June 2010 Updates
The Law of the Messiah
06.30.10 (Tammuz 18, 5770) The "law of the Messiah" (תּוֹרַת הַמָּשִׁיחַ) is to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2). The word translated "burden" is βαρος ("weight"), from which we derive the word "barometer." This same word is used in 2 Cor. 4:17 to refer to the "weight of glory" that we will experience in Olam Haba (the world to come). Bearing one another's burdens -- taking upon ourselves some of their "pressures" -- reveals the glory of the One who bore our sin and shame at Moriah (1 Pet. 2:24).
The Central Idea of Torah
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Pinchas. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.29.10 (Tammuz 17, 5770) Last week's Torah portion (Balak) concluded with the story of Pinchas (פִּינְחָס), whose zealotry saved Israel from catastrophe. Recall that under the advice of the false prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם), young Moabite women were used to seduce the Israelite men at the outskirts of the camp. According to Rashi, before a Moabite temptress would consent to sexual relations, she would require that the man bow down before the god of Moab, named Baal Peor (בַּעַל פְּעוֹר). This reveals the connection between fornication (i.e., zenut: זְנוּת) and avodah zarah ("strange worship" or idolatry).
After Israel "joined itself to Baal Peor," the anger of the LORD began to burn (Num. 25:1-3), and Moses was instructed to hang all the leaders who were illicitly involved with the Moabites. "Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel" (Num. 25:4). Moses then instructed the judges (שְׁפָטִים) of Israel to slay everyone who had "joined themselves to the idol." According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82), many members of the tribe of Shimon then went to their leader, Zimri (זִמְרִי), to complain. Zimri then assembled 24,000 Israelites and abducted Cozbi (כָּזְבִּי), the daughter of King Balak. In a show of chutzpah, Zimri brought her before the congregation of Israel and challenged Moses, "Son of Amram, is a heathen woman forbidden or permitted? And should you say that she is forbidden, who permitted Yitro's daughter to you?" Moses did not have an immediate answer, so Zimri defiantly took Cozbi into a tent to have sexual relations with her. Meanwhile, the LORD sent a plague that began killing the followers of Zimri...
Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, then appealed to Moses. "O great uncle! Did you not teach us when you descended from Sinai that he who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?" Pinchas then went after Zimri and Cozbi and discovered them in the very act. He took his spear and threw it, skewering them both (Num. 25:8). After this, God stopped the plague, though not before the 24,000 followers of Zimri were all killed (Num. 25:9).
Pinchas is described as a zealot (קַנָּאִי, from the same word as "jealous" or "envy") in the Torah (Num. 25:11). Some commentators suggest that he "took the law into his own hands," though it's clear that his zeal was considered the righteous response to the situation. צְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת / tzedakah hatzil mi-mavet: "rightousness saves from death" (Prov. 10:2; 11:4). The ulterior motive of the Moabites was to destroy the Jews by enticing them to worship the god of Moab, and this was as serious a matter as the sin of the Golden Calf. Pinchas realized that fornication (i.e., avodah zarah) would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. His courageous and righteous action was therefore justified and the LORD honored him a brit kehunat olam (בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם), a "covenant of a perpetual priesthood" (Num. 25:11-13). Because he risked his life for the sake of the truth, God established his appointment as a priest in Israel with special standing.
After the plague had ended, Moses was instructed to count the Israelite tribes for the purposes of inheritance in the Promised Land (Num. 26:1-2,53). He was then told to ascend Mount Avarim (הַר הָעֲבָרִים) to glimpse the land before he died. Moses asked the LORD who should be appointed as his successor to lead the people of Israel: "Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh (אֱלהֵי הָרוּחת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר), appoint a man over the congregation" (Num. 27:16). So the LORD said to Moses, "Take Joshua the son of Nun (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן), a man in whom is the Spirit (אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־רוּחַ בּו), and lay your hand on him. (Note that the practice of semichah [סְמִיכָה], or "laying on of hands," was used for the purposes of sacrifice as well as for the transfer Moses' authority to Joshua. It is a picture of "sacrificial leadership.")
It is interesting, in this connection, that the LORD did not choose Pinchas to be Moses' successor. This is almost surprising, since the narrative that leads up to the choice of Moses' successor suggests that Pinchas would have been the logical choice. Pinchas was full of zeal who saved Israel from destruction. He was honored with an eternal covenant of peace. He was renowed as a great hero of Israel. Even the Torah portion itself is named in his honor....
To try to understand why Pinchas was not chosen, some of the sages note that immediately following the appointment of Joshua as Israel's new leader, the LORD commanded Moses regarding the continual offering, or the Korban Tamid (Num. 27:22-23, 28:1-4). Is there any connection between the idea of continual sacrifice and the selection of Joshua as the one who would lead Israel into the Promised Land?
According to a fascinating midrash cited by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Chaviv, several of the sages of the Mishnah (i.e., Tannaim) attempted to choose the central verse that summarized the meaning of the entire Torah. Ben Zoma said, "We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, 'Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God; the LORD is One'" (Deut. 6:4). Ben Nanas said, "We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Lev. 19:18). Shimon ben Pazi said, "We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, 'The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight'" (Num. 28:4). One of the sages stood up and said, "It is ben Pazi who is correct."
In other words, the key idea of the Torah centers on the idea of sacrifice, and in particular, the continual sacrifice of the lamb. The daily sacrifice of the lamb is more important than either the Shema or even the duty to love others... The continual (i.e., tamid: תָּמִיד) sacrifice of the lamb is central to the meaning of the Torah. It is the Torah's most all-inclusive idea.
Rashi notes that Joshua embodied the concept of "continual sacrifice" (קָרְבָּן תָּמִיד) in his life. He rose up early and remained late at night in the Tent of Meeting, "never departing" from it (Exod. 33:11). Within the tent Joshua would study Torah and worship the LORD. "Elazar, Pinchas, and the Seventy Elders were surely worthy, but Moses chose Joshua because he had always sacrificed his personal comfort to excel in Torah knowledge" (Rashi on Avot 1:1). Joshua's constant devotion made him a "living sacrifice" (i.e., korban chai: קָרְבָּן חַי, see Rom. 12:1-2), similar to the Korban Talmid that God desired every day. It was Joshua's constancy that made him a better guardian of the Torah than Pinchas. As it is written: נצֵר תְּאֵנָה יאכַל פִּרְיָהּ / notzer te'enah yochal piryah: "He who guards the fig tree will eat its fruit" (Prov. 27:18). The Torah is compared to a fig tree because its fruits are gathered little by little over time, the product of constancy and faithfulness.
Joshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ) is a picture of Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ) our Messiah, of course, who always abode within his father's house and served him faithfully (John 8:29; 15:9-10). Yeshua's life was one of continual sacrifice in the service of his heavenly Father (John 10:15, Phil. 2:7-8; Eph. 5:2; Mark 10:44, etc.). His love functioned as the Ner Tamid (נֵר תָּמִיד), the continuously burning light of the world (John 8:12). Yeshua is our Korban Tamid (קָרְבָּן תָּמִיד), our "lamb offered in the morning and in the evening," and His sacrificial life is the embodiment of all the Torah's commandments! He is the goal (τέλος) of the Torah for righteousness to all who believe (Rom. 10:4). The heart of the Torah is the same as the "law of the Gospel," since God is One and His will is centered in the sacrificial love of Yeshua our Messiah.
It is Yeshua, the Perfecter of Torah, who leads us into the Promised Land of God's blessing. He is the Torah's most all-inclusive idea!
The Fast of Tammuz - צום תמוז
[ The sunrise to sunset Fast of Tammuz occurs on Tuesday, June 29th this year... ]
06.27.10 (Tammuz 15, 5770) There are four fast days (tzomot) on the Jewish calendar that are related to the loss of the Jewish Temple. The fast of the "4th month" (Zech. 8:19) is called the "fast of Tammuz," and recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BC. According to tradition (Mishnah, Taanit 28b), Moses was said to have descended Sinai on this date and smashed the first set of Tablets when he saw the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:19). This year the sunrise to sunset Fast of Tammuz occurs on Tuesday June 29.
Traditionally, the Fast of Tammuz marks the beginning of the Three Weeks of Sorrow, a 21 day period of national mourning which culminates on Tishah B'Av (i.e., the traditional date on which both Jewish Temples were destroyed). The three weeks from Tammuz 17 to the Av 9 is also called bein ha-Metzarim (בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים) - "between the straights" (based on Lam. 1:3). During this time, the weekly prophetic readings are "Haftarahs of Rebuke," and teshuvah (repentance) is a theme of most Jewish services. In addition, no weddings or other joyous events are held during this time, since observant Jews practice a state of mourning.
When the Mashiach Yeshua returns (may it be speedily in our time), the Three Weeks will turn into a time full of "gladness and cheerful feasts" (Jer. 31:12).
Parashat Pinchas - פינחס
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Pinchas. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.27.10 (Tammuz 15, 5770) Last week's Torah portion concerned the evil King Balak and the wicked prophet Balaam, but this week's portion is about the heroic zeal of Pinchas (Phinehas), the late-born grandson of Aaron the priest, to whom the LORD awarded a brit kehunat olam (בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם), a "covenant of a perpetual priesthood." As you will see, Pinchas is a picture of the Messiah Yeshua, and the covenant of priesthood given to him is a picture of the greater priesthood after the order of Malki-Tzedek.
Traditional Jewish thinking maintains that when Aaron received the promise of the priesthood from the LORD, it applied only to his future children and their descendants. Since his grandson Pinchas had already been born at the time the promise was given, however, Pinchas did not automatically receive this honor, especially since his father Eleazar (the son of Aaron) was married to an "outsider" -- namely, the daughter of Yitro (also called Putiel, Ex. 6:25). This explains Rashi's statement that the other tribes mocked Pinchas. How dare he kill a nassi (prince) of Israel (i.e., Zimri), especially since Pinchas' mother was regarded as an idol worshipper! Pinchas' zeal for the honor of the LORD, however, overruled their tribalism, and he was appointed a priest with special standing before the LORD.
