May 2009 Updates
Parashat Naso - נשא
05.31.09 (Sivan 8, 5769) The Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is parashat Naso ("take"), the second portion of Book of Numbers (i.e., Bamidbar). Among other things, this portion of Torah gives the commandment for Aaron and his sons to bless the people of Israel (Num. 6:23-27), which later came to be known as the "priestly blessing" (birkat kohanim). To learn more about this blessing, click here (you can also listen to this blessing chanted by clicking here).
If it pleases God, I will add additional commentary to this portion of Torah later this week. Shalom, chaverim!
05.29.09 (Sivan 6, 5769) Today is the holiday of Shavuot ("Weeks" or "Pentecost"), the climax of the Passover Season. Chag Sameach and Happy Shavuot to each of you! I sincerely wish you a renewed sense of God's love and presence in your life during this appointed time of the LORD God of Israel...
When the Jews exclaimed at Sinai, kol asher dibber Adonai na'aseh ("all that the LORD speaks we will do" [Ex. 19:8]), they signified an abandonment to God's will for their lives. In other words, they first chose obedience before they understood the terms of the covenant. Only later, after Moses wrote the book of the covenant (sefer habrit) did they add v'nishmah (and we will hear/obey, from shama [Ex. 24:7]). The Jews first chose to do whatever the LORD commanded and then hoped to "hear" these words in order to understand their meaning. It is the quality of hearing that matters. As Anselm said, we believe in order to understand. The decision to serve God comes first, and then comes understanding. This principle is still true when we come to the greater mountain of Zion.
According to Jewish tradition, God created the universe itself on the condition that Israel accepted the Torah. Each of us is called to likewise order our lives as if the existence of the universe depends upon our faith. Abraham was a tzaddik on account of his faith, and redemptive history depended upon his obedience.
Jewish Midrash states that the Ten Commandments were spoken all at once, in a single divine utterance, and then repeated one-by-one to the Israelites. Unlike the other commandments of the Torah, these ten are unconditionally given. The LORD identified Himself as Elohim (not YHVH) when proclaiming them, indicating His role as Judge of the universe, and He used the second person singular (not plural) for the verbs: You shall not steal..." Please review the Ten Commandments pages on this site for additional exegesis and commentary...
Shavuot and the Fruit of the Spirit
05.27.09 (Sivan 4, 5769) The holiday of Shavuot ("weeks" or "Pentecost") occurs tonight after sundown (and continues throughout Shabbat). Here are a few reasons why this appointed time is spiritually significant (additional reasons are provided on the Shavuot pages):
- Shavuot marks the culmination of Passover. It is therefore the end or goal of the redemption experience for believers. Traditional Jews understand redemption in light of the giving of the Torah (and the older covenant), whereas Messianic Jews (and Christians) understand it in light of the giving of the Holy Spirit (and the new covenant). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is therefore the climax of redemption, picturing the presence of the Comforter (παράκλητος) to help us live a sanctified life (Acts 1:8) and our future state in olam haba (the world to come).
- Shavuot at Mt. Sinai is sometimes considered the day on which Judaism was born, remembering the time when the Sinai covenant was ratified by the elders of Israel... Shavuot in Jerusalem (i.e., Mount Zion) is the day on which the church was born, remembering the time when the New Covenant of the LORD was ratified by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Yeshua.
- Agriculturally, Shavuot commemorates the time when the first fruits (bikkurim) were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as Chag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits). Followers of the Messiah evidence spiritual fruit in their lives as the direct result of the Holy Spirit's regeneration of the heart. We are also regarded as first fruit offerings ourselves, by the grace of our LORD.
- Shavuot stands in contrast to Passover that requires unleavened bread (matzah), since the two loaves of bread made from the first fruit of the wheat harvest were baked with chametz (yeast) before being "waved before the LORD" (Lev. 23:15-20). There is some uncertainty among Jewish sages regarding the meaning of the use of the otherwise forbidden leaven (Lev. 2:11), though 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).
- At Mount Sinai the Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone by the "finger of God" (Exod. 31:18), but at Mount Zion, the Torah is written on tables of the heart by the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:3; Heb. 8:10).
- Just as the Israelites were affirmed as God's chosen people on Shavuot with the giving of the Torah, so the Church was affirmed as God's chosen people at Shavuot after the Mashiach's ascension into heaven as the Mediator of a Better Covenant (Heb. 8:6). The 3,000 souls that were added to the church that day were first fruits of the redeemed people of God.
- In the Jewish tradition, Shavuot is compared to a wedding, for it was at this time that the covenant between God and the Jewish People was sealed at Mount Sinai (Passover is considered the time of Israel's "betrothal" or engagement to God). The LORD is the Heavenly chatan (groom) who said, "Accept Me"; the Jewish people represent the beloved kallah (bride); and the Torah represents the ketubah (marriage contract). Likewise, the church is called Kallat Mashiach - the Bride of Messiah (Rev. 21:2,9), and we eagerly await the marriage supper to come (Rev. 19:9).
- The Book of Ruth is read during Shavuot - a beautiful story about God's redemptive love. As the Goel (kinsman-redeemer), Boaz was a wealthy man of the tribe of Judah who married a Gentile bride. Boaz's name means "in Him is strength," a picture of the Mashiach Yeshua, his greater Descendant, who also redeemed for himself a bride from among the Gentile nations.
Personal Note: Like some of you, we've been struggling and hurting lately. We are in great need for a renewal of the Holy Spirit within our hearts... We are therefore asking the LORD for a renewed experience of His glory and grace during this season.... Shavuot Sameach, chaverim... May you be filled with the Holy Spirit, fruitful in your service, and "clothed with power from on high..."
