Tag Archives: Beresheet

Diminishing the Moon and Israel

God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.

Genesis 1:16 (JPS Tanakh)

R. Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues: The greater light . . . and the lesser light. The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown’? He answered: ‘Go then and make thyself smaller’. ‘Sovereign of the Universe’! cried the moon, ‘Because I have suggested that which is proper must I then make myself smaller’? He replied: ‘Go and thou wilt rule by day and by night’. ‘But what is the value of this’? cried the moon; ‘Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight’? He replied: ‘Go. Israel shall reckon by thee the days and the years’. ‘But it is impossible’, said the moon, ‘to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons, as it is written: And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years’. ‘Go. The righteous shall be named after thee as we find, Jacob the Small, Samuel the Small, David the Small’, On seeing that it would not be consoled the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller’. This is what was meant by R. Simeon b. Lakish when he declared: Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that there is written concerning it unto the Lord? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.

-Tractate Chullin 60b

True, no human being ever heard the above conversation between the Holy One and the moon. We know of it only through our tradition. But we can actually see with our own eyes that very legend applying to that body which has been symbolized by the moon — Knesset Yisrael.

-Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel
Chapter 5: The Moon and Knesset Yisrael, p.25
Translated by Kadish Goldberg
Jews, Judaism, & Genesis: Living in His Image According to the Torah

I read this chapter last Tuesday after I reviewed the latest set of comments on my recent blog post Upon Reading a Rant About “Messianic Jewishism” and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the general themes involved in said-blog post. While I don’t ascribe great credence to the idea that the Moon and God actually had a conversation, I think there’s a principle we can derive from the midrash on the “relationship” between the Moon and “Knesset Yisrael” or the Assembly of Israel. It’s the same principle the sages have derived.

How can Israel be compared to the Moon, the lesser of two “great lights?” Think about the relationship between the Moon and the Sun as compared to the relationship between Israel and God.

An adult sitting at his father’s table is considered a minor; a minor independent of his father’s table is considered an adult.

-from Tractate Kiddushin

yom kippur katanJust as the Moon is always dependent upon the Sun for light, and the Moon’s light would be immediately extinguished should the Sun “hide his face” so to speak, so too would Israel be extinguished should God hide His face from her.

And yet, the diminishing of the Moon is not one that is performed on it from outside but an act which the Moon, upon the command of God, performs upon herself, reducing herself in relation to the Sun and the stars.

The life of the moon is marked by a terrible tragedy. The Holy One, at first glance, seems to unequivocally accept her argument. He fully admits that her claim is reasonable, but as an expression of commendation for her just position, He demands more of her no more and no less than, “Go and diminish yourself.”

-R. Amiel, p.27

Rav Amiel compares this to Rosh Chodesh (festival of the New Moon), for on Erev Rosh Chodesh, “Jews offer prayer and supplication as they do on Yom Ha-kippurim, the Day of Atonement. This is Yom Kippur Kattan service” (ibid p.26). Just as the new or reborn Moon is in a greatly diminished state, so too is the rebirth of Israel (and keep in mind, Rav Amiel wrote this in the 19th century, long before the rebirth of the modern state of Israel).

R. Amiel speaks of the pogroms and other offenses the nations have committed against the Jewish people, and the utter dependence upon the leaders and rulers of the various nations in which “Knesset Yisrael” finds herself in, even for existence. Israel has been exiled, Jerusalem is in ruins, the Temple has been destroyed, the people have been scattered. Hostile churches (historically) have burned her volumes of Talmud, her Torah scrolls, and her synagogues.

However, even as the least among the nations as she currently may be, there is a consolation:

On the one hand, we are the smallest of all the nations, mocked and despised among the nations. On the other hand, we occupy “The Eastern Seat,” the seat of honor.