God looks at the heart, chaverim, and is able to make those who have zeal for Him true priests of the LORD! You don't have to be born Jewish to impress the LORD God of Israel, since He's no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11). Not only can He create spiritual children of Abraham from the stones of the ground (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8), but He can turn someone considered a non-Jew (by the Rabbis, anyway) into a priest of Israel (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Indeed, many descendants of Pinchas later became the most faithful of the High Priests of Israel during the First Temple period.
Note that a midrash (legend) states that when Pinchas entered Zimri's tent to kill him, thousands of men from the tribe of Shimon ran in after him, seeking his life. Pinchas was in such a state of terror that "his soul left him" and the souls of Nadav and Avihu (Aaron's deceased sons) entered his body -- and by this means he became a Kohen.
Parashat Pinchas (like parashat Emor in Vaiyikra) also includes mention of all of the (sacrifices of the) mo'edim (holidays) given to Israel (Num. 28): Daily (tamid), Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (monthly), Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hoshannah (Terumah), Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are all given. Remembering the joys of the Temple and the special celebrations of the Jewish people are thought to add a contrast to the otherwise somber time of reflection during the Three Weeks of Sorrow.
New Hebrew Meditation
Vanity and Hope...
06.25.10 (Tammuz 13, 5770) Do any of us know the measure of our days? Can we truly appreciate the limited amount of time we are given in this life? In light of these questions, I wrote a new Hebrew Meditation (Vanity and Hope) to encourage us to "seek the Lord while He may be found." I hope you find it encouraging, chaverim. Shabbat Shalom.
The Curses of Laban...
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Balak. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here.... Originally, this parashah was intended to be read daily as part of the Shema, but it was later decided to be too lengthy (Berachot 12b). Now it is usually read just before the Three Weeks of Sorrow as a warning to avoid further national tragedies. ]
06.23.10 (Tammuz 11, 5770) The Torah states that until Abraham arrived in Canaan, the ancestors of Israel "served other gods" (Josh. 24:2). These "gods" were undoubtedly part of the mythology of the ancient Near East that had its origin with Nimrod in ancient Babel (Gen. 10:10). Jewish tradition says that Noah gave Nimrod the skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve, and these gave him power over all the animals of the world. Hence he became a "mighty hunter" and convinced the ancient Babylonians that he had divine authority and power (Gen. 10:9). Nimrod then organized the construction of the Tower of Babel (מִגְדָּל בָּבֶל), a symbol of political unity and power, and anointed himself king over the land of Shinar. He was the reigning monarch in Abraham's day.
A midrash relates that Abraham's father Terah (תֶּרַח) sold idols for a living in the neighboring City of Haran. When Abraham was a young child, however, he realized that idol worship was foolishness. One day when he was asked to watch the store, Abraham took a hammer and smashed all the idols - except for the largest one. His father came home and demanded to know what happened. Abraham replied that the idols all "got into a fight" and the biggest idol won. His father was angry but understood that Abram had discovered the truth of ethical monotheism. This was a severe test because Abraham had to oppose his father Terah and take a stand against the idolatrous culture of his day.
According to legend, when Nimrod later heard that Abraham refused to give honor him as divinely appointed king, he was arrested and thrown into a fiery furnace for three days. Abrahamm survived this ordeal, but when his brother Haran (הָרָן) was likewise tested, he was burned alive (Gen. 11:28). Rashi notes that "Ur Kasdim" (אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים) means "fire of Kasdim," referring to these events.
Abraham then received God's call to go to the Promised Land and convinced his father to make the journey with him. Terah died en route to the land, however (Gen. 11:31-32). His brother Haran had two children who survived him, a boy named Lot and girl named Milcah. Abraham adopted Lot who accompanied him to Canaan, but his brother Nahor (נָחוֹר) married Milcah and remained in Mesopotamia. After Terah's death, Abraham heard the Heavenly Voice command him to leave his ancestral home for good and to continue his journey to Canaan, where he was promised to become a great nation (Gen. 12:1-2). From the seed of Abraham "all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3).
Nahor and Milcah had a boy named Bethuel (בְּתוּאֵל). Bethuel was an unsavory character who later attempted to poison Abraham's servant Eliezer when he was dispatched to find a bride for Isaac. He was also the father of a daughter named Rebecca (who later married Isaac) and a son named Laban (לָבָן).
Laban lived with his father Bethuel as a shepherd, and had two daughters, Leah and Rachel (who later became the matriarchs of Israel). According to traditional commentaries, after Rebecca had given birth to the twins (Esau and Jacob), she wrote her family back home to arrange marriages for her sons. They agreed that Esau would take Leah as a wife and Jacob would take Rachel.
After Jacob stole the blessing from Esau, he was forced to flee to his mother's family in Aram (i.e., Mesopotamia) to escape from his brother's murderous wrath. It was in Aram that we learn of the treachery of Laban and witness his relentless malice directed toward his nephew Jacob. Laban deceived Jacob ten times, switched his daughters in marriage, exploited his labor, and finally attempted to hold the entire family as his slaves. According to midrash (Bereshit Rabbah), Laban is called "Kemuel" (קְמוּאֵל) because he rose up (קוּם) against God (אֵל). The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) states that Laban was an expert in sorcery (כִּשּׁוּף) with which he sought to destroy Jacob. Therefore he said to Jacob, "I have learned by divination (i.e., נַחַשׁ, from the same root as nachash, the "serpent" in Eden) that the LORD has blessed me because of you" (Gen. 30:27). Perhaps this explains why Rachel later stole her father's idols (i.e., "teraphim," תְּרָפִים) before the family fled back to the Promised Land (Gen. 31:19) -- she was attempting to break the power of his spells against her family...
Laban's worship of the serpent (nachash) led him to become one of the first enemies of the Jewish people. He tried to make Jacob a slave from the beginning, later claiming that all his descendants and possessions belonged to him (Gen. 31:43). Later Laban had a son named Beor (בְּעוֹר) who became the father of the wicked prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם). In other words, the "cursing prophet" Balaam was none other than the grandson of Laban:
Balaam was regarded as a great seer, magician and an adept in the occult. He had an "evil eye" and drew the spirit of demons to anything he gazed upon (Avot 5:22). His notoriety made him famous, and powerful people asked him to invoke curses on their enemies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) states that Balaam became so famous as a magician that he later became a chief advisor to Pharaoh. It was Balaam who advised the new Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites and to afflict them with brutal taskmasters (Exod. 1:8-11). According to Midrash, at some point this new Pharaoh had a nightmare. In it he saw an old man standing before him as he sat on his throne. The man held a balancing scale. All the elite of Egypt were placed on one side of the scale, and only a small lamb on the other. When Pharaoh looked, behold, the lamb outweighed all the others!
When he awoke, Pharaoh called his wise men and asked them to interpret his dream, but they could not do so. Only Balaam had the explanation: "A child will be born to the Israelites who will destroy the land and kill all the people," he said. "Then he will lead the Israelites to freedom. You must stop this from happening!" Pharaoh's stargazers agreed with Balaam and informed Pharaoh that according to their calculations the child had been born on that very day! "But he is destined to die by water," they said, and Balaam then recommended that a decree be issued that all newborn Israelite boys be thrown into the Nile river. In other words, it was Laban's hatred of Jacob (imparted to his grandson Balaam) that was the underlying impetus for the persecution of the Jews in Egypt!
In Jewish tradition, Laban is regarded as even more wicked than the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews in Egypt. This enmity is enshrined during the Passover Seder when we recall Laban's treachery as the one who "sought to destroy our father, Jacob." Spiritually understood, Laban's hatred of Jacob (i.e., Israel) was intended to eradicate the Jewish nation at the very beginning. Had Laban succeeded, Israel would have been assimilated and disappeared from history. God's plan for the redemption of humanity through the Promised Seed would have been overturned (Gen. 3:15). But even despite being thwarted by God's direct intervention (Gen. 31:24), Laban carefully passed on his hatred of the Jews to his grandson Balaam. The Zohar says that Balaam became "a disciple of" Laban, so that for all practical purposes they functioned as the same person. "As great as Moses was in the realm of spirituality and purity, Balaam was his equal in the realm of witchcraft and impurity" (Tanna Eliyahu).
Even after the Exodus from Egypt, Laban's hatred (embodied in Balaam) pursued the Jews. According to Jewish tradition, Balaam followed Israel out of Egypt and later returned to his homeland of Pethor (פְּתוֹר), near Aram (Num. 23:7; Deut. 23:4). When Israel later encamped along the borders of Moab, Balak - the newly appointed king of the Moabites - sought an alliance with the Midianites and commissioned a delegation of emissaries to hire Balaam to curse the Jews so that they would be unsuccessful in battle. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," or so thought Balak, who sought to create a united front against the Jewish people.... The midrash states that Balak was as powerful a sorcerer as Balaam, though he did not know how to curse as well as the latter. His name ("son of Tzippor") means that he practiced sorcery by using a tzippor (bird). The Zohar states that "Balak knew how to perform sorcery, but he did not know how to complete it with his mouth" (Zohar 3:305). Balaam, on the other hand, knew the precise hour to invoke God's anger and used the "correct" invocation (in Hebrew) to invite God's judgment (Tanchuma; Berachot 7a).
It is worth noting the parallels between King Balak and the Pharaoh of Egypt. First, both were usurpers and political opportunists. Pharaoh is described as a "new king" (Hyksos) who may have seized power from the ancient ruling dynasty, and Balak (who descended from the ancient Amorites) was installed as a ruler of Moab during a crisis of leadership after the death of their protectorate king Sihon (Num. 22:4). Both of these upstart rulers expressed similar fears of Israel's strength and numbers, and both therefore sought to destroy the Jews. Moreover, both relied on magicians and outside consultants, though the common link between them was the "cursing prophet" Balaam. As an emissary of Laban's hate, Balaam sought to prevent the exodus from Egypt, just as he later sought to curse the Jews so that they would be unable to inherit the Promised Land.