Shavuot and Yeshua:
God Speaks "in Son"
05.27.09 (Sivan 4, 5769) This Thursday (after sundown) is the holiday of Shavuot ("weeks" or "Pentecost"). Apart from the waving of the two leavened loaves before the altar at the Temple, the sages note that there are no specific mitzvot (commandments) assigned to this holiday. However, since Jewish tradition associates the giving of the Torah with this Shavuot, one mitzvah is thought to especially apply during this time:
"Only take care and keep your soul diligently (רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמר נַפְשְׁךָ), lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children -- how on that day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb..." (Deut. 4:9-10).
The Torah regards the day of the revelation at Sinai (חרֵב) as one of the most important events since the creation of the Universe itself:
"For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth (בּרָא אֱלהִים אָדָם עַל־הָאָרֶץ), and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? (Deut. 4:32-33).
The ancient Aramaic Targums (Onkelos and Pseudo Yonatan) translate "the voice of God" (קוֹל אֱלהִים) as "the voice of the Word of the Lord" (קָל מֵימְרָא) in this verse. The Jewish Encylopedia defines memra (מֵמְרָא) as ".. the logos (ὁ λόγος) - the Word, in the sense of the creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for "the Lord" when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided." In short, Memra is the Personification of the Word of the LORD - the Voice of God Himself. This Divine Voice was none other than that of Yeshua our Mashiach, the Divine Word of the LORD (John 1:1). Yeshua, the Living Torah, was the one who spoke out of the midst of the fire at Sinai -- just as He spoke to Moses from the midst of the burning bush (Exod. 3:4) -- and just as He later spoke to Israel as a human being with the fire of the Holy Spirit within Him. This same fire was likewise placed on the heads of Yeshua's followers during the Shavuot celebration following His resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:1-4).
The author of the Book of Hebrews states that, "in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world" (Heb 1:2). The Greek construction for the phrase translated, "by his son" is ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ, which literally means "he spoke to us in son" -- that is, in the language or voice of the Son of God Himself... God now speaks in the language "of Son" from the midst of the fire revealed at Zion... Ultimately, then, Shavuot is a message of the New Covenant itself -- and God's salvation through His Son Yeshua our Messiah, blessed be He.
Theology and the "Greek" Mindset
05.25.09 (Sivan 2, 5769) Recently someone asked me what I meant by the term "Greek mindset," especially when used in contradistinction to the term "Hebraic mindset." This is a complicated question, of course, and entire books have been written on the subject. By way of response, however, I wrote an exploratory article (Theology and the Greek Mindset) where I attempt to look at a few of the basic distinctions... If you find any of it confusing, please forgive my ineptitude and ignore what I've written. Shalom chaverim.
Preparing for Shavuot - שבועות
05.24.09 (Sivan 1, 5769) Thursday May 28th (at sundown) is the climax of the Passover season known as Shavuot ("weeks" or "Pentecost"). For traditional Judaism, Shavuot is called z'man mattan torateinu, "the Season of the Giving of the Torah" (i.e., the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai). Confirmation ceremonies are often held at the synagogue for young adults to recommit themselves to the Jewish lifestyle and to pursue Talmud Torah (the study of Torah).
During Shavuot traditional Jews remember the revelation given at Sinai by spiritually reenacting kabbalat ha-Torah (the receiving of the Torah) -- as if they were present at Sinai themselves (Deut. 4:9). This is regarded as a sort of "wedding day" when God betrothed Israel as His own people, separate from all others. The goal of Passover redemption was to set Israel free to become God's own treasured people (עַם סְגֻלָּה, am segulah), a light to the nations: ambassadors for Heaven's voice...
According to the sages, the new moon of Nisan marks the start of sacred time, Passover remembers the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, the first day of Unleavened Bread remembers the Exodus from Egypt, the seventh day of Unleavened Bread remembers the crossing of the Red Sea, the counting of the Omer recalls the days before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Shavuot remembers the giving of the Torah exactly seven weeks after the Exodus (on Sivan 6). Indeed, Shavuot at Mount Sinai is sometimes considered the day on which the Jewish nation was born (for a complete breakdown of the 49 days to Sinai, see the Shavuot pages):
When the Jews began to settle in the Promised Land, the meaning of Shavuot was transformed into an harvest holiday that celebrated the LORD's provision for His people. Later, during Temple times, Shavuot was observed an agricultural festival, though the sages also recognized it as the time to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. As one of the three pilgrimage festivals, Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate and reaffirm their commitment to the covenant of Moses.
And such was the practice when God delivered the Substance of which the festival of Shavuot was merely a "type and a shadow." For the New Testament reveals that Shavuot is the climax of God's plan for our deliverance through Yeshua, the true Lamb of God (Seh Elohim). The countdown to Shavuot represents the giving of the anticipated New Covenant to mankind, since it was on this very day that the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) was given to kehilat Mashiach (the church). This marks the end of our spiritual exile.
The culmination of the Omer Count was symbolized with the shtei ha-lechem offering (waving of the two loaves of leavened bread) -- the only time when leavened bread was offered at the Temple (Lev. 23:15-20). The sanctified presence of leaven provides a prophetic picture of the "one new man" (composed of both Jew and Gentile) before the altar of the LORD (Eph. 2:14).
With a touch of divine irony, on the very day that the priests offered leavened bread and Jews from around the world gathered at the Temple in Jerusalem to reaffirm their commitment to the covenant of Moses, the Holy Spirit descended upon Israel to offer the promise of the New Covenant to all who will believe (see Acts 2:1-42). This new covenant makes Torah a matter of the heart, written by the God's Spirit, that yields a life fruitful in the praise of God.
