Tag Archives: shavuot

Counting Down

Torah at SinaiOn the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), seven weeks after the Exodus, the entire nation of Israel assembles at the foot of Mount Sinai. G-d descends on the mountain amidst thunder, lightning, billows of smoke and the blast of the shofar, and summons Moses to ascend.

G-d proclaims the Ten Commandments, commanding the people of Israel to believe in G-d, not to worship idols or take G-d’s name in vain, to keep the Shabbat, honor their parents, not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to bear false witness or covet another’s property. The people cry out to Moses that the revelation is too intense for them to bear, begging him to receive the Torah from G-d and convey it to them.

The Parashah in a Nutshell
Yitro in Nutshell
Exodus 18:1–20:23

Starting the second night of Pesach, we begin counting seven weeks, 49 days, until the holiday of Shavuos. This counting is called Sefiras Ha’Omer, The Counting of the Omer. (For more information on Sefiras Ha’Omer, see I:16, I:18)

-Rabbi Yehudah Prero
“The Counting of the Omer – A Count of Anticipation”
YomTov, Vol. IV, # 7

We see the events of the Torah reflected in current Jewish practice. According to the commandments (Ex. 12:16, Ex. 23:14, Lev. 23:7) the Jewish people commemorate the Passover every year in order to remember the Passover in Egypt and the great exodus of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Then comes the Omer count, whereby Jews are commanded to count the Omer for 49 days in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The events we see displayed with such grandeur and majesty before us when we read the Torah portions that relate these times, are part of the lived experience of every religious Jew and any Gentile who is attached to the Jewish community for various reasons.

But there’s one other event that we Christians must consider.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. –Mark 15:42-47 (ESV)

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was crucified on the same day as all of the representatives of the Jewish families in Israel were presenting their Passover lambs for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, in obedience to the commandment. He should have died right before sunset; right before the eating of the Passover lamb by each Jewish family, again, in obedience to the commandment.

But not all of the Gospel versions of the death of Jesus line up chronologically and we cannot be sure of the exact date. Was the “Last Supper” a true Passover seder or some other meal that occurred the evening before? We don’t know. We do know that Jesus died at about the time of the Passover, and we are fond of referring to Jesus as our “Passover lamb”. And three days later, Jesus rose from the tomb and he was with his people again for forty days. And then he ascended.

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God…And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. –Acts 1:1-3, 9 (ESV)

It would be nice if things lined up neatly but forty days does not equal the forty-nine day count of the Omer. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Christians don’t also “count the Omer” from the day of the crucifixion, which the church calls “Good Friday” to the day of the giving of the Holy Spirit, which Christians call “Pentecost”, but which also was the day of the festival of Shavuot commemorating the Sinai event.

So the Bible and our celebrations don’t line up into nice, neat, perfectly ordered events and holidays. I also understand that, during the schism between Gentile Christianity and Jewish Messianism, most or all of the Jewish connections to the Christian faith were summarily erased, along with the Jewishness of Jesus. Christians were not taught to count the Omer and in fact, were likely forbidden to perform any celebration of their faith that even vaguely resembled the worship of the Jews.

But wouldn’t it be great if, after the return of the Messiah, the Jews and the Gentiles counted the Omer together, in commemoration of the Passover and the gift of the Messiah to humanity? For just as death passed over the obedient Israelites in Egypt, so has eternal death passed over all who are faithful and obedient to Jesus, the lamb of God, who gave his life for the sake of the world and yet lives. And the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Holy Spirit nourishes all of the Master’s disciples, in accordance to our covenant relationship with God.

But for this tearing down of the wall of enmity to happen, we Christians must not be careless or dismissive of the things that God has created for the Jews and for the good of everyone.

As a young boy, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe) would go with his father on walks through the woods. One time, as they talked, the boy absent-mindedly plucked a leaf off a tree and began to shred it between his fingers. His father saw what his son was doing, but he went on talking. He spoke about the Baal Shem Tov, who taught how every leaf that blows in the wind—moving to the right and then to the left, how and when it falls and where it falls to—every motion for the duration of its existence is under the detailed supervision of the Almighty.

That concern the Creator has for each thing, his father explained, is the divine spark that sustains its existence. Everything is with Divine purpose, everything is of concern to the ultimate goal of the entire cosmos.

”Now,” the father gently chided, “look how you mistreated so absent-mindedly the Almighty’s creation.”

”He formed it with purpose and gave it a Divine spark! It has its own self and its own life! Now tell me, how is the ‘I am’ of the leaf any less than your own ‘I am’?”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Purpose of a Leaf”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do not shred a “leaf” too quickly, for you may not correctly understand why God created and sustained it. So it is with the Jewish people. So it is with counting the Omer. So it will be one day when a few, and then many, and then all of Israel sees the Divine spark, the “I am” in the Messiah; in Jesus of Nazareth.

