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November 2010 Updates


Chanukah Blessing Cards


 

[ Note: Chanukah begins Wed. Dec. 1st and runs through Thurs., Dec. 9th this year. If you have never personally experienced your own Chanukah celebration, let me encourage you to purchase a Chanukah menorah and light the candles along with us this year. Step by step instructions are provided on the Chanukah pages on this site, chaverim. ]

11.30.10 (Kislev 23, 5771)  The Chanukah Blessings page includes some free "Hebrew Study Cards" you can use for your Chanukah celebrations! This year I have added a new Messianic version of the candle lighting blessing that can replace the traditional (i.e., rabbinical) version. I created downloadable cards for each of the key blessings, including the Messianic declaration that Yeshua is the Light of the World.

Chanukah Blessings:

  1. Yeshua, the Light of the World (anochi or ha'olam) - During Chanukah candle lighting ceremony, we make it a point to reaffirm the glorious truth that Yeshua is the Light of the world. Those who follow Him will have the light of life (John 8:12).
  2. Traditional Chanukah Candle Lighting Blessing (hadlakat nerot Chanukah) - This is the  traditional blessing recited before kindling the candles on your chanukiah. The custom is to light one candle on the first night of Chanukah, two candles on the second night, and so on until the eighth night when all eight candles are lit. In this way we remember the 'growth' of the miracle.
  3. Mesianic Chanukah Candle Lighting Blessing (natan lanu chaggim) - Some followers of Yeshua object to the traditional blessing and its statement that we are "commanded" to light the Chanukah candles, and therefore choose to recite an alternate blessing.
  4. The Miracle Maker Blessing - (She'asah Nissim) - This blessing recalls the miracles of the Chanukah season (note that the same blessing is recited during Purim). We recite She'asah Nissim every night for the holiday, usually just before or immediately following the kindling of the Chanukah candles.
  5. The Shehecheyanu blessing ("Who has kept us alive") - Recite this blessing for the first night of Chanukah only. The Shehecheyanu has been recited for thousands of years to mark moments of sacred time in Jewish life. It is referred to in the Talmud and other ancient Jewish literature (Berachot 54a, Pesakhim 7b, Sukkah 46a).
  6. The Closing Paragraph (Hanerot Hallelu) - This statement is recited (or sometimes sung) after the candles have been lit. It is intended to remind you of the sanctity of the occasion and to help you remember not to use the Chanukah lights for profane purposes. After it is recited, a seudat Chanukah (a special meal) is eaten, with special songs of praise and prayers.

Of course Hebrew audio clips are provided on the Chanukah blessings page as well. I hope you find the cards helpful, chaverim!  Chag Chanukah Sameach (חַג חֲנֻכָּה שָׂמֵחַ)!

 




Some Reasons Why...
Christians Should Celebrate Chanukah


 

[ The eight day celebration of Chanukah begins after sundown on Wednesday Dec. 1st (i.e., Kislev 25) and runs through Thursday, Dec. 9th this year. In the following entry, I provide a few reasons why a follower of Yeshua might choose to observe this special holiday season. Note that I wrote this in some haste, so you might discover a typo or two here. I also have been sick with a cold/flu the last few days, and that has slowed me down a bit. I wish you all a wonderful Chanukah season. Let your light shine! ]

11.30.10 (Kislev 23, 5771)  The story of Chanukah begins with the reign of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the student of the renowned pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle. In 333 BC, Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Babylonia, and promoted a lenient form of Hellenistic culture, encouraging the study of the language, customs and dress of the Greeks. After his death, however, a series of civil wars tore his empire apart which resulted in the formation of a number of states. Eventually the "Hellenistic world" settled into four stable power blocks: the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Empire in the east, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and Macedon. Many of these areas would remain under Greek control for the next 300 years, though the legacy of Hellenism continues to this very day.

Many Bible scholars say that the prophet Daniel (6th Century BC) foresaw the rise of Alexander the Great centuries beforehand in the vision of a "male goat running from the west" that had a conspicuous horn between its eyes (Dan. 8:1-12; 21-22). This goat destroyed the power of the kings of Media and Persia (symbolized by two horns on a ram, Dan. 8:20). Though the "goat" (Alexander) became exceedingly great, eventually its horn was "broken into four [kingdoms]", and out of these four horns arose a "little horn" (i.e., the Seleucid king Antiochus "Epiphanes," c. 175-163 BC) who had authority over "the glorious land" (i.e., Israel). This "little horn" (קֶרֶן מִצְּעִירָה) greatly magnified itself, cast down some of the stars (righteous souls), took away the sacrifices, and defiled the sanctuary in Jerusalem. Antiochus is perhaps most notorious for setting up an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in Temple and sacrificing a pig on the altar in the sanctuary of the Temple itself. This event is known as the "abomination of desolation" (שִׁקּוּץ מְשׁמֵם) that was decreed to occur 2,300 days into Antiochus' reign (Dan. 8:13-14). Notice, however, that Daniel's prophecy has a "dual aspect" to it, and the description of the rise of the "little horn" (in Dan. 8:9-10) suggested something far more portentous than the reign of a local tyrant.  This horn "grew exceedingly great toward the south, toward the east, and toward the glorious land. It grew great, even to the host of heaven. And some of the host and some of the stars it threw down to the ground and trampled on them." In light of other New Testament scriptures, it is clear that this "horn" refers to future world leader (sometimes called the "Antichrist") who would one day attempt to "assimilate" all of humanity into a "New World Order" (Dan. 9:26-27, 2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 13:7-9, etc.). It is likely that it was this sense of the "abomination that makes desolation" that Yeshua referred to in Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14, and it is this "abomination that makes desolation" that will be overthrown by Yeshua at the end of the Great Tribulation period (Dan. 8:23-25; Matt. 24:30; Rev. 19:11-16; 20:2, etc.).

The books of Maccabees (c. 2nd Century BC) tell us more about this "little horn" and his oppression against the Jewish people.  Antiochus installed Hellenistic Jews to the priesthood and demanded the adherence to Hellenistic cultural ideals. He established edicts that prohibited observing the weekly Sabbath and the other biblical festivals. The reading of the Torah was outlawed and all copies of it were ordered to be burned. Temple sacrifices were forbidden; circumcision was outlawed and the penalty for disobedience was death. Women who disobeyed the edict by circumcising their sons were paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall (2 Macc. 6:1-11). Many Jews fled and hid in the wilderness and caves and many died kiddush HaShem - as martyrs (see Heb. 11:36-39). Eventually Jewish resistance to this imposed Hellenization meant war. In 164 BC, in Modin, a small town about 17 miles from Jerusalem, Mattityahu (Matthias), a Hasmonean priest, and his five sons took refuge.  When Antiochus' soldiers arrived at Modim to erect an altar to Zeus and force the sacrifice of a pig, Mattityahu and his sons rose up and killed the Syrians. They then fled to the Judean wilderness and were joined by other freedom fighters. After some organizing, they soon engaged in successful guerrilla warfare against their Syrian/Greek oppressors.  The three-year campaign culminated in the cleansing and rededication of the Temple (for more on this subject, see Chanukah and Spiritual Warfare).

In addition to the prophecy of Daniel and the historical events leading up to the rededication of the Temple as described in the books of Maccabees, there is other evidence that the festival of Chanukah was a part of Jewish history and tradition before the time of Yeshua. The most important piece of evidence comes from the New Testament itself (1st Century AD), where we read that during the "feast of dedication" (i.e., Chanukah) Yeshua was "walking in the Temple in the colonnade of Solomon" (John 10:22-24). Notice that this is the only reference to the festival of Chanukah (חַג חֲנֻכָּה) that occurs in all of the Jewish Scriptures. Some additional "extra biblical" sources include the testimony of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who likewise referred to the commemoration of the Maccabees as an eight day "festival of lights" (Antiquities XII), and various midrashim that quote Hillel and Shammai (i.e., two famous sages that predated the time of Yeshua) discussing the method of kindling the lights of the Chanukah menorah. One midrash states that Chanukah was to be regarded as an acronym for Chet Nerot veHalakhah K'bet Hillel ("eight candles and the law according to the House of Hillel"), referring to Hillel's view that we should light one candle on the first night and increase the amount by one every day (Shammai, on the other hand, thought we should light eight candles on the first night and reduce one every subsequent night).  According to early Jewish tradition (preserved in Megillat Antiochus, 2nd Century AD), since the Maccabees were unable to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot at its proper time in the fall, they decided that it should be observed after the Temple was restored, which they did on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the year 164 B.C. Since Sukkot lasts eight days, this became the timeframe adopted for Chanukah.

(As an aside, I should add that the Talmud later attests that the celebration of Chanukah was a part of ancient Jewish tradition. Both the Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 1:3, Megilah 3:6, Bava Kama 6:6) and the Gemara (Shabbat 25b) refer to the holiday: "On the 25th of Kislev are the days of Chanukah, which are eight, appointed a Festival with Hallel [praise] and thanksgiving" (Gemara: Shabbat 21b, Bavli).  In general, however, the Talmud, does not discuss Chanukah that much, doubtlessly because of the later need to establish the Pharisees as the (exclusive) leaders of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple, and also because of the controversy surrounding the Hellenistic priesthood.  Therefore the Talmud's statements (recorded centuries after the Maccabean rebellion) focus on the miracle of the oil rather than on the merits of the Maccabean resistance. Later rabbinical tradition sought to find Chanukah alluded to in the text of the Torah itself. First, the 25th word of the Torah is or (אוֹר), "light," as in "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3), and this suggested Kislev 25, and second, immediately after the various festivals (moedim) of the Jewish year are enumerated in Leviticus 23, the commandment to "bring clear oil from hand-crushed olives to keep the menorah burning constantly" is given (Lev. 24:1-2), and this was claimed to foretell the miracle of Chanukah.)

Years after the Maccabean revolt, Yeshua celebrated Chanukah in the same Temple that had been cleansed and rededicated only a few generations earlier (John 10:22). It was here that many asked if He were the coming Messiah - harkening back to the liberation of the earlier Maccabees: "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" (John 10:24).


 

Recall that during the Second Temple period, there were four primary "sects" or "denominations" of Jews living in the land of Israel. The Saduccees (i.e., צַדּוּקִים, "righteous ones," from Tzadok the priest) were Hellenistic Jews who controlled the Temple; the Pharisees (i.e., פְּרוּשִׁים, "interpreters") were Torah scholars who sought to teach the common people how to live the Jewish life; the Essenes (i.e., אִסִּיִים, perhaps from oseh hatorah: עוֹשֵׂה הַתּוֹרָה, "doing Torah") were mystical ascetics who repudiated the Hellenized priesthood (i.e., Sadducees) and moved to the Judean desert (near the Dead Sea) to await the apocalypse; and the Zealots (i.e., הַקְנָאִים, "ardent ones"), who were political agitators that sought to incite the Jews to rebel against Roman rule by force of arms, if necessary. It is likely that Chanukah was a favorite holiday of the Zealots, and it was on account of their mistaken conception of the Kingdom of God that eventually led the Jewish-Roman wars and the destruction of the Second Temple, as prophesied by Yeshua (Matt. 24:1-2).

It is perhaps easy to overlook the Messianic expectation connected with a festival that celebrated the "rededicating the Temple," but clearly there were many zealous Jews who were "in suspense" regarding the arrival of the greater son of David (Mashiach ben David). After all, this was the great Zionist ideal repeatedly envisioned by the Hebrew prophets.  One day God would send the Messiah to destroy Israel's enemies and establish His Kingdom (i.e., Temple) upon the earth. Israel would be exalted above the oppressive nations and universal peace would finally reign. The lion would lay down with the lamb and God would wipe away all tears of mourning. The words of the prophets would finally be fulfilled and Jerusalem would become the centerpiece of the entire world. Even some of Yeshua's own disciples attached great significance to the Temple and could not understand why Yeshua later abandoned it altogether (Matt. 23:37-24:2).

But notice that it was precisely at this time - during the Feast of Dedication - that Yeshua chose to collide with this popular, idealized, and nationalistic Messianic expectation.  We must remember that Yeshua did not come to establish the Kingdom of God before He came to save a remnant of people who would be able to inherit it. Messiah ben Yosef, the great Suffering Servant, must precede Messiah ben David, the reigning King of Israel, and that, of course, meant that Yeshua first came to die as an atoning sacrifice for His people.  How could there be a kingdom without true subjects? Or what good would there be to be a King without a kingdom? But in order to have a kingdom, the heart must be transformed and human nature regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yeshua was born to die, and His sacrifice was the doorway into the Kingdom of God....

To better understand Yeshua's "Chanukah Sermon" delivered to the zealots at the Temple, it is good to review some of the context given in John's gospel. Earlier in the year Yeshua had offered "Living Water" (מַיִם חַיִּים) to the Jews during the festival of Sukkot (John 7:37-44). While in Jerusalem, Yeshua went to the Temple (on the Sabbath) and forgave the woman taken in adultery. He then announced that He was the Light of the World (John 8:1-12). When challenged by the religious authorities, Yeshua stated that the validity of his claims were established through His Father (John 8:13-30) and he went on to plainly state His preexistence (John 8:52-59). As He left the Temple, Yeshua authenticated his message by healing a man who was blind from birth (John 9). He then began openly teaching that He was the Good Shepherd who would "lay down his life for his sheep" (John 10:1-18). The reaction of the crowd was mixed: "There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, "He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?" Others said, "These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?" (John 10:19-21).

It is at this point that John tells us that "at that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly" (John 10:22-24). In light of Yeshua's earlier teaching to the Jews, it is not surprising to hear his reply: "I told you, but you do not believe" (John 10:25). He then went on to say that the works He did in His Father's Name born witness about His identity, but they could not believe, since they were not part of God's flock. Only God's sheep can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and only they are able to follow Him: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one" (John 10:27-30). Upon hearing this, the Jews wanted to stone Yeshua for blasphemy, since they rightly understood Yeshua's claim to be divine: "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God" (John 10:33).

To the zealot, Chanukah meant the Messianic vision would be fulfilled, by violence if necessary. The heroic exploits of the Maccabees and their miraculous victory over the Syrians foreshadowed a greater battle to come (perhaps against the Romans), when Messiah, the son of David, would finally overthrown the enemies of Israel and establish the kingdom of God upon the earth. And yet it was precisely at this time that Yeshua stated that his works attested that he was indeed the Messiah of the Jewish people (John 10:37-38). Yeshua's earlier message that He was the "Good Shepherd" who would lay down His life for the sheep fell on deaf ears. The Zealot's hardness of heart proved that were not genuinely seeking the kingdom of God but instead had some other agenda. Only those who were truly God's people (i.e., "sheep") received the message of Yeshua and chose to follow Him. Instead of overcoming evil with evil, Yeshua would overcome evil with God's sacrificial love, laying his life down for the sheep as the promised Lamb of God, so that they could become inheritors of God's eternal kingdom... The way to overcome the world was through the truth about God's sacrificial love, not through the instruments of carnal warfare or through vain ideas of Jewish supremacy. Yeshua's message wasn't the answer the zealots wanted to hear, but it was the answer they needed to hear.

So what, if anything, does this imply about the follower of Yeshua and the holiday of Chanukah?  Should Christians celebrate this festival, or should they reject it because it is generally associated with Jewish nationalism (and later rabbinical tradition)?

Well, first it's important to remember that had God not given the victory to the Maccabees, then the Temple would have been razed and Jewish identity would have been lost. Worse yet, Jewish assimilation into Greek culture might have jeopardized the coming of the Messiah Himself. Yeshua's disagreement with the zealots therefore concerned the spiritual meaning of the Temple (and how God could finally establish it upon the earth), but we should not regard this disagreement to imply that he negated the validity of Jewish historical experience - much less the words of the ancient prophets themselves. Indeed one day God would establish Zion upon the earth, but that would come about by the power of God, not by man (Acts 1:7). Just as Daniel prophesied about how the Messiah Himself would be "cut off" for the transgression of God's people (Dan. 9:24-27), so he foresaw the ultimate doom of the Antichrist by the hand of the Messiah Himself (Dan. 8:23-25). Yeshua likewise taught that the "little horn" (i.e., Antiochus) prefigured the greater "Abomination that makes Desolation" to come (Matt. 24:15-22, Mark 13:14; cp. Dan. 9:27, 11:31;12:11). Yeshua was of course speaking centuries after Antiochus set up an altar to Zeus and offered a pig in the Temple, and therefore it is clear that He was prophesying of a future "abomination that makes desolation" that would occur later in Jewish history. The Apostle Paul likewise stated "that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God" (2 Thess. 2:3-4).

Secondly, as I've stated in my Christmas article, it is likely that Yeshua was born during the festival of Sukkot (in the middle of the seventh month), when God chose to "tabernacle" with us (Immanuel), and this implies that Yeshua would have been conceived nine months earlier, during the season of Chanukah. (Put the other way around, if Yeshua were conceived in late Kislev (Nov/Dec), he would have been born 40 weeks later during Sukkot.) Chanukah then would commemorate the miracle of the Incarnation -- when God the Son chose to divest Himself of his regal glory to begin his redemptive advent into this dark world -- an event which undoubtedly is the among the most significant in all of sacred history.... It was by means of this advent, after all, that the Messiah would ultimately restore the Temple by means of His sacrificial life and death.  In other words, since Yeshua was born during Sukkot, and conceived during Chanukah, celebrating this season can help us witness to the Jewish people that Yeshua is the true light of the world.  The conception of the Messiah marked the beginning of the Redemption of Israel - and indeed the redemption of the entire world.

The Apostle John wrote of Yeshua: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not overcome it" (John 1:5). Recently I mentioned that the month of Kislev (כִּסְלֵו) is one of the "darkest" of the Jewish year, with the days progressively getting shorter and the nights getting longer.  Indeed, the Winter Solstice generally occurs during the last week of Kislev, and therefore the week of Chanukah (which straddles the months of Kislev and Tevet) often contains the longest night of the year (even during "leap years," when the solstice occurs a bit later, there is always a new moon (i.e., the absence of moonlight) during the season of Chanukah). If Yeshua was indeed born during Sukkot (i.e., "Tabernacles"), then He was conceived during Chanukah - perhaps near the Winter Solstice itself.  The true light - that enlightens everyone - would begin to shine during the darkest night of this world (John 1:9; 1 John 2:8). It is no wonder then that Chanukah represents an appropriate time to kindle the lights of faith....
 

