Tag Archives: Behaalotecha

Behaalotecha: The Journey of Grass

desert-islandThen Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place about which the L‑rd said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us, and we will be good to you.”

Numbers 10:29

Note that Moses said that the Israelites would journey to Israel, whereas Jethro was invited to go to Israel. The difference between “going” and “journeying” is that going can mean to travel physically but remain emotionally unwilling. The body moves along, but the heart remains in place. Journeying means to go physically and mentally—the entire person journeys to the destination.

It is possible to go without journeying. One can board a plane and travel with reluctance. Your heart and spirit are with your family, but you have no choice, because circumstances force you to make the trip.

As we read these lines, we can reflect on our own lives. Those of us privileged to be born into Judaism are in possession of a gem we don’t fully value. It is incumbent on us to learn from righteous proselytes (The same applies to those holy souls who do teshuvah midstream in life and adapt to a whole new lifestyle) how to value the privilege of Judaism.

-Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
“Live Every Moment”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behaalotecha

Last week I was in the middle of a journey, at least I hope it was a journey. To tell the truth, I always think of myself as in the middle of a journey, but last week at this time, as you read my Friday missive, I was also far from home. Specifically, I was attending the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Although I had made my airline reservations months in advance and on some level was looking forward to attending the conference, part of me wanted to cancel everything and just stay at home. It’s more comfortable at home, more predictable…it’s safer. I suppose I was “going” to the conference but not “journeying,” to borrow Rabbi Gurkow’s metaphor. But then again, I was forgetting something.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives, And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you…

Genesis 12:1

That’s how the verse is translated in the NASB version of the Bible. Now let’s look at how the Aish Ask the Rabbi writer translates the same verse and then read his brief commentary.

God appears to Abraham and commands him: “Go to yourself” (“Lech Lecha”) – away from your country, your relatives, and your father’s house.” God is telling Abraham that in order to become truly great, he must “cut the umbilical cord,” and embark on a journey of growth and self-discovery – away from the familiar routine.

In commanding Abraham to go away from his country, his family, everything he ever knew, God is also commanding him to “go to himself.” We can understand this as going to the Land of Promise, to Canaan, to the Land that would one day be known as Israel. This was the core of everything God intended Abraham to be as the Father of Judaism and the spiritual father of all of those who turn to the God of Abraham through faith in Messiah.

Go to yourself.

In some sense, that’s what I discovered (or rediscovered) in returning to Hudson last week. I expressed some misgivings about going to the conference right before my trip and it turns out, on that first Tuesday night as I sat in services and listening to the teachers, I was right to feel that way. Instead of everything feeling comfortable and familiar, I felt like a literal “stranger in a strange land.”

boaz-michael-beth-immanuelEven as Boaz Michael was welcoming all of the attendees that first night, encouraging those who were completely unfamiliar with synagogue worship to engage in the process on whatever level they felt they could, it was as if I was standing on the outside looking in through a dirty window. I realized that I was at the intersection, or some might say, the point of collision, between the Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience.

Seven months ago or so, I started attending church again. In spite of the discomfort I felt on multiple levels, I eventually settled into a sort of “rhythm” in my church attendance, in my fellowship with other Christians, in my weekly conversations with Pastor Randy, and everything has gradually become “normal.”

But in sitting in the pew at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference, I was struck by how familiar and unfamiliar everything was. Even as I moved through the subsequent days of the conference and gradually re-acquainted myself with Jewish worship, eventually drawing a sense of comfort and even enjoyment in the Jewish expression of encountering God, I realized what it was really like to stand between two worlds. In some ways, the typical Sunday worship service at church couldn’t hold a candle to the Jewish prayer and Torah services, the depth they generated in me, and the complex pattern that davening in a synagogue weaves in my personal fabric.

But while I realized that the synagogue wasn’t my world, it reminded me that the church really isn’t my world either. I started wondering about the consequences of Calvinism and perhaps I was one of those consequences. What happens when a person who God doesn’t choose for salvation ends up on the House of God anyway? What happens when he wants to love an encounter with God but feels completely foreign to the attempt?

Was this God’s way of telling me that I didn’t belong? Were others called to “journey” but I was merely “going” along for the ride?

Go to yourself? But exactly where does “myself” reside?