Is God Remarried?

Our Sages identify the festival of Shavuot with the Revelation; it was at this time that the Torah was given to the people of Israel at Sinai. In our prayers, we therefore refer to Shavuot as “the season of the giving of the Torah zman matan Toratenu.” This is the source of the joy of this festival.

And Moshe brought the people out towards God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain (Shemot 19:17).

-Rabbi Avraham Fischer
Torah Insights
“Second Day of Shavuot”

The Talmud describes Shavuot, the day marking the giving of the Torah, as the wedding day between the Almighty and the Jewish people. The nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai represents the couple standing under the canopy, while God’s giving the Torah to the nation represents the groom placing the ring on his bride’s finger.

What exactly is the parallel between the wedding and the giving of the Law?

Shavuot, too, marks a total commitment; the commitment between God and the Jewish people. The nation’s declaration of “Na’asaeh V’Nishma,” — “We will do and we will understand,” was a promise to follow the law under all circumstances, just as the bride pledges her faithfulness to her beloved under all circumstances. And in the same manner as the groom who accepts upon himself to love and cherish his bride forever, God committed himself not to forsake the Jewish people for all times.

-Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum
“Renewing your nuptial vows this Shavuot”

I know this is an old argument, but I don’t think it’s ever been answered, at least to my satisfaction, which is why I’ve turned it into a “meditation”. Let’s see where it leads.

According to Jewish wisdom, the giving of the Torah at Sinai to the Children of Israel is compared to a wedding ceremony between the Israelites and God. The Torah then, is compared to a ketubah or “wedding contract” which traditionally outlines the rights and responsibilities of each marriage partner. More specifically, the ketubah is “a one-way contract that formalizes the various requirements by Halakha (Jewish law) of a Jewish husband vis à vis his wife.” Applied to the Sinai event, this places the greater responsibility on fulfilling the contract on the husband; on God. Yet we see in Exodus 20 and beyond a rather lengthy set of conditions in the Torah that require compliance by the bride; by Israel.

History and the writings of the Prophets shows us that Israel was not always faithful and describes God, the “jealous husband” who responds to His bride’s infidelity by rejecting Israel.

For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover, this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my Sabbaths. –Ezekiel 23:37-38

God tried, on numerous occasions, to “reason” with His “straying” wife, but to no avail.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” –Isaiah 1:18-20

So did God “divorce” Israel because she had repeatedly violated the “marriage covenant” of Torah between them? It would appear so. From a traditional Christian viewpoint, God then “remarried” the Christian church through the (apparently) much less demanding “ketubah” of the Messianic covenant.

Matthew 9:15, Mark 2:19 and Luke 5:34 all speak of Jesus as the “bridegroom” and describe his Jewish followers as the bride:

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. –Matthew 9:15

While it’s interesting that no where in the New Testament does it explicitly say that the Christian church is the “bride of Christ,” there are a number of “marriage metaphors” that can be found which allude to this conclusion. About the closest we come to illustrating that the church is “married” to Jesus is here.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. –Ephesians 5:22-33

But if we say that God divorced Israel and married the church, then we are saying a couple of things. We are saying that the church does not contain anything of Israel, since Israel and God are completely divorced, and we are saying that God has been married twice. He’s working on His second marriage. But did God really divorce Israel?

For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. –Psalm 30:5

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the LORD has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the LORD, your Redeemer. –Isaiah 54:4-8

That certainly sounds like any “divorce” between God and Israel was “for a brief moment” but then that God returned to Israel “with everlasting love.”

OK, so no permanent divorce between God and Israel, and they are still married as they were at Sinai, and Shavuot is still considered their “wedding anniversary.” But where does that leave the “bride of Christ”; the church? If God didn’t divorce Israel so He could marry the Christian church, then does He have two brides? Is God a “bigamist?”

I know a supersessionist point of view would be quick to dispose of the body of the first wife and have the second move in to the “marriage bed”, taking possession of the first wife’s clothes, shoes, linens, and everything else she used to own, but then how does Judaism see this? Jews do not consider themselves “divorced” from God and Judaism sees Christianity as a “wannabe” bride with no actual claim to God. God married Israel, temporarily abandoned her to teach her a lesson about faithlessness, and then returned to her and remains bonded to her.