Just as the resurrection of Yeshua represents the Firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20) and fulfills the prophetic ritual of the waving of the omer on the festival of First Fruits, so the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church fulfills the wave offering of the leavened wheat loaves on the day of Shavuot.
If it pleases God I will write more about Shavuot this week, chaverim.
The Lost Passion for Zion...
05.22.09 (Iyyar 28, 5769) In honor of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), I created a new Hebrew meditation (Lost Passion of Zion) to remind ourselves of the glorious City of God and of the Messiah's ultimate reign upon the earth. I hope you find it encouraging as you "come to Mount Zion, the City of the Living God" (Heb. 12:2). May Yeshua come quickly, and in our day... Amen.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom, chaverim!
The Lost Passion for Zion...
"If the war was over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be." - The Wachowski brothers (from the 1999 film, "The Matrix")
"What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" - Tertullian
05.19.09 (Iyyar 25, 5769) Undoubtedly we are living in that "dystopian" age that C.S Lewis (among others) foresaw -- a time when people, controlled by propaganda, social engineering ("political correctness"), postmodern relativism, etc., would be rendered virtually unable to hold to genuine conviction. The world system (κόσμος) makes parades for cultural diversity; it celebrates and applauds our differences; it preaches sensitivity and consensus for "alternative lifestyles"; and it always panders to the crowd: but God forbid that an individual should seriously stand up for objective truth in the public square and exercise sincere moral conviction... No, today's insidious propaganda machine regularly inculcates that the only "absolute truth" is that there is no absolute truth; that the only "true god" is the fictive god of relativism, plurality, and metanarrative diversity; and that the only real virtue is a promiscuous tolerance that lends itself to secular syncretism (producing gutless acquiescence and passivity). Violation of the world's code leads to collision and eventual persecution (i.e., "hate/thought crimes," etc.). The spirit of our age derives from the Hegelian dialectic, that is, the "triangulation" or "mediation" of historically conditioned ideas with the aim of "reinventing truth" as something to be (dynamically) shaped, controlled, managed, manipulated, and directed... It's the foundation of social control theories of various kinds (see the Devil's Logic), and it's the prevailing creed of the "movers and shakers" of this world system....
Sadly, this all-pervading ethos has even infiltrated many "Bible-believing" churches of our time, so that many church leaders regard the ideal of "Zion" (צִיּוֹן) and its great hope as something quaint and perhaps even a little bit naive. Many of today's Evangelical teachers, for example, seem to regard the ancient hope of Zion and the reestablishment of the modern State of Israel as an historical accident, without any theological significance. They do not regard the Jewish people's regathering to their ancient homeland as a miracle, nor do they regard it as a sign that we are beginning to see the prophesied period known as acharit hayamim - the End of Days. (As I've written about elsewhere, this indifference ultimately comes from an allegorical reading of the Scriptures that confuses the "Church" with the Israel and therefore regards the historical presence of the nation of Israel as something of an embarrassment.)
The world "Zion" is mentioned over 160 times in the Scriptures. That's more than the words faith, hope, love, and countless others... And since Zion is a poetic form of the word Jerusalem, the number of occurrences swells to nearly 1,000! It is therefore not an overstatement to say that God Himself is a Zionist.... "Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth" (Psalm 50:2). Zion represents the rule and reign of God in the earth and is therefore synonymous with the Kingdom of God. The entire redemptive plan of God -- including the coming of the Messiah Himself and our very salvation -- is wrapped up in the concept of Zion. It is the "historiography" of God -- His philosophy of history, if you will. And this perhaps explains why the world system (and its agency, the devil) routinely mischaracterizes and condemns "Zionism" as a form of racism or injustice... (It is remarkable that the ideal of Zion was reintroduced to popular culture in the 1999 movie "The Matrix," where a member of the resistance said, "If the war was over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be at." This is remarkable because this message should be regularly preached in our churches rather than given voice through a Hollywood movie).
Friends, how can we forget Zion, "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22)? Is she not "our mother" (Gal. 4:26)? Are we not her citizens, indeed, her exiles in this age? As the psalmist said, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!" (Psalm 137:5-6). Of course we are instructed to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 126:6), but we are further told to "badger" the LORD until he makes Zion "the praise of the earth" (Isa. 62:7).
God loves Zion since it symbolizes His redemptive program in human history. In a sense, Zion is the heart of the Gospel message and the focal point of God's salvation in this world. Zion represents our eschatological future -- our home in olam haba (the world to come). Even the new heavens and earth will be called Jerusalem -- Zion in her perfection (Rev. 21). "This is what the Adonai Tzeva'ot says: I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure" (Zech. 1:14-15). "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch" (Isa 62:1). "The builder of Jerusalem is God, the outcasts of Israel he will gather in... Praise God, O Jerusalem, laud your God, O Zion" (Psalm 147:2-12).
About "Jerusalem Day" - יום ירושלים
Thursday May 21st is "Jerusalem Day" (Yom Yerushalayim), commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem on June 7th, 1967 (during the Six Day War). Since the status of Jerusalem is presently in grave peril, I earnestly appeal to all followers of Yeshua to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם ירוּשׁלם / Sha'alu Shalom Yerushalayim) -- and for the protection of our Jewish friends living in Israel (Psalm 122:6).
Yeshua called Jerusalem the "City of the great King" (Psalm 48:2; Matt 5:35). It is the place where He was crucified, buried, resurrected, and from whence He ascended to heaven. It is also the birthplace of kehilat Mashiach (i.e., the "church") and the focal point of humanity's eschatological future. One day (soon) Yeshua will physically return to Jerusalem as Mashiach ben David to restore the throne of King David. At that time, all the New Covenant promises given to ethnic Israel will be literally fulfilled as the Kingdom of God is manifest upon the earth.
