Tag Archives: Torah Portion

The Enemy Within Us

The truth is that the yetzer hara also uses both of these tactics, but it is more successful when it approaches as a friend. Chovos HaLevavos (Yichud HaMaaseh Ch. 5) describes at length the dangerous power the yetzer hara possesses: “A person must realize that his biggest enemy in this world is his yetzer hara, which is well-connected to his character and is mixed into his personality. It is a partner in all of a person’s spiritual and physical aspirations. It gives advice on all of one’s movements, the revealed ones and the concealed ones, and lies in ambush to persuade one to sin at all times. Even while sleeping, one is not safe: the yetzer hara is always wide awake, seeking to harm. A person may forget about it, but it never forgets. It masquerades as a friend and a close confidant; indeed, with its shrewdness it tries to be considered a most loyal and trusted friend. The yetzer hara is so convincing that a person might think that it is running to fulfill his every wish. But in truth, it is shooting dangerous, deadly arrows, to uproot the person from the World to Come.”

Mussar Thought for the Day
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.191
A Daily Dose of Torah

“If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NASB)

According to a midrash on the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat, when Jacob is contemplating his upcoming encounter with Esau after many years, he fears two things: being killed by Esau and being befriended by Esau. Rabbinic commentary likens this to how the yetzer hara (evil inclination) operates inside of a human being. Our most basic nature or what a Christian might call our “sin nature” seeks to disobey God and lead us into ruin and exile from the World to Come, the ultimate physical and spiritual harm. In that, it’s easy to see the temptation to sin and resistance to repent as our enemy and something we must actively battle.

But the flip side of the coin is the deceptiveness of our own human natures, and this I think (and the commentary quoted above agrees) is the greater danger. People have a tremendous capacity for self-delusion and often choose to see and hear only what fits into their own dynamic or world view, regardless of the objective facts. We define good and evil by our own human standards and justify any harm we might be doing to ourselves and others in any number of creative ways. This is the yetzer hara as our friend, leading us down the peaceful and attractive path to destruction.

Other commentaries on this Torah portion say these are the twin dangers of the nations toward the Jewish people. History is replete with terrible acts done by non-Jews upon Jews including inquisitions, pogroms, torture, and murder. But the other danger, and this seems strange at first glance, is for the nations (that is, Gentiles) to extend friendship toward the Jews. Why is this a problem? Because it often leads Jewish people away from Torah, away from performing the mitzvot, and away from God. It waters down Jewish distinctiveness and we have a clear record of how Jews have assimilated into secular culture or even converted to other religions including Christianity (this is complicated when you add Messianic Judaism to the mix, but that’s a conversation for another time).

I haven’t come to talk about Jewish distinctiveness, but of a more personal danger:

In working with alcoholics and addicts, I have come to realize that the most absolute slavery does not come from enslavement by another person, but from enslavement by one’s own drives. No slavemaster has ever dominated anyone the way alcohol, heroin, and cocaine dominate the addict, who must lie, steal, and even kill to obey the demands of the addiction.

Such domination is not unique to addiction. We may not realize that passion of any kind may totally control us and ruthlessly terrorize us. We may rationalize and justify behavior that we would otherwise have considered as totally alien to us, but when our passion demands it, we are helpless to resist.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
“Growing Each Day” for Kislev 11
Aish.com

Infinite darknessLittle by little, we are guided away from the light with small, even tiny deviations off our original course and by the time we realize it, we are as Rabbi Twersky describes: slaves. When we finally realize the yetzer hara is not our friend, we are totally engulfed by this nature.

But in speaking of the yetzer hara as it if were something separate from the whole person, I’m denying the truth that our nature is who we are or at least part of who we are. That’s why it is so difficult to detach our temptations and our giving in to them, that is, our sin, from the rest of our identity and being.

So when we have fallen and fallen far, what are we to do?

This concept helps us better understand the true power of prayer. We know that, on the one hand, the Gemara says: “one cannot rely on a miracle,” and must do whatever we can to protect himself naturally. On the other hand, the Gemara (Berachos 10a) tells us that even when a sharp sword is placed upon the neck of a person, he should not give up hope, but rather he should pray for mercy from Hashem. How do we reconcile these mixed messages?

A Closer Look at the Siddur
for Monday’s Commentary on Parashas Vayishlach, p.193
A Daily Dose of Torah

I mentioned this Gemara in a previous blog post and it is a critical one, for as I also mentioned, repentance, particularly if we look at it as a set of stages or steps, is hardly linear. We may start out on the path to repentance with high hopes and set a straight course, only to find ourselves being pulled back into the darkness as if we were tethered to it by a large rubber band. We get so far only to snap back into our old habits and patterns.

Many people think they are free, yet they are really pawns in the hands of their drives. Like the addict, they are not at all in control, and do not have the fundamental feature of humanity: freedom.

-R. Twersky, ibid

This first step is to realize that the yetzer hara is not a friend and that we are not free. However, we must realize that we are exercising free will in our behavior, which is confusing when you consider yourself a slave. Does a slave stay with the slave master voluntarily? In our case, the answer is often “yes”.

Our only defense is to become masters over our desires rather than their slaves. We must direct our minds to rule over the passions of our hearts.

R. Twersky offers this as the answer to our slavery, but he’s only got so much room to write and article, and he can’t say everything that may need to be said.

For that matter, all the reading and writing in the world wouldn’t say enough or do enough because once a person recognizes they are a slave, they can only become the master through effort.