זָרַח בַּחשֶׁךְ אוֹר לַיְשָׁרִים חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם וְצַדִּיק

za·rach  ba·cho·shekh  or  lai·sha·rim,  chan·nun  ve·ra·chum  ve·tzad·dik

"Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
He is gracious, merciful, and righteous" (Psalm 112:4)
 

During Chanukah we always read about the Jacob's son Joseph and the outworking of his dreams. Indeed, the entire month of Kislev is sometimes called the "month of dreams" because the weekly Torah portions for this month contain more dreams than any other. No less than nine dreams (of ten in the Torah) appear in the portions of Vayetzei, Vayeshev, and Miketz - all of which are read during the month of Kislev. In the Torah, the primary figure connected with dreams is Joseph, who was nicknamed by his brothers as "that dreamer" and who was later named "Decipherer of Secrets" (Tzofnat Paneach) by Pharaoh (Gen. 41:45). Joseph was able to mediate the spiritual and the physical realms through the Spirit of God within him (Gen. 41:38). Prophetically Joseph represents Yeshua the "disguised Egyptian" who likewise was rejected and hated by his brothers - but who later became their Savior (for more on this, see "Mashiach ben Yosef"). Could it be providential "coincidence" that the Torah portion for Chanukah (Vayeshev or Miketz) always centers on Joseph - and therefore on the Messiah Yeshua?

Some of the sages have said the word Messiah (i.e., mashiach: מָשִׁיחַ) should be regarded as an acronym for the phrase: Madlikin (מ) Shemonah (שׁ) Yemei (י) Chanukah (ח), i.e., "we light throughout the eight days of Chanukah." During the eight days of Chanukah we kindle lights in commemoration of the "miracles, deliverance, mighty deeds salvations, wonders and solace" that our Heavenly Father performed for us "in those days, at this time" -- and this is thought to prefigure the greater deliverance to come in the power of the Messiah. Kindling the lights of Chanukah, then, recalls God's victory over Antiochus ("Epiphanes") but it also looks forward God's victory over the Antichrist in acharit hayamim (the period of the Great Tribulation during the End of Days). For more on this subject, see the article "Chanukah and Spiritual Warfare."

Finally, the "spirit of Chanukah" agrees with other teaching of the New Testament. The word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) itself means "dedication," a word that shares the same root as the Hebrew the word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ), meaning "education."  Just as the Maccabees fought and died for the sake of Torah truth, so we must wage war within ourselves and break the stronghold of apathy and indifference that the present world system engenders (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 6:11-18). We must take time to educate ourselves by studying the Torah and New Testament, for by so doing we will be rededicated to the service of the truth and enabled to resist assimilation into the corrupt world.  "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world..." (1 John 2:15). The "cleansing of the Temple" is a matter of the heart, chaverim. The enemy is apathy and the unbelief it induces. We are called to "fight the good fight of faith" and not to conform to this present age with its seductions and compromises (1 Tim. 6:12, Rom. 12:2). The LORD Yeshua gives us light, the very "light of life." The light of the truth is the light of God's word (Psalm 119:105,130). God gives us the victory through the Spirit of Truth (רוּחַ הָאֱמֶת) since it is the love of the truth that brings us to salvation (2 Thess. 2:10-12). What does this mean to you who claim to know Yeshua and His message? How does this impact you as His follower in this darkened age?
 

קוּמִי אוֹרִי כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ וּכְבוֹד יהוה עָלַיִךְ זָרָח

ku·mi  o·ri  ki  va  or·rekh, ukh·vod  Adonai  a·la·yikh  za·rach

"Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you."
(Isa. 60:1)



Study Card

 

The basic message of Chanukah is eschatological and full of hope. This evil world is passing away and one day the Kingdom of Heaven will be established upon the earth. We live in light of this blessed hope (Titus 2:11-13). The world's rulers are "on notice" from God Almighty: their days are numbered and they will surely face the judgment of the LORD God of Israel (Psalm 2). We must stand against the devil by refusing to conform to the world around us (Eph. 6:11-18). Now is the time. "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). Followers of Yeshua are part of His Temple - members of His Body - and during this season we should heed the call to rededicate our lives to Him.

So let us celebrate the true Light of the World, Yeshua our beloved Savior and Messiah!  Let your light shine, chaverim! Let's put away the sin that so easily besets us in rededication to our risen LORD. Chag Chanukah Sameach (חַג חֲנֻכָּה שָׂמֵחַ)! Light the candles in His honor, recite the blessings, sing some songs, pray for God's help - and enjoy some latkes!  It's a hopeful season, and its message is more important today than ever before.

 




Joseph and his brothers


 

[ The following provides some further discussion regarding this week's Torah reading (Miketz). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.29.10 (Kislev 22, 5771)   The Torah plainly states that Jacob loved Joseph (יוֹסֵף) more than all his other sons, since he was the son of his old age, and was the firstborn son (bechor) of his beloved wife Rachel (Gen. 37:3). Indeed, Jacob and Joseph shared a lot in common: Both had infertile mothers who had difficulty in childbirth (Rebekah and Rachel); both of their mothers bore two sons (Rebekah: Esau/Jacob; Rachel: Joseph/Benjamin); both were hated by their brothers, and perhaps most significantly, both had lost their mothers (Joseph was present when his mother died, whereas Jacob never saw his mother again after he fled from his brother Esau).  Perhaps this explains why Jacob favored his son and gave him the ketonet passim (כְּתנֶת פַּסִּים), a full-sleeved robe or ornamental tunic that set him apart from his other sons, and perhaps this also explains Joseph's juvenile boasting about his "dreams of preeminence" over his brothers.... The story of Joseph is, among other things, a story about his dreams.  As a young man, his dreams centered on himself, which led to his betrayal and fall; after being humbled in prison, he focused on the dreams of others, which led to his exaltation...

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the story of Joseph. Like his father who fled from the hatred of his brother, Joseph became a victim of his brothers' malice. After being betrayed and sold into slavery as a teenager, Joseph later seemed to abandon his family identity. He had no "Bethel" experience along the way, however. Indeed, upon his release from prison he was thoroughly "Egyptianized."  He wore Egyptian clothes, spoke fluent Egyptian, married an Egyptian wife, assumed an Egyptian name, and named his firstborn son "Manasseh" (מְנַשֶּׁה), a word that comes from the verb nasah (נָשָׁה), meaning "to forget."  It's clear that Joseph wanted to forget his past life.  After all, despite his ascendancy in Egypt -- when he had the means to reconnect with his long-lost family (including his father and brother who were deceived into thinking he was dead) -- he did nothing to contact them. (For more on this topic, see "The Heart's Truth.")

The truth (ἀ+λήθεια, see below) cannot be forever forgotten, however. When his brothers finally reappeared in his life seeking help, it had been 22 long years since they had last seen him. Joseph was now forced to deal with his past life. But he played the part of a "stranger" and withheld his true identity...  As part of his charade, Joseph bound and imprisoned Simeon (who, according to tradition was the brother who originally threw Joseph into the pit). It was then that the brothers remembered what they had done to Joseph when they betrayed him as a child. Here the Torah adds a detail not originally given in the story of Joseph's betrayal, namely, that the brothers had ignored Joseph's desperate cries for help (Gen. 42:21-24). Perhaps the shock of seeing their helpless brother Simeon bound before them reminded the brothers of the terrible pain they had once caused Joseph...

Joseph, of course, demanded that his brother Benjamin be brought from Canaan in order to validate the brothers' story. Benjamin, the last link to Jacob's deceased wife Rachel, had apparently taken Joseph's place as Jacob's favorite son, and Jacob was unwilling to part from him. The famine, however, forced the issue and Judah swore to his father to take personal and eternal responsibility for the welfare of his beloved son...  Jacob relented in a state of fearful resignation.

Although the sages argue about the exact chronology, it is clear that Benjamin was not a child when Joseph was thrown into the pit at age 17. When he finally saw his brother again, Joseph was so overcome with emotion that he left the room to weep.  A midrash tells of the conversation between Joseph and Benjamin that brought tears to Joseph's eyes. Joseph asked Benjamin, "Have you a full brother, one who has the same mother as you?" "I had a brother," answered Benjamin, "but I do not know where he is." "Do you have sons?" asked Joseph. "I have ten." "What are there names?" "I named them all after my brother and the troubles that befell him. One is called Bela because my brother was nivlah - swallowed up - and disappeared. Another is called Bechor because he was the bechor (firstborn) of his mother. A third is called Achi because he was achi, my brother, and a fourth is called Chuppim because he did not see my chuppah (i.e., wedding day)." So Benjamin explained the names of his ten sons and Joseph was full of love for his brother and sadness for the time they had not shared together.

Another midrash tells the story about how Joseph seated his brothers from youngest to oldest (Gen. 43:33). He wanted to have Benjamin sit next to him but was unsure how to arrange the seating. Picking up his goblet and pretending that it had magic powers, Joseph called out the brothers names: "Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah," and so on from oldest to youngest. When he came to Benjamin, he said, "He has no mother and neither do I. He had a brother who was separated from him at birth, and so did I -- let him sit next to me!"  The fivefold portion given to Benjamin was meant to test the brothers to see how they would react to a brother being shown preferential treatment.

When Joseph later framed Benjamin for stealing the "divination goblet," he was masterfully recreating a situation similar to the one in which he was sold by his brothers. Had they changed? Would his brothers abandon Benjamin as they had abandoned him in his hour of need?  In order for there to be genuine reconciliation, Joseph needed to see if his brothers had really undergone teshuvah. When Judah stepped forward to take the place of his brother, he willingly accepted the guilt of them all. When Judah said, "What can we say, my lord; God has found out our sin" (Gen. 44:16), he was not confessing to the theft of the divination cup, but rather to the brothers' crime of throwing Joseph into the pit and selling him as a slave....

The word "Miketz" means "at the end of" and points to prophetic future (i.e., the "end of days" or acharit ha-yamim). Just as Joseph was a "dreamer" who was betrayed by his brothers but was promoted to a place of glory by the hidden hand of God, so Yeshua was betrayed by his people yet was exalted over all the nations (מֶלֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם). And just as Joseph later disguised himself as a "stranger" and an "Egyptian" to his brothers but was finally revealed to be their savior, so will the Jewish people come to see that Yeshua is the true Savior of Israel.  Then will come true the hope of Rav Sha'ul (the Apostle Paul) who wrote, "And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer who shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob" (Rom. 11:30).

May that hour come speedily, and in our days....




Parashat Miketz - מקץ


 

[ Note: Chanukah runs from Wednesday Dec. 1st (i.e., Kislev 25) through Thursday, Dec. 9th this year. The weekly Torah reading is not suspended for Chanukah (as it is for Passover and Sukkot), though additional Torah readings are read for each of the eight days of the holiday. ]

11.28.10 (Kislev 21, 5771)   The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat (which occurs on the third day of Chanukah) is parashat Miketz.  As this portion opens, Jacob's favored son Joseph had been languishing in prison for 12 years, but the appointed time had finally arrived for him to fulfill the dreams given to him as a young man. In this connection, I list some of the ways that Joseph is a "type" or foreshadowing of the coming Yeshua as the Suffering Servant (see "Mashiach ben Yosef").  The revelation of Joseph and his reconciliation with his brothers is a prophetic picture of acharit ha-yamim (the "End of Days") when Israel, in Great Tribulation, will come to Yeshua as Israel's deliverer.  Presently, the veil is still over the eyes of the Jewish people and they collectively regard Yeshua as an "Egyptian" of sorts. For more information, please see the summary page for Miketz.

Note: If it pleases God I will add some additional commentary to parashat Miketz later this week. Meanwhile Happy Chanukah and blessings to you, chaverim.




Judah and Tamar


 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.26.10 (Kislev 19, 5771)   This week's Torah portion includes the rather unseemly account of Judah's union with his Canaanite daughter-in-law, Tamar (תָּמָר). The various Jewish commentators wondered why this narrative was inserted into the midst of the story of Joseph and his brothers.  After all, the continuity of the Joseph story is clearly seen by simply skipping over chapter 38, so the question naturally arises as to why the story of Judah and Tamar was parenthetically placed here in the Torah portion. According to the Malbim, the story of Judah represents the axiom that "God creates the cure before the plague." Since the sale of Joseph led to the Egyptian exile (which is considered the paradigm of all exiles), it was necessary to plant the roots of ultimate redemption before the exile began. Thus before the "new Pharaoh" was born who would enslave Israel, the line of the Messiah, Israel's Deliverer and Redeemer, was further determined.

The "planting of this seed" came about in an unusual way, however. Recall that Judah had married a Canaanite woman named Shua (שׁוּעַ) who bore him three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelach (Gen. 38:2-5). After the boys had grown up, Judah arranged a marriage between Tamar with his firstborn son (Gen. 38:6). Er, however, was "wicked" in the sight of the LORD and God put him to death (the Torah does not state the nature of his wickedness, though a midrash states that Er did not want Tamar to get pregnant in order to preserve her beauty). At any rate, according to the custom of "Levirate marriage" (yibbum), Judah commanded his son Onan to "perform the duty of the brother-in-law to her" by producing an heir on behalf of his deceased brother. Now while Onan agreed to marry Tamar, he deliberately practiced a form of "birth control" that prevented the birth of his brother's heir. For this reason, the LORD put him to death as well.  Judah was now without an appointed heir, and the entire lineage of his tribe was at jeopardy. He was reluctant, however, to give his third son marry Tamar, since were he to die, the lineage of Judah might end with his own death (Gen. 38:11). Perhaps it was because of this fear that he (misleadingly) promised Tamar that he would give his remaining son to her only after he "came of age."

Time went by, and soon Tamar realized that Judah was not going to fulfill his promise to give his son Shelach in marriage to her.  Sometime after the death of his wife Shua, Judah went to visit his friend Hirah the Adullamite to sheer sheep. Upon hearing this, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced him while he was on the road to Timnah.  From this illicit union Tamar bore twin boys (Zerach and Perez), and from the line of Perez (פָּרֶץ, lit. "bursting forth" or "breakthrough") would descend King David - and ultimately Yeshua our Messiah Himself...

King David's genealogy not only included Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebakah and Jacob/Leah, of course, but it also included Judah/Tamar, Boaz/Ruth, and Salmon/Rahab.  It is interesting to note that in the genealogy of Yeshua given in Matthew (1:1-16), only four women (besides Mary) are explicitly named: Tamar (who seduced her father-in-law), Rahab (a prostitute), Ruth (a Moabitess), and "the wife of Uriah" (i.e., Bathsheba, an adulteress).  Here is a (very simplified) diagram I made to indicate some of the relationships:

 

And now for your Torah question of the day: What spiritual characteristic(s) do you think united these four women? (see Ruth 1:16; 4:12; 1 Kings 1:13-31; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). The blessing given to Boaz, "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman" (Ruth 4:12), suggests that God's plan of blessing providentially overcame the weakness and frailty of all the people involved...  It is encouraging, is it not, that no matter what your personal background, God can use you to accomplish His will...  Praise the LORD that His salvation "burst forth"!

Note: I am presently quite sick with a flu/cold. Your prayers for my healing are sincerely appreciated. Shabbat Shalom, chaverim!




Shabbat "Table Talk" Page - Vayeshev


 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.26.10 (Kislev 19, 5771)   It's an old custom to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family (and friends) during the Friday night Sabbath meal.  To make it a little easier to remember what to discuss, I created a "Shabbat Table Talk" page for parashat Vayeshev.  Hopefully this will help to generate some discussion around your Sabbath table, chaverim. To download the page, click here.




Thanksgiving to God...


 

11.25.10 (Kislev 18, 5771)   Shalom, chaverim. Since today is Thanksgiving Day, I thought I would share a Hebrew verse of praise with you here:
 

הוֹדִינוּ לְּךָ אֱלהִים הוֹדִינוּ וְקָרוֹב שְׁמֶךָ
סִפְּרוּ נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ׃

ho·di·nu  le·kha  E·lo·him,  ho·di·nu  ve·ka·rov  she·me·kha,
sip·pe·ru  ni·fle·o·te·kha

"We give thanks to You, O God; we give thanks, for Your Name is near.
We recount your wondrous deeds" (Psalm 75:1)



Download Study Card
 


We give thanks to God because He has graciously given us salvation (יְשׁוּעָה) through His Son Yeshua: for His Name is near. The adverb "near" (i.e., karov: קָרְבָּן) means "close enough to touch," and indeed the noun form means "a near kinsman." Because of Yeshua, God Himself has become our "close relative." Confession (i.e., todah: תּוֹדָה) and trust (i.e., emunah: אֱמוּנָה) are central here. As it is written: "The word is very near you [כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאד] - as close as your mouth and your heart (Deut. 30:14). You must confess with your mouth and believe "in your heart" that God loves you with an "everlasting love." Whoever calls upon the Name of the LORD will be saved (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:9-13; Psalms 86:5; Rev. 3:20).
 

וְיֵשׁ אהֵב דָּבֵק מֵאָח

ve·yesh  o·hev  da·vek  me·ach

"There is a lover who sticks closer than a brother"
(Prov. 18:24b)

 

The Scriptures repeatedly state that the LORD desires to "cleave" to our hearts in a loving relationship.  יֵשׁ אהֵב דָּבֵק מֵאָח -- yesh ohev davek me'ach -- "there is a lover who sticks (davek) closer than a brother" (Prov. 18:24). The word translated "sticks" (דָּבֵק) comes from the Hebrew word davak (דבק), a word used elsewhere to describe how a man cleaves to his wife so that they become basar echad – "one flesh" (see Gen. 2:24). Davak is also related to the word for bodily joint (debek), suggesting that we are to stick as closely to the LORD as our bones stick to our skin (Job 19:20). The devakim (הַדְּבֵקִים) were those who "held fast" or "cleaved" to the LORD throughout the wilderness wanderings (Deut. 4:4), and all of us are likewise commanded to revere the LORD and cleave to Him (Deut. 10:20).

 

Our salvation means that we abide in a love relationship with the LORD God of Israel... "There is a lover who cleaves closer to a brother..." His Name is Yeshua, the true Lover of our souls... He is the greatest reason of all for us to give thanks to God today - and forever!


Note:
I've been sick the last few days and was unable to attend a Thanksgiving celebration today (I have a bad cold/cough). I am thankful to the LORD for His steadfast love and grace to us all, however, and I am especially thankful for the friends of this ministry... Please accept my wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.  Thank you for standing with us and helping make this ministry possible.... Shalom.




Light that cannot be hidden


 

[ The following entry concerns some thoughts about Chanukah, which begins Wednesday, December 1st at sundown this year.... ]

11.24.10 (Kislev 17, 5771)   In the Gospel of John it is recorded that Yeshua said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (i.e., ᾽Εγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή). The Greek word translated "truth" in this verse is aletheia (ἀλήθεια), a compound word formed from an alpha prefix (α-) meaning "not," and lethei (λήθη), meaning "forgetfulness." (In Greek mythology, the "waters of Lethe" induced a state of oblivion or forgetfulness.)  Truth is therefore a kind of "remembering" something forgotten, or a recollecting of what is essentially real.  Etymologically, the word aletheia suggests that truth is also "unforgettable" (i.e., not lethei), that is, it has its own inherent and irresistible "witness" to reality. People may lie to themselves, but ultimately the truth has the final word... "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).