Balak dispatched a group of elders from both Moab and Midian to invite Balaam to curse the Israelites. Initially he refused to go with them, though after repeated obsequious delegations and promises of honor and glory from Balak, he finally saddled his donkey and made his way toward Moab. On the way to perform his maledictions, however, delicious irony ensues. Balaam is berated by his donkey, who saw the Angel that the LORD sent to block his way. The so-called great man could not control his own donkey with his words; how would he then be effectual in cursing Israel?
Balaam finally arrived at Moab's border and attempted three times, from three different vantage points, to pronounce his curses. These three curses concerned Israel's past, present, and future. To the consternation of Balak, however, in each case blessings upon Israel were recited instead.
The first curse (from the "high places of Baal") was meant to separate Israel from their past, though Balaam was constrained to say: "From the top of the rocks (מֵראשׁ צֻרִים) I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Num. 23:9). The phrase "the top of the rocks" is thought to refer to the beginning (ראשׁ) of Israel's unique history of the patriarchs. Contrary to the intent to disconnect Israel from her roots and become assimilated, Balaam's pronouncement of blessing upon Israel's separate ethnic identity continues to this day....
The second curse (from the top of Mt. Pisgah in Moab, the place where Moses later died) was meant to separate Israel from their present liberation from Egypt. Balaam foresaw Moses' death here and therefore wanted to appeal to God to abandon Israel in the wilderness. The LORD overruled him, however, and Balaam was constrained to say: "God is not a man, that he should lie; nor the son of man, that he should repent: has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Num. 23:19). In other words, God has sworn to defend Israel and give them the land promised to Abraham. In a fascinating part of Balaam's poetic blessing, he says, "he [God] has not seen perversity in Israel... the LORD their God is with them, and the acclaim of their King is in their midst" (Num. 23:21). The word translated "perversity" here is amal (עָמָל), a word that can also mean "toil" or "labor." Israel was chosen by God's grace - not because of personal merit or "works." Indeed, "there is no enchantment (i.e., "nachash," נַחַשׁ) against Jacob, no divination ("kesem," קֶסֶם) against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, 'What has God wrought!' (Num. 23:23).
Finally, the third curse was from the top of Peor, the place where Israel would later sin (Num. 25:1-3). Here Balaam hoped that in the future Israel would fall into idolatry and abandon faith in the LORD. Instead of the intended curse, however, Balaam was forced to say, "How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!" (Num. 24:5). Notice that the word translated "your tabernacles" is mishkenotekha (מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ), "your mishkans," referring to the future Temples of the Jewish people. Balaam foresaw the future service to God where the Jews would ask for forgiveness and enjoy fellowship with the LORD. (This blessing has been incorporated into the daily Mah Tovu blessing recited upon entering the synagogue.)
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a), when Balaam saw that he could not prevail against Israel using these three verbal curses, he devised a different strategy to defeat them. Balaam advised Balak to erect tents near the Israelite camp and to seat old women in their doorways to sell linen garments to the Israelites. The old women lured the men inside the tents, where the young women of Moab awaited them, adorned and perfumed. The women of Moab tempted the Israelites to join in the worship of "Baal Peor" (בַּעַל פְּעוֹר) and to participate in idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-3). Thus Balaam at last succeeded in cursing Israel and caused the death of 24,000 Jews (Num. 31:16).
The idea of a "cursing prophet" is bizarre, to say the least. Balaam was gifted with great spiritual sensitivity which he perversely devoted to evil purposes. The Scriptures condemn Balaam as a spiritual hireling who sought to corrupt the people of God (Deut. 23:3-6). He was a consummate hypocrite who, for all his talk about speaking "only what God put into his mouth" was highly motivated to curse the Jews for a fee (Num. 23:38, 22:17-18). His blindness led him to be rebuked by a talking donkey who saved his life from the Angel's sword of fire (Num. 22:23). The rebuke from the mouth of an animal was delicious irony, since in spite of his best efforts, Balaam would be forced to bless the Jewish people. Like his donkey, he could only speak the words that God put into his mouth....
"Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21), though a gratuitous curse will surely backfire (Prov. 26:2). According to the midrash, Balaam was named "swallowing the people" (עַם + בֶּלַע) by his mother. How strange a name -- and yet some people apparently want to give birth to "charmers," to occultic seers -- even to "homicide bombers" and those whose life's mission is to curse people... Moses was given his name by an Egyptian princess who adopted him (the Egyptian root appears in the names Ahmoses, Ramsees, etc.), but God overruled her linguistic intent by having the child "draw the people of out" of Egypt. Balaam's mouth was likewise overruled when he sought to curse the children of Israel. The LORD took hold of his tongue and made this "donkey" of a man speak words of truth.
Balaam was finally killed by the Israelites in the days of Joshua (Josh. 13:22). What was Balaam doing in the battle? The midrash states that he was once again employed to curse Joshua and his army, though the Talmud states he came to collect his reward for slaying the 24,000 Israelite men (Sanhedrin 106a). The Targum Yonasan fancifully elaborates: "When the wicked Balaam saw Phinehas pursuing him, he used sorcery and flew into the sky. Thereupon Phinehas pronounced the great and holy Name and flew after him. Phinehas grabbed his head, lowered him to earth, drew his sword, and killed him. Balaam entreated Phinehas saying, "If you let me live, I swear to you that all the days of my life I will not curse your people." Phinehas answered, "Are you not Laban the Aramean who sought to destroy the patriarch Jacob? I cannot let you live any longer" (Bamidbar 31:8).
מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים / ma'aseh avot siman labanim: "The deeds of the fathers are signs for the children." Balaam was later remembered by the prophets as a stern warning to Israel to remain separate from the pagan nations and to abhor their idolatry (Micah 6:5; Neh. 13:1-3). The New Testament speaks of "the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing" (2 Pet. 2:15), "Balaam's error" (Jude 1:11), and "the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel" (Rev. 2:14). Note that the doctrine of Balaam is associated with the licentious "doctrine of the Nicolatians" who "conquered the people" [νικος + λαος] in order to pursue their own ecclesiological/spiritual lusts (Rev. 2:6,14-15).
What is the "way of Balaam" or Balaam's error? Well, though Balaam appeared to follow God's instructions, his inner attitude was actually hostile to God's desire and plan. He was therefore double minded, antagonistic to the way of truth, and therefore literally insane (2 Pet. 2:16). When Balaam told Balak's emissaries that he could "only speak what God put in his mouth," he was being literal, not moral... This is revealed in the fact that he was willing to try three times to curse God's purpose, but every time God thwarted his evil intent (Josh. 24:9-10). Despite God's dramatic intervention in his life, Balaam was unrepentant and defiant, and later succeeded in corrupting Israel by devising a scheme to tempt the men of Israel to commit fornication (Num. 31:16, Rev. 2:14-15).
How many Christian pastors and teachers out there resemble Balaam in their desire to curse Israel for personal gain? Outwardly they may be constrained to "bless" the Jewish people - at least from the pulpit - but inwardly they may want the Jews to become enslaved again, by sending them back to Egypt or by fettering them to the "curses" of Sinai.... Ironically enough, it was the cursing prophet Balaam who said, "God is not a man, that He should lie..." (Num. 23:19), though many Christian denominations assert just the opposite idea by claiming that the God of Israel has abandoned His purposes and plans for ethnic Israel.... The apostles warn that such false prophets "love the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 1:11). Balaam implied that "if he were able to transgress the commandment of God, he would, provided he was given a sum of money (Num. 22:7,18; Deut. 23:3-6). Likewise Yeshua himself warns his followers of those who promote the teaching of Balaam, "who taught Balak to put a stumbling block (σκάνδαλον) before the sons of Israel" to commit fornication (Rev. 2:14).
Balaam was a hireling, a spiritual prostitute who wanted to sell his services. He was in possession of charisma which he used to seduce others into disobedience. He was paid for exercising his gifts without regard for the truth (Num. 22:7, Deut. 23:4-5, 2 Pet. 2:15). As Yeshua said, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24).
The tragic story of Balaam warns us to check our motives. By itself, the study of Scripture is never enough -- even if we take great pains to properly understand its meaning. Our heart attitude is definitive. God loves Israel. Our will to serve God in the truth determines our way in this life. "If anyone wills to do His will he will know of the teaching..." (John 7:17). We cannot rightfully use the Scriptures to justify our ideas about God or own pet theological doctrines. We cannot manipulate God in order to serve our own theological visions... We must humble ourselves; we must make the effort to honestly listen; and we must be willing to surrender to the truth. It is the love of the truth that brings salvation to us (2 Thess. 2:10-12), not gaining power through religious knowledge or passing ourselves off as religious authorities.
May it please the LORD to help us honestly love the truth, and to keep us far from the error of Balaam! Amen.
Parashat Balak - פרשת בלק
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Balak. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.20.10 (Tammuz 8, 5770) This week's Torah is named after an evil Moabite king (בָּלָק) who sought to curse the Jews by enlisting the assistance of an Midianite "seer" named Balaam (בִּלְעָם). According to midrash, Balaam was one of the great pagan prophets who, along with Jethro and Job, were descendants of Abraham's brother Nachor. King Balak's plan was to use spiritual powers (i.e., kishuf: כִּשּׁוּף - the occult and magic) to war against Israel before they reached the Promised Land. Of course Balak's scheme was upended, and the curse he sought to put on the Jewish people was repeatedly pronounced as a blessing by Balaam instead. An exasperated Balak finally dismissed the prophet from his service, but before departing from the forlorn king, Balaam ironically prophesied the destruction of the Moabites and the victory of God's people....
As this story from the Torah shows, any curse intended for God's people will ultimately fall upon the one who utters it (Gen. 12:1-3). "Like a wandering sparrow, like a flying swallow, a curse 'out of favor' (חִנָּם) will not come" (Prov. 26:2). This is because the LORD God of Israel is in complete control of all things: אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדּו / ein od milvado: "there is no power apart from Him" (Deut. 4:35,9; 1 Kings 8:60). There is no realm - either in the physical world or in the spiritual - in which God does not reign as Lord and King. "All authority (πᾶσα ἐξουσία) in heaven and on earth is given to me" (Matt. 28:18). Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess this truth - and that includes the realm of the demonic (Col. 2:15). Indeed, Yeshua is called elyon lemalkhei-aretz (עֶלְיוֹן לְמַלְכֵי־אָרֶץ) - the "Ruler of the princes of the earth" (Rev. 1:5). Those who attempt to exercise authority in this world will answer to Him.
