December 2008 Updates
The Heart's Truth...
[ The following is an exploration of a theme in this week's parashah (Vayigash). It's not a "finished" piece of writing, so please forgive me if it seems a bit disjointed at places... - jjp ]
12.31.08 According to Jewish tradition, it was Joseph's firstborn son Manasseh who was "the steward" who planted the silver goblet in Benjamin's sack and had him arrested as a thief (Gen. 44:1-13). But did Manasseh knowingly participate in Joseph's orchestrated charade? Did he understand that his uncles had come to Egypt or did he regard them simply as "Canaanite strangers"? Was he was simply "obeying orders" from his father as "Joseph's steward," or was he willingly conspiring against his uncles as Joseph's son? Regardless of his exact motivation, however, Jewish tradition maintains that Manasseh forfeited part of his inheritance for causing his uncles to rend their garments. As a divine consequence, the descendants of Manasseh were decreed to be the first of Israel carried into captivity by the Assyrians (c. 740 BC).
The moral of this story is that duplicitous words and actions -- even if they are intended to promote a greater good -- are unjustified and can even cause us to lose a portion of the blessing intended for our lives. The end never justifies the means. God is not a pragmatist, and there are no "noble lies" for sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But what are we to make of Joseph's words and actions? Wasn't his charade and his scheme to entrap his brothers based on deception? What's the difference between Manasseh's deception and his father Joseph's? Why does Jewish tradition forgive Joseph for his duplicity but blame his son? Moreover, why didn't Joseph send a message to his father after he became a man of power in Egypt? For that matter, why didn't he show compassion for his obviously needy family during a time of famine? Why did he exacerbate their suffering by arresting Simeon, thereby greatly increasing the heartache of Jacob (Gen. 42:24)? If Manasseh was punished for causing his uncle's garments to be rent, how much more should Joseph have been punished for the suffering he caused his entire family?
Various answers to these questions have been offered by the sages. Maimonides claimed that Joseph acted the way he did to see if his brothers had genuinely regretted their actions. Other sages have said that Joseph might have thought his father was somehow involved in the conspiracy to sell him. After all, Jacob had publicly reprimanded his son for his dreams (Gen. 37:10) and was the one who initially sent his son on the mission to spy on his brothers (Gen. 37:14) -- which eventually led to his sale to the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28). Moreover, wasn't Joseph's firstborn son called Manasseh, meaning "forgetting" in reference to "all my father's house" (Gen. 41:51)? Still others disagree and say that Joseph "forgot" his father's house because had he disclosed the truth, Jacob would have cursed his sons, and Joseph did not want this to occur. Joseph's withholding of his identity was therefore to be understood as an act of mercy toward his brothers. Still others say that Joseph's neglect of his father was the consequence of his father's neglect of his father Isaac while he was captive to Laban (i.e., the "sins of the fathers" are passed on to their children). And so on...
Perhaps the difference lies in the inward heart motivation. Joseph was endued with prophetic wisdom that was evidenced early in his life. His family listened as he recounted his God-given dreams. They must have understood the stakes of being the firstborn son (bechor) of Israel and therefore the stakes for the fledgling nation... Moreover, the battle between Joseph and his brothers was Joseph's -- not Manasseh's -- and therefore Manasseh was wrong to "take on" the offense of his father. Joseph's deception was therefore strategic, intended to defeat the initial deception of his father Jacob by his brothers... Furthermore, the silver goblet surreptitiously put into Benjamin's sack and the phony charges might have come from another motive: perhaps Joseph could not tolerate the pain of further separation from his only full-blooded brother (and son of his mother Rachel). Perhaps Joseph didn't want to risk never seeing Benjamin again, so his deception was based on love itself. Maimonides wrote that "Joseph was afraid that the brothers hated Benjamin, or were jealous of their father's love for him as they had been jealous of Joseph. He was afraid that Benjamin had realized that they had harmed Joseph and this had led to acrimony between them. Therefore Joseph did not want Benjamin to go with them lest they harm him, until he had verified their love for him" (Ramban, 42:9). Still, there is the nagging question, if Joseph had such compassion for his brother, why didn't he send word to his father after he began his ascent in Egypt?
There are various other cases of seemingly justified cases of deception in the Bible, of course. Both Abraham and Isaac deceived Avimelech yet were prospered by God (Gen. 20:14-15; Gen. 26:11-16); Jacob deceived his father Isaac yet inherited the divine blessing (Gen. 27:19,33); Leah and Rachel deceived Jacob yet became the matriarchs of Israel (Gen. 29:25); Joseph deceived his brothers yet was elevated as a savior of the family (Gen. 39-45); the Jewish midwives lied to Pharaoh concerning the birth of Jewish babies yet were rewarded by God (Exod. 1:17-20); Rahab lied to the king about the whereabouts of Joshua's spies yet became part of the lineage of Messiah (Josh. 2); Jael pretended to offer Sisera protection but hammered a tent peg into his head while he was asleep (Judges 4); Nathan the prophet "deceived" David into confessing his sin with Bathsheeba (2 Sam. 12), and so on. I am sure you can think of other examples....
There are a lot of questions regarding all of this, though wisdom explicitly instructs us to refrain from the practice of deception in our lives. The Scriptures clearly teach that deception is morally blameworthy: "Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights?" (Micah 6:11). The Holy Spirit, moreover, is called the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 16:13), and it is "impossible for God to lie" (Num. 23:19, Heb. 6:18, Titus 1:2). The Apostle Paul wrote: "Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another" (Eph. 4:25), and "Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices" (Col. 3:9). Throughout the ethical teaching of the Scriptures, the tzaddik, the righteous man, is always described as yashar - full of integrity and moral righteousness. In the heavenly Jerusalem to come, truth will reign completely, and "outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood" (Rev. 22:14).
Nonetheless, if deception is sometimes sovereignly "allowed" for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, the converse also appears to be true. Truth is sometimes expressed for the sake of the kingdom of Hell...
Sometimes true words and actions performed in an unloving or spiteful manner are morally blameworthy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) tells the story about how a teacher once humiliated one of her students by standing him up in front of the class to ask whether his father -- notoriously known as the town drunk -- had been out drinking the night before. The little boy knew the accusation was true but bravely announced "No." When the teacher mockingly asked him again, pressing him for "the truth," the boy was adamant: "NO!" Bonhoeffer's comment was that this little boy spoke more truth by his lie than if he had merely reported the "facts" to the class -- and thereby betrayed the dignity of his father... The truth is not some objective state of affairs that can be reported dispassionately. Without love as its context, such "truth" becomes a lie. Satan keeps his own books.
It is said that Joseph never told Jacob the truth about his betrayal by his brothers, not even when Jacob was on his deathbed. His love forbade him to engage in lashon hara (evil speech) or to bring further pain to his father. May God help us all "speak the truth in love" -- or else help us to keep silent.
Jesus the disguised "Egyptian"
12.30.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (Vayigash) includes Judah's sincere expression of teshuvah (repentance) on behalf of his brothers for the betrayal of Joseph, an act that finally convinced the (disguised) brother to reveal his true identity: ani Yosef ha'od avi chai ("I am Joseph; is my father alive?").
Before this dramatic disclosure took place, however, Joseph (thought to be an unknown Egyptian satrap) ensnared his brothers by hiding a silver divination goblet in Benjamin's sack and then sending his steward (his son Manesseh) to arrest Benjamin for stealing the goblet. All this was designed by Joseph to test his brothers. Would they abandon Benjamin, just as they had abandoned him to die in an empty well years earlier? After the arrest, the brothers returned to face the charges, and Judah nobly stepped forward and begged to take Benjamin's place for the "crime." When Joseph understood that Judah was willing to sacrifice his own life for his brother -- and when he saw the anxious looks of his other brothers -- he realized that they had learned their lesson.
Joseph then sent all the Egyptians out of the room, to spare his brothers embarrassment. According to Midrash, he then turned to his brothers and said, "You told me that your brother Joseph died. Are you sure?" "Yes, we are; he's dead," the brothers assured him. Joseph then became angry and said, "How can you lie? You sold him as a slave. I bought him and can call him right now." Joseph then called out, "Joseph, son of Jacob, come here right now to speak to your brothers."
Terrified, the brothers turned to see if Joseph was coming. When Joseph saw that his brothers were prepared to meet their brother and ask for his forgiveness, he then spoke to them in Hebrew, "Who are you looking for? I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" (Notice that Joseph revealed himself to his brothers using Hebrew speech as the token of his identity.) When Joseph saw his brothers draw back in fear at his shocking disclosure, he reassured them by saying, g'shu na elai - "Please come near to me; come and see..."
When Joseph's father Jacob later learned that his long-lost son was indeed alive, vatechi ruach ya'akov avihem - "the spirit of their father Jacob was revived." Though for over 22 years Jacob was bereaved, all along his beloved son was only a few days journey away from him. According to Jewish tradition, Joseph never told Jacob about his betrayal by his brothers, not even when Jacob was on his deathbed. His love forbade him to engage in lashon hara (evil speech) or to bring further pain to his father.
The revelation of Joseph and his reconciliation with his brothers is a prophetic picture of acharit ha-yamim (the "End of Days") when the Jewish people, in Great Tribulation, will come to Yeshua as Israel's deliverer. Presently, the veil is still over the eyes of the Jewish people and they collectively regard Yeshua as an "Egyptian" of sorts.
On a pshat level (i.e., literal sense), when Joseph revealed his identity: ani Yosef ha'od avi chai ("I am Joseph; is my father alive?"), he was asking his brothers if his father Jacob was still physically alive. This is puzzling, since in earlier encounters the brothers attested that Jacob was very much alive... On a sod level (i.e., in a mysterious sense), since Joseph is a picture of Yeshua (Mashiach ben Yosef), the question can be phrased, "I am Yeshua - is My father alive?," that is, do you now understand the righteousness of God the Father in raising me from the dead and promoting me to His right hand?
Time is short, chaverim... We are approaching the End of Days and time of "Great Tribulation." In a soon-coming hour Yeshua will speak comforting words to His long-lost brothers (in Hebrew, to be sure!) and restore their place of blessing upon the earth. May He come speedily, and in our days. Maran ata, Yeshua!
If God is willing, I will add additional commentary to this Torah reading later this week....
Happy New Year for Ugo?
[ Recently I received an email from a well-known, conservative Church (left unnamed) urging us to come and celebrate the "New Year" with them. The message announced that at the end of an evening of fun and worship, there would be a planned communion service - presumably so that the sacraments could be taken just before midnight on December 31st! Oy vey... So what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem -- again? ]
12.29.08 The study of the various calendar systems used in the world is highly convoluted and intricate. Consider, for example, the ancient calendars of the Egyptians, the Summerians (i.e., Babylonians), and the Aztecs. Or consider the Druid legends and Stone Henge.... Indeed, there are numerous calendar systems that have been developed throughout human history -- some based on the appearance of the moon (lunar calendars), some based on the sun (solar calendars), and still others based on various astrological signs and omens (the Aztecs followed the movements of the planet Venus, and the Romans counted backwards from fixed points of the moon's cycle and considered months of 29 days to be unlucky).
