Tag Archives: Yitro

Yitro: Walking with Israel

Har_SinaiOn the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord.

Exodus 19:1-8 (JPS Tanakh)

Did you ever get angry about what someone did and say, “I would have never done that if I were him!”? Probably most of us have said that one time or another.

I’ve got news for you! You would have done EXACTLY what he did if you were him. If you had his genes, his upbringing, his education and philosophy on life along with his desires and attitudes … you would have done precisely what he did. The proof is … that’s what HE did! The difference is that you are not him and you think that with all that you are, that you would have acted differently. Hopefully, if you were in his situation, you would not do what he did.

What we have here is a failure to judge our fellow human being favorably.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Yitro

This week’s Torah Portion is kind of a big deal. It’s the parashah where we see the Children of Israel “as one man” receiving the Torah from God! This is the defining moment when Israel truly becomes a nation before God and it also is what, more than any other single event, defines the Jewish people today, in spite of what some people may say about Jews, Judaism, and Israel.

But we have a problem, at least on the surface. The Children of Israel stood before Moses and before God and said as a single group, as a nation, that “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” That response is not only the agreement of all the people who were actually there, but for all of their descendants across the ages as well. Israel said that they would do everything that God had spoken, all of His laws, all of His ordinances, everything.

Did they? Do they?

I won’t go through a lengthy list of quotes from the Tanakh, but the simple answer is “no.” That first generation out of Israel did not enter the Land and take it at the command of God. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness was also forty years of struggling with God as well as Moses and Aaron struggling with God to preserve the People from their own disobedience and grumbling.

Even after Joshua led the next generation to take the Land (and Moses was also disobedient and as a consequence, was not allowed to enter Israel), there were problems. In fact, reading through the Tanakh reveals a significant history of Israel and her Kings, even David and Solomon, disobeying God and failing to do all that the Lord had said.

joshua-in-israelNo, I’m not going out of my way to “Jew bash,” simply stating what we all know. Does that mean the Torah is useless, the Israelites weak and disobedient, and the modern Jewish people are followers of a “dead religion?”

Absolutely not. What it means is that they are human.

I’ve sat in a Bible study in church (not the church I go to now…this was many years ago) and heard a man, a retired Pastor (normally a very nice guy) say point-blank that “we Christians” would never disobey God the way the Israelites did.

Oh really?

Remember what Rabbi Packouz said above?

If we were living in those days, had experienced what they experienced, had lived through slavery, were suddenly thrust into a brand new world, even experienced the amazing, awesome, unimaginable presence of God among us, yes we too would have said and done all the things the Children of Israel did.

Sorry to say.

There is a saying in Pirke Avos 2:5 (“Ethics of the Fathers”), “Hillel says, ‘Don’t judge your fellow human being until you have been in his place.” It is upon us to try to put ourselves in someone else’s situation before passing judgment.

Also in Pirke Avos 4:3, Ben Azai says, “Do not scorn any person, nor be disdainful of any thing for there is no person who does not have his hour and no thing which does not have its place.”

The Torah source for this mitzvah, commandment, is “You shall judge your fellow human being with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15). This verse obligates us to give someone the benefit of the doubt when we see him performing an action that could be interpreted in his favor.

The Torah also teaches us, “Love your fellow human being as yourself …” (Leviticus 19:18). The Baal Shem Tov used to say, “Love others as yourself. You know that you have many faults, nevertheless, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel toward your friend. Despite his faults, love him” (Likutai Abraham, p. 221).

Setting aside Rabbi Packouz, what can we learn from another “Rav” with whom we Christians might be more familiar?

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

old-city-jerusalemAll week long, I’ve been writing blog post after blog post presenting some rather unusual ideas about the Torah, the instructions to the Israelites from God, and how it is lived out in Judaism and sometimes within Christianity. My friend Boaz Michael says that the weightier matters of the Torah are also taught in church, such as love of kindness, feeding the hungry, compassion for the widow, and so on. Granted when we get into the area of halachah and how the Jewish community will walk before God, things become complicated, but lately, I’ve been encouraged to see halachah as the communal conversation and response of the Jewish people to the Torah and to God. It’s a living, interactive process by which Jews seek to obey God and live their lives before God as Jews. By definition, Christians, who are taught to conceptualize God and the Bible in fundamentally different ways, are going to have a tough time with this (even some Jewish people have a tough time with this).