-ibid, p.28

The Jewish Paul…my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:3-5 (NASB)

Rav. Amiel says something similar:

Israel orders the times for all nations and tongues. All our seasons, such as our “Festival of Freedom,” our “Festival of the Giving of the Torah,” are celebrated by all enlightened nations. In matters of time, we are emulated by all, even though sometimes the imitation is blemished by modifications — for example, the Sunday imitation of the Sabbath day — but it universally acknowledged that the original is ours.

Timewise, we are the most powerful of nations, the deciding factor. “Go and let Israel determine the days and years by you.” The nations’ calendar is based upon the birth date of a certain Jew.

-Amiel, p.28

The Rav, even in the admission of the lowered and diminished state of “Knesset Yisrael,” declares that in her weakness, Israel is great, for the rest of the nations follow her through (imperfect) imitation.

But he goes on:

This is our only consolation. It is, of course, only a partial consolation.

The moon “was not appeased.” Nor is Knesset Yisrael appeased. She thirsts for salvation and redemption, weeping bitterly, “When I remember this, O God, I moan…

-ibid, p.29

And does God not hear the cries of the oppressed and act in their defense?

“Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the LORD; “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.”

Psalm 12:5 (NASB)

Now, behold, the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them.

Exodus 3:9

…but, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the countries where He had banished them.’ For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers.

Jeremiah 26:15

JewishI know people who criticized me and the topic of my other blog post don’t see themselves as in any way oppressing Israel or the Jewish people. They certainly have no deliberate intent to do so. In many ways, they see themselves as doing the opposite, lifting the Jewish people up and joining them by performing the identical mitzvot as an obligation in the merit of Messiah.

You might say to yourself that if God commanded Israel to diminish herself as He did (in midrash) to the Moon, should not Israel and the Jewish people be humble and elevate the Gentile to a higher level than the Jews, offering the Gentiles all of the mitzvot; the mitzvah of Shabbat, of Kashrut, of tzitzit, of tefillin, of the Moadim? Shouldn’t Israel be “fair” and at least share all of her mitzvot? Don’t they all belong to us (Gentiles) now anyway?

Maybe not, and we cannot consider Israel diminished forever, just as the sages have said, “for every descent, there is an ascent.”

Therefore, Heaven forbid that we discontinue the custom of Yom Kippur Kattan. Even in Eretz Yisrael of today, Knesset Yisrael is still compared to the moon. And so it will be until that hoped for time when “The light of the moon will be as bright as the sun, and the light of the sun as the light of the seven days.”

-Amiel, p.30

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

John 8:12

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.

Revelation 21:23

Moshiach is the light of Israel and the light of the world. Will he come to diminish Israel or to raise her up as the head of all the nations? As the people of the rest of the nations of the world who are called by Hashem’s Name, are we to continue to diminish Israel in disobedience to the Master? Why wait for his return? We can raise Israel up now by acknowledging her role and her place in the redemptive plan of God. We must do this now, lest we be counted among Israel’s enemies and even as disciples, be diminished ourselves in Messianic days.

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them.Small plant

Zechariah 14:16-17

Admittedly, I’m playing a little fast and loose with my interpretation of that last passage of scripture, but do you really want to take the chance that I am wrong and God will not deliver consequences upon those of us to call ourselves disciples and yet fail to elevate Knesset Yisrael above all the peoples of the Earth?

There will be another “follow up” blog post on this subject tomorrow morning.

Genesis: Searching for the Self-Evident God

Simchat Torah

By contrast, on Simchat Torah we do not celebrate our national receiving of the Torah; we celebrate our personal one. God gave us the Second Tablets because He deemed us worthy of receiving them. He had just forgiven us on Yom Kippur and decided to take us anew. And we celebrate by each of us holding close that Torah God entrusted us with and dancing with it. And likewise every single member of the synagogue is called up to the Torah for the reading of a section.
-Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
“Simchat Torah: Just You and Me”

As you read this, it is Simchat Torah, the celebration of the end of one Torah cycle and the beginning of another. Yesterday was Shemini Atzeret which is considered the last day of Sukkot but in fact is a separate festival, the eighth day of assembly. Of course, sundown tonight begins the weekly Shabbat, and tomorrow in synagogues all over the world, the very first words of Genesis will be read again.