I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:18-20

Tree of LifeIf Calvin is right, then how dare God tell the Children of Israel as a corporate body to “choose life” knowing that He had deliberately programmed some of them to not choose life? Talk about setting people up for destruction. Was that what God did to me? Did he program me for destruction and then allow me to find myself among the people of God? If that was so, then my sitting in Beth Immanuel listening to the prayers, listening to the Torah being read, listening to the Spirit of God speaking to the hearts of everyone around me except me was a cruel and horrible jest.

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear…

Isaiah 59:1

No, the arm of the Lord is not too short that it cannot save, if God actually chooses to save. Was God choosing to save me or condemn me as I sat among those at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference?

Either Calvin was having a hardy laugh from Heaven (or from the grave…whatever) or I was being kicked in the gut by bilateral, bicultural ecclesiology.

I realized looking around me at Beth Immanuel, how vitally important it is to create and preserve a fully religious, cultural, and halachic Jewish experience within the context of Jewish disciples of Messiah. This must feel like “home” to the Messianic Jews (and not a few Gentiles) in attendance, both those who had traveled far to be there, and those who attend every week.

But as I cruised into the synagogue at a pretty good clip emotionally, I suddenly hit a major cultural wall and dropped from warp speed down to sublight down to a full, complete, and abrupt stop. It was like being dropped from an airplane down, down into the ocean. Splash! I was underwater and I couldn’t breathe. Which way was up? Would I drown?

I eventually found the surface and oriented myself. Eventually things got better. While I didn’t always understand everything that was happening around me, it was the people who made me feel at home.

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

Troy Mitchell

Troy was kind enough to let me know the actual words of his midrash, which Boaz was quoting from memory at the conference.

It was the teachings at the conference that helped me focus on what’s truly important, which is building the Kingdom of God. I’ve already blogged on what that means and will continue to do so from different perspectives and through the eyes of different teachers as I keep writing into next week. When we proceed forward under our own effort or feel as if we’re being dragged along for the sake of social or moral obligation, we are merely “going.” To actually, willingly follow the Spirit on the path of God, it is then we are on a “journey.”

The goal of humankind is to reach beyond the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden—to a state where any sense of ego is meaningless. A place called Eden, which is beyond the Garden, the place of Essential Being from where all delights flow . . .

“And a river went out from Eden to water the Garden.”

And now you know the secret of why such a tree was created.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Over every single blade of grass, there is a heavenly force that whispers to it and commands, “Grow!”

-Bereishis Rabbah 10:7

Hands of the GardenerAccording to Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, midrash says that human beings must struggle against two forces as we strive for spiritual growth, inertia, which affects all things, and the yetzer hara, which is unique to people.

While Christianity sees our “sin nature” wholly as an impediment to be done away with, Jewish thought considers both inertia and the yetzer hara as motivators, urging us on, pushing us to achieve more, to climb higher, to plumb ever greater spiritual depths, to strive toward the sun, the light, the air…to overcome who we are in order to become who we were meant to be.

That’s what I found at the intersection, or even the terrific, horrific collision of this year’s Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience in the church. Rabbi Twerski’s commentary puts the finishing touches on my journey like this:

If a lowly blade of grass has both a tendency towards inertia and a spiritual “mentor” which demands that it fulfill itself, we human beings, with two adversaries, certainly have even more powerful forces urging us to achieve our full potential. We should be aware of what can hamper our achievement and make the effort to overcome it.

Today I shall…

…bear in mind that there are numerous obstacles to spiritual growth, and that I must try to triumph over them.

May it be so by the will of God.

Good Shabbos.

124 days.

Behaalotecha: The Presence of Light and Compassion

lightThe Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Numbers 8:1-3 (JPS Tanakh)

The Almighty is not in need of our light. On the contrary, we are in need of His. For this reason the Torah guides us in the proper way of taking full spiritual advantage of the light of the Menorah: The lamps must radiate toward themselves, meaning that the light they give should not only illuminate others, but it must come back and shine on the Menorah itself.

This returning light is at once a fact and a commandment. It applies especially in our day and age when the Temple and the Menorah are no longer standing, and when we must fill the void of the reflecting light that the Menorah once provided.

When the light we radiate around us by leading Torah lives returns to us, enhancing our spirituality and improving our behavior to one another, we will have fulfilled both the fact and the commandment of “When you light the lamps opposite the front of the candlestick the seven lamps shall give light.”

-from “Light That Returns”
A commentary on Torah Portion Behaalotecha

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)

I suppose this week’s commentary on the Torah Portion is only loosely based on the Parashah, but I must admit that I need a little extra “light” in my world. With that in mind, I’m “tweaking” my “meditation” to favor “light.”