According to Maimonides, Balaam's prophecy concerned acharit hayamim (the end of days) and "two anointed ones" of Israel, namely, King David and the Mashiach:
In the story of Balaam is it spoken of, and there it is prophesied on the two "anointed ones": the first Mashiach, which is David, who saved Israel from its enemies; and the last Mashiach, who shall be of his descendants, who will save Israel in the end. There he says: "I see him, but not now"-- this is David; "I behold him, but he is not near"-- this is the King Mashiach; "There shall shoot forth a star out of Jacob"-- this is David; "And a scepter shall rise out of Israel"-- this is the King Mashiach; "And shall smite the corners of Moab"-- this is David, as it is written (II Samuel 8:2), "And he smote Moab, and he measured them with a line"; "And rule over all the children of Seth"-- this is the King Mashiach, as it is written (Zachariah 9:10), "And his dominion shall be from sea to sea"... (Mishneh Torah)
The period of time immediately before the "last" Messiah's arrival is sometimes called ikvot meshicha (עִקְּבוֹת מְשִׁיחַ), the time when the "footsteps of the Messiah" can be heard. This is the time appointed by God for the final Messianic redemption and the close of the present age (olam ha-zeh). For Christians, this refers to the Second Coming of Jesus to judge the nations and establish His kingdom in Jerusalem...
According to traditional Jewish sources (Pesachim 54b; Midrash Tehilim 9:2), no one knows the time when the Messiah will appear -- though there are some hints. God created the world in six days, each of which represents a thousand years. The seventh day is the start of the great Messianic Sabbath Rest, and therefore this age cannot last beyond 6,000 years. According to the traditional Jewish calendar we are living in the year 5769 which means it is "Erev Shabbat" of the world. We are drawing close, in other words, to the prophesied End of Days and the appearance of Yeshua our Messiah!
According to the sages, then, by the year 6,000 the Messiah has to arrive, though he could come earlier. This accords with the teachings of Jesus and His apostolic witnesses (Matt. 24:36-44; 1 Thess 5:1-3; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 3:3). The condition of the world during acharit hayamim (the end of days) will be grossly evil (2 Pet. 3:3; 2 Thess. 2:3-4, 2 Tim. 3:1-5). The world will undergo various forms of tribulation, called chevlei Mashiach - the "birth pangs of the Messiah" (Sanhedrin 98a; Ketubot, Bereshit Rabbah 42:4, Matt. 24:8). Sometimes the birth pangs are said to last for 70 years, with the last 7 years as the most intense period of tribulation -- the "Time of Jacob's Trouble" / עֵת־צָרָה הִיא לְיַעֲקב (Jer. 30:7). The first wave of trouble came from Edom (i.e., "Rome/Europe") in the form of the Holocaust; the second is coming from Ishamel (i.e., the Arab states) in the form of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This accords with the teachings of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25).
Some of the "signs" of this period include the rise of various false prophets, numerous wars and "rumors of wars" (including the rise of Magog [Iran]), famines, earthquakes, worldwide apostasy from the faith, persecution, and a globalized sort of godlessness that is revealed in unbridled selfishness, greed, chutzpah (audacity), shamelessness, and a general lack of hakarat ha-tov (gratitude). The greatest sign, however, will be that Israel will exist once again as a sovereign nation, despite the prophesied exile among the nations (Deut. 4:27-31; Jer. 30:1-3). According to some of the sages, the 9th century work Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer foretells that just before the coming of Messiah, "Ishmael" will rise in power to terrorize the world. According to Yalkut Shimoni, the king of Persia (Iran) is going to "have a weapon that is going to terrorize the world." A coming "Messiah of evil" (code name Armilus) will soon appear on the world stage to offer a peace treaty for Israel and the Middle East, "but when they shall say, "peace and safety" (confirmed covenant) then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman (time of Jacob's Trouble), and they will not escape (1 Thess. 5:3). This is the significance of the extraordinary cataclysmic world events which we are witnessing this very day....
Ultimately the Great Tribulation period is redemptive and healing (called yissurei ahavah, "the troubles of love"). The prophets wrote that Zion will go through labor and then give birth to children (Isa. 66:8). Thus the Vilna Gaon wrote that the geulah (גְּאֻלָּה, national redemption) is something like rebirth of the nation of Israel. This accords with the prophetic fulfillment of Yom Kippur as the Day of Judgment and time of Israel's national conversion. In the verse from prophet Jeremiah regarding the "Time of Jacob's Trouble," it's vital to see the goal in mind - "yet out of it he is saved" (וּמִמֶּנָּה יִוָּשֵׁעַ). The sages note that childbirth is a time of radical transition and struggle for the baby -- from the time of relatively peaceful existence within the womb into the harsh light of day -- and therefore a similar transition between this world and the Messianic world to come is about to take place....
"For though the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end -- it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay" (Habakkuk 2:3). Despite the temporary presence of the powers of darkness, we know that the LORD God Almighty reigns, and therefore we need not be subject to fear, neither of men nor of demonic malice. The Son of God has authority over all evil, and therefore we can rest assured that nothing can separate us from His love and providential care for our souls. As the Apostle John wrote, ein pachad ba'ahavah: אין פַּחַד בָּאַהֲבָה / "there is no fear in love" (1 John 4:18).
יִמְלךְ לְעלָם וָעֶד
Adonai · me·lekh,
Adonai · ma·lakh,
Adonai · yim·lokh · le·o·lam · va·ed
"The LORD reigns;
the LORD has always reigned;
the LORD will reign forever."
As a testimony of faith that "there is no power apart from God," Jewish tradition later incorporated the blessing that Balaam was constrained to confess over Israel into the famous Mah Tovu benediction.
וֵאלהֵי הַשָּׁלוֹם יְדַכֵּא אֶת־הַשָּׂטָן כּה מַהֵר תַּחַת רַגְלֵיכֶם
ve·lo·hei ha-sha·lom ye·da·kei et ha-sa·tan ko ma·heir ta·chat rag·le·chem
ὁ δὲ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης συντρίψει τὸν σατανᾶν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας ὑμῶν ἐν τάχει
"And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" (Rom. 16:20)
Surely we can look to the LORD God of Israel, may His Name be blessed, to reveal the fulfillment of the redemption soon! Maran ata Yeshua!
Think on these things...
[ Lately I've been struggling with some anxiety and despair over the affairs of this world, so I thought it would be good to remind myself of the need to keep faith and believe in the goodness of God, despite outward appearances... The LORD God of Israel reigns, and nothing can thwart the power of His love and salvation for those of us who are trusting in Him... "The arm of the LORD (יַד־יהוה) is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor is hear ear heavy, that it cannot hear" (Isa. 59:1). Adonai melekh, Adonai malakh, Adonai yimlokh leolam va'ed. ]
06.18.10 (Tammuz 6, 5770) It's been said that "the optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist believes the optimist is right…" Note that both the optimist and the pessimist are believers -- but each is responsible for his own vision. We see what we want to see. As Yeshua said, "According to your faith, be it done unto you" (Matt. 8:13, 9:29).
Kierkegaard tells the story of two young portrait artists who both sought to capture the essence of beauty in their paintings. One artist looked high and low for the "perfect face of beauty" but never found it. Tragically, he later gave up painting and lived in despair. The other artist, however, simply painted every face he saw and found beauty in each one. Now here's your question: Which of the two was the sincere artist?
The way we choose to see is ultimately a spiritual decision. The sages say, "Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. Those who have a good eye (עַיִן טוֹבָה), a humble spirit (רוּחַ נְמוּכָה), and a lowly soul (נֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה) are the disciples of our forefather Abraham; [but] those who have an evil eye (עַיִן רָעָה), an arrogant spirit (רוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה), and an greedy soul (נֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה) are the disciples of Balaam the wicked" (Mishnah: Pirke Avot 5:22).
Rashi says that one with a good eye (עַיִן טוֹבָה) esteems another's honor as his own: It's an eye that respects and values what it sees. The Rambam says that the good eye is the ability of being satisfied with one's lot in life and being happy over the successes of others: It's an eye of acceptance, free from a spirit of envy or greed. Other sages have said that the good eye indicates a generous spirit toward others: It's an outwardly directed eye that shines forth comfort and care to those in need.
A person with a "good eye" looks at things from the perspective of love. Ayin hatovah looks at circumstances -- and especially at other people -- and finds something beautiful.... There is no trace of competition, no envy, no malice in the good eye; there is no harboring of resentment or bitterness. A person with ayin tovah does not speak ill of others nor inwardly wish them any harm. The good eye overlooks the defects of others and sees the virtue and value of the person created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). The Scriptures make this promise:
טוֹב־עַיִן הוּא יְברָךְ
tov-ayin hu ye·vo·rakh
"The one with a good eye will be blessed" (Prov. 22:9)
Download Study Card
The Apostle Paul wrote that developing a "good eye" comes from how we choose to think about things: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true (ἀληθής/אֲמִתִּי), whatever is reverent (σεμνός/נִכְבָּד), whatever is just (δίκαιος/צַדִּיק), whatever is pure (ἁγνός /טָהוֹר), whatever is lovely (προσφιλής/נָעִים), whatever is commendable (εὔφημος/טוּב), if there is any virtue (ἀρετή/מִדָּה טוֹבָה), if there is anything praiseworthy (ἔπαινος/שֶׁבַח), think about these things (ταῦτα λογίζεσθε)" (Phil. 4:8). Paul wrote this to believers living under the cruel and intolerant rule of ancient Rome. Despite the political and economic conditions of that time, he told followers of the Messiah to love the truth, to excerise a reverent attitude toward life (i.e., humility), to be passionate for justice, to practice of purity of heart (including avoiding the cynical), to love goodness and moral excellence, and to focus on the praiseworthy. Joy in our hearts (שָׂמַח) would reveal the inward light shining within us, resulting in a pleasant demeanor (סֶבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת).