Greek scholars note that the word lethei itself is derived from the verb lanthano (λανθάνω), which means "to be hidden," so the general idea is that a-letheia (i.e., truth) is non-concealment, non-hiddenness, or (put positively) revelation or disclosure.  Thus the word of Yeshua - His message, logos (λόγος), revelation, and presence - is both "unforgettable" and irrepressible. Yeshua is the Unforgettable One that has been manifest as the express Word of God (דְּבַר הָאֱלהִים). Yeshua is the Light of the world (אוֹר הָעוֹלָם) and the one who gives us the "light of life" (John 8:12). Though God's message can be supressed by evil and darkened thinking, the truth is regarded as self-evident and full of intuitive validation (see Rom. 1:18-21).

The Hebrew word for truth (i.e., emet: אֱמֶת) comes from a verb (aman) that means to "support" or "make firm."  There are a number of derived nouns that connote the sense of reliability or assurance (e.g., pillars of support). The noun emunah (i.e, אֱמוּנָה, "faithfulness" or "trustworthiness") comes from this root, as does the word for the "faithful ones" (אֱמוּנִים) who are "established" in God's way (Psalm 12:1). A play on words regarding truth occurs in the prophet Isaiah: אִם לא תַאֲמִינוּ כִּי לא תֵאָמֵנוּ / im lo ta'aminu, ki lo tei'amenu: "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all" (Isa. 7:9; see Faith Establishes the Sign). Without trust in the LORD, there is no stability... Truth is something trustworthy, reliable, firm, or sure. In colloquial English, for example, this idea is conveyed when we say, "He's a true friend...", indicating that the loyalty and love of the person is certain. The familiar word "amen" likewise comes from this root.  Speaking the truth (dibbur emet) is considered foundational to moral life: "Speak the truth (דַּבְּרוּ אֱמֶת) to one another; render true and perfect justice in your gates" (Zech. 8:16). Yeshua repeatedly said, "Amen, Amen I say to you...." throughout his teaching ministry to stress the reliability and certainty of God's truth (Matt. 5:18, 26, etc.). Indeed, Yeshua is called "the Amen, the faithful and true witness" (Rev. 3:14).

The relationship between the Hebrew and the Greek ideas seems to be that the revelation of God - the aletheia - is reliable and strong. The source for all truth in the world is found in the Person and character of the LORD God of Israel... The self-disclosure of the LORD is both unforgettable - both in the factual and moral sense - as well as entirely trustworthy. Aletheia implies that truth is something that should never be forgotten. Hence we are regularly commanded and encouraged not to "forget" the LORD (Deut. 8:11, Psalm 103:2, etc.), to "remember" his covenants, to "keep" his ways, and so on. We are commanded to remember the light of God's revelation in our lives...

During this Chanukah Season -- and always -- may the LORD God of Israel help us walk in the unforgettable and irrepressible radiance of His glory. May God help us shine with good works that glorify God's Name (Matt. 5:16). "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Yeshua the Messiah" (2 Cor. 4:6).

 




Chanukah and Spiritual Warfare


 

[ The following entry concerns some thoughts about Chanukah, which begins Wednesday, December 1st at sundown this year.... ]

11.24.10 (Kislev 17, 5771)   CHANUKAH IS A STORY ABOUT REMAINING COMMITTED to the truth in a godless, and therefore insane, world.  After all, since ultimate reality is the "handiwork" (i.e., conscious design) of a single, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, morally perfect, purposive, personal, and spiritual Agency that has been revealed in the Jewish Scriptures, those who deny this Reality are living in a state of delusion (that is, a protracted "hallucination" that indicates radical departure from what is real). In a sense, the history of humanity - especially as it has been expressed philosophically and politically -- has been nothing less than the conscious collusion to redefine reality as something that it isn't. "The kings of the earth station themselves, and the dignitaries (רוֹזְנִים) take counsel together against (lit. "over") the LORD and His Mashiach" (Psalm 2:1-3). Spiritual warfare is therefore the fight for sanity and truth in a world that prefers madness and self-deception.

Despite being an anti-Semite, the early Church father Tertullian (160-220 AD) once asked a very good question: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" He was right for asking the question, though ironically, as a Greek-minded "replacement theologian," he was wrong for categorically libeling the Jewish people (see Adversus Iudaeos, c. 200 AD). Historically speaking, religious Jews have always loved the Torah and resisted the pull toward assimilation... Indeed, what other nation has survived over the millennia as have the Jewish people? Sadly, it is a continuing sin of many of today's "church leaders" to disregard the miraculous existence of Israel - including the modern State of Israel - by refusing to give the LORD God of Israel glory for His faithfulness.... Look, if God isn't faithful to the promises made to ethnic Israel, what makes these people think He won't change His mind regarding the Church? But I digress here...

Historically, Chanukah remembers the Maccabee's resistance to the forced Hellenization (i.e., the spread of pagan Greek culture) of the Jewish people, though more generally it represents the ongoing struggle against assimilation to the prevailing "world system." In modern day America, for instance, the pressure to assimilate takes the form of "political correctness" and the acceptance of official propaganda that multicultural pluralism/cultural relativism is the truth.  For those of us who follow Yeshua, Chanukah is the bold proclamation that the Light of the World has come, despite the face that "people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (see John 3:19).

The story of Chanukah goes back to ancient Greece and the pagan worldviews of Hesoid and Homer, Plato and Aristotle.  Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC), the tutelage of Aristotle, became a militant King of Macedon who swept across Syria, Egypt, and Babylonia to defeat the mighty Persian Empire. Alexander's rapid military conquests extended Greek culture and influence throughout the civilized world.  When he later died (323 BC), Alexander's kingdom was divided into four parts and the land of Israel became a province of Syria under the rule of the Seleucid dynasty.

In 175 BC, a new king, Antiochus IV (also called "Epihpanes") ascended the throne in Syria.  Under the "auspices" of his regime, Jerusalem began to look more and more like a Greek city as Hellenistic culture was officially promoted.  Antiochus allowed Hellenistic Jews to have prominent roles in the Holy Temple - so much so that even a non-priest (named Menelaus) was given the role of being the Temple's Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This enraged many Jews, however, who then called for Egyptian rule instead of Syrian (the Egyptians were more tolerant of local customs and did not force Hellenization).  Later, when Antiochus returned from an unsuccessful military campaign against Egypt, he decided to quell the Jewish call for Egyptian rule and murdered some 40,000 people in Jerusalem.  Soon after this, he decreed that Jews must abandon their faith in the Torah and to cease offering sacrifices in the Temple.  The Holy Temple itself was desecrated and images of the god of Zeus (the "sky god") were placed on the altar and in the sanctuary. Pagan altars were soon erected throughout Judea and pigs were regularly sacrificed upon them. The study of Torah was outlawed (as well as the observance of Shabbat, holidays, and ritual circumcision), and the penalty for disobedience to these decrees was death.

Many Jews fled and hid in the wilderness and caves and many died kiddush HaShem - as martyrs (see Heb. 11:36-39). Eventually Jewish resistance to this imposed Hellenization meant literal war. In 164 BC, in Modin, a small town about 17 miles from Jerusalem, Mattityahu (Matthias), a Hasmonean priest, and his five sons took refuge.  When Antiochus' soldiers arrived at Modim to erect an altar to Zeus and force the sacrifice of a pig, Mattityahu and his sons rose up and killed the Syrians. They then fled to the Judean wilderness and were joined by other freedom fighters. After some organizing, they soon engaged in successful guerrilla warfare against their Syrian/Greek oppressors.

Mattityahu died about a year later and his son Judah became the leader of the resistance. Judah came to be known as the "Maccabee" -- a title that either was an acronym of the phrase, mi komocha ba'elim Adonai, "Who is like You among the gods, LORD?" (Exod. 15:11) or else was derived from the Hebrew word for "hammer" (makevet), indicating his ferocity in battle.  According to legend (Shabbat 21b), on the 25th of Kislev, three years to the day after the Syrian/Greeks had defiled the Holy Temple by making it a shrine to Zeus, the Maccabees vanquished their oppressors and recaptured the Temple. When the faithful Jewish priests searched for the holy olive oil to light the menorah, however, they found only one jar that was not defiled (i.e., only one still had the seal of the High Priest). The oil in this jar was sufficient to burn for only one day, and it would take eight days until a new supply could be produced.  According to tradition, the one-day supply of oil miraculously burned in the menorah for eight days, and later, this eight day period was commemorated as Chunukah, "Dedication," also known as the Festival of Lights.

Interestingly, Chanukah is mentioned only a couple times in the Talmud (i.e., Shabbat 20a, 21b), perhaps because the Maccabean dynasty (the forefathers of the Sadducees) eventually became entirely corrupt, and the Talmud (which grew out of Pharisaic tradition) did not want to draw much attention to them. Therefore the Talmud's statements (recorded centuries after the Maccabean rebellion) focus on the miracle of the oil rather than on the merits of the Maccabean resistance.  This approach has been adopted in normative (rabbinical) Judaism, and today Chanukah primarily centers on the miracle of the lights (i.e., the lighting of the candles) rather than the militant overthrow of religious persecutors.

Chanukah is alluded to in the Torah itself. First, the 25th word of the Torah is or, "light," as in "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3), and some of the sages say that this suggests Kislev 25. Second, immediately after the festivals (moedim) of the Jewish year are enumerated in Leviticus 23, the commandment to "bring clear oil from hand-crushed olives to keep the menorah burning constantly" is given (Lev. 24:1-2), and this is said to foresee the time of Chanukah.

Some Bible scholars say that the prophet Daniel foresaw the events of Chanukah centuries beforehand in a vision of a "male goat running from the west" with a conspicuous horn between its eyes (Alexander the Great) that was broken into four (Dan. 8:1-12). Out of the four horns arose a "little horn" (Antiochus) who greatly magnified itself, cast down some of the stars (righteous souls), took away the sacrifices, and cast down the sanctuary in Jerusalem. Years after the Maccabean revolt, Yeshua celebrated Chanukah in the same Temple that had been cleansed and rededicated only a few generations earlier (John 10:22). It was here that many asked if He were the coming Messiah -- harkening back to the liberation of the earlier Maccabees. During a season of remembering miracles (nissim), Yeshua pointed out that the works that He did attested to His claim to be the long-awaited Mashiach of the Jewish people (John 10:37-38).


 

Finally, in an eschatological sense "Epihpanes" foreshadows the coming time of the "Messiah of Evil" (anti-christ) who will one day attempt to "assimilate" all of humanity into a "New World Order" (Dan. 9:27, 2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 13:7-9, etc.). At first he will appear to be a "world savior" who will broker peace for Israel and the Mideast, but after awhile, like his archetype Epiphanes, he will savagely betray the Jewish people and set up a "desolating sacrilege" in the Holy Place of the Temple (Mattt. 24:15). His satanic rise will occur during acharit hayamim - the "End of Days" - otherwise called the period of the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24). The Final Victory of God will be established when Yeshua returns to destroy this Messiah of Evil at His Second Coming.  The Holy Temple will then be rebuilt and dedicated by the hand of the true Mashiach of Israel...

Practically speaking, the word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) means "dedication," a word that shares the same root as the Hebrew the word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ), meaning "education." Just as the Maccabees fought and died for the sake of Torah truth, so we must wage war within ourselves and break the stronghold of apathy and indifference that the present world system engenders.  We must take time to educate ourselves by studying the Torah and New Testament, for by so doing we will be rededicated to the service of the truth and enabled to resist assimilation into the corrupt world.  Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world... (1 John 2:15). The "cleansing of the Temple" is a matter of the heart, chaverim.  The enemy is apathy and the unbelief it induces. We are called to "fight the good fight of faith" and not to conform to this present age with its seductions and compromises (1 Tim. 6:12, Rom. 12:2).

Wishing you a joyful time of celebrating the overcoming victory of the Light of the World, chaverim (John 1:5).




The Beauty of God's Truth


 

[ The following entry concerns some thoughts about Chanukah, which begins Wednesday, December 1st at sundown this year.... ]

11.24.10 (Kislev 17, 5771)   It has been said that the Greek mindset regards what is beautiful as what is good, whereas the Hebraic mindset regards what is good as what is beautiful. The difference is one of orientation.  Doing our duty before God, in other words, is what is truly beautiful, not merely appreciating the appearance of symmetry, order, and so on.  This explains why moral discipline (i.e., musar, מוּסָר) is so prominent in Hebrew wisdom literature. True beauty cannot exist apart from moral truth.

The word chinukh (חִנּוּךְ), "education," shares the same root as the word "chanukah" (חֲנֻכָּה, dedication). Unlike the Greek view that regards education as a pragmatic process of improving one's personal power or happiness, the Jewish idea implies dedication/direction to God and His concrete purposes on the earth. Disciples of Yeshua are likewise called talmidim (תַּלְמִידִים) -- a word that comes from lamad (לָמַד) meaning "to learn" (the Hebrew word for teacher is melamad (מְלַמֵּד) from the same root). In the New Testament, the word "disciple" is μαθητής, a learner or a pupil of a διδάσκαλος, or a  teacher.  True education is therefore foundational to being a disciple of the Mashiach.

(Note that the Hebrew word "rabbi" comes from the word rav (רַב), which means "great." The word rabbi (רִבִּי) is formed by adding the 1st person singular ending, i.e., "my great one," or "my reverend."  In Yiddish the word is rebbe. Yeshua told us not to call anyone other than Him "rabbi" or "father" since we are all brothers and sisters and He alone is our Master (Matt. 23:8)).

Following Yeshua, then, first of all means submitting to His authority and learning from Him as your Teacher (Matt. 23:8). Only after spending time with Him are you commissioned to go "to all the nations and teach..." (Matt. 28:19). This is accomplished not only by explaining (propositional) doctrine but by kiddush HaShem -- sanctifying the LORD in our lives. We are called to be a "living letter" sent to the world to be "read" (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

During Chanukah we recall the courage and faith of Judah the "Maccabee" and his brothers.  The name "Maccabee" is said to be an acronym [מ כּ בּ י] for Moses' affirmation of faith: מִי־כָמכָה בָּאֵלִם יהוה / "Who is like you, LORD, among the mighty?" (Exod. 15:11). Since God alone is the Supreme Ruler of the universe, we do not need to live in fear of man. As King David wrote: יהוה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא / "The LORD is my Light and my Salvation - of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1). Yeshua the Messiah is our true Light (ha'or ha'amiti) and our Salvation (yeshu'ah). He has said, "My peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 14:27, 16:33).
 

בָּרוּךְ הוּא הָאֱלהִים אֲשֶׁר נָתַן־לָנוּ תְּשׁוּעָה נִצַּחַת בְּיַד
יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ אֲדנֵינוּ

barukh hu ha-Elohim asher natan-lanu teshuah nitzachat b'yad
Yeshua ha-Mashiach Adoneinu
 

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through
our Lord Yeshua the Messiah! (1 Cor. 15:57)

(Study Card Download)


Some of the Jewish sages said that "the seal of God is truth," since the final letters of the three words that conclude the account of creation: בָּרָא אֱלהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת / bara Elohim la'asot: "God created to do" (Gen. 2:3) -- spell the word for truth (i.e., emet, אֱמֶת):

 

In other words, God created reality "to do" (לַעֲשׂוֹת), which has come to be interpreted by these sages as meaning that it is our responsibility, as God's creatures, to participate in the "doing" of His work. Truth is about doing, not being; it is centered upon the realm of duty and obligation and is grounded in the mandate to "name" the creation.

Note that the "Seal of God" is not just a matter of sincerity. It is rather a matter of being true in the sense that you are living it, you are "being with it," you are part of it. Truth is a passion that informs all of the decisions you make in your life. You therefore embody the truth and follow it in all your endeavors. In this sense Yeshua the Messiah is the Truth, since in Him there was no mismatch between who He is and what He says. He is utterly trustworthy. His actions and speech are one and are entirely reliable. Yeshua is the "Seal of God," the one who authoritatively names of all creation, and His followers likewise should evidence this in their lives.

During this Chanukah Season -- and always -- may the LORD God of Israel help us shine the radiance of Yeshua in our daily lives (Matt. 5:16).




Getting Ready for Chanukah


 

[ Chanukah comes early this year!  We will light the first candle on Wednesday, December 1st, after sundown... ]

11.24.10 (Kislev 17, 5771)   The Hebrew word chanukah (חֲנֻכָּה) means "dedication" and marks an eight day winter celebration that commemorates the victory of faith over the ways of speculative reason, and demonstrates the power of the miracle in the face of mere humanism. Generally speaking, Chanukah is a "fighting holiday" -- a call to resist the oppression of this world and to rededicate our lives to the LORD (Rom. 12:1-2). This year Chanukah begins on Wednesday, December 1st at sundown (i.e., Kislev 25) and runs through Thursday, December 9th (i.e., Tevet 2). 

Even though Thanksgiving Day is nearly here, we are getting some of our Chanukah decorations out of storage to begin preparing for the celebration next week. It's time to clean the chanukiahs, get some new candles, and plan for our Chanukah onegs. To help my family get into the mood, I strung some Christmas lights up in the kitchen and started playing some traditional Chanukah music (Maoz Tzur, the Dreidel Song, etc.). Judah is now 19 months old, and Josiah just turned six. Of course they are both very excited about the coming holiday. Here are a couple pictures I took of the boys yesterday:

 

During this Chanukah Season -- and always -- may the LORD God of Israel help us shine the radiance of Yeshua in our daily lives (Matt. 5:16).




Thanksgiving Day and Sukkot


 

11.23.10 (Kislev 16, 5771)   The American Holiday of Thanksgiving certainly has its roots in the Jewish tradition of giving thanks to God, and some historians believe that the early "pilgrims" derived the idea directly from the Biblical festival of Sukkot (i.e., "Tabernacles").  According to some scholars, before coming to the New World, the pilgrims lived for a decade among the Sephardic Jews in Holland, since Holland was considered a safe haven from religious persecution at the time. Since the pilgrims were devout Calvinists and Puritans, their religious idealism led them to regard themselves as "new Israel," and it is likely that they learned that Sukkot commemorated Israel's deliverance from their religious persecution in ancient Egypt at that time. After they emigrated to the "Promised Land" of America, it is not surprising that the pilgrims may have chosen the festival of Sukkot as the paradigm for their own celebration. As the Torah commands: "[Celebrate the feast] so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 23:39-43). The highly religious pilgrims regarded their perilous journey to the new world as a type of "Exodus event" and therefore sought the appropriate Biblical holiday to commemorate their safe arrival in a land full of new promise...