But one of those efforts is prayer.

sword on neckAbove, it was suggested that we shouldn’t depend on miracles to get us out of these messes but on the other hand, we should pray to God to help us out of our troubles. Is this a contradiction? The Rabbinic sages don’t think so, and resolve the apparent conflict by stating the power of prayer was built into the nature of Creation when God made the universe. No, that’s not in the Bible, but what it may mean is that when God made a perfect universe and human disobedience broke it, something in the essential nature of our world included a way to fix the world and to fix ourselves by invoking our relationship with God.

While God’s nature is incompatible with sin and human despair, it’s not like God can’t see or hear us when we are in the darkest corners of our own souls.

If at first you don’t succeed,: Try, try, try again.

-attributed to William Edward Hickson (1803-1870)

Just as the yetzer hara can attack us in two ways, we can be defeated in two ways. The first is to simply give up, to say to ourselves that we are weak and worthless and there is no hope. The enemy has won. The second is to never realize that we’re fighting an enemy at all and to believe that nothing is our fault. The yetzer hara is our friend and he/she would never lie to us. If we have problems in life or with other people, someone else is responsible, not us.

Either way is no good, but at least in the first situation, we realize there is an enemy and there is a sharp sword resting on our neck poised to execute us. Then we know to pray and to hope in God. In the second situation, we may never realize our danger and may fail fatally unless we are shocked out of apathy and delusion by the consequences of our folly and by a loving God. But at that point, the fight is just beginning.

Can You Help Us Find a Bible Study for the Coming Year?

The third month was chosen for the revelation because everything that is closely connected with the Torah and with Israel is triple in number. The Torah consists of three parts: The Pentateuch, The Prophets, and the Writings. The oral law consists of Midrash, Halakhah, and Haggadah… (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, ed. Buber pp. 186-187)

-quoted by Max Arzt in
Part 2: “The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur),” p.285
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement

My friend Tom and I have been toying with the idea of studying Torah together for quite some time, but the recent events that have seen me leave (once again) church have added emphasis to the proposal. This past Sunday, Tom and I were talking over coffee and started to define some of the parameters for our study.

First of all, I’m not sure a study focused on Torah is the best way to go. Sure, the timing is right. We are very close to the end of the current Torah cycle, and the new cycle begins with Torah Portion Beresheet on October 18th, less than three weeks away.

But Tom said that he wants to have a study that specifically focuses on Messiah and what he means in our lives. I don’t know if I want to study the sidra for each Shabbat with the idea that I must find the Messiah within its pages. What if I don’t?

The second goal of our Torah study is that we might be able to see the Messiah clearly in its pages. Remember Luke 24. This chapter establishes for us one of the key hermeneutic principles of approaching Torah. Here Yeshua tells us specifically to look in the Torah in order to see Him. “And beginning with Moshe and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

When we first started looking for Yeshua in every Torah Portion, we were concerned that we would not be able to find Yeshua anywhere. However, much to our surprise, after beginning the work we found it difficult to stop! We have discovered that the person and work of Messiah are evident in even the most technical sections of the Torah. And the more we see Him, the more we can worship Him.

-Ariel Berkowitz
“How to Study the Torah”
MessianicPublications

While I don’t always agree with everything presented at this website, I’ve found Berkowitz’s insights valuable in the past and, when I saw this link show up in my Facebook feed, I decided to have a go at it. Seems Berkowitz has no problem seeing the Messiah in the Torah, but maybe another approach would work better for Tom and me.

I started reading the Berkowitz article with an idea to base our Bible study upon its principles. I said I found Berkowitz valuable, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. In taking the text at face value (and not allegorizing), he says:

This also applies to what appear to be legal sections. If God said to put a fence around the top of our houses, for example, He does not mean to build fences to protect the Torah! Literally, what is being referred to is a protective enclosure being placed around the top of a house to prevent people from falling off. (In that part of the world, most dwellings had flat roofs, which facilitated people congregating on them.) We have no permission at this point to go beyond the literal face value of the text.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

Well, yes and no. Yes, I can agree that it’s a bit of a stretch to create a midrash stating that the Torah commandment to build a fence around the edge of your flat roof also means building fences around the commandments, manufacturing additional barriers to keep the observant from getting too close to the “edge” of sin. I do however, think that we can take the particular commandment and infer a general principle from it (this isn’t my original idea, I got it from one of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermons). I believe the specific commandment about building a fence around your roof can be expanded to the general principle of removing all physical hazards on your property that could potentially cause injury to family and guests. These would be acts of kindness and express concern over the well being of the people around you. I don’t think there’s too much of a stretch involved here, but it does require we think beyond the immediate situation described.

Berkowitz says:

Also associated with this principle is the necessity of determining the intended meaning of the passage. Since Moshe was the writer of the Torah, we must try to put ourselves in his shoes as he wrote it, even as we attempt to discern the Lord’s intent in giving each teaching. Moreover, we also need to put ourselves into the shoes of the people who first received the Scriptures and seek to know how they understood the text.

I agree with this wholeheartedly and I think many Bible students and scholars don’t take this far enough. Remember, almost without exception, all of the writers of the Bible are Jewish people and the Bible’s contents (with the exception of some of Paul’s letters and a few other portions) were intended to be read exclusively by Jews.

We have to at least attempt to understand what the writer was intending his readers to get out of the document, including any allusions, less than obvious references, traditions, and interpretive praxis that could be employed to derive meaning. The answers to all that are likely not easily gleaned from the plain meaning of the text and require some knowledge of the Judaism of the time period in which the document was authored.

A really good example of this is a lecture that Boaz Michael delivered some years ago called “Moses in Matthew”. I don’t think a recording of that teaching is available commercially, but I managed to get a copy of it and reviewed its contents in a blog post called “The Jewish Gospel”, Part 1 and Part 2. Rabbi Joshua Brumbach also reviewed it on his blog about three years ago.