The Scriptures affirm that for those who love God "all things work together for good" - gam zu l'tovah - even if the present hour seems chaotic and even dangerous. Ultimately, exercising ayin tovah is to practice an outlook of faith, hope, and love. It is the Kingdom of God Perspective... יהוה מֶלְךְ, יהוה מָלָךְ, יהוה יִמְלךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֵד / Adonai Melekh (the LORD reigns); Adonai Malakh (the LORD has always reigned); Adonai Yimlokh l'olam v'ed (the LORD will reign forever and ever). Amen.
The Gospel of the Red Cow
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Chukat. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.15.10 (Tammuz 3, 5770) The Scriptures are filled with various imperatives of one kind or another. The Hebrew word mitzvah (מִצְוָה) generally means "divine commandment" (mitzvot is the plural form). The various mitzvot found in the Torah may be further divided into the subcategories of chukkim u'mishpatim (Deut. 4:5):
- Chukkim (חֻקִּים) are statutes given without a reason (i.e., fiats, edicts or divine decrees). As such they are sometimes called "supra-rational" decrees. The classic example is the chok (decree) regarding the Red Heifer, which, legend has it, defied even the wisdom of King Solomon. Other examples include dietary law (kashrut), the prohibition of mixing seeds or fabrics (kilayim), or the laws concerning family purity (niddah). These laws can seem irrational to human reason.
- Mishpatim (מִשְׁפָּטִים) are laws given for a clearly specified reason (i.e., logical laws). An example would be the commandment to give charity or the prohibitions against theft and murder. These mitzvot are inherently rational and appeal to the need for ethical unity (civil and moral life) within the community.
Note: eidot (עֵדוֹת) are testimonials (from the root 'ed, "witness") that commemorate or represent something -- e.g., the commandments to observe Shabbat and the holidays, to wear tzitzit, eat matzah on Passover, blow a shofar, etc. Since they commemorate or symbolically represent something, the eidot occupy a sort of "middle ground" between the rationally understandable mishpatim and the supra-rational chukkim.
It is worth noting here that many of the sages believe that each of the 613 commandments given in the Torah should be regarded as if it were a decree given without a reason (i.e., chok). Using Torah jargon, all "mishpatim" may be reduced to "chukkim." In other words, the rational acceptance of "religion" is ultimately not enough to touch the heart of faith. Someone who thinks it is "reasonable" to obey some commandment might later change their mind if their passions lead them to suddenly regard it as irrational. On the contrary, we should do every mitzvah not because it appeals to our reasoning or our liking, but simply because the LORD asks us to do it, and this demonstrates our love for Him. The classic example in this connection is the Akedah (עֲקֵדָה, "binding"), when Abraham offered up his "only begotten son" Isaac upon the altar as a burnt sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-14). Abraham surely understood all the "commandments, decrees, and laws" of God (Gen. 26:5), but his faith led him to surrender his reasoning in complete devotion to the LORD. As Kierkegaard points out, Abraham's "Fear and Trembling" represents the antithesis between faith and reason...
Similarly, the nation of Israel is praised for unconditionally accepting the Torah before understanding what was required of them. כּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יהוה נַעֲשֶׂה / kol asher diber Adonai na'aseh: "All that the LORD has spoken, we shall do" (Exod. 19:8). Indeed, even after Moses had explained the extent of the Torah's demands, all Israel said kol asher diber Adonai na'aseh v'nishma: "All that the LORD says we will do and obey" (Exod. 24:7). This is not a form of irrationalism since the heart of the faith unquestioningly says "yes" to the LORD like a child who trusts his father... "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding" (Prov. 3:5).
In this Torah portion, the Jewish people are called an edah (עֵדָה), a "community" of God (Num. 20:1). This word comes from the noun עֵד, which means "witness." The midrash compares the red heifer (i.e., parah adumah: פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה) to the Jewish nation. How so? Just as the commandment of the red heifer makes no rational sense, so does the continued survival of the Jewish people despite thousands of years of persecution. The existence of Israel is a miracle and a testimony of the faithfulness of God. In that regard, the nation of Israel exists simply by the decree (chok) of the LORD. Israel exists today because God wills it to be so, and that settles the matter.... The affirmation, Am Yisrael Chai ("the people of Israel live") attests to the faithful love of God.
I mention the distinction between mishpatim and chukkim because our Torah portion this week begins with the words, zot chukat ha-Torah (זאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה), i.e., "This is the decree of the Torah" (Num. 19:2). The context of this statement concerns the red heifer and the law of purification, so why doesn't the Torah say, for example, "This is the decree of the purification process" (i.e., זאת חֻקַּת הַטָּהֲרָה), or perhaps, "This is the decree of the red heifer" (i.e., זאת חֻקַּת פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה)? This is an intriguing question, since the plain sense of the phrase, "THIS is the decree of the Torah," appears to make the ritual surrounding the red heifer "the seminal decree" of the entire Torah.... Indeed, this phrase is used only two times in the Torah (Num. 19:2, 31:21), both of which concern ritual purification. Is there a link, then, between the decree concerning the purification from death and the entire meaning of the Torah? Is understanding the red heifer the "gateway" to the Torah? Does the Torah imply here that purification from the contamination caused by death constitutes the essence of all the commandments?
First notice that the Torah discusses the halachot (laws) of preparing the red heifer before indicating its purpose. It is only later on in the section that the issues of impurity (i.e., tumah: טֻמְאָה) and purity (i.e., tahora: טָהֳרָה) are connected with the red heifer ritual. Here we learn that the sacrifice of the red heifer was meant to create the "waters of separation" (i.e., mei niddah: מֵי נִדָּה) for the community. The sages state in this regard: "God created the cure before the plague," meaning that His love is the foundation of all things: עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה / Olam chesed yibaneh: "steadfast love built the world" (Psalm 89:2). Just as God created mankind only after He created the pathway of repentance (i.e., the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world": Eph. 1:4, Heb. 4:4, Rev 13:8), so the purification from death was likewise foreseen and provided. The "waters of separation" ultimately refer to our purification (i.e., identification) with the death of Yeshua (Rom. 6:3, 1 Cor. 10:13; Gal. 3:27).
As for this preeminent ritual of the Torah, the red heifer had to be a perfect specimen that was completely red, "without blemish, in which there is no defect." It was not to be a calf, since the heifer must be at least three years old (i.e., an adult). The rabbis interpreted "without blemish" as referring to the color, that is, without having so much as a single white or black hair. This is the only sacrifice in the Torah where the color of the animal is explicitly required. Moreover, the red heifer was never to have had a yoke upon it, meaning that it must never have been used for any profane purposes.
Unlike all other sacrifices offered at the mizbeach (altar at the Mishkan), the red heifer was taken outside the camp and there slaughtered before the priest, who then took some of its blood and sprinkled it seven times before the Tabernacle (thereby designating it as a purification offering). During the Second Temple period, the High Priest performed this ceremony facing the Holy of Holies while atop the Mount of Olives. Then the red heifer would be burned in its entirety: its hide, flesh, blood, and even dung were to be burned (unlike other Levitical sacrifices). Unlike other offerings, all the blood of the sacrifice was to be burned in the fire. This is extremely noteworthy, since blood was otherwise required to be poured beside the altar before being offered....
Hyssop, scarlet yarn, and a cedar stick would then be thrown upon the burning red heifer, the same items used to cleanse from sin or tzara'at (skin disease). In other words, the blood was assimilated into the ashes of the sacrifice, which were then gathered and mixed with water to create the "waters of separation" (i.e., mei niddah: מֵי נִדָּה) for the Israelite community. Note that the word "separation" (niddah) refers to menstrual impurity and harkens to Zechariah 13:1: "On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and from niddah."
Anyone (or anything) that came into contact with a corpse (the embodiment of sin and death) was required to be purified using the mei niddah. The purification procedure took seven days, using stalks of hyssop dipped into the water and shaken over the unclean person on the third day and then again on the seventh day. After the second sprinkling, the person undergoing the purification process would be immersed in a mikvah and remain in a state of impurity until the following evening.
The paradox of the red heifer sacrifice suggests profound truth about the sacrificial death of Yeshua our Savior. The kohen (priest) who sprinkled the ashes of the red heifer became tamei (unclean) himself, even though the defiled person became tahor (pure). The picture of the priest here is one of sacrificial love - the giving up of one's own spiritual purity so that another person can regain his purity... As David said, "Sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be clean" (Psalm 51:7). Just so, Yeshua willingly became unclean on our behalf - through our contact with sin and death - so that we could become clean (Isa. 53:4, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:3, Eph. 5:2, Titus 2:14). Because of Yeshua, the impure become pure, even though He became impure through His offering. Because of Him, we have been cleansed from our sins "by a better sprinkling" than that which the Tabernacle of Moses could afford (Matt. 26:28, Heb. 9:14, 12:24, Eph. 1:7, 1 Pet. 1:2,18-19, Rom. 5:9; Col. 1:14, 1 John 1:7, etc.).
The "fall" of man implies that we have contact with death - both inwardly and outwardly. The sacrifice of Yeshua as our "Red Heifer" cleanses us from all tumah and lovingly makes us clean before the Father. The "water and the blood" is part of the "olah sacrifice" of Yeshua for our redemption and purification before God at Moriah (John 19:34, 1 John 5:6). The water and blood flowing from His wounds are the means by which we are purified from sin and death... All this comes from the love (chesed) of God given in our Messiah and Savior.
By God's supervenient decree, the Torah portion about the red heifer is read every year in the synagogue before Passover (Shabbat Parah). The early sages chose this reading for this time of the year because Jews were required to purify themselves before coming to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Passover, though the connection between the sacrifice of the Lamb of God and the purification from death should be clear.
Shalom for now, chaverim.
