Tag Archives: commentary

Ascension: The 40th Day of the Omer

shavuotLast week when I took my Mom to church, the Pastor preached on the Ascension of Christ, which occurred 40 days after he rose. He surprised me by bringing in a copy of the Tanakh and describing, in elementary terms, the Torah, Nevim, and Ketuvim. He said he didn’t expect anyone in his audience to understand those terms, but then again, he didn’t anticipate me.

His sermon got me to thinking about the Counting of the Omer, and since we are in the days of Shavuot, which concludes the 50 days of the counting, I started to wonder if there was some significance in Judaism to the 40th day of that counting.

A quick Google search didn’t reveal anything very significant. Lag B’Omer occurs on the 33rd day, so no help there. While we understand, from a Messianic point of view, that Shavuot or Pentecost was the day of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles (see Acts 2), what, if anything, is significant about the 40th day of the Omer? Everything else in the Bible is so ordered, so I can’t believe the timing of the Ascension was random.

Okay, my search wasn’t completely futile, but it wasn’t conclusive either. Consider:

Velveteen Rabbi

Chabad

Messianic Sabbath

The first two seem to be merely daily commentaries, but the last entry said something interesting, though I don’t know how valid the information happens to be:

Since Yeshua rose from the dead on the Feast of First Fruits (Matt. 28:1-10), and ascended into heaven 40 days later (Acts 1:1-3), all of Yeshua’s post-resurrection appearances fall within the first 40 days of the Omer Count.

And

As I thought about the theme of each of these 40-day (or 40-year) events, I found three commonalities that all of them share:

  1. They were times of preparation for those doing God’s work
  2. During this timeframe the harvest was prepared – those who would receive God’s message
  3. God’s power came forth in full strength after the 40 days

Is that the answer? Was it just another part of the 40 day pattern we often find in the Bible? It makes sense if it is, but is there any more?

I don’t know. Throwing it out to you for commentary.

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Reflections on Romans 3

For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:25-29 (NASB)

Pour yourself a big cup of coffee and relax. This one is long.

It may seem a little odd to start a commentary on Romans 3 by quoting from Romans 2, but remember that I previously stated that my “reflections” on Romans series was an attempt to describe my impressions of this epistle as a complete unit, that is, a letter intended to be read all at once, rather than slicing and dicing it up into little sound bytes. The context of what Paul writes in the third chapter of this book (and remember, for Paul, this wasn’t a “book” nor did he actually divide his letter into chapters) spills over from what has come before it.

As a refresher, here’s how I ended my commentary on Romans 2:

If a Jew fails to perform a mitzvah, does he stop being a Jew? Does he become “uncircumcised?” This used to puzzle me. The whole “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” thing has been used to justify calling Christians “spiritual Jews” and to support the old, tired theology of supersessionism. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying.

Paul is trying to inspire zeal for the Torah and for faith in Messiah in his non-believing Jewish brothers in Rome. How would he do that by insulting them and rejecting them? Worse, how would he do that by denigrating the Torah? He couldn’t.

But he could be saying that a Jew is justified before God if he is outwardly a Jew, that is, if he is obedient to the commandments, and if he is inwardly a Jew, that is, if he has faith in God and that faith is the motivation for obedience. The two go together…faith and works.

Paul, in my opinion, is saying that a Jewish person devoted to Hashem must be a Jew in his or her inward faith and also outwardly a Jew in behavior, in performance of the mitzvot. The two are inseparable to a complete Jewish identity.

And, if the Jewish person is boasting based on ethnicity and being a recipient of the promises but not also living a life of faith and obedience to God, then…

So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?

Romans 2:26-27 (NASB)

So if a Gentile who is not circumcised, that is, who is not a Jew, nevertheless behaves as if he has a circumcised heart, that is, is obedient to God through faith in Messiah, then sees a Jewish person who is hypocritical, boasting in their ethnic identity but not “walking the walk,” so to speak, won’t that Gentile be justified in “pushing back” when the less-than-faithful Jew attempts to assert some sort of religious superiority over the Gentile based just on being ethnically Jewish?

And that’s where we start chapter 3:

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written,

“That You may be justified in Your words,
And prevail when You are judged.”

Romans 3:1-4 quoting Psalm 51:4 (NASB)

PaulRemember, Paul created no chapter divisions, so he’s simply continuing his point from the previous portion of his letter.

