April 2009 Updates
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Acharei Mot - Kedoshim). Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]
04.29.09 (Iyyar 5, 5769) The Torah reading this week includes the verse:
"You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes" (Lev. 18:3).
The phrase "you shall not do" (לא תַעֲשׂוּ) is here written twice, once in reference to the former life (Egypt) and once in reference to the future prospect in the land (Canaan). God called the Jews "out" from the prevailing cultures of the Gentiles to be holy, separate, and set apart... Regarding this verse the Sfat Emet says, "One must not eat like a Gentile, drink like a Gentile, or behave like a Gentile." If you want to know how not to live, look at the ma'aseh eretz mitzraim (the deeds of the land of Egypt) or the ma'aseh eretz Canaan (the deeds of the land of Canaan) -- and do the opposite. This accords with what is written in the book of Proverbs: לֵךְ מִנֶּגֶד לְאִישׁ כְּסִיל וּבַל־יָדַעְתָּ שִׂפְתֵי־דָעַת - "Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge" (Prov. 14:7). [Note: If you are a Christian, you are no longer a "Gentile" but are part of the family of God; you are given a circumcised heart and are now a "spiritual Jew" - a partaker of the covenants and promises given to Israel (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11; Eph. 2:11-14, etc.)].
As I've written elsewhere, the life of faith inevitably collides with the prevailing culture of the world and its so-called wisdom. The world system loves ambiguity, pragmatism, shades of gray, hairsplitting dialectic, language games, pseudo-sophisticated chatter at dinner parties, and so on, but it cannot tolerate a person of genuine moral conviction.... This was true back when Socrates functioned as the "gadfly" of Athens just as it was true when Yeshua was crucified for living the truth... Following the way of Yeshua means becoming an object of reproach before the crowd and its slavish followers. It means "taking up the cross" and dying to the idea that this world is your home (Rom. 12:1-2; Heb. 11:10; Phil. 3:20). It means choosing to live a life of "countercultural holiness," and thereby choosing to live in exile.
In contrast to the commandment "not to do" (לא תַעֲשׂוּ) as the Gentiles around you, the LORD calls His people to live life distinctively, with true awareness and inner sanctity. "You shall do (תַּעֲשׂוּ) my rules and keep (תִּשְׁמְרוּ) my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God (אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלהֵיכֶם). You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD" (Lev. 18:4). Note that the phrase, "he shall live by them" means that your life depends on the Torah, and the phrase, "I am the LORD" means that God Himself will help you if you truly seek Him.
God calls His people to a life of holiness: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" - קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלהֵיכֶם (Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). Everything should be done l'shem shamayim - "for the sake of heaven" - and not for reasons of personal pleasure alone (1 Cor. 10:31). Note that this call to holiness is addressed in the plural: in the midst of life, in the "congregation" of which you are a part -- be ye holy. God gives the Holy Spirit to help you. You do not "create" holiness (kedushah) through good deeds, etc., since it is God's alone and you merely partake of it by faith. Indeed the verb in this verse is future: "you shall be holy," indicating that the impartation of holiness is a gift that God will complete in us at the time of the final redemption (Phil. 1:6; Phil. 3:20).
Immediately after giving the commandment to be holy, we are instructed to revere our parents and keep the Sabbath (Lev. 19:3). Sabbath is a "sign" or testimony that the LORD is the sole Creator of the heavens and the earth. Every Jewish home is intended to be a mikdash me'at (מִקְדָשׁ מְעַט), a "miniature sanctuary." The Sabbath table functions as an altar and the food is like a "peace offering" made upon the altar. The family's prayers and blessings around the table create the community of faith and the ability to heed the call, "you shall be holy."
The phrase, "I am the LORD your God" (אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלהֵיכֶם) appears three times in Lev. 19:2-4. Abiding in the Presence of God means opening our eyes to the realm of the holy and consciously distinguishing it from the common, the habitual, or the profane. It means awakening to Reality and joining the chorus: "Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts -- the whole world is filled with His glory" (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). When we do this, the LORD is seen to be "our God" and we are made free of the illusions and delusions of the world.
Love and Reproof...
[ This week's Torah reading (Acharei Mot - Kedoshim) is vast -- and vastly important. If it pleases God I will add additional commentary before Shabbat. Meanwhile, here are a few additional comments on the readings.... ]
04.28.09 (Iyyar 4, 5769) As a matter of psychological fact, we all make various judgments every day. Most of these judgments concern matters of empirical fact: Is this water safe to drink? Will that old ladder support my weight? Does that paint color match the color of the walls in the house? And so on. Other inferences have to do with logical deduction: did I subtract the proper amounts to accurately balance my bank statement? If we know that Mr. Fuddledum was in Chicago on a business trip at the time of the murder in Detroit, then he cannot be the murderer...
Many judgments or inferences are "preconscious" features of human experience. We don't usually ask if we are currently dreaming right now rather than experiencing something "real." We unreflectingly assume that our perceptions of space and time are reasonably accurate so that we can navigate in the world. We further assume that the future will resemble the past, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that real patterns of existence are discernible to human reason. We likewise assume that the basic laws of logic apply: that x=x, that something cannot both be entirely red and entirely green at the same time and place, that 1+1=2, that if A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C, and so on.
Beyond such matters of fact and logical deduction, it's also psychologically necessary to make value judgments. I am not referring to subjective preferences regarding the taste of certain foods, the appreciation of a particular piece of art, and so on, but rather the value that is ascribed to the knowing process itself. Why should we care to know something rather than nothing? What makes "truth" valuable and "error" something to be avoided? After all, the enterprise of science itself can only be engaged using metaphysical assumptions that 1) there is an external world; 2) the scientific method is useful to understand that world; 3) the laws of logic are applicable to the world; 4) it is good to know rather than not to know, and so on....
I say all this as backdrop to the quandary of making judgments about the moral behavior of persons... Of course in today's political climate we are regularly propagandized by the mass media, the entertainment industry, and the secular educational system to unthinkingly accept all moral choices as equally valid. According to the "political correctness" dogma of today, values are relative and therefore no one is in a position to judge the moral choices of others. Of course this viewpoint is utter nonsense, since it is obvious that the word "tolerance" is used as a veiled demand for the acceptance of promiscuous moral choices rather than as part of a genuine argument for relativism per se. After all, an absolute relativist could not (logically) deny the values of a violent fanatic, a rapist, or a mass murderer as being any less significant than those of others. An absolute relativist is therefore committed to making the absurd claim that there is no essential difference between the actions of Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler, for example, since there is no transcendent basis, no objective standard, no court of appeal beyond the realm of subjective human preference by which a real moral judgment can be ascertained. It should be obvious that absolute relativism is a self-stultifying and therefore irrational position, and that whenever the word "tolerance" is used a means of squelching appeals to moral reality, you can be sure that this linguistic trick is employed to further an evil agenda...
At any rate, the followers of the Messiah have a responsibility to exhort and help one another, and this often involves offering "reproof" or correction (Heb. 3:12-13, Rom. 15:4; Eph. 5:11, 2 Tim. 4:2). But how can we do this in a loving way? Isn't it easier to heed the statement of Yeshua: "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged" (Matt. 7:1) and overlook the faults of our brothers and sisters?
The sages advise that when you feel compelled to reprove your brother or sister, you must reprove yourself at the same time. Know that you have a share in his or her sin.... Reproaches must be spoken from love, not ill-will, and three conditions must be present for reproof to be acceptable: 1) the one who reproves must do so in genuine humility; 2) the person being reproved must be ready to receive correction; and 3) it is categorically forbidden to shame the person in public. If you cannot offer correction with such mildness, you are better off letting the matter go....
Obviously offering godly reproof requires a great deal of wisdom, and often the indirect approach is the best method. The Baal Shem Tov interpreted, "You shall reprove your neighbor" (Lev. 19:17) as follows. When you wish to correct a friend who has transgressed, do not do so to his face, for you will then cause him grief and embarrassment. You cannot fulfill a mitzvah by way of sin... Instead, speak words of reproof to an acquaintance who clings to Torah and mitzvot and is not guilty of the transgression in question. When the transgressor then hears this reproof, he will understand that it is he who must listen to this admonition and correct his ways... In this way you will avoid shaming the person -- and at the same time, he may repent.
The underlying principle here is love, and this leads to the quintessential commandment given in the Torah: "you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:18). If you love your fellow man as yourself, you will refrain from taking vengeance or bearing a grudge (i.e., taking offense). Just as you intuitively care for yourself -- despite the fact that you know you are frail and full of faults -- so must you love your neighbor in spite of his or her faults....
Of course this isn't easy, but immediately after giving the commandment, God declares: "I am the LORD" (אֲנִי יְהוָה), which the sages traditionally interpret to mean, "I, the LORD, will help you fulfill this commandment if you sincerely wish to do so." The love of others, then, extends to everyone, but especially to the sinner.
In Acharei Mot is a wonderful verse (Lev. 16:16) which states that the LORD "dwells with them in the midst of their contamination" (הַשּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאתָם). Even though the people were unclean (i.e., defiled by tumah), the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) was not removed, and means for reconciliation were provided...
Sometimes it seems easier to offer "love" to a complete stranger. Why do we put on our best public face toward those whom we do not know, and yet are often insensitive, thoughtless, and sometimes even mean-spirited toward our own mishpacha -- to those with whom we are closest? This is where love is tested, since our proximity to others invariably leads to revelation of our own sinful condition. The love of God doesn't "stop there" (i.e., with a verdict about our sinful condition) but sees beyond the offense and keeps hope. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7).