But do we judge the ancient Israelites, the more recent Jewish population who lived in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and the modern Jewish community, particularly those in the Messianic space, by our own Gentile Christian standards, given that those standards do not have much of a basis in common with Judaism? Have we walked a mile in the shoes of a Jew?

Even if you are a Christian who has spent a lot of time with the Jewish community, either here in the U.S. or even in Israel, while you may have some insights into Jews and Judaism that many Christians lack, there’s still a long road between living with Jews and being Jewish. Even converts to Judaism will struggle to make up the distance, the lack of a Jewish childhood, the lack of Jewish parents and growing up in a Jewish community.

There’s a lot of judgement and disdain of Jews by Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots community, but upon what is it based? It is especially surprising and disappointing that a Gentile Christian can say they are “observing Torah,” wear a kippah and tallit katan in their daily lives, daven with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keep Leviticus 11 “kosher,” and claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, and yet still judge and reject everything it is to be Jewish and to live as a Jew. Sometimes, I think it’s even worse for some of those same Gentiles who style themselves as “academic” or “resource institute” experts to treat the Jewish people as a “thing” or an “object” for study (and it’s easier to throw away an object than a human being), rather than as living, breathing, people.

You don’t have to agree with how Jewish people conceptualize their world, but then again, you don’t have to attempt to live as a Jew either, if that is your opinion.

It’s been a busy and difficult week in this little corner of the blogosphere. I don’t usually spend so much time and effort on a single topic across an entire week, but this theme took over my thoughts and emotions and I had to write (and write and write) about it.

I don’t claim to bear any great wisdom or insights, but writing is what I do when I want to explore and I’m trying to understand. Blog comment contributor “ProclaimLiberty” has suggested that halachah is akin to the Jewish communal conversation with God and the sages. Writing is part of what I do as an individual when I’m trying to talk to God. I just share the conversation (my end of it, anyway) with the Internet.

PleadThe Children of Israel failed God because we all fail God! If God’s grace wasn’t with humanity from the very beginning, we never would have survived, and there would be no human population in the world today. God is gracious and we know this, but we cannot even begin to comprehend the extent, scope, and vastness of His graciousness to us all, and especially to Israel, the apple of His eye, His treasured, splendorous people.

The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens…

Exodus 20:19 (JPS Tanakh)

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34 (ESV)

God speaks to us all but we don’t always understand. It would have been amazing if we could have been there among Israel to actually see and hear God speak from the very heavens, but God gives us enough. And yet we don’t always know what we’re doing, including when we curse rather than bless Israel. We should try to understand Israel and understand God.

The first positive mitzva is, in the words of Rambam, (Maimonides: Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah 1:1.) “To know that there is a First Being, who caused the existence of all beings…The knowledge of this principle is a positive command, as it is said, I am the Eternal your G-d.”

This is a Mitzva relating to mind and intellect. True, every one of Israel believes in G-d with a simple faith, and his heart is whole with G-d; still it is the duty of the mind and intellect to bring this faith to a level of knowledge and comprehension. This is the meaning of “To know that there is a First Being;” the Mitzva specifies comprehension and intellectual grasp, as written in Torah: “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him with a whole heart” (Divrei Hayamim I, 28:9.) and it is also written, “know this day etc.” (Devarim 4:9.)

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Sh’vat 19, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

If we don’t understand Israel perhaps it is because we don’t really understand God, and we should spend some time in Jewish shoes; standing in their place. Failing that, we should seek God’s wisdom and particularly, we should repent and seek His forgiveness.

Erev Shabbat is coming. This would be a good time.

Good Shabbos.

The Torah of Fellowship and Peace

The Ten Commandments (Shemos 22:2-17, Devarim 5:6-21) as spoken by G-d to the Jewish nation at Sinai were engraved upon the Shnei Luchos Habris, Two Tablets of the Covenant. The first Five Commandments belong to the category of laws between “man and his Creator” while the remaining Five Commandments are precepts between “man and man”.