So is Paul saying that being ethnically Jewish in and of itself meaningless? Are people who are ethnically Jewish but not obedient to the mitzvot or even imperfect in their attempts to be observant cut off from God? What advantage is there in being (just) ethnically Jewish, simply born into a covenant relationship with God?

“Great in every respect.”

In other words, being born into a covenant relationship with God all by itself still has great advantages and still orients the Jewish person, regardless of their behavior, to God, both as the focus of His love and, if they are disobedient, the focus of His discipline as outlined in the conditions (listed in the Torah) of the Sinai covenant.

Then Paul lists one of the advantages: “entrusted with the oracles of God.” That word “oracles” is also translated as “words,” “revelation,” “utterances,” and “truth”. This means (to me) that at a time when the entire world was worshiping idols of wood and stone and passing their infants through fire as some sort of fertility rite, only the Israelites were trusted to possess and commit themselves to the words of God, which we can interpret as the Torah, Prophets and the Writings, the Tanakh or the entire canonized Bible as it existed when Paul was writing to the Romans.

The Bible records many periods when Israel was faithful to God and many periods when she wasn’t. And yet, through it all, God was faithful and the Israelites remained His people, entrusted with his statues and ordinances.

Then Paul says, “So what if some Jewish people are unfaithful? Do you think that means God is going to stop being faithful to the Jews and abrogate his covenant promises? Absolutely not!”

So even if “every human being [is] a liar, God it true.” Then Paul quotes from Psalm 51:4, which is King David’s famous confession and plea to God after his sin with Batsheva. This is David’s admission of sinning against God alone and because he has sinned, David knows God is justified in judging him and God’s verdict against David is true.

To me, this says a couple of things. The first is that, because God and Israel are in a covenant relationship with each other, and that covenant relationship lists consequences if Israel, or any individual Jew such as David is faithless, then God is justified in disciplining the nation or the individual based on that relationship. This is what happened to David and I believe Paul is saying that individual Jews in his time would also receive consequences from God for faithlessness and sin specifically because they are in a covenant relationship with God.

JudaismIn other words, just because God disciplines individual Jews or the entire nation of Israel doesn’t mean God has abandoned them and ended His covenant with them. Quite the opposite. It means that God is fully engaged with national Israel right down to the lives and behavior of each individual Jewish person. We Gentiles (Christians) have no right at all to say that God abandoned Israel in favor of “the Church.” Too bad “the Church” hasn’t read this passage of Romans in that particular light over the past nearly two-thousand years.

Was Paul concerned that Jesus-believing Gentiles were somehow “lording it over” Jews who were less than faithful or less than observant? According to Mark Nanos in his book The Mystery of Romans, Paul was admonishing the Jesus-believing Gentiles for parading their “freedom” (being “grafted in” to the blessings of the New Covenant promises without the requirement of undergoing the proselyte rite and being obligated to the full yoke of the Torah mitzvot) in front of the non-believing Jews with whom they were associating (along with Jesus-believing Jews) in a common synagogue setting and/or a common Jewish community context.

It may be (and this is just my “reflection”) that the Gentiles were encountering some Jewish non-believers who, not at all happy that Gentiles were being afforded equal social status and inclusion in Jewish community without converting to Judaism, were being boastful that they were ethnically Jewish, possessors of the “oracles of God,” and thus were to be accorded a superior status. The Gentiles to whom Paul is addressing may have been rather vocally stating that these Jews were indeed Jews “in the flesh” but their behavior in Torah observance and obedience to God was (in the Gentiles’ opinion) coming up short.

Paul then is telling these Gentiles not to be “knuckleheads” and “so what” if these Jewish non-believers aren’t perfect. They still have many advantages. Don’t rub their noses in the fact that Gentiles in Messiah are considered (at least by Paul) as equal co-participants in the covenant blessings and in Jewish worship and communal space.

But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.

Romans 3:5-8 (NASB)

I may not be getting everything Paul is trying to communicate here, but my sense is that Paul is saying, even though the Jews have many advantages just by being born Jewish, God is still justified in judging unrighteousness among them, even as He promised He would in the Torah. God “inflicting wrath” does not mean He’s unrighteous, that is, does not mean (as I said before) that God is abandoning His relationship with Israel. When any one in Israel is judged by God to have sinned, God is justified in inflicting discipline.

In verse 9, Paul says that relative to judgment for sin, the Jews do not have an advantage over the Gentiles due to their covenant relationship with God, because God is justified in condemning anyone who sins. No one is perfect. Everyone sins. Everyone can be under the “power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NIV).