This love is intended to be reciprocal, even if unconditionally given. In other words, the divine love was meant to be shared with others in community.... Some of the mystics have said that when two people sincerely love one another, the Holy One reigns between them. This is alluded to by the Hebrew word for love (ahavah, אהבה), the gematria of which is thirteen, but when shared with another it is multiplied: 13 x 2 = 26 -- the same value for the Name of the LORD (יהוה). The commandment, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" thus awakens in the other the same kind of love for you -- and the result will be a "double love" -- the very love of the LORD. God will fill you with His Holy Spirit and will help you in the practice of divine love...
Yeshua extended the "like-for-like" nature of love (with its implicit appeal to self-interest) by commanding us to (literally) love our enemies. Most of us find rationalizations to excuse ourselves from this duty, of course, and we are only too glad to accept the propaganda of the world that wars are patriotic, that vengeance is "just," that people who are different from us are to be held in suspicion, and so on. Yeshua, however, says: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:44-45). Love is more important than even truth, or rather, love is the ground or foundation of the truth... Love is truth, in other words, at least from the perspective of Heaven. God doesn't call out people to become "professors" as much as He calls people to become lovers... Love is willing to embrace the wrong in others in redemptive hope. If we find ourselves unwilling to extend such grace, perhaps it's because we are struggling to accept it as our own....
Guess who is four weeks old today?
04.28.09 (Iyyar 4, 5769) Our son Judah Abraham is already growing fast! It's hard to believe it's been nearly a month since he was born... Here are a few pictures I took of Judah last night:
Some of you have been longtime visitors to this site and can recall the birth of our first son, Josiah Yisroel, back in October of 2004. I thought it would be fun to put pictures of both boys on the site today so you can see them together. In the picture below, Josiah was about 2 months old or so:
I praise and thank the LORD God of Israel for these precious sons... Olga is doing well though -- as many of you know -- having a newborn baby is stressful and tiring. Please keep our family in your prayers, chaverim!
Yom HaZikaron - Israeli Memorial Day
Tuesday April 28th, 2009
04.26.09 (Iyyar 2, 5769) Zakhar is the Hebrew word for "remember," and zikaron is the word for memorial. Yom HaZikaron (יום הזכרון), then, is the Day of Memorial, or Memorial Day. The Israeli Knesset established Iyyar 4, the day before Israel's Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) as a Memorial Day for soldiers who gave up their lives in battle for the creation and defense of the State of Israel. This year, Iyyar 4 falls on April 27th, 2009.
Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israeli Independence Day
Wednesday April 29th, 2009
04.26.09 (Iyyar 2, 5769) After the Jewish people had suffered for nearly 2,000 years of exile (as foretold by Moses and the Hebrew prophets), Israel was miraculously reborn as a nation in their ancient homeland on May 14, 1948 (Iyyar 5, 5708). Today Jews across the world celebrate Iyyar 5 as Israel Independence Day (this year, Iyyar 5 falls on April 28th, 2009).
Forty Nine Days of Teshuvah
April 10th - May 28th, 2009
04.26.09 (Iyyar 2, 5769) Jewish legend says that the Israelites were foretold that the Torah would be given to them exactly 50 days after their Exodus from Egypt. The people were so eager for this revelation that after their deliverance they began counting the days: "Now we have one day less to wait for the giving of the Torah!" This midrash attempts to explain why the Torah commands that the days from Passover to Shavuot are to be counted by claiming that the it commemorates the eagerness with which the Torah was received by the Israelites....
Certain Kabbalists claim that the 49-day countdown represents a seven week period of teshuvah, one day of repentance to repair each of the 49 "levels of sin" that the Jewish people had degraded into while being slaves in Egypt. Just as there are 49 levels of spiritual impurity (tumah), so there are said to be 49 levels spiritual of purity (tahora). Normally a meditation is given for each of the 49 days (permuations of the sefirot) to help you purge a sinful condition from your life in order to attain higher levels of purity (this process is sometimes called "madregot ha-tahara"). Since Shavuot ("Pentecost") is the ultimate point of Passover (i.e., deliverance was given for the sake of the revelation of Torah), we are called to sanctify ourselves for personal revelation by engaging in these seven weeks of repentance. Each day a blessing is recited in anticipation of the climactic day of Shavuot...
As Shavuot later attained a more agricultural focus, the point of the Omer Count was to mark the 50th day (Jubilee) of the growing season. As the wheat ripened, the harvest was being readied for shtei Ha-Lechem (the waving of the two loaves) to be offered on the 50th day -- the only time leavened bread was used by the priests for the avodah:
Though the Jewish sages did not fathom the use of the otherwise forbidden leaven in the offering (Lev. 2:11), prophetically it is a picture of the "one new man" (composed of both Jew and Gentile) before the altar of the LORD (Eph. 2:14). The countdown to Shavuot therefore goes beyond the revelation of Torah given at Sinai and points to the greater revelation of Zion. Yeshua removes our tumah and makes us tahor by His sacrifice as the true Passover Lamb upon the Cross; Shavuot is the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit's advent to those who trust in Him. "Counting the Omer" is about being clothed with the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to encounter the resurrected LORD of Glory.
Zion is our mountain, chaverim -- not Sinai.
Parashat Acharei Mot & Kedoshim
Saturday May 2nd, 2009
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Acharei Mot - Kedoshim). Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]
04.26.09 (Iyyar 2, 5769) This week we have another "double portion" of Torah: Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, both of which focus on holiness. In response to the recent death of Aaron's sons for offering "strange fire" in the Tabernacle, Acharei Mot ("after the death") explains the holiness code for the kohanim (priests) of Israel -- and in particular gives the laws for the Yom Kippur service. Parashat Kedoshim, on the other hand, concerns the holiness code for the entire congregation of Israel.
The followers of the LORD God of Israel are to be holy. In Hebrew, the word kedushah (from the root k-d-sh) means sanctity or "set-apartness" (other Hebrew words that use this root include kadosh (holy), Kiddush (sanctifying the wine), Kaddish (sanctifying the Name), kiddushin (the ring ceremony at a marriage), and so on). Kadosh connotes the sphere of the sacred that is radically separate from all that is sinful and profane. As such, it is lofty and elevated (Isa. 57:15), beyond all comparison and utterly unique (Isa. 40:25), entirely righteous (Isa. 5:16), glorious and awesome (Psalm 99:3), full of light and power (Isa. 10:7), and is chosen and favored as God's own (Ezek. 22:26). Indeed, holiness is a synonym for the LORD Himself (Hakadosh barukh hu - The Holy One, blessed be He).
The idea of the holy (kadosh) therefore implies differentiation: the realm of the holy is entirely set apart from the common, the habitual, or the profane. The holy is singular, awe-inspiring, even "terrible" or dreadful (see Neh. 1:5; Psalm 68:35). As the Holy One (hakadosh), God is utterly unique, distinct, sacred, and "set apart" as the only One of its kind. He alone is worthy of true worship and adoration, since He alone is peerless, without rival, and stands in relation to the world as Creator and Lord. Yes, only the Lord is infinitely and eternally Other -- known to Himself as "I AM THAT I AM" (Exod. 3:15).
Holiness, then, implies more than an abstract or indifferent "metaphysical" separation (as is suggested by various forms of dualism), but rather separation from that which is mundane (chullin), banal, common, or evil. In other words, holiness implies absolute moral goodness and perfection. It is impossible that the Holy One could condone sin, since this would negate the distinction between the sacred and profane and thereby undermine the nature of holiness itself. The Holy is in opposition to the profane and therefore the LORD must hate and oppose that which violates the sacred.
Various practical mitzvot are given in this Torah portion through which a Jew is sanctified, or set apart to be kadosh - holy - and therefore fit for relationship with God. God is not only "wholly Other" (i.e., transcendent) but also pervades all of creation (i.e., "immanent"), and those who are called into His Presence must therefore be holy themselves. Such practical holiness results in sanctification obtained through the observance of commandments (mitzvot). These commandments include both mitzvot aseh (commandments to do something) and mitzvot lo ta'aseh (commandments to refrain from doing something). In addition, chukkim, or "statutes" are given that further separate the Jew from the customs and profanity of the surrounding nations.
For example, though it is inevitable (and psychologically necessary) that we make judgments about other people, the Torah states, b'tzedek tishpot 'amitekha, "in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor" (see also John 7:24), which implies that we must be forgiving and good when we think of other people.
The focal point and the very heart of what holiness represents is stated as v'ahavta l're'akha kamokha - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Note that the direct object of the verb (ahav - to love) is your neighbor. But who, exactly, is my neighbor? Some have claimed that the word rea (neighbor) refers only to one's fellow Jew - not to others at large in the world. However this is obviously false, since the "stranger" (ger) is explicitly identified to be an object of our love (Lev 19:34). And note that Yeshua the Mashiach answered this question by turning it around. Instead of attempting to find someone worthy of neighborly love, I am asked to be a worthy and loving neighbor myself (Luke 10:29-37).
The phrase v'ahavta l're'akha kamokha (Lev. 19:18) is considered the most comprehensive rule of conduct toward others found in the entire Torah. Thus Hillel, a contemporary of the Yeshua, commented regarding this phrase: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary." Yeshua likewise said "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt 7:12). The apostle Paul also wrote "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (see Rom. 13:10, Gal. 5:14).
The mystery of holiness is that it is bound up in true love...
"Keeping Kosher" - How close a look?