A lot is going on and almost all of it exclusively has to do with the Jewish people. Let me explain.

The seven days of Sukkot have a great deal of meaning, not the least of which is an invitation for guests to join a Jewish family in their sukkah. Some synagogues have congregational sukkot (plural of sukkah) and will invite in anyone who desires to enter. Especially the Chabad will invite non-religious Jews in order to reacquaint them with the Torah and Jewish religious practice, but it’s not unheard of for non-Jews to also join in on the fun.

But that’s for seven days. While Shemini Atzeret is considered an eighth day of Sukkot, it is not the same as the other days of the festival. I once heard a commentary stating that while guests are invited on the seven days of Sukkot and that everyone is engaged with each other and with God, the eighth day is more intimate, more of a personal encounter, a private exchange between the Jewish people and their loving Father. It’s like having a houseful of family and friends in your home for a seven-day party, but on the eighth day, the guests all go back to their homes, and the family spends one special day of closeness with their Father.

Doesn’t sound very flattering if you’re a guest but we understand that family is special and they need the time to be together as family.

But what if you’re a Christian? Aren’t you family? In terms of traditional Judaism, no (for the most part, Messianic Judaism would have a different take). It’s not that God isn’t the Creator of Jews and Gentiles, but Shemini Atzeret commemorates the unique relationship God has with the Jewish people and, as Rabbi Rosenfeld suggests relative to Simchat Torah, God commemorates His relationship on this day with each, individual Jew.

clinging_to_torahSimchat Torah celebrates the special relationship of the Jewish people and the Torah. While Shavuot (Pentecost) observes the anniversary of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, Simchat Torah is the celebration of the unbroken joy of ending one cycle of readings and beginning another, dancing with the Torah and with God on the very final day of the holiday season, for tomorrow the Torah readings begin again.

And there’s something else.

“He stared at me for a moment seeming very moved by the idea that this Torah would help people come closer to Judaism. All of a sudden, he started crying — I mean really crying with tears streaming down his face. I was trying to get him to talk, but he literally couldn’t get any words out. Finally, he explained. He had drifted away from Judaism and married a Buddhist woman. This Torah scroll was his only connection, and at this point, he felt so cut off that he thought he might as well sell it. But when he found out that this Torah would help reconnect people to Judaism, he wanted to give it to me as a gift. In this way, he felt he would perhaps have the merit to be reconnected too and find his way home at last.

“I didn’t know what to say, but I certainly appreciated his incredible gift. I realized that this was a Torah that had been basically homeless for the past 50 years. There was no one to read it, hold it or keep it properly, and now God gave the Torah a home, and would hopefully bring this lonely Jew back in the near future as well.

“Now, what about an ark? That’s a story of its own. I found an online ad for an old Jewish artifact, a Jewish chest. The sellers weren’t Jewish, but they had bought it from a priest who told them it was of Jewish origin.

“When I opened the online pictures of the chest, I saw before me what seemed to be a beautifully crafted ark. It was small, so it wouldn’t be able to hold a regular sized Torah, but would be perfect for the Torah we had. But when I viewed a picture of the top of the ark, I almost fainted. There was a large cross attached to it.”

-Rabbi Binyomin Pruzansky
“The Lost Torah Scroll: Bringing Torah Home”

simhat-torahI’ve read Rabbi Pruzansky’s story in years past, and it’s a good one. He relates how he habitually held Shabbos meals in his home for 30 or 40 young Jewish people, Jews who for one reason or another, don’t feel comfortable entering a synagogue. In a more home-like setting, the Rabbi wanted to give these young Jews the opportunity to eat a kosher meal and even to have an aliyah, to be called up to read the Torah from a kosher scroll.