In Romans 3:10-18, Paul weaves a number of different scriptures into his “none are righteous” part of the chapter, including Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20; Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7 (see Septuagint); Isaiah 59:7,8 and Psalm 36:1.

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:19-20 (NASB)

This continues Paul’s point that even if Jews are obedient to the mitzvot, obedience without faith does not justify one before God. Only faith and obedience. The whole world is accountable to God. Does that mean the whole world is obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews? Some might conclude that we are based in this single verse. On the other hand, taking the larger Biblical narrative into account, we know that Israel was to be a light to the world, and up to the time of Messiah’s first advent, that light hadn’t been producing a lot of illumination.

light-of-the-worldBut it’s by Israel’s light that the world was intended to be informed of God and His blessings, as well as be informed of what constituted both righteousness and sin. The Torah, among its many other purposes, defines what it is to disobey God and thus be condemned. But even an awareness of the Law and being behaviorally compliant is insufficient if there is no Kavanah or intension, sometimes expressed as “direction of the heart”.

Although Jews and the Gentiles in Messiah had different (overlapping) behavioral obligations, they were all judged based, not necessarily on the perfection of their performance, but on the presence or absence of faith, devotion, and motivation. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations, but if a man like King David who sinned greatly with the affair and impregnation of the married woman Batsheva, the murder of her husband Uriah, and attempting to cover it all up by quickly marrying Batsheva after the mourning period for her husband’s death had passed, could still repent and be considered “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) specifically because of the quality of David’s kavanah, then so could the less than perfect Jews Paul was referencing in his letter.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26 (NASB)

We might condense the above-quoted statement to say something like, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith in Jesus Christ.” That makes it seem as if faith in Christ has replaced the Law (Torah observance) as a means of being considered righteousness. Except that Torah observance was never considered a means of righteousness. Only faith.

Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:6 (NASB)

Abraham was considered righteous by God because of his faith, long before the Torah was given at Sinai and even before the commandment of circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Thus it is faith that is the common denominator across all populations, Jewish and Gentile, that reckons anyone as righteous before a Holy God.

That seems to explain part of what Paul is saying in Romans 3:21-26, but what about faith in Jesus Christ, in Yeshua HaMashiach? Up until now, faith in Hashem, God of the Heavens was required. What changed?

The second elementary teaching of the Messiah in Hebrews 6:12 is called “faith toward God,” but how is this distinct from other first-century sects of Judaism? Even the Sadducees believed in God. Find out how Yeshua transformed the faith of his followers, and get a fresh handle on what it means to “believe in Jesus” and to be “born again.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Twenty: Faith Toward God
Originally presented on June 15, 2013
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

That is exactly the question D.T. Lancaster answers in the above-quoted sermon in his “Hebrews” series, which I reviewed a number of weeks ago. I also mentioned this topic in a related blog post called Why No One Comes To The Father Except Through The Son.

What changed? Why was devotion solely to Hashem no longer the target to be aimed at for a devout Jew? Actually, that’s not what changed. As mentioned in both of my commentaries on Lancaster, the Jesus-believing Jews of “the Way” and the Pharisees had almost exactly the same set of beliefs about God. There was only a slight variance between them and you could almost call Paul and the other Jesus-believing Jews “Pharisees with a Messianic twist.”

AbrahamYou might say that God’s plan for the ultimate redemption of Israel had been progressing forward in time since Abraham. If you look at the pattern of the covenants, you’ll see God building, step by step, on His plan, establishing the promises with Abraham, carrying them out through Isaac, and Jacob, the exile of Jacob’s family to Egypt where they grew into a great multitude, the raising up of Moses and Aaron, leading them out of Egyptian slavery and on their many journeys, and culminating at Sinai with the establishing of the Mosaic covenant and the giving of the Torah, forming the nation of Israel as the light to the world.

But it didn’t end there. Even after possessing the Land, national Israel struggled. Their history is clear. Did God’s plan fail? Did Israel fail? No. The plan was incomplete. It was never meant to encompass just Israel, but the whole world through Israel.

That’s why the New Covenant was prophesied through Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and many other prophets. The New Covenant would be written, not on scrolls or tablets, but on the Jewish heart, so that Israel could finally perfectly observe the mitzvot with absolute kavanah and without sin.