Recall that during the holiday of Sukkot we are commanded to dwell in sukkahs to remind ourselves of the sheltering presence of God given to our ancestors in the wilderness. After the Jews finally began inheriting the land, the theme of Sukkot shifted to an expression of thanks for God's provision and steadfast love. In that sense, Sukkot is a sort of "Jewish Thanksgiving" celebration. During the fall harvest (traditionally called the "Season of our Joy") the Torah commands us to "rejoice before Adonai your God" (Deut. 16:11-15; Lev. 23:39-43). When we wave our lulavs (symbols of the fruit of the earth and the harvest), it is customary to recite the following expression of thanks:
 

הוֹדוּ לַיהוה כִּי־טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ

ho·du  la·Adonai  ki  tov,  ki  le·o·lam  chas·do

"Give thanks to the LORD for He is good;
for His steadfast love endures forever."

Download Study Card
 

The Refrains of Praise

A basic principle in Bible interpretation is to note repeated occurrences of a word or phrase. This is sometimes called the "law of recurrence."  The assumption here is that since God is the consummate Communicator, if a word or phrase is repeated in Scripture, there is surely a good reason. In some cases the function appears to be instructive (such as the two sets of instructions given for building the Mishkan (tabernacle) in Exodus); in other cases it appears to be exclamatory: the LORD doesn't repeat Himself without the intent of getting our attention.

But notice that the phrase, hodu la-donai ki-tov, ki le'olam chasdo ("Give thanks to the LORD for He is good, for His stedfast love endures forever") appears no less than five times in Scripture (1 Chr. 16:34; Psalm 106:1; Psalm 107:1; Psalm 118:1,29; Psalm 136:1), and in each case it is clear that the Holy Spirit is emphasizing that God's love for us -- His chesed -- is the primary reason for us to give Him thanks (in Psalm 136, the refrain, "ki le'olam chasdo" occurs no less than 25 times). Notice also that the verb hodu is the imperative of yadah (to confess or express gratitude) and therefore we can understand this verse to mean that we are to "confess" or "acknowledge" that the LORD is good. Indeed, the Hebrew word todah (תּוֹדָה), usually translated "thanks,"  can mean both "confession" and "praise."


A Thanksgiving Seder

Thanksgiving is perfectly compatible with Messianic Jewish observance, and since the holiday always falls on a Thursday there is never a conflict with Sabbath celebrations.  You can create a simple "Thanksgiving Seder" by reciting Kiddush (the blessing over the wine and the bread) and then offering a special prayer of thanks before eating the meal.  Everyone could recite the refrain: "Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever" (see Hebrew text above). The "Shehecheyanu" blessing may then be recited to mark the occasion as spiritually significant:
 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

ba·ruch  at·tah  Adonai  E·lo·hei·nu  Me·lekh  ha·o·lam
she·he·che·ya·nu  ve·ki·ye·ma·nu  ve·hig·gi·a·nu  la·ze·man  haz·zeh

"Blessed are You, LORD our God, Master of the Universe,
Who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this season."

Download Study Card
 

During the meal, people might take some time to share their own experience of finding freedom in America or to discuss why they regard freedom as important. The connections between Passover (the Exodus), Shavuot (the Sinai and "Pentecost" experiences), Sukkot (God's care for Israel during their wanderings in the desert), and the American holiday of Thanksgiving would also make an excellent discussion. It is also interesting to note that the Hebrew word for "turkey" is tarnegol hodu (תַּרְנְגוֹל הוֹדו), literally, "Indian chicken," which is often shortened to hodu (הוֹדוּ). It is a happy coincidence that we customarily eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and this reminds us of the "thanks" connection: "Give thanks (hodu) to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever."

Since Yeshua is the ultimate expression of God's steadfast love (i.e., chesed: חֶסֶד), how much more should we give heartfelt thanks to God for Him?  Is there anything greater than the astounding love of God?  Can anything overcome it? Can even the hardness of your own heart somehow veto or negate it's purposes?  It was because of His great love that God (יהוה) "emptied Himself" of heavenly glory, becoming clothed in human flesh and becoming disguised a lowly slave (δοῦλος). God performed this act of "infinite condescension" in order to "tabernacle" with us as our "hidden King" (John 1:1,14, Phil. 2:7-8). Ultimately our thanks to God is our praise for Yeshua, our Savior, King, and LORD.

 

We wish you a joy-filled time of reflection during this Thanksgiving Holiday. May you remember the many blessings that the LORD God of Israel has lovingly bestowed upon you and your family....  Hodu La-Adonai!


Personal Update: I really could use your prayers, chaverim.  I have been battling with feelings of sadness recently, and my chronic pain issues are ever-present. I am also suffering from a cold. Thank you so much...




Joseph and the Messiah


 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.22.10 (Kislev 15, 5771)   In the account of Joseph's betrayal and rejection by his brothers, we read: "And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it" (Gen. 37:24). Rashi asked why the Torah says that there was no water in the well, since it was already described as being empty (i.e., reik: רֵק). Some of the sages suggest that the additional phrase ("there was no water in it") was meant to stress that there was nothing at all to sustain life where the brothers cast Joseph. The pit, in other words, symbolized a place of death and the return to the "dust of death."  The redundancy implies that while there was no water in the pit, there were other things, such as serpents and scorpions... In other words, the lack of water was symbolic of the forces of evil.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word used to say that the well was "empty" can also mean vain.  We see this usage, for example, in Psalm 2:1: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain." Just as it was a vain plot by the brothers to do away with Joseph, so it is a vain plot of the rulers of this world to "take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed (מְשִׁיחוֹ), saying 'Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us'" (Psalm 2:2-3). The story of Joseph is a triumph of God's providential love that overcomes the plots of mankind's malice and the power of death itself. Just as Joseph was raised out of the pit and eventually exalted as Israel's savior, so the death, burial and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah is the means by which all Israel - and indeed the entire world - will one day be saved. "Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit" (Zech. 9:11).

Note: For a brief listing of no less than 48 ways that Joseph prefigures (or pictures) the Messiah Yeshua, see the article "Mashiach ben Yosef."




Parashat Vayeshev - וישב



 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.21.10 (Kislev 14, 5771)   From the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Vayeshev) until the end of Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis), the focus shifts from Jacob to his twelve sons, but most especially to his beloved son Joseph (יוֹסֵף). What initially appears as a sequence of terrible hardships for Joseph finally results in the deliverance of the Jewish people during a time of great tribulation. The story of Joseph's ordeal is therefore the story of Divine Hashgachah (providential supervision) that also foretells the glory of the Messiah both as a suffering servant and as a national deliverer of Israel.

The Torah reading begins, "Jacob settled (vayeshev Ya'akov) in the land of his father's sojourning, in the land of Canaan" (Gen. 37:1), but then immediately turns to the story of Joseph, who was seventeen years old at the time: "And these were the generations of Jacob: Joseph being seventeen years old..." (Gen. 37:2). Why does the toldot (genealogy) of Jacob begin with Joseph rather than Reuben (the firstborn son of Leah) here? Was the Torah suggesting that Joseph was regarded by Jacob as his (chosen) "firstborn" son?


 

Jacob and Joseph undoubtedly shared a lot in common, and this surely caused Jacob to prefer his firstborn son (of Rachel) over his other sons. For instance, both men had infertile mothers who had difficulty in childbirth; both mothers bore two sons; and both were hated by their brothers. In addition, the Torah states that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other sons since he was the son of his old age, and was the firstborn son (bechor) of his beloved wife Rachel. Indeed, Jacob made him an ornamented tunic (ketonet passim) to indicate his special status in the family.

At any rate, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) notes that whenever the word vayeshev (וַיֵּשֶׁב) is mentioned in Torah, it introduces a painful episode.  Immediately following the statement that "Jacob settled (vayeshev Ya'akov) in the land of his father's sojourning," the Torah states that Joseph brought an "evil report" about his brothers to his father. This act ultimately led to the selling of Joseph into slavery and to further heartache for Israel. The Jewish sage Rashi notes that whenever someone called by God wants to "settle down" and live at ease, God orchestrates events to keep him free from complacency. This certainly happened in the case of Jacob, where sibling rivalry and baseless hatred (called sinat chinam, (שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם)) so disrupted the peace of the family that his children were eventually led into exile and slavery.

Hebron (חֶבְרוֹן) is one of the very first places Abraham lived after he entered the Promised Land (Gen. 13:18). Some of the sages note that the "Valley of Hebron" (i.e., the place from which Jacob commissioned Joseph to go check on his brothers (Gen. 37:14)), should rather be translated as "from the depth of Hebron" (מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן), suggesting that Joseph's assignment was the first step toward fulfilling the prophecy the LORD gave to Abraham of Israel's descent into Egypt (Gen. 15:13). The word Hebron comes from a root (ח.ב.ר) that means "association" or "union," suggesting that from the depths of the family union would come struggle but eventual deliverance.

Note: This year Chanukah begins on Wednesday, December 1st at sundown (1st candle) and runs through Thursday, December 9th.




Shabbat "Table Talk" Page - Vayishlach

Shabbat Table Talk
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayishlach. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.19.10 (Kislev 12, 5771)   It's an old custom to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family (and friends) during the Friday night Sabbath meal.  To make it a little easier to remember what to discuss, I created a "Shabbat Table Talk" page for parashat Vayishlach.  Hopefully this will help to generate some discussion around your Sabbath table, chaverim. To download the page, click here.

Note: Please let me know if you like this idea, or if you have any additional suggestions to help make your family discussions of the Torah a bit easier.

Shabbat Shalom, chaverim!




The Tears of Rachel...

Chagall Detail
 

[ This week's Torah portion (Vayishlach) raises a number of interesting "open-ended" questions, and I try to consider a few of them here. At the end of this entry, I list some additional questions that I hope will prompt you to continue your study and exploration... Shalom, chaverim! ]

11.18.10 (Kislev 11, 5771)   While Jacob was away from home in Paddan Aram (i.e., Charan), there is no indication that he ever checked on the welfare of his mother and father or otherwise attempted to contact them.  He didn't invite them to his wedding(s); he didn't tell them about the birth of their grandchildren; and he didn't tell them about his toil under Laban... So why did he seem to disregard his parents?  After all, his mother had advised him to flee to her brother's house in the first place (Gen. 27:43), and apparently Rebekah and Laban were on speaking terms (the midrash says that they had planned on marrying their children to one another). It certainly seems possible that Jacob could have relayed messages back home. So why didn't he do so?

Was Jacob angry at his mother and father?  Perhaps he blamed them for his plight. After all, Rebekah put him up to deceiving his own father, but his father was too blind to see past the charade to discern the true character of his sons... Perhaps Jacob feared that Isaac was angry over the "stolen blessing" episode. But why didn't Isaac believe the prophecy that Jacob should be the family heir? Did that prophecy - originally given to Rebekah - justify his mother's deception?  Moreover, why did each parent favor a different child, thereby creating a ferocious sibling rivalry between the twins? Perhaps it was all too much, and perhaps Jacob just wanted to "forget" about his family and put it all behind him...

Or perhaps Jacob was fearful of his brother Esau and his plans for revenge.  Perhaps he was so worried about exposing his location to Esau that he dared not take the risk of sending a messenger home...  But why should Jacob have been so fearful, especially since earlier he had received the dramatic vision of the ladder (i.e., sullam: סֻלָּם) and heard the LORD extend the oath of blessing to him? Didn't the vision at Bethel confirm the original prophecy that was given to his mother ("the elder shall serve the younger..." Gen. 25:23)? So why did Jacob (like his father Isaac before him) doubt Rebekah's faith?  For that matter, why was Jacob so terrified of his brother's revenge in light of God's promise that Jacob's descendants would be multiplied like dust of the earth (Gen. 28:14)? Didn't God say, "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen. 28:15)?

According to Jewish tradition, Rebekah somehow knew of the "terms" of Jacob's marriage agreement for Leah and Rachel. Near the end of his fourteen years of service, she then sent her nurse Deborah and some other servants of Isaac to summon Jacob back home. However, by this time Laban had further "negotiated" to retain more of Jacob's labor, and the servants of Isaac decided to return to Beersheva.  Deborah, however, remained with Jacob from that time forward, and this explains why the Torah reports her death when Jacob later returned to Bethel to honor his earlier vow to God: "And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth (אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת), "the oak of weeping" (Gen. 35:8).

There are many tragic ironies and questions surrounding Jacob's time in Paddan Aram. First, Jacob's mother Rebekah died while he was away from home. The Torah does not record the details of her death, but later Jacob told his sons that she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 49:31). According to midrash, Rebekah died a short time after the death of her nurse Deborah. This explains why, immediately following the mention of Deborah's death, the Torah says that "God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan Aram, and blessed him" (Gen. 35:9). The sages explain that God visited Jacob to give him the mourner's blessing for the death of his mother.  The death of Rebekah, however, went essentially unmourned by her family. The midrash explains that since Abraham and Sarah were both dead, and Isaac was blind, and Jacob was away from home, there remained only Esau to publicly mourn her death. However, since it was known that Esau demonstrated heartlessness over the death of his grandfather Abraham (i.e., he "sold" his birthright for soup on the very day that Abraham died), Isaac instructed his servants to bury Rebekah secretly, at night.  Although Jewish tradition regards her as a great prophetess who carried on the legacy of Sarah, Rebekah was never properly mourned by her family...

Secondly, and even more tragically, Jacob's chosen bride Rachel died while he was away from home. She was thirty six years old at the time (Seder Olam Rabbah). The sages note that this was the single most difficult experience of Jacob's troubled life. Rachel died during childbirth, of course, just after Jacob had finally returned to Bethel. As she was dying, she called her child Ben-oni (בֶּן־אוֹנִי), "the son of my suffering" [in Aramaic], while Jacob gave him the name Benjamin (בִּנְיָמִין), "the son of my right hand" [in Hebrew]. When Jacob later confided in Joseph about Rachel's death, he said: "When I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath, now called Bethlehem" (Gen. 48:7). The sages note that Jacob's wording that Rachel "died, to my sorrow" meant that her death was the harshest of all the troubles that befell him during his sojourn on earth (Gen. Rabbah 97:7). (As an aside, it should be noted that Jacob's second most difficult experience concerned the supposed death of his son Joseph, his firstborn son of Rachel. Is there a connection between Jacob's twenty two year absence from Isaac and Joseph's twenty two year absence from his father?)

Rachel is the only matriarch who was not buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah were all buried there (Gen. 49:31), but Rachel herself was buried by "on the way to Bethlehem" (Gen. 35:19). According to tradition, Rachel's body was not brought to the cave because Jacob prophetically foresaw that the Jews would pass by her burial place as they were being exiled to Babylon. As the captives passed by, Rachel would tearfully plead to God on their behalf: "Will You cause my children to be exiled on this account?" (Gen. Rabbah 82:10). The prophet Jeremiah, who foretold of the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon, might have alluded to this story when he prophesied: "Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more" (Jer. 31:15).

Rachel Weeps - Artist Unknown
 

Various Scriptures seem to suggest that "Rachel" is a symbolic mother of the Jewish people. Apart from the story of her death during the birth of Benjamin, however, there is no event mentioned in the Torah that refers to her "weeping for her children," and therefore it may be supposed that Jeremiah - who wished that both he and his mother had perished on the day of his birth (Jer. 20:14-15) - invoked her memory as the consummate mother of Israel who would share in the sorrow and suffering of her descendants. That Rachel is a symbol of the children of Israel is further supported in Amos 5:15, when the entire nation of Israel is called after the name of her firstborn son: "Perhaps the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (שְׁאֵרִית יוֹסֵף). Moreover Ephraim (the son of Joseph and grandson of Rachel) is likewise used in Scripture to refer collectively to the people of Israel: "Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me" (Jer. 31:20). Later Jewish tradition continued to regard Rachel as the greatest matriarch of the Jewish people. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, for instance, the prophecy of Jeremiah is displayed to commemorate the countless Jewish children that were murdered by the Nazis: "Thus says the Eternal One, A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more."

The Gospel of Matthew, however, states that Jeremiah's prophecy was fulfilled when the spurious king, "Herod the Great," ordered the massacre of Jewish children in his failed attempt to murder the baby Yeshua (Matt. 2:16-18). Herod claimed to be a convert to Judaism, though he was born an "Edomite" and therefore was a direct descendant of Esau himself. He was renowned for his building projects in Jerusalem and was personally responsible for the renovation of the Second Temple (which thereafter was scandalously called "Herod's Temple"). It is not surprising, then, that the Essenes rejected "Herod's Temple" and repudiated its Hellenized priesthood as entirely corrupt.  After Herod's death, the Roman emperor Augustus named his son Antipas the ruler of Galilee, and it was this Herod who was in power during the years of Yeshua's public ministry. Like his father before him, however, Herod Antipas likewise sought to kill Yeshua (Luke 13:31).

According to Matthew's account, some time after Yeshua was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod "the Great," certain Babylonian astrologers (μάγοι) came to Jerusalem asking, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him" (Matt. 2:1-2). The Gospel states that upon hearing this Herod "was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). Perhaps Herod feared that this cosmic event would be regarded by the people as a sign that the promised "Star from Jacob" had finally come to exercise the "scepter" as God's anointed King (Num. 24:17, cp. Gen. 49:10). When Herod consulted with the priests and scribes, he therefore asked where the Messiah was to be born, and they said, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel'" (Matt. 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2). Herod then privately summoned the wise men to ask them precisely when they had seen the star. He then commissioned them to go and search diligently for the promised child - using the pretense that he would likewise "come and worship him too" (Matt. 2:7-8).

You know the rest of the story. The wise men followed the star to the house (i.e., οἰκίαν) of Mary and Joseph, where they saw the baby and offered gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the family (Matt. 2:9-11). After doing so, the wise men were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, and therefore they absconded to their homeland without disclosing the child's location (Matt. 2:12). At about the same time, Joseph was likewise warned in a dream to take Mary and Yeshua into Egypt to flee from the insane wrath of Herod (Matt. 2:13-15). "Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men" (Matt. 2:16). At this point in the narrative, Matthew states, "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more'" (Matt. 2:17-18).

Since Herod embodied and spiritually represented the "seed of Esau," we can see how Jeremiah's prophecy of "Rachel weeping for her children" points to Esau's final revenge against Jacob - and by extension, against the Promised Seed of Jacob (i.e., the Messiah).  Recall that Rebekah was told by the prophet Shem: "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided" (Gen. 25:23). The battle between the "seed of the serpent" (i.e., Satan) and the "seed of the woman" (i.e., Messiah) was played out, first in the womb of Rebekah, and later in the diabolical scheme of Herod to murder the Savior.  Matthew's account of the birth of Yeshua is drenched in the blood of Jewish children, and therefore calls for Rachel's greater lament.