The Torah designates the month of Nisan (Scripturally called aviv, or "Spring") as the first month of the year (Exod. 12:2). Originally, then, the Hebrew calendar was lunar and observational. When the new moon was sighted, a new month begun. Since the Torah also identified Sukkot as "the end of the (harvest) year" (Exod. 23:16), the sages of the Mishnah later identified the Fall month of Tishri (i.e., the "seventh month") as the start of a new year.... During the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), Babylonian names for the months (i.e., Tammuz) were adopted. This might harken back to the earlier Summerian Calendar of Abraham's day...
By the time the Mishnah was compiled (200 AD), the sages had identified four new-year dates for every lunar-solar year (the modern Jewish calendar was apparently ratified by Hillel the Elder in the 3rd century AD):
- Nisan 1 - (Rosh Chodashim) This is the start of the year from the point of view of the Scriptures. Nisan 1 marks the start of the month of the Exodus from Egypt and the beginning of Jewish national history. Nisan 1 is also the first for counting the Festivals of the Hebrew Calendar.
- Elul 1 - This is the start of the year from the point of view of tithing of cattle for Temple sacrifices. Since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the rabbis decreed that this date should mark the time of Selichot, or preparation for repentance before Rosh Hashanah.
- Tishri 1 - After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis decreed that Tishri 1 would mark the start of the year from the point of view of Jewish civic life. Tishri 1 therefore is called Rosh Hashanah ("head of the year") that begins a ten-day "trial" of humanity that climaxes on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
- Shevat 15 - (Tu B'Shevat) This is the start of the year from the point of view of tithing of fruit trees. Today Tu B'Shevat represents a national Arbor Day in Israel, with tree planting ceremonies in Israel.
In practical terms, however, there are two "New Years" in Jewish tradition. The first occurs two weeks before Passover (Nisan 1) and the second occurs ten days before Yom Kippur (the other two "new years" are not regularly observed, except by the ultra-orthodox). The first New Year is Biblical and is called Rosh Chodashim (see Exod. 12:2). This is the month of the redemption of the Jewish people -- and it is also the month in which Yeshua was sacrificed upon the cross at Moriah for our sins. Oddly enough for most Christians, "New Years Day" should be really celebrated in the Spring....
All of this is in striking contrast, however, with the most widely used calendar in the world today -- the "Gregorian Calendar" -- named after Pope Gregory XIII who reigned over the Catholic Church in the 1500's.
The Gregorian Calendar, considered to be a revision to the Julian Calendar (which was itself a revision of the pagan Roman/Greek calendars) retains most of the names of the days of the week and months of the year from pagan Rome (and therefore, ancient Greece). The ancient Greeks named the days of the week after the sun, the moon and the five known planets (Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn) which themselves were associated with the gods Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite, and Cronus, respectively:
- Sunday. Latin: dies solis - "Sun Day." Sunday celebrates the sun god, Ra, Helios, Apollo, Ogmios, Mithrias, or the sun goddess, Phoebe. In the year 321 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine ruled that the first day of the week, 'the venerable day of the sun', should be a day of rest. The name was later changed to dies Dominica, "Lord's Day" in ecclesiastical tradition.
- Monday. Latin: lunae dies - "Moon Day." Monday was named in honor of the Assyrian goddess, Selene, Luna and Mani. In old English, mon(an)daeg meant "day of the moon."
- Tuesday. Latin: dies Martis - "Day of Mars." In Greek mythology Ares was the god of war (renamed "Mars" by the Romans). In English, "Tuesday" comes from Tiu (Twia), the English/Germanic god of war and the sky (identified with the Nordic god called Tyr).
- Wednesday. Latin: dies Mercurii - "Day of Mercury." In Greek mythology Hermes was the god of trade and commerce (renamed "Mercury" by the Romans). In English, the name "Wednesday" derives from the Scandinavian god Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. Woden is the chief Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic god, the leader of the Wild Hunt.
- Thursday. Latin: dies Iovis - "Day of Jupiter." In Greek mythology Zeus was the god of the sky (renamed "Jupiter" by the Romans). The English word "Thursday" comes from the Middle English Thorsday, refering to "Thor" (the Nordic counterpart to Jupiter).
- Friday. Latin: dies Veneris - "Day of Venus." In Greek mythology Aphrodite was the goddess of love/fertility (renamed "Venus" by the Romans). The name "Friday" comes from Freya (Fria), the name of the Norse god Odin's wife and Teutonic goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.
- Saturday. Latin: dies Saturni - "Day of Saturn." In Greek mythology Cronus was the god of the harvest (renamed "Saturn" by the Romans) who ruled until dethroned by his son Zeus.
Likewise the names of the months ("moons") have pagan-Roman connections. The month of "January," for instance, is named on behalf of Janus, the two-faced Roman "god of doorways" who had one face looking forward and one backward ("Janus faced"). March is named after Mars, the god of war; April for the fertility goddess Aphrodite, July is named on behalf of Julius Caesar, August for Augustus Caesar, and so on.... Of course, the Gregorian Calendar of the Roman church tradition assimilated the pagan pantheon into its own liturgical calendar, as the Latin names of the days and months reveal.
It frankly baffles me that certain Christian teachers and preachers can be so meticulous about certain doctrines (such as justification by faith alone, the definition of the "church," the "inerrancy" of Scripture, the exact formula for baptism, etc.) and yet be seemingly oblivious to the fact that the modern, institutionalized Church inherits much of its substance and practice from the pagan Roman world... True, the Jews themselves adopted pagan names of the months from ancient Babylonia, but the Torah (as opposed to Jewish tradition) calls months (and days) by their ordinal number (the "first" month, the "second" month, etc.), and explicitly mentions that the New Year begins in Spring (aviv). So, while I'd like to wish you all a "Happy New Year," I think I will wait until Nisan 1! Meanwhile, I hope and pray that you draw close to our Lord Yeshua, regardless of the time or day! Shalom Chaverim...
Addendum: I am not advocating the abandonment of the secular calendar in preference to the Biblical calendar, at least for everyday matters in this world. Conventionally we all use the words "Monday," "Tuesday," "January," "February," and so on without regard for ancient pagan associations with these names.... Since we live in a secular culture, we are constrained to use some of the same terms as the culture around us, especially regarding times, dates, etc. Nevertheless, Yeshua told us we were to be "in but not of" the world (John 17:5), and I am concerned that the predominantly Gentile Church seems hopelessly out of touch with the divine calendar and the purpose of the festivals of the LORD. Perhaps this is a result of the almost intractable problem of "Covenant Theology" or its cousin, "Dispensationalism," two interpretative methods that are used by various church theologians as they read the Scriptures. Churches that teach "Covenant Theology" advocate a form of "Replacement Theology," claiming that Israel should really be identified with the Gentile "church." On the other hand, churches that teach "Dispensationalism" consider the "Old Testament" to be worthy of instruction but really applicable only to the Jewish people (the Pauline epistles and perhaps the Gospel of John, on the other hand, are intended for the predominantly Gentile church). I believe that both approaches misread the Scriptures. (For more on this subject, see this article).
Chanukah - Day 8
12.28.08 The Hebrew word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) means "dedication" and marks an eight day winter celebration that commemorates the victory of faith over the ways of speculative reason, and demonstrates the power of the miracle in the face of mere humanism. Generally speaking, Chanukah is a "fighting holiday" -- a call to resist the oppression of this world and to exercise faith in the LORD. This year Chanukah runs from Sunday, December 21st at sundown (i.e., Kislev 25) until December 29th (i.e., Tevet 2). Wishing you all Chanukah Sameach - "Happy Chanukah" - during this special season, chaverim. Click the Menorah below for more information about this Holiday:
Here is a sequence of photos we took on the last day of Chanukah, year 5769. From my family to you -- Happy Chanukah! (I am adding larger pictures as I find time; for now, click for a larger picture of the table):
Chanukah Day 7
12.27.08 We enjoyed some fellowship with my in-laws on the seventh night of Chanukah. Here are a few pictures (click):
Chanukah Day 6
12.26.08 We enjoyed some fellowship with a friend on the sixth night of Chanukah, which was also a Shabbat. Here are a few pictures (click each image for larger version):
Chanukah Day 5
12.26.08 With Christmas and Chanukah overlapping this year, we are once again faced with the "cognitive dissonance" of being Messianic believers among those steeped in various Church traditions.... We are not welcome among those Jews who reject Yeshua as their Mashiach, nor do our Christian friends consider us anything but a bit "odd" for finding such beauty, truth, and prophetic significance in the festival of Chanukah.... Hence we feel like outsiders in the Churches and unwelcomed by most Jewish communities. And so it goes, yet we remain steadfast in our conviction that Jesus is indeed the Light of the World and the inner significance of all the Festivals of the LORD.
Wishing you all a season of Light and Joy in our Messiah....
12.25.08 We sincerely wish you a wonderful Christmas Season. It is our prayer that we take some time to reflect upon the profound gift of the One who was so great that He emptied Himself of all His regal glory and power in order to be our earthly High Priest, able to fully sympathize with our weaknesses and frailties. The birth of Yeshua is the greatest miracle and gift ever given, and all the world's most glorious music played in perfect unison would never be enough to resound in complete thanks and adoration for God's salvation obtained through Him.
Even the pagan, postmodern world cannot escape the allure and romance implied in the gift of God's Son to the world, though of course it has hijacked the inner meaning of this miraculous event for commercialism and mammon. Nonetheless, we glory in the birth of Yeshua and understand that it represents the very salvation of the world. Indeed, the Father so loved the world (and that includes the secular world of postmodern despair) that He gave His only begotten Son to be the means of salvation for all....
The birth of Yeshua is of course connected to His sacrificial death, and the life He lived in complete surrender to the Father was meant to demonstrate that He alone is the efficacious Healer and High Priest (Mediator) of us all. "But [He] made himself nothing (εκενωσεν), taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men; and being found in human form, he brought himself low by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8). "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:1-4).
By putting our trust in Him, we partake in His chayei olam - eternal life - sharing in His invincible love. He is faithful and true, our Prince of Peace and the true Light of the World (אוֹר הָעוֹלָם). Blessed be His Name forever.
כָּבוֹד לֵאלהִים בַּמְּרוֹמִים
וְשָׁלוֹם עֲלֵי אֲדָמוֹת בְּקֵרֵב אַנְשֵׁי רְצוֹנוֹ
ka·vod · le·lo·him · ba·me·ro·mim
ve·sha·lom · a·lei · a·da·mot · be·ke·rev · an·shei · re·tzo·no
"Glory to God in the highest,
and upon earth peace, among men - good will."
Chanukah Day 4
12.24.08 My in-laws are sick so we had another simple Chanukah celebration at home tonight. We made some Chanukah cookies that we decorated (see pic, below) and later took Josiah out sledding for a bit. We lit the candles, said the berachot, and asked the Light of the World (אוֹר הָעוֹלָם) to shine His light in our hearts....
From our family to yours -- Chag Sameach! Happy Holidays!
Chanukah Day 3
12.23.08 We are living in darkened days, chaverim... The mainstream (i.e., apostate) Church has lost its way, while the propaganda and fearmongering of the world (i.e., the "news") increasingly advocates for a (prophesied) "New World Order" (that is, the final expression of "Babylon" in olam ha-zeh). In such a time as this, we must remain true to our convictions and seek to strengthen our faith. The powers of darkness shall never prevail over the truth and love of God. As King David once said, "Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise against me, yet will I be confident" (Psalm 27:3). This is a major theme of Chanukah - retelling the victory of faith in God despite godlessness and worldly oppression.