Messiah, among other things, was the herald of the New Covenant. He brought the beginning of the inauguration of that Covenant with his birth into the world, receiving the Holy Spirit, his ability to heal, his correct teachings, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return.

He was the messenger of the next logical, Biblical, evolutionary step in God’s redemptive plan, his Good News to the nation of Israel, and through Israel’s redemption, the salvation of the world as well.

At each step in the plan, the Jewish people could continue to have faith in God or not. Many did. Some didn’t. The Bible records their fate. Messiah came not to say “believe in me instead of God” but “believe in me because of God for I am His messenger and through my message you can come fully and completely, in a way never before realized by any living Jew, to God the Father, Master of Legions, Author of Life.”

Another step and a really big one in God’s plan. Accept or reject. Faith or faithlessness. You choose.

new heartThe choice was given to Gentiles for the first time since the establishment of the Israelite nation. No longer would a non-Jew have to undergo the proselyte ritual and convert to Judaism. No longer would a Gentile be required to affiliate with a tribe or clan of Israel (as they did in the days of Moses). Now, because of the New Covenant promises and how they include the Abrahamic blessings to the nations, all people of every nation, tribe, and tongue can, through Messiah, come alongside Israel, just as it was prophesied, and take part in the covenant blessings of God by being grafted into the root.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:27-30 (NASB)

Paul might be saying, so, having said all that, do Jews get to brag that they are justified and made righteous by being born Jews or even by observance of the mitzvot? No. Yes, being born Jewish and having the Torah has terrific advantages as I said, but ultimately, no one is justified by being born a Jew or by being physically circumcised. Justification, for a Jew or Gentile, comes only through a faith like Abraham’s.

I can see Paul really needing to make this point to the Gentile Jesus-believers reading the letter. I can see how they could be really confused in the face of non-believing Jews telling them that justification and righteousness comes only through being Jewish. Paul needed to set them straight and orient them and their Jewish counterparts, to the reality of the “law of faith”. God is a God of the Jews and a God to the Gentiles so both the Jews and Gentiles have their hope in Him through Messiah’s Good News.

But Paul has to be particularly careful. In emphasizing faith, he can’t be seen to diminish the reality and the vital importance of the Torah or of Jewish identity. Remember, the Jews still have many great advantages over the Gentiles (sorry, but it’s true) as possessors of the words of God. Israel was the original recipient of Torah, and is the total and complete object of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. It’s only through Israel that the rest of us have any hope of salvation at all, so let’s not get cocky.

That explains the last verse in the chapter:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

Romans 3:31 (NASB)

Especially according to the entire context of the letter as it has been presented so far, Paul’s statement couldn’t be plainer. Faith does not nullify, do away with, fulfill (in the sense of abolish), abolish, replace, or complete (in the sense of abolish) the Law. Faith establishes the Law!

That is, through a completeness of Jewish faith, in this context, in God through Messiah, the Law is established, fully founded in a way never conceived or before or if conceived of, never accomplished before in Jewish lives.

Remember, we have to view all of this through the New Covenant. Jesus was bringing the New Covenant into our world. The evidence was the fact that even the Gentiles were receiving the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10) just as the Jews had (Acts 2). The New Covenant was going to radically change the relationship between the Jewish people, the Holy Spirit, and observance of the mitzvot:

“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)

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB)

When the New Covenant reaches fruition, God will write the Torah on the heart, and each Jewish person (and ultimately the rest of us) will have an apprehension of God that is so complete, that they/we will know God, as the prophets knew Him, as Moses knew Him, with complete intimacy, and all Israel’s sins (and the Gentiles’ attached to Israel through Messiah) will be forgiven.

the-divine-torahFurther, a completeness of the Holy Spirit will be poured out so that it will be possible for Israel to totally observe all of the Torah ordinances perfectly and without sin.

This is what it means when Paul says, Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

The Torah will be established in the New Covenant era in a way that it never could have been at any other time in history, for the conditions of God’s covenant with Israel will no longer be limited to being recorded on scrolls but will, in some mysterious manner, be written on the Jewish heart and soul, and Israel will be enabled by the Holy Spirit to finally, perfectly be in obedience to God as God requires through the Torah.

And we Gentiles who come to faith in the God of Israel through Messiah will be grafted in and be sharers of the covenant blessings, living in the resurrection under the reign of King Messiah in perfect peace and knowledge of Israel’s God.

“Run to pursue even a minor mitzvah and flee from a transgression.”