The story of Herod and his murderous insanity leads to further questions about why the LORD allowed him to rule in the first place. After all, God could have killed him before he assumed such diabolical proportions, but instead we see the angel instructing Joseph to take Yeshua to Egypt to flee from this madman's wrath.... Is there any lesson in this for us?  Notice, too, how "clumsy" the evil one acted in his blind rage.  Since he apparently didn't know that Yeshua had escaped to Egypt, he went ahead and inspired his pawn Herod to indiscriminately murder all the baby boys in Bethlehem. This shows us Satan's brutality -- but it also reveals something of his weakness. The devil is certainly not omniscient, and his rage impairs his ability to think clearly. Indeed, it was that same rage that blinded him to see the true purpose of the cross of Yeshua -- the very means that brought about his own irreparable undoing. Satan was able to strike the Messiah's heel, but by so doing the Messiah crushed his head.


Additional Questions:

As I mentioned at the outset of this entry, here are some additional review questions to help you futher explore this portion of Torah:

  1. What connection is there between the two camps of angels that met Jacob when he returned to the land and the message sent to Esau? Rashi claims that the "messengers" that Jacob sent to Esau were literally angels (מַלְאָכִים), and the Hebrew text can support this interpretation. Was Jacob somehow able to command angels to do his bidding? (Gen. 32:1-3)
  2. Why was Jacob terrified of his brother Esau when he had earlier been promised by God to watch over him? (Gen. 28:12-19). Did Jacob's vow suggest that he had reservations about God's ability to fulfill His word? (Gen. 28:20-22)
  3. Jacob prepared "and sent" (vayishlach) gifts to Esau in the hope that this might "appease" his anger. Note that the word translated "appease" comes from the verb khafar (כָפַר), from which the word "atonement" is derived (i.e., kippur: כִּפֻּר). Does this imply that Jacob needed to atone for his sins against his brother? (Gen. 32:13-20)
  4. Why did the Angel of the LORD wrestle with Jacob, and why did he need to stop before the day began?  Why did he dislocate Jacob's hip, and why does the Torah parenthetically say that "to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh (i.e., gid hanesheh: גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה) that is on the hip socket" (Gen. 32:24-32)?
  5. Before the wrestling match ended, Jacob refused to let the Angel of the LORD go until he received his blessing. Do you think this is somehow connected to the blessing he "stole" from his father? The Angel renamed Jacob ("grappler") as Israel ("one who contends with God"). Does the name "Israel" imply that we might sometimes need to contend with God? (Gen. 32:27-28)
  6. Genesis 33:4 reads, "Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him..." In the Torah scroll, the Hebrew word for "and he kissed him" (וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ) is marked with a dot over each letter. Does this suggest that Esau's kiss was insincere?
  7. The sages claim that Esau's response to Jacob: "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself" (Gen. 33:9) amounted to a "legal statement" (or verbal contract) that resolved Jacob's claim to be the firstborn of the family. Given the context, do you agree with this?
  8. After Jacob met with Esau and the two were apparently reconciled, why did Jacob tell his brother that he would later join him in Seir, when he actually went and settled near Shechem (Gen. 33:1-17)? Was Jacob being dishonest? If so, were the brothers truly reconciled?
  9. Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by Hamor, the prince of the city of Shechem. When Jacob learned of this, why did he remain silent (Gen. 34:5)? And was the extreme retaliation against the entire city of Shechem by Simeon and Levi at all justified? Why should an entire community be faulted for the sins of one of its members?
  10. Why does the Torah devote an entire chapter to the story of the rape of Dinah? (Gen. 34). Was the deception and violence of Simeon and Levi justifiable?
  11. On his deathbed, Jacob expressed horror over the violence of Simeon and Levi regarding their killing of the inhabitants of Shechem, and he prophesied that they would be "scattered throughout Israel" (Gen. 49:5-7). However Moses and Aaron later descended from Levi, and the Levites became the honored Torah teachers of Israel. What happened to Jacob's prophecy: "Let not my soul come into their assembly?"
  12. After the ordeal of the rape of Dinah, God commanded Jacob to leave Shechem and return to Bethel to fulfill the vow he had made earlier. Before leaving, however, Jacob commanded the members of his clan to bury all their idols (i.e., "foreign gods," אֱלהֵי הַנֵּכָר). Why would Jacob's camp include the presence of these idols?  Moreover, why didn't he destroy these idols but instead only buried them under a tree? (Gen. 35:1-5)
  13. After Jacob built an altar (מִזְבֵּחַ) at Bethel, Rebekah's nurse Deborah died and was buried beside an oak tree there. Why was Deborah accompanying Jacob when he returned to Bethel? (Gen. 35:6-8)
  14. At Bethel, God extended the oath of Abraham to Jacob a second time and renamed him "Israel" (Gen. 35:9-15). What connection is there between this event and the Angel of the LORD's renaming of Jacob found earlier (Gen. 32:27-28)?
  15. After they left Bethel, Rachel died during childbirth on the way to Bethlehem. Why did Jacob decide to bury her there instead of taking her to be buried with the other matriarchs at the Cave of Machpelah? (Gen. 35:16-21)
  16. Immediately following the account of Rachel's death, the Torah says that Reuben went and "laid with Bilhah his father's concubine" (Gen. 35:22). The midrash says that this does not mean Reuben had sexual relations with Bilhah, and explains that after Rachel's death, Jacob "moved his bed" from Rachel's tent to that of Bilhah's, and this so upset Reuben that he took his father's bed and moved it into the tent of Leah. Do you think Jewish tradition was attempting to protect the reputation of Reuben, and if so, for what reason?
  17. In this parashah, Jacob finally arrives home to see his father, but the Torah is silent about their reunion. Shortly afterward Isaac died. What do you think might have been said between the two men? (Gen. 35:27-29)
  18. The parashah ends with the genealogy of Esau, otherwise known as Edom, whose descendants became an ongoing enemy of the Jewish people (Gen. 36). Jewish tradition sometimes links Edom with the Roman Empire and therefore regards Hitler as a "child of Rome."  Jewish theology after the Holocaust has been often been expressed as a "theology of protest." Why was Hitler given the power to murder so many Jewish lives, including the lives of over a million Jewish children?  Indeed, the same question can be raised about other historically powerful enemies of the Jews, including Ishmael (Arabs), Laban, Esau (Edom), Balaam (Moab), the Pharaoh of Egypt, Amalek, Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon), Xerxes (Persia), Antiochus Epiphanes (Greece), Herod the Great (Edom), Emperor Hadrian (Rome), the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc.), the pogroms in Tzarist Russia, and the more recent Arab persecution and terrorism of the modern State of Israel.  Why does God allow the wicked to have power in this world, especially when we are taught to pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"
     




Interpretation and Tradition...


 

[ The following entry considers whether followers of Yeshua should light Sabbath candles or not. As I hope you will see, attempting to answer this question leads to other questions about the role of tradition and how it affects the way we understand our faith....]

11.17.10 (Kislev 10, 5771)   An effective teacher understands when to ask "closed questions" and when to ask "open-ended questions." A closed question is one that has a definite answer, such as "How old was Isaac when he died?" or "Where was Rachel buried?" An open-ended question, on the other hand, is one that prompts for additional information, such as "How do you suppose Jacob felt when his father died?" or "Do you think Rachel's death was a punishment for disobeying her father?"  Closed questions are used to identify facts, whereas open-ended questions are used to probe issues more deeply, to explore possibilities, to use imagination, to invite discussion, and so on.

Traditional Jewish interpretation generally relies on closed questions to focus on the literal reading of the text and open-ended questions to explore various types of implications derived from the text. Thus the plain, historical meaning (called the p'shat: פְּשָׁט) is used as a baseline for other ways of interpretation, which traditionally include the alluded meaning (i.e., remez: רֶמֶז), the moral or homiletical meaning (i.e., d'rash: דְרָשׁ), and the esoteric meaning (i.e., sod: סוֹד). This fourfold system is sometimes called "Pardes" (פָּרְדֵּס), an acronym formed from the names of each of these four categories or levels.  Moreover, each of these four levels has their own rules of reasoning specific to that level. For example, there are general rules of interpretation for the d'rash level that do not apply to the p'shat level.  Nonetheless, as a general principle, the extended meaning of a text will never contradict the plain meaning. In other words, ultimately there will be no valid "deeper meaning" that violates or contradicts the plain sense that is revealed through the careful study of the historical/grammatical context.

The phrase "The Torah has 70 faces" (i.e., shiv'im panim la-Torah: שִׁבְעִים פָּנִים לַתּוֹרָה) is sometimes used to express the idea that there are different "levels" of interpretation of the Torah. "There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it" (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). When we disagree with someone regarding a particular interpretation of a text, we must remember that they may be reasoning from a different perspective, and therefore it is wise to identify the assumptions that underlie our respective conclusions. When we do so, it is likely we will find we were misunderstanding the intent of the other person. Humility is the key here. Often how we read the text says more about us than it does about the text itself - especially when it comes to asking "open-ended questions" about the text's meaning.

(I should add that not all interpretations are equally valid, of course, and indeed some interpretations must be rejected from the outset. For example, if someone were to deny that the Scriptures state that Yeshua is YHVH who came in the flesh and who lived, died for our sins, and rose again from the dead, then the discussion would shift from one of exegesis to one of apologetics, logic, and philosophy. The question of interpretation, in other words, involves a shared set of basic assumptions (such the existence of God, the authority of God's verbal revelation, the validity of logic, etc.), but if these matters are questioned, we are dealing with something else. Do not be fooled into thinking that cultists, anti-missionaries, or atheists are genuinely involved in "interpreting" the Scriptures. Indeed, often their intent is to deliberately obfuscate the meaning of a text by undermining its authority, usually by reading into it ideas that are alien to its original intent).

The Talmud records various traditions, insights, debates, and arguments regarding Scriptural topics as interpreted by the early Jewish sages (i.e., from the 1st century BC until the 5th century AD). When disagreements arose, they sometimes settled the issue by quoting the maxim: "These and these are the words of the Living God" (אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלהִים חַיִּים). Of course there are some arguments (regarding interpretation) that come from a person's pride, and there are others that are machloket l'shem shamayim, "a disagreement for the sake of Heaven."  The sages regarded any disagreement for the sake of Heaven as valid -- even if the matter would not be settled "until the Messiah comes to explain the matter fully." Therefore in the classic debates between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, for example, the goal was to discern the will of God, and when a dispute was finally decided, everyone agreed to follow the ascertained course with civility and respect. Each of us needs wisdom and grace to discern how to disagree with others charitably. The axiom "these and these are the words of the Living God" appeals to a sense of good will we should extend whenever we encounter others who have views that differ from our own.

 

Let's consider a practical example. Should followers of Yeshua light Sabbath candles or not? Some people object to the ritual because it is regarded as a "Rabbinical invention" based on Jewish oral tradition. In particular, the notion that God commands us "to kindle the Sabbath lights" is regarded as wrong, since nowhere in the written Scriptures do we see this commandment given, and it is wrong to "add to the Scriptures." Therefore, we are under no obligation to follow this practice or to regard it as authoritative.


 

Now this type of reasoning is valid on a pshat level (i.e., it is a "closed question" as to whether the written Scriptures explicitly command us to light Sabbath candles), though it certainly begs some questions about whether there is genuine place for custom and tradition in our lives. Is written revelation the only valid authority, and if so, how do we account for the way our own personal history affects the way we read and understand it's message (Acts 18:24-27)? After all, it is clear that Moses himself established judges to help decide practical matters in people's lives, and yet these decisions are not found in the written Scriptures (Exod. 18:19-22, Deut. 16:18, 17:8-11). The same could be said regarding the "pattern" of the Tabernacle (i.e., the description about how to build it), and how we are to understand the justification for the Holy Temple that King David later envisioned. Indeed, God's instructions given to Adam, Abel, Seth, Noah, Shem, Malki-Tzedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were all given before there was any written record that was accepted as Scripture. How did the patriarchs know what was clean and unclean? How did they know to offer animal sacrifices or erect an altar to the LORD?  It is naive to believe that we do not read the Scriptures through the lenses of our own cultural biases and traditions (for more on this, see the article, "The Role of Tradition"). 

Followers of Yeshua do not accept the "meritocracy" of traditional (i.e., post-Temple) Judaism and therefore reject the concept of keeping mitzvot as the means to securing God's favor. The New Testament is clear that we are not justified by religious rituals of any kind. We do not gain "merit" before the LORD if we light Sabbath candles any more than we lose merit if we do not.  The message of the good news is that we are justified solely by trusting in the love of God as revealed in the finished work of Yeshua our Savior. Of course this idea is scandalous to the human ego that restlessly seeks to find something of value within itself to offer to God -- that is, some act of service or some "sacrifice of the flesh" that it might yield -- but the cross of Yeshua puts an end to all such "all-too-human" aspirations. The cross is the place where the ego goes to die - and the ego will always resist its own death.  Because of the finished work of Yeshua, we no longer live in bondage to fear generated by a religious system. "What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom! Therefore, stand firm, and don't let yourselves be tied up again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

That said, it is evident that the impulse to "sanctify" time and honor the LORD is part of our walk of faith, and therefore the question remains as to how we are to do this in light of our liberty in the Messiah.  For example, it is clear that Shabbat is intended to commemorate God as our Creator (Exod. 20:11; 31:17), but the very first creative act of God was to create the divine light and to separate it from darkness (Gen. 1:3-4; 2:3). Can the custom of lighting Sabbath candles help us to recall the original creative power of God? Likewise it is clear that the Sabbath was given to help us remember God as our loving Redeemer: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15). Can the custom of lighting Sabbath candles recall that the true light of the world is Yeshua - our Redeemer?  Moreover, the Sabbath candles are to be kindled by "the hand of the woman" (usually the eldest woman of the house). Can this custom remind us of the Promised Seed of the woman that was to come? Can it remind us that when the fullness of time had come (ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου), God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the law? (Gal. 4:4).

The idea that time should be set apart or "sanctified" is a message that runs throughout the Scriptures.  All of the holidays of the Jewish year - including the observance of the "new moon" and the Sabbath - were intended to teach us to "separate" the holy from the profane. "And God saw that the light was good. And God separated (וַיַּבְדֵּל) the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4). After all, the LORD appointed the sun, moon, and the stars to be signs for appointed times (i.e., moedim): And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for appointed times (מוֹעֲדִים), and for days and years (Gen. 1:14). The idea of the holy (kadosh) implies differentiation from what is common, habitual, or "profane." This further implies that divine time has real meaning, and if we deny this, we are left with devising our own "traditions" and rituals that will be severed from the divinely intended order...

We see just this sort of substitution in the case of various church denominations that pride themselves of being free of various forms of religious rituals (or, in the case of "traditional" church denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, by inventing their own rituals and traditions). Even "Bible-only" churches are often unaware that they are bound by their own customs and rituals. The very "architecture" of the "church building," for example, lends itself to support these forms of rituals and traditions. The sanctuary is usually designed to function as a large meeting room with an elevated platform or podium so that the the "pastor" (or other religious official) will be prominently seen and heard. The "laity" are seated facing the elevated platform in such a way as to minimize "lateral" connections with others.  The prescribed "service" begins at a set time and follows a carefully scripted order. A formal greeting is customary, usually followed by a series of announcements, and then there is a designated time period devoted to music or hymns. The climax of the service is the sermon - delivered in monologue - that is directed to the congregation that is sitting quietly (i.e., passively) in the "pews." When the service is over, there is usually a benediction of sorts, and people begin to file out of the central meeting area... Often the laity will briefly "fellowship" with one another before they exit the building to resume their secular vocations...

Now please do not misunderstand me on this point: I am not trying to criticize mainstream Christian church practice as much as I am trying to call your attention to the assumptions that are behind much of our thinking about spiritual life. The Christian church has tended to follow Greek/Roman thinking in both its theology and in its acceptance of the solar calendar.  Its social structure is patterned more after the Roman Senate than that of the early synagogue (and even less is it patterned after the itinerant ministry of Yeshua and his disciples).  Hence worship is focused on "Sun-Day" rather than on the Sabbath, and the liturgy generally revolves around the calendar devised by the Roman Catholic church dating from the 4th century. We see evidence of this in the two climactic holidays of the Christian year: "Christmas" and "Easter," both of which clearly derive more from the pagan customs of Constantine than from the Jewish roots of the Christian faith...  Alas, as I have written about elsewhere, much of Christian theology is grounded in replacement theology that expresses itself as an institutionally sanctioned anti-Jewish bias...

I have written dozens of articles on this site that jealously argue for the liberty we have in our beloved Messiah. We are not saved by practicing religious rituals, much less by lighting candles before the Sabbath. Still, without evidence of the Spirit of Truth in our lives, we are likely deluding ourselves... While I affirm that the grace and love of God is imparted entirely by faith, I nevertheless reject the idea that the Torah and the Jewish Scriptures were given in vain... I do not believe that God "wasted His breath" revealing the Torah to the Jewish people, and that means (among other things) that the seasons and appointed times - including Shabbat - provide tremendous opportunity and revelation for the followers of Yeshua. Indeed, Yeshua Himself stated plainly that the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets all point to Him (Luke 24:24-27,44; John 1:45; 5:39,46). Sanctifying the Sabbath is a form of worshipping our Lord and Messiah.  He is our true Sabbath rest, after all, and the custom of honoring this time by lighting candles is a valid way to set it apart from the other times in our lives. 

Rituals are inescapably a part of life. We celebrate birthdays, set our daily schedules, and organize our lives around a patterned series of events.  Since they are inherently a part of human nature, the question then is not whether we will engage in rituals, but rather which ones we will observe.  If we disregard the ritual of sanctifying the Sabbath, for example, we will invariably replace it with something else that eventually will become a custom in our lives.   Tradition -- of some kind or another -- is simply an inescapable and omnipresent fact of our existence.

Should you celebrate the Sabbath day using various customs such as candle lighting, blessing your children, reciting kiddush and enjoying a Sabbath dinner with friends while discussion how the weekly Torah portion reveals our beloved Messiah? You are not required to do so, but I am afraid that you will be missing out on a great source of strength and joy if you do not... "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5).

When a person begins to study the Scriptures, he always finds himself "right in the middle of things, no matter where he starts." Spiritual truth is not the answer to a "closed question" as much as it is an ongoing series of open-ended questions.  Unfortunately many people find this notion unsettling. They would prefer, as Kierkegaard once said, to "arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do... by copying the answer book without having worked the problem out themselves." But this approach will never do for those who seek to live the truth. We must work out the problem for ourselves.  Truth is discovered through the process of wrestling with the meaning of Scripture, by seeing new insights and finding new connections, more than it is the result of memorizing a church creed or parroting the thought of others. Ultimately, each of us is personally responsible for what we believe and why... At the Judgment Seat of Messiah, the LORD will not be interested in whether we assented to "right ideas" or joined the right religious club. No, His examination will center on whether we personally wrestled for the truth and lived it out in our lives...

Yeshua is our Teacher who said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is everyone who is born of the Spirit [ruach]" (John 3:8). The Spirit of Truth (רוּחַ הָאֱמֶת) is our sure guide, and it is the love of the truth that brings us to salvation (2 Thess. 2:10-12). All learning of real, infinite, and eternally significant value comes from the Teacher Himself and is meant to be shared within the redeemed community. Every true disciple (i.e., student) of the Messiah has a part in the greater conversation about the life of faith. The LORD has promised to give us wisdom, if we sincerely ask Him (James 1:5-7).