Spiritually speaking, Jerusalem, and in particular Mount Moriah (i.e., the Temple Mount), is considered the most important place on earth. Please see the page on Yom Yerushalayim for 25 reasons why Jerusalem matters.
The 40th Day of the Omer:
Ascension of Mashiach
05.19.09 (Iyyar 25, 5769) In some Christian traditions, the "ascension of the Messiah" is celebrated 40 days after Yeshua's resurrection from the dead, about a week before the appointed time of Shavuot ("Pentecost"), that is, the 40th day of the Omer Count. The ascension itself was foreshadowed by Moses and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Just as Moses had waited 40 days before the Torah was given to Israel, so the LORD waited 40 days before the Holy Spirit was given (Exod. 20:18; Acts 2:1-4). In both cases, at the appointed time revelation was given -- first in the form of the Word of God speaking from the summit of Mount Sinai, and later as the Word of God ascending from Zion in glory and power. The ascension of the Messiah means that we have a High Priest who partook of real human flesh in order to intercede on our behalf.
Parashat Bamidbar - במדבר
[ The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (May 23, 2009) is parashat Bamidbar ("in the wilderness"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.17.09 (Iyyar 23, 5769) It is customary to refer to "books" of the Hebrew Bible according to their initial word(s). For example, the first book of the Torah is called Bereshit ("in the beginning"). When the Hebrew Scriptures were later translated into Koine Greek (c. 3rd-2nd century BC), individual books were assigned names based on the interpretations of the sages. Therefore the Septuagint (i.e., the ancient Greek translation) named the first book of the Torah Γένεσις ("birth" or "origin"), which later made its way into English (and other languages) via Latin as the word "Genesis."
It's important to note that the names of the books were "coined" by the Greek translators and are not part of the original texts of Scripture themselves.... Therefore the "Book of Leviticus" is a transliteration of the Greek phrase βιβλίον το Λευιτικόν, ("book of the Levites"), though in a Torah scroll it was simply identified according to its first significant word: Vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא - "and he called"); the "Book of Numbers" comes from the Greek word Ἀριθμοί ("numbers"), though in a Torah scroll it was identified by the keyword Bamidbar (בְּמִדְבַּר - "in the wilderness"); and so on for the rest of the seforim (books) of the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish tradition it is customary to refer to the names of the books in Hebrew (not Greek, etc.): Bereshit (for Genesis), Shemot (for Exodus), Vayikra (for Leviticus), and so on.
Bamidbar means "in the wilderness" and is the name associated with the fourth book of the Torah scroll. Since several censuses are recorded in it, the sages sometimes called the book sefer ha-pekudim (the book of counting), so named because of the phrase bemispar shemot (בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת) - "they were counted according to their names" (Num. 1:2). The sages stress that unlike earlier censuses (e.g., Exod. 30:12-14), this one was personal because it was based on individual names (shemot). Accordingly, and because the idea of personal counting was considered central, the book was translated in the Septuagint using the Greek word Ἀριθμοί ("numbers") as its title. As Yeshua said, even the very hairs on our head are all numbered (Matt. 10:30).
The Tribe of Levi was the smallest of the tribes of Israel (both before and after the sin of the Golden Calf). According to midrash, this was because the Levites were faithful to God while in Egypt and therefore did not come under the special blessing of God to supernaturally multiply those who persecuted the tribes (Exod. 1:12). Even when going out of Egypt, the LORD preserved a remnant for the sake of His Name.
The book recounts Israel's adventures in the wilderness (מִדְבָּר) from their second year of the Exodus until the 40th year. In general, it details how the tribes of Israel were counted and meticulously arranged into military camp formation around the Mishkan (tabernacle).
Led by the Shekhinah cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, at first the Jews were en route to the Promised Land - the land of Canaan - which the LORD swore to give to Abraham and his descendants forever. However, the people rebelled (i.e., their complicity in the "Sin of the Spies") and were therefore condemned to wander for 40 years in the desert. This 40 year period is often thought of as a time of punishment, though it was also a time of refinement for the nation, and it was during this time that God demonstrated great love for Israel by feeding the people with manna, giving them water from rock (i.e., the so-called Well of Miriam), protecting them with the Clouds of Glory, instructing them through the teaching of Moses, and so on. God loves his people -- even when they are faithless -- and his punishments are ultimately healing and redemptive.
The Great Assembly decreed that parashat Bamidbar would be read on the Sabbath before the festival of Shavuot "so that the year and its curses will be terminated." This phrase refers to the "Great Rebuke" - called the Tochachah (תּוֹכָחָה) - that was delivered in the previous Torah reading (i.e., Bechukotai, the last portion of Vayikra). Recall that this portion used 11 verses to describe the blessings for obedience (i.e., "if you follow my laws...") but used three times as many (33 verses) to describe the curses for disobedience to the Sinai covenant ("but this is what will happen if you do not listen to me"). Since the curses (קְלַלוֹת) included the destruction of the Temple and the great exile (galut) from the land, and since Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, it was thought that recommitting to the Sinai covenant during Shavuot would "reverse the curse" and cause blessing to come upon Israel. This explains why Shavuot was regarded as time for Israel to recommit themselves to talmud Torah (the study of Torah) and to renew their decision to live as Jews. And this also explains why the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) was given to Yeshua's disciples precisely during this time after His resurrection. Instead of recommiting to Sinai we were given evidence that the New Covenant was beginning to be established at Zion....