The Ten Commandments engraved upon the tablets of stone and brought down by Moshe from G-d to the Jewish people are accorded a special distinction over all the other 613 precepts.

The Ten Commandments written upon the Two Tablets are comparable to the Kesubah, “marriage contract” drawn up as the essential contractual terms under which a Jewish man and woman enter into Jewish matrimony. Herein the parties pledge their allegiance and the principle obligations to each other thereafter. (The Avos deRabbi Nosson 2:3 fascinatingly explains this is why Moshe smashed the Two Tablets, tearing up the marriage contract, when the Children of Israel were disloyal by worshipping the Golden Calf and had to provide a substitute upon their national repentance).

The Ten Commandments forge this eternal relationship.

The covenant struck between “two” parties, affirming the relationship between G-d as the “Source” and Israel as the “product”, is mirrored in the Ten Commandments inscribed upon the Shnei Luchos HaBris, “Two” Tablets of the “Covenant”. The emphasis is on how this relates to the eternal bris, “covenant” of Torah that unites man and his Creator.

How this bond is intrinsic to the national Jewish psyche is magnificently captured in the Ten Commandments engraved through the thickness of the Tablets – such that the letters and stone were inseparably one.

Herein is included the symmetrical record of the laws pertaining both to man’s relationship to “G-d” and to “man”. The first grouping, those of “man-G-d laws”, relate to G-d the “Source” while the second grouping, those of “interpersonal laws”, relates to man, the “product”.

Side-by-side, the Ten Commandments are the microcosm to all 613 Commandments (See Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). They embrace the acceptance of G- d’s Sovereignty at Sinai as the essential platform for strict adherence to all the other 613 laws in the Torah, which serve to polish and perfect man to become more G-dly.

Through its symbolism of the “eternal covenant” between man and G-d, of two parties inextricably bound in their mutual relationship…

-Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene
from his commentary on Torah Portion Yitro
“Two Tablets: Prescription for Jewish Observance”

When the Prushim heard that he had shut the mouth of the Tzaddukim, they conferred together. A certain sage among them asked him a question to test him, saying, “Rabbi, which is the greatest mitzvah in the Torah?” Yeshua said to him,

“Love HaShem your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your knowledge.” This is the greatest and first mitzvah. But the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two mitzvot.Matthew 22:34-40 (DHE Gospels)

In one of my recent morning meditations, I commented how the Torah functioned as a ketubah or “wedding contract” between God, the groom, and national Israel, the bride. For Christianity, this is a puzzle (unless you wholly substitute “the Church” for “Israel” in this event), since how can God be eternally married to the Jewish people, the inheritors of the Mosaic covenant, and at the same time, have the Christian church be “the bride of Christ? I asked this question on the aforementioned “meditation,” but no one was willing or able to respond to my query.

In studying the Torah portion for last Shabbat, I noticed an interesting parallel between the Rabbinic commentary and the teachings of the Master:

Side-by-side, the Ten Commandments are the microcosm to all 613 Commandments… -Rabbi Levene

The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two mitzvot. –Matthew 22:40 (DHE Gospels)

Traditional Judaism, at least as Rabbi Levene describes it, compresses the entire 613 commandments into the ten mitzvot we see on the two tablets that Moses brought down from his personal encounter with God, while Jesus tells us that they are represented, along with all of the writings of the Prophets, by the two greatest commandments, which he cites from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Neither source is saying that all we need are only the ten commandments or the two greatest commandments, but they are the foundation and representation upon which we formally base our obedience to God, for Jew and Christian.

Am I saying that both Jews and Christians have identical responsibilities to God relative to the Torah? Absolutely not. There have been plenty of debates, both among scholars and on the various religious blogospheres on this topic, and my personal opinion is that we non-Jewish disciples of the Master are not obligated to take upon ourselves the full yoke of Sinai. The Master himself tells us that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) while we find Peter, who walked with the Master, saying, “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10), referring to the non-Jewish disciples (and a comparison of these two verses is a study all its own).