-Ben Azzai, Pirkei Avot 5:2

Next up: Reflections on Romans 4.

Shabbat Shalom.

Chukat: The Last Question of the Disciple of Peace

When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

Numbers 20:29

Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:12

Note: This was written before my blog post The Broken Saint.

Last week, I started something of a minor storm in my little corner of the blogosphere by writing a blog post (actually, a series of them) based on Fruit Fruits of Zion‘s (FFOZ) commentary on Torah Portion Shelach. This week, I thought I’d try something different, using FFOZ’s commentary on Torah Portion Chukat to set a more gentle tone.

Why did Israel weep for Aaron thirty days? Aaron was 123 years old when he died, a ripe old age, full of years, yet all Israel wept for Aaron thirty days. Thirty days is the customary term of mourning for a close relative, and Aaron, as high priest over the congregation, was like a close relative to all Israel. According to Jewish tradition, Aaron was especially beloved by all Israel because he was known as a peacemaker.

-FFOZ Torah Commentary

There were thousands in Israel who were called by the name of Aaron, for if not for Aaron, they would not have come into the world. Aaron made peace between husband and wife so that they came together, and they named the child that was born after him.

-Avot d’Rabbi Nattan

Perhaps you are not a fan of midrash and don’t consider Rabbinic commentary to be a valid method of relating to the Bible. Nevertheless, I believe these statements can say a great deal about who we are as disciples of the Master today, or at least they can say something about me.

“They went down to the pit alive” (Numbers 16:30) – even in the grave they think they are alive. There is a blessing contained in “They went down to the pit alive,” as with “the sons of Korach did not die,” (ibid. 26:11) – “a place was established for them (Gehinom; see Megilla 14a) and they repented.” For teshuva, repentance, is effective only while one is still alive. This, then, is the blessing – that even in the pit they will live, and they will be able to effect teshuva.

-from “Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Sivan 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschack Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

This refers to last week’s Torah portion and is a midrash on the fate of Korach and the others who went down into the pit with him. We know that Korach’s sons survived, and we see here the Rabbinic commentary on how they did so (though I do not take this as literal fact).

But the midrash provides encouragement that even when we have descended so low that everything seems totally hopeless, God will still find a way to redeem us if we repent, if we make teshuvah, if we turn away from our sin and back to Him…perhaps by becoming a peacemaker.

Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

Exodus 32:2-5, 21-24

golden calfThe incident of the Golden Calf was perhaps Aaron’s greatest failure, but as we see in this week’s Torah portion, by the time of his death, he was beloved and mourned as one mourns for a father as the commentary said above, Israel mourned Aaron like a close relative.

Redemption is possible, even when everything seems hopeless and everyone is against you…everyone.

Frankfurt, Germany is closed down on Christmas, and I took the opportunity to visit Heidelberg, an hour away by rail. I walked through the train looking for a window seat where, guidebooks in hand, I could follow all the storied towns along the way. My eyes fell upon a young man wearing a black skullcap. An Orthodox Jew, I thought. Despite the pallid face of a yeshiva bocher, and the yarmulke clasped to his hair in traditional style, there was something troubling about the identification.

“Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” The punch line from a joke about Chinese Hebrews tickled my mind. The face looked German and the hair in careful, casual wisps gently falling over the forehead suggested mod or punk rock.

-Burton Caine
“Strangers on a Train in Germany”
Aish.com

Caine’s chance encounter with another Jew on a train from Frankfurt initially seemed a little odd but the mystery deepened considerably as their conversation progressed. Caine’s traveling companion was a German, born of German parents, and except for a few years of study in Israel, the young gentleman had lived all his life in his native country.

Caine inquired and found the fellow studied Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew in West Berlin, even though opportunities to do are not common there. He was traveling to Darmstadt, the place of origin of the famous 15th century manuscript of the Haggadah.

But why was Caine so bothered by the other man’s appearance. He didn’t look Jewish. Do all Jews necessarily look “Jewish”? What cues was Caine picking up on that told him there was a lot more to this person’s story?

The train was slowing down now and time was running out. Had I missed every clue? Calm down, I whispered to myself; not every Jew in Germany has a saga. He bent down to put his books into his bag, and the black skullcap now confronted me as a blatant proclamation of his orthodoxy. Why that suggested to me the key question, I cannot imagine, but I blurted it out.

“How do your parents react to your piety?”