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Tazria-Metzora). Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]
04.24.09 (Nisan 30, 5769) In traditional Judaism the word "kosher" (כָּשֵׁר) is a technical term that means "approved," "ritually correct," or "fit," whereas kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת) refers to the complex set of rabbinical dietary laws that define which foods (and food combinations) are permitted to be eaten and which are not. Note that the word "kosher" does not appear in the Torah itself (though the ideas of "clean/tahor" and "unclean/tamei" foods do), and therefore many of the dietary laws are based on traditions and inferences made by the rabbis (i.e., halakhah). In general terms, the sages identified three classes of foods: meat, dairy, and "parve" (neither meat nor dairy), and they defined strict rules about their consumption and admixture. For example, according to kashrut, meat cannot be eaten with dairy products (no cheeseburgers, meat lasagna, etc.), though either may be eaten with parve (PAHR-vuh) such as fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains. Note that all kosher foods must be entirely insect-free....
Regarding land animals, only those that both chew their cud and have cloven hooves may be eaten (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). For example, cows and sheep are acceptable, but not pigs or dogs. In addition, in order to be halachically kosher, the animal: 1) must be inspected and shown to be disease-free, 2) must be ritually (i.e., humanely) slaughtered by a Jewish shochet (a certified butcher), and 3) must have the blood and fat removed (Deut. 12:23; Lev. 7:23-25; 17:10). Regarding birds, only non-predatory kinds that are hatched with feathers are regarded as kosher. Fish that have both fins and scales may be eaten (though fish are technically not regarded as "meat" according to Jewish dietary law).
The Torah says not to "boil a kid in its mother's milk" in three places (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; and Deut. 14:21), and from this the sages "built a fence" by decreeing that meat and dairy products should never be eaten together -- even though Abraham himself offered a meat with dairy meal to the LORD and the two angels when they were on route to judge Sodom and Gomorrah (see Gen. 18:8; and cp. 26:5). The rabbis later extended this prohibition to include the complete separation of the pans and utensils used to cook meat and diary, the plates and dinnerware from which they are eaten, the dishpans in which they are cleaned, and the towels on which they are dried. A rabbinically "kosher kitchen" will therefore have at least two sets of pots, pans and dishes: one for meat and one for dairy (chalav yisrael), complete with two refrigerators, two stoves, etc. The strictest people will eat only foods that have reliable Orthodox kosher certification (called a hechsher), partaking of only "glatt-kosher" certified meat and dairy products. A mashgiach (mash-GEE-ach) is appointed to supervise the food production process to ensure compliance with the highest kosher standards.
This reminds me of the old joke about keeping kosher:
God: And remember, Moses, regarding the dietary laws, never cook a calf in its mother's milk. It is cruel, and you are to be holy...
Moses: So you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together.
God: No, what I'm saying is, never cook a calf in its mother's milk.
Moses: Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs.
God: No, Moses, listen to me. I am saying, don't cook a calf in its mother's milk!!!
Moses: Oh, Lord! Please don't strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat and if we make a mistake we have to bury that dish outside....
God: Moses, do whatever you want...
Some of the sages have attempted to link last week's Torah portion (Shemini), which gives the signs for kosher animals, with this week's Torah portion (Tazria) regarding the ritual impurities of the human body. Shemini concludes with the laws regarding forbidden animals and Tazria begins with the ritual uncleanness of a woman who gives birth. Maimonides says this sequence is intended to remind us to watch what we eat. If we partake of forbidden (unclean) foods, we might cause damage to the newborn baby. In other words, Jewish dietary laws were a set of divinely given health regulations (i.e. for personal and social hygiene). Moreover, keeping kosher encourages self-control and "mindful eating" practices which are socially beneficial. Others have suggested that the dietary laws were intended to keep the Jewish people separate and distinct from their surrounding culture. Keeping kosher promotes a sense of holiness that forces Jews to rely on one another. Still others have suggested that because of its strict regulations for slaughtering and its heavy restrictions on eating meat, the kosher laws advocate vegetarianism as an ideal, harkening back to Eden where Adam and Eve ate only from the garden God had created for them.
Keeping rabbinically (as opposed to Biblically) kosher is difficult, however, if not impossible in practice. The reason has to do with microbiology and the latest molecular biotechnology used for food production. Genes originating from pigs, insects, humans and other non-kosher animals are regularly being inserted into foods. The widespread use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food supply, the genetic engineering of the DNA of plants, infusing them with genes from other species (such as pig genes), and the admixture of pig DNA used in various fertilizers (slurry) makes eating that "parve" strawberry a highly technical matter that involves questions of kilayim (forbidden admixtures), batul (the percentage of an accidental mixture of food that can be called "nullified" before it becomes unkosher) and so on.... The Orthodox Union has ruled that genetically modified organisms do not violate the laws of kashrut since the genes used are microscopic and therefore "batul," or nullified, in the new plant (i.e., "if you don't see the unkosher particles - presto! - they aren't there!"). Even so, some kosher certification companies are developing "leaf cameras" that will be able to detect protein (present in microscopic bugs) so that your leafy vegetables won't be unkosher.... Just how closely are we supposed to look, after all?
Some Kabbalistic thinkers suggest that kosher laws refer to "spiritual molecules" that are embedded within foods. Unkosher foods have "negative energy," whereas kosher foods have "positive" spiritual energy. Of course this is speculation on the "chok" or supra-rational nature of the Torah's laws regarding which foods are permissible to eat, but it is perhaps worth mentioning that just as molecules are invisible to the naked eye (indeed, they are inferred theoretical constructs), it is likewise theoretically impossible to physically separate dairy and meat in our environment. Indeed, with the operation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the tendency for things to move toward disorder (i.e., entropy), it is impossible to avoid all contact with insect ingestion, mold contamination, and some quantity of "non-kosher molecules." In this regard, keeping strictly kosher is somewhat like making sure that every trace of chametz (yeast) is literally removed from your home before Passover. Only God Himself could clean a house so thoroughly as to ensure that it was entirely chametz free - just as only God Himself can call foods truly kosher....
And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person."
Then the disciples came and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?"
He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit."
But Peter said to him, "Explain the parable to us."
And he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone." (Matt. 15:10-20)
Note the link between the mouth and the heart, chaverim: "From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34)... Here Yeshua was teaching by contradistinction. His words were intended for those who were zealous regarding dietary laws (and ritual handwashing) as a means of affecting a heart relationship with God. Yeshua was essentially saying that instead of investing various foods with "spiritual molecules" and becoming overly fastidious with your diet, look within your heart. If you take as much care about what comes out of your mouth as you do about what you put into it, you will come to the right understanding. The outer is not the inner. Having a "clean cup" on the outside is spiritually ludicrous if the inside of the cup is filled with maggots and all manner of uncleanness (Matt. 23:25-28). Still, as a Torah-observant Jew, Yeshua Himself certainly kept "Biblically" kosher -- and His followers did likewise. Recall that when Peter received the vision of the unclean animals descendng from Heaven (Acts 10), he refused to heed the Heavenly Voice's command to eat of them and said that he never ate anything that was unclean.
Ultimately, we eat to live; we don't live to eat... Just as Yeshua taught that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), so eating food is a means to the greater purpose of obtaining life... When we eat food, we are partake of the sacrifice of other life forms for our own sustenance... And since the end or goal of life is to obtain spiritual life -- by inwardly being "made right" with God -- Yeshua alone truly "makes us kosher," since acceptance of His sacrificial love is eternal life itself. We live in order to receive His love, and His love is what sustains our lives....
The rabbinical idea of "keeping kosher" is really part of the same old tradition that Yeshua condemned as whitewashing the truth about our inward condition. When we acknowledge our heart's need for His cleansing and salvation, the inner intent of the Torah is written upon our hearts and we are enabled by His Spirit to please God (Jer. 31:31-33; Psalm 1:1-3). Keeping a clean diet gives us no merit before God, but calling upon the LORD for salvation (i.e., inward cleansing) imputes the righteousness of the Messiah to our account. The laws of the Torah were not given to mock us; there were reasons for God's prohibitions and commandments. Still, the inward heart condition is of primary importance, just as the very first commandment -- i.e., the Shema and the duty to love the LORD with all your heart -- is basic to all the commandments that follow. If we have trouble keeping the first and greatest commandment, we need to begin there and seek Divine Help... Getting fussy over "food laws" can distract us from the greater purpose of why we are eating food in the first place... "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?'" (Matt. 6:31). After we have genuinely walked in the love of God for a season, He will guide us regarding our food choices, chaverim.
Pride and affliction...
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Tazria-Metzora). Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]
04.23.09 (Nisan 29, 5769) As already mentioned in the Torah studies for Tazria and Metzora, the sages link tzaraat (i.e., spiritual affliction that affects the flesh) with lashon hara, which is defined as saying something bad about another person even if it happens to be true. The sages regard this sin as particularly offensive: "Lashon Hara is worse than murder. One who murders, murders but one; however, one who speaks lashon hara kills three: the one who speaks it (motzi shem ra), the one who hears it, and the one of whom it is spoken." This is similar to the sin of "emotional homicide" caused by publicly shaming another. According to the Talmud, the shamed person's face is drained of blood and turns white, and therefore humiliation is called halbanat panim, "whitening the face."
The tongue is likened to an arrow. If a man were to draw his sword to kill his fellow man, but the victim pleads for his life, the would-be murderer can relent and return his sword to the sheath. But the arrow, when shot toward its mark, cannot be returned... So abusive language can be a weapon used to kill the soul (Prov. 18:21).
Some people try to excuse the sin of lashon hara by claiming that they merely said something -- but they didn't do anything. To reveal the connection between saying and doing, the Torah commands that the metzora be brought before the Kohen who determines his fate with a single word: "clean" or "unclean." This is intended to teach that "death and life are in the hand of the tongue" (מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן). The tongue is said to "have a hand" that can wield a weapon just as effectively as the hand on your arm. Yeshua likewise warned us by saying that "every careless word" we utter will eventually be brought to the bar of eternal examination (Matt. 12:36).