Addendum:

I think the ultimate point of the idea of "tradition" is to remind us that we are all linked together by faith. Our faith in the LORD God of Israel connects us to all the great heroes of the faith - and most especially to Yeshua Himself. Salvation is something "corporate," by which I mean it is something shared. We are part of the redeemed community or family of God. That's part of the reason why Yeshua taught us to pray in the plural: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, Sanctified is Your Name..."




Reconcilation and Atonement

Chagall Detail
 

[ The Torah reading for this week (Vayishlach) details the dramatic confrontation between Jacob and his alienated twin brother Esau. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.15.10 (Kislev 8, 5771)   After finally escaping from the clutches of his wicked uncle Laban, Jacob continued his way from Gilead back to the land of Canaan. Upon entering the Promised Land, Jacob immediately encountered the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) and realized he was back in "God's camp" (Gen. 32:1-2). It had been a long exile from home, and Jacob surely missed his mother and father... But what about Esau? Would he welcome Jacob back home, or did he still harbor malice and plan to exact his revenge?  Immediately after encountering the angels, Jacob decided that the time was right to seek reconciliation with his estranged brother.  Jacob therefore sent messengers (מַלְאָכִים) to the "land of Seir" (to the far south in Edom) to deliver the tidings of his return: "Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, 'I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight'" (Gen. 32:3-5). (According to Rashi, these messengers were none other than the very angels (מַלְאָכִים) that Jacob had seen ascending and descending the ladder before he left for Charan some 20 years earlier.)

Despite encountering the angels of the LORD upon his return, Jacob was unsure of his place in God's plan. A midrash says that during his long exile, Jacob had begun to seriously doubt himself. After all, he had plenty of time to reflect on his life during those 20 years of servitude to his treacherous uncle Laban... He had been tricked into marrying Leah (rather than Rachel) -- an irony that hauntingly reminded him of his own deception of his father and brother. Indeed, it was the cunning and "grappling" of Laban that had made Jacob into a slave, thereby effectively inverting the very blessing he "stole" from his brother. Was all this middah keneged middah ("like for like") punishment for his sins? Perhaps his mother was wrong all along... Perhaps Isaac should have blessed Esau to become the spiritual leader of the family...  Indeed, what if Esau had undergone genuine teshuvah and was now worthy of the birthright?  If that were the case, Jacob was prepared to relinquish his claim as the "firstborn" and would consent to be a servant in Esau's house. With questions like these churning within his soul, Jacob sent the messengers to determine the disposition of his brother. Would Esau forgive him?  Would he welcome him back home or would he seek revenge for the injustice done to him? When the messengers eventually returned, the news was not good: Esau was coming with 400 armed men to meet him - and that undoubtedly meant war. Jacob became "exceedingly afraid" (Gen. 32:7) -- not only because he was vastly outnumbered and unfit for battle (his wife Rachel was far along in her pregnancy and his other sons were still merely children) -- but more importantly, because he was radically questioning the meaning and validity of his entire life. How could a ragtag band of pilgrims with a guilt-ridden leader confront an indignant brother leading an small army?  Indeed, how could Jacob find the strength to believe in his own sense of calling and destiny in light of the wreckage and pain of his past?

Regardless of his personal sense of ambivalence, Jacob began to prepare for his encounter with Esau. First he divided his family into two camps (מַחֲנוֹת), so that if one were attacked, the other could escape (Gen. 32:7-8). Next he prayed to the LORD for salvation (Gen. 32:9-12). Finally, he sent servants to Esau with gifts to appease his brother's anger (Gen. 32:13-21). The Rambam (Maimonides) states that Jacob's approach is a "blueprint" of the future Jewish experience in the Diaspora. In other words, Jacob's response to this threat (devising a plan of escape; praying, and attempting appeasement) teaches how us how to deal with enemies more powerful than ourselves.  The sages ask: But couldn't Jacob have simply waited for God to save him? After all, didn't he have the explicit promise of God to protect him and to ensure that his descendants would inherit the land? Yes, indeed, and Jacob could have passively waited for God's intervention, but the Torah reveals that he did not take God's help for granted.  Jacob needed to exercise his own teshuvah. He did not presume that God would protect him without his active involvement in the process of reconciliation.

Jacob's Prayer

    O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.' (Gen. 32:9-12)
     

Recall that during Jacob's vision of the ladder (Vayetzei) the LORD described Himself as the "God of Abraham your father" and then (almost parenthetically) added "and the God of Isaac" (אֲנִי יהוה אֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלהֵי יִצְחָק) (Gen. 28:13). In this prayer, however, Jacob elevated his relationship to his father Isaac by addressing the LORD as "the God of my father Abraham and the God of my father Isaac (אֱלהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק). This change is significant because the pilgrimage back to the land was essentially a pilgrimage back to his estranged father Isaac. Jacob was returning to confront not only his past with Esau, but the wound he caused his father's heart...  But notice that Jacob's attitude had undergone a complete transformation. His appeal to God was honest and realistic. When he was younger, Jacob was willing to deceive his own father and to "grapple" the advantage from his brother, but now he was a broken man who understood that he was entirely unworthy to receive God's blessing: "I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love (chesed) and all the faithfulness (emet) that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Gen. 32:10). In Torah scrolls, the Hebrew word katonti (קָטנְתִּי), translated as "I am unworthy," is written with a diminished Tet (ט) to show the humility of Jacob. Jacob no longer felt "entitled" to receive God's favor, though he was conscious of it nonetheless.  He was now addressing his prayer to the LORD (יהוה) rather than to God (אֱלהִים), indicating that he first sought the compassion of God instead of God's justice.

Regarding Jacob's statement, "for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps," the midrash notes that Esau's son Eliphaz (אֱלִיפָז, lit. "my God is gold") had initially robbed Jacob when he first fled to Charan (this explains why Jacob was destitute and dependent upon Laban from the outset). Jacob therefore appealed to the LORD to preserve the favor that was extended to him while he labored in Charan by defending his wives and his children.  God had multiplied Jacob in fulfillment of the promise originally given to Abraham. Just as the LORD had been gracious to him while he was threatened by Laban, so now Jacob appealed to the LORD's grace regarding the threat of Esau.... Jacob's appeal for the LORD's favor was directed to the future of Israel rather than to his own personal future. Just as Moses would later pray after the sin of the Golden Calf, Jacob reminded the LORD of His sovereign purpose and promise to make Israel into a chosen nation that would one day result in blessing for the entire world...

It is interesting to note that after his prayer, Jacob immediately began planning on how to "appease" his brother by sending him tokens of peace (Gen. 32:20). The Hebrew word translated "appease" comes from the verb khafar (כָפַר), from which the word "atonement" is derived (i.e., kippur: כִּפֻּר). Here the Torah seems to be suggesting that Jacob needed to make restitution to Esau for his earlier duplicity, and indeed, the gifts that he offered amounted to an acknowledgment of his culpability. (In the New Testament, the Greek word translated "reconciliation" is katallage (καταλλαγή), which means to exchange one thing for another).  In Jewish thought, only the offending party can set the wrong aright and only the offended party can forgo the debt of the sin (this is called mechilah [מְחִילָה]). This means, among other things, that our sin against another must be dealt with "independently" from our sins against God (see Matt. 5:23-24)).  According to Pirke D'Rabbai Eliezer, Jacob's gifts of appeasement, namely the 565 animals mentioned in Genesis 32:14-15, represented ma'aser (a tenth) of his wealth that he had vowed to give to God should he return safely to the land (Gen. 28:20-22). This "tithe" was then given to Esau as a "peace offering."  If we fail to give our ma'aser willingly, then God will devise a way that it will be given anyway (in this case, as a bribe to Esau).

After making all his preparations, Jacob then "took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and went across the ford of the Jabbok" (Gen. 32:22). According to Rashi, Jacob then went back over the Jabbok because he forgot some "small jars and returned for them." Apparently these jars were intended to offer Esav and his men some drinks...  At any rate, Jacob was then "left alone, and a man (אִישׁ) wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:24). During the "grappling" (recall the meaning of Jacob's name), the Angel injured Jacob's thigh, but Jacob refused to release his hold until he received the blessing (הַבְּרָכָה). The LORD then asked him, "What is your name (מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ)?"  And he said, "Jacob" (i.e., Ya'akov: יַעֲקב). The Angel then declared to him, "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov ("heel holder" [of Esau]) but Yisrael ("contender with God"), for as a prince (i.e., sar: שַׂר) you have contended (i.e., sarita: שָׂרִיתָ) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28).

 

After Jacob was renamed Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), he asked the Angel for His Name, but was denied, since the Name is unutterable - even to one who had prevailed with God. Jacob then called the name of the place "the face of God" (i.e., Peniel: פְּנִיאֵל) since "I have seen God face to face (i.e., panim el panim: פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים) and yet my life has been spared" (Gen. 32:30).

According to Jewish tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was either Esau's "guardian angel" or Jacob's own yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination). This is inferred from Jacob's statement made to Esau after their peaceful reunion - "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God (Elohim), and you have accepted me" (Gen. 33:10). In other words, Jacob had wrestled with the judgment of God (represented by Elohim) yet subsequently found love and acceptance in the revelation that Elohim is YHVH, the Source of Compassion and love. The earlier wrestling with the angel was thereby symbolic of Jacob's own process of self acceptance and forgiveness that was triggered by the confrontation with Esau (and therefore Jacob's past life). Christian tradition, on the other hand, generally regards the angel as a "theophany" of the LORD Himself, especially since 1) this Angel had the authority to rename Jacob to "Israel" (a term that means "contending with God"), 2) the Angel identified himself as "nameless" (i.e., hameforash); and 3) Jacob later called the place of wrestling "Peniel," meaning "facing God" (Gen. 32:30). In either case, however, Jacob had to "grapple" with his faith to find his true identity in the purposes and plans of the LORD.

Our relationships with people matter, especially our relationships with those whom we have hurt.  Jacob could not "return home" with unsettled emotional business to attend to regarding his brother (and indeed his father). Part of his ability to inherit the blessing, then, required that he grapple with his past and make amends with those whom he had harmed.  Only in this way would Jacob become Israel, and only in this way will we find our inner peace with God... May God give us the courage to "confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another, that we may be healed" (James 5:16).




Parashat Vayishlach - וישלח

Chagall Detail
 

[ The following entry is related to this week's Torah reading (Vayishlach). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.14.10 (Kislev 7, 5771)   The Torah reading for this week (Vayishlach) includes the account of Jacob's famous wrestling match with the Angel of the LORD (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה) that occurred just before he faced his estranged brother Esau.  During the "grappling" (recall the meaning of Jacob's name), the Angel injured Jacob's thigh, but Jacob refused to release his hold until he received the blessing (הַבְּרָכָה). The LORD then asked him, "What is your name (מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ)?"  And he said, "Jacob" (i.e., Ya'akov: יַעֲקב). The Angel then declared to him, "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov ("heel holder" [of Esau]) but Yisrael ("contender with God"), for as a prince (i.e., sar: שַׂר) you have contended (i.e., sarita: שָׂרִיתָ) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28).

 

After Jacob was renamed Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), he asked the Angel for His Name, but was denied, since the Name is unutterable - even to one who had prevailed with God. Jacob then called the name of the place "the face of God" (i.e., Peniel: פְּנִיאֵל) since "I have seen God face to face (i.e., panim el panim: פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים) and yet my life has been spared" (Gen. 32:30).

Notice that after Jacob encountered God and wrestled with Him, he was wounded so that he walked with a limp... And so it is with the walk of faith. Who among us has not been broken before coming to know the LORD? As Tozer reminds us, "It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply." Beware of a pastor or spiritual leader who does not walk with a limp, chaverim....

Psalm 34:18


I should add something here.

As I consider Jacob's life -- and how he was wounded before he could return to the land of promise -- I am somewhat saddened. After all, his homecoming was painful, to say the least. Along the way, his beloved wife Rachel died while giving birth; his hip was permanently dislocated as he wrestled the Angel of the LORD; his meeting with his brother Esau was a frightening ordeal; and when he finally made it back home to Chevron, he discovered that his mother Rebekah had died. His father Isaac soon would die afterward....

Our way in this world is often painful, and our "education for eternity" often causes us heartache. The LORD Himself, however, is our great consolation, and yesh ohev davek me'ach - "there is a lover who cleaves more than a brother" (Prov 18:24b).





Shabbat "Table Talk" Page - Vayetzei

Shabbat Table Talk
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayetzei. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.12.10 (Kislev 5, 5771)   It's an old custom to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family (and friends) during the Friday night Sabbath meal. To make it a little easier to remember what to discuss, I created a "Shabbat Table Talk" page for parashat Vayetzei.  Hopefully this will help to generate some discussion around your Sabbath table, chaverim. To download the page, click here.

Note: Please let me know if you like this idea, or if you have any additional suggestions to help make your family discussions of the Torah a bit easier. Shabbat Shalom, chaverim!




Be not Afraid...


 

11.11.10 (Kislev 4, 5771)   Nachman of Breslov once said that "The whole earth is a very narrow bridge (kol ha'olam kulo), and the important thing is never to be afraid." Yeshua is the Bridge to the Father, the narrow way of passage that leads to life. He calls out to us in the storm of this world, "Take heart. It is I; be not afraid" (Matt. 14:27). When Peter answered the call and attempted to walk across the stormy waters, he lost courage and began to sink, but Yeshua immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt (lit., think twice)?"

Yeshua is "the Voice of the Living God (קוֹל אֱלהִים חַיִּים) speaking from the midst of the fire" who understands our need: "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry... I know their sufferings" (Exod. 3:7; Heb. 4:15). A midrash says that the Ten Plagues were needed – not to convince Pharaoh that the LORD was God – but rather to convince the children of Israel of God's love! After all, without faith in that, Israel would never have ventured to leave Egypt. The same could be said of the greater judgment to come upon this world.  The ultimate purpose of yissurei ahavah, "the troubles of love," is to turn us away from the source of what keeps us in bondage. As we hear the "footsteps of the Messiah" approaching nearer, let us take hope in the words of our Messiah and Savior: "when you see these things taking place, you know that the time is near, right at the door" (Mark 13:29).

"All the world was created for the Messiah" (Sanhedrin 98b), and since that is so, we can have confidence that all things work together for good.  God repeatedly tells us not to be afraid - al-tirah – not of man, nor of war, nor of tribulation, nor even of death itself (Rom. 8:35-39). Indeed, Yeshua came to die to destroy the power of death, "and to release all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Heb. 2:14-15). The resurrection of the Messiah is the focal point of history - not the "dust of death." Death does not have the final word. Indeed, because Yeshua is alive, we also shall live (John 14:19). Because of Yeshua's victory, we can now live without fear: al-tirah, "Be not afraid, it is I."
 

יְהוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא
יְהוָה מָעוֹז־חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד׃

Adonai  o·ri  ve·yish·i,  mi·mi  i·ra
Adonai  ma·oz  chai·yai,  mi·mi  ef·chad

"The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1)

Shiviti

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Jacob's Vision of the Messiah

Albert Houthuesen detail
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayetzei. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.10.10 (Kislev 3, 5771)   In our Torah portion this week, it is written that Jacob "came to a certain place and stayed there that night" (Gen. 28:11). The Hebrew text, however, indicates that Jacob did not just happen upon a random place, but rather that "he came to the place" -- vayifga bamakom (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם). The sages therefore wondered why the Torah states bamakom, "the place," rather than b'makom, "a place"?  Moreover, the verb translated "he came" is yifga (from paga': פָּגַע), which means to encounter or to meet, suggesting that Jacob's stop was a divine appointment.

The Hebrew word makom ("place") comes from the verb kum (קוּם), meaning "to arise," and in Jewish tradition, ha-makom became a Name for God.  The sages therefore interpreted the verse to mean that "Jacob encountered God" by means of the vision. Moreover, the Talmud links "the place" Jacob encountered with Mount Moriah - the location of the Akedah - based on the language used in Genesis 22:4: "On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place (הַמָּקוֹם) in the distance" (Sanhedrin 95b, Chulin 91b).  If that is the case, then Jacob's dream (חֲלוֹם) of the ladder (סֻלָּם) -- with the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) ascending and descending, and the LORD Himself (יהוה) standing above it -- was ultimately a revelation of the coming glory of the resurrected Messiah - the Promised Seed whom Isaac foreshadowed and through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.  It was Yeshua, the Angel of the LORD, who came to "descend" (as the Son of Man) and to "rise" (as the resurrected LORD) to be our mediator before God (see John 1:47-51).

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for "intercessor" (i.e., mafgia: מַפְגִּיעַ) comes from the same verb (paga') mentioned in our verse. Yeshua is our Intercessor who makes "contact" with God on our behalf. Through His sacrifice for our redemption upon the cross (i.e., his greater Akedah), Yeshua created a meeting place (paga') between God and man.  Therefore we see the later use of paga' in Isaiah 53:6, "...the Lord laid on him (i.e., hifgia bo: הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ) the iniquity of us all," indicating that our sins "fell" on Yeshua as He made intercession for us (i.e., yafgia: יַפְגִּיעַ) for us (Isa. 53:12). Because of Yeshua, God touches us and we are able to touch God... And today, our resurrected LORD "ever lives to make intercession (paga') for us" (Heb. 7:25). He is still touched by our need and sinful condition (Heb. 4:15).

Paga' is also a term for warfare or violent meetings, and this alludes to the collision between the powers of hell and the powers of heaven in the outworking of God's plan of redemption: "... he (i.e., the Savior/Messiah) will crush your head (ראשׁ), and you (i.e., the serpent/Satan) will crush his heel (עָקֵב)."  This was the original prophecy of redemption, an encounter with evil that would provide atonement and retribution (see the "Gospel in the Garden").  Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, the mashgiach of Ponevezh, points out that the entire future of the Jewish people hinged on the vision given to Jacob - and in Jacob's response to it.  Had he been prevented to return (i.e., through Laban's schemes to keep him in Charan), the Jewish people would have become enslaved and assimilated into the people of Aram, and ultimately the Messiah Himself would not have been born. Laban, then, embodied the desire of Satan to thwart the coming of the Promised Seed, and therefore he may be compared to Pharaoh, who likewise tried to enslave Israel in Egypt...

As I mentioned in my additional commentary on parashat Balak, Laban's worship of the serpent (nachash) led him to become one of the first enemies of the Jewish people (see "The Curses of Laban"). He tried to make Jacob a slave from the beginning, later claiming that all his descendants and possessions belonged to him (Gen. 31:43). After Jacob escaped from his clutches, 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 diabolical Laban. Here is a diagram to help you see the relationships:

 

In Jewish tradition, Laban (the patriarch of Balaam) 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, and more radically, God's plan for the redemption of humanity through the Promised Seed would have been overturned....