As you read, he had some difficulties acquiring a proper scroll for a reasonable cost and an authentic Jewish ark for the scroll. In different ways, the scroll and the ark had “strayed from the path,” so to speak, with the scroll all but neglected and the ark having been in possession of a Christian Priest.

“My dear friends, look at what we have here. A Torah that was neglected for so many years was finally given a home in an ark that had been used by a priest. Yet the message was clear that God would never give up on them. He had not forgotten about this lost ark and Torah scroll, and finally the two of them were brought together and can now be used to bring young men and woman back to their Father in Heaven as well.

“This Torah has not been danced with for over 50 years, and now we have the chance to welcome it home. Let’s give it the welcome it deserves.”

I know Gentile followers of Jesus who steadfastly maintain that the Torah belongs to both Jewish people and Gentile believers in exactly the same way, but I consider this not only to be untrue, but to be incredibly insensitive to the connection between the Jewish people and God. It’s not that I don’t believe God loves those of us from the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12), but I do draw a distinction between the nature and character of God’s relationship with and purpose for the Jewish people and how God relates to the rest of us (yes, even the rest of us who are in Christ).

Yes, I firmly believe Christians have a special role and purpose that God has assigned us and that only we can accomplish and fulfill. Yes, I do believe that God loves us as much as He loves the Jewish people and that we are not second class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I also believe that the Jewish people are unique to God and have a place that is especially near to His heart. They are His treasured splendorous people (Exodus 19:5). I can hardly begrudge God and the Jewish people special times in which they meet just between the two of them to acknowledge, celebrate, and experience what is uniquely between God and the Jews.

Torah at SinaiWe need to acknowledge the complexity of human relationships with God, what makes the connection especially precious regarding the Jewish people, and what we all can share together as human beings who live in a universe authored by the Creator.

“In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth” “… God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make”.

Genesis 1:1, 2:3

These two verses encompass all of Creation. The opening three words end in the Hebrew letters taf, aleph, mem which comprise “emet” (truth), and the closing three words end in aleph, mem, taf which spells “emet”. Reb Simcha Bunim of P’shis’che cites the Talmudic statement, “The seal of God is emet” and comments, “It is customary for an author to place his name in the opening of his book. God placed His Name, emet, in the opening chapter of the Torah. Emet thus envelops all of creation, a testimony to God as the Creator.”

Divrei Shaul notes that all traits can be a matter of degree. There can be greater beauty and lesser beauty, greater wisdom and lesser wisdom, greater strength and lesser strength. Only one trait cannot be more or less: truth. Something is either true or it is not true.

God is identified with truth. Just as truth can never be altered, because altered truth is no longer truth, there can be no change in God (Malachi 2:6).

The Talmud says that emet is broad-based, consisting of the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, the middle letter, mem and the last letter, taf (Shabbos 55a). Truth, therefore, has stability and durability. Falsehood, on the other hand is the Hebrew word sheker, consisting of three letters near the end of the alphabet. Sheker is top-heavy and cannot endure.

To the extent that a person lives with truth is the extent one identifies with God. Any falsehood distances a person from God.

Dvar Torah for Beresheet
Based on Twerski on Chumash by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
as quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly: V’Zot HaBracha-Bereishit”

seek-truthOne of the things we all have in common if we have any sort of relationship with God at all is that we are all truth seekers. If we can see God’s “signature” on His Creation and know that it is truth, then we will seek out that truth. We will discover God’s truth, and in order to foster closeness between us and God, we will increase the truth in us and remove the falsehood.

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

-Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

Once we accept the truth, God’s love and grace will be self-evident in all of our lives, Jewish and Gentile alike.

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

John 17:20-23 (NASB)

Good Shabbos.