Personal Update: Our son Judah is still running a fever and has a bad rash. We appreciate your prayers for him. Also, I've been experiencing eye problems and this entry took me a couple days to write. Thank you for your prayers for this work, friends.
Parashat Chukat - פרשת חקת
[ This week's Torah (Chukat) includes three amazing pictures of the coming of the Messiah of Israel: 1) the mysterious Red Heifer sacrifice, 2) the Striking of the Rock at Meribah, and 3) the image of the Bronze Serpent on a pole. It is certainly one of the most fruitful portions of Torah to share with your Jewish friends... Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.13.10 (Tammuz 1, 5770) Among other things, this week's Torah portion (Chukat) includes the unusual ritual law of the Red Heifer (parah adumah) whose ashes purify those contaminated by contact with death. This ritual is considered chok (חק) within the Jewish tradition, meaning that it makes no rational sense. The Talmud states that of all the taryag mitzvot (613 commandments) in the Torah, this is the only one that wise King Solomon could not fathom, causing him to exclaim: "I said I would be wise, but it is far from me" (אָמַרְתִּי אֶחְכָּמָה וְהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִמֶּנִּ, Eccl. 7:23). However, as you will see, the symbolism of the parah adumah is a clear foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the Messiah that delivers us the power of death.
Note: My 14 month old son Judah is still quite ill with a fever. Please keep him in your prayers, chaverim. Thank you so much...
The Madness of Korach...
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Korach. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.11.10 (Sivan 29, 5770) Our Torah portion this week begins with the words, "And Korach took..." וַיִּקַּח קרַח / (Num. 16:1). The sages note that this verse does not say exactly what it was that Korach took. The Hebrew simply reads, Va'yikach Korach... "And Korach [the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi] took..." Different commentators offer different explanations for the Hebrew grammar of this verse. For instance, Rashi states that Korach took himself to a "different side"; Ramban says that he took an evil "eytzah" (counsel) into his heart; Ibn Ezra states he took "other people"; and Sforno states that he took the 250 princes of Israel to confront Moses. The Targum Jerusalem and the Onkelos both read, "And Korach took counsel and made division..." As the story of Korach's rebellion unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Korach primarily "took to himself" a sense of entitlement and a lust for power that ultimately led to utter spiritual blindness and self destruction.
Korach was the cousin of Moses and a well-respected Levite who was honored to be one of the carriers of the Holy Ark. He was renowned as a wealthy man of influence - a nassi (prince) of the people. However, despite all this privilege, Korach wanted more. In fact, Korach rationalized that since Moses was given leadership of the people, the office of the High Priest should be given to him - not to Moses' brother Aaron (Num. 16:10). To better understand the tensions running within this most influential family of ancient Israel, consider this condensed genealogy of Levi (from Exodus 6) that shows the relationship between Moses, Aaron and Korach:
Korach believed that as a firstborn son (bechor) of Kohath, he had as much "right" as Moses to obtain honor and power in the newly formed nation of Israel. He therefore questioned Moses' appointment of Aaron as the High Priest of Israel and thought that this office should be given to him instead. After all, Korach had offered sacrifice for the tribe of Levi before the Sin of the Golden Calf, and in relation to their family tree, the choice of the firstborn of Levi ultimately came down to a decision between Aaron and Korach. When Moses appointed Aaron as High Priest, Korach felt slighted. His resentment caused him to seek counsel with Dathan (דָּתָן) and Abiram (אֲבִירָם), two agitators from the tribe of Rueben (Israel's firstborn son) that had a long history of hostility toward Moses.
According to Jewish tradition, Dathan and Abiram were a constant source of trouble to Moses, even from the beginning. Dathan was said to be the man whom Moses saved from the brutality of the Egyptian taskmaster (Exod. 2:11-14). Instead of expressing gratitude to Moses, however, Dathan immediately reported him to Pharaoh and further disclosed that Moses was a "closet" Hebrew -- not an Egyptian at all (Yalkut Shemoni). This of course caused Moses to flee from Egypt and postponed the Exodus for nearly 50 years...
When the chariots of Pharaoh were closing in on Israel at the Red Sea, we read, "And they said to Moses, 'Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us into the wilderness to die? Why did you bring us out of Egypt?'" (Exod. 14:11). The midrash says that the unnamed "they" in this verse were none other than Dathan and Abiram. Later, when the LORD gave manna to feed the people, Moses instructed not to leave any left over for the following day. "But they did not listen to Moses and the men left over some of it for the next morning and it became infested with worms (Exod. 16:20). Rashi identifies these men as Dathan and Abiram. Likewise, when the spies returned with their evil report about the Promised Land, we read, "And a man said to his fellow, 'Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt" (Num. 14:4). This "man and his fellow" were also said to be Dathan and Abiram (Shemot Rabbah).
Indeed, Dathan and Abiram's staunch opposition to Moses was long standing, and Korach plied on their sentiments. We note the great humility of Moses, then, when he reached out to these men after they joined the forces of rebellious Korach. First he "sent for" them, though he was rebuffed (Num. 16:12); then Moses delayed God's judgment, giving them opportunity to repent (Num. 16:5,16); and finally Moses "rose up and went to them" to make a personal appeal (Num. 16:25). Notice that Dathan and Abiram repudiated Moses by saying, "Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?" (Num. 16:13; cp. Exod. 2:14). Note that for these men, Egypt was a "land flowing with milk and honey" and Moses took them out of there to kill them in the desert! For the wicked, nothing seems as fine as the debauchery and fleshpots of Egypt...
The Chofetz Chaim notes that Moses' actions demonstrate that every person is obligated to avoid disputes, even if he might otherwise be justified. Everything should be done l'shem shamayim - "for the sake of heaven," and anger is often a symptom that other motives are involved in a dispute. As Abraham Heschel said, "In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves." Likewise, Maimonides likened those who become angry as "idol worshippers," since the exaltation of the will is made absolute (Hilchot Deot). This concept was enshrined in the Mishnah: "Any machloket (argument) which is for the sake of Heaven (l'shamayim) will stand; and any machloket which is not for the sake of Heaven will not stand" (Pirkei Avot 5:17). For the sages, a dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel was for the sake of heaven, whereas that of Korach and his co-conspirators was clearly not. The difference had to do with the aim or end of the dispute ("for the sake of"). In the case of the various Shammai/Hillel disputes, the goal was to discern the will of God, and when a dispute was settled, everyone agreed to follow the ascertained course with civility. In the case of Korach and his followers, however, each person contended for his own honor and power.
The claim that the true "land of milk and honey" was in Egypt, rather than in the land promised to the patriarchs of Israel, radically questioned Moses' entire mission and ministry. Korach's alliance with the Dathan and Abiram essentially constituted a reversion to the life of Egypt, where the role of the firstborn son was regarded as the chieftain of the clan. Moses' Torah did away with the old order of primogeniture by making the Levites as God's chosen ministers. Korach called for a return to the "old order" where he and his co-conspirators enjoyed a measure of worldly prominence. His rallying cry of "power to the people" was therefore disingenuous and based on duplicity.
Perhaps the inner motive of Korach was one of jealousy or envy. Despite all his privileges, Korach refused to be at peace with his cousins' blessings. His envy led him to be a "taker" rather than a giver (i.e., "Korach took..."). And like most other instigators that lust for power over others, Korach (influenced by Dathan and Abiram) made his appeal to the crowd. He waged a campaign that spread like an infection throughout the people of Israel. By winning the favor of the crowd he acquired a false sense of strength, of rightness, and of authority... Within the clamor of the crowd, Korach disguised his envy and ambition by claiming that he was motivated by a sense of "democracy" and equal rights for all... He then made his pitch to the other princes of Israel, pretending to be a "man for the people" who only wanted "power to the people" (Bamidbar Rabbah 18). After securing the political alliance of 250 men of influence (who undoubtedly hedged their bets in the political showdown to come), Korach was emboldened to confront Moses with these words: "All the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD's congregation?" (Num. 16:3).
I mentioned the other day that the outworking of humanity's spiritual history is essentially a conflict between good and evil. Yeshua referred to it (among other things) as a conflict between the Kingdom of God (מַלְכוּת אֱלהִים) and the kingdom of Satan (John 8:34-6). The Apostles likewise spoke of "children of darkness" and "children of light" (Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13, 1 Thess. 5:5, etc.). Politically speaking, St. Augustine described the cosmic conflict as one between the "City of Man" and the "City of God." World politics nearly always involves some form of violence against those who belong to God (Matt. 11:12). Korach "took" in order to gain, whereas Moses gave in order serve. Moses and Korach, though closely related by family genealogy, reveal their differences in their spiritual identities. Discontent always leads to the "graves of craving," as the story of Korach and his rebellion further attests.
The Malbim writes (HaTorah v'HaMitzvah) that each man in Korach's assembly opposed each other. Korach wanted the role of the High Priest; Dathan and Abiram rejected the role of the Levites and wanted the Sanctuary to belong to the tribe of Rueben; and the 250 princes wanted the priesthood to belong to the nobility of Israel (in the name of "the people," of course). The sages therefore called this the "dispute of Korach and all his assembly" since each person only had himself in mind, opposing others in the rebellion. Hence we see Moses appealing to God not to hear his adversaries' prayers (Num. 16:15). There is hidden consolation in all this: Satan's hierarchy is one marked by infighting and confusion. Political power is exercised ultimately by threat of force or murder. We can rightfully pray that God will bring to confusion and disunity the schemes of the wicked (Psalm 2:2-5; 35:4, 70:3; 109:29; etc.). "No machloket that is not for the sake of Heaven will stand." No weapon formed against God's true servants will prosper, and no curse directed against them will prevail (Prov. 26:2).
Korach's reactionary propaganda campaign nearly succeeded, as the people were ready to stone Moses (Bamidbar Rabbah, Targum Yonatan), though in the end, Korach and his army were swallowed into the depths of the earth. After the "showdown of the fire pans," Moses and Aaron were instructed to "separate themselves" from the entire congregation of Israel because God was going to destroy them in an instant. "But they fell on their faces and said, "O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh (אֵל אֱלהֵי הָרוּחת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר), shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?" (Num. 16:22). The LORD then told them to instruct all the people to get away from the tents of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram. Moses then went before the tents of his rivals Dathan and Abiram and affirmed that the LORD has chosen him to lead Israel. He then pronounced the LORD's judgment and the earth swallowed them up alive.