What's behind the sin of lashon hara? What inspires its practice? What's its secret motive? It is not a heart attitude that objectifies others? That regards them as potential threats or dehumanizes them as a means to engage in fatuous self-elevation? Is not lashon hara ultimately a matter of haughtiness (יְהִירוּת), of spiritual pride, and an overweening sense of self-importance?
R' Naftali of Barshad said, "In the World to Come, I will be able to find all kinds of excuses for my offenses in this world, except the sin of haughtiness.
When the heavenly court asks me, "Did you learn Torah?" I will reply: "Unfortunately, I was ignorant and I did not know how to learn." When they ask me, "Did you at least serve Hashem with fasting and abstinence?" I will reply: "I was weak and could not endure." When they ask, "Did you at least give lots of tzedakah?" I will reply, "Unfortunately I was poor and destitute."
"If that is the case," they will then ask, "and you were ignorant, weak, and poor, then why were you haughty?"
To that question, I have no reply.... (Iturei Torah)
As R' Yitzchak of Berditchev wrote, "Were the issue of haughtiness and arrogance not written about in so many holy scriptures, it would be impossible to believe that a person made of dust and ashes, so flimsy, so fragile, alive today, dead tomorrow - can be haughty!"
Recall the story of the Syrian general Naaman and his healing of tzaraat through the ministry of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings. 5:1-14). By refusing to personally meet with the great general, Elisha was teaching the way of humility (עֲנָוָה). Naaman expected a spectacular "outward show," complete with pomp and circumstance to attend his healing, but he was disappointed to learn that what was required of him was a humble act of obedience... His sevenfold tevillah -- the complete immersion in water -- forced the general to be striped of his outer trappings of power and social prestige. In that regard, Naaman's healing pointed to the same heart change required of the metzora from the camps of Israel. Naaman's tevillah represented a sort of rebirth from the womb, and he emerged from the waters a changed and humbler man.
Within the camp of Israel, the purification process of the metzora was intended to teach the value of humility. The required elements are "chok" - and therefore bypass the pride of human reason. The twig of the mighty cedar symbolizes pride; the crimson dye comes from the lowly worm; the hyssop grows close to the earth. The two birds represent the two uses of the tongue. The sacrificed bird represents the chattering and chirping of mindless speech, whereas the bird released to heaven symbolizes the right use of language -- as a means of expressing praise and gratitude to God for the gift of life... "Since the plagues come from evil talk, which is the act of babbling words, consequently birds were required for his purification which babble continually with chirping sounds" (Rashi).
Note: It's important to understand that one is forbidden to speak lashon hara not only about others, but also about yourself! Engaging in self-abuse is also a species of lashon hara. Overbearing self-condemnation is a form of false humility. Shame and pride are poles of the same rotten continuum. Self-respect runs full-circle in these matters. If you shower contempt on yourself, it is likely others will eventually become the targets of your self-abuse....
Holocaust Remembrance Day - יום השואה
04.20.09 (Nisan 26, 5769) Don't think that it could never happen again. It could. Easily. In fact, one of the greatest threats now facing the United States is full-blown fascism masquerading as "national security" and political correctness... We must remain vigilant. We must never forget that every generation runs its risk of another Hitler coming to power... Holocaust Remembrance Day is therefore not only a solemn memorial to the six million Jews that were systematically murdered by the Nazis during World War II, but it's also a time to renew our commitment to stand for justice and truth for all peoples of the world....
Yom HaShoah (יום השואה), or Holocaust Remembrance Day, takes place on the 27th of Nisan (this year, April 21st), and was established as a national holiday by the Israeli Knesset on August 19, 1953. During this day, in Israel, a morning siren sounds, all activity stops, and people stand in honor of those who died. Jews around the world hold memorials and vigils, often lighting six candles in honor of the six million Holocaust victims. Many hold name-reading ceremonies to memorialize those who were murdered.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Israel and to all the Jewish victims of persecution throughout the millennia. You can recite Kaddish in memory of them here.
New Hebrew Mediation
Saved by Hope
04.20.09 (Nisan 26, 5769) It's rare to hear of the person who comes to faith in the Messiah without some kind of a "birth struggle." Today I wrote a brief Hebrew meditation (Saved by Hope) based on the analogy Yeshua used between physical and spiritual birth. I hope you find it encouraging, chaverim....
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Tazria-Metzora). Please read these Torah portions to "find your place" here. ]
04.20.09 (Nisan 26, 5769) This week we have a "double portion" of Torah: Tazria and Metzora. Since this isn't a leap year (i.e., this year doesn't have an additional month of Adar inserted into the calendar), we will have a total of six weeks with double readings before Rosh Hashanah (in the fall). In addition, since this Shabbat occurs on the first day of the new month of Iyyar, a different Haftarah portion is read.
This "double portion" of Torah deals primarily with the relationship between the sin of lashon hara ("the evil tongue") and the divinely imparted affliction of tzara'at, sometimes (inaccurately) translated as "leprosy."
I used to think lashon hara concerned cases of obvious abuse of the tongue, for example, slandering another person or using profanity. Now while these are certainly cases of lashon hara, the concept is larger than that, and includes saying something bad about another person even if it happens to be true. In other words, lashon hara is gossip, spreading evil (even if true) reports, or expressing a negative or critical spirit about others. Such behavior is explicitly forbidden in Lev. 19:16.
The penalty for lashon hara was tzara'at, a skin condition that could only be diagnosed by a kohen (priest), not a doctor. In other words, it was a spiritual malady that required spiritual discernment to treat. If someone was diagnosed with tzara'at, they were forced to leave society and undergo a period of mourning and teshuvah (repentance).
In traditional Jewish thinking, lashon hara is one of the worst of sins, and God is said to punish those who speak such with middah-keneged-middah -- "measure for measure" justice. Since spreading evil reports divided others and caused isolation and loneliness, the metzora shall be afflicted (with tzuris, troubles) and separated from the fellowship of Israel. Indeed, some of the sages point out that the word metzora (one afflicted with tzara'at) is related to the phrase, motzi ra (one who speaks evil), and thereby conclude that evil speech is the principal cause of the disease itself. Obviously we should flee from the sin of lashon hara! May the LORD help each of us to always "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15, 25).
Yeshua told us that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34), and further warned us about the unthinking use of our words: "But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall account for in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by you words you shall be condemned" (Matt. 12:36-37).
A midrash states that when the children of Israel first heard the laws of tzara'at, they despaired and became very afraid. Moses reassured them by telling them that tzara'at was a sign from God that they were indeed a holy nation, since it is His way of encouraging them to do teshuvah in order to be in fellowship with Him. Likewise God sometimes disciplines us for our sins (Heb 12:7-8) for the purpose of granting us the gift of teshuvah (2 Cor. 7:10). We must therefore strive to make our conversation and the inmost intent of our hearts "captive to the obedience of the Mashiach," blessed be He (Matt. 5:37; Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 1 Tim 4:2; etc.).
In the Brit Chadashah, we read how Yeshua healed various "lepers" and even touched them (Matt. 8:2-3, Mark 1:40-41). But how could He do this without Himself becoming tamei (unclean)? Ah, this is a good sheilah (question), but it is directly answered when we apprehend that Yeshua is none other than YHVH who came in the flesh. For remember, it was the prerogative of the LORD God of Israel to "touch" those afflicted with tzara'at and heal them based on their teshuvah, and in like measure, Yeshua entered the "leper colony" of humanity to heal those who cried out to Him. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and His love reaches down to those who are afflicted and oppressed on account of their uncleanness. If you call upon Him, He will likewise touch you and restore you to fellowship with God. Blessed be His Name forever.
One final note of hope: Many of us are in various states of denial regarding our own sinful condition and need for deliverance, which can be illustrated by the case of the metzora and its progression in the life of the afflicted.
A doctor friend of mine once reminded me that tzara'at was an infectious condition. As long as the affliction was spreading across the body, the person was metzora and therefore tamei (unclean), but if the tzara'at (finally) covered the person from head to toe, he was to be considered "clean" (Lev. 13:12-13). In other words, in some cases the metzora needed to be entirely covered with their affliction before they were set free, and this further reminds me of our need to be fully identified with the death of Yeshua in order to experience the resurrection life! It is only by understanding how radical the need for our deliverance that Yeshua's healing touch can be manifest.
If it pleases God, I will add additional commentary to Tazria-Metzora later this week. Meanwhile, shalom and love to you, chaverim.
Brokenness and Service...
[ The following entry explores some ideas found in this week's Torah reading (Shemini). Consider the first High Priest of Israel who was marked with the blood of sacrifice on his ear, hands, and feet and was anointed with oil in the sign of a cross upon his forehead... a clear picture of Yeshua as our ultimate High Priest.... Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
04.17.09 (Nisan 23, 5769) In this week's Torah (Shemini), we read how Moses' brother Aaron was installed as Israel's first High Priest (Kohen ha-Gadol). Aaron was a great prophet of Israel. "Before I arose," said Moses, "my brother Aaron prophesied to Israel for eighty years" (Shemot Rabbah 3:16). While the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, he went about the people proclaiming that "the Holy One, blessed be He, would soon redeem Israel from bondage" (ibid. 5:10). When the LORD's anger was kindled against Moses for his reluctance to lead Israel out of Egypt (Exod. 4:14), God told him, "I had said you would be priest and he [Aaron] a Levite; now, however, Aaron will be a priest and you a Levite" (Zevachim 102a). When the LORD later spoke to Moses in Midian, "Go, return to Egypt, for those who seek your life are dead" (Exod. 4:19) the utterance split into two voices. Moses heard "Go, return to Egypt" while Aaron heard, "Go into the wilderness to meet your brother Moses" (Exod. 4:27).