Genesis: Learning Beginnings

And G-d said: “Let there be a firmament…”

Genesis 1:6

It is written: “Forever, O G-d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” (It is written: “Forever, O G-d, Your word stands firm in the heavens.” (Psalm 119:89) Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, explained the verse thus: “Your word” which you uttered, “Let there be a firmament…,” these very words and letters stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven and are forever clothed within the heavens to give them life and existence. As it is also written, “The word of our G-d shall stand firm forever” (Isaiah 40:8) and “His words live and stand firm forever.” (From the morning prayers) For if these letters were to depart even for an instant, G-d forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become nought and absolute nothingness, and it would be as if they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, “Let there be a firmament.”

And so it is with all created things, down to the most corporeal and inanimate of substances. If the letters of the “ten utterances” by which the earth was created during the six days of creation were to depart from it for but an instant, G-d forbid, it would revert to absolute nothingness.

This same thought was expressed by the Ari (Famed kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), of blessed memory, when he said that even in completely inanimate matter, such as earth and stones and water, there is a soul and spiritual life-force – that is, the letters of Divine “speech” clothed within it which continually grant it life and existence.

-Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

One year, following the Rosh Hashanah prayers, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi asked his son, Rabbi DovBer: “What did you think of during your prayers?”

Rabbi DovBer replied that he had contemplated the meaning of the passage, “and every stature shall bow before You” (From the “Nishmas” prayer received on Shabbos) – how the most lofty supernal worlds and spiritual creations negate themselves before the infinite majesty of G-d. “And you, father,” Rabbi DovBer then asked, “with what thought did you pray?”

Replied Rabbi Schneur Zalman: “I contemplated the table at which I stood.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Wooden Thoughts”
from the “Once Upon a Chasid” series
Commentary on Torah Portion B’reisheet

“I contemplated the table at which I stood” seems an odd way to begin a commentary on Genesis and the beginning of a new Torah cycle, but it tells us something about how Jews see life and, to some degree, the differences in generations. Maybe it also teaches us something about different levels of learning. Rabbi Zalman’s son, who was undoubtedly at a relatively early stage of his education, was focused on “the most lofty supernal worlds and spiritual creations negate themselves before the infinite majesty of G-d,” which is not such a bad thing to contemplate during prayers. But why then, would his father contemplate the table at which he stood?

What was God creating at the beginning of all things?

“Firmament” has also been translated as “expanse” (JPS Tanakh, NIV Bible, ESV Bible) or “space” (New Living Translation Bible) and can also be rendered as “canopy.” Although we may think of this as “sky” or “heaven,” there is an apparent “physicality” and “permanency” to God’s creating of everything. And why should God have to create the physical and permanent? For us.

Neither Rabbi Zalman nor his son was wrong about what they were contemplating during their prayers, but this also tells us something about the nature of God, man, and this week’s Torah Portion. Heaven and Earth aren’t necessarily the separate things we consider them in Christian thought. Everything, the physical and the spiritual, are from God, so we should consider them equally as eternal (or at least extremely long lasting) gifts from our Creator.

But I mentioned before about the differences between generations and the different levels of learning. The younger learner strives to reach up to God and the spiritual realm, and the older, more experienced Rabbi, has learned to see Him, even in a wooden table. I guess that tells us to relax a little when we think we can’t see God. He’s all around us anyway and in many ways. Even in the humble wooden table we’re standing next to when we pray. However, this isn’t always the traditional experience parents, Jewish or otherwise, have when trying to pass their traditions and culture from one generation to the next.

I also am not scoring high on the Jewish parent scale these days: my older daughter, who turned 9 in August, recently decided she hates all worship services and doesn’t want to go to Hebrew school. Even though she likes her teachers. My response, for now at least, is that she doesn’t have a choice about Hebrew school, so she might as well try to enjoy it. (Yes, I know, that sounds like the horrifically insensitive comment some clueless people make about rape.)

From toddler-hood until now was like a Jewish identity honeymoon; Ellie loved Hebrew school and her only complaint about services — they are a regular part of Hebrew school each week — was that she didn’t always get called up to the bima to read.