Ariel Berkowitz
Ariel Berkowitz

I don’t want to attempt to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, so for the details, you can click on the links I’ve provided. In brief though, Boaz aptly illustrated that without understanding the highly specific mindset of Jews living in occupied Palestine in the late Second Temple period, we sometimes misunderstand (sometimes to a great degree) what Jesus (Yeshua) was teaching, leading us to a far less than perfect comprehension of the message of Messiah to his people Israel and, across history, to us.

Berkowitz continues in his article making statements I believe are in support of what I just said above:

For example, it makes a difference to our understanding of the Torah if we know that each of the ten plagues was brought against one of the gods of Egypt. It changes our perception of the book of Deuteronomy if we are aware that its format virtually follows that of other middle to late Bronze Age suzerainty treaties and covenants. Moreover, are we aware that our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets can help us understand the structure of Genesis, as well as why Rachel stole the family idols from Laban? Finally, what is meant by the designations “Way of the Philistines” and “King’s Highway?”

Closely connected with this rule is the principle of studying the Torah in Hebrew, its original language. There are sometimes words, thoughts, or concepts in the Hebrew of the Torah that are almost impossible to express in a translation. For example, it is helpful to know that the Hebrew word sometimes translated into English as “sacrifice” is the word korban (קָרְבָּן), which has the same root as the word meaning “to draw close.” Hence, a sacrifice is that which helps us draw close to God. In addition, there are virtually no English equivalents for the Hebrew words tahor (טָהוֹר) and tamei (טָמֵא) (often rendered pure and impure, or clean and unclean, respectively).

Again, and specifically speaking to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles, we would also have to know how other Jewish teachers of that time period wrote, what common allusions and references they shared, the midrashic associations the readers were supposed to make, and so on. Reading Jewish texts of any time period requires knowledge of not only the religious and cultural Judaism of that point in history, but what it was to live as a Jew listening to or reading the teachings of the Rabbis.

This isn’t information always available to us.

But if we don’t always have the past at our fingertips, we do that the present:

Jewish practice and interpretation of the Torah began centuries ago—in many cases even before the time of Yeshua. Although we do not believe in the authority of the oral law, it nevertheless contains much that is useful for us today (such as an incredibly insightful periodic interpretation of the Torah). It is helpful for us, therefore, to read some of the best of the modern Jewish commentators (at least those of both the Rishonim and Akharonim), because in them we may find accurate interpretations of the most difficult passages of the Torah. Moreover, it can also be helpful to examine some of the rabbinic applications of the Torah, as some of these halachic teachings might shed some light for us on a given passage.

Jewish Man PrayingChristians don’t always take me seriously when I say that in order to understand the Bible, including (especially) the teachings of Jesus, you have to understand something about Judaism. However, this is true. Christianity has its interpretive traditions which, from their earliest inception, were designed to minimize if not outright delete any “Jewishness” from the Jewish texts. And yet, as I’ve seen time and again, ignoring a Jewish interpretation of the Bible, including the Apostolic Scriptures, has led to tremendous errors in the development of Christian theology and its resultant doctrine. This isn’t to say that Christianity has completely missed the boat. The Church grasps the principles of loving God and doing good to other human beings very well. They just don’t know what to do with Jewish people as having a unique covenant relationship with God, and especially have not a clue how to understand the Judaism of Jews in Messiah.

Unfortunately, Berkowitz had to employ this rather reductive list of the three rules of interpretation, which I’ve previously encountered:

  • First ask, “What does the passage say?”
  • Next ask, “What does it mean?”
  • Finally, ask, “What does it mean to me?”

Not to say that this list is bad, but if you didn’t understand that it must be expanded to include what I’ve described previously about comprehending the entire historical, cultural, linguistic, midrashic, and every other area of context in which a particular text of the Bible was written and read, then you’ve going to miss a lot.

And in describing interpretation, Berkowitz doesn’t mention that interpretation begins at translation. He admits that most people don’t have a sufficient command of the Biblical languages to read them, and thus tend to rely on translations, but he doesn’t say that some translations do heinous violence to the text. The English Standard Version, for example, changes Greek verb tenses in some of Paul’s letters and in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make the scriptures read as if the Old (Sinai) Covenant has already completely passed away and that it has totally been replaced by the New Covenant. However, the verb tenses in the actual Greek indicate that the old is in the process of still passing away, and there is no indication in the originals that the New is even here yet.

Berkowitz does say that there are a number of good study aids available and I would add to that list a variety of different translations and a lexicon to help with some of the problems modern translators have introduced.

Berkowitz states that the number one requirement in Bible study is to “rely on the Spirit of God to be our teacher.” I can agree, but I’ve argued with a few people here on my blog that the Spirit doesn’t have to exist in isolation from other resources and that we don’t have to “check our brains at the door,” so to speak.

In addressing the use of commentaries, Berkowitz says:

Some people simply will not use commentaries or study aids when studying the Bible. They say they want God to teach them, not man. The problem with this statement is that God has specifically blessed certain people in the body of Messiah with the gift of teaching. We are not disputing the fact that people can discover wonderful things in the Torah by themselves. But God’s usual method is to gift certain people who can, in turn, teach others the truths of His Word. Hence, we all need to rely on the God-gifted Torah teachers whom the Holy One places in our path.

Furthermore, we must also realize that most commentaries were originally sermons or verbal teachings before they appeared in print. If we are willing to ask another person his or her opinion about a given passage in the Bible, we should be willing to consult a commentary. There is no difference, other than the fact that one is a verbal opinion about the Torah and the other is written.