The Hebrew word midbar ("wilderness") shares the same root (דבר) as davar, which means "word." The desert (word) of Sinai is the word of humility. When God spoke the Torah to Moses (mattan Torah), it was from a nondescript mountain (Mount Sinai) -- a place of emptiness, brokenness and need. That was the starting point -- not the lush places of future promise. We receive Torah bamidbar because we can only hear God's davar in a place of humility and inner quiet. God brings us to an arid place -- inhospitable, and dangerous -- to reveal our need for Him. This is a necessary excursion to prepare us to look for the greater hope of Zion. The giving of the law was meant to offer gracious discipline until the Mashiach would come (Gal. 3:19, 24-25). Yeshua is the Greater Hope, the One who delivers us from the curse of Sinai to bring us to Zion (Gal. 3:10). We enter into the realm of promise when we personally put our trust in God's love for us -- not by redoubling our efforts to obtain favor through adherence the terms given at Sinai (Heb. 8:13). "For the Torah made nothing perfect; but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, and that is how we draw near to God" (Heb. 7:19).
If it pleases God, I will add more commentary on this important portion of Torah later this week. Shalom chaverim....
Quick Personal Update...
05.15.09 (Iyyar 20, 5769) Our new baby (Judah) is now six weeks old. He's doing well, gaining weight, becoming more alert, and even smiling at times, baruch HaShem... Here are a few pictures taken over the last couple of days:
We thank God for this great blessing in our lives...
After years of doing this work, I find myself weary from the struggle, chaverim... Fibromyalgia and carpal tunnel syndrome have made it difficult for me to write without pain, and my schedule is a mess: I do most of my writing late at night, after everyone's in bed. I wish I had an office space somewhere so I could work more during daylight hours, halevai.
Abraham Heschel once wrote, "God is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance." Despite some of these personal struggles, I still feel called or "compelled" to do this work. As someone once said, "If you are chosen, you cannot chose; the Jews are a chosen people because they have no choice." This is true of our lives as Messianic believers. Yeshua calls us to follow Him, and after that call, we are not free to disregard it except at the cost of all that's of supreme importance....
The Yiddish proverb says, "sugar in the mouth won't help if you're bitter in the heart." Sometimes the calling can feel like a heavy burden. When it does we need to back up and find out where we are interfering with the free flow of the Spirit. Everyone has a "yoke" or burden they carry, of course. This is just as true for the worldling as it is the born-again Christian. The difference for the Christian is that there is an "easier " (i.e., more pleasant, χρηστός) yoke and a lighter (ἐλαφρός) burden (Matt. 11:30). The joy of the LORD is strength, and abiding in hope keeps us from futility and shame.
There are seasons of darkness we all experience. Perhaps I am going through one now. This reminds me of Soren Kierkegaard's words regarding suffering:
Only when a person suffers and wills to learn from what he suffers does he come to know something about himself and about his relationship to God. This is the sign that he is being educated for eternity.
Through suffering a person can come to know a great deal about the world – how deceitful and treacherous it is – but all this knowledge is not the schooling of suffering. No, just as we speak of a child being weaned from his mother's breast, so also, in the most profound sense, a person must be weaned by suffering, weaned from the things of this world, from loving it and from being embittered by it, in order to learn for eternity. For this reason, the school of suffering consists in a dying to – a dying to the world and to yourself. This is the key to finding rest in your suffering.
There is only one way in which rest is to be found: to let God rule in everything. Whatever else you might come to learn only pertains to how God has willed to rule. But as soon as unrest begins, the cause for it is due to your unwillingness to obey, your unwillingness to surrender yourself to God.
When there is suffering, but also obedience in suffering, then you are being educated for eternity. Then there will be no impatient hankering in your soul, no restlessness, neither of sin nor of sorrow.
If you will but let it, suffering is the guardian angel who keeps you from slipping out into the fragmentariness of the world; the fragmentariness that seeks to rip apart the soul. And for this reason, suffering keeps you in school – this dangerous schooling – so that you may be properly educated for eternity.
I'm trying not to lose sight of what's most important. If I find my heart in a place of resistance, then I am confronted with the decision of whether I will trust or not... There is no "problem" from the heavenly side of this equation; I can only find inner peace by keeping my focus on what is real.
Shabbat shalom, chaverim. May God fill you with His peace and comfort, even in the midst of the sometimes stormy struggle to surrender to His perfect rule.
Compare the Covenants:
New Wine and Old Wineskins
05.12.09 (Iyyar 18, 5769) If you're struggling with the question of whether you should become "Torah observant," it might be helpful to consider some of the contrasts between the "old" and "new" covenants described in the New Testament. To help you see some of this, I've created a new table called "Compare the Covenants." Hopefully you will better appreciate the life-transforming differences between the Torah of the New Covenant (given at Zion) with the Torah of the older Covenant (given at Sinai).
When considering these contrasts, please remember that we are discussing something inherently Jewish. The ideas of grace, salvation, faith, and so on are all 100% Jewish concepts given throughout the Jewish Scriptures -- both in the Tanakh and the New Testament writings. "Two mountains, two covenants," yes -- but both are Jewish... There is a unity of revelation in Scripture, and the LORD God of Israel is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Keeping this in mind will guard you from the egregious errors of Replacement Theology.
