Tag Archives: shemini atzeret

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.

The Last Reading of the Chronicles of the Apostles

study-in-the-darkIn the two decades following the Bar Kochba revolt, three major personalities came to represent three different types of second-century Christianity. A philosopher named Justin Martyr championed the dominant, orthodox Christianity that would soon become the normative expression of Christian faith. A bishop named Marcion of Sinope brought anti-Jewish, Gnostic Christianity from obscurity to the mainstream where it became a serious threat to true faith. The bishop Polycarp of Smyrna continued to defend and represent the old-fashioned, Jewish, apostolic Christianity he had inherited from the disciple John. As a short epilogue to our studies, the Chronicles of the Apostles concludes with a brief look at each.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“End of the Chronicle,” pp 1407-8
Study read with Vezot Ha’Bracha
Torah Club Volume 6, Chronicles of the Apostles

This is the last reading in my year-long study of the “Chronicles of the Apostles.” It began with Acts 1:1 and proceeded through an adventure of learning and re-learning about the life of Paul and well beyond, as recorded in scripture, historical texts, and even myth. My Torah Club readings have been a fixture of my Shabbat studies and I will miss them. It seems fitting as one Torah cycle closes and another opens, that I offer a brief review and commentary of the last Chronicle of the Apostles of D. Thomas Lancaster.

For the Law that came from Mount Horeb is now old, and it belongs to yourselves alone, but [the Law of the New Covenant] is for everyone. Law against law has abrogated the one that came before it, and a covenant which comes later cancels the previous one. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 11)

-quoted by Lancaster, pg 1410

Justin Martyr doesn’t sound all that different from modern Protestants, at least in some churches. Martyr was a lot closer to the original writings of the New Testament but even he seems to have forgotten something. Perhaps he didn’t have access to Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, written a mere century before:

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Galatians 2:17 (NASB)

To extend Paul’s words, can we say that the New Covenant, which isn’t even fully enacted as yet, invalidates “a covenant previously ratified by God?” Justin Martyr seems to think so. So do a lot of Christians today.

In Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho, they even addressed a topic on which I often write:

Trypho pressed the question further. He asked, “Are there some Christians who believe that Jewish believers will not be saved if they keep the Torah?”

Justin replied, “There are such people, Trypho. And these [Christians] refuse to have any dialogue with or to extend any hospitality to such persons, but I do not agree with them.” In other words, Justin Martyr admitted that his own opinion on the question of whether or not a Torah-observant Jewish believer could be saved represented the more liberal, broad-minded view. Other Christians in his day refused to have any interaction whatsoever with Jewish believers who still observed the Torah. Justin’s final statement on Jewish believers who still observed the Torah refers to them as “weak-minded” but probably not damned…

-Lancaster, pg 1411

Things haven’t changed very much in the past almost twenty centuries. Justin Martyr’s thoughts and opinions still seem well represented in the church today. But we can hardly say that he was completely anti-Judaic, at least not compared to Marcion the Heretic:

Marcion taught a radical dichotomy between the Jewish Scriptures and the gospels. Like other Gnostics, he believed that the Old Testament God of the Jews was a corrupt and inferior being who had marred His creation with His own imperfections. The physical matter, which He created, possessed intrinsically evil qualities. Marcion taught that the Jewish God’s own scriptures revealed His complete ignorance and incompetence.

-ibid, pg 1413

Christus_Ravenna_MosaicI suppose today, we’d call Marcion a “nut” or a “cult leader” for espousing such “fringy” beliefs, but as we know, nuts and cult leaders are able to gather followings, sometimes really large ones.

Lancaster records how Marcion created his own version of the apostolic scriptures, leaning heavily on only one gospel and ten of Paul’s epistles. He even edited out any references to anything from the Old Testament, thus building his theological house on shifting and unstable sand.

However, saying that…

Marcion’s New Testament collection spread quickly, and Marcionite churches began to flourish. Marcion’s form of Christianity was easier to understand and naturally appealed to people. It removed the inherent contradictions between Christian theology and Judaism that conventional Christians like Ignatius and Justin Martyr attempted to retain and gloss over. It seemed more logical. Marcionite Christianity assessed Judaism as the religion of legalism, laws, and concerns with the corrupt world of physical matter. According to Marcion, Judaism stood in antithesis to Christianity’s teachings about grace, love for one’s neighbor, and spiritual salvation. Marcionite Christianity instantly appealed to Gentile Christians who felt uncomfortable with their relationship with Judaism and the hated Jews who had persecuted Christ and Christians.

-ibid, pg 1414

Although the “nuts and bolts” of Marcion’s theology may no longer be with us, the “echo” of it seems to be thoroughly woven into the fabric of Christianity (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor), at least in terms of the dichotomy many Christians believe exists between the Torah of Moses and the Grace of Christ, as if these are two mutually exclusive concepts, wholly divorced from one another. Many Christians give intellectual assent to the idea of our faith having Jewish origins, but in the same breath, they will say that there is no valid Jewish context for Christianity. The legacy of the heretic Marcion in the twenty-first century Church.

All this while, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and the last living disciple of the last living disciple of the Master, continued steadfast in the ways of the apostles. Like his teacher John, Polycarp lived to an advanced age. The Christians in Smyrna considered him to be a prophet. They said, “For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

-ibid, pg 1415

Of any of the three people presented in Lancaster’s last chronicle, this is the one I’d like to meet. If any of these three individuals had a clue as to the true intent of Messiah in how we all should live and relate to each other and to God, it was Polycarp of Smyrna.

In 154 CE, the new bishop of Rome, a man named Anicetus, attempted to force the Christians of Asia Minor to abandon their observance of Passover. Roman Christians commemorated the Master’s death by fasting from the Friday that falls during the seven days of Passover until midnight on the subsequent Saturday. They broke the fast by taking the Eucharist together in celebration of the Master’s resurrection.

Anicetus tried to force Christians everywhere to adopt the Roman custom. The Christians who refused to adopt the Roman custom were called “fourteeners” (quartodecimans) because they insisted on keeping Passover on the fourteenth of Nisan. They kept the Passover “on the fourteenth day of the month at evening” (Exodus 12:18), more precisely speaking, at the beginning of the fifteenth day.


Polycarp’s followers seem to have adhered to more of the “Jewish” practices, but we have no clear picture of exactly how this was accomplished in a wider range of behaviors. If we understood more about Polycarp and his stream of Christianity, we might get a better idea of the nature of the relationship of Gentile and Jewish believers, especially in terms of identity and religious practice.

Here ends the Chronicles of the Apostles — men of whom the world was not worthy. I have collected these things after they had almost faded away due to the passage of time. So too, may our Master Yeshua the Messiah gather me along with His chosen ones into His kingdom.

-ibid, pg 1419

reading-torahThe last paragraph of the last page of the last teaching of the last Torah Club volume. As you read this, it is Shemini Atzeret and tomorrow is Simchat Torah. We read the final words at the end of Deuteronomy soon and immediately begin again with the reading of the first words in Genesis. My Pastor says this is a reminder that we are never done with reading the Bible. I see it as part of the lifecycle of people of faith, even as we mark the cycles of our lives each year in birthday celebrations.

But although the Torah is timeless, not so the years of man. I’m not quite the same person I was a year ago when I began this study. I’d like to think I’ve gained a bit in my studies but as with aging, there are a few things I’ve lost as well. It’s nearly time to pack up the sukkah for another year. In synagogues all over the world, it will soon be time to re-roll the Torah scrolls for another year. Many things are endless and many more are not. The future is shrouded in fog and mystery. What will the coming year bring? What will begin once again…and what will end?