In Pirke Avot 1:12, Aaron is said to "have loved peace and pursed it; he loved people and drew them close to the Torah." Aaron was said never to interrupt his friend's words nor to accuse others of sin. He greeted all men with love and daf l'kaf zechut - the benefit of the doubt. He was a peacemaker, a humble teacher, and healer. Some of the sages have even gone so far as to say that Aaron was greater than Moses himself (Avot d'Rabbi Nosson). Rashi says that Aaron's attribute of being ohev shalom - a lover of peace - therefore qualified him to become Israel's first High Priest.
Aaron's middot ha-lev (qualities of heart) sometimes made him subject to abuse from others. Aaron's pursuit of peace (אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם) caused him to conciliate the unruly mob's demand for an idol to lead them back to Egypt. Aaron had hoped to "buy some time," since he prophetically knew that Moses was returning later that very day from the summit of Sinai. Even though he had at his disposal the army of the Levites to deal with the mob using force, he turned away from the path of violence and temporized instead. Later, after Moses returned and smashed the luchot (tablets), Aaron realized that a terrible thing had come to Israel through his action, and he therefore underwent a period of teshuvah (repentance). "He tied a rope of iron around his waist and circulated throughout the camps of Israel teaching the people. To whoever did not know prayer he taught prayer, to whoever did not know keriat Shema, he taught Keriat Shema, to whoever did not understand the essence of Torah, he taught the essence of Torah" (Yalkut Shimoni).
As mentioned in the parashah summary for Shemini, on each of the seven days of inauguration Moses anointed Aaron with holy oil. "He [Moses] disrobed him, washed him, anointed him between the eyes in the shape of a cross (the Greek letter Chi) with the oil of anointment, and then dressed him again. Moses repeated this for seven days, until the eighth day" (Midrash HaGadol, BaMidbar 7:1). After Aaron offered the sacrifices, the Divine Presence did not appear immediately, and Aaron was frightened that his sins were haunting him. According to the Sifra (midrash on Leviticus), Aaron thought the altar resembled the shape of an ox and he was afraid of it because it reminded him of the Golden Calf. His fear was preventing the revelation of God's love.
Rashi notes that Moses' commandment to his brother Aaron, "Draw near to the altar" (קְרַב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ) on the eighth day [Lev. 9:7], suggests that Aaron was still deepely ashamed over the Sin of the Calf. Though Aaron did not feel unworthy to be the High Priest of Israel, Rashi states that Aaron was chosen precisely because of his shame. His reluctance and sense of utter unworthiness was the very reason why he was granted the role of Israel's High Priest. The service of God requires the death of the ego....
In similar measure, some of you might feel utterly unworthy of your high calling in the Messiah Yeshua. After all, you -- no less than Aaron -- are called to come before the Divine Presence and function as God's holy priests. But in similar measure, you -- no less than Aaron -- are unworthy for the role. Nonetheless you are chosen in your weakness; you are beloved because of your lowly standing; you are made "pure in heart" because you realize your own inner nothingness and need before the Savior.... Your brokenness is a gift that magnifies God's unending love and grace:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
Your avodah (service to the LORD) is one of the sacrifice of praise for the salvation God has bestowed upon you. "Through him [Yeshua] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name" (Heb. 13:15).
Of course, such praise is often offered while in a state of suffering, but "though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For our light and transient troubles are achieving for us an everlasting glory whose weight is beyond description. We concentrate not on what is seen but on what is not seen, since things seen are temporary, but things not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
טוֹב־לִי כִי־עֻנֵּיתִי לְמַעַן אֶלְמַד חֻקֶּיךָ - "It is for my good that I have been afflicted; so that I would learn your decrees" (Psalm 119:71).
Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin used to say, "When a person suffers, he shouldn't say that things are bad. Rather, he should say that the situation is bitter. The Almighty does nothing bad. Just as medicine is beneficial, although it might be bitter, so too events are always beneficial even if they are bitter."
God punishes the ungodly simply by ignoring them. This is why they have success in the world – the most frightful punishment, because in God's view this world is immersed in evil. But God sends suffering to those whom he loves, as assistance to enable them to become happy by loving him. (Soren Kierkegaard)
Parashat Shemini - פרשת שמיני
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Shemini). Consider the first High Priest of Israel who was marked with the blood of sacrifice on his ear, hands, and feet and was anointed with oil in the sign of a cross upon his forehead... a clear picture of Yeshua as our ultimate High Priest.... Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
04.16.09 (Nisan 22, 5769) This week's Torah reading, Shemini ("eighth"), is a continuation of last week's reading (Tzav) where the seven-day inauguration ceremony for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is described. This week's reading recounts what happened on the eighth day, when God's Shekhinah presence descended upon the Tabernacle. According to Jewish tradition, this eighth day fell on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (i.e., the Biblical New Year) in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan is called the first day of creation (according to some of the sages). It marks the birthday of national Israel and the start of the Exodus from Egypt. Rosh Chodesh Nisan is also considered "the first day of divine service," since the first sacrifices were brought to the Mishkan and the Heavenly Fire (in the form of a lion) first burned the offerings on the mizbe'ach (altar). Rosh Chodesh Nisan is further called the "the first day of blessing" since it marked the first time that the Birkat Kohanim (i.e., the priestly blessing) was pronounced upon Israel. Regarding this famous blessing, note that the phrase, "May the LORD lift up (yisa) His face toward you..." (יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ) provides a picture of God holding you up in His arms, as a delighted father might hold up his young child in joy.... God "lifts up His face" as He holds you up in divine joy!
Since the Mishkan was indwelt by the Divine Presence on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, some of the sages have said that God created the universe with the aim of establishing His dwelling place among mankind.
The Midrash of the White Ram
Aaron and his sons were anointed by the sacrificial blood of a ram, a sign of the coming Ram of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here's an amazing midrash concerning the mystical "white ram" that volunteered to be substituted for Isaac during Abraham's greatest test:
On the last day of creation, in the twilight of the first Sabbath, God made a beautiful white ram. God put the ram in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden) and said, "Wait here until I call you." And there the ram waited and waited.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve disobeyed the LORD and were exiled from the garden. They left the beauty of paradise, yet the ram stayed and waited.
The ages passed, and the other animals left the garden. Still the ram patiently waited.
Then one day God woke the ram and said, "Today is the day." The ram jumped up and began to run. He knew what he had to do.
The evil one appeared and said, "Stop! Don't leave this beautiful garden. It will mean your death!" But the ram said, "I must save the child!" and he ran out of Eden. He ran over rocks and boulders, he leapt over stony crags. He knew exactly where he was going.
The evil one next appeared disguised as a field of fresh green grass. "Stop here!" he cajoled. "Eat and rest. There's no need to hurry." But the ram replied, "I must save the child!" and ran even faster through the dusty desert. The evil one waited and then appeared as a sparkling fountain of water in the waste places. He cried out, "Ho, all who are thirsty, stop and drink! Rest -- there is no hurry!" But once again the ram replied, "I cannot stop! I must save the child!" Further still along the way, the evil one appeared as a hungry lion and roared, "Stop! Or I will rend you to pieces and devour you!" But the ram stoutly replied, "I must save the child" and leapt over the ferocious lion.
Finally the ram arrived at the sacred mountain (Moriah). At the top he saw a child tied and bound to an altar and a weeping man. "Wait!" cried the ram, running with all his strength. "I am here! Take me!" But the evil one, disguised as a bush of brambles, caught the ram's horns and said, "You shall go no further!" The ram struggled to get free, crying out, "Abraham! Here I am! Take me!" but Abraham did not hear.
The ram then heard the voice of God saying to Abraham, "Stop! I asked you to sacrifice your only son, Isaac, to test your love and trust in me. Now, instead of Isaac, sacrifice this ram. I made him in the twilight of the last day of creation for this very moment -- to take Isaac's place on the altar." Abraham then saw the ram and untied his son. After he freed the ram from the thicket of brambles, the ram bounded upon the altar.
"Abraham," said the ram, "when you blow through one of my horns, God will hear the sound and remember Isaac and me -- the white ram that took his place. And He will forgive the sins of Isaac, and the sins of his children, and his children's children, and so on, always, until the end of time."
Then the ram lay down on the altar and his soul flew away into God's hands. And from the ram's ashes the mortar for the altar of the Temple was said to be made; from his bones, the foundations of Jerusalem were laid, from his bowels, the strings of David's harp, and from his hide, the prophet Elijah made a cloak. And from his two horns were made two shofars: one was blown when Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the other will call the children of Israel home. And now, when we hear the sound of the shofar, we remember the sacrifice of the white ram for Isaac and his children.
(Adapted from Mordicai Gerstein's retelling of the famous midrash in his children's book, The White Ram)
The beautiful midrash has it partly right. Yeshua is indeed called the "lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (1 Pet. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8), though He was not created on the eve of the last day of creation, but rather was the Creator Himself -- the One whose glory is so expansive that it reaches both to the top of the highest heavens and to the lowest depths of Hell. His sacrificial love was not embodied in a mythical ram but rather with the frailty of real human flesh in order to suffer and die for our sins... His descent was for our ascent...