It is also vital to remember there is a distinction between "Torah" (תּוֹרָה) and "Covenant" (בְּרִית). Torah is a general word that means "instruction" and is always a function of the underlying covenant of which it is part. Torah is therefore our response to the covenantal actions of the LORD God of Israel. Followers of Yeshua are therefore not "anti-Torah" even if they understand this word in relation to the new and better covenant of God. There is indeed a Torah of the New Covenant, just as there is Torah of the older one. Understood in this way, Messianic believers are called to be "Torah Observant," since that simply means adhering to the instruction of Yeshua the Messiah who is the embodiment of all genuine truth from God (for more about this distinction, please see my article "Olam Ha-Torah"). Ultimately this matter resolves to the question of who you regard as your spiritual authority, chaverim...
The "Temptation" of Grace...
05.11.09 (Iyyar 17, 5769) Recently I've received some "hate mail" from certain "Torah observant Messianics" who are apparently scandalized by the fact that I regard the grace of God as the heart or essence of the New Covenant... Oy va voy... Will this issue never be settled, chaverim?
I've written extensively about the question of "Torah observance" in numerous articles elsewhere on this site. "Torah triflers" (i.e., those who advocate legalism but have yet to seriously think through its implications) are often unaware of the deeper function of Sinai and its provisions. Two things should immediately be said regarding this: 1) Olam ("everlasting") doesn't necessarily mean unchanging (at least in the Greek sense of the term), especially since Moses, David, and Ezra all changed the Torah, and most of the later Jewish sages acknowledged that Torah would be changed in yemot ha-Mashiach (the days of the Messiah); and 2) the New Covenant is an entirely new covenant -- not a renewed version of the sefer ha-brit sprinkled with the blood of bulls at Mt. Sinai. Paul goes back to the Abrahamic covenant -- not to the "blessings and curses" issued from the mountains of Gerizim and Eval as the foundation underlying the deeper covenantal message of God's chesed. Of course you are "free" to attempt to justify yourself using the terms given at Sinai, but then you are constrained by the conditions of that agreement (Deut. 27:26), and you are thereby implicitly denigrating the need for a radically New Covenant. Be forewarned: Persisting in such a project ultimately outrages the Spirit of Grace (רוּחַ הֶחָסֶד) that broods over the Cross of Mashiach (Heb. 10:29). We are furthermore cautioned that hardening our hearts on this matters can lead to eternal loss (Heb. 6:4-8). God is not mocked. He did not sacrifice His Son for the sake of creating disciples of Moses and the rabbis... We are called to follow the Messiah and submit to His authority alone (Matt. 23:8). Anything else is chillul HaShem and a betrayal of the Messiah!
"But now the righteousness of God (צִדְקַת אֱלהִים) apart from the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets" (Rom. 3:21). Those who attempt to mix the covenants are called adulterers (Rom. 7:4-ff.).... The goal or aim of the Torah was the New Covenant -- not the other way around (Gal. 3:17-19). The law is called a "schoolmaster" meant to lead to the Messiah and His Kingdom rule (Gal. 3:23-26). The glory of the Torah of Moses was destined to fade away (2 Cor. 3:3-11), just as its ritual center (i.e., the Tabernacle/Temple) was a shadow to be replaced by the greater priesthood of Malki-Tzedek (Heb. 10:1; 13:10). "Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Rom. 7:6). "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3-4).
When Abraham was tested with the Akedah (i.e., the sacrifice of his son Isaac), the temptation was to elevate blind obedience above the dictates of compassion and conscience. His temptation, so to speak, was whether to listen to the voice of God (אֱלהִים) or to the voice of the LORD (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה).
Why didn't Abraham argue with God (אֱלהִים) by remembering Him as the LORD (יְהוָה), the Compassionate Source of life? Earlier he had argued with God regarding the destruction of Sodom. So why didn't he argue to save his own son? Might this have been Abraham's test, namely, that God wanted Abraham to argue and to challenge the command to perform child sacrifice? According to this view, Abraham failed the test, since he blindly obeyed God without protest (this is similar to those who want to obey the letter of the Torah without taking time to discern the overarching significance of its message). It is noteworthy that after the Akedah, God and Abraham never spoke directly to one another again...
Abraham went ahead to offer homage to Elohim, the God of Justice, upon Moriah... The temptation, from this perspective, was not to be swayed by the "merely human" compassion of a father for his son... For three days Abraham steeled himself from all appeals of human tenderness and compassion. At the decisive moment, however, the LORD (יְהוָה) intervened -- and Abraham ultimately heeded the Voice of Love/Grace rather than the voice of Justice/Law.... This was the deeper Voice of the LORD; this was also Abraham's vindication....
There is a fantastic midrash about the white ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son (see the Midrash of the White Ram, below). After its death, the ram's soul returned to heaven, but it wanted to do more in the world of people, so God sent him back to earth. God then gave the ram horns so long that they reached all the way to heaven. In this way, the ram could be in both worlds at once: with its feet on earth and its horns in heaven. Similarly, God sent His Son as the Ram of God to satisfy His requirements for justice (as Elohim) and to demonstrate His unbounded chesed/love (as the LORD). Yeshua now spans heaven and earth as our substitionary atonement, intercessor, and heavenly advocate. In Him "steadfast love (chesed) and truth (emet) meet; justice (tzedek) and peace (shalom) kiss" (Psalm 85:10). His merit alone is our Bridge to the Father: יְשׁוּעָתָה לַיהוָה - Salvation is from the LORD.
If it pleases God, I will write more about this topic later... It is vital, chaverim, to understand that we are saved by hope in the love and grace of God -- not through adherence to an external lawcode. God looks within the heart. The justified live by trusting in God's gracious love and forgiveness-- not on the basis of meritocracy or conformity to a religious code.... (Hab. 2:4; Titus 3:5-6). Ultimately there is an infinite difference between being a slave and being a child.
For more on this subject, please see: Torah Observance Redux.