“Badly,” he said with a wan smile as he buttoned his coat. “They are very hostile.” He spared me the final question. The train stopped; we had reached Darmstadt. He turned to go and paused only to add, “They were Nazis and are bitter anti-Semites. I converted to Judaism,” which he repeated in English as if he was not sure of the Hebrew word.

“They never forgave me. I am going home to visit them on Christmas.”

This story was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1987 and the dating of the original encounter seems like it should be years before that.

Man alone in a caveOne young man’s answer to the Holocaust, to his parents being Nazis and bitter anti-Semites, was to convert to Judaism. Perhaps that was the only way he could atone and make teshuvah. Who is to say (according to midrash) how the sons of Korach made teshuvah in the pit, suspended between life and death, and thus were saved? Was this one person’s way to become a peacemaker, by turning away from the path of his parents and turning toward the world of their victims?

Imagine, a Jew going home to visit his anti-Semitic parents for Christmas in the heart of Germany. How much more alone could he possibly feel?

Although (hopefully), the religious blogosphere isn’t as hostile as I imagine it was for a Jewish convert visiting his ex-Nazi parents for Christmas, it isn’t always a friendly place, either. It seems as if there’s an endless series of taunts and barbs being tossed back and forth, either as an active “dialog” or, as I recently discovered, “covert” blog posts based on private email exchanges. It seems that you can’t say anything, publicly or privately, without it becoming grist for the mill.

Not only that, but even within the same, basic theological construct, interpretations and opinions vary widely and each side holds fast to their position, defending it vigorously, taking no prisoners.

Who wants to be a part of that? If this is the “Church” established by Jesus Christ, the “ekklesia” of Messiah for his disciples and the worshipers of the God of Israel, why would I want to be a member of such a divisive “club”?

I periodically think of quitting. As I write this, I haven’t been to church in a couple of weeks. Once was because it was Father’s Day and I used that as a justification for “taking it easy” at home. Last Sunday, I was just tired, I had done my Sunday school homework, it wasn’t particularly stimulating, and I felt I could get more mileage out of just studying at home.

But if I am committed to worshiping with a community, then it’s not right to “dodge” them. I did have coffee with a good friend that afternoon, a devout believer for over forty years. We periodically toss about the idea of starting a small Torah study, but who would we invite who would (or could) be interested and illuminated by such an endeavor?

And then there’s the online religious world. There are days I could drop the whole thing like a hot rock. I know it seems odd for me to say that, since I’m such a prolific blogger, even when I try not to be. But who needs opponents and “frienemies” taking pot shots at you, while people you thought were your friends don’t say anything at all?

But then, on Rabbi Packouz’s Torah commentary, I found this:

Failure is when one stops trying, not when one doesn’t succeed.

-Anonymous

There are times when I don’t even know what I’m trying to succeed at but I know that whatever I’m doing, if I quit, I’ve failed.

Meriam Ibrahim
Daniel Wani and Meriam Ibrahim

This probably comes under the heading of first world problems since none of my “religious issues” (and recently, I was confronted on exactly that) even come close to the persecution Christians experience around the world, not the least of which is the plight of Pastor Saeed Abedini and his family or Miriam Ibrahim’s struggles, though praise God, she was released from prison and no longer faces the death penalty (but then I recently heard she was re-arrested trying to leave the country).

Christian persecution always has external sources, people, other religious groups, nations, who are against the disciples of Christ. But Christianity is also its own worst enemy (and for the sake of this one blog post, I’ll toss the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements and their many variants into the mix). We’re always worse off when the world doesn’t attack us because then we attack each other. So much for “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

Which brings us back to Aaron and this week’s Torah Portion. As the first High Priest of God and brother to Moses, Aaron lived a larger-than-life existence. Just being among that first generation of Israelites that left Egypt, to see all they had seen would have been marvelous and terrifying.

But Aaron also lived a very human existence, he was flawed and he struggled, in some ways, just like the rest of us. But it’s not always just about what you’ve left behind, but how you’ve lived, and Aaron lived before God, presided in the Tabernacle as Kohen Gadol, provided atonement for all of Israel in the Most Holy Place once a year.

And yet, Hillel and Shammai remembered him first and foremost as a maker of peace, and adjured others to be like Aaron’s disciples.

What is it to be like Messiah’s disciples? What are we to do in the face of an imperfect life, existing within an imperfect “Church” (and I use the term in the widest possible sense), filled with imperfect people?