We are not islands unto ourselves. We are members of the body of Messiah, each equipped with certain areas of understanding which, when combined, help bring to all of us a more complete understanding of the Bible. Thus, we should not throw away all the books and say “we will just study the Bible.” God never meant for His people to function like that. In the resources section of this Web site we provide a continually growing list of Bible study aids, such as commentaries, that we recommend. There will undoubtedly be others, especially in other languages. But this is a good beginning for those who are new at Torah study.

TanakhI’ve come the long way around to ask a simple question. Tom and I (and whoever decides to join us) need a structure and format for our studies. We could just shoot from the hip or talk off the tops of our heads, but that’s rather self-limiting.

We need a study that is focused on the Messiah. We’d like to not have the study devolve into a “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” about theology and doctrine, which, for example, so many of these religious blogs tend to do. We would like the study to be specifically Messianic rather than traditionally Christian. If at all possible, we’d like the study not to be too expensive. Unfortunately, a lot of good teaching material out there also costs a proverbial arm and leg.

I’m open to suggestion (without the obligation of having to take everyone’s suggestions). Any ideas?

In advance, thank you for your help and insight.

Oh, and by the “coming year,” I mean within the next few weeks to a month or so, not the beginning of 2015. Thanks.

Balak: What Do We Do When Israel Is Cursed?

Balak, the king of Moav, wanted to hire Bilaam to curse the Jewish people for a fortune of money. It is interesting that Balak believed in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thought that God would change His mind about His Chosen People.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from “Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
Aish.com

In this week’s Torah portion, the King of Moab, very fearful of the armies of Israel camped practically at his doorstep and knowing he couldn’t defeat them in a military operation, chose to hire the greatest known Gentile prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Israelite nation. It is said that “I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3) but that hasn’t stopped an endless stream of individuals and nations from trying, sometimes (seemingly) very successfully, to curse the Jewish people. Even a casual glance at Jewish history over the past several thousands of years reveals this.

I suppose then, I shouldn’t be surprised at the latest atrocity I’ve discovered aimed at the Jews and their nation Israel. No, in this case, I’m not taking about the tragic murders of the three teenage boys Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, though certainly they are always on my mind. I’m talking about something my wife sent me via email a yesterday.

The debate over the New York Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” raises serious questions about the functioning of American Jewish leadership.

Leon Klinghoffer was a 69-year-old wheelchair- bound American Jew who, in 1985, with his wife and 11 friends, celebrated his 36th wedding anniversary on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, that was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Klinghoffer was taken aside, shot and dumped overboard in his wheelchair.

The opera based on these events was composed by John Adams and the librettist was Alice Goodman, a convert from Judaism who is now a priest in the Anglican Church.

The opera was intentionally titled the “death” – not murder – of Klinghoffer, and purported to present “both sides of the equation.” The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said that Adams sought “to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in the victims” and enable the “audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.” In other words: present the murderers and their victims as morally equivalent.

The opening scene honors terrorists. With a backdrop of graffiti on a wall proclaiming “Warsaw 1943, Bethlehem 2005,” Jews wearing kippot and headscarves enter the stage and plant trees on what is conveyed to the audience as plundered Arab territory.

The Palestinian chorus sings, “My father’s house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street.” The Palestinians sing, “We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and we are not vandals but men of ideals.”

-Isi Leibler
“Candidly Speaking: The ‘Klinghoffer’ opera and the American Jewish establishment”
The Jerusalem Post, June 30, 2014

What is stunning is that the opera premiered in Brussels in 1991, as well as in various locations in the U.S., and is still going. It was cancelled in Boston after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but in 2014, the New York Metropolitan Opera scheduled a major global performance as well as a launch in over 70 U.S. theaters with a plan to simulcast the production to 2,000 theaters in 66 countries — an audience of millions of people.

terroristThis is crazy. You’re talking about a worldwide effort to glorify and praise terrorism and to somehow justify the murder, not just of Jewish people in general, but a 69-year-old wheelchair bound American Jew. You may remember the Achille Lauro incident. I certainly do. Time should never erase the stench of injustice and unavenged wrongs.

The fact that the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” praises murderers and terrorists whilst justifying the killings of innocent Jewish people, including the infirm and disabled, is nauseating. That this story should appear so closely to the recent deaths of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal is the emotional and moral equivalent of soaking their parents in gasoline and then lighting them on fire. It’s like defiling the graves of these recently buried young Jewish men.

Not only should this opera never have seen the inside of a performing hall, but it should have been cancelled the instant Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal were discovered to be murdered. Why is it still going on? Worse, why is no one (besides me and various Jewish news reporters and commentators) complaining about it?

Over the past 40 years one of the most positive features of American Jewish leadership has been its uninhibited self-confidence, assertiveness and willingness to raise its voice with courage and dignity on behalf of Israel and Jewish causes. American Jewish leaders prided themselves on having rejected shtadlanut – reliance on silent diplomacy in lieu of public action. Alas, there are now grounds for concern that this is changing, maybe as a consequence of the adverse pressures emanating from the Obama administration.

How else can one ascribe the pitifully subdued response to the Met’s decision to perform an opera that not merely incorporates vicious anti-Israeli diatribes but which is blatantly anti-Semitic and seeks to romanticize and provide rationalization for the cold-blooded murder of a disabled person solely because he was Jewish. And this is an institution that is disproportionately funded by Jews, in the city with the greatest concentration of Jews in the Diaspora.

This opera is an abomination and an offense not only to Jews but to all Americans and all decent people who oppose terrorism and racism. It has no bearing on the rights or wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict or alleged grievances of Palestinians, which can be debated in other venues.

I don’t know how else to say it. What the **** is wrong with people?