ShekhinahIf God didn’t replace Israel with the church and God doesn’t have two wives, is there a third alternative? I suppose we could use the “one new man” argument (Ephesians 2:15) to say there is only one “Israel” and thus only one wife, but that means we have to “fuse” Israel and the church into one new element and destroy any distinctiveness between Jews and Gentiles. Is that the only answer? In Galatians 3:28, Paul said there was “neither Jew nor Greek” but he also said there was neither “male nor female”. We know for a fact that men and women didn’t stop being literally different from each other and that the “male nor female” part refers to equality in access to God and God’s love, so can we apply the same thought to the “sameness” and “differentness” between Jew and Gentile?

In other words, is there a way to see Jews and Gentiles together as a single “bride” and still see them as two distinct covenant groups?

I don’t know. The language is ambiguous. I am not writing this “meditation” to provide answers. I’m just asking questions. If you think you’ve got answers, ones that will address all of the inconsistencies and brain puzzles the Bible seems to be throwing at this issue, I’d like to hear them.


Crossroads“Let me explain,” Demonax continued. “To you philosophy is science. To me it is art. To you it is a method of discovering the truth. To me it is a guide to noble living.”

Demonax to Elisha in
Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf

In my previous blog post Two Worlds, I compared my journey of faith to that of Elisha’s. Elisha is a Jewish man living in the first fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He is a man who had been trained as a Rabbi and who had served as a member of the great Sanhedrin. Yet, in a profound crisis of faith, he has abandoned his Jewish heritage and the Torah of Moses and fled to the Syrian city of Antioch to try to find the truth of his existence in the realms of Greek literature, science, and philosophy.

I, for my part, am a person who came to faith in Jesus sometime after my 40th birthday and after a few years not being satisfied by the answers of the church, proceeded into a “blending” of Christian and Jewish practices in a small, local congregation. However, in recent years, from the vantage point of a Christian man, I’ve been watching my Jewish wife on her journey of discovery to embrace her Judaism. I now find myself challenged by both the Christian and Jewish worlds to explore the value of my own faith through a Jewish lens.

But Elisha has the worst position of the two of us. He is trying to seek an objective method of proving the existence of God (or proving God doesn’t exist) and then determining, regardless of the result, how men are supposed to live based on scientific and indisputable evidence.

Good luck.

But look at how Demonax, the Greek moralist and cynic philosopher, differs with Elisha in even describing the task and the goal. Elisha is trying to understand the “meaning of life” by scrutinizing existence as an astronomer looks at a planet through a telescope. By contrast, Demonax sees the meaning of life not as an attempt to understand existence, but to live it out. The mechanic vs. the poet. While both perspectives are valid, here they are placed at odds with each other.

But should they be?

Think about why a person comes to faith, any sort of faith, in any religious structure. There are two approaches. The first is that a person concludes in their current system that life is random and without meaning. Why is the earth here? What is the purpose of existence? Is the universe the result of a blind, unreasoning accident or is there a conscious creativity at work? How am I supposed to understand the world around me?

The second approach is that a person concludes in their current system that their life is random and without meaning. The questions are similar but pregnant with a profound difference. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence? Am I just the result of a random joining of two reproductive cells or is my life special and meaningful? Then, the most important question is, if my life is special, meaningful, and unique, what am I supposed to do? “How am I supposed to live?”

The two questions generally lead to the same answer, for in discovering the meaning of the universe, you discover the meaning of yourself and how you are to live out the life you were given. Both Elisha and Demonax are traveling to the same city but they’re taking two radically different routes.

ChasidNow consider the Chasidic understanding of the Torah. You may look at a Torah scroll or a Bible and see words on paper, but that’s only the surface appearance and this only hints at its true purpose and meaning. In the following series of short quotes, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman brings to light some of the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to help us understand what we are really seeing:

They translate it as “The Bible,” or “The Law,” but that’s not what the word means. Torah means “instructions.”

Whatever piece of Torah you learn, you must find the instructions it is giving you. -from Instructions

Torah is the blueprint by which the world was designed. Everything that exists can be found in the Torah.

Even more: In any one concept of Torah you can find the entire world. -from Blueprint

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo.

Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.” -from Penetrating Wisdom

We find that the Torah is not only the blueprint for existence, but a set of instructions for our existence. Beyond that, we discover that every object and being within the created universe is a container, of sorts, for the “material” used for its creation: the Torah. I don’t mean to say that all of humanity should attempt to live a “Torah lifestyle” identical to the Jewish people, but it seems more than reasonable that we should study the Torah to learn the essential truths by which God intends for us to live. After all, God’s instructions to do so are here:

Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The Torah will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. –Isaiah 2:3

Rabbi Freeman’s teachings are not far from what this early 20th century Chasidic scholar had to say:

Why has God created the world and mankind, and for what purpose? Why has the soul descended into the body? (The preexistence of the soul was assumed in Chasidism.) Is there a more ideal world than the divine world in which the soul previously existed? Is there a greater joy than when man rejoices in God?