I wish I had an answer to give you. I’d love to have that answer myself. But the only thing I keep returning to is not how to succeed but how to avoid failure. As much as I sometimes want to, I can’t give up. It’s not that I’m some sort of guru or wise man (or wise guy) or visionary. I’m only me. One ordinary human being who happens to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and who is constantly challenged by the enormity of that role (and make no mistake, you’re in the same boat I am…being an “ordinary” believer doesn’t mean fading into the woodwork).

I have no long-term plans. I live in a world where God can turn human plans on their ear in a heartbeat. In such a place, I simply stand before God and ask, “Here I am, God. What do I do now?” I think the answer God gave Aaron was, “live, serve, and die, and after that, continue to live before God”. Regardless of the paths we each travel along in our faith, that’s probably the only answer any of us will receive.

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

“The opposite of defeat is hope.”

-Anonymous

Commentaries and Cautionary Tales

study-in-the-dark‫לא שנא בדרבנן ולא שנא בדאורייתא – קמח‬

Tosafos (earlier 55a) explains that this rule, that under certain circumstances, one should refrain from pointing out a fellow Jews’ transgressions and not to rebuke a sinner, is only applicable where the offender will most certainly not listen to the words of rebuke which are addressed to him. However, if there is any possibility that the person will change his ways, then the observer has the responsibility to instruct him not to sin.

Rema (O.C. 608:2), however, writes that if the nature of the unlawful behavior is in the realm of a halachah which is not explicit in the Torah, then the obligation to intervene depends on whether or not the person will respond or not, as Tosafos says. Although the law is derived from a verse, being that it is not explicitly stated, we only proceed to rebuke the offender if there is a chance he may listen and change his ways. However, if the halachah is one which is explicit in the Torah, then we must rebuke the sinner even if we are certain that he will not listen to our words.

The rationale for the ruling of Rema is found in Rashba (Beitza 30a). He writes that a halachah that is not explicit in the Torah might be looked upon lightly by some people. We should assume that the violator is mistaken is considering this halachah as not important, but the fact is that if we were to correct him, he probably will disregard our rebuke. It is in this situation that we say, “It is better that he not be told, and that his actions remain inadvertent, than for us to make an issue of it and for his continued actions to be a more intentional violation of halachah.” However, if the person is disobeying a halachah which is explicit in the Torah, we cannot assume that his actions are inadvertent at all. We will not make matters worse by exhorting him to desist from his sinful ways, because he is already acting defiantly. We can only hope to improve the situation and to remedy the person’s observance.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Rebuke to the receptive”
Shabbos 148

I had just commented on one of Derek Leman’s blog posts in what promises to be yet another endlessly circular debate on whether or not Paul ever intended for the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus to be obligated to the full weight of the Torah commandments when I read the above-quoted commentary. As you can tell from the wording in my last sentence, I consider most of these conversations to be a futile waste of time, but on the other hand, they are so incredibly compelling (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”) that I still stick my nose in unbidden from time to time (and usually get it chopped off).

Obviously, the Daf commentary on Shabbos 148 is meant to apply within a Jewish halakhic context, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m artificially applying it to a wider audience and loosening up some of the definitions (“wrong” doesn’t necessarily mean “sin”).

I very recently referred to all people and particularly all people of faith as “poor, blind, naked, stupid human beings who think we’re a whole lot more cool and smart than we really are.” Apparently that message didn’t get out because if it had and if it were taken seriously, then I suppose we might pause in the middle of our “self-important” debates to consider who and what is really important in the grander scheme of things (i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven).

A key element in why it’s easy to lack gratitude is because human nature is to take things for granted when we get used to having them. To master gratitude we need to stop taking things for granted and to increase our thoughts of appreciation.

The Creator keeps bestowing His tremendous kindnesses on us each and every day when we are awake and when we are asleep, whether we are aware of them or not. There are so many things in our lives that we take for granted.

As an exercise, choose a day to not take anything for granted. Look at everything as if it were new. Look at everything as if this were the first time that this positive thing was happening. Look at all that you own as if you just bought or received them today. Look at what you have as if it were invented recently and you are one of the first people on the planet to get it.