They were already dead before we even knew they were abducted? Before prayers throughout the world stormed heaven for their safe return? Before Jews of every religious and political stripe united in a way we have not seen in years? Before the three mothers appeared at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva pleading for support? Before 15,000 Israeli soldiers, not much older than the boys themselves, spent two weeks without sleep or showers combing every basement and tunnel beneath the terrorist stronghold of Hebron? They were already butchered, their young bodies lying in a shallow grave miles north of the search area.

And in the ocean of our mourning, a question rises up like a sea monster: Were our prayers and our good deeds and our unity in vain?

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“Were Our Prayers in Vain?”
Aish.com

Tisha b'Av at the Kotel 2007Rigler started her article with the words, “Tisha B’Av came early this year.” Sadly, I have to agree. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if year by year, Tisha B’Av ever really ends.

It’s not the fact that terrible things continue to happen to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the world has been trying to exterminate Jews ever since Jewish people have existed. What makes me so angry is that the effort to destroy Israel and the Jewish people is escalating and yet no one is crying out for justice. Quite the opposite in fact. Every time Israel attempts to defend herself through arms, the rest of the world accuses Israel of brutality, while every time a Jew is slain by a terrorist, the murder is celebrated in Gaza and Ramallah and I suspect in most of the rest of the world.

I would love to see churches all over the world this Sunday offer up prayers for the families of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal. I would love for Pastors to lead their congregations in prayers for Israel and for the protection of the Jewish people. I call on Christians everywhere to stand up and cry out to God for justice. But we must also make our voices heard among the people of the world, that Israel will not go quietly into the night, she will not vanish without a fight, she is going to live on! She is going to survive!

And not only that, but God will fight for His people and His nation. He will not let them be extinguished. In fact, not only will Israel survive, but she will thrive. She will be the head of all the nations while we will be the tail. She will lead the world into an era of unprecedented peace and tranquility. And Israel’s King, who will rule the Holy Land and the rest of the world, will punish all the countries who went up against Israel.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Yeshua (Jesus).

Revelation 22:20

But here’s the problem:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.”

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

Numbers 25:1-9 (JPS Tanakh)

If cursing fails, people can be victimized in any number of other ways, sometimes by being their (our) own worst enemies.

grievingAs Isi Leibler commented, the Jewish leadership in the U.S. needs to be the first to speak up about “The Death of Klinghoffer” and its ghastly implications, but American churches and indeed, all American people who love justice and hate cruelty need to speak out as well. You are not going to save lives through “stealth protesting”. Simply “waiting on the Lord” to do something may be waiting in vain, for who is to say that God isn’t waiting on us to do something. Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are waiting on us. What are we waiting for?

God has always used people to accomplish justice in our world and I have no reason to believe He’s stopped now. Heavens armies will come one day to wage war against Israel’s enemies but in the meantime, we need to become Heavens armies, if not with guns and cannons, with words, letters, petitions, demonstrations, protests.

Even if you just send the link to this blog post via email to one other person, post it on your Facebook page, tweet it on twitter, that’s something. But do something. Don’t just sit there staring at the screen of your computer or smartphone.

The blood of the murdered cries out from the ground where it was spilled, and the killers are laughing.

Leibler ends his opinion piece thus:

If Jewish leaders feel inhibited about raising their voices on such issues, they are betraying their mandate and moving backward to the “trembling Israelite” role that American Jews assumed in the 1930s.

Rigler’s last words in her commentary are:

And we, the families of the boys, their friends, their neighbors, and all of us, are left to suffer their loss, to mourn the tragedy of their young lives cut short. Our Bible tells us that there is, “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Tisha B’Av came early this year. It is a time to weep and a time to mourn. But if we can only hold onto the unity we achieved in these 18 days, then in its merit the Redemption will come, and it will finally, finally, be a time to dance.

I know Rigler’s trying to be comforting, for after all, sometimes that’s all you can do, but I agree with Leibler, and not just in terms of Jewish leaders. We cannot allow ourselves to feel inhibited in raising our voices. If we do not stand up for justice now, how many more Jewish victims will go to their graves before Israel is redeemed by her King, and the God of Justice stands up against us?

A good person will resist an evil system with his whole soul. Disobedience of laws of an evil state is therefore a duty.

-Gandhi

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

Unity in Messiah: A Commentary on One Law and Gentiles

As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD. There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.

Numbers 15:15–16

But does the Torah really make different laws for Jews and Gentiles? According to Numbers 15:15–16, there is to be only one law for both Jews and Gentiles.

This seems simple enough. According to these verses, there is one law for both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, Gentile believers should keep the whole Torah.

But wait. It’s not that clear.

“One Law and the Gentiles”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shelach
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I quoted from this article just the other day as an example of what sometimes provokes other believers to anger and how I want to avoid being excessively and needlessly provocative. While the “One Law” issue is a “non-event” for the vast majority of the Christian world, this is a “hot button” issue in certain small (relative to the overall body of believers worldwide) religious circles in the blogosphere.

But then, I’ve been thinking about an ad I received by email recently. Eichers.com has extended its annual Talis and Tzitzit sale to June 24th. As I read the advert, I found myself involuntarily pining for the days when I used to actually don a tallit to pray.

Then my reality check came in and I closed the ad, but not before I started pricing tallit gadolim (just “window shopping”).

Many years ago, my wife arranged for a friend who was visiting Israel, to purchase my first tallit at the Galilee Experience. It was a total surprise when it arrived from Israel by mail and my wife presented it to me.

But that was a long time ago, and to put it mildly, my wife’s attitude about Christians and tallitot has changed considerably. For that matter, so has mine.

I don’t really regret the “course correction” I’ve instituted in my life, but I do need periodic reminders of who I am and what I need to be doing that’s important to God in order to counterbalance my attraction to various aspects of Judaism as a worship practice. Really, if I had my “druthers” and it didn’t matter to God (or anyone else, especially the Missus) one way or the other, comparing evangelical Christian worship and study to a (Messianic) Jewish template, I’d probably choose Jewish practice.