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is stronger than death,
passion fiercer than the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame. - Song, 8:6
Chanukah Day 2
12.22.08 We had a very simple celebration of Chanukah as a family tonight - lighting the candles, offering tzedakah, praying, and eating some delicious latkes and soup that Olga made. We played dreidel after dinner and listened to some klezmer music. I think this is Josiah's favorite holiday. The pictures below were taken in our kitchen this evening. Happy Holidays, chaverim.
Parashat Miketz - מקץ
12.22.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (which occurs on the 6th day of Chanukah) is parashat Miketz. As this portion opens, Jacob's favored son Joseph had been languishing in prison for 12 years, but the appointed time had finally arrived for him to fulfill the dreams given to him as a young man. In this connection, I list some of the ways that Joseph is a "type" or foreshadowing of the coming Jesus as the Suffering Servant (Mashiach ben Yosef). For more, please see the summary page for Miketz.
Chanukah Torah Readings. Because Chanukah is an eight-day holiday, and a week is only seven days, there has to be at least one day when Shabbat and Chanukah overlap (on years when Chanukah begins on a Shabbat, there are actually two overlapping Shabbats). This year, the Shabbat that Chanukah occurs is on day 6 (i.e., the 27th of December), which is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet (the New Moon of Tevet, 5769). When Chanukah and Shabbat overlap, a different Haftarah (prophetic) portion is read at the synagogue. For a list of the additional Chanukah Torah readings, please see the Weekly Parashah main page.
New Hebrew Names of God Book
12.22.08 Of all the words of Scripture, the Names and Titles of God are surely among the most significant. When God personally reveals His name to us, He is showing us something of what He is like -- His attributes, His purposes, and will.
As some of you might know, I am working on a new book entitled, "The Hebrew Names of God." This resource will include detailed information about the various Hebrew Names (and Titles) of God as revealed in the Jewish Scriptures -- including the New Testament writings. You will see the correct Hebrew spellings (along with English transliterations) and gain spiritual insights about the meaning and usage for each Name and Title for God. An audio CD will help you pronounce each name according to an authentic Israeli accent.
Here's a "sneak peak" of the book's front cover:
I sincerely appeal for your prayers regarding this work, chaverim. Despite being unemployed, I am extremely busy maintaining this web site. In addition to adding fresh Torah commentary every week, I write various articles (on all sorts of subjects), update the site content to adhere to the Jewish moedim (holiday) cycle, process book orders and inquiries, and answer numerous email questions about theology, the Jewish roots, etc., every day.... I also administrate the Hebrew4Christians web forums, which itself requires a good deal of time. Please agree with me in prayer that I can get this book finished within the next few months. Thank you so much -- and Happy Holidays!
Chanukah Day 1
12.21.08 We celebrated the first day of Chanukah both at our home and a bit later over at my in-laws. It was a precious time reciting the blessings, lighting the candles, eating latkes, listening to music, and spending some time together. We wish you could have been there! From our family to yours: Happy Holidays, chaverim.
We have been praying about starting a grace-based Messianic chavurah some time in the future... If you live in the Minneapolis area and are interested, please contact me.
Getting Reading for Chanukah...
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. -- The Apostle John (1 Jn. 2:15-17)
12.20.08 Chanukah is a story about remaining committed to God in a godless, and therefore insane, world. After all, if ultimate reality is the "handiwork" (i.e., conscious design) of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, morally perfect, purposive, personal, and spiritual Agency that has been revealed in the Jewish Scriptures, then those who deny this Reality are living in a state of delusion (that is, a protracted "hallucination" that indicates radical departure from what is real). In a sense, the history of humanity - especially as it has been expressed politically -- has been nothing less than the collusion to define reality as something that it isn't. Spiritual warfare is therefore the fight for sanity and truth in a world that prefers madness and self-deception.
Despite being an anti-Semite, the early Church father Tertullian (160-220 AD) once asked a very good question: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" He was right for asking the question, though ironically, as a Greek-minded "replacement theologian," he was wrong for categorically libeling the Jewish people (see Adversus Iudaeos, c. 200 AD). Historically speaking, religious Jews have always loved the Torah and resisted the pull toward assimilation... Indeed, what other nation has survived over the millennia as have the Jewish people? Sadly, it is a continuing sin of many of today's "church leaders" to disregard the miraculous existence of Israel - including the modern State of Israel - by refusing to give the LORD God of Israel glory for His faithfulness.... Look, if God isn't faithful to the promises made to ethnic Israel, what makes these people think He won't change His mind regarding the Church? But I digress here...
Historically, Chanukah remembers the Maccabee's resistance to the forced Hellenization (i.e., the spread of pagan Greek culture) of the Jewish people, though more generally it represents the ongoing struggle against assimilation to the prevailing "world system." In modern day America, for instance, the pressure to assimilate takes the form of "political correctness" and the acceptance of official propaganda that multicultural pluralism/cultural relativism is the truth. For those of us who follow Jesus, Chanukah is the bold proclamation that the Light of the World has come, "but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (see John 3:19).
The story of Chanukah goes back to ancient Greece and the pagan worldviews of Hesoid and Homer, Plato and Aristotle. Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC), the tutelage of Aristotle, became a militant King of Macedon who swept across Syria, Egypt, and Babylonia to defeat the mighty Persian Empire. Alexander's rapid military conquests extended Greek culture and influence throughout the civilized world. When he later died (323 BC), Alexander's kingdom was divided into four parts and the land of Israel became a province of Syria under the rule of the Seleucid dynasty.
In 175 BC, a new king, Antiochus IV (also called "Epihpanes") ascended the throne in Syria. Under the "auspices" of his regime, Jerusalem began to look more and more like a Greek city as Hellenistic culture was officially promoted. Antiochus allowed Hellenistic Jews to have prominent roles in the Holy Temple - so much so that even a non-priest (named Menelaus) was given the role of being the Temple's Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This enraged many Jews, however, who then called for Egyptian rule instead of Syrian (the Egyptians were more tolerant of local customs and did not force Hellenization). Later, when Antiochus returned from an unsuccessful military campaign against Egypt, he decided to quell the Jewish call for Egyptian rule and murdered some 40,000 people in Jerusalem. Soon after this, he decreed that Jews must abandon their faith in the Torah and to cease offering sacrifices in the Temple. The Holy Temple itself was desecrated and images of the god of Zeus (the "sky god") were placed on the altar and in the sanctuary. Pagan altars were soon erected throughout Judea and pigs were regularly sacrificed upon them. The study of Torah was outlawed (as well as the observance of Shabbat, holidays, and ritual circumcision), and the penalty for disobedience to these decrees was death.
Many Jews fled and hid in the wilderness and caves and many died kiddush HaShem - as martyrs (see Heb. 11:36-39). Eventually Jewish resistance to this imposed Hellenization meant literal war. In 164 BC, in Modin, a small town about 17 miles from Jerusalem, Mattityahu (Matthias), a Hasmonean priest, and his five sons took refuge. When Antiochus' soldiers arrived at Modim to erect an altar to Zeus and force the sacrifice of a pig, Mattityahu and his sons rose up and killed the Syrians. They then fled to the Judean wilderness and were joined by other freedom fighters. After some organizing, they soon engaged in successful guerrilla warfare against their Syrian/Greek oppressors.
Mattityahu died about a year later and his son Judah became the leader of the resistance. Judah came to be known as the "Maccabee" -- a title that either was an acronym of the phrase, Mi komocha ba'elim Adonai, "Who is like You among the gods, LORD?" (Exod. 15:11) or else was derived from the Hebrew word for "hammer" (makevet), indicating his ferocity in battle. According to legend (Shabbat 21b), on the 25th of Kislev, three years to the day after the Syrian/Greeks had defiled the Holy Temple by making it a shrine to Zeus, the Maccabees vanquished their oppressors and recaptured the Temple. When the faithful Jewish priests searched for the holy olive oil to light the menorah, however, they found only one jar that was not defiled (i.e., only one still had the seal of the High Priest). The oil in this jar was sufficient to burn for only one day, and it would take eight days until a new supply could be produced. According to tradition, the one-day supply of oil miraculously burned in the menorah for eight days, and later, this eight day period was commemorated as Chunukah, "Dedication," also known as the Festival of Lights.
Interestingly, Chanukah is mentioned only a couple times in the Talmud (i.e., Shabbat 20a, 21b), perhaps because the Maccabean dynasty (the forefathers of the Sadducees) eventually became entirely corrupt, and the Talmud (which grew out of Pharisaic tradition) did not want to draw much attention to them. Therefore the Talmud's statements (recorded centuries after the Maccabean rebellion) focus on the miracle of the oil rather than on the merits of the Maccabean resistance. This approach has been adopted in normative (rabbinical) Judaism, and today Chanukah primarily centers on the miracle of the lights (i.e., the lighting of the candles) rather than the militant overthrow of religious persecutors.
Chanukah is alluded to in the Torah itself, however. First, the 25th word of the Torah is the Hebrew word or (אוֹר) "light," (as in "Let there be light" - Gen. 1:3), and some of the sages say that this fact suggests Kislev 25. Second, immediately after the festivals (moedim) of the Jewish year are enumerated in Leviticus 23, the commandment to "bring clear oil from hand-crushed olives to keep the menorah burning constantly" is given (Lev. 24:1-2), and this connection is said to foresee the time of Chanukah.
Some Bible scholars say that the prophet Daniel foresaw the events of Chanukah centuries beforehand in a vision of a "male goat running from the west" with a conspicuous horn between its eyes (Alexander the Great) that was broken into four (Dan. 8:1-12). Out of the four horns arose a "little horn" (Antiochus) who greatly magnified itself, cast down some of the stars (righteous souls), took away the sacrifices, and cast down the sanctuary in Jerusalem. Years after the Maccabean revolt, Jesus celebrated Chanukah in the same Temple that had been cleansed and rededicated only a few generations earlier (John 10:22). It was here that many asked if He were the coming Messiah -- harkening back to the liberation of the earlier Maccabees. During a season of remembering miracles (nissim), Jesus pointed out that the works that He did attested to His claim to be the long-awaited Mashiach of the Jewish people (John 10:37-38).
Finally, in an eschatological sense "Epihpanes" foreshadows the coming time of the "Messiah of Evil" (anti-christ) who will one day attempt to "assimilate" all of humanity into a "New World Order" (Dan. 9:27, 2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 13:7-9, etc.). At first he will appear to be a "world savior" who will broker peace for Israel and the Mideast, but after awhile, like his archetype Epiphanes, he will savagely betray the Jewish people and set up a "desolating sacrilege" in the Holy Place of the Temple (Mattt. 24:15). His satanic rise will occur during acharit hayamim - the "End of Days" - otherwise called the period of the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24). The Final Victory of God will be established when Yeshua returns to destroy this Messiah of Evil at His Second Coming. The Holy Temple will then be rebuilt and dedicated by the hand of the true Mashiach of Israel...