Consider how the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah) provides a prophetic picture of Yeshua as the "Lamb of God" (Seh haElohim) who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Both Isaac and Yeshua were born miraculously; both were "only begotten sons"; both were to be sacrificed by their fathers at Mount Moriah; both were to be resurrected on the third day (Gen. 22:5, Heb. 11:17-19); both willingly took up the means of his execution; and both demonstrate that one life can be sacrificed for another – the ram for Isaac, and Yeshua for all of mankind. Indeed, the first occurrence of the word "love" in the Scriptures (ahavah) refers to a father's love for his "only" son who was offered as a sacrifice on Moriah (the very place of the crucifixion of Yeshua, a clear reference to the gospel message itself (Gen. 22:2; John 3:16).
As believers in Yeshua, we too have been anointed with the blood from the Ram of Ordination -- Yeshua as our Kohen Gadol (High Priest) of the better covenant! And we too have been anointed with the sacred shemen (oil) that symbolizes the presence and aroma of the LORD in our lives. As followers of Yeshua we are therefore truly "...a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). May the LORD be pleased to help you serve Him in the truth.
If God is willing, I will add some additional commentary to Shemini tomorrow, chaverim. Meanwhile, may the LORD lift you up -- as one of His dear children -- and may you see His eyes light up with joy over you.... Amen.
Personal Note: I have been having some really bad abdominal pain the last two days... I'm not sure if this is the result of roughing about with Josiah on the playground the other day (climbing walls, acting like I'm 18) or something more serious. It's hard to cough or sneeze without a lot of pain. If things don't improve soon, I am off to the hospital for a scan.... Please offer up a prayer for healing for me... I really want to be there for Olga and the kids -- not to be laid up in a hospital somewhere for awhile. Thank you....
Is the American Church Dying?
[ Many people (including me) have been frustrated trying to share the truth of the Scriptures with so-called "Evangelical" leaders in this country. Time is running out, however, and if the truth continues to be ignored or suppressed, it's likely that Evangelicalism will soon decay into full-blown apostasy.... The following is a bit of a "rant" about the need for Christian leaders to repent and return to the truth of the Jewish Scriptures. ]
04.15.09 (Nisan 21, 5769) Recently the main stream news outlets have been in overdrive indoctrinating the public with the idea that Christianity is dying in America.... According to trend projections based on the "latest statistics," conservative Christianity will continue to be marginalized in the years to come, essentially following the pattern of European Christianity. Meanwhile, basic Biblical literacy and is at an all-time low among self-professed American Christians, with various surveys indicating profound doctrinal confusion and inconsistencies regarding the most fundamental ideas of the faith. Many traditional American pastors and theologians are reacting in predictable ways to the corporate shallowness, making various appeals to help save the "church" and to infuse it with new health, etc.
However, as I mentioned a few days ago (see below), it needs to be asked whether Evangelical Christianity is really worth saving, at least as an institution. After all, for the last 40 years "Evangelicals" have been regularly hoodwinked by the appeals of popular leaders who sold the idea that engaging the culture politically -- i.e., engaging in the "culture war" -- was the way to follow "Christ." The "church" then became associated with "right wing" politics (mindlessly following G.W. Bush and others who pandered to them on occasion), and the focus was therefore redirected away from the truth of God's revelation to the world and its spurious dialectic. Today's "next-generation" Evangelical leaders have swung the other way, apparently unaware that the "devil's logic" underlies their thinking. They are snakes in the grass, either insinuating that the message of Yeshua resolves to mere humanitarianism or by advocating "nirvana-inducing" contemplative techniques... These are postmodern absurdists, "Christian clowns," sharing the despair of their unbelief with the rest of the "flock." Beware of them, chaverim.... Beware of those self-professed leaders of Christianity who adopt the world's ethos (whether of "modernism" or "postmodernism") by claiming that the gospel message must be reinvented for the spirit of the age.... NO. The followers of Messiah are meant to live the truth; they are not called to follow the world or pander to its "felt needs." Go therefore and teach (μαθητεύω) all nations (Matt. 28:19).
Invariably the Christian church stagnates and becomes moribund whenever the Jewish roots of the faith are forsaken. We see this in the case of the Roman Church as well as in the denominations that sprung from the so-called European "Reformation" (with its innumerable offshoot denominations that arose in America). Without the common root of Jewish thinking and the Hebraic mindset, the devil's overarching plan to "divide and conquer" runs quite efficiently. Silly arguments about baptism, the nature of the "sacraments," the scope of church "government," and so on are cleared up once the Jewishness of the Gospel message is understood and accepted.
Various calls by church leaders to further "reform" American Christianity will prove useless until the Church repents of its corporate sins and truly undergoes genuine "reformation." This means the Church's so-called leaders must humble themselves - preferably with sackcloth and ashes -- and confess the sin of their "replacement theology" (with all of its gross implications). Reality is invariably self-correcting. When you are lost, the best course is to stop and change your direction. This is called teshuvah. Refusal to turn back leads to grave peril, even death itself... The churches today must forsake the serving up of pabulum and nonsense and return to the original message of the gospel -- which simply cannot be understood apart from a thorough knowledge of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (i.e., the Jewish Scriptures).
Ultimately, of course, the "gates of Hell" will not prevail against God's people or God's purposes. All things work together for good -- gam zu l'tova -- for those who love the truth and sincerely follow the LORD. Only God sees with perfect clarity and knows who are His -- and who are counterfeits. He alone is the Judge, and His ways are always perfect. We need not live in fear, even if the world totters around us -- including the world of American Christianity. Nonetheless, American Christianity must repent of its institutionalized prejudices and return to the LORD God of Israel. "Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:40). Salvation is of the Jews, procured by the King of the Jews, and will be fulfilled among those with a Jewish heart.
The Mysterious Shroud of Turin
[ There's an old Yiddish saying, "If God lived on the earth, people would break his windows." We see how true this statement is when we contemplate the crucifixion of the beloved Messiah for our sins. The following are some thoughts about the mysterious "Shroud of Turin." Some people believe the Shroud is the burial cloth of Yeshua ha-Notzri, whereas others deny this. There are sincere people on both sides of the authenticity question, and my intention here is not to make a case one way or another. Nonetheless, the Shroud is surely provocative and provides a remarkable "glyph" of both the suffering and the resurrection of the King of the Jews. ]
04.12.09 (Nisan 18, 5769) I read a fascinating article today that reported that one of the leading scientists of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STRP) later confessed that the sample taken from cloth was flawed (i.e., it came from a piece of the Shroud that was repaired in the Middle Ages, not from the original cloth). The scientist -- Ray Rogers, a chemist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory -- later acknowledged that it's now entirely reasonable to conclude that the cloth was none other than the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth....
Even though the controversy regarding the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin gets technical and involved, I tend to regard the Shroud as authentic, primarily because there are no known means for a medieval artist to have created a "negative" (holographic) image of a body (especially an image with such anatomical detail that only a modern pathologist would appreciate), and there is simply no motive for someone to have done so, anyway. Both the "how" and the "why" questions of the Shroud are troubling to those who (a priori) reject the possibility of the miraculous, and therefore the idea that the Shroud is a forgery or a hoax has become the "canned response" for many who reject the historical resurrection of Yeshua from the dead.
On the hypothesis that the Shroud of Turin is a sophisticated forgery, we must suppose there once was a medieval artist who was so talented that he or she could paint the "negative" image of a body, that is, an image with the full spectrum of light reversed. Moreover, this artist would have to paint in obverse -- somewhat like a minting impression. This painter also would have to be intimately familiar with the customs of crucifixion that were unknown during the Middle Ages. For instance, he or she would have to know that the Romans crucified their victims entirely naked, that they pounded the nails through the wrists (not through the hands, as is usually depicted by stigmata paintings of the period), that the victim wore Palestinian style "earlocks" (i.e. peyot ha-rosh) and so on. This fantastic artist also would have to paint in an incredibly realistic and detailed style (again, unlike all other artists of the period), noting such things as the presence of a coin located under the right eyelid and the presence of various blood stains in physiologically correct locations on the cloth.... Finally, this medieval artist would have to paint from the perspective of a negative exposure -- a concept that was unknown until nearly 600 years later. In short, it seems that our hypothetical artist would have to something of a miracle worker.... If it's a fake, it's a seemingly miraculous fake; but if it's true, it's astoundingly true.... Either way, the Shroud testifies of something...
In addition to the lack of technology in the Middle Ages to create such an image, the question must be asked about why such a invisible image would be produced in the first place. What possible motive would be at work in this case? Why would our supposed artist go through all this trouble, especially during the relatively superstitious Middle Ages? What point would there have been in creating such a fantastic duplicity? The inference to the best explanation suggests that the Shroud of Turin, whatever else it might be, certainly is not the result of human ingenuity and forgery.... Occam's Razor applies in this case: we do not need to multiply miracles in order to explain something that could be explained through the attested historical accounts of the resurrection of Yeshua.
So should the Shroud of Turin be cited as evidence of the resurrection of Yeshua? Is it a valid "apologetic" device, an empirical "proof" of the resurrection? Well, since we cannot say for certain that the image is that of Yeshua ha-Notzri (Jesus of Nazareth), we cannot make a dogmatic claim that this is direct evidence of His resurrection, though it's surely consistent with it. The shocking image -- revealed through negative spectrum light -- is that of a 1st century Jewish man who was beaten, whipped, and crucified. Pollen samples taken from the cloth also indicate a Middle East provenance. Though we cannot offer a scientific "proof" that this is the burial shroud of Yeshua, we might make a "legal" case that it is.... In other words, the imprinted image of the Shroud is consistent with the testimony of the New Testament and the theistic worldview, but certainly not with "naturalism" or other worldviews. The Shroud is a "problem" for those who are unbelievers, not believers... If it were later debunked as some sort of a forgery, our faith would remain unshaken, since we believe in order to understand, not conversely. Empirical evidences are never conclusive for skeptics anyway. As Yeshua said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31). And perhaps that's the allure and beauty of the Shroud -- like so many other matters of faith, what you see is what you ultimately choose to see.... Like a looking glass, it reveals more about the person looking at it than it does of itself...