According to Jewish legend, the "mouth of the pit" that swallowed Korach and his followers was one of the ten things God made just before the first Shabbat of creation (Pirke Avot 5:8). (The other nine were the Well of Miriam; the mouth of Balaam's donkey; the rainbow; the manna; the staff of Aaron; the shamir worm (used to inscribe the names of the tribes on the gemstones of the High Priest's breastplate); the Hebrew script; the inscription on the Tablets; and the Tablets themselves.)
The sages state that the rebels were punished by the "mouth of the earth" because they sinned with their mouths, speaking lashon hara (לָשׁוֹן הָרָה) by disparaging Moses and Aaron. And just as Korach sought to "eat up the world" for his own purposes, so the earth itself swallowed up his carnal illusions. This is called middah keneged middah justice - "measure for measure" (John 4:37; Gal. 6:7). Because Korach and his followers wanted to elevate themselves, they were brought down into the depths of the earth (Prov. 16:18; Luke 18:14). This is an image of Hell (שְׁאוֹל) in the Torah, where the conspirators are thrown alive into a pit. But note that this principle works the other way around, too. Though the "fire from LORD" went forth and consumed the 250 men who offered incense, the fire that kindled the incense of Aaron's firepot was used to be the means by which the LORD stopped the plague. This was meant to show that it was not the incense itself that killed, but the sin of arrogantly offering "strange fire" before the Sanctuary. Fire offered falsely will be answered by the fire of God's judgment. The world offers its version of God's real "milk and honey," and Korach and the other rebels recalled its savor. Clinging to past pleasures is a symptom of bondage, similar to eating the "food of the White Witch" that poisoned Edmund in C.S. Lewis' story the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The name Korach (קרַח) means "bald" (קֵרֵח) or "ice" (קֶרַח), both of which imply a lack of fertility or growth. Just as hair does not grow on a bald head or vegetation from ice, so Korach represents self-centeredness and lack of growth.... Some of the sages note that his name suggests the "taking" (קח) of evil (רע), that is, the madness governed by an entirely self-centered existence.
Korach is surely a mysterious madman, similar in some ways to the enigmatic false prophet Balaam who sought "high places" to curse Israel... How else could a prince of the most distinguished family of Israel rebel against against someone of the stature of Moses? Weren't all the Israelites direct eyewitnesses of the miracles of the Exodus? Korach himself surely knew of Moses' encounters with Pharaoh and the miracles of the ten plagues. He saw the waters turn to blood; he trembled as he saw the thunder and hail; he marveled over the three days of darkness that came upon Egypt, etc. And he smeared the blood of the lamb on the lintel and witnessed the death of the firstborn of Egypt. Indeed, Korach willingly followed Moses as the Israelites finally left Egypt after hundreds of years of cruel bondage... He beheld the Pillar of Fire and watched as Moses split the sea with his staff; he ate from the heavenly manna and drank from the water that sprang from the rock. Later he witnessed Moses ascend into the midst of the cloud at Sinai to receive the Torah. How could he have seriously doubted that Moses was directly commissioned by God to be Israel's leader?
Korach's madness was centered on his attitude of entitlement, or "taking." This is implied in the first verse of the Torah portion and is hinted at by his name. His envy literally blinded him to the evidence he had seen with his own eyes. Korach therefore constitutes an object lesson for us and demonstrates that "seeing isn't believing." We need more than "signs and wonders" to move our hearts to love and obey the LORD. There are open and hidden riches. There is a pearl of great price, a treasure "hidden in a field." These riches are regarded as "fool's gold" to those who love this world and trust only in the realm of the phenomenal...
We must first settle the issue of God's personal love for us, since that determines everything else. To accept God's love changes everything we see and experience. We believe in order to see God's love and kindness to us -- not the other way around. Korach and his followers remind us that getting this wrong leads to madness and spiritual death.
May you wholeheartedly receive the love of God for your soul this day... Amen.
Please Pray for Judah...
06.10.10 (Sivan 28, 5770) My son Judah (14 months old) is suffering from a terrible rash all over his body. He's in some pain and is very sad. We've done what we could to help alleviate his suffering (oatmeal baths, topical creams, powder, etc.), but we would deeply appreciate your prayers for him. Thank you so much....
Because things have been a bit hectic over here the last few days, I haven't added additional commentary on this week's Torah as I had hoped... I did manage to add some additional content regarding the month of Tammuz however (see entry below), and I hope you will find this helpful. Again I appeal to you to keep this ministry in your prayers. The battle has been unusually fierce lately. The LORD God of Israel knows that Hebrew for Christians could not continue without you. We sincerely appreciate all of your love and support for us. Thank you again, chaverim.
The Month of Tammuz - חדש תמוז
[ Saturday, June 12th (after sundown) is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, or the start of the fourth month of the Jewish calendar. This is the month of the sin of the Golden Calf which resulted in Moses shaterring the Ten Commandments. It is also the month when the Holy Temple was beseiged before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. According to tradition, the fourth month was renamed as "Tammuz" to remind Israel of the dangers of idolatry...]
06.09.10 (Sivan 27, 5770) On the 6th Sivan, exactly 49 days after the Exodus, the LORD revealed Himself on Mount Sinai. All of Israel (600,000 heads of households and their families) heard the LORD speak the first two of the Ten Commandments. Following this initial revelation, Moses re-ascended Sinai for 40 days to receive the remainder of the Torah. This date coincides exactly with the festival of Shavuot. Upon descending Mount Sinai and witnessing Israel's worship of the Golden Calf, however, Moses smashed the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and burned the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:19-20, Seder Olam 6, Taanit 30b, Rashi). This tragic episode corresponds with Tammuz 17, a date associated with many calamities in later Jewish history....
On the Biblical calendar, the fourth month of the year (counting from Nisan) is called Tammuz (תַּמּוּז) in the Jewish calendar. The name "Tammuz" is of Sumerian origin (as are the other names of the months in the Jewish calendar). Since Abraham was the son of a Sumerian oracle priest, it should come as no surprise that Mesopotamia (and later, Babylon) came to be regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people (Gen. 11:28). The Torah states that until Abraham arrived in Canaan, the ancestors of Israel "served other gods" (Josh. 24:2), and these "gods" were part of ancient Near East mythology that derived from ancient Babel in the land of Shinar (Gen. 10:10). Hence we see Rachel stealing her father's idols (i.e., "teraphim," תְּרָפִים) before fleeing Haran (Gen. 31:19), and we see Jacob later commanding his family to "put away the foreign gods among you" (Gen. 35:2). It's clear, then, that the influence of this ancient religious system extended long before the captivity of the Jews under Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BC, though certainly the Jews adopted the idea of a "fixed" calendar based on Babylonian astronomy.
Some scholars identify Tammuz as the Sumerian sun god (Shamash or Dumuzid), the consort of Inanna (i.e., Ishtar), who was thought to be responsible for the seasonal life/death/rebirth cycle. Beginning with the summer solstice, the Sumerians marked the decline in daylight hours with a six-day "funeral" for Tammuz, and this idolatrous custom was apparently adopted by some Jews during the days of the First Temple. Therefore the prophet Ezekiel condemned the worship of Tammuz as one of the reasons for God's anger against His people (Ezek. 8:14). Ezekiel further forewarned that the Temple would be destroyed if the people refused to repent from thinking about the LORD using ancient pagan assumptions...
Tragically, the idolatry persisted despite the prophets warnings, and on Tammuz 9 the walls in Jerusalem were breached by Nebuchadnezzar's armies. Because of the siege, on Tammuz 17, the Temple service itself was disrupted due to a lack of animals required for the sacrifices. The Temple itself was destroyed three weeks later, on the Ninth of Av:
The fast of the 17th of Tammuz (Shivah Asar B'Tammuz) occurs on Tuesday, June 29th this year and marks the beginning of the "Three Weeks of Sorrow," a 21 day period of national mourning which is completed on Tishah B'Av. The Mishnah further associates the 17th of Tammuz as the "Fast of the Fourth Month," mentioned by the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 8:19). The purpose of this fast is to instill a sense of teshuvah (repentance) by recalling specific tragedies that befell the Jewish people because of idolatry.
The period between the fourth and fifth months is a somber time of reflection for many Orthodox Jews. The three weeks from Tammuz 17 to the Av 9 is called bein ha-Metzarim (בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים) - "between the straights" (based on Lamentations 1:3), a period of time during which many calamities befell the Jewish people. Since both Temples were destroyed during this period (i.e., between the 4th and 5th months), the sages established this extended period as a time of mourning for the Jewish people.
Why Babylonian Names?
The Talmud Yerushalmi states: "The names of the months came up with us from Babylon" (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). In commenting on this statement, the sages said that at first the reckoning of the months was originally a memorial to the Exodus from Egypt. In the Torah, "the first month, the second month," etc. are understood in relation to the new moon of the first month of Spring (i.e., Rosh Chodashim). However, after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy (i.e., "it will no longer be said 'as the LORD lives, who took the people of Israel out of Egypt,' rather it will be said 'as the LORD lives, who raised up and brought the people of Israel from the Northern Land' (Jer. 16:14-15), they began to call the months by the names commonly used in Babylon as a reminder of God's faithfulness. The month of Tammuz is peculiar, however, since it recalls the name of an idol that was worshipped in the Ancient Near East. The sages comment that this name was deliberately chosen to remind the Jewish people of the judgment that comes from idolatry -- beginning with the Golden Calf incident and later with the secret cult worship in "high places" (הַבָּמוֹת) that eventually led to the destruction of the Temple.