Practically speaking, the word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) means "dedication," a word that shares the same root as the Hebrew the word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ), meaning "education." Just as the Maccabees fought and died for the sake of Torah truth, so we must wage war within ourselves and break the stronghold of apathy and indifference that the present world system engenders. We must take time to educate ourselves by studying the Torah and New Testament, for by so doing we will be rededicated to the service of the truth and enabled to resist assimilation into the corrupt world. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world... (1 John 2:15). The "cleansing of the Temple" is a matter of the heart, chaverim. The enemy is apathy and the unbelief it induces. We are called to "fight the good fight of faith" and not to conform to this present age with its seductions and compromises (1 Tim. 6:12, Rom. 12:2).
Finally, a quick note about lighting your chanukiah (i.e., menorah for Chanukah). Each person of the family should light their own menorah. On the first night, after the stars appear, the first candle is placed at the end of the menorah, facing the right hand. We light the shamash candle, recite the traditional blessings (lehadlik ner shel Chanukah, she'ash nissim, and the Shehecheyanu) and then light the rightmost candle. Put the shamash into its holder. We then recite the Ha-nerot ha-lalu statement. We let the candles burn all the way down....
On the second night, we add one candle to the left (now we have two at the right end of the menorah). We light the shamash, recite the blessings (minus the Shehecheyanu), and light the candles left-to-right in the menorah (i.e., the newest candle is lit first). Again we recite the Ha-nerot ha-lalu statement. And so on for the eight days of Chanukah.
It is customary to eat potato latkes and jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot) while celebrating God's providential love and protection at this time. Playing the dreidel game helps us remember that "a great miracle happened there." Giving tzedakah ("charity") is also encouraged at this time. (In Israel, on erev Chanukah (just before the first night), marathon runners carry a torch from the flame of the menorah at the village of Modin to the Western Wall of the Temple to kindle a giant-sized menorah there.)
It is an old custom to place the chanukiah where its lights will be seen from the outside. Often this means placing at least one chanukiah in front of a window. Note that the candles should appear right-to-left from the vantage point of someone looking from the outside of your house or apartment....
Here's a practical tip. To clean your chanukiah after Chanukah, use a hairdryer -- set on low -- and heat up the menorah wherever you see the wax drippings. Use a butter knife to peel away the warmed wax....
Wishing you a joyful time of celebrating the overcoming victory of the Light of the World, chaverim (John 1:5).
Happy Chanukah! - חֲנוּכָּה שָׂמֵחַ
The Hebrew word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) means "dedication" and marks an eight day winter celebration that commemorates the victory of faith over the ways of speculative reason, and demonstrates the power of the miracle in the face of mere humanism. Generally speaking, Chanukah is a "fighting holiday" -- a call to resist the oppression of this world and to exercise faith in the LORD. This year Chanukah runs from Sunday, December 21st at sundown (i.e., Kislev 25) until December 29th (i.e., Tevet 2). Wishing you all Chanukah Sameach - "Happy Chanukah" - during this special season, chaverim. Click the Menorah below for more information about this Holiday:
When was Jesus born?
12.19.08 Those of you who have read my Christmas article understand that I think the Biblical evidence suggests that Yeshua (Jesus) was actually born during the festival of Sukkot but was conceived during the Festival of Lights (Chanukah, beginning on Kislev 25). For this reason we celebrate Christmas by remembering the greatest of all miracles -- the Incarnation itself -- when God the Son chose to divest Himself of his regal glory (kenosis) and began His redemptive descent into this world. This momentous event marked the climactic entrance of God into space-time history as the promised "Seed of the woman" (Genesis 3:15) who would come to deliver us from the kelalah (curse) of sin and slavery to the evil one. The One born "King of the Jews" had finally come to ransom his people Israel (Matt. 2:2)! Blessed be His Name forever.
kavod lelohim bameromim, v'shalom alei-adamot b'kerev anshei retzono
"Glory to God in the highest, and peace among those with whom he is pleased!"(Luke 2:14)
Should Christians Celebrate Chanukah?
12.19.08 Should Christians celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights? Well, Jesus Himself did so (John 10:22-24), and thereby identifed with the Jewish people and their desire to be set free from the oppression of their enemies. Moreover, since Jesus was most likely conceived during this time (see the entry above), we view Chanukah as a sacred time to celebrate the Miracle of the Incarnation, when the Light of the World first entered historical space-time in the womb of Miriam.
Please let us wish you a very happy and joy-filled Chanukah and Christmas season! Our family loves Chanukah... It's such a festive time, and we always sense the LORD's Presence in the room as we recite the blessings, light the holiday candles, sing some songs, pray, and EAT latkes! It's a joyous season, and its message is more important today than ever before...
DOWNLOAD THE PDF FILE OF CHANUKAH BLESSINGS
Heart of the Law...
Law of the Gospel
[ Note: I intended to add some additional comments about this week's Torah reading today, but I changed my mind after reading some things on certain "Messianic" web sites that openly advocate "Torah observance" (i.e., following rabbinical tradition) as the way to follow Jesus... The following is a partial response to this misleading practice. For other ways of approaching this difficult issue, see the Articles pages. - John ]
12.18.08 During His earthly ministry, was Yeshua (Jesus) instructing us to become followers of Moses? Did He come and die on the Cross so that we could be forgiven and therefore "start over" by keeping the Law (and its 613 commandments)? Is the gospel message really a sort of "reformation" of Temple Judaism? Did Yeshua come to renew the covenant made with Israel at Sinai or did he come to give us a new and better covenant that would somehow supersede it (Heb. 8:6)? In the light of his teaching, it appears that the answer to each of these questions is both a "yes" and "no."
When Jesus proclaimed, "Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17-20), he was actually amplifying the message of both Moses and the prophets, though his interpretation was contrary to various "traditional" views of his day. "You have heard that it was said [in the law, or by your sages...] ... BUT I SAY unto you..."
As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus continually affirmed the inner meaning of the Torah, especially the Shema and the related obligation to love others (Matt. 22:36-40). In that regard His doctrine was surely a continuance of the Torah's foundational message. However, Jesus clearly extended the reach of the Torah to include the inner heart attitude of the person. Observing the law was not a matter of adhering to various external codes of conduct but involved the rigorous self-examination of the heart and soul.
The law forbade the act of murder, for example, but Jesus extended the scope of the law to reach the intent of the heart: "You have heard it said (i.e., by Moses himself as he quoted the words of YHVH) 'You shall not murder...' but I say unto you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause is liable to excommunication; whoever insults his brother is liable to punishment, and whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of the fires of Hell" (Matt. 5:21-22). As someone once put it, murder is just anger "communicated really well..."
Likewise, the law forbade the act of adultery, but Jesus focused not on the external action but rather the heart condition: "You have heard it said, (i.e., by Moses himself as he quoted the words of YHVH) 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart." When Jesus explained that the law's intent was to prevent even looking with lust upon a woman, for all the more reason it should be obvious that we refrain from physical acts of adultery or fornication. Dealing with the inner heart attitude that gives rise to the lustful look therefore obviates the need to forbid the outer practice of the flesh (and therefore fulfills the intent of the law against adultery).
In matters relating to 1) divorce (i.e., Deut. 24:1-4), 2) the taking of oaths (Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Num. 30:2; Exod. 20:16), 3) the exercise of retribution (Exod. 21:23-24, Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21), and 4) the obligation to hate one's enemies (Deut. 7:2, 13:15-17, 20:16, Psalm 137:9, etc.), Jesus actually circumvented the written words of Torah by denying matters that were technically permissible according to the "letter of the law" (Matt. 5:31-47). We see this clearly in the case of divorce, for instance. When the Pharisees asked him whether it was permissible to put away one's wife (Deut. 24:1-4), Jesus answered: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 18:8). Note once again that the rigor of Jesus' interpretation superseded that of Moses himself, who permitted divorce as a concession to human frailty and evil. Indeed, in each of these examples (divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, tribal loyalty), Jesus' interpretation was more demanding and rigorous than the written laws found in the Torah of Moses.
By expounding the requirements of the law with such rigor, Jesus was claiming equal authority with YHVH Himself (יהוה). After all, each antecedent clause, "You have heard that it was said..." referred to an explicit utterance made by the LORD Himself at Sinai. Jesus then authoritatively extended the reach of the commandment by identifying its underlying ethical intent. This is what he meant by "fulfilling" the Law, or reaching the goal of the Torah's message. The time of "circumcision of the heart" was at hand (Deut. 30:6). The message of the law was to be written on hearts of flesh, not tablets of stone (Jer. 31:33, 2 Cor. 3:3,6; etc.).
The law of God - in particular, the moral aspect of the law - is indeed "holy, just, and good," though it is powerless to change the heart. This is not because the law is sinful, but rather because it reveals the presence of sin in our hearts. The law simply demands that we live as morally perfect agents -- regardless of our heredity, infirmities, social status, education, and so on. Like a flawless mirror, the law reflects back to us the truth of our moral and spiritual condition, and thereby reveals our need for deliverance from ourselves. The "problem of the law" is that it is "weak" on account of human "flesh," and therefore remedy had to be sought through other means (Rom. 8:1-4). This is the ultimate gospel message itself - that God sent His Son to both save us from the just verdict of the law (through Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice) and to provide the heart's means to serve Him in the truth (through the agency of the Holy Spirit, given to those who trust in Him).
To underscore the need for personal deliverance, Jesus was once asked by "a rich young ruler" what "good deed" must be done to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16-22). Jesus answered with the statement, "Keep the commandments," and then provided the mitzvot listed in the second half of the tablets (that is, the commandments that dealt with social relationships). When he was further asked, "What else do I lack?" Jesus told him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. The "one thing missing" in this man's observance was the heart -- namely, love and genuine compassion for the poor. Such love was not something that could be gained by merely "following the rules" but required a radical heart change. Again, Jesus was calling for religious observance that was far more rigorous than was conventionally understood by the Jewish leaders of His day. It's the inner intent of the commandments that matter, not mere conformity to an external ideal. "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Sometimes those who advocate "Torah observance" for the Christian seem to protest that the gospel message is often presented as a sort of "get out Hell free card" or a means of obtaining a "cheap grace" that encourages a lackadaisical performance of religious obligation. Such people -- well meaning as they may be -- have yet to fully hear the words of Jesus regarding the righteousness required by the law itself: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Was Jesus then suggesting that his followers were to be more scrupulous than the hand-washing Pharisees or the nitpicking scribes of his day? Were his followers to be marked by fastidious attention to the law's every detail, painstakingly adhering to the percentages of "mint and cumin" that should be designated as a tithe (Matt. 23:23)? Or was he rather suggesting that the righteousness of Messiah required "taking up the cross" and following Him in faith and self-sacrifice?
Let's return to the story of the "rich young ruler" who asked what "good deed" must be done to inherit eternal life. As the story goes, after the man heard Jesus' demand for self-sacrifice, "he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." Jesus then said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." The disciples were astounded at Jesus' comment and exclaimed, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus replied to them, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:22-26). Those who advocate the observance of the law as a means of justification (or sanctification) before God need to confess their need for salvation -- from their own sinful heart condition. Only God has the power to change the self-serving human heart. This is a glory not shared with the various "self-improvement" programs of the world's religiously minded.