In any conceivable way, nothing would be removed from my devotion to Yeshua (Jesus), but a richness in spiritual texture and connectedness to the people of God that extends all the way back to Sinai would be the platform and environment for that devotion.

I know that if any Hebrew Roots people with a bent for “One Law” ever read this, they’d probably say, “go for it!”

But, no. I have good reasons not to. It’s not my world and my practice. God chose the Jewish people for a reason and He gave them the Torah as the conditions of the Sinai covenant for a reason. Then He made it possible through the emergence of the New Covenant for Gentiles to be grafted in, and provided conditions for we grafted in Gentiles in a binding legal ruling that outlines a distinction in how Gentile disciples are obligated to the Torah.

I can live with that, knowing that we Gentiles have a unique role in supporting Messianic Jewish return to Torah and in perfecting the world in preparation of Messiah’s return.

women_praying_at_the_wallAlso, living with a Jewish wife and daughter, I have a special appreciation for their own uniqueness as Jews and how my mimicking Jewish behavior in some sort of evangelical Jewish cosplay cheapens who they are and totally misrepresents me and all other Gentile disciples of the Master.

It was also no coincidence (in my opinion) that Chabad.org’s “mitzvah minute” email was on Tzitzit: Fringe Judaism this past week.

Most people don’t think of Judaism as a fringe religion. Yet that’s our uniform. Under their shirts, Jewish men and boys wear a poncho called a tallit katan (literally: small cloak), with fringes hanging from each corner, just as the Torah prescribes (Numbers 15:37–40), “They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments . . .”

That’s “Judaism,” not Christianity that wears the fringes. I’m not a thief. I don’t take things that belong to someone else. Donning a Tallit Gadol for prayer belongs to someone else…Jewish people.

Jacob Milgrom contends that in the ancient Near East the ornateness of the hem was a mark of nobility. Hence the wearing of tzitzit denoted that all Israelites were members of a priestly nation with a universal mission. That status and its attendant obligations rest on God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery, as the passage makes clear at the end: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:41)

-Ismar Schorsch
“The Distinction between History and Memory,” pg 522 (June 16, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Shelach
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I assume D. Thomas Lancaster wrote the small article on “One Law and the Gentiles” and in referencing Numbers 15:15-16, he says:

First of all, the context deals not with the application of Torah as a whole, but specifically with the sacrifices. In other words, if an alien wanted to offer a sacrifice in the Temple he needed to follow the same Torah guidelines as the Israelite. The passage is not saying that all the laws of Torah apply equally to Jews and Gentiles.

Second, by the time of the apostles, the word translated as “alien” (ger, גר) was no longer understood as just a Gentile non-Jew. The Hebrew word had shifted its semantic value to refer specifically to a Gentile who had gone through a full, legal conversion to become Jewish, i.e., a proselyte. That conversion process included circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice. That’s how the Greek version of the Torah (lxx) translates the word too. That’s probably how the apostles would have understood it.

Interestingly enough, Lancaster (I presume) says the Didache actually agrees with the surface reading of Numbers 15:15-16:

If you are able to bear all the yoke of the Lord [i.e., Torah], you will be perfect; but if you are not able, do as much as you are able to do. (Didache 6:2)

Wait a minute! What just happened? Did Lancaster say that the Didache supports an identical application of the Torah mitzvot on both Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus?

The Didache agrees with Numbers 15:15–16. There is not supposed to be a different Torah for Gentile believers. The Gentile believers are not supposed to have a different type of worship or religion. There is only one Torah for God’s people. The only question left open is to what extent the Gentile believer is obligated. Most of the laws of the Torah apply equally to Jewish and Gentile disciples of Yeshua.

On the other hand, Gentile believers are not obligated to keep all of the ceremonial laws as the Jewish believers such as circumcision and other distinct markers of Jewish identity like the calendar, the holy days, the dietary laws, and so forth. Despite that, the Bible does not create alternative Gentile versions of these institutions.

In the days of the apostles, the Gentile believers kept most of those things along with the Jewish believers as part of their participation in their shared religion.

The Torah, the conditions for the Sinai covenant, are the same conditions for the New Covenant. God didn’t re-write the conditions, just the material upon which they are written, on paper and tablets formerly, but later, on the human heart.

sefer-torahSo Torah applies to all who come under the New Covenant. The only question is how the roles and applications differ between those who entered into covenant with God at Sinai vs. those of us who were later grafted in, that is, between Jews and Gentiles.

Lancaster ended his small write-up by saying that in the apostolic era, it was likely the Gentile disciples, especially those embedded in Messianic Jewish synagogues in the diaspora, would have appeared much more Jewish than we Christians do today. Their practice and observance would have been modeled on their mentors, and as Lancaster mentioned, the Didache seems to support this view and was formally taught to newly-minted non-Jewish disciples.

So where does that leave me? Right where I am.

If I lived in a different environment, if my wife was Messianic, if a thousand other things were changed, how I outwardly worship God would probably not look the same as it does now. But there are no “what ifs” in God’s creation, there is only here and now and what is real.

What matters about discipleship and devotion to the Master is doing the will of God. I pray. I study. I worship in fellowship. I perform many of the mitzvot in the Torah such as giving charity to the poor, providing food for the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting those who grieve.

The message of the Good News of Messiah changes not at all for the Jew or the Gentile, and the coming of the Kingdom alters not one little bit for the descendants of Israel or the people of the nations. In fact, being a devoted Gentile who has fully apprehended a Messianic world view and perception of the Bible makes me a lot more valuable to the cause of Christ for Jewish and Christian people than if I felt that I would only be on God’s “approved list” if I looked and acted “Jewish”.