In fact, the first year we belonged to the temple it was my younger one — then 4 — who put up a fuss about Hebrew school, wanting instead to hang out with me on Sunday mornings. But after a few months of conflict, Sophie decided she adored her teacher and the teenage assistant teachers. Two years later, she has nary an objection (although I fear I’ll jinx that now), but Ellie complains constantly.

-Julie Wiener
“Tweens and Torahs”
from her “In the Mix” series

Wiener’s experience is probably more “normal” in terms of religious parents trying to make sure their children receive a “proper education.” I imagine Christian parents have similar struggles getting their “tweens” to go to Sunday school or some Wednesday night Christian kids meeting.

Last year, for this Torah portion, I talked about rerolling the Torah scroll as, in part, a way to reset the clock and turn everything back to the beginning. In the beginning, we not only find the familiar, but we look at it in new and different ways. That’s why I can write a commentary on Genesis from one year to the next and have them be quite different from one another.

But that’s a mature attitude. For a child, it might be, “Not Genesis again,” as if they were having meatloaf for dinner the third time this week. At a certain age, when children are in-between independence and childhood, they navigate a difficult course between parental priorities and their own.

For Jews, the additional layers aren’t just the religious but the cultural. While Julie Weiner is a Jewish agnostic and thus does not transmit a strong religious tradition down to her two daughters, the fact that she is Jewish means she must transmit a strong Jewish cultural identity to her two daughters. The fact that she’s also intermarried adds another wrinkle to the fabric, but that’s what her blog is all about.

It’s also what my blog is all about. It is sometimes incredibly interesting to be intermarried. There was a time when I attended Shabbat services at the local Reform-Conservative synagogue with my wife and kids (who are all Jewish). I felt pretty out of place at the time, but in my heart, I was worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If I had it to do over again, I would have become much more involved in the synagogue community, but I wasn’t in the right place mentally and spiritually back then.

I had no intention of evangelizing or making a nudnik (pest) out of myself. I tried to fit in as best I could but it wasn’t my culture or my identity. I followed the service and spoke to God, but none of that made me a Jew and really, I wasn’t practicing Judaism. I was worshiping alongside the Jews in the congregation (and since it was Reform, I wasn’t the only non-Jew present). I was “in the mix” to borrow from Weiner’s blog, in a group fraught with “mixes,” but I still was and am a Christian.

Rolling the Torah ScrollI mentioned quite recently that I see the mission of Christianity, and particularly those Christians who have an affinity for Judaism, is to support, promote, and encourage a return to the Torah for the Jewish people in our midst. An extension of that mission is to communicate to other Christians what our mission means and how we see it fitting in to the expansive plans of God.

Julie Weiner is trying to pass down Jewish identity from her generation to her children’s. That presupposes Weiner, as a Jew, having ownership over her Jewish identity. That would seem like a no-brainer for the vast majority of people including the vast majority of Christians and Jews, but as I said before, there are some Christians out there who seem just a little confused about who is Jewish and who isn’t. That question extends outward into the larger, “What is Judaism?” which includes What is Messianic Judaism?

The answers aren’t easy, but we can start at a basic foundation. We can see that being Jewish isn’t just a “religious” thing. Wiener (remember, she’s agnostic) can take her two daughters to Simchat Torah with encouraging results.

For Simchat Torah, I dragged the whole family to services, because I remembered how much fun it had been two years earlier (we had to miss it last year), and both girls love dancing. When I was invited to carry one of the Torah scrolls around the sanctuary, I asked Ellie if she wanted to join me, assuming she’d roll her eyes and say absolutely not. To my surprise, she not only came along (eagerly trailed, of course, by Sophie) but then, when offered a small Torah scroll of her own to carry, proudly took it. To her delight, someone took a picture of her marching around the temple with the Torah. (Yes, it’s a Reform temple, we take pictures on Jewish holidays. Go ahead and judge, judgmental reader.) And she danced with gusto for the rest of the night.