Parashat Behar & Bechukotai
05.10.09 (Iyyar 16, 5769) This week we have another "double portion" of Torah: parashat Behar and Bechukotai. Since this isn't a leap year (i.e., this year doesn't have an additional month of Adar inserted into the calendar), we have a total of six weeks with double readings before Rosh Hashanah (in the fall).
Why is it, the sages reasoned, that the LORD bypassed all of the world's great and lofty mountains and chose to give His Torah on the humble mountain of Sinai? Because God's Spirit (רוח) rests with the lowly, the humble of heart. Therefore humility (ענוה) is considered one of the greatest of middot ha-lev (heart qualities).
It is perhaps in this connection that we should understand the commandments given in this parashah to refrain from harvesting the land every seventh year (the shemittah - שׁמטּה) and to cancel all outstanding debts every 50 years (during the Yovel - יובל). Each of us must live in conscious dependence on God's provision and care for our lives... The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof, and in the end everything reverts back to God, since He alone owns all things. "From Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things."
God reveals Himself to the lowly in spirit (שְׁפַל־רוּחַ), that is, to those who understand their own nothingness and complete dependence on Him.... Notice that the word dakka (דַּכָּא) refers to being crushed to the very dust, as Yeshua was verily crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 53:10). From the point of view of our dependence on God for salvation, dakka refers to humility and contrition we evidence in light of God's love and grace for our souls... Pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness are antithetical to the awareness of God in the truth.
If God is willing, I will add additional commentary to these two Torah portions this week, chaverim....
The Tragic Date of Lag B'Omer
05.10.09 (Iyyar 16, 5769) Tuesday May 12 marks Lag B'Omer (ל״ג בעומר) a semi-holiday that commemorates the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students during the last of the Jewish-Roman wars (called the Bar Kochba Revolt (מרד בר כוכבא), c.132-135 AD). Since Jewish tradition understood the Messiah to be a military leader who would deliver the Jews and usher in world peace, Rabbi Akiva (incorrectly) surmised that Shimon bar Kochba, the leader of the Jewish resistance, was the Jewish Messiah -- based on an esoteric reading of Numbers 24:17: כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב - "A star shall come out of Jacob" ("Bar Kokhba" means "son of a star" in Aramaic). His tragic endorsement led to widespread destruction of countless Jews and further alienated the Messianic Jewish community from Israel. The eventual defeat of the Jews by Emperor Hadrian perhaps marked the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from the Promised Land. The province of Judaea was then renamed Palestine and Jerusalem was called Aelia Capitolina.
According to Kabbalistic legend, all of Akiva's students died during the time of the Omer Count, but Akiva "started over" with a new batch of students. Of these, his foremost student was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the purported author of the Zohar (one of the key texts of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism). Lag B'Omer is remembered as the Yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Shimon Bar Yochai, who told his followers to rejoice - not mourn - after his death. Today special celebrations are held in the village of Meron (near Safed, Israel), where he is said to have been buried. Every year, thousands of Jews celebrate late-night revelry at Mt. Meron in Israel.
It should be clear that Lag B'Omer is not a Christian/Messianic Jewish holiday, but on the contrary marks a tragic time that ultimately separated the Messianic Jewish community from Israel and contributed to the loss of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. During this time of "countdown," chaverim, let us pray that the eyes of many will soon be opened that Yeshua is indeed the Mashiach (anointed King) of Israel.
Speak Softly... again and again
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Emor). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.07.09 (Iyyar 13, 5769) Parashat Emor, which is always read during the Counting of the Omer, begins:
And the LORD said (וַיּאמֶר) to Moses, "Speak (אמר) to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say (וְאָמַרְתָּ) to them..." (Lev. 21:1)
Some of the sages wondered why the same verb (אמר) is used three times in this opening verse. Rashi noted that the verb emor (אמר) has a softer tone than the verb dibber (speak, as in a command), suggesting almost a pleading quality: "Speak softly again and again..." Various explanations of this redundancy have been given, usually centering on educational philosophy and approach.
According to Samson Raphael Hirsch, the word kohen [כֹּהֵן] is related to the Hebrew word kivun [כִּוּוּן] meaning "direction." In other words, God wanted the priests to function as role models for the rest of Israel. They were never intended to abrogate the responsibility of every Jew to walk in the commandments and serve God. True, the priests (and Levites) were called to be Torah teachers to Israel (Deut. 33:10), but their zeal was meant to inspire personal sanctity and the dissemination of chinukh (Torah learning) among the Jewish people (Lev. 22:32). The repetition of emor, then, suggests that Torah teachers shouldn't simply tell people what to do/believe, but rather should both tell and demonstrate Torah truth. When teaching, speak twice: once to explain the mitzvot (commandments), and a second time to ignite a passion to live according to the truth.... This applies especially to the priests, whose children were at times forced to act differently than their friends. It was the duty of the parents to teach life according to Torah, despite the pressure of the world to conform and assimilate.
The word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ), "education," shares the same root as the word "chanukah" (חֲנֻכָּה, dedication). Unlike the Greek view that regards education as a pragmatic process of improving one's personal power or happiness, the Jewish idea implies dedication/direction to God and His concrete purposes on the earth. Disciples of Yeshua are likewise called talmidim (תַּלְמִידִים), a word that comes from lamad (לָמַד) meaning "to learn" (the Hebrew word for teacher is melamad (מְלַמֵּד), a word that shares the same root). In the New Testament, the word "disciple" is μαθητής, a learner or a pupil of a διδάσκαλος, or a teacher. Education is foundational to being a disciple of the Mashiach.