I know parts of what I’ve written will make certain people unhappy, but please remember, I’m not telling you or anyone else what to do, I’m just talking about who I am and what I need to do. I can’t allow how others view me to affect what I must do and refrain from doing before God.

The Kotzker Rebbe said that the mistake of the spies was in the words “and so we were in their sight.” It should not bother a person how others view him. (Otzer Chayim)

A person who worries about how others view him will have no rest. Regardless of what he does or does not do he will always be anxious about receiving the approval of others. Such a person makes his self-esteem dependent on the whims of others. It is a mistake to give others so much control over you. Keep your focus on doing what is right and proper.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from his commentary on Torah Portion Shelach (pg 330)
Growth Through Torah

There is “one law” but it is applied differently, even within formal Judaism, depending on who you are. It’s applied differently also for the Gentile. There is One God who is God of all. There is one Messiah who brings salvation to the world. There is one Kingdom waiting for the devoted to enter. There is one world to come where we will return to the Garden, because that’s where it all began.

If that’s not unity in Messiah, what is?

intermarriageFinal note: distinctiveness in identity and practice does not mean dissolution, disagreement, or disconnection. My wife and I are obviously different as man and woman, and we are different as Christian and Jew. Nevertheless, we are a family together with our children and grandson, and we share strong connections within that context. The same can be said for the Messianic community of Jews and Gentiles. We form a unity not in spite of our differences, but because of them. That is the beauty of “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15). You are changed, not in terms of ethnicity, nationality, or obligation, but because, men and women, Jew and Gentile, no matter how one differs from another, we are all interconnected in Messiah, may he come soon and in our day.

Addendum: See the “sequel” to this “meditation”: Walking in the Dust of the Footsteps of Moshiach.

Shemot: Jewish Survival and the Promise of the Torah

The death of Pharaoh's sonThen the Lord said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”

Exodus 6:1 (JPS Tanakh)

No other people have ever gone into exile and survived for thousands of years to come back to re-establish a national homeland. The return of the Jews from exile to the Land of Israel was nothing short of a miracle!

What does it all mean?

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemot (Exodus)
Aish.com

If you follow the annual Torah readings as I do, you might be tempted to just blow past all of the miracles of God in the land of Egypt and the liberation of millions of Jewish slaves. After all, you know the story. Even Christians who only occasionally read the “Old Testament” are familiar, at least in general, with Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, King of Egypt to demand the release of the Israelites so they may worship Hashem their God. But Shemot (Exodus) tells a very important story that is highly relevant to all of Jewish history and a story important to every Jew alive today.

It’s a story of survival against all odds, survival in the face of hardship, slavery, and even certain destruction. It’s a story of God’s extraordinary love for the Jewish people and the lengths to which the Almighty will go to rescue them from every type of harm. This doesn’t mean that individual Jewish people won’t have hardships or even that large numbers of Jews won’t suffer, but the Jewish people, Israel will survive and ultimately thrive.

The Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you only will be above, and you will not be underneath…

Deuteronomy 28:13 (NASB)

This doesn’t mean that Israel will be the head and not the tail just within their own nation, and it doesn’t just mean Israel will be the head in their general region of the earth, it means, in the Messianic Era, when Moshiach returns all the exiles to their land and restores Israel with honor and power, the nation of Israel and the Jewish people will be ascendant over all the other nations of our planet, and Messiah will be King of all.

But what stands in the way of that accomplishment? After all, amazingly, there are Jewish people after thousands of years of concerted effort expended by various nations to exterminate them. Not only do Jewish people survive, but identifiably Jewish culture, religion, literature, art, music, and the Torah have all survived, continuing to set the descendants of the ancient Israelites apart from all the other nations and people groups in our world. God has always preserved them and He will always preserve them.

The Torah tells us, “And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation” (Exodus 1:6). Why is it important for us to know that the whole generation has passed on?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians occurred in three stages: First, Joseph died and the Israelites lost their power. Second, the bothers (sic) died. As long as even one of the brothers was alive, the Egyptians still honored them. Third, everyone from that generation died. Until that happened — as long as the members of the first generation were alive — the Egyptians considered them important and were not able to treat them as slaves.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer Rosh Hayeshiva, commented that there are two aspects here. One is on the side of the Egyptians. They were unable to treat the Jewish people as slaves as long as they considered them important. The other aspect is on the side of the Jewish people themselves. As long as they were considered important and worthy of respect by themselves, the Egyptians were not able to treat them in an inferior manner. Only when they personally considered themselves in a lowly manner could they be subjugated by others.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Based on Growth Through Torah

ShoahThis commentary on this week’s Torah portion also speaks to both Jewish and non-Jewish people in the present. Jewish survival is dependent upon how the Jewish people regard themselves and how the rest of the world regards them. Like Joseph and his brothers and their entire generation, as long as the rest of us understand the relationship between Israel and God and treat the Jewish people accordingly, they will continue to survive, because we can not bear to make “slaves” of such a people who have been lifted high by God. But when we denigrate the Jewish people, as we often have done across history, then we get Shoah, The Holocaust.

It takes great courage to come back and stand out after six million of your people have been starved, tortured, and exterminated. The natural tendency would be to hide, to go underground, to blend in, disappear, fade from history as a people, just in order to not be in a position where you, your children, or your grandchildren will ever again be taken from their homes and put in the camps. As Rabbi Pliskin’s commentary states, it’s not just how the rest of the world treats you, it’s how you consider yourself.

If the Jewish people don’t stand up for themselves as proudly Jewish, the rest of the world won’t respect them, and again, we get Shoah.