There are a lot of Jews in my area who attend Erev Shabbat services at our local Reform-Conservative shul largely for social, cultural, and community reasons as opposed to “being religious” (the Saturday service is thought as “too religious” by many of the Friday night folks).

Those of us who find Jewish cultural and religious practices attractive for whatever reasons, must strive to remember that attraction does not equal ownership. Julie Wiener and her daughters own their Jewish identity, religious and otherwise, because they’re Jewish. Chances are, most of you reading this blog are not. Chances are, most of you reading this blog have no problem with not being Jewish and thus not claiming Jewish identity, either conceptually or by behavior.

We are at a beginning point in the Torah reading cycle. Jewish children are at a beginning point in understanding and establishing a Jewish identity at the levels of religion, culture, ethnicity, and spirituality. It can be very hard to grant someone something that you don’t understand. How can we give the Torah and Jewish identity back to Jews and Judaism? We may think the Bible has told us all we need to know to comprehend what it is to be a Jew, but unless we grew up in a Jewish home and were raised by Jewish parents, in a lived, experiential sense, we don’t have a clue. We just have a little knowledge and a lot of imagination.

In Genesis, God creates the world and its various components and life forms and He creates man and woman. In Abraham, He created the first Hebrew by covenant relationship. At Sinai, by covenant relationship, He created the people and the nation of Israel, who were separated in perpetuity from the rest of the nations; the rest of humanity, in order to serve God in a very, very specific way.

While we Christians were also “created” in covenant relationship to God through the blood and death and life of Jesus Christ, and we are equal in God’s heart and God’s love to the Jewish people, we are not the same as the Jewish people. How all that will work out after the Messiah comes and after all things that are supposed to come to pass, have long since come to pass, I don’t know. I just know that right now, I’m a Christian. People like Julie Wiener and my wife are Jewish. Being Jewish means a whole lot of things and maybe not exactly the same things to all Jews. On the other hand, when you’re not Jewish, it’s pretty obvious, or it should be. For kids in intermarried families, it can be confusing, but the world has done away with enough Jews over the last 3,500 years or so and we need to stop. We need to make it easier for Jewish kids with intermarried parents to recognize what it is for them to be Jewish and not “muddy the waters” for them, so to speak.

Let the Jewish children have their beginning and discover who they are. We Christians should be busy discovering who we are and then teaching that to our children. May the Jewish and Christian children one day find out who they are in relationship to each other, and may all of our generations on that day, stand before the Throne of God and worship the One.

Genesis: Rerolling the Torah Scroll

IRolling the Torah Scrollf G-d is “perfect,” as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage. Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride. According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity.

-Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson
“Souls in the Rain”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halacha or to agada, to the lawgiver or to the Psalmist. The Rabbis may have sensed the problem. Rab said: The world was created for the sake of David, so that he might sing hymns and psalms to God. Samuel said: The world was created for the sake of Moses, so that he might receive the Torah (Sanhedrin 98b). (p.340)

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism

Genesis. The very familiar and very confusing Biblical rendition of God’s creation of the universe, our planet, and man and woman. Why did He create all of this and us? In a previous blog post, I took a rather dim view of creation, given how things have turned out so far, and if I were standing at some sort of cosmic reset point, where God were about to create time and space all over again for the first time, I might say to Him, “Do you really want to do this? You know how it turns out.”

Indeed, we do know. God gives man and woman exactly one thing to do and they blow it. Put another way, long before God gives Moses the Torah, with its 613 mitzvot for the Children of Israel, He gave only one to Adam. If a mitzvah contained the same intrinsic meaning for man in the first days of the Garden as it does for a Jew today, then this one task, to refrain from partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was not simply a matter of obeying (or disobeying) God, but something that Adam and Eve actively participated in with God as part of a cooperative effort. God, speaking from a Jewish perspective, is just as “bound” to the mitzvot as man.