So are we to say that God has two brides, that there are two paths to salvation, and that there are two laws? Is this the veil of separation that I’m rebuilding between Jew and Gentile that was supposedly torn down? (Ephesians 2:14)

Heaven forbid.

Yet, if I am not describing two brides separated by a veil, must I say that the only resolution to this conflict is to adopt a supersessionist viewpoint and to declare that the Church has replaced Judaism in all of the covenant promises, creating a new “spiritual Israel” out of the non-Jewish Christians? Must I say that the Jews become “one new man” with the Church only be renouncing their Judaism in totality and converting mind, body, and soul into Gentile Christians, trading in the Jewish Messiah for the “Greek” Jesus?

No, I’m not saying that, either.

According to Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann in his blog post Inconvenient Truths: The One New Man:

Rather than superseding the Jewish people, the Church from among the nations joins with them as part of the Commonwealth of Israel. Only in this way can the “dividing wall of hostility” – which supersessionism maintains – be removed. Gentiles are no longer categorically outsiders to the community of God’s people, but neither do they supplant Israel. However if Gentiles were required to obey Torah and live as Jews, one would be perpetuating their categorical exclusion as Gentiles. And it is a major component of the good news as proclaimed by Paul that this former categorical exclusion is over and done with through the work of Messiah!

The balance of unity and diversity in the One New Man is further highlighted in Ephesians 3:6, where Paul says “Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The terms “fellow heirs, fellow members, and fellow partakers” require another communal reality with whom the Gentiles are joined, and that other partner is the community of Messianic Jews living in solidarity with wider Israel. It is only as Messianic Jews embrace this calling that their communities become the communal joining point whereby the Church from among the nations is joined to the Commonwealth of Israel.

Admittedly, this is a set of points that most traditional Christians and Jews will find difficult to absorb into their current understanding of how God relates to each of our religious groups. This also gives us something new to think about in terms of how Jews and Christians are supposed to relate to each other. But in giving the Torah at Sinai and the blood of the Son at Calvary, God provided the means by which the Jews could become a special, unique and “peculiar people” to God in a way no other people or nation had ever or has ever become to Him, and has also opened the door for the rest of the world, through the Messianic covenant, to allow the larger body of humanity to draw close to God, alongside the descendants of Jacob.

This isn’t a realization that all Jews and all non-Jews have, even though this open door is available to everyone. Secular Jews are just as much a part of Sinai as their religious brothers, whether they choose to acknowledge that fact or not. Every non-Jewish person on earth is equally invited to stand before the throne of the King by the mercy of God who sent the Messiah to both Jewish and Gentile humanity, if only we will accept that gracious offer. Jesus presents the Jews with the continual and perpetual fulfillment of the prophesy of the Messiah and a life lived in obedience to Torah as God intended from the beginning, and brings close a “grafted in” humanity together with the Jews in one Kingdom as we too respond to the Torah as proceeds from Jerusalem and as it is meant for us to comprehend and obey.

There is one Torah but two intents. Torah is the ketubah of Sinai for the Jews and at the same time, it is a light unto the nations. How Jews are forever “married” to God and we Christians are the “bride” of Messiah, I do not know, but of all the different mitzvot among the 613, many are selected to identify Jews as Jews forever, and other portions are indeed universal truths applied to all, for no man made in the image of the Creator should murder his fellow, or steal from him, or covet his property, or blaspheme the name of God or worship idols of stone or wood or paper.

Jew and Gentile, where do we start? Where do we start establishing a relationship with God and an understanding of each other? We start with studying the mitzvot of the tablets and the commandments of the Messiah. Most of all, we start with this one, new commandment that I believe Moshiach gave to each and every one of us, if only we have ears to hear.

I am giving you a new mitzvah: that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. –John 13:34 (DHE Gospels)

and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. –Isaiah 2:3

The Torah has gone forth from Zion, carried on the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, and we among the nations have heard the words of the Messiah and the “Word made flesh”. If we who are Christians can learn those lessons and the Jewish people can turn their hearts toward the Torah given by Moses and Jesus, then we will someday truly love one another in obedience to that Torah, and sit and eat together at the table of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 8:11) in fellowship and peace.