Hear the words of Jesus regarding the "goal" or "end" of righteousness required by the law: Self-sacrifice, unfeigned love for others, genuine compassion, and the unselfish practice of mercy -- all of which were perfectly exemplified in the life of Messiah himself. The "goal of the law" is the miracle of heart changed by the power and grace of God.
Now there is a "twist" regarding this entire discussion. In ethical matters we clearly see that Jesus' interpretation of the law was more rigorous than that of Moses, but regarding ceremonial and social laws we note that Jesus often overruled the Torah entirely. For example, when Jesus spoke of dietary restrictions (kashrut) he said, "What enters the mouth (i.e., food) does not defile a person, but what comes out of his mouth" (Matt. 15:11), and by so saying implied that various rules regarding what foods to eat, how meat was slaughtered, ritual handwashing, and so on, were not relevant. Concerning ritual impurity, we note that Jesus touched a "leper" (Matt. 8:1-4) -- something explicitly forbidden by the law without becoming "unclean" (Lev. 14:4-29). Moreover, Jesus not only touched a leper but healed him and declared him "clean," overruling the law's requirement that only a kohen (priest) could do so based on prescribed rituals (note that Jesus' instruction to give "testimony" of the healing to the Temple priests was intended to testify that Someone greater than the Levitical priesthood was now in their midst). Likewise we read that Jesus touched the corpse of a young girl -- another act that would render someone ritually unclean -- yet this action displayed the power of God by raising her from the dead (Mark 5:41). Finally, when Jesus "cleansed the Temple" and stopped the "carrying of the ritual vessels," he interfered with the regular sacrifices of Israel (Mark 11:16), something clearly forbidden by Levitical law.
But what about the matter of Sabbath observance? Did Jesus break the Sabbath, or did he adhere to various rules about not touching or doing certain things on this day (i.e. the 39 categories of work forbidden by the rabbis)? When he was once criticized by the Pharisees for allowing his disciples to pick some grain from the fields on the Sabbath, he responded that the Scriptures themselves testified that King David "broke the commandment" by eating the bread reserved for the priests (i.e., the "showbread"), and noted that the priests likewise "profaned" the Sabbath by performing avodah (service) at the Temple (Matt. 12:1-5). Jesus then stated that "someone greater than the Temple is here" and went on to chastise his accusers by pointing out that the deeper principle of the law is to show mercy before sacrifice (Hos. 6:6, Psalm 51:16-17, Prov. 15:8, Matt. 9:13, etc.). As the very "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8), Jesus sanctioned acts of mercy to be performed on the consecrated day of rest. Indeed, just as the law permitted a male to be circumcised or an animal to be pulled out of a well on this day, for all the more reason should a man be healed on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11-13). The Sabbath is not a day of (static) rest but is a means of providing rest for others by doing acts of chesed and mercy. Again, the Pharisees had confused the "inner" with the "outer" and made a category mistake. "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27).
So we see both evidence of continuity and discontinuity regarding the law in the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the underlying commandment to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself, he was in full agreement. Yet Jesus revealed that the practice of such love was far more rigorous than was commonly interpreted by the sages of his day, and nothing short of moral and spiritual perfection was acceptable to God. "Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). The discontinuity occurs primarily as response to the frailty of our human condition. By revealing the "goal" or "end" of the law, Jesus also revealed our need of personal deliverance. We are sinners and we need a changed heart from God to be saved...
Jesus summed up his view of the obeying the underlying intent of the law with the following sober warning:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24-27)
For those who trust in Him for a heart change and eternal life, Jesus is the Authority of Almighty God, the very Word of God incarnate. His words define our Torah. We all must answer to Him.
The love of God is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14; James 2:8), and this love is manifest in the Person and Presence of Jesus, the perfect fulfillment of the law of love (John 1:1, 13:34-35, 1 John 4:10-12, 2 John 1:6, etc.). The love of Jesus imparts "righteousness to every one who believes" (Rom. 10:4).
Practically speaking, living in response to the love of God does not imply spiritual anarchy or "lawlessness," however, since the Law of Messiah (תּוֹרַת הַמָּשִׁיחַ) is to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2) by emulating the sacrificial love that Yeshua has revealed and bestowed to us (John 13:15, 34, 15:12, etc.). "If you love me," Jesus said, "keep my commandments" (John 14:15, cp. 15:10). Moreover, those who receive Jesus as their Savior are given the Holy Spirit (רוּחַ הַקּדֶשׁ) -- also called the Comforter (παρακλητος) -- through whom the inner intent of the law is written upon the heart by faith (Gal. 5:18, 22-23). The heart of the law, then, is the law of the Gospel message itself - to love God and to serve others through the miraculous agency of God's redemptive grace.
May God work within us all such a miracle!
Parashat Vayeshev - וישב
12.16.08 From the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Vayeshev) until the end of Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis), the focus shifts from Jacob to his twelve sons, but most especially to Jacob's beloved son Joseph (יוֹסֵף). What appears as a sequence of terrible hardships for Joseph finally results in the deliverance of the Jewish people during a time of tribulation. The story of Joseph's ordeal is therefore the story of Divine Hashgachah (providential supervision) at work. Reading "from the back of the book" makes it somewhat easier for us to see the hand of God's Providence at work, but during moments of painful testing, we are liable to lose heart.... As Kierkegaard once said, "Life can be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." It is a fearful thing to "fall into the hands of the Living God" (Heb. 10:31), even for those who hold hope.
The Torah reading begins, vayeshev Ya'akov, "And Jacob settled" (Gen. 37:1). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) notes that whenever the word vayeshev is mentioned in Torah, it introduces a painful episode. Immediately after the statement that "Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojourning," we read that Joseph brought an "evil report" about his brothers to his father. This act ultimately led to the selling of Joseph into slavery and further heartache for Israel. The Jewish sage Rashi notes that whenever someone called by God wants to "settle down" and live at ease, God orchestrates events to keep him or her free from complacency. This certainly happened in the case of Jacob, where sibling rivalry and baseless hatred (called sinat chinam, (שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם)) so disrupted the peace of the family that his children were eventually led into exile and slavery.
Some of the sages note that the "Valley of Hebron" (i.e., the place from which Jacob commissioned Joseph to go check on his brothers), should rather be translated as "from the depth of Hebron" (מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן), suggesting that Joseph's assignment was the first step toward fulfilling the prophecy given to Abraham of the descent of Israel into Egypt (Gen. 15:13). The word Hebron comes from a root that means "association" or "union," suggesting that from the depths of the family union would come struggle but eventual deliverance.
[ To be continued . . . IY"H ]
12.16.08 I have been unable to access the internet for the last 36 hours due to a Comcast outage on my block (in the entire area I live in, only my block was affected....). Nearly every day I lose my internet connection for an hour or so due to ISP issues -- often while attempting to update this site. Coincidence? I sense that this is just another spiritual attack, attempting to wear me down in my efforts to provide timely information. Please keep this work in your prayers. I hope to add some additional commentary on the weekly Torah portion soon, as well as more information about Chanukah. Thank you, chaverim!
Parahat Vayeshev - וישב
12.14.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (which occurs just before the first day of Chanukah this year), is parashat Vayeshev. It begins with Jacob (Israel) settled in the land promised to Abraham and Isaac with his 12 sons, but immediately turns to the story of Jacob's favorite son Joseph, who was 17 years old at the time: "And these were the generations of Jacob: Joseph being 17 years old..."
But why does the toldot (genealogy) begin with Joseph rather than Reuben (the firstborn son of Leah) here? Because Jacob and Joseph shared a lot in common: both had infertile mothers who had difficulty in childbirth; both mothers bore two sons; and both were hated by their brothers. In addition, the Torah states that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons, since he was the son of his old age, and was the firstborn son (bechor) of his beloved wife Rachel. Indeed, Jacob made him an ornamented tunic (ketonet passim) to indicate his special status in the family. Read more on the summary page.
I hope to add additional commentary on this parashah later this week (as well as more information about Chanukah). Happy Holidays chaverim.
A Difficult Decision....
12.12.08 Shalom, chaverim... I am faced with a difficult decision. I've been offered a job, but accepting it would mean letting go of the dream/vision that Hebrew4Christians could exist as an independent, user-supported ministry. So while it's encouraging that I have a job offer, it's also disheartening to accept the reality that there aren't enough supporters or book sales to let me do this work full-time. This is personally discouraging because I regard Hebrew4Christians as a necessary antidote to both the growing number of legalistic "Messianic" ministries (i.e., groups that advocate some form of Rabbinical Judaism as a means of following Christ), and to the innumerable Christian ministries and traditional churches that disregard, misinterpret, or even spurn the Jewish roots of the Christian faith (sadly, the norm today is for most pastors of Churches to be advocates of "Replacement Theology" or "supercessionism").
Though we face a difficult choice, all along we've been praying for the LORD's will to be made known to us, and we will continue to trust Him for guidance. Many of you have stood with us over these last few months, and we sincerely thank you... At this point we simply want to discern God's will for our lives. Whether I accept this job or continue to hope that this work will be sustained as a full-time ministry is in the hands of the LORD God of Israel. He will surely show the way, though we humbly ask you to pray for us as well. Thank you.
El Shaddai... אֵל שַׁדַּי
[ Note: The following entry continues my additional commentary on this week's parasha. Read the earlier updates to "find your place" here. ]
12.11.08 In this week's Torah reading (Vayishlach), the LORD revealed Himself to Jacob using the Divine Name El Shaddai (אֵל שַׁדַּי), often translated as "God Almighty." Recall that the first revelation of this Name occurred when the LORD said to Abram: "I am El Shaddai. Walk before me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1). The second time the Name was used was when Jacob's father Isaac blessed him under false pretenses: "May El Shaddai bless you and make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples" (Gen. 28:3). Finally, after Jacob escaped from exile and had returned to Bet El (Bethel) - the place of his original vision of the Ladder to Heaven - the LORD directly revealed Himself using this Name to him saying, "I am El Shaddai: be fruitful and multiply..." (Gen. 35:11).
Perhaps some "back story" will help us understand this revelation to Jacob better. After he returned to the Promised Land and was reconciled to his estranged brother Esav, Jacob first settled in the City of Shechem. There he built an altar (מִזְבֵּחַ) and called it El Elohei Yisrael (אֵל אֱלהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל): "God (is) the God of Israel." It is likely that this phrase was an inscription made on the altar to commemorate Jacob's new name of "Israel" that was bestowed to him during his wrestling match with the angel (Gen. 32:38).
Some time after this, however, tragedy struck the family as Leah's daughter Dinah was "defiled" (i.e., raped) by the son of a local "prince" named Hamor. (According to some commentators, Dinah was destined to be a boy but was miraculously transformed into a girl while still in the womb of Leah. This explained her "boyish" curiosity to explore the land.) Rashi claims that Dinah was only seven years old at the time, making this crime all the more heinous. At any rate, when Hamor came to Jacob's camp to ask for the "blessing" of marrying his son to Dinah, Jacob's sons put on a charade, expressed mild indignation over the violation of their sister, and "answered deceitfully" while plotting revenge. They insisted that such a marriage could never take place to an uncircumcised man, and pretended to only allow for the union if all the men of Shechem underwent circumcision. If you read the Torah portion, you know the outcome: The subterfuge worked, and the third day after the men of Shechem had been circumcised, Shimon and Levi took their swords and killed all the males - including Hamor and his wicked son - and then forcibly "took Dinah out of the house of Shechem" (according to midrash, Dinah did not want to leave because of her mortification and the brothers had to drag her along the ground out of the city).