Addendum: Please note that I am not advocating venerating relics or any such nonsense. Such things are always insufficient for a heart change from God. As Yeshua said, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31). Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that if the Shroud of Turin is a forgery, it's entirely amazing and unlike any other seen before, but if it's authentic, it's evidence of the resurrection itself. I also see no sense in claiming (as some have) that the Shroud is a form of "satanic deception." After all, forgery or not, the Shroud points to something the devil certainly doesn't want to be published, namely, the death, burial, and resurrection of Yeshua....
Thanks for trying to understand my motives here, for giving me the benefit of the doubt (dan l'kaf zechut)...
Personal note: Olga and the new baby are doing well. Judah is now 12 days old and has gained some weight. His jaundice is nearly gone and he's nursing on a more regular routine... Yesterday we took a family walk in a park up here and enjoyed some sunshine and the warmer temperatures. Thank you all for your prayers and the kindness you have shown our family....
In the first picture, Judah Abraham is in a "baby sling" (covered with a blanket); in the second picture, Josiah gives his baby brother a hug before going to sleep; in the third picture, John poses with Judah's great-grandmother (i.e., Olga's grandmother).
Our Passover Seder....
04.08.09 (Nisan 15, 5769) Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover! Today our son Judah turned eight days old and was circumcised. We had a short simcha service at our home afterwards ("baruch habah," kiddush, blessing the child, etc.). This evening we had our Passover Seder, just before sunset. Though we are exhausted, we wish you could have joined us! Here are some pictures of the 14 steps of the traditional seder (plus a few extra pictures from the evening):
[From left to right]: 1) The beautiful seder table; 2) our karah (seder plate); 3) lighting the holiday candles; 4) blessing the children; 5) Step One: Kadesh (kiddush for Passover over the First Cup)
[From left to right]: 1) Step Two: Urchatz (hand washing); 2) Step Three: Eating karpas (dipping the parsley in salt water and eating it); 3) Step Four: Yachatz (breaking the middle matzah to create the Afikomen); 4) Josiah covers his eyes as the larger piece of Afikomen is wrapped up and hidden; 5) Step Five: Maggid (telling the story of the Exodus)
[From left to right]: 1) Step Five: Maggid (recounting the ten plagues); 2) drinking the Second Cup (Deliverance); 3) Step Six: Rachtzah (hand washing - again); 4) Step Seven: Motzi Matzah (eating matzah with the blessing); 5) Step Eight: Maror (eating bitter herbs - horseradish)
[From left to right]: 1) Step Nine: Korech (eating the Hillel Sandwich); 2) Step Ten: Shulchan Orech (eating the Passover meal); 3) Josiah finds the "lost" Afikomen; 4) Step Eleven: Tzafun (breaking and sharing the Afikomen - the bread of the "Lord's Supper"); 5) Step Twelve: Barech (grace after meal and partaking of the Third Cup (of Redemption). This is the cup Yeshua associated with the blood of the New Covenant.
[From left to right]: 1) Step Thirteen: Hallel (praise). Josiah looks to see if Elijah is at the door; 2) Judah's first Passover bib; 3) Step Fourteen: Nirtzah (closing); we eat matzah "cake" after the seder and have some tea; 4) Daddy with his new son, after the Seder; 5) Josiah looks at the matzah box... now it's unleavened bread for the next week!
We wish you all great happiness and peace during this season, despite the world and the schemes of its princes. Passover is the time to celebrate our freedom as the children of God -- a freedom that no one can ever take away from us. Those who are set free by Yeshua are made free indeed! Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!
Preparing for Passover...
04.07.09 (Nisan 13, 5769) Tonight my four-year-old son Josiah and I cleaned every room of our house and removed any trace of chametz we found... It was tiring, but we remembered how sin likes to creep into our lives and hide -- like so many crumbs hidden beneath the cushions of our sofa. It was a great object lesson for my young son, who was often quite surprised to see what lay just behind the surface of our lives... Tomorrow, before the Seder, we will burn the bread in a fire.
As I mentioned earlier today, I will be taking a (very) needed break from writing new content during the Passover season. I need to spend more time with my family, especially with my new son Judah -- and also to ensure that Olga is cared for, that Josiah feels as loved as ever, and to get some desperately needed rest... Since I deal with chronic pain, writing has become more and more of a struggle.
I am weary, chaverim, from the years of doing this work, even though I feel compelled to write and share what I learn, especially since there is so little time left for us to turn to the LORD and call upon His Name. My soul grieves over the needs of so many; my heart keens in prayer and brokenness for the condition of our world, especially for the "church."
Here are some pictures I took tonight, just before we did our major house cleaning for Passover:
[First Row, left to right]: 1) The glorious full moon of Nisan, 5769, taken from our backyard; 2) Daddy, Josiah, and Judah; 3) a new baby bib for Judah's first Pesach; 4) getting items for tomorrow's Seder ready; 5) Josiah reads a children's haggadah;
[Second Row, left to right]: 1) Josiah holds up the Hebrew4Christians haggadah (you can download this for free!); 2) our Miriam's Cup; 3) Happy Daddy holds beautiful Judah Abraham; 4) Our Passover Karah (Seder Plate); 5) Daddy and Judah again...
For a brief Passover Meditation I wrote a couple years ago, please see Seh Elohim - the Lamb of God.
Cleanse out the old leaven
that you may be a new lump,
as you really are unleavened.
For Mashiach, our Passover lamb,
has been sacrificed.
Let us therefore celebrate the festival,
not with the old leaven,
the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread
of sincerity and truth.
1 Cor 5:7-8
From our family to you: We wish you all love, grace, and great blessing during this holiday season. We wish you could join us at our Seder table...
Please explore the Passover pages if you are new to understanding this concept, especially if you are a follower of Yeshua the Messiah. Download the free Passover Haggadah I wrote awhile ago....
Yeshua is Risen indeed! He is alive! Worthy is the Lamb that was slain! Blessed be His Name forever!
A Passover Prayer Request...
04.07.09 (Nisan 13, 5769) I haven't mentioned it, but we're pretty run down over here, and both Josiah and I are fighting bad colds (Olga and the baby are fine, B"H)... Tonight I am planning on getting rid of the chametz in our house by doing a "last ditch" spring cleaning, but after the recent birth of Judah a few days ago, I need to take a break from my writing here.... Your prayers for me and my family are appreciated.
Meanwhile, I wish you all great shalom and Pesach Sameach, chaverim!
04.07.09 (Nisan 13, 5769) Tomorrow morning is birkat HaChamah (ברכת החמה), the "Blessing of the Sun" ceremony. According to the Talmud the Sun makes a 28 year cycle to "return" to the position that it was in when the Universe was first created, and according to some sages, there are only eight times in which this blessing is recited on Erev Pesach before the Mashiach will appear.... We are close to the second coming of Yeshua, chaverim!
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵיֽנוּ מֶלֶֽךְ הָעוֹלָם עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית, (baruch attah Adonai Elohenu Melekh ha-Olam, oseh ma'seh v'reshit): "Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who creates the work of creation."
04.06.09 (Nisan 12, 5769) In some Passover celebrations it is customary to include a special goblet called "Miriam's Cup" on the Seder Table to honor the role of women in Jewish tradition and history. It is often set beside the Cup of Elijah. Miriam, of course, was Moses' sister who helped the Jewish people escape from Egypt during the Exodus....
After the Yom Tov candles are lit - but before the blessing over the first cup of wine - the women at the Seder table are invited to fill Miriam's Cup with water from their own glasses. The following blessing is then recited: זאת כּוֹס מִרְיָם מַיִם חַיִּים זֶכֶר לִיְצִיַת מִצְרָיִם ("This is the cup of Miriam, the cup of living waters, a reminder of our Exodus from Egypt"). After this statement, Miriam's Cup is passed around the table and each guest either takes a sip or pours a little water from the cup into their own glass....
A Midrash teaches that a miraculous Rock/Well of Living Water accompanied the Jews throughout their journey in the desert that provided them with fresh water. According to later tradition, this well was given in honor of Moses' sister Miriam, to honor her devotion to the Jewish people (the "Well of Miriam"). Both Miriam and the Rock/Well of Living Water were "spiritual oases" in the desert, sources of life and healing.
Whenever the Israelites prepared to camp, the 12 nesi'im (leaders of the tribes) would sing praises to the LORD, and the Rock would gush forth four streams of water. One stream surrounded the mishkan (Tabernacle), another surrounded the camp of the Levites, and another surrounded all the Israelites. A fourth stream marked out the boundaries for each of the 12 tribes of Israel.
It is fascinating to note that the Apostle Paul correlated this life-giving Rock with the Mashiach Yeshua (1 Cor. 10:4). In other words, Yeshua Himself was the Source of Life for the Jews as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. He was the Living Waters then, just as He is today.... The Cup of Miriam, then, commemorates the Presence of the Mashiach Yeshua as the Jews trekked their way to the Promised Land.
04.06.09 (Nisan 12, 5769) Baruch HaShem we were able to schedule a circumcision for our son Judah on his 8th day of life (i.e., on Nisan 14). This is especially meaningful for us, since, according to Jewish tradition, Nisan 14 is the very date on which the LORD changed Abram's name to Abraham and gave him the commandment of circumcision: "Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days" (Gen. 17:11), so that "My covenant (brit) shall be in your flesh, as an eternal covenant (Gen. 17:13).