The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise; the orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart; the command of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever; the judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold, than even much fine gold; and sweeter than honey, and the drippings from its combs. –Psalm 19:8-11 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Yitro: Servants of the Lessons of Peace

And so the explanation of why the Exodus is given as the reason for G-d becoming the G-d of the Jewish people is obvious – G-d’s liberation of the Jews from slavery is what made it possible for Him to give us His Torah and mitzvos on Sinai.

Moreover, the fact that G-d took the Jews out of Egypt in order for them to serve Him was already mentioned several times in the Torah; in none of those places did Rashi find it necessary to explain that this “is sufficient reason for you to be subservient to Me.” What difficulty is there in this particular verse?

The difficulty which Rashi addresses is related to this very issue: Since the Jews were already well aware that the ultimate goal of the Exodus was the receipt of the Torah and submission to G-d, what was the need to mention yet again that G-d’s declaration: “I am G-d your L-rd” is the consequence of His being the One “who brought you out of the land of Egypt”?

Rashi therefore explains that “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is neither a reason nor an explanation for “I am G-d your L-rd.,” Rather, it is a wholly distinct matter – “Taking you out of Egypt is sufficient reason for you to be subservient to Me.”

“I am G-d your L-rd” implies the acceptance of G-d’s reign. The Jews accepted G-d as their king and ruler, and thereby obligated themselves to obey all His commands. G-d then added an additional matter – merely accepting G-d as king does not suffice; Jews must be wholly subservient to Him.

Accepting a king’s dominion does not preclude the possibility of a private life; it only means doing what the king commands and avoiding those things which the king prohibits. However, being “subservient to Me” means a Jew has no personal freedom; all his actions and possessions are subservient to G-d.

Performing Torah and mitzvos is unlike heeding the commands of a flesh-and-blood king, since it is done in a state of complete subservience. Every moment of a Jew’s life involves some aspect of Torah and mitzvos.

Commentary on Torah Portion Yitro
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XXVI pp. 124-128
and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish. The priests also, who come near the Lord, must stay pure, lest the Lord break out against them.” But Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.'” So the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them.” And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.

God spoke all these words, saying…Exodus 19:16-20:1 (JPS Tanakh)

I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and to be a part of this amazing, awesome, terrifying, wonderful experience of standing in the physical presence of the manifestation of God. Just to glimpse it from afar would have been an honor beyond imagination. This was and is truly the pivotal moment in all of Jewish history: the giving of the Torah. Nothing else would so uniquely define the Jews as a people and as the chosen nation of God. No other people have any experience that could compare to this pinnacle moment in the history of Israel. Or do we? I’ll get to that.

In the Chabad commentary I quoted from above, we see that there is an interesting comparison between serving a human King and serving the King of the Universe. As the Rabbis point out, serving an earthly King entails only obeying the specific orders of your monarch. Except for rare individuals, a subject of a King would still have a private life and individual pursuits that were apart from the King’s commands and laws.

This is not so when serving the King of Kings.

The Torah defines every single aspect of a Jew’s life, how he prays, how he works, how he eats, how he is to treat his wife, his neighbors, his animals, everything…every little detail. When the Children of Israel said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do,” (Exodus 19:8), they were pledging their very lives to God down to the tiniest action and thought. Yes, I know someone out there is going to tell me that according to the record in the Tanakh, the Hebrews were not always very successful in obeying God, but what’s important is the amazing scope of the promise, of the commandments, of having a God who so cared for you and your people that we was involved in every aspect of your existence, not just what you did in synagogue on Shabbat (or church on Sunday). You gave everything you were, are, and ever will be to God.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

We see here that the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Lamb, demanded nothing less of his disciples as well, but that’s to be expected.

But that brings me to an interesting question. Every Jew who has ever lived can point to Sinai and say, “that’s where we began…that’s who we are as a people forever.” In fact, each Jew is to behave not just as an inheritor of the Sinai covenant, but as if he or she had personally stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah!

Where do we Christians find such a moment in our lives? Do we have a “Sinai?”