Hopefully this exercise will give you the experience of what it’s like to not take things for granted.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #744: Don’t Take Things for Granted”
Aish.com

illegal-christianityIt seems that one of the things we’re taking for granted in all of these debates is God. Not that we shouldn’t examine, explore, and discuss our faith and how we understand worship and lifestyle, but I think we’re missing the big, big picture. Recently, I’ve started reading a book called The Heavenly Man: The Remarkable True Story of Chinese Christian Brother Yun written by a Chinese Christian with New Zealand missionary Paul Hattaway. Yun tells his story of coming to faith in Christ at age 16 in a family that was extremely impoverished and in a China where it was illegal to be a Christian.

Yun recounts one of the earliest events when he was captured by law enforcement agents in China for preaching at a gathering of Christians:

I was made to kneel down in the dirt while officers punched me in the chest and face and repeatedly kicked me from behind with their heavy boots. My face was covered with blood. The pain was unbearable and I nearly lost consciousness as I lay on the ground.

They lifted me up and made me stagger down another street. They were determined to make an example of me to as many people as possible.

-Yun/Hattaway, pg 63

I’ll talk more about Brother Yun and the “loss of focus” I believe many of us have been suffering from in tomorrow’s “meditation,” but after reading the Daf commentary and seeing the birth of yet another blogosphere debate this morning, I didn’t want to wait.

In my own little world, I meet with my Pastor every Wednesday night and we discuss many things. We continue our own debate on the function and purpose of “the Law,” both in its original and ancient context and in the world of Judaism today. Pastor Randy lived in Israel for fifteen years, has many Jewish friends, and is deeply devoted to the Jewish people, so it’s not as if he’s a stranger to these topics. And yet we continue to debate how the Torah applies in Judaism and what “Torah” even means.  As people of faith, we all struggle to find our own focus when we read the pages of the Bible, trying to discover the message God has delivered about the past, present, and future.

While our discussions have been very productive thus far, Pastor Randy suggested we turn future meetings toward a specific topic, namely D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians. I’ve been meaning to re-read it again since I feel I didn’t really “get it” the first time, and Pastor Randy wants to read it but since his reading list is so incredibly vast (he has read up to one hundred books in a single year, so as a reader, I’m definitely an “illiterate” amateur by comparison) that having a “reading partner” will add motivation for him to address Lancaster’s work. I think it’s one way to bring some of the matters we have been talking about into greater clarity.

Maybe it seems like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, eschewing Internet debates on controversial Biblical matters but engaging in such conversations in my personal life, but some things seem to be more accessible and “relatable” face-to-face. Also, our conversations don’t involve “the usual suspects” in the blogosphere who always present the same point of view and who always expect everyone else to change their minds except them. That has to include me whenever I participate in these web discussions and that’s why I think those transactions miss the point.

I’ve already experienced some shifting in my viewpoints and more than a little illumination as a result of my Wednesday night talks, and I suspect that my own meager offerings to the conversation may have influenced some of Pastor Randy’s perspectives as well. But that’s what a conversation does…it’s not just a venue for us to teach, it’s an opportunity to learn, to let ourselves be changed, to grow, to be open to encountering God.

It’s also an opportunity to revisit the essentials of faith, which we will definitely not encounter on someone’s web log. God is encountered personally, in actual contact with real human beings, and in the presence of the humility and nakedness of our own spirits.

christianity-is-IllegalIn reading Brother Yun’s book, I’m witnessing the struggle to spread the message of the Gospel in Communist China in the 1970s and early 1980s (which is how far I’ve gotten in my reading so far). Many people coming to faith are illiterate farmers. The vast majority have never even seen the Bible since possession of one would be illegal (although supposedly that has changed in recent years). Most only have a vague idea of who Jesus is except that he’s God’s son who died to take away our sins and illnesses. They meet in secret in small house churches. They baptize in the middle of the night, sometimes in winter, cutting holes in the ice in rivers, trying to avoid the police, arrest, imprisonment, and torture. It will never occur to them that some other Christians in the western nations think that they’re “obligated” to wear tzitzit, keep kosher, and observe the Shabbat. They’re too busy risking their freedom and their lives trying against all odds to worship Jesus Christ, to love one another, and to spread the word of hope to the hopeless.

I’m hardly one to say that I’ve risen above all of the bickering and debating, but I really think we need to stop and put a few things back into perspective. If all the things we argue about aren’t for His Glory; if they aren’t for the sake of Heaven, then they can only be for our own gratification and the desire to be “right.”

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Titus 3:1-11 (ESV)

Commentary and cautionary tale as found in midrash and in a Pastoral epistle from Paul. Blessings.