Thankfully, Jacob was enabled by God's grace to overcome Laban and to return to the Promised Land, and even more thankfully, the Messiah was able to crush the rule of Satan through His atoning sacrifice and resurrection at Moriah. Yeshua, our ascended LORD, is ha-makom - the place where we encounter the Living God....


Addendum:

The authority and reign of Satan has been gloriously vanquished by Yeshua our Savior, blessed be He, though there is coming a time of judgment for all who dwell upon the earth. The time immediately preceding the appearance of the Messiah will be a time of testing in which the world will undergo various forms of tribulation, called chevlei Mashiach (חֶבְלֵי הַמָּשִׁיחַ) - the "birth pangs of the Messiah" (Sanhedrin 98a; Ketubot, Bereshit Rabbah 42:4, Matt. 24:8). Some say the birth pangs are to last for 70 years, with the last 7 years being the most intense period of tribulation -- called the "Time of Jacob's Trouble" / עֵת־צָרָה הִיא לְיַעֲקב (Jer. 30:7). The climax of the "Great Tribulation" (צָרָה גְדוֹלָה) is called the great "Day of the LORD" (יוֹם־יהוה הַגָּדוֹל) which represents God's wrath poured out upon a rebellious world system. On this fateful day, the LORD will terribly shake the entire earth (Isa. 2:19) and worldwide catastrophes will occur. "For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Rev. 6:17). The prophet Malachi likewise says: "'Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,' says the LORD Almighty. 'Not a root or a branch will be left to them'" (Mal. 4:1). Only after the nations of the world have been judged will the Messianic kingdom (מַלְכוּת הָאֱלהִים) be established upon the earth. Yeshua will return to Jerusalem to establish His glorious kingdom (as foretold by the prophets) and then "all Israel will be saved." The Jewish people will finally understand that Mashiach ben Yosef (the Suffering Servant) and Mashiach ben David (the anointed King of Israel) are one and the same... The 1,000 year reign of King Messiah will then commence (Rev. 20:4).

Presently our responsibility is to come to "the place" (ha-makom) where God's work of redemption was completed - that is, to the Cross of Yeshua.  There we turn to God in repentance (teshuvah) and consign our sins to the judgment borne for us through Yeshua's sacrifice as our kapporah (atonement). By faith we understand that the resurrected Savior is forever ha-makom, "the place" where God meets with us, and we learn to abide in His gracious Presence by means of the Holy Spirit. We cease striving to justify ourselves (i.e., by virtue of works), but instead receive God's love and Spirit into our hearts.  This means that we will study the Scriptures (truth), obey the Torah of Yeshua and His emissaries, and share the good message of God's redemption with a lost and dying world...

We are fast approaching, however, the prophesied "End of Days" (acharit hayamim), when the LORD will return to earth to "settle accounts" with its inhabitants (including those who profess to obey Him).  We do not have much more time, chaverim.  We must encourage people to call upon the LORD for salvation before it is too late...
 

כִּי־כֵן אהֵב אֱלהִים אֶת־הָעוֹלָם
עַד־אֲשֶׁר נָתַן בַּעֲדוֹ אֶת־בְּנוֹ אֶת־יְחִידוֹ
וְכָל־הַמַּאֲמִין בּוֹ לא־יאבַד
כִּי בוֹ יִמְצָא חַיֵּי עוֹלָם׃

ki-khen  o·hev  E·lo·him  et-ha·o·lam,
ad-a·sher  na·tan  ba·a·do  et-be·no  et-ye·chi·do,
ve·khol-ha·ma·a·min  bo,  lo-yo·vad
ki  vo  yim·tza  cha·yei  o·lam

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only and unique Son,
so that whoever trusts in Him should not be destroyed, but have eternal life"
(John 3:16)

Hebrew Study Card
 




Leah's Later Praise...

Chagall
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayetzei. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.09.10 (Kislev 2, 5771)   The Midrash says that when Rebekah went to inquire of the LORD about her troubled pregnancy, she went to Jerusalem and asked the prophet Shem, who told her: "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:22-23). The prophet also told her that twelve tribes would descend from the younger son, who was chosen to be the patriarch of Israel.

Jacob grew up with the expectation that he would be the promised heir of Abraham and Isaac. He "bought" the birthright from his twin brother Esau and later colluded with his mother Rebekah to have the "blessing of the firstborn" imparted to him.  When he fled to Abraham's former homeland (in Charan) to escape Esau's wrath, Jacob received the vision of the ladder (i.e., sullam: סֻלָּם) that confirmed he was indeed the chosen heir (Gen. 28:12-14).

While in Charan Jacob got married to his uncle's daughters (first to Leah - by duplicity - and then to Rachel) and his family began to grow.  Jacob believed the prophecy given to his mother (that he would be the father of twelve sons), and he doubtlessly shared his vision with his wives. Leah was the first to bear Jacob a son (Reuben). In the madness of the sibling rivalry between Leah and Rachel, handmaidens were given to Jacob to help produce the twelve sons of Israel (for details, see the Torah summary page on Vayetzei).

It is likely that each wife thought she would give birth to three sons for a total of twelve. Rachel, however, was barren, and when Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she exclaimed: "This time I will praise (אוֹדֶה) the LORD, and therefore she called his name Judah" (Gen. 29:35). Note that Leah's praise was not meant to gloat over her victory of Rachel, and indeed the midrash says that Rachel was genuinely happy for her sister and understood that Leah was blessed by the LORD. It seems at this point, the "rivalry" between the sisters had effectively come to an end.... So Leah's praise was somewhat different in the case of the birth of Judah - but in what way?

The Talmud states that from the time of creation, no one offered gratitude (הוֹדָאָה) to the LORD until Leah (Berachot 7a). Perhaps this is hyperbole, but what made them regard Leah's gratitude as so special?  The word hoda'ah (הוֹדָאָה) has two connotations; one is gratitude and the other is admission (or confession).  "There is a gratitude that expresses appreciation for a kindness, but a deeper, more profound form of gratitude is when one admits that what initially appeared as something detrimental was in reality a great favor" (Maayan Shel Torah).

Initially Leah considered it a personal tragedy that Jacob loved her less than Rachel, though eventually she came to realize that it was precisely because of this that God granted her the greater share of the tribes: "When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb" (Gen. 29:31). With the birth of Judah, Leah foresaw that both the priesthood (through Levi) and the Messiah (through Judah) would come from her descendants, and this caused her to rejoice and give thanks to God.  She realized that God's compassion and love came to her despite her rejection, and therefore she gratefully acknowledged that the LORD worked it out for the best.  It is altogether fitting that by the love and grace of the LORD, the rejected woman (i.e., Leah, prefiguring Eve) would become the "mother of the Messiah."


 

"According to the pain, is the reward" (Avot 5:22). God sometimes allows difficulties in the lives of those whom He favors in order to ultimately reward them. Why were Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel barren for so many years?  So that God would hear their prayers and reward them for their steadfast faith. Why was Leah more fruitful than the other wives of Jacob? Because she was "hated" and subject to unending gossip that she tried to steal her sister's husband, yet she persevered in hope.  In this connection, some of the Chassidic sages render Psalm 118:21 as, "I thank you that you have pained me (עֲנִיתָנִי) and have become my salvation."  The pain that I regarded as punishment became the means by which I obtained the salvation of the LORD. Similarly, "It was good that I was afflicted (עֻנֵּיתִי), that I might learn your decrees" (Psalm 119:71). Leah's expression of praise to the LORD - despite the various hardships of her life in this world - was later echoed by King David and the prophet Daniel, both descendants of her son Judah.

The Hebrew word hakarah (הַכָּרָה) means recognition or consciousness. Hakarat tovah (הַכָּרַת טוֹבָה) means recognizing or being conscious of the good, i.e., gratitude. Hakarat tovah is one of the middot ha-lev (qualities of heart) that marks the life of someone who is made conscious of God's grace (χαρις). Leah's praise of the LORD came when she finally confessed that despite the nisayonot (tests) of her life, the LORD was indeed loving and good to her.

Note: I know many of us are hurting and in pain, and I don't mean to focus on my needs more than others, but please offer up a prayer for this ministry, chaverim.  We are doing all we can to share the truth of the Jewish Scriptures with this dying world, but time is indeed short. Thank you.




Rosh Chodesh Kislev


 

[ Tonight marks Rosh Chodesh Kislev, i.e., the "new moon" of the ninth Hebrew month of the Jewish calendar (counting from Nisan). ]

11.07.10 (Cheshvan 30, 5771)   Rosh Chodesh marks the start of a new month in the Jewish calendar. The sages metaphorically considered the lunar cycle to be a picture of ongoing "sacrifice and restoration." The renewal of the moon (i.e., the first crescent) was regarded as a kind of "rebirth" that issued from the previous service of the month (i.e., the moon's "self-diminution," or waning to complete darkness).


A Month of Darkness

On the Biblical calendar the month of Kislev (כִּסְלֵו) is the ninth month of the year (counting from Nisan). The month is therefore one of the "darkest" of the year, with the days progressively getting shorter and the nights getting longer. Indeed, the Winter Solstice generally occurs during the last week of Kislev, and therefore the week of Chanukah (which straddles the months of Kislev and Tevet) often contains the longest night of the year (and even during "leap years," when the solstice occurs a bit later, there is always a new moon during the season of Chanukah). It is no wonder that, among other things, Chanukah represents an appropriate time to kindle the lights of faith....

In this connection, the Talmud speaks about Adam's celebration of light that occurred during the first Winter Solstice:

    When Adam -- who was created in the beginning of the year, on the first day of Tishri -- noticed that during the first three months of his life, the days were getting gradually shorter, he said, 'Woe is to me! Because I've sinned, the world around me is being darkened and is returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this must be the kind of death which has been sentenced to me from Heaven!' He took upon himself to pray, fast, and look within. After eight days, he noticed the Winter Equinox (i.e., the season beginning with the month of Tevet) and saw that the days were beginning to lengthen again. "So this is the way of the world!" he exclaimed, and he celebrated for eight days.  (Avodah Zarah, 8a)
     


A Month of Dreams

The month of Kislev is sometimes called the "month of dreams" because the weekly Torah portions for this month contain more dreams than any other. No less than nine dreams (of the ten in the Torah) appear in the portions of Vayetzei, Vayeshev, and Miketz - which are all read during the month of Kislev. In the Torah, the primary figure connected with dreams is Jacob's son Joseph, who was nicknamed by his brothers as "that dreamer" and who was later named "Decipherer of Secrets" (Tzofnat Paneach) by Pharaoh (Gen. 41:45). Joseph was able to mediate the spiritual and the physical realms through the Spirit of God within him (Gen. 41:38). Prophetically Joseph represents Yeshua the "disguised Egyptian" who likewise was rejected and hated by his brothers - but who later became their savior (for more on this, see "Mashiach ben Yosef").


 



A Month of Hope

Some of the commentators think the name Kislev comes from a root (כּסל) that means "trust" or "hope." In the Scriptures the root appears in several places, including: "And they placed in God their hope (כִּסְלָם)" (Psalm 78:7); and, "Did I place my hope (כִּסְלִי) in gold?" (Job 31:24). Interestingly, the root can also refer to foolishness, suggesting that the wisdom of God (i.e., His "dream" for saving humanity through Yeshua) often appears as foolishness to men (1 Cor. 3:19). If Yeshua was born during Sukkot (i.e., Tabernacles), then it is likely that He was conceived during Chanukah - perhaps near the Winter Solstice itself. The true light - that enlightens everyone - would shine in the darkest night of this world (John 1:9; 1 John 2:8).

Chodesh Tov to you all, chaverim. Remember that the Divine Light shines like a fire and yet does not destroy or consume. The light of God does not necessarily take away the darkness but always overcomes it and shines within it: "The darkness and the light are both alike unto Thee" (Psalm 139:12; John 1:5). May this month be one of blessing and the Presence of the Divine Light of Yeshua within your hearts (John 8:12).

Note: This year Chanukah begins on Wednesday, December 1st at sundown (1st candle) and runs through Thursday, December 9th.




Parashat Vayetzei - ויצא


 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Vayetzei. Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.07.10 (Cheshvan 30, 5771)  In last week's Torah portion (Toldot), Jacob "grappled" the blessing from his father, but it cost him dearly.... His brother Esau was so enraged by the betrayal that Jacob was forced to flee his parent's home in shame, never to see his mother again (indeed, Rebekah "lost both her sons in one day," just as she had feared [Gen. 27:45]).  Jacob's 20 year exile from the family began in heartache and sorrow -- "fleeing as an outcast over stony lands" -- away from the love of his mother and devoid of the hope given to his father and grandfather...

While he was on the run to Charan, however, the sun began to set, and Jacob "crashed into" an appointed place (יִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם) before departing from the Promised Land (according to midrash, the sun miraculously set quickly into a "thick darkness" so that Jacob was forced to dwell there before his long exile). Wearied from the journey, Jacob devised a makeshift "bed" in the field and used a stone as a pillow. That night Jacob dreamed his famous dream of the ladder (i.e., sullam: סֻלָּם) that was set up on earth and reached toward heaven with the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) ascending and descending upon it:
 

    And behold, the LORD stood over him (נִצָּב עָלָיו) and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your descendants (lit., sing. "your seed": זַרְעֶךָ) shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen. 28:13-15).


     

When Jacob awoke he was overawed.  "Surely the LORD is in this place (בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה) and I knew it not." Shaken by the vision, he said, מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה / mah nora ha-makom hazeh - "How awesome is this place!" and added, ein zeh ki im-bet Elohim v'zeh sha'ar ha-shamayim (שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם): "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17). Jacob then made a monument from the stone he had used as a pillow, anointed it with oil, and called the place Bet-El (בֵּית־אֵל) - "the house of God." It is likely that this was the place that Abraham erected an altar to the LORD after he came to the Promised Land (Gen. 12:8).

The sages explain that ha-makom (הַמָּקוֹם), literally "the place," was actually Mount Moriah, the location where Jacob's father Isaac was bound as the "sacrificed seed" (and which later became the site of the Holy Temple). In later Rabbinical thought the title Ha-Makom (הַמָּקוֹם) became synonymous for God Himself ("God is the place of the world, but the world is not God's only place").  Other Rabbinical names for God include: Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu ("The Holy One, blessed be He"), Ribbono Shel Olam ("The Master of the Universe"), Avinu She-bashamayim ("Our Father in Heaven"), Shekhinah ("Divine Presence"), among others.

Yeshua later referred to Jacob's dream when he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51). Just as Jacob saw the ladder ascending to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, so Yeshua told Nathanael that He was the very Ladder to God, the true sha'ar ha-shamayim (שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם) - the way into heaven (John 14:6). Indeed, Yeshua is the true Temple or "house of God" (בֵּית־אֵל) and its Chief Cornerstone (Rosh Pinnah, Matt. 21:42). He is the divine communication (Word) from heaven to earth -- the Angel of the LORD who descends and ascends. The Son of Man is God's link with the children of Adam (Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Yeshua is the new "Bet-El," God's dwelling place (Gen. 28:17; John 1:14). Nathanael and the other disciples witnessed the glory of God come down to mankind in the Person and Life of Yeshua the Mashiach. Just as Jacob awoke and realized he was in the awesome presence of God, so Nathanael realized that he was in the presence of the very LORD of the universe!

Yeshua is the Gate to Heaven, the Mediator between Heaven and Earth. Jacob dreamed a dream, but Yeshua became the Substance of that dream by willingly becoming the Promised Seed of Jacob. It is through Yeshua, the Promised Seed, that all the nations of the earth are blessed (Gen. 28:14). Because of the Messiah, the Gate to Heaven stands wide open and the grace of God is available for all who put their trust in the Son of Man. Yeshua is our Bridge back to God (John 14:6). Ask Him to connect you with the infinite and loving condescension of Heaven today....
 

שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהוָה אֱלהֶיךָ כִּי כָשַׁלְתָּ בַּעֲוֹנֶךָ׃
קְחוּ עִמָּכֶם דְּבָרִים וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל־יְהוָה אִמְרוּ אֵלָיו
כָּל־תִּשָּׂא עָוֹן וְקַח־טוֹב וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵינוּ׃

shu·vah  Yis·ra·el  ad Adonai  E·lo·he·kha,  ki  kha·shal·ta  ba·a·vo·ne·kha,
ke·hu  i·ma·khem  de·va·rim,  ve·shu·vu  el-Adonai,  im·ru  e·lav,
kol-tis·sa  a·von  ve·kach-tov,  u·ne·shal·le·mah  fa·rim  se·fa·te·nu

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, "Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips." (Hos. 14:2-3h)
 




New Shabbat "Table Talk" Pages

Shabbat Table Talk - Toldot
 

11.05.10 (Cheshvan 28, 5771)  It's an old custom to discuss the weekly Torah portion with your family (and friends) during the Friday night Sabbath meal.  To make it a little easier to remember what to discuss, I am beginning to write some quick "Shabbat Table Talk" summaries that you can use to "kick start" your discussions. I am deliberately going to keep these simple, so that kids can join in the discussion... To see a sample I put together for parashat Toldot, click here.

Please let me know if you like this idea, or if you have any additional suggestions to help make your family discussions of the Torah a bit easier. Shabbat Shalom, chaverim!




Israel and the Akedah

Chagall
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Toldot ("generations"). As I hope you will see, the very existence of Israel and of the Jewish people derives from nothing less than the sacrifice of the Promised Seed... ]

11.04.10 (Cheshvan 27, 5771)  In our Torah portion this week we learned that the oath of blessing that God gave to Abraham was extended (exclusively) to his son Isaac. Sometime after the death of Abraham (and following Esau's sale of his birthright to Jacob), there was a famine in the land, and Isaac and his family departed to Gerar (in the southwest) to find food.  On the way the LORD appeared to him and said: "Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I will tell you; remain a stranger in this land. I will be with you and will bless you, since to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath (שְׁבוּעָה) that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring (זַרְעֲךָ) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:2-5).
 

עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקלִי וַיִּשְׁמר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי
מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרתָי

e·kev  a·sher  sha·ma  Av·ra·ham  be·ko·li,  vai·yish·mor  mish·mar·ti,
mitz·vo·tai,  chuk·ko·tai,  ve·to·ro·tai

"For Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge,
my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:5)
 


So great was the reward of Abraham's obedience regarding the Akedah (the offering of his son Isaac) that God literally ordained the future of the Jewish people and the coming of the Savior of the world through him. Please pause over that thought.... Previously the LORD had said (אמר) that he would make Abraham into a great nation with innumerable descendants (Gen. 13.16). Later God reaffirmed his promise by asking Abraham to "look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them... so shall your offspring be." Abraham believed God's word, and the LORD regarded his faith as righteousness (Gen. 15:5-6). The LORD then sealed His promise to Abraham by means of the (unilateral) "covenant between the parts" (בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים) and then foretold of the 400 year long exile of Israel (in Egypt).  Nevertheless, the LORD promised to give to his descendants the Promised Land, which extended "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates" (Gen. 15:18).