When the day of the festival of Shavuot arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. –Acts 2:1-4 (ESV)

Note: I substituted “day of the festival of Shavuot” for the actual text which reads “day of Pentecost” to preserve the perspective of the Jewish Apostles.

Since Pentecost and Shavuot are essentially parallel occurrences, it’s not surprising that the empowering of the Holy Spirit came upon the Jewish Apostles on the same day as the anniversary of the Sinai event.

I have to admit to being somewhat let down. Christians are not encouraged to consider the Pentecost experience as literally their own (I suppose because Christians see salvation as an individual “accomplishment” rather than becoming part of the “body of Christ” and the “commonwealth of Israel”), as if they (we) were “all together in one place” with the Apostles as the “mighty rushing wind…filled the entire house where they were sitting.” We are to consider (sort of) the moment when we accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives as the moment when we have out Acts 2 experience, although no Christian I have ever met has described that moment in terms of “tongues of fire” appearing from heaven and resting upon them. Some people have described being able to suddenly “speak in tongues”, but I do know a person who, at an altar call at a local church some years ago, was encouraged by the Elder with him to “make something up” if the ability to speak in an “angelic language” didn’t manifest itself in him.

So much for majesty and awe.

For that matter, we don’t really know how Peter could tell that “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” while he was visiting the Roman God-fearer Cornelius in the Centurion’s home? (Acts 10:44)

However, this is as close to a “Sinai event” as we who are the non-Jewish disciples of the Master can achieve in the modern era. I don’t know what it means or doesn’t mean and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I don’t think things have been explained to us very well. I don’t think we’ve been told that one of the responsibilities we have in common with our Jewish brothers and sisters is the command to surrender our entire lives, every action, every word, every thought, to God, our King.

It’s not like we should be ignorant of this responsibility, since it’s all over the New Testament.

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ… –2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. –James 3:1-5 (ESV)

If we look at the words of the Master as recorded by Matthew and add the letters from Paul and James, we see that we too must surrender all that we are to God in everything, including our words and our very thoughts. How like the covenant at Sinai in this one very important dimension in the lives of we Christians.

Christianity prizes Grace over the commandments of the Law, but we tend to miss the fact that we have serious responsibilities and that freedom from sin doesn’t mean we can literally do whatever we want with our lives, pursuing the same matters in practically the same way as the secular people around us. We must be more in our actions, which we aren’t always taught matter as much as faith and having a “warm and fuzzy” feeling inside for Jesus. We are servants. With almost no exceptions, the original Jewish Apostles suffered for a long time and eventually died terrible deaths as the commitment to the Messiah required. This is the lesson they learned, not just as disciples of the Master, but as Jews who, like all of their people, personally stood at the foot of Sinai as the fire and the thunder and the sound of the great shofar sounded, and before their King declared, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”

Can there be peace between the people who stood at Sinai and we who inherit the Spirit of Pentecost? We are disciples of the Master, but where is the unity? Where is peace?

Peace refers to harmony between opposites. In an ultimate sense, it refers to a resolution of the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual, the forward movement enabling a world in which G-d’s presence is not outwardly evident to recognize and be permeated by the truth of His Being.

Moreover, true peace involves more than the mere negation of opposition. The intent is that forces which were previously at odds should recognize a common ground and join together in positive activity. Similarly, the peace which the Torah fosters does not merely involve a revelation of G-dliness so great that the material world is forced to acknowledge it. Instead, the Torah’s intent is to bring about an awareness of G-d within the context of the world itself.

There is G-dliness in every element of existence. At every moment Creation is being renewed; were G-d’s creative energy to be lacking, the world would return to absolute nothingness. The Torah allows us to appreciate this inner G-dliness, and enables us to live in harmony with it.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of the Torah
“Ripples of Inner Movement”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XI, p. 74ff; Vol. XV, p. 379ff;
Vol. XVI, p. 198; Sichos Shabbos Pashas Yisro, 5751

The portion of the Torah event we who are grafted in may take away with us, is that there is a path to peace, not only between Christian and Jew, but for all of mankind. We aren’t there yet. There is not even peace between all Christians or between all Jews. But someday, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4:4 [ESV]).

Good Shabbos.

Counting Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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