After this tragedy God spoke to Jacob (יַעֲקב), "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau" (Gen. 35:1). Bethel, after all, was the place where Jacob had originally made his vow to the LORD, right before his exile, and God was reminding him of his obligation. So Jacob instructed his family to "put away the foreign gods among you" (i.e., the gold and silver idols and rings that were plundered at Shechem) and buried them before making his trek. When he arrived at Bethel, he built an altar and the LORD appeared to him to "bless" him. "God said to him, 'Your name is Jacob (Ya'akov); no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.' So he called his name Israel" (Gen. 35:10). This additional naming ceremony provided Divine sanction for the new name given by the angel at Jabbok. Interestingly, some of the sages note that the Name "Yisrael" (יִשְׂרָאֵל) is an acrostic of the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs: The Yod (י) stands for Yizchak and Ya'akov, the Sin (ש) for Sarah, the Resh (ר) for Rivka and Rachel, and Aleph (א) for Abraham, and the Lamed (ל) for Leah. Rashi notes that the letters of Yisrael also spell yashar El (ישר אל), meaning "God's honest man." After renaming Jacob to Israel, God continued, "I am God Almighty (El Shaddai): be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your loins" (Gen. 35:11). The LORD then conferred upon Israel the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant - including the unconditional promise of the land as Israel's possession forever. The blessing of El Shaddai that Jacob had "stolen" was now fully restored by the LORD Himself.
Note: Most English translations render El Shaddai as "God Almighty," probably because the translators of the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Old Testament) thought Shaddai came from a root verb (shadad) that means "to overpower" or "to destroy." The Latin Vulgate likewise translated Shaddai as Omnipotens (from which we get our English word "omnipotent"). The idea seems to be that God is so overpowering that He is considered "Almighty." According to the Talmud (Chagigah 12a), however, El Shaddai is a contraction of the phrase, "I said to the world, dai (enough), stop right now!" Had God not called out dai! 'Enough!' to heaven and earth, they would go on expanding indefinitely. It seems likely that the Name El Shaddai indicates God's all-sufficiency and nourishment for the fledgling nation of Israel. In this case the name might derive from the contraction of sha ("who") and dai ("enough"), and Jacob's deathbed blessing (Gen. 49:25) further associates "blessings of the breasts (shadaim) and of the womb" with El Shaddai. Indeed, God first used this Name when He referred to multiplying Abraham's offspring (Gen. 17:2), and the Name is used almost exclusively in reference to the three great patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
[ Note: The following entry provides additional commentary on this week's parasha. Please read the summary on Parashat Vayishlach before reading this update. ]
12.10.08 The Torah reading for this week (Vayishlach) details the dramatic confrontation between Jacob and his alienated twin brother Esav (Esau). Recall that Jacob had not laid eyes on his brother since he had fled from him 20 years previously. Now, as Jacob finally was ready to return to the home of his father, a major obstacle had to be surpassed: Had his brother forgiven him, or did he still harbor malice and plan to exact his revenge?
The parashah begins: "Jacob sent messengers (מַלְאָכִים) ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom" (Gen. 32:3). Rashi notes that these were real angels (malakhim mamash), not human beings, since it would be unthinkable for a tzaddik (righteous man) to send ordinary people on such a dangerous mission (most kabbalists interpret "angel" as merit accrued by the observance of mitzvot, and therefore these angels were created from Jacob's good deeds).
At any rate, the Torah tells us that Esav lived in "the land of Seir, in Edom's Field." Some of the sages state that "Seir" means "goat" (i.e., "shaggy" [goat]), and Edom's Field (שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם) means "Field of Red," suggesting the color of the stew for which he sold his birthright. Apparently Esav never forgot what Jacob had done to him and was harboring deep resentment toward his twin brother. Jacob had instructed the messengers to tell Esav that "I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now" (Gen. 32:4). According to midrash, the intent of this statement was to inform Esav that he was not worth hating, since the blessing of Isaac (i.e., "Be master over your brother") was not fulfilled in him. After dispatching the messengers, however, Jacob readied himself by 1) preparing gifts for Esav, 2) offering prayers to God, and 3) planning for literal war between the camps. When the messengers eventually returned, however, the news was not good: Esav was coming with 400 armed men to meet him, and that meant certain war!
Jacob was understandably afraid, since he was vastly outnumbered and was still fragile from his ordeal with Laban. His wife Rachel was far along in her pregnancy and his other sons were still children. How could this ragtag band of pilgrims confront an angry brother leading an army of 400?
Jacob divided the camp into two groups, hoping that if Esav attacked one group, the other will be able to escape. And then he prayed to the "God of Abraham and God of my father Isaac" (אֱלהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק). It is noteworthy that here Jacob called the LORD, "the God of my father Isaac," since previously God had referred to Himself as the "God of your father Abraham." This change is significant because the pilgrimage back to the land was essentially a pilgrimage back to Jacob's father Isaac. Jacob's prayer also was directed to the LORD (יהוה) rather than to God (אֱלהִים), indicating that he was attuned to the immanent compassion of God -- as well as God's power and justice. Recall his earlier "vow" made at Bet-El:
Jacob's understanding of God had changed while in exile. "I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love (chesed) and all the faithfulness (emet) that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Gen. 32:10). In Torah scrolls, the Hebrew word katonti (קָטנְתִּי), translated as "I am unworthy," is written with a diminished Tet (ט) to show the humility of Jacob. God's revelation of Himself as full of chesed and emet (love and truth) contrasted sharply with his earlier lifestyle of selfish ambition and deception. Jacob was spiritually ready to come home again.
After offering up his prayer (Gen. 32:9-12), that very night Jacob instructed his servants to go on ahead to intercept his estranged brother with tokens of favor (gifts), and then he "took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and went across the ford of the Jabbok" (Gen. 32:22). [Eleven children? Yes, according to midrash, Dinah was hidden within a locked chest to protect her from a possible sexual assault from Esau.] According to Rashi, Jacob then went back over the Jabbok because he forgot some "small jars and returned for them." Apparently these jars were intended to offer Esav and his men some drinks... At any rate, Jacob was then "left alone, and a man (אִישׁ) wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:24). During the "grappling" (recall the meaning of Jacob's name), the angel injured Jacob's thigh, but Jacob finally overcame him and refused to release his hold until the angel blessed him.
The angel then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob" (i.e., Ya'akov). The angel then declared to him, "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov ("heel holder" [of Esau]) but Yisrael ("contender with God"), for as a prince (sar) you have striven (sarita) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28). Jacob then asked the angel for His Name, but was denied, since the Name is unutterable - even to one who had prevailed with God. Jacob later called the place of wrestling Peniel, "facing God," (from panim (face) and El (God)) because, as he said, "I have seen God (Elohim) face to face" (כִּי־רָאִיתִי אֱלהִים פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים), yet my life has been delivered" (Gen. 32:30)
According to various Jewish sages, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was either Esav's guardian angel or Jacob's own yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination). This is inferred from Jacob's statement made to Esav after their peaceful reunion - "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God (Elohim), and you have accepted me" (Gen. 33:10). In other words, Jacob had wrestled with the judgment of God (represented by Elohim) yet subsequently found love and acceptance in the revelation that Elohim is YHVH, the Source of Compassion and love. The earlier wrestling with the angel was thereby symbolic of Jacob's own process of self acceptance and forgiveness that was triggered by the confrontation with Esav (and therefore Jacob's past life). (Christian tradition, on the other hand, generally regards the angel as a "theophany" of the LORD Himself, especially since 1) this Angel had the authority to rename Jacob to "Israel" (a term that means "striving with God"), 2) the Angel identified himself as "nameless"; and 3) Jacob later called the place of wrestling "Peniel," meaning "facing God" (Gen. 32:30)).
Faith and Collision...
[ Note: The following entry is a bit "philosophical," so if that doesn't suit you, please skip it to read other updates. ]
12.08.08 We often feel quite alone with our faith, chaverim. Perhaps this is because Christianity (and Judaism before it) is a confessional faith, that is, there is cognitive (and volitional) content that, once embraced, sets up an endless array of contrary truth claims.
For example, when we affirm that the world around us is the "handiwork" (i.e., conscious design) of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, morally perfect, and spiritual Agency to whom we are directly responsible, then (among other things) our affirmation excludes the faith commitments of materialism (i.e., atheism/agnosticism), animism (and occultism), polytheism, deism, finite godism, dualism, pantheism, absolute monism, romantic humanism, absurdism, "Oprah Winfreyism," and so on. In other words, a well-defined faith confession creates an immediate tension with the various visions/interpretations (i.e., faiths) that are regularly inculcated by the propaganda outlets of mass media and other means of indoctrination (e.g., public schools). Indeed, the mantra of today's politically correct world is, "Everyone is special and has a unique vision," thereby relegating all truth claims into the same homogenous class. If "everyone is special" then no one is special; if everyone has "the truth," then no one does. Note the insidious appeal to "consensus-based humanism" implied in the dogma of today's insipid political correctness. In light of this, the confession of Yeshua (Jesus) is the actuation of collision. Faith both affirms and negates at the same time. Like falling in love with someone, the cost of passionately believing that Yeshua (alone) is the "way and the truth and the life" comes at the expense of other faith possibilities -- and thereby incurs the risk of offence (Rom. 9:33, 1 Pet. 2:7-8; Gal. 5:11, Matt. 24:8-11; etc.).
Does this make Christianity intolerant then? By no means. All faith expressions - including skepticism or "politically correct" humanism - are exclusivistic commitments to whatever the believer embraces as his or her "ground of ultimate concern." Each person has their own "narrow gate," though this gate does not necessarily lead to life in God.... Jesus taught that the "narrow gateway of life" (שַּׁעַר אֶל־הַחַיִּים) is found by the few (Matt. 7:13-14), and this doubtlessly was said to reprove the mob mentality that regards "tolerance" as the greatest of all virtues and fanaticism as the greatest of all evils. There is safety in numbers, the mob reasons, and the life of genuine conviction makes you an outcast of the group, since it exposes the "groupthink" and its inevitable moral evasions.... Public enemy number one is the person of real conviction. This was true in the days of the Hebrew prophets as it is today. "The voice crying in the wilderness" often cries alone.
People without real conviction are what C.S. Lewis once called "men without chests":
"It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken as intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardor to pursue her... It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
Such is the tragicomedy of our situation - we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.... In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst." - C.S. Lewis
Christian (and Jewish) theology insists that truth matters, and knowing the truth about God is absolutely essential for life itself. Nothing is more important. Nothing is more vital. "This is eternal life (חַיֵּי עוֹלָם), that they may know you, the only true God (אֶל־אֱמֶת), and Jesus the Messiah (יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ) whom you have sent (John 17:3). The Hebrew word for knowledge is da'at (דַּעַת), a word that implies intimate cognitive differentiation (the opposite of da'at is folly). Euphemistically, it implies sexual intercourse and various forms of worship. Da'at also implies moral cognition, or the apprehension of moral truth. Knowing the "only true God" once again implies the abandonment of promiscuous possibilities. Every life is a venture of faith, an irrepeatable, infinitely costly venture, and the absence of commitment is acquiescence to the will of the mob and its mentality. You cannot opt out of this game....