Note: Civilization before Israel
The relationship between the Jews and ancient civilization is a fascinating study. Israel, of course, is not the oldest of the nations, even though Abraham's genealogy derived from the godly line of Seth -> Noah -> Shem (see here for more). According to Jewish tradition, Shem was an elder contemporary of Abraham who was called Malki-Tzedek, the first king of Jerusalem (Gen. 14:18). His blessing upon Abraham was thought to transfer regal authority to Israel as God's people upon the earth. The other descendants of Noah migrated away from Jerusalem, and the "cradle of civilization" therefore began in the land of Shinar under Nimrod (נִמְרוֹד), who is called the first "king of the earth" (Gen. 10:10). Of Nimrod the Torah states, "the beginning of his kingdom was Babel" (וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל), the very location where the ziggurat to heaven was erected and from which the dispersion of the 70 nations occurred (Gen. 11:9).
The earliest civilization arose from ancient city states of the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Near East (Mesopotamia), extending from Sumer (in the east) to Egypt (in the south). It was in ancient Sumer that writing was first invented and the first schools were established. Abraham, the first Jew, was called out from the City of Ur (one of the city states of ancient Sumer, the easternmost "point" in the fertile crescent south of the Euphrates river) to the land of Canaan in the west. Because of a famine in the land, Abraham later "followed the crescent" south to Egypt for a season (Gen. 12:10). Joseph and the tribes of Israel later settled in Egypt before becoming enslaved by Pharaoh, and Moses himself was raised and educated as an Egyptian.... Even Yeshua lived in Egypt as a child (Matt. 2:14-15). The land of Canaan functioned as a "bridge" between the two great power centers of the ancient world (Mesopotamia and Egypt), and much of Israel's later history had to do with political entanglements between these world powers:
The whole of human history (HIS-story) is the story of the redemptive love of a personal God who is the Creator of both space and time. The nation of Israel is metaphorically called the "firstborn son" of God that was chosen to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, the "Seed of Promise" (Exod. 4:22, Gal. 3:19). The revelation given at Sinai brought together the realm of spiritual reality with the realm of the material world. The concept of performing "mitzvot" is likened to a divine-human cooperative intended to "repair the world" (tikkun olam). Whenever we truly submit to the LORD as our King, we function as agents of His instrumentality and love in the world. Ethnic Israel was intended to be a "birth channel" of something greater still, namely, the complete unity between the upper and lower realms. Yeshua is the LORD "made flesh" and is therefore the only true Redeemer of fallen creation.
After the "fall" of Adam and Eve and their eviction from Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), the LORD prophesied that a cosmic struggle for the fate of humanity would ensue. Through his machinations, Satan (represented by the serpent) had arrogated a legal or forensic "right" to humanity, who were now under divine kelalah (curse). However, the LORD promised to rescind the curse by means of the Seed - the Mashiach - who would "crush the head" of the serpent and restore mankind to blessed paradise (Gen. 3:15). The entire redemptive story of the Scriptures is about this cosmic conflict to deliver humanity from the kelalah by means of the "Seed of the woman" who would come. The ancient history of Israel was intended to "get Yeshua to Moriah" - to the place of ultimate sacrifice - where He would offer up His life for the sins of the world.... and thereby break the "spell" of the curse.
Yeshua at Moriah is the Central Point of all history. It is the Altar. Yeshua's life, sacrifice, and resurrection was like a "magic spell" that "spoke backwards" the sin of the "First Adam" - and by means of His deliverance the power of the curse was forever broken. Satan's power was forever defeated by the "Second Adam," the Son of Man (2 Tim. 1:10).
Because of Yeshua, all people - regardless of their race, gender, or ethnic origin - are invited to become part of the family of God (Rom. 16:26). Yeshua alone gives us true peace with God (Rom. 5:1; 2 Cor. 5:21, 1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:18). The authentic practice of our faith is the means of truly repairing the world and furthering the Kingdom of God on earth. The outworking of humanity's spiritual history is therefore essentially a conflict between good and evil. Yeshua referred to it (among other things) as a conflict between the Kingdom of God (מַלְכוּת אֱלהִים) and the kingdom of Satan (John 8:34-6). The Apostles likewise spoke of "children of darkness" and "children of light" (Eph. 5:8; Col. 1:13, 1 Thess. 5:5, etc.). Politically speaking, St. Augustine described the cosmic conflict as one between the "City of Man" and the "City of God." Eschatologically, there will be a day of judgment in which the truth will be manifest forever (1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 4:13). There is an "ethic" to our beliefs, chaverim. Our response to spiritual reality determines everything... Those who suppress the truth of God and deny His redemptive love are eternally liable for their decision.
Parashat Korach - פרשת קורח
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Korach. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.06.10 (Sivan 24, 5770) Last week's Torah portion (Shelach) told the tragic story about the "sin of the spies" (chet ha-meraglim) and of the divine decree that the generation of Israelites rescued from Egypt was sentenced to die while in the desert. In this week's portion (Korach), the hard truth of their condition began to sink in, and the people bemoaned their fate and rebelled further by attempting to overthrow the Lord's designated leadership and return to Egypt. This rebellion was instigated and organized by Moses' cousin Korach, who - along with co-conspirators from the tribe of Rueben - was swiftly judged and put to death, thereby vindicating the Aaronic priesthood and Moses' leadership of Israel.
Note: If it pleases God I will add some additional commentary on this portion of Torah later this week. Shalom, chaverim!
The Crowd and Its Spies...
[ The following entry concerns this week's Torah reading, parashat Shelach Lekha. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]
06.04.10 (Sivan 22, 5770) According to Numbers Rabbah (a medieval commentary on the Book of Numbers), even those Israelites who disagreed with the majority in the incident of the spies were decreed to die in the desert. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."
In most cases, the dynamic of the crowd (or mob) brings out the worst in human nature, inducing cowardly irresponsibility, appeals to selfishness, and even acts of violence. As Kierkegaard warned, "Going along with the crowd" weakens the individual's sense of responsibility by placing it in a fractional category. Personal responsibility for living out moral truth is negated by appeals to "consensus," or the "greater good" principle. Like Pontius Pilate, most people disingenuously "wash their hands" by conceding to the mob and its lies.
The crowd induces a "gang" mentality that appeals to the lowest common denominator of depraved human nature, preying on our weakness to feel "included" or to be protected. It's seduction is based on our need for security, though its "reasoning" is inherently fallacious, since it is based on emotion rather than on truth. To the politician or demagogue, the applause or hiss of the crowd are the means of bullying human passions....
Often demagogues tell part of the truth in order to win the crowd. When the ten spies returned to deliver their evil report, they did not lie per se. When they reported that the "land eats up its inhabitants" (Num. 13:32), they referred to the apparently high death rate they witnessed in the land. According to the sages (Sotah 35), the Canaanites had a custom not to bury their dead immediately, but would keep their dead in boxes and wait until a prominent person died to perform a large-scale funeral for the community (the prominent soul was thought to escort the others to heaven). When the spies witnessed so many dead being buried, they mistakenly assumed that they had all died on that day and that the land was plague-ridden and dangerous. The spies did not outright lie in this case, though they were misled because they did not have all the facts. Their lack of faith (fear) caused them to misread the situation.
In this regard, "truth" extends far beyond the realm of the objective and factual. Not everything that is not a lie (objectively speaking) is therefore the truth. Truth is not superficial but goes beyond the realm of appearance to the realm of the possible. In other words, truth and faith go hand in hand. We "see" according to our presuppositions and underlying convictions. How we see is as important as what we see... Faith sees the promise. As Yeshua said, "According to your faith, be it done unto you" (Matt. 8:13, 9:29).
Sometimes true words and actions performed in an unloving or spiteful manner are morally blameworthy. Bonhoeffer tells the story about how a teacher once humiliated one of her students by standing him up in front of the class to ask whether his father -- notoriously known as the town drunk -- had been out drinking the night before. The little boy knew the accusation was true but bravely announced "No." When the teacher mockingly asked him again, pressing him for "the truth," the boy was adamant: "NO!" Bonhoeffer's comment was that this little boy spoke more truth by his lie than if he had merely reported the "facts" to the class -- and thereby betrayed the dignity of his father... The truth is not some objective state of affairs that can be reported dispassionately. Without love as its context, such "truth" becomes a lie. Satan keeps his own books.
The way we "see" is often determined by how we hear.... The Midrash Rabbah says that the ear (אזֶן) gives life to all the organs of the body. How so? By listening (שׁמע, shema) to the Torah. This idea is repeated in the New Testament: "Faith comes from listening to the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17). The Word of God (דְּבַר־אֱלהִים) is our very life, chaverim. Listening to other voices (regardless of how seemingly well-intended) risks cutting yourself off from the Source of life itself.... Hearing and obeying are linked, and "hearing" the messages of this corrupt world (i.e., "crowd") can eventually make you into an enemy of God Himself (James 4:4). The world always speaks its message to members of its "crooked and twisted generation" (Deut. 32:5). How else do politicians gain their audiences?
Following the LORD is not based on "majority rule," much less does it have anything to do with approval from the anonymous crowd. Indeed, Yeshua was crucified because He would have nothing to do with the crowd (though He addressed himself to all). No one gets to heaven by following a crowd (or attending a church, joining a political party, etc.) but by surrendering their individual will to the reign of Yeshua. "For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live" (Deut. 32:47). Following the crowd (world) and following Yeshua are therefore entirely antithetical ways of life that will lead to collision. Guard your heart with all diligence (Prov. 4:23).
May God give us all ometz lev (courage) to stand for Him, despite the pressures of this world and its ongoing deception. Amen.
Shabbat Shalom to you all, chaverim. May you abide in the "peace of God that passes all understanding through Yeshua our Lord" (Phil. 4:7)
New Hebrew Meditation
Putting First things First
06.02.10 (Sivan 20, 5770) Having spiritual desire is a great gift from heaven, because through it we first realize what we really want and need. Our eye becomes "single" (Luke 11:34). Toward that end, I wrote a new Hebrew Meditation (First things First) to help us keep our focus on the LORD. I hope you find it encouraging, chaverim.
Note: Please keep me in your prayers, friends... I've been stressed and distracted lately and need your prayers to help me keep focused. Thank you so much.