-Paul Philip Levertoff
as published in “The Love of God”
Messiah Journal issue 107

Elisha considers philosophy and thus the search for meaning and ultimately for God, to be a science. Demonax believes the same journey is the art of learning how to live in a noble, and even in a holy manner. Yet Elisha’s personal doubts have blinded him to what he should have known, having been a student of the Torah from childhood. He should have seen that the Torah contains all the questions and all the answers. Greek science and philosophy, like our modern, western thought, seeks to compartmentalize and to segregate our objective environment, our physical bodies, and our souls, but the Torah is the maker and container of all these and indeed, we are a container for the Torah, as is the entire universe and everything in it.

Like a splinter in our minds, the questions drive us madly to seek the answers of why we’re here and why the world exists, and yet the answers are right in front of us and they have been right in front of me all along:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” –Mark 12:28-33 (quoting Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18)

Christ’s answer tells us both the meaning of the universe and the meaning of our lives, what Creation is, who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing.

The great sage Hillel once summed up the Torah as that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and study” (Shab. 31a). While the “two greatest commandments” don’t give us every detail of the journey on which we must travel, it does provide a clear direction. Here I am, standing at a crossroads looking for a direction, just as Elisha was. May I make a better decision than he did. I pray we all do.

Well I looked into dream of the millions
That one day the search will be through
Now here I stand at the edge of my embattled illusions
Looking into you

-Jackson Browne
“Looking into You” (1971)

Chag Sameach Shavuot.

Torah of the Night

In the nightThe Gemara extrapolates from the verse – “from night until morning” – that there is no other service that is performed specifically at night other than the Menorah. Ben Yehoyada suggests that the reason the service of the Menorah is specifically at night is that the Menorah alludes to Torah and the primary time to study Torah is at night when a person’s mind is clear and he is free of his daily responsibilities. This follows Chazal’s statement in Eruvin (65a) that the night was created for Torah study. This concept is also recorded in Shulchan Aruch where he writes that one must be more careful with the learning that he does at night than the learning that he does during the day. Mishnah Berurah further elaborates on the importance and value of studying Torah at night and writes that when Torah scholars study Torah at night it is considered as though they are performing the service of the Bais Hamikdash. Furthermore, the Divine Presence stands opposite those who study Torah at night.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Studying Torah at night”
Menachos 89

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn you thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night

Music of the Night
from “Phantom of the Opera”
by Andrew Lloyd Webber

If you consider “night” to be any time the sun isn’t shining in the sky, then this teaching certainly fits onto the foundation upon which I laid this blog and what Rabbi Tzvi Freeman at Chabad.org presents here:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

A continuation of the commentary of Menachos 89 seems to support this idea, which works well for me as an early riser.

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

Other Poskim support the opposite viewpoint, advocating for Torah study in the evening and then reciting the Tikun Chatzos before retiring. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be the difference between being a morning person and a night person.

For me, it’s helpful to start the day pondering God. Each day in an ordinary work week has its fair share of challenges and disappointments and, like a house, how or if it will stand depends on the solidity of the foundation. To build on “the Rock”, so to speak, means your “house” has a better chance of weathering storms. I suppose that’s why I created “Morning Meditations” rather than “Evening Meditations”.

ShavuotAt sundown this evening, the festival of Shavuot begins (at the end of the Omer count), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Sinai. It is one of two times of year (the other is Simchat Torah) where God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people is specifically recognized and celebrated.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post regarding my small understanding of the Torah. To continue from that beginning, the Torah is the illustrative force in the life of the Jewish people and it defines them as who they are, why they exist, and their specialness in the eyes of God. Since the days of Moses, “the Torah was to go forth from Zion and the Word of God from Jerusalem” (paraphrasing Micah 4:2) and even traditional Jewish sages admit that Christianity has been one vehicle by which the principles and teachings of God have reached an unbelieving world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Shavuot and Pentecost, the observance of the giving of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples in Jerusalem, happen on the same day.

This should be a night of joyous celebration as we let ourselves fully realize how God has abundantly reached out to humanity with His love, His wisdom, and His mercy. Both Jew and Christian can consider themselves greatly blessed by all that God has done for them; what God has done for us all.

But my greatest joy is not in singing or eating or in partaking of any other outward celebration with people, but in arising early each morning, before the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, and alone in the silence, opening the pages of the Bible, delaying the start of day for a tiny march of minutes, while I pray, thank God, and then meditate upon His Word, letting it illuminate the darkness of the night.

At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo. Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Penetrating Wisdom”