Am I contradicting myself? Earlier, I said that Jewish survival is dependent upon God’s great acts, and so this is true. But the Jewish people had to cry out to God, a leader had to be willing to rise up from the people to shepherd them, as Moses did. The Jewish people had to, and still have to willingly accept God, accept the fact that God chose them, that they are still chosen, and to “hear and obey” the Word of God that uniquely signifies their called out status.

When we look at Jewish history, we see a history where the Jewish people have defied the laws of nature and the laws of history! We have survived and impacted this world though we have been thrown out of our land not once, but twice! We have impacted the world perhaps more than any other people in history — the concepts of the value of human life, universal education, justice and equality, the importance of and goal of world peace (as opposed to glorifying war), the importance of a strong stable family as a basis for a moral foundation for society, individual and national responsibility for the world — though we were beaten, killed and exiled from one nation to the next. Though few in number and spread to the four corners of the earth, we survived as a people, never assimilating into anonymity. Even our land, the Land of Israel, defied the laws of nature, only fertile when the Jewish people inhabited it.

Coincidence? Good luck? A roll of the dice? Perhaps — except that each and every phenomenon was prophesied and predicted in the Torah hundreds and thousands of years before the events. Does it make you think that perhaps something is going on here? That perhaps there is a special relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people?

The Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah are intertwined. In the past 3,300 years there has been effort after effort — from within as well as from without — to redefine and redirect our people. Each and every one has failed. If you wonder why, then perhaps the time has come to read the Torah and find out. The Torah is not only our heritage, it is the game plan for the Jewish people and the world!

-Rabbi Packouz

rabbi_child_and_sefer_torahPeriodically, my Pastor asks what I think the role of Jewish obedience to Torah is in today’s world (although I think Rabbi Packouz answered that question very well in the above-quoted statement), especially in light of Christ and the Church. Why would a believing Jew continue to observe the mitzvot when (from his point of view) they were clearly eliminated by Jesus and they, like the rest of us, now live by the grace of Christ?

Being “Messianic” doesn’t make a Jew not a Jew. All of the conditions for survival I outlined above still apply to them, just like they apply to any other Jewish person alive today. For a Jewish person to find, recognize, and acknowledge the Messiah is the answer to a prayer and the culmination of a dream.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Moshiach, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Yonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 16:15-17 (NASB – adjusted)

I made a few minor changes to the translation above to make it clearer that Simon Bar Yonah was a Jew realizing that his Master, the Rabbi he has been following, is indeed the Moshiach, “the Son of the living God.” Peter didn’t stop being Jewish, immediately start munching on a ham sandwich, burn a Torah scroll, and join the local Baptist church because he became a Christian. He didn’t change into something else besides being Jewish, he received a revelation that at the core, all Jewish people want and need to receive. The revelation of the arrival and presence of Messiah, Son of David, King of Israel, who will save his people, not just from their sins and certainly not from the Torah, but from the centuries and centuries of persecution, pogroms, inquisitions, and genocidal efforts of a hateful and disbelieving world.

Peter recognized Jesus as who he was and is without a New Testament in hand and especially without the last two-thousand years of Christian theology, doctrine, dogma, and history, including the reformation, muddying up the waters to the degree that neither Jew nor Gentile can recognize Jesus as Moshiach any longer.

Peter recognized the Moshiach because he was there, he knew what to look for, not in spite of the Torah but because of it.

It has been prophesied in the Torah that Jews would be exiled from the land and that they would return to the land: “And it shall come to pass when these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have placed before you, you will take it to heart amongst all of the nations where God has scattered you; you will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you today, you and your children with all of your heart and with all of your soul. Then the Almighty will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you; and He will return and gather you from among all of the nations where he has dispersed you. If your dispersed ones will be even at the ends of the heavens — from there God Almighty will gather you and from there He will take you. And God your Lord will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited and you shall inherit it and He will do good for you and make you more numerous than your forefathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

-Rabbi Packouz

For a Jew, particularly a Jew in Messiah, the Torah is inescapable. When Paul called the Torah a “tutor” or “child conductor” (Galatians 3:24), we can consider the Torah as a protector, a defender, a preserver of the Jewish people pointing toward the ultimate expression of the Torah. Yes, it “points to Christ” but once a Jewish person has recognized Moshiach and turned to him, it doesn’t mean the “tutor” is useless and tossed aside. It only means that the capstone has been added to the structure to make it solid and permanent. The structure still needs all the pieces. There are many other purposes the Torah fulfills for the Jewish person besides illuminating the image of Messiah. Without the Torah, the Jewish people lose everything it is to be Jewish, to be called out, to be unique among all of God’s Creations.

Rabbi Isaac LichtensteinThis is our mistake in the Church. We demand that when a Jewish person becomes a disciple of Moshiach, they consider Paul’s words as meaning that all of the purposes of Torah have been extinguished and that the Torah is not only useless, but actually a detriment to the believing Jew. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jewish people such as Paul Philip Levertoff and Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein did not stop being Jewish when they discovered the identity of the Messiah. Especially in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s case, the Torah became more important, more enlightening, not less. Performing each mitzvah was given a new dimension in Messiah.

This is something the rest of us don’t understand. This is something we were not only taught to disregard, but to actually disdain. We’ve been taught to shun and even fear the Law of Moses, but we fail to understand the joy and fulfillment that an observant life can be for a Jew. For a Jew in Messiah, the meaning of a Torah observant life is amplified. Torah and Messiah are complementary, not oxymoronic.

Messiah and Torah preserve and sustain the Jewish people, for both will be present in the age to come. If they didn’t, then how could the gospel of Messiah be good news for the Jews?

Good Shabbos.