Heschel (p. 361) illustrates the importance of a mitzvot to a Jew this way:

Just as salvation is the central concept in Christian piety, so does mitsvah serve as a focus fo Jewish religious consciousness.

That sentence, more than any other in Heschel’s book, should send shivers down a Christian’s spine. Any believer knows just how much they value their salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. But Christian, whether you understand it or not, a mitzvah to a Jew is every bit as important to him as your salvation is to you. The difference is that, once you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, your job is done. Accepting salvation upon yourself is a passive act. God does it all by grace. By contrast, a Jew is always in motion with the mitzvot, acting upon the world and working with God to make it a better place. It’s not as if failing a mitzvah puts the Jew’s soul at risk or that grace isn’t in operation every single moment (to put it in Christian terms), but performing the mitzvah is the active ingredient in any Jew’s faith and life.

In fact, it is said “Without mitsvot one is naked” (Genesis Rabba 3,7). It is thought that one does not perform a mitzvah so much as one “acquires” it. A Jew might say “Adorn thyself with mitsvot before Him” (Sanhedrin 17a) as if the mitzvot were clothing. That is how Heschel (pp. 362-3) can come to this statement:

The supreme dignity of mitsvah is of such spiritual power that it gained a position of primacy over its antonym, namely, sin or averah. Even the sin of Adam was described as loss of mitsvah. After the forbidden fruit, we are told, their eyes were unclosed and “they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). “One mitsvah was entrusted to them, and they had stripped themselves of it.” (Genesis Rabba 19,17).

Knowing all of this, why did God create the world? Why did he create man? For marriage? For the supreme union between man and God? My, how we made a mess of things early on in the relationship and continue to do so. As Rabbi Yonah writes on the Jewlicious blog:

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world to infuse it with goodness. However, this stands in contrast to the world we see. Even with the rose-colored glasses of privilege and faith in humankind, we have to admit that the world is full of misery and suffering. Finding God in this mess becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.

failurePerhaps this terrible condition of the world is the only environment where humanity could exist for any length of time. We were going to fall. It was a matter of God deciding whether or not we should be given life, not whether we would fail in that life or not. Perhaps God’s boundless love would never have been understood or appreciated unless we were still loved by Him after we completely failed.

As we learned recently from Yom Kippur, God made time in such a way that it can be rolled back to the beginning. All wrongs can be made right. All hurts can be healed. We can be as we were “in the beginning”. The intensity and whirlwind of activities that mark the Days of Awe are about to collapse in on themselves and suddenly, time will be rolled back to Genesis even as Torah scrolls are rolled back to the beginning.

I haven’t experienced the joyous highs that most people have who celebrate this time of year, but my experience is unique and my situation has a limited context. Although I am a Christian, I am not a typical cog in that machine, nor do I fit into the Jewish world because of my faith. I have read through many Torah cycles, but this year, going back to the beginning is like making a fresh descent into the abyss of man’s failure without being able to see his future.

How did Abraham arrive at his certainty that there is a God who is concerned with the world? Said Rabbi Isaac: Abraham may be “compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace? he wondered. Until the owner of the palace looked at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, Abraham our father wondered, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world.’ ” (Genesis Rabba 39) The world is in flames, consumed by evil. Is it possible that there is no one who cares? -Heschel p.367

There’s a well-known idiom in Hebrew that says, “Yeridah Letzorech Aliyah” meaning “descent for the sake of ascent”. I am descending into Genesis and will once again watch man fail God. Each day that I live, I live the life of a man who has failed God. But as the days and weeks progress and the Torah scroll is rolled further into Genesis, I pray that this will also be an ascent for the sake of my descent. Man has failed God and yet is still loved by God. However tenuous it may seem to me just now, that means there must be hope.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:13-14

Good Shabbos.