 

Still later, when Abraham was 99 years old, the LORD ordained the covenant of brit milah (ritual circumcision, lit. "covenant of the word") based on Abraham's trust in God's promise that he would be the father of his own biological son and heir (Gen. 17:1-22). But notice that all these earlier promises were a prelude to the greater oath of blessing to come.  It was only after the Akedah that God swore an oath (שְׁבוּעָה) that through the Seed of Abraham would all the families of the earth be blessed:

    By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son (ben yachid), I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen. 22:16-18; cp. Gal. 3:9,16).
     

Notice the link between the oath of blessing and Isaac. The Jewish people are alive today because Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only begotten son in faithful obedience before God.... The phrase, "by myself have I sworn" is the most solemn oath God could make and must be regarded as an inviolable vow (Heb. 6:13-14). The Targum Yonatan reads, "By my Word have I sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not spared your only son... that all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through the righteousness of your son, because you have obeyed My word."

What was the reason for this tremendous promise and blessing given to Abraham? In a word: his faithful obedience to the Word of the LORD. When the LORD extended the oath of blessing to Isaac, He said: "And in your offspring (זַרְעֲךָ) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:2-5). In other words, it was Abraham's obedience - supremely tested by the decree to sacrifice his own son - that led to the irrevocable oath of the LORD God Almighty (אֵל שַׁדַּי).

It is interesting to note that the sages of the Talmud understood the merit of Abraham in terms of his obedience to the Sinai covenant (i.e., the law of Moses) rather than through the exercise of his faith. They interpret the verse: "Because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my decrees, and my laws" to mean that Abraham obeyed all "613 laws of the Torah" -- even before they were revealed at Sinai 400 years later (Yoma 28b).

Strictly speaking their conclusion is unwarranted, of course, since it is preposterous to think that Abraham literally observed all 613 laws of the Torah given at Sinai.  After all, many of these laws pertained exclusively to women (e.g., laws of niddah), to slaves (laws of redemption), to lepers (laws of tza'arat), to priests (laws of sacrifice), to Levites (laws of the Tabernacle), to farmers (laws of ma'aser), to judges (laws of justice), to soldiers (laws of warfare), and so on. It is better to read the verse in context and to bear in mind that the word Torah refers to God's instruction or revealed will, which obviously predated the law given at Sinai (more here). Nevertheless Abraham heard (שָׁמַע) the Voice of the LORD and obeyed all of God's instructions, commandments and "decrees" (i.e., those commandments that defied his rational understanding). Indeed, the consummate example of a decree (chok) was God's request that Abraham sacrifice his exclusively appointed and promised heir as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah, and yet it is precisely because Abraham obeyed this decree that the oath of blessing was given.  In other words, it was the sacrifice of the promised seed that brought about God's unchanging oath - not the pledge to keep covenantal laws later given at Sinai. Put the other way around, all the "commandments, decrees, and laws" were fulfilled by Abraham because he heard God's voice and trusted in the sacrificial death and resurrection of his "only begotten" son, and this is surely a prefigurement of the justification imparted by faith in the gospel message itself (Heb. 11:17-19; Gal. 3:8,16-18; John 3:16).
 

The very existence of Israel and of the Jewish people derives from
nothing less than the sacrifice of the Promised Seed...


As I have mentioned elsewhere, the first occurrence of the word "love" in the Bible (אַהֲבָה) concerns Abraham's love for his "only begotten" son Isaac, whom he willingly offered as a sacrifice on Moriah. Abraham "built the altar," "laid the wood in order," "bound his son," and "laid him on top of the wood" to foreshadow the sacrifice of the Promised Seed to come... The Akedah is truly the "Gospel according to Moses."

Jewish tradition misunderstands the significance of the Akedah. The story of Abraham's supreme test of faith is recited every morning as a prelude to Shacharit (morning) services and at the start of every Jewish year (i.e., Rosh Hashanah). Perhaps the motivation for doing so is to connect the passion of Abraham's sacrifice with the passion to live a characteristically Jewish life.  Nonetheless it is nothing short of astounding to realize that the very existence of the Jewish people - and the coming of the Messiah himself - derives from Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his "only begotten son." Abraham's faith in God's promise constitutes a "deeper Torah" than that given at Sinai....

The ultimate message of the Akedah is that the sacrifice of the Promised Seed gives life to Israel - and to all who likewise share the faith of Abraham, the father of faith. Israel did not become a nation at Sinai but rather was born out of the sacrifice of the promised seed. This is why Paul made the point that the promise of blessing - received by faith - predated the giving of the law:

    For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring -- not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. (Rom. 4:13-17)
     

Just as Abraham was declared righteous by trusting in the promises of God (symbolized by the sacrifice of his son), so are we made partakers his blessings by trusting in the One who sacrificed His only begotten Son and raised Him from the dead.

May the Name of Yeshua our LORD be exalted forever and ever...




Faith Surpasses Reason:
Kierkegaard on the Akedah



 

[ The following entry is related to last week's Torah reading (Vayera). Please review the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.03.10 (Cheshvan 26, 5771)  No consideration of the Akedah, or the sacrifice of Isaac, would be complete without considering the comments of the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In his book "Fear and Trembling," Kierkegaard discusses the inner conflict Abraham faced when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. Although Abraham understood that God must be obeyed, he also understood that child sacrifice was immoral, and hence his struggle represented the collision between the imperative of reason and the imperative of faith. Choosing to heed the voice of reason (i.e., the "ethical" or the "universal") over the personal voice of God created a state of "fear and trembling" and a sense of being unable to communicate his passion and mission to others. Kierkegaard "resolves" the paradox by means of what he calls the "teleological suspension of the ethical," that is, the idea that the moral law may be (temporarily) "suspended" for the sake of a higher goal known only through the absolute surrender of faith.

Kierkegaard's point is meant to refute philosophers (like G.W. Hegel) and liberal theologians who attempted to identify the ethical (or moral duty) with genuine spirituality. If the ethical is "all there is" to spiritual life, then Abraham should not be regarded as the heroic "father of faith" but rather as a moral monster and murderer. Kierkegaard wants to force the issue by creating a dilemma. Faith itself cannot be understood in purely rational terms, since it concerns the individual's personal relationship with God, who is Absolute, and that means that faith can even transcend the universal demands of the moral law. Indeed, Kierkegaard states that the category of the ethical can present a temptation to keep us from passionately doing God's will. Ultimately, however, Abraham was justified for his complete obedience to God which resulted in the heavenly blessing.

In short, Kierkegaard's view attests to Blaise Pascal's statement that "faith has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." For more on this subject, you can read an excerpt of Fear and Trembling here.




Barrenness and Prayer

Chagall
 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Toldot ("generations"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.02.10 (Cheshvan 25, 5771)  The Jewish sages assumed that there are no "unnecessary words" in the written Torah. All 304,805 letters are carefully counted by the soferim (scribes). Moreover, Yeshua spoke about "kotzo shel Yod" (קוֹצוֹ שֶׁל יוֹד), that is, the smallest stroke atop the smallest Hebrew letter, in order to stress that every detail of God's revelation has its purpose (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17). Every "jot and tittle" has its place, and this implies that words spelled in unusual ways, the exact order of words in a phrase, and various textual oddities (such as redundant words, oversized or undersized letters, etc.) were intended to teach us something we might otherwise not have known.
 

 

Our Torah portion this week begins with a description of the birth of Jacob and Esau. Isaac and Rebekah had been married for twenty years but were still without an heir to carry on the family line. The Torah then states that "Isaac entreated the LORD before his wife, because she was barren" (Gen. 25:21). The sages asked why the Torah mentioned the prayer before mentioning its purpose. Wouldn't it have made more sense to first mention that Rebekah was barren and then to say that Isaac prayed for her?

The Talmud states that Rebekah was barren because God desires the prayers of the righteous. God made them barren in order to cause them to seek His face. Since Isaac was sixty years old when the twins were born (Gen. 25:26), and he had married Rebekah at age forty (Gen. 25:20), we know that they had waited twenty years for the birth of their first descendants. Twenty years is a long time to wait, especially when the promise of the heir of Abraham and Isaac (and therefore the Messiah) is at stake.  Rabbi Bachaya said that the prayer offered by Isaac was the goal all along, and the barrenness was the divinely appointed means to that end.  The Torah alludes to this by saying that Isaac first prayed before explaining his reason for doing so.
 

טוֹב־לִי כִי־עֻנֵּיתִי לְמַעַן אֶלְמַד חֻקֶּיךָ

tov  li khi-u·ne·ti,  le·ma·an  el·mad  chu·ke·kha

"It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes." (Psalm 119:71)
 


God wants us to be in a personal relationship with Him, and therefore He sometimes sends temporal affliction to remind us of our eternal need.... After all, is there anything worse than to be "forgotten" by God?  Can there be any worse punishment in this life than to be untouched by need, suffering and testing?  Indeed, it is curse to be devoid of need before the LORD, and affliction is a blessing in disguise.  As A.W Tozer once wrote, "It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He's hurt him deeply." This is why, as the Talmud comments, the manna fell once a day during the 40 years, and not once a year, as we might have desired:

    The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him: Why did the manna not fall once a year [as opposed to once a day]? He answered, I will give you a parable: It can be compared to a mortal king who had a son for whom he provided food once a year; as a result, he saw his son but once a year. Thereupon he provided for his maintenance daily, so that he called upon him every day. The same is with Israel. One who had four or five children would worry and say, 'Perhaps no manna will fall tomorrow, and we will all die of hunger.' Thus they turned their faces to heaven in prayer (Yoma 76a).
     

Just as God humbled Israel with manna in the desert, so He humbles us. "Give us this day our daily bread..."  The purpose of affliction is ultimately good and healing: God humbles us with manna so "that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut. 8:3). In other words, God uses the discipline of affliction to lead us to the truth.  We often pray that our problems be taken away, but God sometimes ordains these very problems so that we will draw near to Him... Yeshua told us, "Your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask Him."  Many of us are slow to learn, but God is patient with those whom He disciplines. The goal is to never lose sight of what's most important, which is God Himself.




The Mother of the Messiah...


 

[ The Hebrew text in Genesis 4:1 supports the interpretation that Chavah (Eve) actually expected the LORD Himself to be born as her son... ]

11.02.10 (Cheshvan 25, 5771)  In the "Gospel in the Garden," we looked at the very first prophecy given in the Torah, namely, God's promise that through the "seed of the woman" would come one who would slay the serpent and crush the kingdom of Satan (Gen. 3:15). This prophecy is sometimes called the proto-euangelion ("first gospel"), since it constitutes the starting point of all subsequent redemptive history revealed in the Scriptures.  In a sense this promise forms the "womb" for the whole course of God's redemptive plan for the human race.  The first prophecy of Torah clearly anticipated the coming of the Savior of mankind and a cosmic battle between good and evil: "... he (i.e., the Savior/Messiah) will crush your head (ראשׁ), and you (i.e., the serpent/Satan) will crush his heel (עָקֵב)."

It is likely that Eve initially believed that her firstborn son Cain (קַיִן) was the promised Seed himself. After all, the miracle of birth surely came as a great shock to her, and Eve's faith in God's promise that through her seed would come the deliverer was doubtlessly upon her heart at this time.  When Eve called her son "Cain" (wordplay from the verb kana (קָנָה), "to get"), she was expressing her faith in God's promise: קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת־יהוה / kaniti ish et-Adonai, "I have gotten a man - namely, the LORD" (Gen. 4:1). Eve's faith was obscured by the translators, however, who rendered the Hebrew as "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD" (i.e., they inserted the idea of "help" and translated the particle et (את) as "with" rather than as the direct object marker for the verb).  The ancient Jewish targums, however, agree with the original Hebrew. For example, Targum Yonatan reads: "I have gotten a man - the Angel of YHVH." Surely Eve, the first mother of humanity, was endowed with great wisdom from God, especially after she turned to Him in repentance after her disobedience. The straightforward reading of her words, then, expressed her hope that the LORD Himself would be made a man....

Despite Eve's hope that her son was none other than the God-Man and promised Deliverer, her hopes were dashed when it became clear that her son was of the seed of Satan (1 John 3:12). His younger brother Abel (הֶבֶל) was a shepherd who evidenced faith in the promise of the coming redeemer by offering blood sacrifice (Gen. 4:3-5). Abel was persecuted and finally murdered by his brother Cain "because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous." Their spiritual conflict is indicative of the ongoing warfare between the "sons of darkness" and the "sons of light."

The murder of Abel necessitated that the coming seed would descend through another child, and therefore the Torah describes the birth of Seth (שֵׁת, lit. "appointed"), the third son of Adam and Eve.  The Scriptures further state that it was the descendants of Seth who "began to call upon the Name of the LORD" (לִקְרא בְּשֵׁם יהוה), indicating that they had faith in God (אֱלהִים) as the Compassionate Covenant Keeper (יהוה) who would redeem humanity by means of the coming seed.  Seth called his firstborn son Enosh ("man"), perhaps in the hope that his child would be the promised Savior (interestingly, bar enosh (בַּר אֱנָשׁ), or "Son of Man," is the name for the Savior (Dan 7:13).

Note: For more on this subject, follow the "Promised Seed" thread of articles found in the Torah readings for Genesis: 'of the Woman, of Shem, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Judah...'




The Seed of Isaac...


 

[ The following is related to this week's Torah reading, Parashat Toldot ("generations"). Please read the Torah portion to "find your place" here. ]

11.01.10 (Cheshvan 24, 5771)  In this Torah portion, we get further insight into the coming spiritual showdown between the LORD and the serpent (nachash). Recall that the original promise of the coming Messiah was given within the context of the curse and judgment upon Satan: "I will put enmity (אֵיבָה) between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he (i.e., the Savior/Messiah) will crush your head (ראשׁ), and you (i.e., the serpent/Satan) will crush his heel (עָקֵב)" (Gen. 3:15). The very first prophecy of Torah therefore describes the coming of the "Serpent Slayer" and the great conflict of the ages. Since the Messiah would be "born of a woman," the prophecy implies perpetual warfare between those descendants of Eve who shared her faith and underwent teshuvah (called the "children of light" or "children of the promise") and those descendants of Eve who refused it (called the "children of darkness" or "children of the devil"). The ongoing enmity between these "two seeds" foretells the "tale of two kingdoms," the Kingdom of God (מַלְכוּת אֱלהִים) and the kingdom of the devil (John 8:34-36).

After Abraham was tested with the Akedah, he was promised to the heir of the world to come (Rom. 4:13). Genesis 22:18 clearly states that the blessing would come through Abraham's "seed" (זֶרַע), and indeed Abraham later bequeathed everything to his son Isaac (Gen. 25:5). Isaac and Rebekah had been married for twenty years but were still without an heir to carry on the family line. Finally their prayers were answered and Rebekah conceived, though her pregnancy was not without complications: "The children struggled together within her (וַיִּתְרצֲצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ), and she said, 'If it is thus, why is this happening to me?' So she went to inquire of the LORD" (Gen. 25:22). The LORD then told Rebekah (through the prophet Shem) that she was carrying twin sons who would father two great nations of opposite ideology and origins, though the younger child would be chosen as the heir of the godly line leading to the Messiah. The struggle within Rebekah's womb therefore recalled the original prophecy of God made in the Garden of Eden and the future conflict between the two "seeds." Note that the word translated "struggled" in this verse is ratzatz (רָצַץ), a verb used elsewhere to express violent conflict (e.g., to oppress (Deut. 28:33; 1 Sam. 12:3; Jer. 22:17), to crush (2 Kings 23:13), to break (Isa. 36:6), etc.).

Rashi quotes a fanciful midrash that says that when Rebekah would pass by the doorway of a House of Learning, Jacob fought to be born and enter it, but when she passed a temple devoted to idol worship, Esau fought to get out. The battle between the sons, in other words, would fundamentally represent the ongoing enmity between the children of light and the children of darkness (as would be revealed in later narrative of the Torah).

When the time came for Rebekah to give birth, the first child came out with a full head of hair and ruddy complexion. Since he looked like a child who had been born long before, he was named Esav (from asah [עָשָׂה], meaning "made," or "completed"). His twin brother then came out holding his heel, and therefore was dubbed Ya'akov (meaning "heel holder" or "grappler"). It is interesting to note that Esav's name comes from the same root used to describe "works," whether human or divine. The spirit of Jacob was protesting from the moment of his birth that his twin brother Esau was "complete" and that his works would be sufficient apart from divine intervention. Isaac immediately favored Esau, presumably because he was the firstborn; but Rebekah, believing the promise of the LORD, favored Jacob. We have to wonder why Isaac did not believe the message given to Rebekah regarding the twins. Did Isaac associate the name Ya'akov (grappler of the heel) with the original prophecy given in the Garden ("he shall bruise your heel [עָקֵב]")? If Isaac believed that the Messiah would come through his line, perhaps he associated the image of Jacob attacking the heel of his brother as a bad omen....

The question is raised as to why God chose Jacob and rejected Esau. If, as the New Testament affirms, Jacob was sovereignly chosen "before the children were born," how could Esau have overcome his natural tendencies to become righteous (see Rom. 9:11-12)? The sages remind us that both children grew up in a godly home, with virtuous and loving parents. Indeed, according to Rashi, throughout their youth they were "indistinguishable" in their goodness and virtue. It was only after the death of Abraham that Esau chose the path of impurity (according to tradition it was at this time that he sold his birthright for some stew). And yet (as any parent with a wayward child knows) this might explain why Isaac refused to let go of his hope for Esau.  "According to the pain, is the reward" (Avot 5:22). Had Esau overcome his evil inclination during his adult years (as he had done in his youth), he would have been stronger than Jacob, who was described as ish tam yoshev ohalim, "a wholesome man, who lived in tents" (i.e., naturally inclined to holiness). As was later clearly revealed, however, Esau chose the path of darkness and made himself into an enemy of God's greater purpose of redemption. Like Cain before him, he was of the "seed of the serpent," and God therefore sealed his fate by rejecting him (Mal. 1:2-3; Rom. 9:13).

As mentioned elsewhere, it took a long time for Isaac to "open his spiritual eyes" to discern the truth about his two sons. During the dramatic episode of the "stolen blessing," some have suggested that Isaac actually knew he was blessing Jacob but "pretended" to be fooled in order to avoid destroying his relationship with his firstborn son Esau.... Isaac's blindness is central here: when he regarded his sons using his physical sight, he favored Esau, but when he looked away from the realm of appearances, he was empowered to anoint Jacob as the heir to the promise of God...






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