Our faith says humans are created b'tzelem Elohim - in the image of God. "In the beginning was the Logos" (John 1:1). Logic itself is "hard-wired" into us and any attempt to deny its validity presupposes its existence. Logic also presupposes any form of experience, since we cannot even identify something without its categories at work. Similarly, the sense of value is hard-wired into us. We cannot know anything at all without first valuing (and willing) knowledge itself, and therefore our sense of value (and goodness) precedes all experience. So both empirical and moral truth is inescapable for self-conscious individuals. Now since faith is always faith in something, it is evident that it points to something "outside" of itself, namely, to reality. In matters of fact (rather than tautological statements such as a=a), the "belief that p" is an existential statement that "p exists." A particular belief can be mistaken, of course, but if it is a true belief then (by definition) it must proximally correspond to reality. In other words, our beliefs are confessions of faith concerning what is ultimately real.
A genuine faith confession is not static, like some ideal "form" a Greek philosopher might contemplate, but rather is based on the exercise of human choices in light of ethical demands, duties, and divine obligations, and therefore faith implies the way of righteousness. Kol asher-diber Adonai na'aseh v'nishma - "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient" (Exod. 24:7). Human beings are pre-wired with a moral sense ("conscience") that functions as a witness to the realm of ethical truth. There is no "possible moral world" wherein it is considered a virtue to lie, to murder infants, or to torture people to death for personal pleasure. Since moral truth implies correspondence, the person who has da'at Elohim, the knowledge of God, will act according to divinely discerned imperatives. To do justice and righteousness and to judge the cause of the poor and the needy is to know God (Deut. 16:20, Isa. 1:16-17). "If you know these things, happy are you if you do them." On the other hand, where there is no knowledge of God there is lawlessness and destruction upon the people (Isa. 5:13, Hos. 4:6). The knowledge of God is more pleasing to him than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6). The prophetic view of the Messianic Age is of a time in which the "knowledge of God covers the earth as water covers the sea" (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9).
Soren Kierkegaard once lamented there are many people who arrive at conclusions in much the way schoolboys do: "they cheat their teachers by copying the answer book without having worked the problem out themselves." This is part of the mob mentality within Christendom. We can parrot creedal formulas or recite catechisms, yet in the end it is our own responsibility to make an authentic faith commitment. Thomas Aquinas' most significant work was his Summa theologiae or 'Summary of Theology,' a massive book that attempted to systematize all of Christian theology. He worked on it from 1266 through 1273, but when he was nearly finished, he underwent an experience so intense that, as he himself explained, everything he had written "seemed like straw." He thereafter gave up writing about theology after he encountered the Reality itself.
Regarding the essential loneliness of the Christian, A.W. Tozer once wrote:
The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorptions in the love of Christ; and because with his circle of friends there are few who share his inner experiences, he's forced to walk alone.
The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord himself suffered in the same way.
The man (or woman) who has passed on into the divine Presence in actual inner experience will not find many who understand him. He finds few who care to talk about that which is the supreme object of his interest, so he is often silent and preoccupied in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk.
For this he earns the reputation of being dull and over-serious, so he is avoided, and the gulf between him and society widens. He searches for the friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none, he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart.
It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. His inability to find human companionship drives him to seek in God what he can find nowhere else.
So the friend of God becomes the world's enemy (James 4:4). He becomes a pilgrim and sojourner upon the earth, with "no place to rest his head" (Matt. 8:20). His passion, his focus, his dream, his ultimate concern is redemption and healing that comes from the mediated Presence of Yeshua in the world. Faith brings collision, but not without the provision of God's love and grace for those who call upon His Name. This is important to remember, especially in light of the victory of God as commemorated during Chanukah.
Tragically, this sense of collision and isolation, as Tozer remarks, can also be experienced "in the midst of noisy religious shoptalk," that is, in traditional churches or synagogues today. The great divide often surrounds the question of "Law versus Grace" -- and all the ratiocination and "theology" that leads up to such distinctions. Among legalists (i.e., those who attempt to propitiate God by means of some manner of self-improvement - including traditional faith expressions), there is the "scandal of grace" to contend with; and among mainstream Christians (i.e., those who ignore the Torah and arrogantly view the "Old Testament" as a relic of history) there is the specter of "legalism" to confront. Even among those who attempt to synthesize the two there is inconsistency and eisegesis. For example, often those Christians that profess that the "Old Testament" is authoritative Scripture regularly overlook (or misread) the explicit promises made to the nation of Israel. Case in point. Just this weekend I listened as a well-known pastor in Minneapolis expressed indifference regarding the existence of the modern state of Israel (clearly disregarding this as a prophetic sign of the End of the Age), saying he'd rather have his "car fixed" as a 30 year anniversary present from his church than a "free trip to Israel." Clearly the LORD God of Israel cannot bless such outright contempt for the covenantal promises He made to the descendants of Jacob.... Sadly, this pastor is one of countless others who "spiritualize" or "allegorize" the meaning of Israel by twisting it to "really mean" the Christian Church. The promise that "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26) therefore either becomes the vacuous statement that "all who will be saved will be saved" or (perhaps more common among Christian circles) that "all Israel will (one day) become as Gentile Christians." It's nothing short of amazing to me that such "Replacement Theology" is unthinkingly accepted and not seen as an affront to the faithfulness of God of Israel. As I have repeatedly said, such heresy leads to all sorts of errors and fallacious inferences (for more, see this article).
Today we think it a novelty of sorts if a Jew comes to accept Yeshua as the Messiah and Savior. But the real marvel is that a Gentile can be grafted in to the covenantal promises given to Israel -- not the other way around! The Church has it backwards. Indeed, the crisis of the earliest assembly of followers of Yeshua was whether it was possible for a Gentile (i.e., non Jew) to be saved at all. But today's professional clergy knows so much more now, don't they? Certainly they must clearly understand the Lord God of Israel's plans and counsels -- so much so that like Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" they find themselves without must use for Him any more... And therefore the predominantly Gentile Church, with it inheritance from Greek pagan traditions, devises the notion that if a Jew were to give up his or her identity as a Jew and accept the Gentile view of God, then perhaps he may be saved... As the choir sings "Alleluia," my heart cries, "Oy gevalt!"
We are very close to the prophesied "End of Days," or acharit hayamim, the time period that immediately precedes the return of Mashiach Yeshua and the end of this age (olam hazeh). Remember: Yeshua (Jesus) lived as the consummate Jew and is returning to Jerusalem as Mashiach ben David to establish the Kingdom of God upon the earth. The Millennial reign of Messiah fulfills the countless promises God made to ethnic Israel. You simply cannot "allegorize" the identity of Israel without violating the plain sense of Scripture, and pastors or teachers who claim otherwise are in error.
Anyway, I had hoped to get some further commentary on this week's Torah written by today, but I am quite physically and emotionally wiped out. Meanwhile, your prayers for my healing are appreciated, chaverim.
Parahat Vayishlach - וישלח
12.07.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (Vayishlach) includes the account of Jacob's famous wrestling match with the Angel of the LORD (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה) that occurred just before he faced his estranged brother Esau.
B'ezrat HaShem I will add additional commentary on this Torah portion this week, chaverim...
12.05.08 This week's Torah reading, Vayetzei, tells how Jacob was deceived by Leah, or rather, by her father Lavan who schemed to switch the girls at the wedding ceremony in order to retain the services of his nephew for another seven years. Jacob, who understood that his uncle was crooked, had previously given Rachel a password to identify her veiled presence to him at the wedding, but when she later realized that her father intended to have Leah take her place under the chuppah, quickly gave the password to her sister to save her from humiliation (Megillah 13b).
During the nuptial night, Leah responded whenever Jacob called her Rachel. When daylight came, Jacob discovered the deception and was angry. "O you deceiver, daughter of a deceiver, why did you answer me when I called Rachel's name?" Leah responded that she had learned such duplicity from him. After all, wasn't his deception of his father for a good cause? Likewise so was hers a good cause, since she wanted to be a mother of a righteous man (and not forced to marry Esau). Moreover, just as Jacob followed his mother's orders, so was Leah following her father's.
Jacob then confronted Lavan, who assured him that he would be given Rachel as his wife as well, but only after the seven day period (i.e., the customary "sheva berachot") was ended, and only on the condition that Jacob would serve him for another seven years. After the bridal week ended, Jacob finally married Rachel and "loved her more than Leah" (Gen. 29:28-30). When God saw that Leah was "hated," he opened her womb to become the first matriarch of Israel (Gen. 29:31).
Did Jacob really "hate" Leah? The sages didn't think so. In comparison to Jacob's profound love for Rachel, however, it was as if he hated Leah in comparison. Recall that Jacob first agreed to serve Lavan for seven years for the honor of Rachel's hand, which seemed to him "as a few days" (Gen. 29:20). But if Jacob loved her so much, wouldn't seven years seem like an interminably long time? The answer is that Rachel was so precious in his eyes that he considered the wait a small price to pay. Rachel was Jacob's deepest heart's desire -- and no one, not even her sister, could take her place....
A midrash states that Leah was hated not by Jacob but rather by the residents of the area. Everyone knew that she had "tricked Jacob" into marrying her, and therefore she was held in contempt. At any rate, Leah became the first mother of Israel, and the sibling rivalry (similar to that which Jacob experienced with Esau) was now underway.
It was prophesied that Jacob would bear twelve sons. The two sisters understood this and vied with each other to bear his children. Leah took an early "lead" in the race, bearing four sons, followed by Rachel's surrogate Bilhah (two sons) , followed by Leah's surrogate Zilpah (two sons), followed again by Leah, who bore two more sons. That equaled ten sons -- and still Rachel had not conceived. Finally, God opened Rachel's womb and Joseph was born, whom Jacob considered to be his "first born son." That made eleven, with one more son to go... According to midrash, Leah's seventh child was destined to be a son, but God changed the embryo to female on account of her prayers for Rachel (she didn't want to see her sister ashamed, so she prayed that she would be at least be equal to the handmaids who each bore Jacob two sons). This was fitting since, according to the sages, Rachel -- not Leah -- was the chief matriarch of Israel (if Jacob had not loved and worked for Rachel, he never would have married Leah in the first place). Indeed, Israel was later to be delivered by her firstborn Joseph and later was collectively called by the name of her grandson, Ephraim.
Rachel died while giving birth to Jacob's final son when the clan fled from Lavan and returned to the Promised Land (Gen. 35:16-20). According to Rashi (and others), her death was unwittingly caused by Jacob's curse that whoever stole Lavan's idols should die (Gen. 31:19-27). But why wasn't she buried in the Cave of Machpelah, only 20 miles away from Bethlehem? Because the prophet had foretold of her weeping for her children (Jer. 31:15), and Jacob had foreseen this.
