting ready to commute to our jobs. Although that sounds like a really early hour to go through such exertion, we encourage each other and one of us always helps the other one to do the best we can. Some days are better than others, but we both know that only through hard work can we move toward our goals. David is suffering from a number of physical disabilities he incurred during his service in the Marines, and I’m just plain getting older. We both have our challenges to overcome, but thankfully we don’t have to go the course alone.

As Rabbi Touger’s commentary on this week’s Torah reading teaches, we also encounter a number of spiritual challenges in our lives, all of us. While working out physically is a choice (I could choose to be lazy, eat what I want, become ever larger, and damage the quality of my life as I continue to age), it really isn’t if I want to remain healthy and even to improve my physical condition as I get older. The same goes for spiritual growth.

But if you think getting up at four in the morning just so you can start sweating by five is no fun, imagine making yourself face, not just traditional Bible readings and devotionals, but challenges and conflicts both within yourself and your understanding of God, and outside of yourself in the world of religious dialog (to put it politely). Sometimes, I’d rather face any machine and any exercise I could possibly work with at my gym than spend five minutes wrangling with some “attitude” in the religious blogosphere.

As I mentioned though, those challenges don’t have to be externally driven. I’ve got enough internal challenges to last me for a good, long while. How exactly do the blessings in the Abrahamic covenant bind the Christian to God in covenant relationship? What effect does the New Covenant have on the Abrahamic for a Christian? Why does or doesn’t the Mosaic covenant factor into the line of other covenant blessings for the non-Jews in the church? Other people seem to think the Bible and what is says is a “slam-dunk” as far as what it all means. For me, it’s an endless adventure story wrapped in darkest mystery that has inspired me to the heights of ecstasy and driven me to miserable despair.

A person’s spiritual quest should not be a lonely journey. On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of personal development is an increasing capacity to inspire others. Avraham surely gained such an ability, as our Sages comment (Sotah 10a.) with regard to the verse, (Genesis 21:33.) “And he called in the name of the G-d of the universe”: “Do not read ויקרא (‘And he called’), read ויקריא (‘And he had others call’).”

This concept is also reflected in the changing of his name from Avram to Avraham. (Ibid. 17:5.) Rashi (In his commentary to that verse.) explains that Avram implies merely “father of Aram,” while Avraham alludes to the Hebrew words meaning “father of many nations.” The change implies that Avraham had been given the potential to inspire and influence all the nations of the world to begin striving toward spiritual goals.

“It is not good that..man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 ESV) Although Rabbi Touger suggests that the “not alone” part in Abraham’s case, was his ability to teach and to inspire others to call out to God, it implies (for most of us, I think) that we should seek out companionship, not just to inspire them, but so that they can inspire us, much like my son David and I inspire each other. Avraham Avinu was the father of many nations, not just the Hebrews, and according to Paul, this was through his seed.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16 (ESV)

Paul explains that we Christians too can call Abraham our father because of our relationship with his seed, the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was never alone. He was always teaching. He was surrounded by his disciples. He was surrounded by multitudes of those who were desperate. He was the shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel. I can’t recall the source (and a quick Google search doesn’t reveal it), but I seem to remember a principle in some corners of Judaism saying that a teacher will learn as much from his students as they will from him. I don’t know if this could be applied to Jesus, but perhaps it can be to those who came after him.

As one who has taught (albeit in a rather small setting) before, I can certainly say it is true of me.

As you may know from my comments in my Days series, I have been inspired, or maybe challenged is the better word, to seek out a more traditional Christian fellowship venue. This is with the idea that I not only can learn and be supported by my fellow believers, but that I also have something of value to give back. What that is may be apparent to my blog audience, but it remains to be seen if a face-to-face group of Christians will agree.

There’s only so much encouragement I can give and receive via the web. At some point, like Abraham, I must leave, at God’s command, what is familiar and comfortable to proceed into the unknown. Abraham trusted God with everything he had, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3) Abraham’s example teaches me that it is not good that I be alone and that risk is part of the “business” of faith and trust in God. Abraham took everything he had, his family, his entire household, and all his possessions, and followed God to a land he never knew.

What a person believes about himself and his abilities is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person who does not consider himself “important” will not free himself from negative habits.

Believing you are inferior, untalented, unimportant or incapable, influences your abilities. If you view yourself as unable to do things, you will be unable to do them. On the other hand, if you see yourself as talented, capable, and important, your self-concept will open up powers and talents that would have otherwise remained dormant.

Hardly anyone utilizes his entire capabilities. We can accomplish much more than we realize. By raising the perception of your capabilities, you will accomplish more.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #618”

A week from today, I begin the first step on a journey into a land that, while not entirely unknown, seems rather alien to me after so many years. One difference is that I don’t take with me everything I have. Certainly my family will not be accompanying me on the journey. Unlike Abraham, I walk alone, with only the promise that it will not always be this way.

Good Shabbos.