Following Yeshua, then, first of all means submitting to His authority and learning from Him (Matt. 23:8). Only after spending time with Him are you commissioned to go "to all the nations and teach..." (Matt. 28:19). This is accomplished not only by explaining doctrine but by kiddush HaShem -- sanctifying the LORD in our lives -- and living as a "living letter" sent into the world to be read (2 Cor. 3:2-3).... When asked for the reason of the hope that is in you, "speak softly again and again," in humility and grace (1 Pet. 3:15; Col. 4:6).
We are always speaking "twice," chaverim, and our children are intuitively able to discern when we say one thing and do another. Knowing and doing the truth are intimately linked, since "faith without works is dead." The truth of Yeshua sets us free, but only if we live it in our lives. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel -- and sometimes use words."
[ The following explores some themes found in this week's Torah reading (Emor). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
05.04.09 (Iyyar 11, 5769) The Torah reading for this week is parashat Emor ("say"), which begins with a warning to the priests not to defile themselves through contact with the dead and concludes with an outline of the mo'edim (Jewish holidays) celebrated throughout the year. It is a fascinating and very rich portion of Torah, chaverim.
Who were the priests of Israel?
Jacob, of course, had 12 sons, who became the founders of the twelve tribes (shevatim) of Israel. His son Levi had three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Gen. 46:11; Ex. 6:16-26) who became heads of the clans of the Levites. However, God exclusively chose Levi's great grandson Aaron and his descendants from among all the Levites to be His priests (Num. 17:1-10). The other descendants of Levi were assigned roles to assist in the maintenance of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), such as carrying various vessels, assembling it when the LORD moved the camp, and so on, but only the direct male descendants of Aaron were authorized to perform avodah and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.
The Jewish people are therefore composed of three "classes:"
- Levi'im (לְוִיִּם) - Levites (i.e., descendants of the patriarch Levi).
- Kohanim (כּהנִים) - A subset of the Levites (i.e., the male descendants of Aaron) who were assigned the role of priests. An individual descendant is called a kohen (כּהן). The Kohen Gadol was a priest singled out to perform special functions such as the Yom Kippur ritual and other sacrifices. Note that both the Leviim and the Kohanim were supported by the gifts given by the rest of Israel.
- Yisraelim (יִשְׂרְאֵלִים) - Israelites (i.e., a Jew or convert in general)
Note that while every Levite is an Israelite (a descendant of Israel), not every Levite (descendant of Levi) is a Kohen (descendant of Aaron).
This class distinction is one of the few remnants of Temple-era Jewish society still in force today, with special roles assigned at synagogue services. For example, it is customary to call a kohen for the first Torah reading (aliyah), a Levite for the second reading, and members of any other tribe of Israel to the remaining readings. A kohen is also called for performing the priestly blessing (called nesiat Kapayim - "raising the hands") during the service. Among orthodox Jews, a kohen is symbolically given money during the Pidyon HaBen ceremony ("redemption of the first born).
Avoiding the Defilement of Death
Based on the Torah's prohibition that a priest refrain from contact with the dead, Jewish law decreed that a Kohen cannot be within six feet of a dead body and may not be in the same room where a dead body is at rest. This means that Kohanim cannot attend a Jewish funeral (except for those of his immediate family) or must stay in a "Kohanim room" outside of the main chapel area. In order to further protect them from coming into contact with the dead, many Jewish cemeteries designate a separate burial ground for Kohanim so that the sons of deceased kohanim can visit their fathers' graves without becoming defiled. Kohens are also careful not to be in a hospital, morgue, etc. where dead bodies might be present.
The Sacred Calendar - appointed times of the LORD
The second part of parashat Emor lists the eight main mo'edim -- the "appointed times" of the LORD given in the Jewish Scriptures. These are also referred to as yamim tovim (Jewish holidays). Note that this is the first time that the Torah reveals a comprehensive description of the festivals of the year, including the following special times:
- The Sabbath - weekly observance of Shabbat that commemorates God as the Creator of the world. According to the sages, Shabbat is the most important of the appointed times, even more important than Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Awe.
- Pesach (Nisan 14), also called Passover
- Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15-22); note that the Counting of the Omer is first mentioned in this section of Torah (Lev. 23:9-16)
- Firstfruits (Nisan 16), also called Reishit Katzir
- Shavuot (Sivan 6), also called Pentecost
- Yom Teru'ah (Tishri 1), also called Rosh Hashanah (note that this is the first time this is revealed in Torah)
- Yom Kippur (Tishri 10) also called the Day of Atonement
- Sukkot (Tishri 15-22) also called Tabernacles (note that this is the first time the commandment to dwell in sukkas and the waving of the arba minim (four species) are mentioned in the Torah)
In addition, Moses was instructed to keep the menorah in the Holy Place of the Mishkan burning continually (ner tamid) and to provide weekly "showbread," or twelve loaves of bread on the shulchan inside the Holy Place. The Jewish sages say these allude to the holidays of Chanukah and Purim, respectively (Chanukah because of the oil; Purim because of the lechem ha-panim ("showbread") that alludes to the hester panim - or "hiding of face" and nes nistar (hidden miracle) of the Esther story).
Note: If it pleases God, I will add additional commentary to this reading later this week.... Meanwhile, if you would please offer up a prayer for the continuance of this work, I would deeply appreciate it as chesed v'emet.
New T-shirt designs...
05.01.09 (Iyyar 7, 5769) Recently I created some new Hebrew4Christians T-shirt designs you might like. These simple shirts show some "attitude" by stating obvious truths such as Jesus spoke Hebrew, that he studied Torah, that he loved Israel, and so on. They're great for reminding our Christian friends of the importance of the Jewish roots of their faith.... I hope you'll consider buying one to help "get the word out."