Jacob and the Torah
12.04.08 Jacob's marriage to Rachel and Leah is related in this week's Torah reading (Vayetzei), and many commentators struggle with the question of how he was permitted to marry two sisters, especially since Jewish tradition maintains that he (like Abraham before him) "kept the entire Torah before it was given" (Gen. 26:5). But does not the Torah explictly forbid such a marriage (Lev. 18:18)? Moreover, didn't Jacob consort with concubines (i.e., slave-girls) to bear his children? While there is no explicit law against this, surely Jacob would have realized the dangers of doing so. Wasn't his own father Isaac haunted by the memory of his half-brother Ishmael -- the son of his grandfather Abraham and a concubine? And wasn't the Akedah (sacrifice of Isaac) meant to teach Abraham, among other things, that his treatment of Hagar was unjust?
Some commentators excuse Jacob because of the deceptive circumstances surrounding his marriage to Leah. After all, he had promised to marry Rachel, and this promise is considered "weightier" than the law not to marry two sisters.... Other commentators took a different approach. According to Maimonides (the "Thomas Aquinas" of normative Judaism), outside of the Promised Land a Jew is not required to keep the Torah, but only Sheva mitzvot b'nei Noach -- the so-called "Seven Noahide Laws" given to the nations in general. In fact, some of the sages go so far as to say that the LORD did not want the Torah to be kept until it was publicly given to the 600,000 at Sinai (Yafeh To'ar). Therefore, according to these commentators, since Jacob was outside of the land of promise, he was exempted from observing acts of righteousness that would have been binding had he been living there. I wonder what King Solomon, in all his wisdom, might have said regarding this question? (wink)
This line of thinking is redolent of those sages who understand God's Presence to be physically tied with the Promised Land itself, almost as if God were some kind of local deity. Was the Temple to be a "place of prayer for all nations" (Isa. 56:7) or a "Gilded Cage" intended to keep God as a separate possession? "As below, so above" say the Kabbalists. Holiness means separation, and therefore certain laws are said to apply "in the camp" that do not apply when away from home.... The Talmud seems to agree: "Whoever lives outside the land of Israel is as if he had no God" (Ketubot 110b), and the midrash states that the only reason a Jew should keep the commandments while in the Diaspora is so that they would not be forgotten when they eventually return to their divine inheritance.
When the parochet (veil) of the Temple was rent asunder -- from top to bottom -- the "caged Lion" was unleashed, and the God of Israel opened up His sanctuary to all who would come to Him in sincerity and truth (Matt. 27:50; John 4:24). His Glory fills the world and His salvation is available to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Leah's "Weak" Eyes...
12.04.08 Both Rachel and Leah are considered beautiful women in Jewish tradition, but a verse in this week's Torah (Vayetzei) seems to suggest that Rachel was the "beauty queen" of the family: "Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful" (Gen. 29:17). Why are Leah's eyes described as "weak"? Is this a euphemism for saying she was unsightly? After all, Rachel is described in this verse as yifat mareh - "beautiful of sight" (i.e., attractive). Does this text therefore contrast the two women by implying that Leah was physically unattractive? Or does having "weak eyes" mean that she was perhaps nearsighted? How are we to understand Leah's weak eyes?
The word translated as "weak" is the Hebrew word rakkot (רַכּוֹת), the plural form of the word rak (רַךְ), meaning soft or tender. Rashi comments that Leah's eyes were made "weak" (tender) from crying "until her eyelashes fell out." But why was she so sad? According to midrash, Leah's eyes were reddened and puffy because she was constantly lamenting the prospect of marrying Esau. The adage of the town was: "Two sons to Rivka; two daughters to Lavan; the older to the older, the younger to the younger."
Leah's eyes were tender and tearstained, then, but this is not intended to say she was unattractive. On the contrary, saying that she had "weak eyes" is a term of praise for her, since her greatest fear was to be forced to undergo an arranged marriage with Esau, and therefore she wept and wept to be the mother of the righteous.... God saw her tears -- and made her the most fruitful of the four matriarchs of Israel. Ironically, it was the less teary-eyed Rachel, who later died in childbirth, that was prophesied to weep for her children (Jer. 31:15).
Regarding this subject the Talmud states that the word rak (tender) connotes royalty (Bava Basra 4a). Indeed, two lines of royalty were destined to descend from Leah: the royal family of Judah (from whom would come King David and King Messiah) and the spiritual line of Levi, from whom would descend Moses, Aaron, and the Kohanim (the priestly class). Like their tenderhearted mother, both of these houses of Israel would shed tears of concern for the well-being of Israel.
Bargaining with God
12.02.08 The Torah reading for this week is Vayetzei, so let's think about the patriarch Jacob (יַעֲקב) for a moment. Recall that the haunting and profound ache in his soul came from the lack of his father's love and appreciation. Tragically, when Jacob finally conspired with his mother's vision for his life by deceiving his father Isaac, he found himself an outcast from the family and was forced to flee the vengeance of his corrupt brother, Esau. Jacob's exile began in heartache and sorrow.
While he was on the run to Haran, however, the sun began to set, and Jacob made a last stop "at a certain place" (יִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם) before leaving the Promised Land (according to midrash, the sun miraculously set quickly so that Jacob would dwell there before his long exile). Wearied from the journey, Jacob devised a makeshift "bed" in the field and used a stone as a pillow. That night Jacob dreamed his famous dream of the ladder (sullam) that was set up on earth and reached toward heaven with the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) ascending and descending upon it:
And behold, the LORD stood beside him (נִצָּב עָלָיו) and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your descendants (seed) shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen. 28:13-15).
When Jacob awoke, he was overawed. "Surely the LORD is in this place and I knew it not." Shaken by the vision, he said, mah nora ha-makom hazeh - "How awesome is this place!" and added, ein zeh ki im-bet Elohim v'zeh sha'ar ha-shamayim - "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17). Jacob then made a monument from the stone he had used as a pillow, anointed it with oil, and called the place Bet-El (בֵּית־אֵל) - "the house of God."
First a couple quick observations. This is Jacob's last stop in the Promised Land before going into exile for nearly 20 years. But why does the LORD call Himself the "God of Abraham your father" and then almost parenthetically add "the God of Isaac"? Was this the LORD's way of acknowledging Isaac's mistaken judgment? Was this meant to connect the exile of Abraham from his homeland with Jacob's forthcoming exile?
Second, the idea that "seed" is translated as "descendants" -- despite being a masculine singular noun (זַרְעֲךָ) -- is valid, since this "seed" would be "like the dust of the earth" (indicating multiplicity). Paul's use of this verse, then, in Galatians 3:16, is literally correct, but the texts found in Gen. 15:5, 17:7, 22:17, 26:24, and 28:14 should be read in the plural, corresponding to the metaphorical use of "stars," "dust" and "sand" to represent the innumerable descendants of Israel. Like many prophecies given in the Tanakh, this one is "dual aspect," meaning that it refers to two different things. First it refers to the descendants of Jacob, and later, it refers to the Seed of Promise that was the Messiah.
The Talmud states that the angels assigned to the Promised Land were ascending the ladder while the angels assigned to another territory (chutz la'aretz) were descending. In other words, the angels guarding the Promised Land were not to accompany Jacob in his exile, but other angels would... As this procession occurred, Jacob heard them saying, "Come, O sun, Come O Sun," referring to the illumination that would become manifest in the world. Some of the sages liken the ladder to a great mizbe'ach (altar) with the angels representing the fragrance of sacrifice before the LORD. This adheres with the Messianic view that Yeshua is Sullam Adonai - the Ladder of the LORD (see the entry for 12.01.08 for more information).
At any rate, immediately after anointing and renaming the place, Jacob made the following vow:
If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you. (Gen. 28:20-22)
Now the immediate question here is how to understand this vow. Was Jacob trying to "make a bargain" with God? Was his vow conditional? Was he in effect saying, "If God takes care of my material well being during this period of exile, and restores me b'shalom (in peace) to my father's house, then I will serve Him?
According to the Jewish sage Rashi, these verses should be read:
IF God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, and the LORD shall be my God, THEN this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you. (Gen. 28:20-22)
In other words, given the context of the situation (i.e., God's promise to multiply his descendants, inherit the land, and so on), Jacob is merely restating God's intent and affirming his faith that God will follow through with His promises. In effect Jacob is saying, "If you will be my God, then I will honor you as such..." If, on the other hand, Jacob is somehow prevented from ever returning to the Promised Land, he would be unable to keep his vow to the LORD. It all depends on the LORD.
According to other sages, however, Jacob understood God's Presence to be somehow tied with the Promised Land itself, almost as if God were a local deity of the land. This notion shows up in Jewish commentary about the ladder to heaven with the angels of Israel biding Jacob farewell, while the angels of the "other land" descend to greet him... Indeed, the Talmud states, "Whoever lives outside the land of Israel is as if he had no God" (Ketubot 110b). The midrash amplifies this notion, saying that the only reason a Jew should keep the commandments while in the Diaspora is so that they would not be forgotten when they eventually return to their divine inheritance. (It shouldn't be necessary to note that this is a gravely mistaken idea, since the LORD is King over all the earth (Psalm 47:2) and the whole world is filled with His glory (Isa. 6:3)).
Still other sages note that Jacob's vow was made to God as Elohim, the Creator and Judge of all, but if things went according to His promise, Jacob would understand God as YHVH, the Source of compassion and love:
In other words, Jacob was saying that if he returned to the Promised Land b'shalom el bet avi, "in peace to my father's house," then he would understand God as the Compassionate One. How so? Because this would represent refuah shlemah - a complete healing - for Jacob. Being restored to the love of his father would demonstrate God's compassion and ultimately give his heart room for true worship of the LORD. Finding the Father's heart is the source for our worship, too.
Parahat Vayetzei - ויצא
12.01.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (Vayetzei) includes the account of Jacob's dream of a ladder set on the earth that reached to the heavens.
Yeshua (Jesus) spoke of this ladder in John 1:51. Just as Jacob saw the ladder ascending to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, so Yeshua tells Nathanael that He is the very Ladder to God, the true sha'ar hashamayim - the Way into heaven (John 14:6). Yeshua is the Ladder... Heaven has indeed been opened and is mediated by the Life and grace of Messiah as our Bridge to God. Jacob dreamed a dream, but Yeshua became the Substance of that dream by willingly becoming the Promised Seed of Jacob. It is through Yeshua, the Promised Seed, that all the nations of the earth are blessed.
Yeshua is the true Temple or "house of God" (bet Elohim) and its Chief Cornerstone (Rosh Pinnah) (Matthew 21:42). He is the divine communication (Word) from heaven to earth. The Son of Man is God's link with the children of Adam (Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Yeshua is the new Bet El (Bethel), God's dwelling place (Gen. 28:17; John 1:14). Nathanael and the other disciples witnessed the glory of God come down to mankind in the Person and Life of Yeshua the Mashiach. Just as Jacob awoke and realized he was in the awesome presence of God, so Nathanael realized that he was in the presence of the very LORD of the universe!
Heaven stands wide open and now the grace of God is available for every person who believes in the Son of Man. Yeshua is the Bridge. You can come into God's presence by means Him. He is the "door" and the "gate." No one comes to the Father except through Him. Ask Him to connect you with the infinite and loving condescension of heaven today.
Note: I hope to add additional commentary to this Torah reading later this week, IY"H.