The Virtual Jerusalem commentary compares the commandment of lighting the Menorah in the Tabernacle to the “light” of spirituality, goodness, Torah study, and scholarship. To a Christian, praying, singing hymns, and preaching the Word might all seem like more worthwhile activities than studying the Bible, but for some Jews, studying Torah is directly associated with obeying its commands to do good and to show kindness to others. When you take in the light of the Torah, it shines in the world around you as well.

That very well could be related to what the Master was thinking when he said the words we have recorded in Matthew 5:14-16. We shine our light because we have received that light from our Master and teacher. It extends out into the world but it also is reflected back toward us as those we have touched in a meaningful way received our light (which comes from our Master) and it returns to us as a blessing.

Yes, we need blessings and renewal because even among the body of believers, it can be a trying world. If you’ve been reading the comments made on my blog over the past week or so, you know that tempers became heated, nerves became frayed, and some among the body of Christ seemingly forgot that our Master taught us a new commandment to love one another (John 13:34). Of course, there is the concept of “tough love” or “I’m only telling the truth,” but the Bible is replete with teachings about how to approach a brother privately to solve a dispute (Matthew 18:15-18).

Of course, Jesus goes on to say:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” –Matthew 18:19-20 (ESV)

Naturally, the two have to actually agree on something, which seems easier said and done, and perhaps that “two or three..gathered in my name” means gathering face-to-face and not virtually in the blogosphere.

Yes, the “magic” of brotherhood I experienced at the Shavuot conference I recently attended has dissipated and once again, I encounter the actuality of “religious conversations,” where one can be accused of various misdeeds when the only “crime” that occurred was saying to the other person, “I don’t agree with you.” Failing to unreservedly honor another’s sacred cow can be a terrible thing (and I know a little something about pursuing sacred cows).

Tsvi Sadan calls the Messiah the concealed light, in part because the light of the Jewish King has been temporarily concealed from his Jewish brethern for the sake of the nations (see Romans 11). Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, in presenting the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, says:

It all began with an infinite light that filled all and left no room for a world to be. Then that light was withheld so the world might be created in the resulting void.

Then the world was created, with the purpose of returning to that original state of light — yet to remain a world.

All the world’s problems stem from light being withheld.

Our job then, is to correct this. Wherever we find light, we must rip away its casings, exposing it to all, letting it shine forth to the darkest ends of the earth.

Especially the light you yourself hold.

The Light was concealed. But its Source was not. The Source of Light is everywhere.

For those of you with little tolerance for Chassidic mysticism, I prefer to think of these writings as metaphorical. If indeed we shine some of the “concealed light” of our Master, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as he taught us, we must not let the light be concealed. We must “rip away its casings” and expose that light to others. But what light are we talking about and what happens when it shines?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. –Matthew 5:3-12 (ESV)

I suppose I could have quoted from any number of the Master’s teachings, but this one seemed particularly appropriate. Who is blessed? The poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, people who are passionate for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, the reviled, those falsely accused on account of the Master.

If you toss the Beatitudes into a big bowl, take a large wooden spoon and stir vigorously, you can come out with the idea that if you are persecuted, reviled, falsely accused, or just plain “bad mouthed,” you should still respond with meekness, act mercifully, be peacemakers, and mourn for the souls of those who need to personalize conflict in the name of Christ. What an odd way to react to a verbal slap in the face, but then the Master also said something about turning the other cheek (though probably not literal in meaning).

Sorry, I just needed to ponder those thoughts and to consider that even the world of religious discourse (some would say especially the world of religious discourse) is no less filled with landmines and tripwires than any secular conversation.

He could have placed streetlamps along all the pathways of wisdom, but then there would be no journey.

Who would discover the secret passages, the hidden treasures, if all of us took the king’s highway?

Toward the light Rabbi Freeman uses light and darkness to describe the presence or absence of wisdom and knowledge of God, but I choose to see this as a metaphor illustrating peace, mercy, and righteousness, or their absense. A movie I’ve seen a few times starring Harrison Ford as (of all people) the President of the United States, contains one of my favorite lines of dialog:

Peace isn’t merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.

In my case, I’d settle for only the occasional absence of conflict (since, after all, this is the Internet and human beings are involved), the presence of compassion, and the soft glow of a bit of kindness, like candlelight, holding the darkness at bay.

Good Shabbos.