Of course, as Messianic believers, we reject the Rabbinical notion that ritual circumcision (brit millah) literally makes someone a Jew or otherwise secures them a place in olam habah (the world to come). We understand that "God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9) and that true circumcision is a matter of the heart (Deut. 10:6, 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Indeed, those who accept Yeshua as their Mashiach are "spiritually circumcised" people (Col. 2:11). Nonetheless, the commandments of Torah were not given in vain -- even if they find fulfillment in the perfect work of Yeshua -- and therefore we are happy to perform this mitzvah -- on the very day of the Passover Seder, too!
What a great simchah... We wish you could join us and welcome our precious new baby into the world, chaverim!
Taking Passover Personally
04.06.09 (Nisan 12, 5769) The sages teach: b'chol dor vador - in each and every generation an individual should look upon him or herself as if he or she (personally) had left Egypt. It's not enough to recall, in some abstract sense, the deliverance of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt, but each Jew is responsible to personally view Passover as a time to commemorate their own personal deliverance from the bondage of Pharaoh.
B'khol-dor vador chayav adam lirot et-atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim - "In each and every generation an individual should look upon him or herself as if he or she (personally) had left Egypt."
The kavannah (inner intention of the heart) for the observance of Passover is summed up well by this simple phrase: B'Khol-dor vador. As we partake of the Seder, we must embrace it as our own -- as if we were personally there (in Egypt, or at the foot of the Cross) and understand that this mighty redemption was accomplished for my sake, as well as for yours... We recall the words, bishvili nivra ha'olam -- "For my sake was this world created," while we also recall the words, anokhi afar ve'efer -- "I am but dust and ashes."
For Messianic believers, kavvanah refers to our apprehension of the ultimate deliverance from the bondage of sin and death through the grace and love of the Mashiach Yeshua -- our True Passover Offering.
Were you there, at the Cross, where Yeshua died for your sins?
Decadence & American Christianity...
[ The following is yet another reminder of how important it is to study Torah and understand the Jewish roots of our faith in Yeshua. Reality is inevitably self-correcting. If American Christianity does not wake up to the truth of the Jewishness of the Gospel, it will ultimately fade into irrelevance and irreparable decay... Various calls by Evangelical leaders to "reform" Christianity are useless until the Church repents of its corporate sins and truly undergoes genuine "reformation." There is still hope -- but time is short, chaverim. ]
04.05.09 (Nisan 11, 5769) Tonight I read a Newsweek article prognosticating the supposed demise of Christianity in America (Meacham: "The End of Christian America"). In the article, Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. -- the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary -- laments a recent demographical survey that appears to indicate that more and more people are now defining themselves as "religiously unaffiliated." The survey, compiled by a group that annually publishes the "American Religious Identification Survey" (ARIS), apparently made Dr. Mohler rather uneasy, because it suggested to him that Christian influence was waning in American culture.
Mohler is quoted as saying, "A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture."
Not so fast, Dr. Mohler. While it may be true that the "latest survey" suggests the decline of traditional Christianity in America, that is not necessarily a bad thing -- unless, of course, your overarching concern is to see "establishment" Christianity continue as the status quo. However, before you insist this is to be desired, it's vital to discern whether the demise of the Christian church is the result of failed leadership within its ranks. As I have stated elsewhere on this site, "salt-less" Christianity, based on mistaken assumptions, Greco-Roman thinking, institutionalized prejudices, etc., is frankly not worth preserving. As Yeshua himself said, "If the salt has lost it's savor, how should it be salted? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet" (Matt. 5:13).
In other words, what good is it to preserve the social institution of "Christianity," especially as it is envisioned by most mainline American theologians today? How far removed has the church strayed from its original (i.e., Jewish) roots? How distorted has its message become? How almost hopelessly befuddled? Tragically, institutionalized Christianity regularly mimics the world and the "beauty pageants" of worldly leadership (if you doubt me on this, think of the prototypical Christian leader from a variety of denominational persuasions: apart from generally being "fair-haired" and well-spoken, there is a sort of paradigm, a biased standard, an idiosycratic preference that affects what is considered to be "leadership material" in these organizations. But note that the criteria used invariably appeals to the lower aspects of human nature -- to the worldly, the sensuous, the carnal, etc.). In short, the "culture shift" that Mohler finds so dismal yet "remarkable" is the direct result of the worldliness and pragmatism of institutional Christianity itself. The institutional Church has always reacted to the world and has always provided "answers" to questions that are echoes from an earlier time.... Instead of fearlessly proclaiming the truth, the church has functioned as a conservative quarter for society, a laughable travesty of the power and ministry of Yeshua and His disciples... Today's so-called Christian "leaders" such Mohler and others are likewise reacting rather than leading...
For instance, this week is Passover (Pesach), but how many American "Christians" understand the connections between the Seder and the "Lord's Supper"? How many connect the Afikomen with the "body" and the Third Cup with the "blood"? How many earnestly desire to keep the feast? For that matter, how many are even conscious of their indebtedness to Jewish heritage and culture? Indeed, how many would be downright scandalized to understand that God Almighty chose to (exclusively) reveal Himself in the form of a Torah-observant Jewish man? The truth is that institutionalized "Evangelicalism" is the daughter of the Reformation, which was itself the daughter of the Roman Church.... It is just another "morphing" of the same old substance. The characters of the play might be wearing somewhat different costumes, but their script hasn't changed much since the days of ancient Rome....
So while it might be tragic news to Albert Mohler and other institutionalized church leaders that the "Christian" world is in decline, it should not concern those of us who have awakened to the truth of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. After all, perhaps traditional Christianity is losing ground simply because people are waking up -- and not because establishment "Christianity" is losing the "culture war" with the secular world at large. Top-shelf church leaders might lament the loss of attendance (and therefore revenue) in their institutionalized churches, but that's insufficient reason to conclude that people are therefore neither seeking nor following the Messiah.
Since the message of the Jewish roots of the faith is routinely ignored by the traditional "Christian" leaders of the day (I know this from personal experience and from repeated appeals to various Christians who claim to be leaders), perhaps more and more people consider themselves "unaffiliated" with traditional Gentile theology, even if they dwell in a culture awash with its vestiges. In that regard, I am "unaffiliated" with the churches that exist in America, as are many others...
And for Messianic Jews, there is even a greater sense of being "unaffiliated." Here's a case in point. We want to circumcise our son on the 8th day, but the Jewish community in Minneapolis does not accept us because they require rejection of Yeshua as the Messiah (though they are happy to circumcise "secular" Jews who are functional atheists). The Christian churches do not perform brit millah, of course, and attempting to explain why this is important to us is an exercise in futility. The same goes with observing the moedim such as Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and so on. We, like many others, are "unaffiliated" with traditional faith expressions, but that does not in any way imply that we are without faith in Yeshua....
Trying to get ready for Passover...
04.04.09 (Nisan 10, 5769) I updated Torah readings for Passover Week this year. You can find the traditional readings listed here.
With the birth of our son Judah, we are hoping our Seder will be especially good this year (though we are having trouble finding a moyel to perform a circumcision on Passover). Unfortunately, both Josiah and I have colds we picked up at the hospital (thankfully, Olga and Judah were spared)... Olga is on "bed rest" and is desperately trying to get Judah on a routine.... We are all very exhausted, of course, but we're excited about celebrating this precious appointed time. So far we are expecting about 12 people for the Seder, but finding the energy to get prepared is proving difficult for me, especially since I am taking care of Olga and Josiah at this time. My father-in-law is willing to host the Seder and cook the meal -- a wonderful blessing -- but I was hoping to add some things to the Haggadah I wrote and add additional commentary this week. These things might have to wait, chaverim...
It's a BOY!!!
04.01.09 (Nisan 7, 5769) I am speechless over what I witnessed last evening... a real miracle from heaven!!! My wife Olga is truly heroic and beautiful.... I am overwhelmed and in awe.... also quite exhausted -- with no sleep for nearly 40 hours now.
Baruch HaShem that the "hard labor" was only 6 and a half hours... Olga was absolutely heroic throughout! Please welcome into the world our new son Judah Abraham Parsons, born March 31st at 7:36 pm, 2009 (Nisan 7, 5769 - one week before Passover). Here are a couple pictures right after the birth:
We praise God for His faithful love to our family... We bless His Holy Name! I will post a few more pictures later. Olga and Judah are recovering at the hospital and will be there for a couple days. I am home with Josiah.... but now I am off to bed! THANK YOU ALL FOR PRAYING FOR US!!!!!! WE THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF OUR HEARTS!
Some additional pictures:
[Above, left to right]: 1) Big brother Josiah holds his new brother; 2) Grandpa Vadim is very happy; 3) Daddy kisses Judah after reciting the blessing; 4) Grandma holding Judah; 5) Judah wearing kippah
[Above, left to right]: 1) Josiah wistfully looks at his new brother; 2) ibid; 3) Josiah drinks from "yelid tov" cup; 4) Judah awakens for a picture; 5) Olga with both of her sons
[Above, left to right]: 1) Judah with "yelid tov" cup; 2) a family shot; 3) Judah with exhausted but happy mom; 4) daddy holds his new son; 5) Judah before his first bath
If I can find the energy, I will relate more about the "mind-blowing" birth experience at a later time. Judah is healthy, strong, and very responsive - incredibly bright-eyed and inquisitive right from the womb! Praise the LORD! Olga is hurting and will be on bed rest for a couple weeks... We sincerely ask for your prayers for her complete healing, chaverim... Thank you!